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Magnified Optics Explained

What is an Optic?

An optic is a firearm accessory used to improve the ease and effectiveness of aiming. Before optics, iron sights were the standard method for aiming firearms. Iron sights use a front and rear reference point, usually a front post and rear notch, to align a gun so shots hit the target. 

Around the middle of the 19th century, small telescopes with optical lenses and crosshairs mounted inside began to show up on rifles. Using the power of optical lenses, shooters could make more accurate shots at longer distances. In addition to increased accuracy, optics made aiming easier by utilizing only one aiming point versus the two aiming points iron sights required.

Optics fall into two major categories: magnified for extended range shooting and non-magnified for close-range shooting. 

What are Magnified Optics and Scopes?

The term magnified optic is often used interchangeably with telescopic optic or scope. Magnified optics come in a variety of configurations. From value-priced fixed magnification to high dollar variable magnification, magnified optics allow shooters to shoot past the capabilities of the naked eye.

What are Fixed Magnification Scopes?

Fixed magnification scopes are the simplest types of magnified optics as they offer only one level of magnification. Manufacturers often name their fixed magnification scopes based on their power level, level of magnification, and the objective lens, the size of the lens farthest from the eye. For example, a 4x30 optic means the scope is 4 power with an objective lens measuring 30mm in diameter.

Fixed magnification scopes are great for first-time optic users on a budget, those who shoot at medium ranges or the same known distance frequently. Due to their simple construction, you can outfit your firearm with a fixed magnified scope relatively affordably. 

The Wolf Performance Optics 4x24 Optical Sight is a classic example of a fixed 4 power scope.

What is a Prism Scope?

Prism scopes are an alternative type of fixed magnification optic. A prism is a piece of glass with polished sides used to refract light. Because of the use of a prism lens in their construction, verses normal optical lenses, these scopes are usually much more compact than conventional telescopic optics. While prism scopes typically feature up to 5x magnification they can also be non-magnified depending on the design. While most prism scopes do feature illumination, they do not require light for the reticle to be visible. How can this optic function without power? Prism scopes do not require power because the reticle image is engraved onto the internal prism lens. For those that do not want to be bogged down with batteries, prism scopes are a great option. 

The Trijicon ACOG TA31 is a great example of a 4x prism scope.

What are Variable Magnification Scopes?

Variable magnification scopes offer more flexibility over fixed magnification optics as they have zooming capabilities. A variable magnification scope typically starts at a lower level of magnification like 5x (5 power) but, unlike a fixed magnified optic,  can zoom out to a more powerful magnification level like 30x. Users have the entire range of adjustment at their disposal depending on the distance of the target.

Manufacturers name variable magnification scopes by their power and objective lens size. An example of this naming method is 5-30x56, which represents the range of magnification, 5x to 30x with a 56mm objective lens diameter. Because variable magnification optics contain multiple powers they are more complex to manufacture and thus more expensive. Variable magnification scopes are perfect for folks that shoot at various ranges, both medium and long-range.  

Leupold Mk AR 4-12x40 variable magnification scope.

What are Low Powered Variable Optics?

Low powered variable optics (LPVO) are an alternative type of variable magnification scope.  LPVOs became popular with competition shooters that needed one optic for both close and long-range use. Now they are enjoyed by users that appreciate greater flexibility in an optic.

These optics typically begin at zero magnification at the bottom of their adjustment range. The lowest setting, usually 1x (zero magnification) offers a broader field of view for faster target acquisition. Higher magnification is available for extended range shooting. Typically, the maximum zoom on an LPVO is between 4x and 8x, which is quite low. Low powered variable optics follow the same naming method as standard variable magnification scopes. 

The Steiner 8723 is 1-8x24 low powered variable optic (LPVO).

What Does First and Second Focal Plane Mean?

The first and second focal planes are design characteristics of variable magnification optics. First and second focal plane refers to the physical location of the reticle (crosshairs) inside the scope and how the reticle appears when one zooms a variable magnification scope in or out. 

In first focal plane scopes, the reticle inside the scope is closer to the front of the scope body. When one adjusts the zoom in first focal plane scopes, the reticle increases in size proportional to the target. First focal plane scopes are usually more expensive because of their more complex construction. 

The reticle in a second focal plane scope is in the rear of the scope body, closest to the shooter's eye. Alternatively, in second focal plane scopes when one zooms in, the reticle remains the same size. Second focal plane scopes are ordinarily cheaper than first focal plane scopes because they are easier to make.


Magnified optics or scopes allow a shooter to see farther than their eyes could ordinarily through the power of telescopic technology. Whether one chooses a simple fixed magnification scope or a complex variable magnification scope, there are plenty of options for all budgets and needs. Get out there and take those long-range shots with our extensive offering of optics. 


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