Sightron Optics Review: Rifle Scopes & More
Sightron Optics Review
By Ilya Koshkin
I routinely field questions along the lines of: “I need a mid-range riflescope for my big game rifle (or some other application), what would be a good scope for the money?” The specifics of the question vary a fair bit and so do my recommendations. However, there are a few brands that I end up recommending more often than others and Sightron is one of them. When I was just getting interested in rifles and rifle scopes, in the mid-1990s, Sightron was a pretty new company and my first good quality riflescope was a Sightron. I recall thinking that I am taking a risk by buying a product from a company that is not very well established in the market. However, the scope (SII 3-9x42 with MilDot reticle) seemed to offer a lot for the money, so I went with it. I have bought and sold a lot of scopes since then, but I still have that one. It works as well now as it did originally, despite being more than a little beat up. In the meantime, I got to play with a dozen or so different Sightrons and two more found a permanent place in my safe: SI 3-9x40MD (on an old Cugir rimfire) and SII Big Sky 6-24x42SIL (on a heavy barrel 22-250). The company has been around for a while now. It was founded in 1993 and has primarily focused on riflescopes since then, although it has a nicely diversified range of binoculars along with a couple of spotting scopes. Still, Sightron started out primarily as a riflescope company, and that is what I will mostly focus on. Their product portfolio has grown considerably in the 17 years Sightron has been in business. The overall variety of individual riflescope models that Sightron currently offers is quite bewildering, but they fall into four different product lines with street prices ranging from $100 to $1000. Historically, all of them were made in Japan. However, starting in late 2010, the two less expensive line-ups, SI and SII, are manufactured in the Phillipines, albeit by the same company that made them in Japan previously (all of Sightron scopes are made by this company). There are quite a few riflescopes made in Phillipines these days and their quality has been quite good, so it is a reasonable change. I do not expect the build quality to change for the worse. On the plus side, it will help protect their pricing from the rising yen. SII Big Sky and SIII riflescopes will continue to be manufactured in Japan. Here are some observation on the different product lines in ascending price order with some information on upcoming products for wrap-up.
The most inexpensive scopes Sightron sells fall into the S1 line that mostly stays in $100-$150 range. These are 1” tube, fully coated, scopes with three layer multi-coatings on the outside lenses and single layer coatings on the inside ones. Eye relief is long and fairly flexible on all of the riflescopes in S1 line, although it varies a bit with magnification. The designs are not especially ambitious: they top out at 10x and do not try to push the envelope. These are “meat and potatoes” scopes: no frills, but very solid fundamentals. Honestly, at this price range, that is the right approach. Out of the ten models in the S1 line-up, six are simply variations of the same 3-9x40 design: different finishes and different reticles. Two of them are on my “most recommended” list: the one with #4 reticle and the one with a MilDot reticle. The German #4 reticle is an unusual offering in this price range, but it works exceptionally well in low light, giving S1 an edge over many competitors. Speaking of competitors: there are many. In terms of price, S1 faces competition primarily from China and Phillipines, with the most notable competitors being Phillipine-made Weaver 40/44 and Chinese-made Bushnell Trophy XLT. Sightron S1 also easily holds its own against similarly configured and more expensive Leupold Rifleman and Nikon Pro-Staff scopes. Perhaps, the strongest competitor to S1 is the slightly more expensive Redfield Revolution scope which offers marginally better glass and more configurations. On the other hand, the very visible German #4 reticle gives S1 a slight edge in low light target acquisition.
S2 has been the mainstay of Sightron line-up for a number of years, although it has been somewhat eclipsed lately by the newer (and more expensive) S2 Big Sky scopes. Still, S2 scopes offer a lot for the money. S2s are fully multicoated, 1” tube, designs with four-layer coatings on all lens surfaces. Depending on the model, they utilize either 3x or 4x magnification ratios. They have fairly flexible eye relief that varies a little with magnification (less so than S1 scopes). Eye relief itself is different across the model range with high magnification models having 3.0-3.7 inches of eye relief well suited to varmint and target rifles. Models of more moderate magnification have longer eyerelief in line with their intended use: big game hunting. All models with magnification above 10x have adjustable objectives to compensate for parallax error at both close and long range. They focus down to 12 yards and make a fine choice for precision rimfire as well as centerfire rifles. Sightron makes a number of scopes aimed at target shooting and covering a considerable price range, such as the fixed power 36x42 (pictured below) and variable 6-24x42 and 4-16x42, all with Target Dot retices.
Mechanically, S2 scopes have Sightron’s ExacTrack windage and elevation adjustments. lt is a somewhat different take on making consistent clicks, but the end result is that Sightron S2 has better adjustments, especially at the edges of the adjustment range, then most scopes in this price range. Speaking of price range, S2 line occupies an interesting one that falls between the distinct product and quality levels of the competition. For example, Sightron S2 is distinctly better than Bushnell Elite 3200 scopes, but not quite as good as Bushnell Elite 4200. Pricewise, they are a little closer to the former than the latter. Perhaps the most direct competition for Sightron S2 comes from Leupold VX-II scopes and FX-II. S2 scopes have similar performance for a bit less money and have a performance edge with higher magnification scopes. Nikon Buckmaster rifle scopes and Vortex Diamondback scopes offer some similarly priced competition among the lower magnification models.
Sightron SII Big Sky:
This model line has the most variety of offerings among Sightron’s products, and these scope fall into a price range that I consider the sweetspot of performance vs cost. Depending on configuration, one of these will cost you somewhere between $300 and $600. Despite the similarity in name with the cheaper SII scopes, these do not have a whole lot in common. Eyepiece focus means are the same: the whole eyepiece turns on a mid-coarse thread and has a lock ring. SII Big Sky scope also has ExacTrack windage and elevation adjustments. However, that is where the similarities largely end. SII Big Sky scopes have notably better optical quality, larger adjustment ranges (for the same configurations) and much greater variety of models, from a diminutive (and very underrated) 1.25-5x20 model with a simple plex reticle:
to a much larger 6-24x42AO scope with MilDot reticle:
Also, somewhat unusually, SII Big Sky offers a rather large assortment of well designed and optimized fixed power scopes, which is not common in a market place obsessed with variable designs: 6x42, 12x42, 24x42 and 36x42 (if you want a lower magnification fixed power, you have to go down to SII model line for a 4x32 version), with the higher powered verson available with eitehr target dot or crosshair reticles. All of the SII Big Sky scopes have 1” tubes and covered knobs. On higher magnification models, the knobs are easily finger adjustable if you remove the covers. The adjustments are either 1/4MOA or 1/8MOA depending on the model. Magnification ratios are either 3x or 4x. High magnification models with 4x erectors (4-16x42 and 6-24x42, for example) use Adjustable Objectives to focus the image and compensate for parallax. These have 1/8MOA clicks and are aimed predominantly at target shooters. There are also a couple of models with 3x erectors and somewhat larger objectives that offer side-focus. These 4.5-14x44 and 6.5-20x50 scopes are equipped with 1/4MOA click knobs and are a better choice for shooters who lean a little bit more toward the tactical side, but do not want to step up to SIII models. SII Big Sky scopes are fully multi-coated, with 7-layer ZACT7 coatings on the outer lenses along with water repellent Climate Control coatings. Eye relief is long and effectively constant with magnification. Except for the 36x42 model, all SII Big Sky scopes have eye relief falling between 3.8 and 4.2 inches (I am a stock crawler, so I welcome that). As far as competition goes, SII Big Sky is in a hotly contested price segment where it goes against Leupold VX-3 and FX-3 scopes, Bushnell Elite 4200 and Vortex Viper rifle scopes. The choice between these really comes down to the individual models, since all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. SII Big Sky holds an edge in consistent and long eye relief and unusually large adjustment range for scopes with 1” tubes. Optically, it is a toss up with Sightron slightly leaning toward higher resolution over contrast, while Leupold and Vortex make the opposite compromise. Bushnell is somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, it is hard to go wrong with any of these, unless you have some very specific requirements (like long and consistent eye relief, where S2 Big Sky shines).
These are the highest end scopes Sightron makes. SIII line--up went through a thorough redesign in 2008 and has been receiving a lot of attention since, especially from people looking for high magnification in sub-$1000 range. At the time of this writing, I can think of no other scope in this price range that exceed the optical performance of Sightron SIII scopes at magnifications above 20x (or below 20x for that matter). I will even go out on a limb and say that in order to appreciably improve on SIII’s optical performance (at high magnification), you have to spend nearly twice the money. All SIII scopes are built on 30mm tubes, feature full-on multicoating (ZACT7 on outer lenses) and introduce Fast Focus eyepieces (unlike the less expensive Sightrons). Overall optical design looks to be significantly different from other Sightrons as well. If I had to guess, I would say that the objective lens system of SIIIs is appreciably more complicated and better corrected than is typical for this price range, explaining the excellent performance above 20x. All variable power SIII scopes feature Side-Focus for image adjustment and parallax compensation. Current line-up includes 3.5-10x44, 3.5-10x56IR, 6-24x50, 8-32x56 and 10-50x60 models, with several different reticles available in the three higher magnification models. Also, for the time being, the 3.5-10x56 is the only model in Sightron’s line-up that offers an illuminated dot to go with its German #4 reticle. All of the SIII scopes are rather substantial, but they are not really intended for slim mountain rifles. For example, I find myself recommending the 8-32x56 model to long range shooters (both varmint and target) more than any other scope I can think of:
All SIII scopes have flexible and consistent eye relief ranging from 3.6 to 4 inches. They primarily compete against other Japanese scopes with 30mm tubes. However, because of the emphasis on high magnification, there is very little direct competition that offers both similar configurations and similar pricing. Here are the ones I can think of: Bushnell Elite 4200 6-24x50, Burris Black Diamond 6-24x50 and 8-32x50, Bushnell Elite 6500 4.5-30x50, Leupold VX-3 30mm 8.5-25x50, and Burris XTR 6-24x50. These scopes can hang with SIII out to about 20x-24x, but if you need more magnification, SIII is effectively the only sub-$1000 game in town. Lastly, the 3.5-10x44MD model is often overlooked, but it is easily one of the better DMR scopes on the market. It is optically superb. It has enough magnification and adjustment range to shoot quite far out, and it es exceptionally easy to get behind.
Sightron Red Dots and Other Electronic Sighting Devices:
In addition to the traditional riflescopes, SIghtron also makes a couple of rather well-conceived red dot sight that deserve a few words. Both are based on a 33mm tube and come with appropriately sized rings. One model has been around for a few years and is a fairly conventional red dot sight, except it offers four different reticle configurations: dot, circle-dot, crosshair, and a combination crosshair with a circle-dot. The other red-dot sight Sightron offers is somewhat more unusual despite only having a simple 5MOA dot for an aiming option. The dot intensity is controlled via a large knob on the side of the sight body. However, one of the settings puts it into an Auto mode, where the feedback from an ambient light sensor determines dot brightness. There are other sights on the market that either let you control the dot brightness or have the auto adjustment. However, combining the two is unusual, and Sightron’s implementation of it is quite functional.
New for 2011:
New for 2011 models seem to be mostly confined to SIII line. First of all, if you carefully look at the current configurations, you’ll note a significant gap between 3.5-10x scopes and the 6-24x. There will be a new model introduced at SHOT to fill that gap. Also, select SIII scopes will receive 0.1mrad knobs to go with MilDot reticles. Scopes that retain MOA-based clicks will be available with a new MOA-based reticle with 2MOA hashmarks. Additionally, some scopes with MOA-based reticle will receive an illuminated dot as well. All of these models will be introduced at SHOT 2011 as well. For my part, I think SIII 3.5-10x44 with MilDot reticle and 0.1mrad clicks will make a superb SPR scope.
This article was written for Webyshops.com by Ilya Koshkin, who operates an independent Optics Review site www.OpticsThoughts.com