Making sense of the latest advances in riflescope technology
If you’ve been watching the riflescope market in recent years, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the emergence of scopes touted as “first focal plane” as an option to the traditional “second focal plane” scopes. But what exactly do these terms mean, and should you be taking them into consideration if you’re buying a new scope?
It’s all about the lens on which the scope’s reticle is etched, relative to the zoom mechanism and magnifying lenses located in the middle of the scope, known as the erector lens system. If the reticle is etched on a lens in front of the erector system, it’s called a first, or front, focal plane (FFP) scope (“front” meaning nearest to the objective lens, at the end of the scope furthest from your eye). Alternatively, if the reticle is etched on a lens to the rear of the zoom mechanism, nearer to the ocular lens, it’s called a second, or rear, focal plane (SFP) scope.
The primary difference between the two is that with an FFP scope, the reticle changes in size as the magnification increases or decreases, always maintaining the same size in relation to the target image. On a SFP scope, which has been the industry standard for decades, the reticle stays the same size—as you increase or decrease the magnification the target image changes size, but the reticle doesn’t.
THE FFP ADVANTAGE
I recently spoke with Vici Peters, Leupold’s Gold Ring Product Manager, about the differences. According to her, there’s been an increase in FFP sales, in part because younger shooters like more technical equipment. “They’re generally more accustomed to shooting with the scaled reticles common on FFP scopes that allow them to quickly adjust holdover or windage,” she says. “Many older hunters, meanwhile, still prefer SFP scopes and the simplicity of a standard duplex reticle.”
One of the great advantages of FFP scopes, Peters explains, is that the hash marks for making windage or holdover adjustments are accurate at any magnification. For example, a one MIL adjustment that equates to one yard at 1,000 yards holds true at any magnification. On a SFP scope, however, hash marks are only accurate at a single power setting, usually the highest power the scope is capable of. The use of laser rangefinders and ballistic turrets can overcome this deficiency, but it’s not as quick as an FFP scope when adjustments are needed.
THE FFP DRAWBACK
When asked about the disadvantages of FFP scopes, Peters noted that as you increase the magnification, the reticle gets bigger and can partially cover your target, making precision aiming more difficult. This is particularly true with scopes with a high power range. To compensate, many manufacturers make the reticle crosswires very thin at the centre. The problem with that is they can become nearly invisible at the lowest magnification settings, especially in low-light conditions or against wooded backgrounds. When considering any FFP scope with a zoom range in excess of 5x, Peters says to make sure the reticle is easily visible at the lowest power setting.
I’m admittedly a little old school when it comes to technology and hunting gear; in part, I worry the increased complexity translates to more things that can break down in the field. When I asked Peters about this, she said that while FFP scopes are a little more difficult to build—hence their higher price—they are as solid and reliable as SFP scopes.
THE CASE FOR SFP
As for choosing between the two, it depends largely on how and where you’ll be hunting. FFP scopes might be the best choice if you like newer technology, or if you shoot at long distances where quick follow-up shots using holdover or windage adjustments are more likely. While FFP scopes are fast becoming the norm among long-range target shooters, hunters should remember that at high magnifications, their target may be partly obscured. And at low magnifications, the reticle may be difficult to see in some conditions.
In my estimation, SFP scopes are likely to remain the standard among hunters for the foreseeable future. Their big advantage is that the reticle remains at a constant size, and it’s easily visible at every magnification. Just keep in mind that if your SFP reticle has hash marks, they’re only accurate at maximum magnification.