Best Rifle Scope under $200
Find out the best riflescope under $200! We’ve put the top 6 Rifle scopes head to head against each other based on Quality, Clarity and Price.
The rule of thumb when buying a rifle scope used to be “Expect to pay 3 to 6 times the price that you paid for your rifle”. That statement is hopelessly outdated as scope manufacturers have stepped up their game with increases in technology, better work practices and the lower cost of raw materials; not to mention that the price of new rifles entering the market has steadily risen in that time period. The manufacturers have been listening to their customers and taking the most useful feedback and incorporating that into their designs for well over a decade. With an array of quality rifle scopes available for under $200, we decided to have a classic “shoot out” to determine, what is the best rifle scope that is under $200?
We had several criteria for our testing: the scope had to be variable powered (between 3X and 24X), all scopes had to have a 1″ diameter nitrogen filled tube to level the playing field and most importantly the scope had to be suitable to withstand the rigors of 200 rounds of centerfire rifle ammunition without losing zero. It went without saying that all of the scopes had to be rated as waterproof, fog proof and would require multi-coated lenses. This turned out to be easier than expected and we chose the following six models:
- BARSKA 6.5-20×50 AO Varmint Target Dot Riflescope
- Bushnell AR Optics Drop Zone-223 BDC Reticle Riflescope with Target Turrets and Side Parallax, 3-12x 40mm
- Bushnell Banner Illuminated Red/Green Multi-X Reticle Riflescope, 3-9x 50mm
- Leupold VX-1 3-9×40 Waterproof Riflescope, Matte Black, Duplex Reticle 113874
- Nikon P-223 3-9×40 Matte BDC 600
- Nikon Pro Staff 3-9 x 40 Black Matte Riflescope (BDC)
Two Nikons, two Bushnells, a Barska and a Leupold went head to head in our test. All testing was performed using a flat top AR-15 rifle using a stainless steel match grade heavy barrel with a 1 in 7” twist. Ammunition was match grade Black Hills 62 Grain Full Metal Jacket Boat Tail. The butt stock on the rifle was a MagPul PRS adjustable for height at the comb and length of pull. A match grade trigger was used, as was a Harris bipod to ensure stability and take as much “human error” out of the equation as possible.
The target was positioned at 200 yards because, frankly, the 100 yard line is not very challenging for a rifle and it is very easy to shoot sub 1” groups at this range. At 300 yards there are too many external factors that come into play and that gets tiring for a shooter trying to deliver an unbiased review. We determined 200 yards to be the perfect compromise and even though some were capable of greater magnification, we shot all with the scope set on the 9X setting.
The price range ran the gamut from $75 to $199.97; the whole intent was to keep the price reasonable and offer some variation instead of looking at 5 scopes that cost exactly the same with all the same features.
This may have seemed like a clear winner due to the 50mm objective and the 20X magnification as the high range of the scope. At less than $75 shipped, it was the least expensive model that we used in testing. As could be expected, there is some trade off with a high number of features at an extremely low price. We found the adjustable settings above 16X to be virtually useless. We simply could not obtain a clear and stable image. At 16X, performance was very good and the small target dot against the thin cross posts made for a fantastic reticle.
Adjustments were crisp and audible and made for an excellent group of 1.95” on 16X. Dialing it down to 9X (the highest settings on our other test scopes) the group size opened slightly to 2.25”. For its price point this scope has its advantages, just do not expect to realistically magnify your target beyond 16X and you would be happy with this model.
2. Bushnell AR Optics Drop Zone-223
BDC Reticle Riflescope with Target Turrets and Side Parallax, 3-12x 40mm
Stepping up quite a bit in price from the BARSKA, but still keeping below $200 is the Bushnell AR Optics Drop Zone-223. This scope is a little more substantially built and is backed with a lifetime warranty. Each of the settings provides a crystal clear image up to 12X. Bushnell’s Drop Zone BDC is a unique reticle system that is calibrated for the 223 round out to 500 yards in 100 yard increments.
The company’s reputation for clarity in their optics has matured beyond their offerings from 20 years ago. The return to zero aspect of the target turrets makes sighting in the rifle an easy task. Performance wise the 9X setting yielded a 1.95” group of 5 rounds on target. If you are looking for a dedicated optic for an AR-15, this makes for an excellent choice. Admittedly, we did not use the 12X setting, because our other scopes were in the 3X -9X category, but in hindsight, that extra magnification may make the difference in your decision to purchase this scope.
The next model we tried was also from Bushnell. The Banner Illuminated Red/Green Multi-X Reticle scope is more like a traditional hunting scope than the previous models. The turrets require removing the caps to set windage and elevation, but this model offers an illuminated reticle. The lenses were crystal clear and the green reticle was very easy to see against the black and white target without any uneven glow or halo. We were able to easily manage a 2.25” group at 200 yards.
At half the price of the Bushnell AR Optics scope and just a little more than the BARSKA, this scope has a lot of potential as a general purpose hunting scope. If you are looking for an illuminated reticle for low light shooting at dawn or dusk and do not mind the lack of target knobs, this may be the scope that you want.
At the top of our price range at pennies under the $200 is this offering from Leupold. Sometimes when all else fails, you go with the brand name and even as one of the company’s lowest price offerings, this scope reeks of quality. That said, it is pure “no-frills” on the extra feature standpoint. The only possible “extra” would be Leupold’s distinctive Gold Ring encircling the objective. That may be enough to impress your buddy’s at the local shooting club or out on a hunt, but it is little more than a fancy hood ornament or pin striping on a new car. Like the Bushnell Banner, you are treated to a standard Leupold post cross hair reticle and no target turrets. There is no illumination, but the glass was by far the clearest out of all the models that we evaluated.
The Leupold delivered the best accuracy by giving us a 1.55” group. This may prove that you do not always need fancy bells and whistles like target turrets on your scope. Admittedly, if you are shooting at a variety of different ranges or wind conditions, it may not be the best choice.
Leupold can be a tough act to follow, but the Nikon P-223 was definitely up to the task. Only slightly cheaper than the Leupold, this model boasts target turrets, a return to zero capability similar to the above mentioned Leupold and a bullet drop compensator calibrated for 223.
Glass quality was clearer than that found on the Bushnell models and in my estimation it was probably equal to the Leupold. Nikon knows their lenses and has been doing it right for a long time. They promise a 98% transmission of light and without machinery to calibrate that exactly, I will take their word for it. With a little more eye relief than the other models, we were rewarded with a group of 1.95” at 200 yards. I think it goes without saying that if you are looking for a dedicated scope for use on a rifle chambered in 223 Remington or 5.56 NATO; this is the one that you want.
Using our final scope, another Nikon almost seemed a letdown after trying the P-223 version. Like the Bushnell Banner and the Leupold VX, this is more like a traditional hunting scope with turret caps to protect your adjustments when crashing through the brush after a White tail on foot or on ATV. You get the clear glass and unparalleled light transmission of the Nikon P-223 and there is a bullet drop compensator designed for use with Nikon’s Spot On ballistic software. This downloadable app allows you to determine ballistics for just about any cartridge under the sun as opposed to locking you into 223 Remington as the P-223 does. It can run on a PC, MAC , tablet or smart phone.
Accuracy was on par with the P-223 and the Nikon Pro Staff delivered a 2.1” group at 200 yards. The real strong point on this model is the excellent bullet drop compensator giving you unlimited options for ballistics on a wide variety of rifles and loadings. This rifle would serve well on a 30-06 Springfield, 308 Winchester or 358 Norma Magnum, if needed.
Each of these scopes has inherent strengths and weaknesses. The BARSKA offered the greatest magnification; the Leupold had the best accuracy; the Pro Staff perhaps gave the shooter the most versatility;, the Bushnell Banner boasts a simply excellent illuminated reticle and the 2 dedicated AR-15 scopes offered a treasure trove of specialty features.
Yet, each had its shortcomings. The BARSKA distorted at the higher settings, the Leupold, Banner and Pro Staff used turret caps and 2 dedicated AR-15 scopes really limit you to use with the 223 Remington round. None of these scopes were horrible by any means and in the end I almost resorted to looking through them all again to see which offered the clearest picture. That still remains the ultimate test on a scope’s clarity: keep looking through them until you can no longer tell the difference.
Accuracy wise, each scope was comparable and at 100 yards, each choice should be a sub MOA shooter with group sizes being less than an inch. All of the scopes are rated as waterproof, fog proof and feature multi-coated lenses.
We took everything into consideration, including price and potential use. Some features are easy to live without and some were definite “must haves”.
If your end use is to mount one of these scopes on a rifle specifically chambered for 223 Remington, I would go with the Nikon P-223. It is slightly easier to use than the Bushnell version and Nikon’s optic quality is so close to Leupold that only a snob at the rifle range would be able to tell the difference without looking through the eye piece. The upper end of the Bushnell’s magnification does go to 12X, but realistically the 9X on the Nikon is close enough.
That said, the real winner of our shoot out was the Nikon Pro Staff. It seemed as if the Leupold might have been a better basic scope, but the bullet drop compensator in the Nikon made the choice an easy one for us. If I could change one thing about the scope it would be the incorporation of rugged adjustable turrets with the return to zero option found on the Bushnell AR scope or the Nikon P-223. In the end for recommending a general purpose scope, I feel you cannot go wrong with the versatility packed into the Nikon Pro Staff. At less than $200 it is one of the best rifle scopes that money can buy.
More about the Nikon Pro-staff
“One of the best values for hunters in search of a mid-priced optic.”
I should start out by saying that over 25 years of shooting and hunting has turned me into a bit of an optics snob. In my younger years I was not satisfied with a scope unless it cost more than the price of my rifle. That changed with another scope model that I discovered a decade ago and trained me mentally to look beyond the price tag. Such is the case with thee Nikon Pro-staff 3-9×40 mm Rifle Scope This scope may just be one of the best values for hunters in search of a mid-priced optic.