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A Whitetail Hunter's Guide to Ballistic Reticles

It's untrue that ballistic reticles are too complicated for deer hunters. For some, they're just the right tool for quick shots at extended range.

A Whitetail Hunter's Guide to Ballistic Reticles

Simple, uncluttered ballistic reticles are in favor with deer hunters who demand accurate holdover adjustments and quick target acquisition. (Photo by David McGowen, Istock)

I’ll discuss various styles of scope reticles, including the increasingly popular ballistic reticle. I’ll preface by admitting I’m not an expert rifleman, nor do I claim to be a precision shooter. And I certainly have no professional or military training that permits me to write on the subject with authority.

Instead, I’m simply a whitetailer who enjoys experimenting with various optics for hunting use. To be clear, if you spend the entirety of gun season in thick woods, where shots under 100 yards are the norm, then be forewarned; some of what you’re about to read isn’t relevant. However, if you prefer to hunt large crop fields, senderos, clear cuts or open country where longer shots are customary, then this one is for you.

Watch Now "What is a Ballastic Reticle?

Classic Crosshair & Target Dot 

The basic crosshair, perhaps the most recognizable of all reticle types, is formed by the intersection of two lines, one vertical and the other horizontal. The center of the lines is the aiming point, obviously. Thanks to its thin profile, the crosshair is a popular choice for smallbore competitive shooters and varminters. The crosshair is low-profile, and it obstructs very little of the target from view, allowing for extreme accuracy.   

The dot reticle, a modification of the crosshair with a sightly enlarged center aiming dot, also is highly praised by precision shooters and prairie dog assassins. Fans value the classic, minimalist style and excellent light transmission. Critics of the crosshair and dot, however, claim they’re harder to see in dense brush, low light conditions, etc. Thus, they’re seldom the preferred choice of big game hunters. Also, basic crosshair or dot reticles don’t include holdover marks for precise shooting at extended ranges.

An adjustable parallax focus can be used to adjust the clarity of the reticle at various ranges and in difficult lighting conditions. Similarly, shooters can adjust the reticle’s “zero” by adjusting the turret dials. Modern zero-stop turrets are popular because they allow for quick adjustments; however, some hunters argue they’re still not fast enough for shots on game.    

The Duplex Delivers

For most of my hunting needs, I’ve relied on another style of reticle: the duplex. Essentially an improved crosshair with heavier (meaning thicker or bolder) exterior lines, the duplex reticle still contains a fine crosshair at center. The result is a reticle that’s highly visible in low light conditions and easy to find and point in brush.

For me, the duplex does all this and still is capable of a high level of accuracy. For use with most centerfire rifle calibers, I prefer to simply zero my duplex reticles at 200 yards. From there, I can make quick adjustments for shots out to 300 yards. While in theory the duplex doesn’t offer holdover marks for shooting past zero, it is possible to confirm at least one holdover point using the thicker lower vertical line (the point where the reticle goes from thin to thick).

Just remember, using that portion of the reticle as an aiming point might produce a somewhat random holdover. For instance, on one of my rifles (a 6.5 Creedmoor), the center of the duplex is zeroed at 100 yards, and the lower duplex mark is a holdover for 250 yards. This aiming point will vary based on rifle caliber, bullet weight, barrel length, scope magnification, etc.  

New Dogs & Tricks  

While I’m a fan of the duplex because it’s a simple, no-frills reticle, I’ve recently fallen for another style of reticle: the ballistic reticle. Designed to make easy the art of calculating accurate holdovers for long range shots, ballistic reticles now are widely available and more popular than ever.

In fact, thanks to a boom in interest in long-range shooting sports and precision rifles, there’s a high demand for “smart” scope reticles. Nowadays, several major scope manufacturers offer their own version of a ballistic reticle with Bullet Drop Compensation (BDC) marks.

BDC marks (horizontal lines below the center crosshair) aid in aiming at extended ranges. Popular names for these reticles include: Milliradian Dot (Mil Dot), Minute of Angle (MOA), Horus, and many more. Commonly referred to as “Christmas Tree Reticles,” there are versions of each of the above with gradually elongated horizontal aiming lines in the 6 o’clock position, designed to compensate for windage adjustments.

At first glance, ballistic reticles can seem rather complex. And honestly, some are. For instance, some ballistic reticles have stadiametric rangefinding ability. The “stadia method” allows shooters to calculate the distance to target without the use of a rangefinder. Essentially, these reticles contain aiming marks of known spacing that are used to determine range, based on the visible size of the intended target, compared to the size of a target at a known distance.

Thus far, my use of ballistic reticles is far simpler. For hunting, I like clean ballistic reticles with thick, crisp horizontal lines below the center crosshair. It’s my opinion that Mil Dot and MOA style reticles work very well for these reasons. When sighting in a ballistic reticle for hunting, I prefer to zero the center crosshair at 100 yards. Once that’s accomplished, it’s very simple to determine the zero of each corresponding hashmark below the center cross.

Note, every hashmark below the center cross will not zero at perfect increments. In other words, just because the center cross is zeroed at 100 yards, the second one might not be zeroed at 200 or the third at 300. Every reticle will produce different holdovers when used with different firearms, ammunition, etc. That means the second hash mark might be zeroed at 125 yards, and the third at 240 yards. For some shooters, this will seem random or sporadic. However, with a little practice, it’s easy to figure out how your reticle corresponds to your ballistic selection.

It’s worth noting that some reticles are designed to provide exact holdover marks for specific rifle caliber and bullet weight combinations. I’ve yet to test these reticle options, so I won’t comment on their effectiveness.

First vs. Second Focal Plane

My brief explanation of ballistic reticles would warrant criticism if I didn’t mention First Focal Plane (FFP) and Second Focal Plane (SFP) reticle placement. In short, FFP and SFP reticles function very differently, and it’s important to know how each works before selecting and using a ballistic reticle.

SFP reticles are used more often by hunters. Basically, an SFP reticle remains the same size no matter the scope’s magnification setting. As a result, exact zero is not maintained when magnification is changed. So, an SFP reticle zeroed at 100 yards will impact differently on 3X magnification and 9X magnification (and each setting in-between). As a result, holdover marks on SFP ballistic reticles will change based on magnification. For this reason, SFP ballistic reticles will only function properly when used on a set magnification.

In contrast, FFP reticles become larger as magnification is increased and smaller as magnification is decreased. In turn, FFP ballistic reticles are designed to not lose their zero when magnification settings change. For this reason, though they’re often more expensive, FFP ballistic reticles are favored by shooters who desire long range accuracy and the ability to adjust scope magnification.

Consider This One - EOTECH’s VUDU 3.5-18x50 FFP 

An excellent First Focal Plane scope in just the right magnification range for whitetail hunting, the VUDU 3.5-16x50mm features XC High-Density glass, oversized turrets with EZ Chek Zero Stop adjustments and a side-mounted parallax adjustment. Three illuminated ballistic reticle options are available, designed by EOTECH, including the MD1-MRAD, MD2-MOA and HORUS H59. The scope has a 34mm main tube constructed from aircraft-grade aluminum, and the total weight is 33.6 ounces. Approximately 500 hours of runtime can be expected from the illuminated reticle at middle brightness setting 5. 


In Conclusion

The real utility of a ballistic reticle for hunting is that it eliminates the need for making turret adjustments in the field. A properly tuned ballistic reticle is set for a clean 100 yard zero and allows the shooter to make instant holdover adjustments for shots out to 300 yards and beyond. For this reason, I’ve enjoyed using them for hunts in open areas where longer shots are required.

Hopefully, my humble explanation of ballistic reticles is easy enough to understand. If you’re a hunter who wants to maximize the effective range of your firearm without compromising your ability to make quick shots on game, I think you’ll find them highly useful.

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