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Spotting scopes for competition shooting

By Simon Gillice

Spotting scopes seem like a pretty straight forward bit of equipment but in recent shooting competitions I have noticed a few people out there who don’t know how to get the best performance from one. 


Spotting scopes are used by shooters to see bullet holes in paper targets or to spot shots at longer distances, and by hunters to assess the trophy potential of animals before making the stalk.


There’s a massive range of spotters on offer, varying in price from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, but regardless of their cost the technique around their use stays pretty much the same. 



When using a spotter for longer range shooting you are typically looking for bullet trace and/or bullet impact. Bullet impact will tell you exactly how much correction to apply and is generally the easiest to see.


Bullet impact can be impossible to see under certain conditions though, e.g; in long grass or when there is heavy mirage. Bullet trace is the path of disturbed air caused by the bullet’s passage through it.


“Under the right conditions you will be able to watch the entire path of the bullet all the way into the target from as close as 200 metres out to over 1000 metres.”


This path can be seen under the right conditions and can be used very effectively to spot shots at medium to longer range even when the actual bullet impact cannot be seen. Sometimes however, regardless of the quality of the spotter, you just can’t see either bullet impact or trace and this makes corrections nothing but a guess!


Team work - spotters need to be comfortably positioned where possible; their job often involves sitting still for long periods of glassing, followed by precise communication with the shooter.


Bullet impact is generally obvious - a kick up of dirt, an impact on a rock, an impact on steel, or the parting of hair on an animal. Bullet impact can be made more difficult to see with poor spotter placement in relation to the rifle’s muzzle.


The sound and blast of the rifle firing can distract the person spotting and they only need to blink at the wrong time to miss seeing the impact.


Trace can be very subtle to see. Under the right conditions you will be able to watch the entire path of the bullet all the way into the target from as close as 200 metres out to over 1000 metres. At longer ranges the trace or path of the bullet will be an arc as the bullet initially rises and then falls onto the target.


Simons competition kit includes a TwinNeedle LFP Pack, Bushnell Legend Tactical 15-45x60, Gitzo Mountaineer tripod with a Manfrotto Mini Ball Head, Armageddon Gear Grippy Flat Barricade bag. The rifle is a Sako 85 Varmint fitted with a Kahles K624i scope and an RPS bipod.


Atmospheric or light conditions can change over that path though, meaning you might see a trace for only a portion of the bullet’s flight.


At longer distances when only a portion of the bullet trace can be seen it can be very difficult to call an elevation correction. With good spotter placement however, windage corrections can be made off even a small amount of trace. 



The more important features of a spotting scope are the clarity or quality of the glass, the ability to focus the image, and the magnification range.


Glass quality typically increases with the price but most spotters are okay for seeing longer range shots (trace and impacts). If you want to see bullet holes in paper past 400 yards though you will need a scope with exceptional clarity.


Atmospheric conditions also dictate how well you can see the fine details. In heavy mirage even the best spotting scope will struggle to see bullet holes in paper past 200 yards! 


If you’re shooting in low light conditions (early morning, late evening, targets in deep shadows, etc.) then you will be best served by a spotter with exceptional glass and light transmission.


Ideally a spotter will have a focus mechanism that allows reliable and repeatable fine focus - this gets more important with higher magnifications. When trying to spot bullet trace a lower magnification setting is better for two reasons.


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The first is that at lower magnifications the depth of focus (i.e; the range of distances the image is in focus for at a particular setting) will be greater giving you more chance to see trace.


The second reason is that at lower magnification the field of view is greater and at long ranges bullet trace will be high of the target and dropping in - at high magnification you will have only a very limited view, perhaps not sufficient to see trace and follow it to the target. When spotting for trace I do not set the spotting scope magnification above about 25x. 



It’s best to place the spotter behind the rifle and as close to the line of bullet path as possible. Above the rifle is fine, as is being only a metre or so either side.


Placement of the spotter becomes more important the further the impact point is behind the target as well. If the bullet is impacting the ground only a metre or two behind the target then spotter placement is less important than if the bullet will impact the ground 10 metres behind.


This is because it becomes harder to see if the bullet is going slightly left or right of your target. Personally I prefer to sit where I can see what the shooter is doing. Looking through a spotting scope for long periods can be a strain on your eyes and takes a reasonable amount of mental focus to do it well.


Binos offer a wider field of view, but particularly for longer shots they work best when they are supported, not just hand held.


If I can place the spotter where I can see what the shooter is doing then I know when they’ve closed the bolt and are getting ready to fire – at that point I can start spotting and waiting for the shot. Having the shooter call when they are ready to fire is helpful as well.  


The person spotting should be in a stable and comfortable position behind the scope. Spotting can involve relatively long periods of looking, and being comfortable will help you focus on watching for trace or impact without needing to stretch or move around etc. 


“Almost all spotting scope reticles are milradian based, and when an impact is seen the person spotting can use the reticle to measure the correction needed and communicate that to the shooter.”


The spotting scope should be suitably supported to minimise any shake (e.g. wind disturbance). A good tripod is an absolute must and becomes more important the more magnification you plan on using. Light weight tripods tend to be less stable than the heavier ones.


Most tripods can be made more stable by using a couple of tricks though: 

  • Keep the tripod and spotting scope as low to the ground as is comfortable for the person spotting. 
  • Try to extend only the larger diameter sections of the tripod legs. The larger diameter leg sections are stiffer and offer more stable support. 
  • Get a tripod that allows multiple leg angles so you can set the legs to have a wide base.
  • Try and use the tall centre column as little as possible. 
  • Hang a weighted bag (or a rock) from the underside of the tripod centre column - this will add weight and stability to the tripod. Binoculars, range finders, and cameras also benefit from being used in conjunction with a stable support like a tripod. 



Clear communication between the shooter and the spotter is a must when you are under pressure (be it time pressure, competitive pressure, or lining up a shot on an animal). As a shooter it can be quite frustrating to have the location of an impact called incorrectly or without enough information. 


There are two schools of thought with calling shots - the person spotting calls the impact location and the shooter makes the correction themselves, or the person spotting calls only the correction needed to hit the center of the target. Ideally the person shooting and the person spotting have discussed how impacts are to be communicated beforehand.


Simon lines up a target while a mate calls the shots. Simon is a top scoring rifleman and is also involved in organising competition shooting events - Gillice Practical Rifle Events.


Personally I prefer to call the impact location so that the shooter can make the decision on what correction to apply. For example a hit on the target may be called “Hit! Slightly high and right of center”.


An example of a miss being called might be, “Miss! Two o’clock, between the target and the frame”, or “Miss! One target low, three targets left of centre”.


When the person spotting can only see trace (or a portion of trace) they should let the shooter know. For example they might call a miss as “Miss! Impact not seen. Trace was going to the right.


Remember, trace will always look like it is going high as the bullet will rise before dropping into the target. So unless you clearly see the bullet trace go past the target it can be very difficult to call an elevation correction from just a portion of the trace. 


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There are relatively very few spotting scopes with reticles. They are made primarily for the military and sport shooting markets, and generally come in one of two types - a fixed-power eyepiece or a vari-power scope with the reticle in the first focal plane.


Having a reticle in a spotting scope allows for range estimation (assuming you know the size of the target), and more importantly it allows shot corrections to be accurately communicated to the shooter. 


Almost all spotting scope reticles are milradian based, and when an impact is seen the person spotting can use the reticle to measure the correction needed and communicate that to the shooter.


To expand on the examples of spotter/shooter communication above - with a reticle the person spotting may call “Miss, 0.3 high, 0.6 right”.  A shooter also using a milradian based reticle or scope adjustments would be able to accurately make the corrections and quickly fire another shot. 



Spotting scopes are primarily carried by hunters looking for trophy class animals. Using a spotting scope to assess an animal’s potential allows the hunter to make a more informed decision to try a stalk or to keep looking for a better trophy. 


Alternatively a compact super-zoom digital camera can be used to take a high magnification photo or high definition video of an animal to assess its trophy potential.


A good spotting scope will provide significantly better clarity than a compact super-zoom camera however - particularly in lower light conditions. e.g; an overcast day, or an animal standing in shadow or against a dark background.


In rough country it works fine to have the spotting scope directly behind the shooter. It often makes it easier to follow the path of the bullet and accurately call the point of impact.


The cameras can suffer from a lack of light transmission through their lenses and camera shake at higher zooms. This means they often go to a higher ISO setting to get a faster shutter speed in the attempt to get a sharper image.


The higher ISO setting will pixelate the image more though, meaning you will lose clarity in the details. The camera however is generally cheaper, lighter, and can be used to take pictures and video of your trip. 


Binoculars have a much larger field of view than a spotting scope and are much more suited to locating game animals. Binos are also easier on the eyes when used for long periods of glassing. 



I always recommend that competitors bring their own spotting scope to any medium to longer range competition. Many competitors choose not to carry a spotting scope though - they just plan on using their rifle scope to spot for someone else.


We recommend spotting scopes as they have a vastly superior field of view at higher magnifications, making it much easier to see bullet trace and impacts.


“In a longer range field shooting competition having a practiced person with a reasonable spotting scope helping call corrections can significantly improve your score.”


Spotting scopes are easier to hold steady and to move around when there is more than one target to watch. Binoculars are only useful for spotting shots if they are properly supported. A big set of 15x or 20x binoculars used off a tripod would be awesome for spotting shots!


Spotting for longer range shooting takes practice and most shooters do not practice enough to be really good at it. In a longer range field shooting competition having a practiced person with a reasonable spotting scope helping call corrections can significantly improve your score.


Because of this a practiced shooter and spotter team will almost always do better than two people just scoring for each other. 




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