Sighting in With Nightforce Optics

Posted on 05 February 2010 by Cork Graham

Special Forces operator's bullet hole scope

Special Forces operator's bullet-holed 3.5x15x56mm scope

The ad was simple and straightforward: a photo of a 3.5x15x56mm scope with green 100 mph tape adhesive remnants along it. Right next to the zoom ring a bullet hole. The caption said that the US Army Special Forces operator who carried it in Iraq shot with it for another three days, only making the adjustment of covering the bullethole with the 100 mph tape—no change to the zero!

Always wanting to show the brightest qualities of the mildot reticle that I learned during my war days, I read up on this one designed by Nightforce Optics. Unlike the old ones we remember that really haven’t changed (other than one’s the Marine’s [football dots] and the other’s the Army’s [soccer ball dots]) these by Nightforce are an amazing innovation. They not only have the Army style mildots, but they’re shaped in the form of a bull’s-eye with a dot within the ring, the ring the same diameter as a normal mildot. A great improvement for those wanting to shoot at ranges where the target appears smaller than the mildot.

Innovative Nightforce MilDot, illuminated and non-illuminated.

Innovative Nightforce MilDot, illuminated and non-illuminated.

Now, there has been a controversial movement to learn how to shoot game at long range. And some of you, because of my solid interest in further sound wildlife management practices, would think that I’d be against this. Actually, I’m very much for hunters who can shoot longrange…and this is the biggest qualifier: EFFECTIVELY!

I’ve seen a hunter cripple a wild pig at only nine feet and seen another hunter drop an elk in its tracks at 600 yards. Which one was the ethical and efficient hunter?

To understand it better, the one who crippled the pig had never picked up a rifle and thought it was just like shooting a shotgun, which he did with great frequency for ducks. Arrogant enough to think that having a scope on the rifle somehow imbued the firearm with magical powers of accuracy, far outreaching the abilities of his shotgun that was sighted with only a bead and ventilated-rib, but that dropped most of his ducks, he only went to the range the day of the hunt to make sure the rifle was sighted in.

Much more responsible, the one who shot the elk at a solid long range that most hunters would never attempt, was a well-practiced competitive shooter who successfully shot at ranges out to 1,200 yards every weekend in the desert.

My vote for the ethical, and conscientious, hunter goes to the one who took the 600-yard shot at the elk.

But, then we get into the ethics of shooting an elk at 600 yards. How come the hunter didn’t sneak up on the elk and shoot it at 100 yards, or well within bow range?

I used to think the same thing, especially after I returned to US from the shadow years of my life, from that secret little south of the border war we had against Raoul Castro and the KGB from 1977 to 1991: It’s not sporting…I’d rather take that pig or deer at a nice close 20 yards with my longbow.

One of Bill Casey's Boys, circa 1986

One of Bill Casey's Boys: Cork Graham after recapture of a building from the FMLN, circa 1986

…That was until I started really looking at hunting not from sport as so many are wont to do these days. Instead, I looked at it from the point of view of a wildlife conservationist, who understands the importance of hunting as a tool of wildlife management in keeping a healthy animal population. It’s something I’m going to talk about in a later piece along the lines of that masterpiece of an essay by Aldo Leopold, titled Wild Lifers vs. Game Farmers: A Plea for Democracy in Sport [1919].

Suffice it to say, it’s the importance of taking that animal in the least amount of pain and greatest efficiency. A hunter who can take an animal accurately and cleanly at 600 yards, at peace and enjoying a grazing, is far more along those lines than a hunter who stumbles on a deer that breaks and the hunter, though he made his shot at 20 yards, hits it in the paunch and spends the rest of the day tracking that deer, all the while it’s hidden and slowly dying from that wound, possibly never to be recovered unless the hunter also has a good dog to help in that tracking.

So, yes, I’m very much into long range shooting, because I put the time in to be accurate and I make sure the equipment I use is the best I can get.

That means putting the time in and using a rifle that shoots at least an MOA. My Remington Model 700 BDL SS DM shot an MOA out of the box, and when I replaced the stock with an HS Precision Sporter, traded the trigger for a Timney, it shot 1/2 to 1/4 MOA. Crowning it with a Nightforce 3.5-15x56mm was the next best option toward improvement and customization for accuracy.

Over the years, I’ve reviewed the different ballistic drop compensating (BDC) reticles available on the market. They do have impressive qualities and for someone who’s not willing to put the time at the range, it might seem a viable option…at least at first. The new offerings sure beat the first BDC scope I purchased as a teenager back in the early 1980s, called the Redfield Illuminator with Accu-Range and Accu-Trac: its use in the field, along with buck fever driven by the largest blacktail buck I’d ever seen, ended up in a total miss.

The problem was that I was shooting at a buck that was well within my range (too many hunters think that a target is much further than it really is and that 200-300 yards requires some sort of adjustment for a high-power rifle sighted in for 200 yards—not!) and I thought it was much further; and, for a young teen to be fiddling around with the Accu-Trac BDC knobs was a little much.

Nightforce came out with a new “zero-stop” capability that enables you to quickly get back on zero. Created for those heated moments in combat, or hunting, or when shooting in dark conditions where you’re best served by getting back on zero through feel, it’s a great modification. It does change my intended zero for a .300 Win. mag. which was going to be 300 yards, but I’ve zeroed for 200 yards and if I need to shoot at something at 300 yards I only have to raise slightly, putting the cross just under the back for a deer.

Nightforce Optics "Zero-Stop" turret.

Nightforce Optics "Zero-Stop" turret.

USMC Captain Jack C. Cuddy designed mildot in the 1970s. A mainstay of tactical riflescopes ever since, the mildot continues to perplex many shooters, both the calculation of range and drop compensation, whether using the mildots themselves to make an adjustment or the target knobs to make that adjustment in trajectory.

The calculations are actually quite simple and can be done much quicker with a Mildot Master, than a calculator. The Mildot Master will even enable you to do an adjustment for angle, as everyone who has ever missed on a downhill or uphill shot can see the importance for.

An innovation about the Nightforce 3.5x15x56mm scope is that the reticle can be illuminated with a pull on the parallax adjustment turret. It might not seem that important, but there’s a very big difference between shooting at a target 500 yards away and requiring that fine center reticle, and as I found myself last Saturday, up close in brush and putting that crosshair on a wild boar’s chest-especially with the Nightforce non-solid posts, outlines of the normal solid mildot post.

Though the glass is hard to beat for clarity and brightness, with the 30mm tube and large 56mm objective, finding that fine crosshair among those branches would have been a chore had they not been lit red by the illumination. With the illumination, I was on the pig in a second, which was all I had before it started getting up with its brethren, and drilled him.

What about those empty posts? I love them: they not only permit another point of measurement added onto the mildots themselves (you can use the lines that form the posts to bracket a target vertically and horizontally), but they also let you see what’s below the target: not that important with a target only 200 yards away, but definitely important if they’re 600 to 800 yards away. Eight hundred yards is the furthest I’d ever shoot at an animal-a 180 grain .300 caliber bullet can do only so much as it loses its speed, and therefore its force; and there’s a difference between why and how we shoot animals in hunting situations and people in war conditions.

As a final test of my Nightforce Optics 3.5x15x56mm NXS, and because a friend of mine has twice driven to Colorado to hunt elk and each time his scope was off zero when he got there, I purposely put my rifle in the back of the bed of my truck and on its side. If there’s vibration, it’s going to be in the back of a truck bed with a light load.

When my friend Michael Riddle and I arrived at Native Hunt, I checked the zero and it was right on. That’s what I like about Nightforce, they test not just for back and forth shock of a high-powered rifle being fired. They test for shock perpendicular to the length of the scope.

There’s a reason that sniper teams choose the Night Optics 3.5x15x56mm NXS over all others to mount on their scope-demolishing .50 caliber rifles.

Here’s a snippet from the upcoming episode of Cork’s Outdoors TV where we’re editing on how to mount a scope on a rifle and sight it in properly…And stayed tuned for the upcoming episode of COTV, where we use this scope in tight brush after wild boar!


  1. Hunting Central California Cottontails with a .22 Pellet Gun
  2. On the Track of the Wily Wild Boar Babi Guling

3 Comments For This Post

  1. T. Michael Riddle Says:

    Excellent, excellent way to put things into perspective Cork!
    I have grown so very tired of the ETHICS crowd speaking and writing volumes about things of which they are only speculating, and have not a clue nor first hand experience to really be talking or writing at all.

    The example which you set forth about the shotgunner turned rifle hunter is something which I have seen all too many times in my 30 years of guiding people on big game hunts.

    The antis really pick up on this and then propagandize it to the non-hunting/fence sitting populace who then will vote with their emotions instead of following the thread of fact.

    Not that I have anything at all against academic discussion, because much can be learned from this open ended type of dialog.
    I just wish that more individuals would follow the train of logic which you have presented in this post.

  2. Cork Says:

    Yep, Michael. I remember when I told my father that critical thinking was a course no longer required in high school, he said the world would be going the way of emotion, along the lines of a morbidly obese person wondering why they’re in front of the refrigerator emotionally digging for food, when they logically know they shouldn’t: self-destruction.

    …Now our departments of fish and game have to surmount a public that, is first of all allowed to vote on subjects they have no knowledge of, and more importantly, their vote impacts drastically in a harmful manner those decisions that could, if implemented properly, instead lead to a healthy population of all animals: not what we have in California, except on private land where landowners excersize right of domain. If all lands were under the government control, dictated to by the unknowing public that’s unwilling to educate itself, private land would be as barren and mountain lion and coyote picked over public land: so picked over that these same overpopulated predators now need to hit private suburban backyards for Fido and Fifi…is it ignorancer or simple lack of interest that they don’t know that before the Europeans came to the Americas, the Native Americans kept the predators in control, too? Or, that they used to burn large swaths of land to make sure deer had food to eat? Whenever I learn of a forest fire burning, I think: Burn Baby Burn!

    …oh, but no, too many people have put their homes in wildlands, so USFS and BLM are terrified of getting sued…so another herd of deer, over hit by predators and starved by no food due to no burns or logging, goes extinct–not once in modern times because of hunters.

    I wonder how much longer our animal populations can stand the meddling of those ignorant of many years of proven successful techniques of wildlife management, now so infrequently applied it’s a crime against Nature…

  3. MarkSpizer Says:

    great post as usual!


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