Scopes vary in power/magnification, depth, range, clarity, glass quality, workmanship and capabilities. Then, just know, as guide Phil Schweik relates, that there are a figurative million different regulations on the use of a scope and they vary greatly. For instance, in Wisconsin, muzzleloader hunters could not use a scope with any magnification until recently. Then there are areas where you can't use a scope on a handgun or a shotgun. These regulations on weaponry andscope usage vary throughout the country, so make sure you read the regulations and laws before buying a scope of any type.
I pride myself on offering our readers money-saving alternatives to buying new. However when it comes to scopes, most avid hunters say it is wise to buy a new scope. Used scopes certainly will have all the needed power and qualities a hunter might need. But as Phil Schweik points out, everyone has different eyesight (as we all know each of our two eyes varies in "power" and acuity), and each firearm has different mounting requirements. Also, the particular needs of any one hunter can and often do vary greatly. So in this situation at least, we urge you to bite the bullet and buy new! Get the scope needed for your physical attributes, for your particular firearm, and the type of hunting you're going to be doing.
There are a ton of different manufacturers and scopes out there. The selection can be overwhelming and that's only the major names in the industry. Add in the custom manufacturers and outfitters, and you can drive yourself nuts making a final selection.
Let's say you've got a lever action 30/30. The realistic accurate range for the average hunter is about 100 yards. You may want to get a 4 power or a 3 x 9 variable power scope, which will do just fine. The scope itself will run you a hundred bucks or more depending on the brand and features. And remember, that's without any accessories such as mounting equipment, rings, and the like. And yes, you're right, there are new scopes priced at around $50. However, you'd be hard pressed to get real accuracy with this type of investment, and they don't last. Get something decent. It doesn't have to have all the bells and whistles, but make sure its optics don't make you feel like Mr. Magoo when you sight it. Like any pair of binoculars, the variance of quality in scopes of the same general stated specs can be enormous.
Let's say you want to do some long-distance-reach-out-and-touch-someone hunting at 200 to 600 yards, or more with a .30-06, 7mm mag, or maybe a .300 Winchester short mag, and you need something with excellent magnification, great light absorption (the amount of light a scope soaks up and utilizes), clarity, and quality lenses. Be prepared to spend $500 or more. When I say more, it can run into thousands. Do you also want a red dot scope (where a red dot shows up as you sight the scope, pointing to the target), or a laser beam scope? They're all available, and they all can cost big bucks depending on the configuration. Phil Schweik has a .30-06 and uses a 3 x 9 x40 variable scope which ran a bit over $500. Wide range, good optics and glass, excellent clarity, good light absorption, powerful magnification for his needs, which he says goes to around 200 yards max. By the way, Schweik points out that there are many areas where red dot or laser beam scopes are prohibited for a number of reasons. That's why it is so essential you do your homework on the regulations where you're hunting before using a particular scope.
And don't "over buy" for your needs. Phil Schweik says he has guided a number of deer hunters with scopes that would be good for sighting an African elephant at a thousand yards. But if a deer suddenly pops up 30 yards in front of you, all you're going to sight through your scope is a blur of tan fur. That is one reason that many hunters use what is called a see through mount. The basic mount for any scope is a flat barrel mount, which simply means the scope is mounted on the barrel itself, depending on the mounting hardware used for your particular rifle. What you see is what you get. If your scope is overpowered for a deer that does pop up 30 yards in front of you, you may be out of luck. That's where the see through mount comes in. The mount is set up higher above the barrel. So that if you do get a sudden pop of a deer 30 yards out in front and your scope is set for 200 yards, you simply look under the scope through the firearm's iron sights, and you're good to go. That's why it's called a see through scope mount.
Schweik has used both methods and prefers the barrel mount. He says that hunters disagree about whether it's worth it to have a see through mount. Some swear by it, and others at it. Schweik does say that he has a feel when he does use a see through mount that accuracy can be off just a tad, whether you're using the scope itself or the iron sights below the scope. Remember that when you sight a scope with a see through mount, you may have to make split-second mental adjustments to properly adjust your aim to allow for the difference in trajectory between the see through mount scope and a barrel mounted scope. And our good friend and licensed gunsmith Glenn Moberg of Mosinee, Wisconsin, has a rather more short and descriptive opinion on see-through mounts: "They're junk. They're usually aluminum construction, they don't hold up, and hunters kick themselves after they continually miss their target using them." So, friends, take your pick.
My best suggestions: Talk to different hunters who utilize different types of scopes. You'll get plenty of first-hand info (which is the best), as to the pros and cons of each. Then when you're ready, take your rifle into a legitimate-and-recognized retail outfitter, gunsmith, or gun shop. Talk to someone who knows what type of mount you'll need and can suggest what type of scope you'll need for the type of hunting you're going to generally be doing. You're never going to get a scope that will satisfy every need in every situation, but you can come close. And. of course. if you have the funds, the more variable capabilities a scope has, the more situations it can adjust to. And remember, whatever scope you use, deer don't come in blaze orange, so know what you're shooting at!