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First focal plane vs. second focal plane riflescopes for hunting

Rear focal plane Leupold riflescope

Every day, hunters are faced with more and more choices when it comes to gear selection. Improved technology, tighter machining tolerances, and extreme retail competition have driven the quality of goods up and, in many cases, prices have dropped. Out of all of the categories in outdoor gear, nothing could be truer when it comes to optics and, more specifically, riflescopes.

When selecting a new riflescope, hunters will be faced with a slew of options from magnification ranges, objective and tube sizes, reticles, turrets, and much more. Most of these options can be fairly simple for most to sort through, but, perhaps, the most misunderstood factor that many hunters miss is choosing between the first focal plane (FFP) and a second focal plane (SFP) riflescope.

What is an SFP scope?

Second focal plane riflescope reticle example

Second focal plane riflescope reticle example.

For the most part, an SFP scope is what we all grew up on whether we knew it or not. These will cover 95% of most hunting situations and are generally what I would recommend to most people. However, the big question remains: how does an SFP scope work and why should I or shouldn’t I choose one?

Really, the main drawback with SFP scopes will be found when shooting extended ranges of 500 yards or more while using bullet drop compensating reticles (BDC). Essentially, as magnification power is increased on the scope, the user will notice that the reticle stays the same size regardless of power. What this means for those of us who are using BDC style reticles is that a given measurement between hash marks will vary from magnification level to magnification level. As an example, let's consider that you are shooting a typical western caliber that is zeroed in for 200 yards and your scope has a magnification range of 4.5-14x using a generic style BDC reticle. Additionally, we will assume that on 4.5x each dot or hash mark represents an approximate 100-yard drop. As you increase the magnification on your scope the distance between the hash marks will change in distance in relation to their respective location on the animal's body. This example can be seen in the illustration above. At the end of the day, this equals a calculated bullet drop distance that is no longer equivalent to 100 yards. Generally speaking, an SFP scope equipped with a BDC reticle will only be accurate in terms of bullet drop compensation on one magnification level.

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What is an FFP scope?

First focal plane riflescope reticle example

First focal plane riflescope reticle example.

FFP scopes are somewhat new to the hunting world but are quickly gaining popularity among long-range shooters. The primary advantage is that as the scope is zoomed in on a given target the reticle is also being zoomed in on simultaneously. Ultimately, this means that a given distance measured between two hash marks will stay the same no matter the magnification range, which allows for quick and accurate long-range shooting regardless of conditions. As an added bonus, FFP scopes with BDC style reticles can also be used in conjunction with elevation turrets to maximize MOA adjustments in any given setup.

So, which one is right for me?

First focal plane Leupold riflescope

First focal plane Leupold riflescope. Photo credit: Brady Miller

This age-old question is going to be answered by the same age-old answer: It boils down to personal preference. As stated before, an SFP scope will cover nearly every hunting instance out there though FFP scopes do make long-range shooting off the reticle much easier. One thing to keep in mind is that on a low power setting the reticles in an FFP scope can appear extremely faint and small, which can make close up shots in dark timber next to impossible.

In a nutshell, FFP scopes are not the best for timber hunting but work flawlessly when hunting country where longer shots can be expected or when shooting distances further than 500 yards. Additionally, SFP scopes work great at close distances and can work excellent at longer distances when a few extra seconds can be taken to ensure you are on the correct power for which your reticle is optimized for.

A good compromise when selecting a new scope would be to consider an SFP scope that is equipped with adjustable elevation and windage turrets. These turrets will allow a user to dial a scope up in elevation based on a predetermined number derived from your rifle’s trajectory. Using this method takes any reticle measurements out of the equation and allows the user to hold dead on at any distance he or she is comfortable with.

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Dave B.
Dave B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-28-2018 01:55:53 pm
Cedar City, Utah
goHUNT Team

@Richard M- I believe Joey B was referring to the use of BDC style reticles on a second focal plane scope. Essentially, If you were shooting beyond 300 yards most users would likely have a 3-15x scope already cranked to 15x making the SFP reticles useable and accurate. Hope this clears any confusion up! Thank you

Richard M. - posted 1 year ago on 11-15-2018 05:28:53 pm
Elliston, MT

"Anything in the 3-15x magnification range is going to be completely magnified 300+ yds out"

I don't understand what you mean. I could use the 15x at 1000 yards in a situation where my target was magnified enough to make an accurate hit on it, the question is just how much resolution do you need for your intended purpose. On a truck I can use a lower magnification and still hit well but if I intend to hit a sub-MOA target then I'd want as much magnification as possible without exceeding size and weight limits.

JOEY B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-14-2018 07:51:41 pm

My 2 cents is that, when you need windage or elevation MOA on your scope, you're likely at a distance that you're going to be a max magnification (unless you're using a super high magnification scope). Anything in the 3-15x magnification range is going to be completely magnified 300+ yds out which means that you can use your reticle how it was intended. I think the FFP is primarily only going to make a difference if you're using a high magnification scope like the one pictured in this article (8.5-25x).

Dave B.
Dave B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-14-2018 08:25:22 am
Cedar City, Utah
goHUNT Team

@Richard M- Great choice in optics, I feel like the 3-15x range is perfect for most western hunting conditions. I opted for a 6.5-20x for my new long range setup i'll be building. Good luck out there!

Richard M. - posted 1 year ago on 11-13-2018 05:01:47 pm
Elliston, MT

Dave, I use a Vortex PST II 3-15 optic and I typically only use it out to about 400 yards. I used to do some long range target shooting when I lived in Utah but that's not what I intended for this scope. I will say that I'd have no problem with attempting a shot on large game out to fairly long distance (500 to 700 yards with a solid shooting position) but I doubt if I'd feel comfortable past that, I'd want more magnification so that I could see more detail at longer range.

Dave B.
Dave B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-13-2018 10:40:31 am
Cedar City, Utah
goHUNT Team

@Richard M- Thanks for checking out the article! Are you utilizing the reticle on your FFP at long distance? The lit reticle trick is a smart one for close shots or in dark areas!

Richard M. - posted 1 year ago on 11-13-2018 09:35:09 am
Elliston, MT

I prefer a FFP scope because, as you mentioned, they are more accurate at longer ranges and that's where I need as much precision as I can get. And, as you also mentioned, to mitigate the problem with low light, low power, close up shots, I have a lighted reticle. Close range sunset shots are much easier when that fine reticle is lit up.

Seth D. - posted 1 year ago on 11-12-2018 09:05:57 am
Public Lands

@ Dave, great article.

Like you said, a lot of knowing your DOPE is building your DOPE. But once you get past that, you need to know what your actual data is. I have heard every argument for FFP under the sun over SFP. I personally think the most important aspect is to work with the optic you own (or are going to buy) and understand that dialing 10 MOA up at 10x may not be the same as holding 10 MOA up.

Practice in the field to the ranges you are going to shoot too while hunting. If you haven't taken that shot on a target, then you have zero business doing it on a game animal.

Thanks! 20 years in the military was fantastic. When you meet a Vietnam to WW2 era veteran tell them the same thing. Those guys are my heroes.

Dave B.
Dave B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-12-2018 08:09:39 am
Cedar City, Utah
goHUNT Team

@Seth D- All great points, thanks for sharing your experience with us. I myself prefer SFP's as well.

Thank you for your service!

Seth D. - posted 1 year ago on 11-09-2018 09:09:50 am
Public Lands

I grew up with Second Focal Plane like damn near everyone else does. I am 43, and have been shooting through a scope since I was 8. I did 20 years in the military, was an armorer for 17 of those years. I have been shooting F-Class and PSR since 2011.

As a hunter, I 100% prefer 2nd focal plane. As a target shooter for F-Class I 100% prefer 2nd focal plane. As a PSR shooter it doesn't really matter. FFP might give you an upper hand on a quick changing range timed station where you have to range without using dials, because the reticle will be consistent. Beyond that?

I would not buy a 2nd focal plane scope that had a Christmas Tree style BDC reticle even if it was done in MIL or MOA. As you stated a BDC only works 100% the same at one power setting. I would never buy any scope with a BDC that was built for a specific load. I am not a rocket scientist, and I don't need added drama in my life. I have both 2nd and 1st Focal plane rifle scopes, but beyond something like a MIL-DOT system, BDC reticles in SFP scopes make life hard and increase drama.

My most expensive SFP is a 30mm Meopta 6-24x56 (ZD? or something like that). It is the clearest scope I own at any price point, and the dials are perfect. It has a little dot on one of the power settings (I think it is at 12x, but it has been a long day), to indicate that that is the place you need to be to use the mil dots. 12 is a good place for it to be, at 25 it would be worthless less than 300 yards on a deer sized animal as you would be zooming to the tick on their butt.