Elevation Evaluation: Holdover Reticles Vs. Dialing

Elevation Evaluation: Holdover Reticles Vs. Dialing

When it comes to solving ballistic problems quickly, which is better, using holdover reticles or dialing your scope?

Long-range shooting has certainly grown in popularity over the past decade, and as shots get longer, the gear gets more specialized. Just a quarter-century ago, the 1,000-yard shot seemed all but impossible to the average shooter, with tales of snipers like Carlos Hathcock causing most guys to cock an eyebrow and listen, rather than talk. But as the first quarter of the 21st century draws to a close, 1,000 yards isn’t as faraway as it used to be.

While attending some shooting schools, I’ve seen folks who’ve never fired a rifle past 100 yards make the 1,000-yard shot routinely after two days of proper training. While the gear—rifle, optics and ammunition—is better than it has ever been, the technique needs to be on point. Ballistic calculators can provide precise information regarding trajectory, wind deflection, spin drift, aerodynamic jump and even the Coriolis effect, but you’ll need a means of applying that data.

The modern riflescope is more than just a magnified image with a single point of aim; it has become a highly sophisticated aiming device, capable of taking both trajectory and wind deflection into account.

Modern riflescopes offer a number of different yet effective aiming solutions. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

But not all riflescopes are created the same, and for those shooters who need to make some sort of adjustment for their bullet’s trajectory, there are few options available, including sophisticated holdover reticles, precise elevation and windage turrets and, quite often, a combination of both. All the information in the world won’t help you if you can’t put it into action, so let’s look at the differences between dialing for windage and elevation and using a reticle to make those adjustments.

Learning to Stretch

If your rifle’s barrel were held perfectly level—perpendicular to the effects of gravity—the projectile would immediately begin to drop down upon leaving the barrel, away from the line of sight. In order for our projectile to hit a distant target, the barrel must be elevated at the muzzle. I’ve had people swear until they were blue in the face that bullets rise once fired; this is not the case, unless the barrel is elevated.

The bullet will begin dropping, until at some certain distance it will come down across the line of sight again; that distance is referred to as “zero” and can change depending on your needs. Most popular zero distances are 100, 200 and 250 yards. Hunters will tend to use a longer zero—to minimize the need for holdover—while target shooters will tend to prefer a 100-yard zero, making scope adjustments for every shot past that distance.

The author’s Tikka T3X Lite, in 7mm-08 Remington, wears a Leupold VX-3HD 3.5-10x40mm. Though it has a simple duplex reticle, it can easily be dialed for elevation adjustments—though a turret marked in yardage would be even better. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

Whichever zero distance you choose, if you hunt or shoot outside of that distance, you’ll need some means of compensating for the drop of your bullet. Once upon a time, a shooter would have a homemade dope chart, based upon real-world experiences—and unless it was a target scenario in which the distance to the target was known, the distance was estimated. In the hunting world, there were reticles that had marks used much like the stadia hairs in a surveying transit, where a game animal would be bracketed between those hairs to help estimate distance.

In those pre-rangefinder days, I remember spending minutes deliberating—and sometimes arguing—with a guide or professional hunter about how far away the animal was to use the proper amount of holdover. Thank goodness for the availability of modern rangefinders.

If—due to those excellent rangefinders—we can accurately observe the distance to the target, a good ballistic chart will provide the information necessary to hit the target at that distance. However, correlating the prescribed amount of holdover to the adjustments on your riflescope can be a daunting task, unless you choose a system that makes the most sense for you. I can hear folks already, “Just get closer and don’t worry about it.” Well, there are times when getting inside of 250 yards on a Coues deer, bull elk or mountain goat simply isn’t feasible. In the hunting world, I surely want to get as close as possible, but switch over to the target world, and farther is fun.

Swarovski’s BRX-1 reticle gives 0.5-mil increments between the dots and lower crosshairs, as well as additional hash marks for making wind adjustments. It’s designed to be used at maximum magnification in a second-focal plane scope. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

Long-Range Lingo

Looking at common ballistic charts, you’ll find trajectory adjustments marked in inches, MOA (minutes of angle) or in mils (milliradians). All are simply measuring systems to get that bullet where it needs to be.

Inches might be the easiest to comprehend, but that measurement is just the distance that the arc subtends, while the other two measurements are of the actual angle itself. Minutes of angle is exactly what you studied in geometry class, with a minute being an arc, 1/60th of a degree. There are 360 degrees in a circle, 60 minutes in a degree and 60 seconds in a minute.

Milliradians are 1/1000th of a radian, with a radian being an arc where the radius is equal to the arc length. There are 2xπ radians in a circle; if you divide one of those radians into 1,000 pieces, you’ve got a milliradian. Where 1 MOA subtends just over 1 inch at 100 yards (actually 1.047 inches), 1 milliradian subtends 3.6 inches. Many popular riflescopes will have adjustments in ¼ MOA or 0.1 mil, with the MOA scopes having the finer adjustment value.

Whichever way you measure it, with many of the most popular cartridges, there’ll be a need for holdover outside of 250 yards unless you’re really stretching the zero. Adjusting the elevation turret—or “dialing”—to compensate for trajectory and even windage is becoming increasingly popular, even among older hunters who traditionally don’t want anything to move.

A zero-stop indicator—the Leupold silver button—can quickly tell you whether your scope is set back to zero. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

There are scopes offering up to three revolutions on the elevation turret, depending on the size of the scope tube and the amount of elevation available in the scope. If I’m going to commit to dialing for elevation, I want a turret with big, bold markings. And I’m a big fan of the scopes with zero-stop turrets, so I can make absolutely sure I return to my 100-yard zero after each shot or shot opportunity.

For example, you might be all set up and in position for that 420-yard shot on a big muley buck … only to have him duck into cover. Pulling up stakes, you might bump another deer at 150 yards, only to shoot clear over his back because you’re still dialed to 420. This happens more often than folks would care to admit.

You’ll need a chart to correlate the trajectory of your chosen load to the amount of holdover, and the routine goes like this: range your target (steel plate, game animal, etc.) to establish the distance, raise the elevation turret the proper amount of MOA or mils for that distance, and squeeze the trigger. Practice is paramount when it comes to dialing, as there will be some sort of interruption of sight picture between identifying the target, ranging the distance, dialing the prescribed amount of holdover and then getting on the target.

Swarovski’s Z5 3.5-18x scope has a capped turret but offers an easy-to-use holdover reticle. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

A holdover reticle—one that has some sort of graduations for establishing the proper amount of holdover on the reticle—is another means of accurately correcting for trajectory. You’ll find all sorts of different reticles, from the simplest with 1-MOA or ½-mil graduations on the main hairs, to very complex designs with more precise graduations for both trajectory and for wind drift.

First-focal-plane scopes, which have a reticle that gets bigger or smaller according to changes in magnification, can work at any magnification range. Second-focal-plane scopes, in which the reticle appears to be the same size, will only give the proper values at a prescribed magnification range—and that’s usually at maximum. Using a reticle for holdover can be simple and accurate if you’re a hunter who rarely exceeds 400 or 500 yards, but it can get a bit complex when using it exclusively for true long-range target shooting.

Serious target scopes—like the Leupold Mark 5 shown here—can offer three full rotations on the elevation dial. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

Making Up Your Mind

When comparing and contrasting dialing and holdover, it’s important to note that both have their place in today’s shooting environment. I can see why some shooters who rarely need to adjust for trajectory would want the simpler reticle and lack of exposed turrets. I can also see why a shooter would want the flexibility of a scope that can accurately be dialed for a precise amount of holdover, especially with a rifle that might be asked to cover both hunting and target scenarios. Or perhaps you might opt for both, having an exposed target turret with a zero stop and yet a graduated reticle for quick (and often smaller) changes.

At a recent long-range shoot in Barksdale, Texas—at FTW Ranch’s SAAM course—we were using a magnum cartridge with a very good B.C., topped with a Swarovski 3.5-28x scope. This scope had an exposed turret and the BRX-1 reticle in tube. At 1,800 yards, we definitely maxed out the 7 mils of turret elevation, and at full 28x magnification, we needed more than what the holdover reticle could give us. Cutting the magnification down to 14x, we doubled the values of what the reticle would subtend, and that gave us enough to tackle the steel plate at more than a mile.

One of the instructors at the SAAM Shooting School in Barksdale, Texas, helping to make scope adjustments for distant shots. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

On my hunting rifles, I generally prefer a simple reticle on a scope that has a top end of somewhere between 9x and 18x, depending on application. I did find that Swarovski’s top end of 28x was a bit too much for my liking, in spite of the excellent glass, and I’d have opted for something in the 15x-18x range, even for the long-range application.

I can understand if you want that level of magnification on a target rifle, but trying to use the holdover reticle at 28x, on a target (deer, elk or steel plate) can be a challenge. If you opt for a first-focal-plane reticle, which can offer a simple crosshair at lower magnification, yet a detailed holdover reticle at higher magnifications, I shall not argue. The values that reticle will subtend—once memorized by the shooter—will not change. If you’re serious about having the utmost flexibility in a reticle, for both trajectory and wind deflection, a first focal plane reticle might be the best choice for you.

Leupold’s Illuminated TMOA reticle offers 1-MOA hashmarks on the thinner part of the crosshairs, changing to 5-MOA on the thicker sections. It’s a simple but effective means of holdover, especially for hunters who tend to stay inside of 500 yards. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

On a long-range rifle, I’ve gravitated toward a scope that allows me to dial for longer shots—yet have some form of graduated crosshair for wind adjustments; I don’t like dialing for wind at all. In fact, I absolutely adore the Leupold CDS system. You provide those excellent folks in Oregon with the pertinent data for your chosen load—including bullet weight, ballistic coefficient and muzzle velocity—and they’ll prepare a dial turret marked in yardage. This eliminates the mathematical conversion from distance to arc, and allows the shooter to range the target, dial that number and concern his or herself with whatever wind issues are at hand.

For their CDS system, Leupold can make you a custom turret, specifically calibrated and marked for your particular load. The author has found this to work wonderfully. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

I’ve used this turret both at the bench and in the field, and it works wonderfully. Couple that dial with Leupold’s TMOA reticle (that gives me 1-MOA graduations on the horizontal and vertical hairs), and I’ve got a system I feel comfortable taking anywhere. This setup is in a Leupold VX-6HD 3-18x44mm, atop my Browning X-Bolt in 6.8 Western, and is wonderfully convenient for so many hunting situations.

The author’s 6.8 Western rifle has a custom Leupold turret, calibrated (perfectly) for the 175-grain Browning load. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

There are many good scopes on the market. Brand and model are as personal a choice as is the make and model of the rifle, but the concept of so many of them are the same. Try and find the system that makes the most sense for you and devote your energy to practicing with that rig; I’m sure you’ll quickly see the results on the target board.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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  1. I have a H59 “Xmas tree” reticle only Ruger Precision Rifle for competition and a G3 illuminated reticle on my 6.5 PRC Browning X-Bolt Pro hunting rifle. With both set on a 200 yard zero I never, EVER dial.


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