Varmint Hunting Optics: Equipping Your AR-15 To Hunt Coyote & More

Hunting a natural predator can be an exhilarating and rewarding experience. There’s nothing quite like hunting something that can be just as clever and canny as you are.

Coyotes fit this bill nicely. They’re smart, fast, tough creatures that also happen to be destructive to livestock and other game animals like pheasant and quail. All of this combines to make coyote hunts a popular and enjoyable pastime.

That is, if you can actually hit the sneaky suckers.

Coyotes are a challenging animal to hunt. They’re smarter than a lot of common game animals like whitetail and even turkeys, and they’re stealthy and cautious at all times.

If you’re looking to go after this wily creature, you better make sure that you and your gear are up to the task, or you’re sure to go home empty handed. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of, if not the most important pieces of gear for coyote hunting: your optic.

Coyotes are small, fast, and sometimes like to hunt in low light around dawn and dusk so you’ll need all the help you can get if you want to fill your tags this coyote season. A good optic is a strong step in the right direction, and a poor one will definitely leave you hanging out to dry.

Overview

There are so many different high-end choices out there these days that choosing just one to mount on your rifle is somewhat of a daunting task. How do you pick one scope from the thousands that are out there?

Well, first you need to define your needs. A 40x target scope and a 3-9x hunting scope can both be perfectly good scopes, but for dramatically different types of shooting.  You will likely be hunting varmints from a distance, so you won’t have a need for a red-dot sight or a high priced optic like a holographic EOTech sight.

For coyote and other varmint hunting, here’s what you need.


1. Magnification

This is the most contentious, and also most subjective, part about choosing any scope, and that almost goes double for choosing a predator scope for coyote hunting.

The magnification you need is going to vary wildly based on your environment, your rifle, and even your personal skill level.

First, consider your environment. What’s the local geography like? The terrain? Are you in woodlands, covered swamps, or wide open plains?

If you’re somewhere in the Deep South like I am, you might, might have to make a 300 yard shot, but most of your hunting is going to be under 150 yards or so. For this, a 3-9x is going to be just fine.  You’ll want to stay away from closer range optics, like the aimpoint.

For those who hunt out West in Great Plains country, you might have to make shots as far as 400 yards, sometimes even more. I’ve personally taken shot on coyotes as far as 800 yards, but that was with a rifle that I know very, very well. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable reaching out much further than that and still being sure of an ethical kill on a coyote-sized target.

For those longer shots, magnification in the 14x-20x range is more on par with what you’ll want to make sure you can not only spot something small like a coyote, but also land an accurate killshot.

I like a 4-14x variable optic personally. It has a wide enough view on the low end to make those close-range shots where the coyote is just about in your lap, but also enough magnification to easily spot coyotes slinking through the grass at 300+ yards.


2. Light-Gathering

Like I said before, coyotes rarely cooperate and come out to stand in the open during broad daylight, preferring to be more cautious during the day, and a little more active around dusk and dawn.

Why does that matter? Because if your scope doesn’t pull enough light to see the coyote, good luck even knowing it’s there. A good coyote scope will be able to pull in ample light to make those “twenty minutes after sunset” shots, and may even have an illuminated reticle to make shots like that even easier.

Of course, if you live somewhere that allows night hunting, you’ll need something that can do an even better job in this area because you’ll be working from spotlights.

How do you get a scope with good light-gathering abilities? Mainly, get one with a large objective lens.

The objective lens of a scope is the end that points towards your target. It’s typically measured in millimeters, and when you see that something is a 4-16×40 scope, its the last number in the listing that tells you the objective lens has a diameter of 40mm.

For a good low-light scope, you’ll also want something that has very clear, high-quality glass. Bargain bin scopes at your local gun store need not apply.

Personally, I like a scope from a quality manufacturer like Vortex, US Optics, Bushnell, Sightron, etc, and with at least a 40mm objective lens, but more preferably a 50-66mm objective lens.


3. Reticle

There are fancy target reticles out there that will help you estimate distance, judge bullet drop automatically, and correct for windage. Do you know how these reticles work? If so, great! Mil Dot and BDC scopes are wonderful for hitting targets at unknown ranges in variable scenarios.

Do you not have any idea what a milliradian is, and no desire to learn? That’s okay too!

Most hunters will really be okay with a simple duplex reticle for coyote hunting. Learning your gun, using consistent ammo, and learning your windage and elevation holds with a simple crosshair is going to be of more use to most hunters than learning how to use a MRAD, MOA, or BDC reticle.

If you want to get a reticle that’s tuned to your particular hand-loaded bullet, or mil dot reticle that you can use target shooting, go for it. Just don’t be fooled by the manufacturers (or other gun blogs) that say you need them for coyote hunting. Use what you’re comfortable with, and learn to use it extremely well.

That’ll make you a much more effective varmint hunter, I promise.


4. Ruggedness

For those of you who can walk a hundred yards to a treestand and reliably call coyotes to you on any given day, you don’t need to worry about this section too terribly much.

For the rest of us mere mortals who have to schlep our rifles several miles, getting in and out of vehicles at different stands, a rugged scope that isn’t going to get scratched up, knocked around, or lose zero is a must.

That’s why I recommend quality brands with a solid reputation, and a good warranty policy as well. There’s nothing worse than shouldering your rifle to take aim at that coyote in the distance and finding a big scratch on your scope lens, or worse, taking a shot and realizing your zero has shifted so badly you’re nowhere near the target.


5. Clarity and Contrast

This is another area where you get what you pay for and it definitely behooves the aspiring coyote hunter to spend a little more on quality glass. Coyote’s have some great natural camouflage that makes them very difficult to spot in their usual habitats.

This means that you need a scope with good clarity that won’t wash colors out, which means good, high-quality glass, well-made, that’s multi-coated and fog-proof. These are features that you only get in more expensive scopes, but optics makers like Burris and Vortex are offering insanely good scopes with these features, at very affordable prices.


Five Great Picks

Still looking for some scopes? While there are many different optics options on the market, here are the ones I’ve used and tested personally, so I can vouch for all of them in the field.

Each of them has all the traits mentioned above as important, so let’s dive in and take a look at each model in a little bit more detail.


1. Vortex Diamondback Series

Product

Vortex Optics Crossfire II 4-12x44 SFP Riflescope Dead-Hold...

  • The 4-12x44 Crossfire II riflescope is one of many configurations...
  • With long eye relief and an ultra-forgiving eye box, you'll be...
  • Anti-reflective, fully multi-coated lenses provide bright and...
  • Capped reset turrets are finger adjustable with MOA clicks that...
  • A single piece tube constructed from aircraft grade aluminum...

Our rating

Details

  • The 4-12x44 Crossfire II riflescope is one of many configurations...
  • With long eye relief and an ultra-forgiving eye box, you'll be...
  • Anti-reflective, fully multi-coated lenses provide bright and...
  • Capped reset turrets are finger adjustable with MOA clicks that...
  • A single piece tube constructed from aircraft grade aluminum...

The Vortex Diamondback series might just be the best value in budget-minded optics right now. Vortex has nailed the pricing on these things, and you still get an excellent feature set for the price.

This is the scope that I would consider the best for occasional hunters, or those who want to save the most money on their gear. The 4-14×44 and the 6.5-20×50 options are more than adequate for coyote hunting at even the longest ranges.

I have one of these scopes on a .308 AR-10 and after probably 1000 rounds or so, the zero hasn’t shifted at all and is still dead on. On something lighter like a .223 AR more suited to coyote hunting? It’ll keep running forever.


2. Bushnell Trophy Series

Product

Bushnell Trophy Rifle Scope with Multi-X Reticle, Matte...

  • Fully multi-coated optics and rain guard HD offer 91% light...
  • 100% waterproof, Fog proof and shockproof 1 inch one-piece tube...
  • 3-9X magnification with multi-x reticle and 4 inch eye relief
  • Fast-focus eyepiece and 1/4 MOA fingertip windage and elevation...
  • Backed by Bushnell no Questions Asked Lifetime Warranty

Our rating

Details

  • Fully multi-coated optics and rain guard HD offer 91% light...
  • 100% waterproof, Fog proof and shockproof 1 inch one-piece tube...
  • 3-9X magnification with multi-x reticle and 4 inch eye relief
  • Fast-focus eyepiece and 1/4 MOA fingertip windage and elevation...
  • Backed by Bushnell no Questions Asked Lifetime Warranty

The Bushnell trophy series is the other budget option that I would still consider worth your time. The glass isn’t as clear as the Vortex Diamondback line, and the they don’t have Vortex’s stellar lifetime warranty, but they are perfectly good otherwise, and are typically a little bit cheaper.

These scopes are more traditional hunting scopes, and are ideal for those who are looking for a traditional duplex crosshair reticle. Bushnell owns a huge chunk of the hunting market, and scopes like this are why.

If you’re looking for something simple with an uncluttered reticle, this is the way to go. This scope line also has some pretty impressive light-gathering ability, and is more than rugged enough for all but the worst abuse your rifle is likely to see. Don’t drop it out of a tree stand and it’ll be just fine.


3. Vortex Viper Series

Product

Vortex Optics Viper HS-T 6-24x50 SFP Riflescope VMR-1 MOA

  • The Viper HS-T 6-24x50 is one of multiple configurations in the...
  • Incorporating our premium, fully multi-coated, extra-low...
  • The exposed target-style turrets are constructed for precise and...
  • A 4x zoom provides magnification versatility while the side focus...
  • The one-piece tube is o-ring sealed and argon purged to ensure...

Our rating

Details

  • The Viper HS-T 6-24x50 is one of multiple configurations in the...
  • Incorporating our premium, fully multi-coated, extra-low...
  • The exposed target-style turrets are constructed for precise and...
  • A 4x zoom provides magnification versatility while the side focus...
  • The one-piece tube is o-ring sealed and argon purged to ensure...

The Vortex Viper series is a higher-quality version of the Diamondback series.  It has better target turrets with better adjustments for longer shots, as well as an illuminated reticle for those all-important low-light shots.

The Viper series also has (slightly) better glass that contributes to the Viper series overall higher price, and the scope washes out far less at higher magnification. The Viper series might be the best value in long range optics right now, and I’ve easily made 1000 yard shots with this scope at full 20x magnification.

If your personal skill and rifle are up to the task, these scopes make shots like that a cakewalk, even in low light.


4. Leopold VX-3i Series

Product

Leupold VX-3i 3.5x10x40mm Rifle Scope

  • Leupold Model #170680: VX-3i 3. 5-10x40mm with Duplex reticle and...
  • 100% Waterproof, fog proof, and shockproof.
  • Diamond Coat 2 - Ion-assist lens coating for higher light...
  • Precision 1/4 MOA finger click adjustments for wind age and...
  • Made with 6061-T6 aircraft quality aluminum and punisher tested...
  • Twilight Max Light Management System - Adds up to 20 extra...

Our rating

Details

  • Leupold Model #170680: VX-3i 3. 5-10x40mm with Duplex reticle and...
  • 100% Waterproof, fog proof, and shockproof.
  • Diamond Coat 2 - Ion-assist lens coating for higher light...
  • Precision 1/4 MOA finger click adjustments for wind age and...
  • Made with 6061-T6 aircraft quality aluminum and punisher tested...
  • Twilight Max Light Management System - Adds up to 20 extra...

Leopold is one of the most respected names in the optics world, and they continue to earn their reputation with every single product they put out. Their scopes aren’t cheap by any means, but you can be absolutely sure they’ll work and continue to do so under even the most adverse conditions.

The Leopold VX-3i series comes with the proprietary Diamondcoat 2 lens coating which is not only gives you the highest level of scratch and abrasion resistance Leopold has ever offered, but it also gives you some of the best light gathering and contrast of any scope on the market today.

With these scopes, you can stay in the field longer, shoot later, and drag it through all the roughest terrain without having to worry about the scope at all.


5. Nightforce NXS Series

Product

Nightforce Optics 5.5-22x56 NXS Riflescope, Matte Black...

  • 100 M.O.A. of internal adjustment
  • Exceptional optical integrity
  • Speed and accuracy in all situations
  • Rigorously tested for perfection
  • Composed of 6061-T6 Aircraft Grade Aluminum

Our rating

Details

  • 100 M.O.A. of internal adjustment
  • Exceptional optical integrity
  • Speed and accuracy in all situations
  • Rigorously tested for perfection
  • Composed of 6061-T6 Aircraft Grade Aluminum

Nightforce is basically the king of the tactical scope market, so you know they’re going to have some great options for the coyote hunters out there. The NXS series is not cheap. At all.

Even the cheapest options in this line are likely to cost the same as a couple mortgage payments, but for that high cost of entry you get what might very well be the best scope on the market without getting into the “could have bought a used car instead” budget.

These are the scopes the military uses and the police departments that can afford them also love them. These scopes can literally take a bullet and keep working. It doesn’t get any more rugged than that, folks.

I’ve used a nightforce scope on the few opportunities I’ve had to reach out to 2000 yards, and when I build my .338 rifle out, this is what’s going on top of it.

These scopes will survive any kind of abuse, pull in light better than anything but a dedicated night vision optic, and come in a variety of magnification and objective sizes to give you exactly what you need for your next coyote hunt, no matter the conditions or distance involved.


Parting Shots

Whether you go after coyote once a year, or you’re continually picking them off from your front porch to protect your livestock, there’s a scope out there that will help you get the job done.

With a sufficiently rugged optic like the ones above, and the right magnification, your next coyote hunt should be a breeze.

 
By

Matthew Collins is an active contributor here at GunBacker. He’s enjoys both competitive shooting and gunsmithing. When you don’t see him at the range, you can catch him on Instagram and other gun related websites.

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