Review of the Illuminated Leupold VX-6 1-6x with Firedot SPR reticle and mil adjustments (available through Leupold Custom Shop)
By Les (Jim) Fischer (BigJimFish on AR15.com and SnipersHide)
May 1, 2012
I think that this scope was the biggest surprise for me at Shot 2012. After the partial spinoff of Leupold's tactical division, I really didn't expect a whole lot of interesting tactical products to come out of mainline Leupold. After all, even before the tactical division separation, it was not very often that Leupold would bring an innovative tactical product to market. I didn't expect this to happen any more often after the split. That was an incorrect assumption. Perhaps competition between the two Leupold divisions, or perhaps simple market trends, lit a fire under the folks at Leupold. This year's VX-6 1-6x is a 1-6x scope with a daytime bright flash dot style illumination is very much what the market has been looking for in general, as well as specifically, from Leupold. Interestingly, it is also not based on the concurrently released Mark 6 1-6x scope from the tactical division.
At the time of Shot, the VX-6 was not available with any type of ranging reticle: be it Metric, English, or Stadia. The rep I spoke with let me know that he did not find this acceptable and was pushing for a change. A few months later he called back to inform me that, through the Custom Shop, the VX-6 would be able to be purchased with the Firedot SPR mil-based reticle and .1 mil adjustments. This Firedot SPR reticle is currently the only special reticle that can be purchased, via the custom shop, for this scope. The cost for this SPR reticle / mil adjustment custom shop rout is $950 as compared with $900 for one of the standard, non-ranging, models. The rep was so excited to get the word out on this scope that he sent me his personal, never before mounted or used, scope. I did not expect this. He was not only willing, but actually freely offered to have his own optic used for testing before he had even had a chance to shoot it himself. That is some impressive and unusual devotion. While I have had individuals send me their personal scope to do testing on before, those individuals owned their companies whereas this fellow, presumably, does not.
Here is the VX-6 mounted on my 16" AR:
Here is the lineup of scopes that were used as references for the VX-6 in this review. From top to bottom:
GRSC Japanese-made 1-6x
US Optics SN-3 3.2-17x
Nikon M-223 1-4x
Elcan Specter DR 1/4x
GRSC Korean-made 1-4x (prototype)
Leupold VX-6 1-6x
Table of contents:
-Reticle description, explanation, and testing
-Comparative optical evaluation
-Exit pupil and eyebox discussion
-Illumination subjective and comparative evaluation
-Mechanical testing and turret discussion
-Close quarters testing
Background: Leupold is one of the few remaining U.S. optics manufacturers to actually make products in the United States. It is also one of the few to still make products instead of subcontracting their manufacture. The golden ring products, as well as the more expensive tactical division products, are made in Oregon. There was a bit of a flap recently about "made in the USA" labels on sporting goods in the California court system that forced most companies to creatively word labels (or disingenuously label product boxes instead of the products.) Leupold has gone with the less nebulous "USA Designed, Machined, Assembled" on the scopes. This new labeling is a response to legal semantic wrangling and not to any change in the manufacturing process. The scopes do have imported glass (almost all U.S. scopes do) and some other imported parts and pieces, but they are made here in the same manner as they have been for as long as I can remember. Leupold's U.S. manufacture, long history of quality and durability, and exceptional warranty have made them a perennial favorite of shooters. Even those who don't own a Leupold scope have them to thank for the current industry standard practice of lifetime warranties.
Physical Description: The VX-6 has a sleek, hunting scope styled appearance without the giant knobby growths often found on scopes trying to appear tactical. At 14.6 oz, it is significantly lighter than most quality 1-4x and 1-6x designs. Perhaps part of this it that the adjustments and illumination controls are sleek and low profile. Three gunners will desire a switch view for the power, as the ring is fairly small and stiff. I expect you won't have to wait long, if at all, for this. Actually, I expect one already exists that will work, as the size looks to be the same as the Japanese GRSC 1-6x. The focus on this scope is the euro style fast focus type that I prefer and which does not require rotation of the eyepiece to adjust. Machining on the VX-6 is very good, befitting its price point. The objective is threaded, so it is quite possible that a kill flash will be offered by somebody for it. In addition to the scope Leupold also sent me their Mark 2 IMS mount. This mount has performed without issue for me and at $90 will be a good choice for a lot of people mounting a variety of optics.
Reticle (refer to the pic below while reading the description): The reticle is one of the most important, and certainly the most debated, features on any optic. While we all agree we want a scope that is clear and tracks well; deciding exactly what is desired on a reticle is a less definite proposition. Including the custom shot Firedot SPR reticle that is in my test scope, the VX-6 can be had with three different reticle options. These are: a German #4, an "illuminated circle dot post" which can be described as crosshairs with a wider bottom post and a circle, and, of course, the Firedot SPR pictured below. Only the Firedot SPR is a ranging reticle, but it is important to note that although it looks like a modified mil dot reticle (having 1 mil graduations), its divisions are 2.5 mils. This came as something of a surprise to me as I received the scope before getting a dimensioned diagram of the reticle. After testing and finding that the increments were so unusual and large, I thought that there had been a mistake in translating the reticle from the VX-R Patrol to the VX-6, wherein differences in the optical design caused the reticle to be magnified. That is not the case. It was intended to have 2.5 mil increments.
As you have probably gathered from my tone, I am not in favor of Leupold's choice with regards to the increments for two reasons. The first reason is that, quite simply, the larger the increment; the less precise the ranging will be. It is hard enough with full, traditional, 1 mil increments to estimate accurately enough to make long range shots. While 6x is limiting, you certainly can't use .1 mil increments. It is not so limiting that you can't do 1 mil or even, possibly, 1/2 mil. I have 1 mil increments in one of my 6x scopes and have used a 4x that pulled off even smaller 2 MOA divisions. The second difficulty for 2.5 mil increments is that it is very difficult for the user to estimate between the markings. While you probably have some experience breaking an increment into tenths (any individual in the sciences does this as part of significant figures practices); breaking a 2.5 unit increment down further is not an easy chore. The estimate will be difficult, slow, and error prone. This is especially problematic when seen in light of the fact that these increments are so big that your guess is going to have to be dead on. My thoughts come down to this: I do not have confidence that I could range well enough with these increments to justify having them. I would probably buy the German #4 reticle in this scope because the speed benefit gained from it being less crowded is of more value than the ability to range poorly.
An image of the VX-6 Firedot SPR reticle at 6x and the ranging target made to test the accuracy of the reticle elements at 50 yds:
Before I leave this section I would be remiss not to mention that the reticle in the example I had was tilted by a degree or two. This is not uncommon and I would not have noticed it if I hadn't mounted the scope using the feeler gauge method. The cant was not great enough to measurably throw off the tracking. In the end, I re-mounted the scope freehand and the problem was thus remedied. It is quite possible that such slight cant is within the tolerance of most scope manufacturers' QC.
Comparative Optical Evaluation: The most predictable aspect of any scope will be its optical clarity. While an expensive scope may have a lesser reticle and a cheap scope may be outfitted with an excellent one; you can be pretty sure that the clarity of the more expensive scope will be better nine out of ten times. This Leupold is, comparatively, a little ahead of its price point. As you might expect, it was very close in performance to the GRSC 1-6x at $1,025, but it is slightly clearer and has a much larger field of view. This is more significant than being slightly clearer than one competitor, as almost every other scope at this price point from a variety of brands is manufactured by Light Optic and one can expect the Leupold to slightly edge them all out in clarity. The rest of the side-by-side optical evaluation was very uneventful, which is precisely what you want. I didn't notice a problematic amount of chromatic aberration or any of the various distortions. I also did not have a problem with glare or stray light handling. I would have been very surprised if I had, since Leupold seems to be well ahead of the market with regards to light management, even in their much less expensive products.
Scope compilation photo with scopes set at high magnification:
Exit Pupil and Eyebox Discussion: First, lets discuss the exit pupil. The exit pupil is the size of the disc of light at the point at which it is focused for your eye. Assuming you are using this scope for close quarters work and you are moving about; your head will not be completely stationary regardless of how good your cheek weld is. A larger exit pupil will allow you to keep view of the object through the scope despite your movement, though it is notable that, due to parallax error, the reticle will not be exactly where it should be when your head is far off center. People refer to range through which your eye can move about and still get a good image as the "eyebox". Obviously, exit pupil is a very important specification on 1-(n) power scopes. Mathematically, the largest an exit pupil can be is the diameter of the objective lens / the magnification. I have noticed a trend for scope manufacturers and optics websites to simply list the results of this mathematical formula as their exit pupil. Roughly half of the scopes do this and, dollars to donuts, it is incorrect on every one of them. Exit pupil can be roughly tested by placing a brightly illuminated object at some distance from the optic and measuring the disc of light transmitted through the scope at its smallest point. Below is a photo of my measurement setup.
Exit pupil measurement setup:
What I found when measuring exit pupil corresponds well to my experiences testing the scopes by bobbing my head around a bit. Here are the numbers I measured for the 1x scopes in today's lineup, as well as some others I measured in the past that might be of interest in order of largest to smallest 1x exit pupil:
Nikon M-223 1x, 16.7mm, 4x, 5.3mm
Viper PST 1x, 16mm 4x, 6.4mm
Razor HD 1x ,13.2mm 4x, 6.5mm
GRSC K 1x, 13.1mm 4x, 6.7mm
GRSCJ 1x, 11.2mm 6x, 4.6mm
Leupold VX-6 1x, 10.7mm, 6x, 4.4mm
Elcan Specter DR 1x, 8.0mm 4x, 7.4mm
Leupold CQ/T 1x, 9mm 3x 4.86mm
The Leupold VX-6 officially reported exit pupil numbers were 10-3.9mm: not far from my measurements. As you can see from the list of measured values, these are on the lower side of the average for 1-(n)x scopes. They are not commendable, but not really a red flag either.
Illumination Subjective and Comparative Evaluation: Illumination has often been a sticking point for 1-n(x) scope designs. For many makers the goal has been to duplicate the daytime bright illumination of a red dot sight while maintaining the many advantages of a true refracting optic. This has been quite difficult and few manufactures have succeeded. Most 1-n(x) scopes are simply not illuminated in the daytime and instead the reticle just appears black.
In this optic, Leupold has taken the rather unusual step of using an optical fiber to carry the illumination from the diode source to the reticle; rather than reflecting light from the illumination source off an etched reticle. The result is that this scope offers daytime bright point illumination in the same manner as a red dot. It is actually brighter than the inexpensive red dot it was compared to in the close quarters testing, though less bright than the Elcan. A side benefit of this unique illumination system is that this optic has zero illumination signature at the objective. Many tactical users have been frustrated by optics whose illumination bleeds out of the objective and gives away their position. This scope does not allow any illumination to escape the objective. I suspect that another side benefit of this illumination scheme will be long battery life, as only a little light is needed when it is all transmitted in the correct direction.
The engineering-minded observer will have figured out by this point that the fiber illumination system precludes floating elements in the reticle. This is the same design limitation faced by Trijicon in the Accupoint scopes. This is also the reason that the reticle is fairly thick in this scope: it must hide the fiber and therefore must have significant bulk. At this point, illumination in 1-(n)x scopes is a simple trade off. You can have floating elements or you can have daytime bright illumination, but you cannot have both unless you spend the kind of dough that gets you up into the world of Elcan and S&B.
The last thing to mention about the unusual illumination system of the Leupold VX-6 is that it is a very advanced single button digital system with a motion sensor. This is an ingenious solution to the problem of people leaving the illumination on when not in use, killing the battery, but not wanting the scope to shut off automatically as they may need it in an emergency. The Leopold shuts off, quite quickly actually, but wakes back up when moved: a very advanced illumination system that comes as close as anything to being both idiot-proof and not likely to fail you when you need it in an emergency. It also automatically returns to the last illumination setting used when turned back on, but you probably guessed that. I am sorry to say that in the following illumination photos it is difficult to judge the relative brightness of the two point illuminated scopes (the VX-6 and the Elcan Specter DR). They appear dim but are not. They are much brighter than the full scale illuminated scopes. It seems that a digital camera is unable to capture this.
1x illuminated compilation photo:
Mechanical Testing and Turret Discussion: The power change and box tests are designed to test the accuracy, repeatability, and independent nature of a scope's adjustments. In the box test, the shooter aims at the same place when firing all shots, but moves the adjustments between groups such that a box is formed by the groups fired. The power change test is performed by firing a group at each end of the power range of the scope without moving the adjustments. Each group is fired at a different target and any shift in the position of the groups indicates a shift in the point of aim when the power is changed. Theoretically, front focal plane scopes will not show a shift in the groups while 2nd focal plane scopes will. The magnitude of the shift will dependent of several factors, including how far from centered the adjustments of the scope are after being zeroed. In practice, almost all scopes I have tested have shown a shift in point of aim when the power is changed. In this review, for the very first time, I have done the box testing and power change testing on my Anschutz .22lr rifle using a BKL adapter to provide a Picatinny rail. While the cheek weld is not great, the superior accuracy of the Annie provides for excellent resolution.
VX-6 box test:
VX-6 power change test:
The VX-6 box test proved to be flawless. I would have preferred for the clicks to be a bit less mushy feeling, but it appears the feel was no indication of a lack of mechanical precision. I find these adjustments very good for the purpose of a 1-6x scope. They are low profile and capped. They also use a simple and easy pull up / push down mechanism to reset the zero indicator. The VX-6 has 1/4 MOA adjustments standard with the "Circle Post" reticle and .1mil clicks with the German #4 reticle and the SPR reticle, via the custom shop. It is notable that a few wrinkles to these adjustments are available via the Custom Shop. The adjustments are "CDS" compatible and so you can purchase dials marked with your custom BDC data. You can also purchase a special zero stop assembly that is uncapped. In this case you will receive one custom BDC dial free as well. This uncapped assembly may be run with or without actually using the zero stop and can also be had in 1/4 MOA or .1Mil. The mil dial travels 8 mils per revolution.
The VX-6 power change test showed a shift of 2 MOA from one end of the magnification range to the other. This is probably a better indication of the amount the erector was off center for this scope to be zeroed while mounted high on my Anschutz than anything else. It serves as a reminder to the shooter of the nature of point of aim shift with power change in most optics, but says little about this particular scope. All in all, the choices Leupold made regarding its adjustments are very good, as is the scope's performance.
Close quarters testing: This section of testing is new in this review. I have received many requests for my opinion regarding which optics are the fastest at 1x. This has lead me to start testing specifically to that end. The testing consists of a display of vital sized targets between 10 and 25 yards away that are engaged from a variety of positions as quickly as possible. The targets are audibly reactive, making hit identification easy. It is not unlike some stages of three gun competitions except that, being as cheap as I am, I use an air-soft. The air-soft also allows for targets that move since having someone downrange poses no safety hazard beyond welts. This course of fire was run though by several individuals of varying abilities in order to get as diverse a set of opinions as possible. In the future, I will be writing a composite article with generalized recommendations and guidelines for picking close quarters optics, but for now I will be focusing specifically on the VX-6.
Close quarters testing the VX-6 with a very ugly, very warm, hat:
The specific scopes used as references in evaluating the VX-6's close quarters performance were: an Elcan Specter DR 1/4x, Leupold CQ/T, GRSC 1-6x, and a cheap Simmons red dot. Individuals opinions of and performance with each optic varied. This was especially true of the red dot, which rated as high as second for one reviewer, but which was rated last by many. Testers were less split on the VX-6: it rated between 3rd and 5th out of five scopes.
Specific attributes of note with regards to this speed rating were the illumination, reticle, exit pupil, and, most importantly, barrel distortion. The illumination of the VX-6 was lauded. As I mentioned before, it was the second brightest scope in the lineup, and easily bright enough for daytime use. Its illumination is also restricted to a single bright point. The consensus was that this is the best possible illumination configuration for speed. The reticle, however, was less loved. It is thick and does not help its bulk by featuring a circle that, though it may have been added for speed, just gets in the way. The reticle gave me this overwhelming impulse to reach out and brush it away as if it were a spider web. It was just too much. The exit pupil was a lesser factor. It is smaller than many of the other optics, but not the smallest, and I think if it hadn't been for the last issue, no one would have minded much.
The most problematic aspect of the VX-6 for close quarters use was the barrel distortion. This is a radial type distortion wherein the image appears to bulge out towards the user. This is not noticeable when you are not panning the optic across an area since the distortion does not sufficiently bend objects to make them appear unusual, but as you move the optic; it becomes obvious that the distortion is present. More importantly, it becomes difficult for your eye behind the optic to sync with the one not looking though the scope. It is not as difficult as it would be with a non-1x optic, but it is still a problem. I expect that all the refracting optics (i.e. all but the red dot) in this lineup show some type of radial distortion, but it was only noticeable on the VX-6 and was that scope's single greatest difficulty in close quarters use. It was problematic enough to set the VX-6 back behind most of the scopes that had no daytime bright illumination, despite the excellent illumination scheme of the VX-6.
The effect of barrel distortion on parallel lines:
Summary: The VX-6 is the scope that many folks have been asking for. It is 1-6x, has an innovative and daytime bright illumination scheme, and is produced by one of the most trusted manufacturers in optics. In my testing, I found it to have better than par clarity in addition to repeatable, accurate, and independent adjustments. Additionally, the user has available a significant number of meaningful options from the Custom Shop with regards to both adjustments and reticle. It can even be purchased with a mil ranging reticle and matched adjustments, though I think the graduations on the reticle are a bit too large. The biggest problem this scope exhibited in testing was barrel distortion, which made its close quarters speed somewhat less impressive than the illumination scheme lead me to expect. All in all, I expect Leupold will sell these things faster than they can make them.
For those of you looking for the simple pro and con list, here you go:
Optical clarity is excellent; above par at this price point
Daytime bright red dot illumination with innovative digital control and wake-on-shake capability
Fit and finish are excellent
Adjustments are accurate, independent, and repeatable
Adjustments are low profile, capped, and the zero indicator can be easily reset
Significant options are available to the buyer, both in reticle and adjustments including a mil/mil option and a zero stop
Free CDS dial that you can engrave with the BDC for your favorite load
Reticle is accurate
Excellent warranty from a longstanding industry leader
Lightweight for the class
In my opinion, the reticle graduations on the mil ranging reticle are too large and it needs to lose the circle: all the reticles available are a bit bulky
Reticle in the one I had was canted, slightly
Exit pupil is on the low side
Has a barrel distortion problem that causes it to be slower than most comparable scopes at close quarters.