These are typically the blister pack scopes you see at discount department stores. Brands such as BSA, Tasco, the bottom of the Simmons line (not the "Master Series"), and "house brand" scopes. Basically, they are not worth purchasing or discussing.
What I think of as the economy scope lines include such brands as Swift, the lower end of the Bushnell line, and the Simmons Master Series (except Aetec). Frankly, I have had little experience with most of these, having learned long ago that buying cheap is expensive in the long run. What experience I have had is mostly with Bushnell and Simmons. Buyer beware!
Among the upper end of the two-star brands I usually prefer Simmons. Their Master Series ProHunter line seems to be the technological leader among the two-star-plus brands as I write these words. Simmons is owned by Meade Optical, the U.S. telescope maker.
Another very strong contender in the two-star-plus category is the Sightron Series One (SI). This is a conventional but unusually well made scope for the price.
The Bushnell Banner and Trophy lines are also worth considering when low price is the primary consideration. Bushnell scopes have generally provided satisfactory performance, in my experience, and the company has stood behind its products. The Bushnell representatives I have met have been knowledgable and helpful. The Bushnell line encompasses a very wide range of optical sights at an equally wide range of prices, from economy models on up into the deluxe price range.
Bill Weaver was one of the pioneers of telescopic sights, and introduced the first popularly priced scope to the American market long before the Second World War. Weaver is now owned by the Meade Telescope Company. Today the mainstays of the Weaver riflescope line are the variable power V-series and fixed power K-series. Weaver .22 rifle scopes, handgun scopes, and red dot sights have also proven reliable and durable. In addition, the people at Weaver have always been exceptionally helpful when I had questions. I have been using Weaver scopes since the K4 came in a blued steel tube and lacked coated optics. For years Weaver scopes have been my first choice among the medium price brands. Weaver also makes a very extensive line of scope mounts. The Weaver mounting system has been widely copied by other manufacturers, and is as close to a standard as we have.
Leupold & Stevens was founded in 1947. Leupold scopes are made in the U.S.A. in Beaverton, Oregon. They are so well known and highly regarded that there is not much I can say that has not been said before. They are the favored brand of professional guides, outdoor writers, competitive shooters, and custom rifle builders all over North America. They have also been chosen for use by elite U.S. military forces. Leupold invented the Duplex reticule, which has been copied by virtually every other scope manufacturer in the world. Leupold scope lines now cover the middle to premium price classes (three-star to five-star). In the three-star class Leupold offers the Rifleman, FX-I and VX-I lines.
I have owned and reviewed a VX-I and found it to be roughly comparable to a Weaver V-series scope. Also roughly comparable is the Nikon Buckmaster line. All are servicable scopes.
The Simmons Master Series Aetec scopes are also in the medium price class. These scopes incorporate aspherical lens elements in their design, which minimize certain optical aberrations and increase edge sharpness. Although they are fairly common in camera lenses, Simmons was the first scope manufacturer to use aspherical elements. Aetec scopes feature "European" style fast focusing, are fully multi-coated, and offer an exceptionally wide field of view. They qualify as a three-star product.
Less well known to most consumers is the name Mueller. Mueller Extreme Sports Optics markets the Eraticator riflescope. This is a high power varmint scope with excellent features for its moderate price, including fully multi-coated optics, target type adjustment turrets with 1/8 MOA clicks, an illuminated reticle, a European style fast focus eyepiece, and more.
The Bushnell Elite 3200 series has an excellent reputation in the medium price class. Randy Wakeman, Guns and Shooting Online Senior Contributing Editor, has written very complimentary things about these scopes, and so have I. I regard the Elite 3200s as being at the top of the three-star category and generally the best buy in the medium-low price class. (For more on rifle scope price classes, see the article "Riflescopes by Price Class" on the Scopes and Sport Optics Page.)
Weaver has entered the four-star arena with their excellent and very rugged Grand Slam line. In price they are roughly comparable to the Leupold VX-II and Sightron SII scopes. Grand Slam scopes are made in Japan and have excellent features including camera quality optics, one piece tubes, "European" style fast focusing, accurate and repeatable click adjustments, and an easy to manipulate "sure grip" variable power ring. The Weaver Grand Slam scopes are a best buy in the medium-high price class.
My favorite Leupold scopes are the VX-II and VX-III series variable power models. These are quality products both optically and mechanically, and are worth every penny of their price. All Leupold scopes are covered by their famous Lifetime Guarantee, which applies to all Leupold scopes even if the scope was purchased used—no warrantee card needed. Leupold's customer service is simply the best. Leupold also produces an extensive line of excellent scope mounts of the Redfield type. Both the VX-II and VX-III lines have earned best buy status in their respective price classes.
Sightron is a relative newcomer to the optics business, 2004 marking their 10th Anniversary. My experience is limited to their extensive Series Two (SII) scope line, which I would judge as about equal (and similar in price) to the Leupold VX-II line. Sightron SII scopes are made in Japan and combine good optics, precise adjustments, a lifetime warrantee (to any owner, not just the original purchaser), and an attractive finish at a price that makes them an excellent value. Sightron also offers the more expensive SIII scope line, built on 30mm tubes, as well as red dot electronic sights. Sightron seems to be a well run outfit, responsive to the needs of its customers. The have earned a reputation for very good customer service, and the SII line is definitely a best buy in the medium price class.
Like about 90% of all professional photographers, I have used Nikon cameras and lenses for a long time. I was what Nikon used to call an Advanced Systems Specialist when I was in the retail end of the photography business. So I have a long history with Nikon optical products, and a lot of respect for the company itself and the professional way they work with both their dealers and customers. When they introduced their line of Monarch scopes I was not surprised to find that they were solidly in the four-star class. Before long I was using a Nikon scope myself, a decision I have never regretted.
Zeiss has successfully entered the four-star arena with their Conquest line of hunting scopes. These scopes are assembled in America and have earned a good reputation. They feature, among other things, a Lifetime Transferable Warranty and the prestige of their famous German name.
Redfield was one of the pioneers in the telescopic sight business, and before that they made precision aperture (iron) sights for both target shooters and hunters. Redfield, which used to made in Colorado, was a top line (four-star) scope back in the early 1960's when I sold sporting goods. Years later Redfield fell on hard times, and the company changed hands several times. At one point Redfield scopes vanished from the marketplace. The new Redfield scopes are again competing in the deluxe price class, going head to head with the Leupold VX-III series scopes. Like Simmons and Weaver, Redfield is now owned by Meade Optical.
The Bushnell Elite 4200 series is well up in the four-star price class. I have heard enough good things about these scopes from people whose judgment I trust to include them in this article, but as yet I have no personal experience with them.
I have never owned any of the fine ultra-deluxe rifle scopes from Kahles (Helia line), Schmidt & Bender, Swarovski, or Zeiss (Diavari line). But, I have had quite a bit of experience with some of their camera lenses, binoculars, and spotting scopes—all of which are outstanding.
Incredible care goes into the manufacture of these exquisite European scopes, probably beyond what is necessary or even reasonable. Of course, that is the way it is with products that are the absolute best in their field. On the debit side, they tend toward features suited to European, rather than North American, hunting practices. This makes most models heavy and bulky with oversize tubes and syrup-bucket objective lenses, as it is legal to hunt at night in many parts of Europe. I would not hesitate to buy a S&B, Swarovski, or Zeiss Diavari rifle scope should I feel I required one.
Leupold offers their ultra-deluxe LPS line in direct competition with the best European scopes. These feature one-piece 30mm tubes, big objective lenses, special lens coatings, 4" constant eye relief, and European fast focusing (among other things). All Leupold riflescopes, including the LPS series, are made in the U.S.A. So far they seem to be more than holding their own. I would certainly take a very close look at a Leupold LPS if I were looking for a five-star scope.