First Focal Plane vs. Second Focal Plane Rifle Scopes

First Focal Plane vs. Second Focal Plane Rifle Scopes

There are several things to consider when choosing a new rifle scope. Magnification is one obvious choice, and we covered MOA and MRad reticles in a recent article. Another feature to think about—and one that often baffles new hunters—is the scope’s “focal plane.”

Scopes can be either “first focal plane” (FFP) or “second focal plane” (SFP). These terms refer to whether the reticle is placed in front of or behind the scope’s erector system. The erector system is the mechanical system that creates magnification and houses the reticle, but we’ll save a technical description of scope construction for another day.

For our purposes, here’s the key piece of information you need to know.

  • In an FFP scope, the reticle grows and shrinks alongside the magnification.
  • In an SFP scope, the reticle stays the same size no matter the magnification level.

Second Focal Plane Scopes

Because the reticle size does not change in SFP scopes, the reticle hash marks that indicate holdover for bullet drop only work at the highest magnification power. They could theoretically be set to work at any magnification, but scope makers usually set them to work at top magnification. So, if your SFP scope is 3-9x, and your scope manual says to hold at the first hash mark at 200 yards, you need to be zoomed in to 9x for that holdover to work. The same applies to the windage marks, if any. Dialing the scope’s turrets to compensate for bullet drop will still work at every magnification. Only the holdover marks on the reticle are affected by the SFP design.

SFP The reticle on a second focal plane scope doesn’t change size. (Note: Image not to scale)

First Focal Plane Scopes

In an FFP scope, the reticle hash marks work at every magnification because the reticle grows and shrinks with the magnification setting. That 200-yard bullet drop compensation (BDC) mark will work at 3x and at 9x, though the reticle will look much smaller at the lowest magnification setting.

FFP The reticle on a first focal plane scope changes size based on magnification level. (Note: Image not to scale)

Which Is Better?

Like Mom always said about your siblings, SFP isn’t better than FFP (and vice versa). It’s just different. Unlike Mom, I actually mean it.

Vortex’s Ryan Muckenhirn told me that your choice depends on the terrain of your hunting ground. Muckenhirn is a sales and product specialist, and he regularly walks customers through the pros and cons of each choice.

“If a customer calls up and asks, ‘Which scope I should run?’ I ask them to tell me about the terrain,” he said.

FFP scopes are all the rage in the tacticool long-range shooting world, and it’s easy to see why. In some long-range shooting scenarios, you may not want to crank that Hubble telescope all the way up to 25x. If there’s lots of mirage on a hot day, for example, a lower magnification can cut down on that distortion. Transitioning between targets is also generally easier at lower magnifications. In those scenarios, it’s helpful to have a BDC reticle that works on 18x or 12x.

That’s why Muckenhirn has no problem recommending a FFP scope for a hunter planning to target animals in open country. The reticle will still be easy to see at higher magnifications, and the BDC marks will work all the way up the magnification ladder.

“Are you hunting Coues deer in Arizona? If so, go with a first focal plane, light it up and enjoy the extra magnification and the comprehensive reticle,” he said.

However, if there’s a chance you’ll be stalking animals in timber or other lowlight conditions, Muckenhirn recommends an SFP scope. The reticle on an SFP scope will stay large and visible even at lower magnification levels that facilitate greater light input. This will allow you to keep your scope at 3x or 5x and still see the reticle for the deer at 100 or 150 yards. The BDC marks won’t work properly at that lower magnification, but you won’t need to use them at those distances anyway.

Muckenhirn found himself in exactly this scenario last year. His 4.5x-22x FFP scope was great in Wyoming’s big country, but as soon as he entered timber, he struggled to see his reticle and prepare for a snapshot at lower magnification settings.

“If I could go back in time, I would have chosen a second focal plane riflescope,” he said.

Muckenhirn likes SFP scopes, especially in the 15x to 18x top magnification category. Hunting applications don’t often require a huge amount of magnification, and 15x is enough to get most shooters and centerfire cartridges out to terminal levels. It’ll let you see that pronghorn at 600 yards, and the BDC reticle will be dialed in at the full power setting.

Last Shot

There’s a reason most scopes designed for hunting are SFP. Hunting is unpredictable, and you never know when you’ll need to make a short-range shot in less-than-ideal lighting. An SFP scope is far superior in that scenario, but every hunt is different. My advice? Look through both SFP and FFP scopes at the store or, better yet, recruit a friend who will let you see the difference at a range. With some real hands-on experience, you might find the choice is easier than you think.

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