About six months ago we topped our Project M14 with a Bushnell Elite Tactical 3.5-21x50mm optic. Our first foray into the world of high-end Bushnell optics, we were in a word, floored. Although heavy, the feature set was pretty much spot on for what we were looking for, and the quality was above reproach. So when we snagged our Bushmaster ACR DMR for testing in this issue (it’s over on page 26) we thought we’d try yet another Bushnell Elite Tactical optic; this time the Bushnell SMRS; a 1-8.5x24mm optic. With many of the same features that’d we liked about the ERS 3.5-21x50mm on our M14, such as a first-focal plane reticle with milliradian subtensions and fine 0.10-mil adjustments, we thought its compact package but versatile magnification range would be a perfect pairing with our big Bushmaster. That was a few months, and many, many rounds ago. So what do we think?
Well, obviously intended for use atop AR-15 and similar rifles such as our ACR, the Bushnell SMRS has been a fantastic optic. We like to try and pair optics with rifles that are commensurate in capability and price, with the obvious concessions made to logic, and of course… wallets. In the case of our Bushmaster/Bushnell test, the rifle comes in at $3,499 and the optic tips the fiscal scales at a slightly friendlier $2,499. But given our experience with the ERS comparing favourably with optics costing far more we thought the Bushnell SMRS might do the same.
There are three measures of an optic’s performance; optical performance, the reticle, and the mechanical features. In terms of the SMRS’ glass, it is very, very good. It is utterly devoid of distortion of any kind and provides a clean image from edge to edge. Colour hue is slightly on the warm side, which is nice for a rosy outlook on life, and we found low-light performance to be admirable. The eyebox is right where you want it for the average modern sporting rifle and quite forgiving, and the field of view quite large for a 24mm objective lens. The only thing we could ask for is a touch more clarity… but we also suspect that getting any more clarity than this glass provides would bump its price up into the same realm as the high end Leupold, Zeiss, and Swarovski optics. In other words, more than we can afford!
The reticle is an interesting one. For an optics company, any 1-X optic with the reticle in the first focal plane is going to be a compromise; it’s a market that clearly values speed at the low end of the magnification spectrum but also wants a useful rangefinding or BDC reticle out at longer distances. The current crop of 1-8x or greater optics like the Leupold Mark 8 CQBSS and this Bushnell must obviously compromise more than most due to their larger than average magnification range. In the case of the Bushnell SMRS that compromise comes in the form of a range-stratified BDC vertical post with range markings, which is nearly bisected by an abbreviated transverse line with windage markings (which are not clearly defined in any of the literature, unfortunately), all surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped illuminated ring spanning 6 mils. The illuminated center dot is 0.3 mils across.
So does it work? Yes, but with some caveats, all of which stem from the combination of the optic’s first focal plane reticle and large magnification range. At 1x, without any illumination, the reticle is very small. Very, very small. And that means that it’s too easy to lose during transitions, and a bit too hard to pick up on mottled backgrounds. Of course, that’s easily fixed by turning the vibrant illumination to any of its nine daylight settings, which range from “oh hello there,” to “now it’s just a big red glowing orb in the middle.” There’s also two night vision settings as well, in case you’re that high speed, and that low drag. Cranked way up to 8.5x the reticle is great, and that big horseshoe leaves plenty of room around your target for visibility’s sake, but we do wish the centre dot was a bit finer. At 100 metres that 0.3 mil centre dot occludes 3 centimetres, or 1.2 inches. That may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to string together sub-MOA groups, the space the dot occludes seems very large indeed. But, using M855 ball ammunition fired from our Bushmaster, we did find the BDC drops to be accurate, and found the top of the vertical post to be a great alternative aiming point for more fine shooting than the dot allows.
Finally, that brings us to the mechanical side of things. This is a big scope. Like the Bushmaster we’ve mounted it to, the SMRS is seriously beefy, with a massive 34mm tube housing a 24mm objective. That means there’s a ton of room inside the tube for the erector to move through, giving the scope a full 29 mils of adjustment. Again, for those unaccustomed to mil measurements, that 29 mils worth of adjustment equates to 290 centimeters or 114 inches.
And making those adjustments is a similarly beefy set of controls. The huge windage and elevation knobs adjust in 0.1 mil increments with 10 mils per rotation, and are locked in place by pushing the turret down, preventing accident adjustment. Sadly though, unlike the ERS, the Bushnell SMRS doesn’t have a zero-stop system installed… but you can remove the turrets and re-index them so that your zero position at least reads zero on the knob indices. Tactile feedback is as expected: Excellent. The clicks are obvious and, due to the massive size of the knobs, quite far apart from one another so it’s easy to adjust in small increments and count larger ones.
The illumination control on the left side of the scope is a bit smaller than the adjustment knobs, and swaps the giant castellations for smaller cuts, which makes it a bit harder to grip. However, it does have one feature we always love: An off position between every brightness setting! It always amazes us how many manufacturers ignore that feature. Given we found ourselves using the illumination quite sporadically, we especially enjoyed being able to turn it on to our preferred brightness setting quickly, as we did the ability to turn it off just as fast.
Which brings us to the final mechanical aspect of the Bushnell SMRS: The magnification ring. We particularly like the magnification ring on this scope as it provides a pretty decent amount of resistance to adjustment, but also has some very aggressive machining on the surface to ensure you get a good grip. Basically, it’s not something that’s going to brush against your jacket and turn, but when you grab it to crank your magnification up or down you won’t have any trouble. The surface has a sort of varied level of castellations to it, requires 180-degrees of rotation to go from 1x to 8.5x, and has a very nice big quasi-speed lever bump in the middle to make rotating it even easier. What more could you ask for?
In the case of the SMRS, not much; literally. Weighing 23 ounces this is one of the heaviest optics in its class so you probably wouldn’t want to ask for more even if you could! But if you can manage the weight, either by finding weight savings elsewhere or mounting it on a rifle that’ll spend most of its time on a shooting bag or bipod, it’s a fantastic (relatively) budget-friendly option. Like the ERS that inspired our selection of the SMRS, we again have found it to compare favourably against optics costing (in some cases) thousands more. And in the dollar-per-pound value? Well… it’s pretty much unbeatable!