The choice between first focal plane and second focal plane scopes is a vexed question in the rifle shooting world.
On the one hand, lots of people aren’t even aware that first focal plane (FFP) vs second focal plane (SFP) is something to consider, so they don’t. When you’re hunting game though, FFP versus SFP is only one of the things you have to take into consideration.
As such, many shooters have to choose between SFP and FFP.
Understanding this choice is technical, and to make up your own mind, you need to understand some things about FFP vs SFP. We can help you with that.
One Focal Plane Or Two?
The scope on every rifle comes with two focal planes, one at the front and one at the back. The one at the front is the first focal plane. The one at the back, the second focal plane.
The focal plane you choose to use, whether hunting or doing any other longer-range rifle shooting, changes how you see your target. It changes the placement of the scope’s reticle. That’s why there’s a debate over whether FFP or SFP is ‘better.’
If you’ve used any scope, you’ve seen its reticle. The reticle is what’s known as its ‘crosshairs,’ the thing that helps you zero in on your target.
The reticle will be either in the FFP or the SFP. But here’s the fundamental difference: when your reticle’s in the FFP, it will look smaller at low magnification and larger at high magnification. When it’s in the SFP, it will stay the same size, whatever magnification you use.
So that’s the question: FFP with its reticle that seems to ‘focus’ with higher mag, or SFP, which stays steady either way?
Pluses and Minuses in FFP and SFP
There’s nothing particularly complicated in the choice between FFP and SFP scopes, but there are some things to be aware of.
With FFP and its size-changing reticle, the spacing of the increments on the reticle change too when the magnification changes. This changes the spacing of the increments on the reticle. To put it bluntly, that can mess with your mind in the moment of your shot. If you want a reticle that looks the same no matter what your magnification, go SFP.
With FFP, your holdover spacing is right at one magnification – usually the longest range setting. That means if you only ever use your scope on that setting, there’s no difference between FFP and SFP and you can shoot to your heart’s content, ignoring the question.
But while SFP reticles stay the same on every setting, FFP reticles look smaller the lower down the magnification scale you go, and get heavier and thicker at high mag, which can actually make targets harder to hit.
To Scope Or Not To Scope, That Is The Question
While the FFP vs SFP question is something to consider when shooting, it’s also important to remember what the scope is actually for – it’s there to help you reach out beyond the range of your vision and hit targets that are further away.
Many shooters say as long as the scope helps them do that, FFP vs SFP is just a matter of technical specification to them. That’s fine if it works for you, but there’s more to it than the specs.
Firstly, there are a few reasons you would add a scope. Whether you use FFP or SFP, you add a scope to give you reach in your shooting. But seeing is not the same as hitting. What’s important isn’t just that you see the distant target. If you see yourself miss it time after time, that’s just frustration in an eyepiece. The crucial thing is that the scope should help you hit your target. Which is where the question of FFP or SFP becomes important.
How Are You Using Your Rifle?
If we’re going to settle the matter of FFP vs SFP and figure out which is better for your rifle, we need to do some digging. What are you actually going to be doing with your rifle? Tactical shooting? Hunting? It’s important to know, because in FFP vs SFP, there’s an instant difference in what each focal plane lets you achieve.
What’s more, between SFP and FFP, there’s an immediate difference in look and feel. You have to choose between FFP and SFP based on what makes sense to you for hunting, for targets, or for tactical shooting.
Like most things in life, the choice you make will be an individual one, based on how things work for you. We can tell you this, that and the other thing, but ultimately, till you’re looking down the scope, you won’t know what makes sense to you, what works for you, and what you’re comfortable with.
Only when you know the answers to those questions will you know where you stand on FFP vs SFP. Your answers will also probably be driven by circumstances – there’s a difference between shooting on a range and shooting out in the wild, and another between target shooting and hunting – especially if what you’re hunting is a predator.
All those things will be in the mix when you find the answer that’s right for you on FFP vs SFP.
Those who shoot as part of their profession, like law enforcement officers or military personnel, make the FFP/SFP decision day in, day out too, balancing the factors of danger, the need for certainty, the adrenalin of potential life or death situations etc. Life or death vs technical gear questions never look quite the same.
Neither’s wrong, it’s just that the specifics of a situation will inform what feels right to them, and to you, about FFP or SFP. The focal plane you choose has a direct effect on whether you hit your target, and to some extent on where you hit them, and with what intent.
With predator animals or hostile humans coming at you, you’re likely to immediately snap to the focal plane that gives you the higher certainty of a shot that keeps you safe.
The Vital Thing About A Scope
Let’s park the FFP vs SFP debate for a second and come back to basics.
What’s the most vital thing about a scope? What’s the crucial thing it gives you?
Is it just the ability to hit a target that’s a long way away? Or is it being able to range that target? Or even the ability to measure an object, or a target, or a landmark, using your scope’s technical viewing and ranging capabilities? What’s your scope for, first and foremost?
This question, though it’s crucial to the decision of FFP or SFP, goes way beyond that determination. It’s about how your gear supports your aims, your goals on any mission or hunting trip. Bottom line, whatever your goal is, your kit should actively help you achieve it.
It should help deliver fast, effective outcomes that align with your goals. So ask yourself – are you getting the hits you want, as regularly as you want, as fast as you want?
Chances are, if the answer to any of those questions is no, you need to break up with the scope or the focal plane you’re using and choose again.
Ranges and Measures
Again, what makes an FFP or SFP feel right to you is down to your individual choice and circumstances. Maybe you choose based on average target distance. Maybe for you it’s more about ranging and measuring. As we’ve said, focal plane choice is only one technical issue in choosing the right rifle scope, and the FFP/SFP decision is minor compared to, for instance, the math of reticles.
Converting MRAD to MOA or vice versa is enough to give you nightmares, at least at first, and the math involved will keep you up at night if you think about it too hard.
Scopes of course are also useful if your vision’s less than it should be. Making out targets that other shooters might be able to hit unaided is a perfectly valid reason to add a scope to your rifle. Once you’ve chosen your reticle and turret-type though, you’re still left with the central question, the question every shooter has to answer for themselves – FFP or SFP?
Focal Planes While Hunting
Hunters obviously will have opinions about FFP vs SFP. Given a choice between two types of anything, hunters will have an opinion, and will be able to back up their view with the reasons that apply to them.
More often than not, the focal plane question usually comes down to SFP for hunters who’ve given it some prior consideration or had more experience. Many go with FFP at least at first, because when you’re doing long-range shooting, FFP reticles are more commonly available.
What would be your choice for hunting? Would you choose based on the clarity with which you saw your prey, or whether the degree of magnification actually blocked your target?
The choice you make for hunting of course might be different from the choice you make for any other kind of shooting. Preferences are driven by circumstances, by function and situation and even in-the-moment body chemistry. But bottom line, as we said, the choice of reticle is likely to come down to how practically useful it is.
Seeing your target good and close is no actual use if you can’t then hit it. If you can though, if the reticle and the focal plane help you get solid results, time after time, then it’s natural you’re going to choose to use them – natural and of course, right.
Ultimately, like all matters of shooting, the answer comes down to you and your experience. Things can work for a hundred thousand other shooters – if they don’t work for you, there’s no reason to keep using them.
Choose a scope that helps you hunt effectively, not one that’s just the latest thing. It’s not worth getting bogged down in the wheres and whyfores of the FFP vs SFP debate in any abstract sense – the facts can be what they are, but if they don’t boil down to improved shooting in your particular case, you needn’t worry about them.
Go with your instincts and your experience over all the debate in the world, because bottom line, doing what works for you will make you a better, more effective hunter and shooter.
We’ve covered the FFP vs SFP debate as it applies to civilian hunters and shooters. But what about the military or law enforcement case?
When your life depends on it, your choice of first or second focal plane is likely to be based on how you view a man-sized target – a sobering thought that changes the game altogether.
This is scope choice at the sharp end. Missing a target at a range has zero real world consequences. Missing a target while hunting can be serious, especially if you’re hunting a predator. But in the military or law enforcement worlds, miss a target and there’s every chance they get to fire back.
Or fire at others – either your colleagues or innocent civilians. That right there is a high level of consequence, and it means you need to get the FFP/SFP decision right for yourself if you want to sleep at night. You want the scope that works for you again and again and again – there’s no ‘Good enough, sometimes’ about it. You want one that’s excellent, every time.
Like, Whatever - Does Focal Length Really Matter?
As we’ve said, the degree to which focal length ‘matters’ depends on the consequences of missing your shot. Target shooting – not so much, but it would still be good to get it right.
Hunting, maybe more, and again, if it’s not right, you’ll hit your prey fewer times and less regularity, at which point you’re just a human out in nature going ‘Bang!’ a lot, which doesn’t seem like anyone’s reason for going on a hunt.
And in law enforcement or the military, it matters absolutely, because the lives of others may depend on you getting your focal length choice right, and leaving it vague is probably not a mindset that thrives in a uniform.
But in the pure technicalities of the choice, you might decide it matters because how the target looks behind the reticle is important to you. You might decide to stick with what’s familiar because it’s given you results and ways of shooting that have always worked for you in the past.
In tactical situations, you might go with what your teammates are using for cohesion across the team, so everyone knows the same range and experience. You might have a particular preference when hunting, and the same, or a different favorite, when range shooting.
You might have found a favorite brand of scope – a perfectly valid reason for choosing them, as we do that every day in all areas of our lives – Coke or Pepsi, Jim Beam or Jack Daniels, Chevy or Caddy, iPhone or Android? Brands fit with us, or they don’t, so having a favorite brand of scope makes sense. You may have been trained a certain way, and as with what’s familiar, you might understand that way and want to stick with it.
You might feel peer pressure to go with one option or the other – it starts in the school yard, and sometimes never leaves us, so that’s OK too. Maybe you’ve read every comparison piece, every review on every website, and gone with the scope the reviews recommend.
That’s valid too, but be aware – often the choice between first focal plane and second focal plane comes down to having options. If one’s available and the other isn’t, everyone’s likely to go for the one that is, because time’s a-wasting and there’s shooting to do.
So What’s The Answer?
Oh, the words. So many words on FFP, SFP, this, that, the other and their cousin. All the words in the world ultimately boil down to this. Check the available options when considering the scope you want. Ask yourselves the questions we’ve highlighted – what do you need your scope to do?
Do you have experience with one type of focal plane over the other? What’s feeding in to your decision, and is it all helpful, or are there biases that need correcting in your decision-making process. Check out what’s available either in your area of online, so you have a full range of options from which to choose the scope and the focal plane that’s right for you.
All the words can get in the way, but answer these question for yourself and they’ll make you a more effective consumer, because you’ll know why you want what you want, rather than buying on a whim. And ultimately, answering these questions should clear up the buying decisions for you too, making your life easier. Helping you zone in on the answer that’s right for you. Y’know…like a scope does.
Always remember, peer pressure and reviews can only take you so far. Ultimately, the right scope for you is the right scope for you because it improves your shooting, no-one else’s. The FFP vs SFP reticle might work like a charm for your buddy, and just leave you seething with frustration and rage.Make sure whatever you choose, it helps you improve your shooting, and that it makes you happy, because ultimately, if it doesn’t do those two things, what are you using it for?