When Ford sold automobiles for $345, a 6x Zeiss scope listed for $52. This new Zeiss is a way better bargain!

Shop for a new riflescope, and you’ll quickly become discouraged, confused or both. Prices of A-list scopes by celebrated European names are frightful. At least, they seem so to us who remember the 1960s, when Winchester Model 70s could be had for $154.50, then scoped with top-quality glass for $50—roughly the same price Zeiss charged for its Zeilsechs in 1926.

Now, many riflescopes retail well into four figures! At the other end of the spectrum, you can snare scopes from hungry Far East importers for under $100. Oddly enough, they all sell, though few shooters can tell with just a quick peek through the lenses every difference between the cheap and the costly. Indeed, I can’t always identify expensive scopes, even after a long and studied look. Partly that’s because my eyes are no longer young. Partly it’s because the scope market is competitive, and important features like multi-coated lenses are as common on mid-priced sights as on the costly models. Even low-tier optics these days yield images superior to the best scopes available just a few years ago.

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But top performance comes at much greater expense than almost-top. Any automaker can build a fast car, but winning at Indianapolis or Daytona, or claiming a speed record on the salt flats, requires a huge investment. Plenty of basketball players can dunk with acrobatic aplomb; assembling a team to beat the Miami Heat, however, is a costly undertaking.

Optics firms who set industry standards for excellence must charge not only for the research and development to claim that leading edge, but also for top-quality materials, skilled staff and the cost of scrap. As acceptable deviance from perfect approaches zero, the reject rate rises. A “blem” that might be sold new at a lower price point must be discarded if it’s a flagship model, even if customers can’t find the flaw. Products that pass muster are priced high enough to cover the waste.

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As riflescopes become more sophisticated, and optical standards climb, prices are rocketing past the reach of most hunters. Rather than watch their customer base shrink, many makers have split their lines into price classes. Zeiss has. You can still save your lawn-mowing money for a Diarange laser rangefinding scope ($4,444) or a Victory Varipoint (from a modest $2,556), but if the kids need shoes, you can also settle for a Duralyt variable (around $1,100) or a blue-collar Conquest HD 5 (from $500 to just under $1,000). For 2014 there’s an even more affordable option: the Terra 3X. This new series is comprised of five models: a 2-7×32 ($389), a 3-9×42 ($444), a 4-12×42 ($499), a 3-9×50 and a 4-12×50 (pricing on the two 50mm models was not available at press time). Yes, they’re “three-times” scopes, with the top magnification being three times that of the bottom. The latest Conquest, the HD 5, offers five-times range. So that’s one reason the Terra 3X stable is less expensive. Of course, real-world prices are lower still.

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But what about quality? Well, Zeiss can ill afford to squander its reputation on inferior optics. So it doesn’t. Terra 3X scopes are built to the high standards for which Zeiss is famous, albeit not in Germany. Therein lies another savings. And while I honestly can’t tell the difference in ordinary light, Terra 3X sights are not equipped with the HD glass that distinguishes the newest Conquest scopes. Each Terra 3X has MC (proprietary Zeiss) lens coatings, which were recently state-of-the-art. Expect sharp, brilliant images, with true colors. But you won’t get the LotuTec lens coatings to bead water or a parallax correction dials that are both standard on 3-15x and 5-25x Conquest HD scopes. And the RZ6 and RZ8 ballistic reticles available on 3-9×42 and 4-12×42 Terra 3Xs are scaled-down versions of the Rapid-Z.