BigJimFish Review of Leupold Mark 8 CQBSS 1.1-8x24mm with Horus H-27D

Table of Contents:

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  • Background
  • Unboxing and Physical Description
  • Reticle
  • Comparative Optical Evaluation
  • Illumination Evaluation
  • Speed Testing and Exit Pupil Testing
  • Mechanical Testing and Turret Discussion
  • Summary and Conclusion
  • Nightforce
  • Nightforce

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Background:
Leupold is a rare thing in corporate America:  it is exactly what it seems. It is a fifth generation American company which manufactures most of its products in America; clearly marks those it does not manufacture as different from those it does; and is still owned by the family rather than by some nebulous New York investment firm. I suspect that this state of affairs may have something to do with the long term success of the company. Name recognition and trust go a long way. Leupold even seemed to be having success at a time that I found its products less than compelling and my personal stock of them dwindled from four scopes to none.

It is no secret that throughout the last ten or fifteen years Leupold had been losing favor with the tactical community and was commonly maligned on the forums. Lack of compelling reticles, mismatched knobs with reticles, a relative lack of FFP offerings, and insufficient erector rations were common complaints. I’m not sure what was going on inside Leupold during that time, but everything changed in 2010 with the introduction of a separate tactical division within the company that appears to have been given significant autonomy.

The changes made in the three years since the tactical division was formed have been more substantive than in the ten years previous. Three entirely new optic lines (the Mark 6, Mark 8, and AR lines) have been launched and the existing Mark 4 line has been significantly updated. Many of these new products did not just address the matter of updating the features to match competitors’ existing offerings, but were innovative in their own right. Leupold has introduced a new illumination technology, a magnificent easily interchangeable BDC knob system, and some easy and innovative locking adjustment knob designs. Three years is a very quick timetable during which to update a product line from obsolescence to class-leading, but Leupold clearly has some scope designs in these new product lines that are just that. I have seen some evidence that the changes wrought by Leupold tactical seem to be waking up the rest of the company as well.

Unboxing and Physical Description:
I think that Leupold’s packaging must be handled by the marketing division. Not only is it attractive, but you actually feel special when you open it. Everything is in its own nice and neat custom cutout in the foam, even the battery. The extras included with the CQBSS are quite substantial. You don’t just get manuals and a lousy decal, but also a sunshade (not honeycomb sadly) and a set of gorgeous Alumina flip-up lens covers that are obviously the best in the business. You pay your money for the CQBSS, but you do get to feel special for it.

The optic itself is very attractive. Though it is large at 23.2oz, 34mm, and 11.75″ long; it is nicely proportioned. The flared objective, squeeze locking adjustments, and fully knurled whole ocular power ring combine with the proportions to make for a handsome look. Just as with the Bushnell SMRS, the Leupold CQBSS is a 34mm main tube optic and I question the design choice here as well. 24mm objectives fit easily in 30mm tubes especially when there will be a flared section over the objective anyway. The reason optics makers started to go to 34mm tubes in high power scopes was to get more elevation travel. Because of the design differences between low power and high power scopes, this is not often necessary in low power optics and it usually adds weight to the scope and the mount. It may have been possible to save a few ounces on the CQBSS design by going with 30mm. It may also be the case that most of that weight went towards adding strength and durability to the design. The CQBSS certainly looks the part and Leupold does not have a reputation for breakage. I would be surprised if this does not prove to be one of the most durable problem-free optics in the class.

The CQBSS, a descendant of the now aged CQ/T, shares the design feature of using the full ocular as the power ring and it is knurled for this purpose. I am not a big fan of the cattails so popular with competition shooters today. They fit the bill well in a competition, but if you also have to carry the rifle around for hunting or as a function of your employment, these levers quickly annoy as they tend to stick out a good bit and catch on everything. Having a whole ocular power ring is an alternative to this. Adjustment is quick and easy as you have four inches of tube to grab yet there is no lever to stick out and snag. The only downside is that the flip cap also rotates and therefore is difficult to position. It is also notable that the ocular on the CQBSS sports a quick 180 degrees from 1x to 8x and has a locking euro diopter that is extremely low profile and perfectly effective.

Leupold was good enough to include a 34mm Mark 8 mount with the scope for review. This is the mount pictured throughout. The mount is simple and perfectly serviceable. Its only notable feature is the $380 price tag which is, in my opinion, wrong by at least half, or rather, double.

Reticle:

The CQBSS is offered with two different reticle choices. These are the M-TMR and Horus H27D . The M-TMR has a basic mil-hash center section that is illuminated with a stadia section in each of the lower quadrants. It is very much a long range type reticle in design:  fitting well into the common habit of ranging using the mil-hashes, dialing for drop, and holding on the main crosshairs for wind. The stadia section is just a little bonus should quick range finding be needed. On the M-TMR, only the center mil-hash is illuminated for close quarters use and this section is rather thin.

For the purpose of the review, I went with the H-27D reticle. I chose this for a variety of reasons. First off, at an $800 price premium it has a lot to justify. Horus has always been very proud of their reticle designs, but this one must be twice as good as most of the others judging by the price. Secondly, I have never had an extended opportunity to use a Horus-based scope and wanted to give the concept a try. Lastly, the H-27D sports a thicker circular illuminated center feature that looks a lot faster for close quarters use to me than the illuminated center section of the M-TMR.

I expect that most folks are familiar with the Horus concept, but, for those who are not, I will lay it out. It is really not very complicated. People have long held for windage and sometimes for drop using the markings on the crosshairs of a mil-dot or similar reticle. Horus simply adds a bunch of thin crosshairs below the primary one so that more markings exist to help the shooter hold with more accuracy. The idea is that after zeroing the scope, you don’t have to use the adjustments at all because a full grid exists on the reticle. In the case of this H-27D Horus variant, the hashes are in .2-mil increments on all but the primary crosshairs and the one 1 mil above or below the primary. These markings all tested to be accurate. I believe that the sections of the reticle immediately around the circle were left with only markings every full mil in order to keep the circular close quarters aiming feature clean, but the side effect is that the most common method for distance compensation, dialing drop and holding wind, is negatively impacted by the relative dearth of markings on the primary horizontal axis.

A great deal has been written about the Horus concept as a primary drop and distance compensation method and much of this conventional wisdom appears to me to be true. Depending on the shooter’s concentration, both the detractors and proponents of Horus can be right about getting lost in the plethora of markings on the reticle. It is certainly possible to get lost and end up lining things up on the wrong line. The lines are clearly marked though and, with proper concentration, this can be avoided. With regards to speed adjusting for drop and wind, the Horus systems dispensing with the adjustments can certainly add speed. These Leupold zero stop turrets are very fast, and well marked though. The speed gained is not much, if anything. The last and most important complaint against the Horus in use is that it works against a clean background, but that against something dark or complex, like a tree line, the complex mesh cannot be made out. This was my experience as well. The mesh of the reticle simply blends into a complex background and it becomes alternately difficult or impossible to use the concept as intended.

Whether the H-27D or M-TMR is a better reticle overall in the CQBSS might be an interesting question. Ironically, it is the thick and large central circle that is the most compelling feature of the H-27D and not any part that might be identified as Horus-e. The lack of wind hold marks more precise than 1-mil increments on the main axis and lack of illumination of any scale part for low light long range use are major strikes against the H-27D and in favor of the M-TMR for distance use. I wager any slight speed edge gained in ranging and distance compensation by the Horus system under good conditions as fairly minor given the excellent elevation knob on this optic. I judge that the reader will find this debate less than compelling given the $800 price difference between the Horus and M-TMR variants. While it is unclear which reticle is better, it is quite clear what the cost difference ought to be.

Comparative Optical Evaluation:
The CQBSS was the 1-8x scope whose optics, at high power, I preferred to all others. The image tints towards the warm side of the spectrum with greens and yellows really popping. I think this made the image appear a bit brighter than other optics though I doubt that in actuality a significant difference in transmission was present. The field of view is the largest at 8x and this combined with the more-forgiving-than-most eyebox made for a comfortable viewing experience. Clarity on the CQBSS is edge to edge and distortion is minimal. Resolution at high power was also the best I tested. At the end of the day, though, it really comes down to the fact that this scope just felt the most comfortable to be behind. Many 1-8x scopes feel like they are right on the edge of optical design because they aren’t very forgiving or because they actually have significant optical problems. This scope might be on the cutting edge, but it feels more polished than others. You wouldn’t think that they are really pushing the bounds of what can be done while looking though it. They make it look easy with this one.

Illumination Evaluation:
Many of you are familiar with the three common illumination technologies used in optics. These are:  reflected, fiber, and beam splitter.

Most higher power optics use reflected illumination. In this scheme, light of the chosen color is directed forward in the opposite direction as light coming from the target. Some of this light reflects off of the reticle lines which, despite appearing black to the user when not illuminated, are, in fact, quite white, containing a great deal of titanium dioxide. This reflected light is the reticle’s illumination. The downsides to this technology are that, being as most of the light produced simply exits out the front of the optic, it is not battery efficient, cannot be made daytime bright, and can be seen by potential enemies down range. The upside is that it is inexpensive to make and you can illuminate any portion of the reticle chosen.

Fiber, which is probably most famously used in the Trijicon sights with BAC, is a transmission mechanism that can be used in conjunction with a battery powered source or to concentrate ambient light. With this technology, the fiber line is either run behind the reticle or it may actually be the reticle. At the end of the fiber line, usually the center of the reticle, the line is snipped and the severed end is aimed back at the user. The result is that the user sees a brightly illuminated figure in the shape of the end of the line. Thus, simple geometric shapes or dots can easily be made with fiber line but illumination of complex reticle elements is not possible. The illumination provided from fiber is typically very bright, battery efficient, and leaves no down range signature. Fiber technology is also not very expensive or technically challenging. I have never seen fiber technology used in a FFP scope, so this is probably either difficult or not possible.

Beam splitter illumination is the most expensive and difficult to manufacture technology. This technology is commonly used in the simple red dot sights that exist, but it can be adapted to magnified optics with some difficulty. With this illumination technology the illuminated figure, in all extant designs a dot, is merely projected between the user and the reticle by means of a mirror and is not any part of the reticle itself. In fact, the projected figure is projected at infinity and does not focus with the rest of the optical design. In theory, this illuminated projection could be any design, but in practice a dot has always been used since it is both easy and what is usually desired anyway. Lining up the projected element with the rest of the reticle is a challenge for this technology and makes the cost quite high. Despite this and other difficult and costly trade offs, beam splitter technology offers some compensatory enticements. These are that it can be used in a FFP optic, it is daytime bright, it is battery efficient, it has no down range signature, and it can be easily paired with reflected illumination technology in a scope with dual mode illumination, such as the S&B Short Dot.

Rather than use one of these existing technologies for the CQBSS, Leupold designed a fourth technology. I will call it ‘directed reflected’ because, so far as I can tell, that is how it works. It appears to me that this technology involves directing light forward from the rear of the optic and reflecting it off of the portions of the reticle with reflective dope in the same manner as conventional reflected illumination. The difference is that the reflection is much more intense (easily daytime bright), but that the intensity of the illumination varies greatly depending on how close the user’s eye is to the center of the eyebox. I am not sure exactly how this boost in brightness over conventional reflected illumination has been accomplished. My gut says that perhaps a diode-based laser is used for the illumination source and that this accounts not only for the increased intensity, but also for the sensitive viewing window. That is just a guess though. In any case, the effect is that if the user’s head moves around very much at all, the illumination appears to flicker with your head movement. Users varied in their degree of annoyance with the perceived flicker but all noticed it and found it some degree of undesirable.

The illumination controls on the CQBSS are analog knob type. The knob has eight intensity settings with an off setting in between. Settings exist suitable for daytime bright dot style illumination as well as for nighttime use and night vision use. On the CQBSS with Horus reticle only the center circular feature is lit, making ranging or hold-over in low light a no-go. With the M-TMR  the central mil section is illuminated, enhancing long range use in low light. However, the section lit in the M-TMR has much thinner line widths and may not be perceived by some as daytime bright.

Speed Testing and Discussion of Contributing Factors:

Over the course of the last couple of reviews, I have had the opportunity to evaluate, in cooperation with eight or nine different testers, some fourteen different optics, with a 1x setting, engaging close quarters targets. For this I use an air-soft AR and pie pans:  I’m not made of money. It’s a lot of fun and you can go though thousands of rounds for the cost of fast food dinner. What I have found after doing all of this testing is that what counts for close quarters is not exactly what you would expect. Here is my summary of the major factors and what part they play:

1) Optical Design:  Having a distortion free, flat field of view at 1x is, by far, the most important factor to speed. Pincushion distortion, barrel distortion, or curvature to field throws off your ability to merge the data coming in from your left and right eyes into a single image. The result is slow and a little disorienting. This disorienting effect is not noticeable when you are focused on a stationary target, but as you move across the field of fire, having the objects viewed through the optic bend as the field of view moves across them is very hard to deal with. At 1x the CQBSS was one of the best optics, and probably the best 1-8x,  as regards to flatness of field of view. It is not perfect, but it is not problematic either and given the technical challenges of its large power range, it is quite impressive.

2) Reticle:  The reticle is a little more subjective. Not every tester has always agreed. However, in general, an open field of view with a few thick objects in just the center is the desired combination. Crosshairs are generally disliked. This Horus reticle is one of the few I have seen that does a proper job of making the fine aiming and ranging elements sufficiently fine that they are not noticed when doing close quarters drills. The result is a very open field of view. It is a very good design for close quarters speed, provided the illumination is used.

3) Illumination:  It may come as a surprise given optics makers’ quest for daytime bright illumination, but it comes in a bit down the list. To be sure, having a daytime bright dot can eclipse reticle design in importance to speed if the reticle is thin and therefore not distracting, but it will not make up for a bulky distracting reticle. Reticle design and illumination can be seen as working together to determine speed, but, in my experience, the reticle is the bigger part of this pair. Horus did a good job of pairing reticle design with illumination for speed in this optic. The thin reticle and open field of view paired quite well with the daytime bright tiny circle illuminated at the center. The arrangement is very fast.

4) Eyebox:  It should come as no surprise that having more freedom of motion while still getting a picture is good for speed. However, what I have found is that, within reason, this factor plays less a part than you might think. It is true a tiny eyebox can make an optic slow, but most scopes have enough leeway that it is not a big factor. The CQBSS felt like it had one of the larger eyeboxes at 1x in a 1-8x scope. It was certainly sufficient, though it is still not near the size of those in many of the lesser magnification range optics.

The Leupold CQBSS was found by most users to be the fastest of the 1-8x scopes and finished in the upper half of all optics in the comparison. The major complaints were the flickering perceived in the illumination and the relatively restricted eyebox. The major features were the open and flat field of view, the bright dot style illumination, and the bright crisp optics.

Mechanical Testing and Turret Discussion:
The CQBSS features Leupold’s new pinch and turn adjustments. These lock when not being squeezed and are 10-mil single turn with zero stop knobs and audible and tactile clicks. In the case of the elevation knob, this is 10 mils from the zero to the stop. In the case of the windage, it is 5 mils each way to the stop from zero. The elevation knob also has the ability to accept BDC marked dials. The H-27D reticle version I used comes with a M118LR dial, but other dials can be ordered stock or customized. While I would not call the knobs small, they do seem compact relative to the feature set and, with the pinch to turn feature, you really wouldn’t want them smaller. The adjustments feel great and labeling of the BDC is clear and also includes the mils from zero. These are great adjustments for long range shooting. I am a fan. The only thing that would make them better is if you didn’t have to use a hex wrench to set the zero.

For the adjustment testing of the CQBSS and other scopes being reviewed this year, I made up a new target shown below. I spend a good deal of time shooting at my local 100-yard range with scopes that are adjusted in mils. It annoyed me that I could not find a target made on a mils at 100 yards grid. I therefore made one and furthermore, made it have six bulls so that I can shoot a box and power change test on the same target. The grid on the pictured target is .1 mil at 100 yards. I will make the PDF of this target available just as soon as I can figure out a way to get the CAD program to make a PDF of the correct size. (It seems to be able to print out the correct size, but the PDF is not right. I will have to use some printer plug in.)

A box test checks for the accuracy in magnitude and independence in direction of the adjustments. To perform this test, the shooter aims at the same place when firing all shots, but moves the adjustments between groups such that a box is formed by the groups fired with the last group landing back atop the first. This box should be square and the corners (i.e. the groups) should be the correct distance from each other as dictated by the scale of the scope’s adjustments. As performed on this target, all of the groups should have the same position relative to the exes. The Leupold passed this test with no difficulty. Furthermore, the test was a joy to shoot. Most of the scopes tested have very bulky reticles with thick center sections that obscure a great deal of the target at 8x. The center of this reticle was nice and fine.

In a power change test, the rifle is fired at two different targets with one being shot at maximum magnification and the other at minimum. The targets are then compared to make sure that the scope does not shift with regard to point of aim when the power is changed. Some shift is expected with a second focal plane scope, but a front focal plane scope, such as this one, should exhibit no shift. The Leupold exhibits no shift.

Summary and Conclusion:
On balance, the CQBSS just edged out the March as my favorite 1-8x scope. I found the glass utterly gorgeous,  the scope was easily the fastest 1-8x for close quarters use, the adjustments are excellent, and the whole package looks handsome. Most importantly, there is no area in which this scope really fails. Even the aspects of the design I would improve (such as the illumination system, the reticle design, and the weight) are not failures:  they are just, to my mind, sub-optimal. All of the other 1-8x scopes had some aspect in which they simply failed. Therefore, the question you have to ask yourself with the CQBSS is not whether it is the best 1-8x option, but, rather, whether it is worth the price of admission. The answer will depend on your budget and what particular performance aspects are most important to you. One thing’s for sure:  I’ll certainly miss this Leupold when I send it back. I’m sure I’ll have some more come in to play with though. Leupold post formation of the tactical division has my attention.

Here is Your Pro and Con Breakdown:

Pros:
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  • The optics are unparalleled
  • Two meaningful reticle choices
  • The adjustments are excellent
  • The illumination is daytime bright
  • 180 degree turn full ocular power ring with nice locking diopter
  • Handsome appearance
  • Comes stacked with extras such as the Alumina caps
  • Leupold’s excellent warranty and reputation

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Cons:
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  • Expensive
  • Illumination appears to flicker with head movement
  • Various limitations and trade offs with each of the reticles
  • No adjustable parallax
  • Heavy

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Lester (Jim) Fischer – editor, SnipersHide.com