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Nightforce FC-DM and Dark Earth: Full Review

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One of the commercial benefits of military solicitations is the direction it drives manufacturers. In an effort to win these contracts, companies will invest the time and money to develop and test the creation of new products. Sometimes the product is too specialized to benefit the rest of us, but other times it’s becomes something that we didn’t even know we wanted.

Nightforce ATACR Dark Earth 7-35x56mm F1. MSRP $3,700 (Photo by Mark Fingar)

One example of a military solicitation benefitting the commercial market was the ability to quickly change a rifle’s chambering between .308 Winchester, .300 Winchester Magnum and .338 Lapua Magnum. This was a Special Operations requirement in 2009, and the Precision Sniper Rifle (PSR) solicitation came from it. Until then, there were no common quick-­change systems on rifle actions. Remington, Accuracy International, Desert Tech and Barrett all developed rifles for that contract and, when it was over, all but Remington made those rifles available to civilians. What the commercial market realized was that being able to quickly change a rifle’s chambering isn’t life-­altering, but it’s wonderfully convenient when it’s time to replace a shot-­out barrel or experiment with a new cartridge, barrel length, and so on.

The scopes and reticle that I’ll introduce here follow that same pattern. These were developed for Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and they’re now available to civilians. Nightforce Optics (nightforceoptics.com) released several scopes with Dark Earth anodizing and a new reticle for its low-­powered variable optics (LPVO), the FC-­DMx.

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After adjusting the turrets to align the reticle with the rifle’s point of impact, remove the elevation turret cap and set the zero-stop. The procedure requires only one simple tool provided by Nightforce. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

Having a scope in a new color might sound like a nothingburger, but the military has one legitimate reason: Infrared (IR) reflectivity. As our opponents develop sophisticated ways of warfare, the U.S. must stay ahead of the enemy’s new-­found capabilities. More and more of the world is embracing the benefits of night vision (NV) equipment, and SOCOM found that black anodizing is highly visible in the IR spectrum. During the last couple of years, they’ve pushed companies providing equipment to the military to stay away from using it as a finish.

The easy fix is to spray Cerakote, a ceramic wear-­resistant coating, on rifles and optics to eliminate the IR signature. Using Cerakote on rifles is a great idea and is one of my favorite finishes, but I’ve been leery of using it on optics for a couple reasons. 

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The Dark Earth anodizing reduces the scope’s IR signature and minimizes tolerance stacking when compared to Cerakote finishes. An added bonus, the metallic sheen looks sleek. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

My first cause for concern about using Cerakote on optics is the dimensional changes that come from adding any coating to the maintube, where the rings attach it to the rifle. I’ve heard enough scope-ring manufacturers lament the variations found in dimensions on standard black anodized scopes to know that spraying paint on it won’t help these tolerances. In order for rings to get a secure grip around a scope, the radius of the rings needs to match the radius of the maintube as closely as possible. Cerakote on the maintube isn’t going to make that fit any better.

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While the FC-DM reticle (left) was designed for SOCOM, the FC-DMx (right) resulted from its feedback. The increased radius of the center circle on the -DMx improved its long-range application. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

The second reason I don’t like the idea of painting the maintube is that it changes the coefficient of friction between the rings and scope. Anodizing isn’t slippery, so it’s a great choice to keep a scope from moving in the rings as the rifle recoils. Anodizing has also been the scope finish of choice for several decades, so both ring and optic manufacturers know how to apply it well. Spraying Cerakote on a scope can change all of that and brings in a new friction coefficient. It may require changing torque values to account for the ring dimension surrounding the finish.

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Nightforce nx8 2.5-20x50mm F (Photo by Mark Fingar)

Nightforce had similar thoughts about Cerakote and stayed with what it is calling “Dark Earth” anodizing. It has minimal reflectivity in the IR spectrum, retains all the attributes of anodizing (because that’s what it is), and it looks great. The looks are what it brings to the commercial market, and that matters to most. I’m no different. I like lighter colored guns because they don’t get as hot as quickly as black guns when in direct sunlight. (That’s a lesson I learned in Afghanistan and Iraq.) Not surprisingly, I have a fair amount of rifles that are flat dark earth (FDE) in color and the idea of a scope closer in color to my rifles appeals to me. However, anodizing will never match Cerakote perfectly, which is why Nightforce left “Flat” off their “Dark Earth” nomenclature. Their scopes are a unique color, so they will look differently than a Cerakote FDE or another anodized rifle; there are many variations in color anodizing.

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The removable power adjustment lever is user installed. The multi-tool that is included also supports installing this feature. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

All of this discussion about color shouldn’t overshadow the new SOCOM-­influenced reticle in the Nightforce scopes. Nightforce originally designed the FC-­DM reticle for a SOCOM solicitation for a 1-8X scope. It has a floating dot surrounded by a segmented circle. The dot provides a clearly defined aiming point and the segmented circle provides needed real estate for the illumination system to work correctly.



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Once installed, the knurled power-adjustment lever is helpful to quickly rotate through the magnification range. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

The illumination system on a LPVO is one of the most important components of the scope because it is often the shooter’s intent to use an LPVO as a red dot when dialed to 1X. Most LPVO illumination systems that take a CR2032 battery — the most common battery used for reticle illumination — are not visible in the brightest of direct sunlight because the battery can’t power enough light to work effectively. A typical illumination system uses reflective material in the scope’s etched reticle to bounce red light back to the shooter’s eye. The problem is that a red ­light emitting diode (LED) that bathes the entire reticle and lens on which it sits in light is only working at about 20-­percent efficiency. Nightforce uses a more sophisticated diffractive illumination system that focuses the light into the reticle’s center; it works at about an 85-­percent efficiency. The result is that the CR2032 battery in the Nightforce LPVO generates enough illumination to almost be visible on the sun’s surface. (I’m only sort-of joking. It can be turned up bright though.)

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Nightforce ATACR 1-8x24mm F1. MSRP $1,850 (Photo by Mark Fingar)

SOCOM’s feedback on the FC-­DM reticle was that it needed a smaller center dot to offer a more refined aiming point, and the segmented circle surrounding it was too thick and too close to the center dot. Nightforce listened to SOCOM and made the new FC-­DMx reticle with a smaller center dot while also moving the segmented circle surrounding it away from the center. They made the segmented circle’s lines thinner and longer to keep the reticle’s total illuminated surface area the same, meaning it is equally bright as the parent FC-­DM reticle. The final result is that the FC-­DMx reticle is better for precision use while still retaining all the same properties that make it good for close-­range work when used as a red dot at 1X.

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Using the same CR2032 battery as most illuminated scopes, the reticle in Nightforce’s LPVO models can be seen — even in daylight. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

I can’t say that I’m a big fan of most of the government’s handiwork, but I do appreciate when its efforts result in better rifles and optics. In the case of these scopes, SOCOM had some good ideas. Nightforce did the heavy lifting and here we are. Nice work, fellas.





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