Today we’re taking a look at another precision rifle optic, the Athlon Ares ETR 4.5-30×56. Full disclosure, I did not buy this optic and it is on loan to me from a friend and fellow blogger. Though, after spending some time with it, I’ve got a mind to ask him I can buy it off of him (take that as you will).
I’m a little behind the curve on this optic, as it’s been out since 2018. But, interestingly, I’d hardly heard of it until ILya (from opticsthoughts.com and owner of the scope) mentioned it to me. I also want to be up front that I did not get to evaluate this optic at the range. My rifle is still at the gunsmith, and the realities of “social distancing” life kept me away.
Where appropriate, I’ll give a nod to others who have tested this optic out in the field.
When you look down the spec sheet, which I’ll get to below, the Ares ETR is squarely targeted at the tactical rifle competition crowd. Point for point, it attempts to steal ground away from the reigning champs of PRS entry-level scopes, the Vortex PST Gen II 5-25×50 and Burris XTRII 5-25×50.
In all, I’d say the Athlon Ares ETR does a fantastic job at that, offering a huge amount of features for a scope in its price range.
Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)
Let’s just get this out of the way. I really like this optic a lot. It checks off the box for just about everything I would ask for in a precision-oriented rifle scope, while also not breaking the bank. By the time I got to use it, I’d already committed to a Steiner P4Xi 4-16×56 as my optic for competition in the short term, but I’m very interested in picking up an Athlon Ares ETR 4.5-30×56 in the future.
That said, I do have one complaint about the reticle. The model I’m reviewing has the APRS-1 FFP Mil reticle. Granted that it’s difficult to have a single reticle work well with such a large magnification ratio, but the whole thing is very thin and hard to use at 4.5x and likewise a bit too bold and distracting at 30x.
That said, competitions scopes like this typically live around 10-20x for matches, and I found that to be the absolute sweet spot for the design of the reticle.
Who is Athlon, Anyway?
That’s a question I found myself asking quite a lot lately. It seems to me, and many other enthusiasts, that Athlon Optics burst onto the scene back in 2015 right around the time I started blogging about firearms and shooting.
If you go look at their corporate blog, particularly at the earliest posts in 2014 and 2015, you might notice a trend. There appeared to be significant engagement in early versions of influencer marketing campaigns with bloggers, influential members of certain message boards, and review aggregation sites like The Wirecutter.
I don’t say that as a bad thing. Rather I think it was pretty smart and shows that the folks at Athlon were paying attention to their audience, where they were located, and what they were reading.
As it turns out, the top guys at Athlon all have a history with Bushnell optics. The President, Kevin, was in charge of global sourcing for the brand, and came with a lot of industry knowledge about how and where to get things built. Trent, who runs sales, marketing, and operations was also a product manager for Bushnell (among others).
His LinkedIn profile, which I’m not above stalking for a review, says his role was to “Aggressively grow the business by thoroughly understanding the marketplace and by developing products that address consumer and retailer needs. “
If I’m reading between the lines a bit, and this is purely my speculation, I would bet that Kevin and Trent grew weary of working under the mega-corp thumb of Vista Outdoor, who owns Bushnell, Simmons, and many other brands.
Large multinationals like that are not very nimble and are definitely slow to adopt new and interesting directions. What better way to make an impact on the market that taking your industry knowledge and starting up your own company?
But What About the Products?
Athlon produces a variety of optics including spotting scopes, binoculars, red dot sights, range finders, low power variables, and mid to long-range optics.
All of their lines are named after Greek mythological figures or cities. And, with one exception, all of their optics, including the Ares ETR I’m looking at, are made in China. The one exception is the flagship Cronus line, which comes from one of the most well-known optic OEM’s in Japan.
While Chinese-sourced optics certainly don’t have the prestige of Japanese or European glass, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be some great products. I would wager that a significant chunk of the reputation Chinese optics have is because of companies demanding the cheapest possible price and low specs rather than an inability to produce.
Even the Philippians had a crummy reputation at one time, but now several manufacturers source from there as well.
Ok, enough backstory, let’s get to the Ares ETR review.
The Athlon Ares ETR 4.5-30×56
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled the Ares ETR out of the box. I wanted to think that coming from China would obviously mean that it was inferior. In fact, I feel like I tried to find every reason to not like this scope as much as I did. But it kept hitting all of the boxes.
The Ares ETR line officially launched later in 2018 as an upgrade to the popular mid-market Ares BTR series. Before you ask, BTR and ETR apparently don’t stand for anything. It’s just an internal designation for Athlon.
The BTR series is still around, and represents a healthy middle ground between the flagship Cronus series, which runs up to $2k, and the much more budget-friendly Talos, Argos, and Neos lines.
Reviews of the Ares BTR were generally positive, with some complaints about “mushy” turrets. Even then, the BTR punched well above its weight class given its tracking accuracy, optical performance, and zero stop.
The Ares ETR follows on later to serve as another “middle” ground (more likely a 2/3 ground) between the BTR and flagship Cronus. So what did Athlon improve upon with the ETR to warrant a $350 price increase?
The first thing was improving the turret design to solve the “mushiness.” I can confirm that the turrets on the Ares ETR feel nice and tactile.
Next, Athlon increased the diameter of the scope body from 30mm to a beefy 34mm. The objective is also 56mm as opposed to 50mm. Combined, this brings in and transmits a lot more light and allows a lot more elevation and windage adjustment.
What’s in the Box?
The Ares ETR comes packaged in a nice looking cardboard box. It’s in a plastic bag and then suspended by foam cushions at five points from tip to tail. Other than the optic itself, the box contained a CR2032 battery, lens cloth, hex key and three set screws for the zero stop, and a small manual.
In all, it’s a pretty sparse package. It would have been nice to have a sunshade or set of scope covers (as with the Meopta Optika6).
I suppose reducing the number of items in the box helps keep costs down, but for a scope that retails over the $1k mark, I would have expected a little “something” extra.
I noticed that the Ares ETR ships with a placeholder battery already in the battery compartment on the left side of the scope. I can’t say for sure why they did this, but it was something to note.
The included manual goes over basic care and maintenance, zeroing procedures, and the reticle. Nothing here is groundbreaking.
The specs of the Athlon Ares ETR are interesting, but I think they’re more valuable when you compare them to the two closest competitors that I mentioned earlier, the Vortex PST II and Burris XTR II. For reference, I’m using the MRAD version of each of these.
|Spec||Ares ETR 4.5-30x56||Vortex PST II 5-25x50||Burris XTR II 5-25x50|
|Weight||36.5 oz||31.2 oz||32.1 oz|
|Tube Diameter||34 mm||30 mm||34 mm|
|Objective Diameter||56 mm||50 mm||50 mm|
|Eye Relief||3.9 "||3.4 "||3.5"|
|Field of View (100 yds)||24.5 - 3.75 ft||21 - 4.3 ft||24.1-4.8 ft|
|Reticle Type||Mil Tree||Mil Tree||Mil Crosshair|
|Adjustment Value||.1 Mil||.1 Mil||.1 Mil|
|Adjustment Range|| 32 Mil Elevation |
32 Mil Windage
| 20 Mil Elevation |
10 Mil Windage
| 32 Mil Elevation |
16 Mil Windage
|Locking Turrets||Windage Only||No||No|
|Parallax (Focus) Range||25 yds to infinity||25 yds to infinity||50 yds to infinity|
But What do You Really Think?
I get it, you can read a spec sheet just as well as I can. So let’s get to the nitty-gritty and talk about my actual impressions.
When you look at the comparison, the Athlon Ares ETR 4.5-30×56 clearly has advantages with all of the things that matter to shooters. It has a shorter length, better eye relief, more adjustment range, and a better field of view. The other elements, like illuminated reticles, locking turrets, and the reticle are more personal preference than anything.
The only thing that the Ares ETR seems to do worse than its competitors is that it’s more than 4 oz heavier.
I guess the tradeoff had to come from somewhere.
So let’s actually get into my impressions of the key features.
The scope feels beefy in the hands. That’s not to say that I feel like I could use it as a club or a hammer, but it doesn’t feel cheap, either. The turrets feel nice to turn, with good tactile clicks. There’s enough resistance on them, as well as the magnification ring, for me to feel like they wouldn’t bump off easily by accident.
The same applies to the ocular focus at the rear. It’s got enough resistance that I’m confident it won’t move off of position unintentionally, but it’s still movable when I need it to.
The magnification ring is big and rubbery, with a nub that makes it easy to move from one position to another. There isn’t a built-in provision for throw levers, though, so expect to buy that separately if it’s something you’re interested in.
In all, it leaves me with a good impression.
Something that I really think Athlon got right here was the turrets. The elevation turret is easy to grab with a good amount of resistance and feedback as you rotate through it. The elevation knob uses an indicator system below the edge of the knob to show how many rotations you’ve been through it’s 32 mils of range.
That’s something that the Optika6 was missing, and I dinged it for that.
The windage turret is locking, meaning that you have to pop it out to rotate it, and then pop it back in to secure it. It’s a personal preference, but I really like this configuration because windage is not something I would plan on adjusting a lot in the field. Instead, I would dial elevation and then use the reticle to hold over for windage. Locking, by the way, is not locking.
On the left side of the optic is a combination parallax and illumination switch. The battery lives in a small compartment under the Athlon logo, which has subtle knurling for removal. The illumination switch has six settings, with an “off” between each one.
I’ll get to illumination in a bit.
Removing a turret cap is straight forward using either a flathead screwdriver or a coin. I thought machining it to accept small coins was a nice nod to field use.
Setting the zero stop is a matter of loosening a set screw and then adjusting it to where it needs to be.
Since this is not a shooting review and I could not box test the optic, I have to rely on others who’ve done that legwork. Reviews and tests indicate the turrets track very well, easily in the top percentage of the price class.
Reticle and Illumination
The Ares ETR uses the APRS1 reticle in a front focal plane. It’s a tree-style reticle with branching points below the crosshairs to speed up spotting and holdovers.
I grabbed the measurements from Athlon’s website so you can see them here. Hash marks appear every .2 mils, with numbered mil marks every 2 mils. It has a floating dot in the very middle.
On paper, the reticle looks nice and usable. Though I honestly prefer the layout of the Optika6 reticle designed by ILya- it seemed simpler but yet more usable. I really enjoyed the open space above the horizontal crosshair on that one. The APRS has a full line there, which makes it feel a bit more cluttered.
Since it’s a front focal plane, that means the reticle grows and shrinks along with changes in magnification. One one hand, that’s a very useful feature since holdovers and spotting impacts are always correct.
On the other hand, it presents a very challenging engineering problem to have a reticle that remains usable at the bottom magnification but doesn’t become too thick and heavy at the top end. That’s especially true of a design that has such a wide magnification ratio.
Honestly, I don’t think Athlon solved it well. At 4.5x the reticle is very fine and difficult to see. At the top end, I didn’t find the reticle itself to be too heavy, but I found the numbered mil marks to be distracting.
In my opinion, the scope has a sweet spot between 10x and 20x where the reticle is just right. That works well, though, since most PRS style shooting happens in that range.
I took the following pictures at 12:30 in the afternoon with the sun to my rear (hence the bit of lens reflection in the lower right). I drove to a local park and set up about 100 yards from a scoreboard. The scope was nestled onto a jacket placed on the hood of my car.
Please keep in mind that I’m not a pro at “through the scope” shots and had to free-hand this. Do not take these images as any indicator of optical quality, they are only for referencing the relative size of the reticle against something in the background.
I took one shot at the lowest setting (4.5x), one in the middle (16x), and one at maximum (30x)
To my eye, the reticle looks and performs best at the 16x setting. I would bet that it was intentionally engineered that way. In interviews I’ve had with PRS shooters, optics with magnification ranges like this are really meant to be used in that “middle ground” setting where they’re going to perform best optically and mechanically. Raising the maximum setting to 25x or 30x gives better performance at the 12x to 18x range where they’re most commonly used.
At the highest setting, I found the large numbers along the reticle to be very distracting.
Again, personal preference.
Reticle Subtension Accuracy
I’m not equipped to test the accuracy of the reticle subtensions. However, my research on Athlon’s history with this style of reticle tells me that it is very accurate in this regard.
With the Ares ETR 4.5-30×56, the entire reticle gets illuminated as you activate the switch. In some other optics, it might only be the center crosshair or some other subset. The ETR just does the entire thing, which I think is nice.
Furthermore, the brightness at the highest setting is very bright for an optic like this.
While getting pictures through the scope at different magnifications, I also maxed out the illumination and took a photo looking into a far off tree line. You can see from the photo that the illumination is clearly visible.
That’s not to say this is “OMG LOOK AT ME” bright like an ACOG, but illuminated precision rifle reticles are not meant to be used that way.
The red illumination is clearly visible even in the full afternoon sun. I don’t think any other precision scope I’ve handled comes close to this brightness.
General Optical Performance
With some of the details out of the way, let’s touch on what the Athlon Ares ETR actually feels like to get behind. I mounted it up on my M1A equipped with Sadlak mount and JAE-100 stock. The whole combination feels great.
The glass is clear enough to be usable throughout the entire magnification range. I wouldn’t say it outperforms my Steiner or the Optika6, but it also doesn’t make me feel like I’m missing out, either.
In fact, if I wasn’t looking at it side by side with my Steiner, I probably would have said the class was great! That said, the Steiner also lost ground as it got to its maximum magnification of 16x and showed a lot of chromatic aberration whereas the Athlon controlled it pretty well all the way through.
The eye relief on the Ares ETR feels good. I never had any issues hunting around for an eye box or feeling like I was cramped behind it.
Wrapping Up: The Final Verdict
So, the bottom line, would I suggest buying this optic. yes, absolutely and without much equivocation. The ground truth is that the Athlon Ares 4.5-30×56 does such a good job at a lot of things that I think it’s easy to forget that it’s not a $2k+ optic.
At a street price of around $1200, it easily competes against many optics much higher in price. I don’t think anyone would feel “outgunned” at a match if they were equipped with one of these as opposed to an Alpha product.
If I were shopping around right now, the Ares ETR seems like “the one to beat” in my mind at this price class. The only real tradeoff I can think of is that Athlon is a relatively new and fast-moving company that may not always be around to honor their [awesome] warranty.
The other dark horse in this race is probably the new Brownells MPO 5-25×56, but there doesn’t seem to be many of them in the wild right now.