I was looking out the window of the rolling truck trying to determine if there were any bucks among the does in the back of the field. I asked my dad if he had any binoculars in the cab.
“Look behind the seat,” he said.
I pulled out a bulky barreled set of Bausch & Lombs. The things were dinosaurs: wide porro-prism optics at least 15 or 20 years old. I laughed at their physical size, got him to pull the truck to a stop and scanned the field in the ebbing daylight. The binos worked, certainly, but left me wishing I had my Nikon Monarchs with me. Even though the old Bausch & Lombs were a larger power, there was no comparison when it came to the clarity and light transmission in comparison to my Monarchs.
The smaller, yet newer binocular was vastly superior. But then, anything made within the last decade will far surpass the classic models of the late 20th century.
“This is a great time to be a consumer,” says John Mullett, product director for Bushnell‘s outdoor line of products. With the company for 14 years, he knows a thing or two about optics. “The quality and features in the binoculars you can buy now for $300 would have cost you $1,000 just 10 years ago.”
As with most technology, once-high-end features such as quality roof prisms and coatings have trickled down from the most expensive models, the features become available in even some of the most baseline price point units.
COATINGS ARE KEY
Coatings are pretty much the cutting-edge driving improvements in today’s optics, according to Thomas McIntyre, author of the soon-to-be-published Shooter’s Bible Guide to Optics. “There is only but so much you can do with glass. The glass on a 30-year-old Zeiss is as good as it is today, but the coatings aren’t.”
Indeed the No. 1 factor in making optics better, whether for binocular, riflescope, spotting scope or even laser rangefinder, is to improve light transmission. Better light transmission translates to better clarity and detail, as well as optimal low light performance.
“The types of coatings and multiple coatings are what really makes a difference,” says Jon LaCorte of Nikon Sport Optics. “You definitely want nothing less than fully multi-coated lenses.”
Until recent years, however, that wasn’t the case. Many lower end models had coatings just on the front (objective) and rear (ocular) lenses. However, whether it is a binocular with prisms or a riflescope, there are multiple interior lenses designed to flip the image back as you would see it with the naked high. As light passes through each lens, some of it is ultimately absorbed.
“A rifle scope can have 10 lenses,” LaCorte said. “The more lens elements, the lower the light transmission because each lens absorbs some of the light.”
If each lens is coated with an anti-reflective material, then less light is absorbed. More light can pass through each lens. With fully multi-coated lenses, some optics models are boasting as much as 98 percent light transmission. This was barely achievable by even the best models on the market only 20 years ago.
Waterproofing, fog-proofing and shock-proofing are other advantages that today’s optics have over the past. Most models today are argon- or nitrogen-purged and better sealed to prevent any moisture from leaking inside the tubes of the optic.
Bushnell has taken that process even a step further with their RainGuard HD coating, which prevents fogging on even the exterior surfaces of the objective and ocular lenses.
Of course, the coatings need to be applied to top quality glass. Nikon, being a “glass” company, makes their own, and LaCorte said they are better able to control the tolerances and materials that go into building them. That said, even companies that outsource their glass, which is most of them, are using glass that the average consumer wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from one to the other.