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.
BETTER RIFLE SCOPES
In addition to better coatings and light transmission for improved low-light performance, riflescopes have undergone a number of improvements. The majority are being driven by the current popularity in AR-style rifles.
"The tactical market has had a huge impact on rifle scope development," says Bushnell's Mullett. "Today our Elite scope line has 15 or 16 models designated as 'tactical,' where just a few years back there was only one."
Some of the many changes being driven by tactical interest are larger diameter scopes to allow more reticle adjustment for longer-range shooting; the addition of more models with zero-stop turrets for in-the-field adjustments, more illuminated reticles for faster target acquisition, particularly in low light; and a wide array of reticle offerings, many that provide for some sort of ranging function to compensate for bullet drop.
Another feature being seen across several product lines, include crossover functions such as actual laser ranging scopes and binoculars. However, in the case of the binoculars, such features can certainly add to the price. In rifle scopes, it can add to the size of the tube as the internal workings have to be beefed up to accommodate recoil. The Eliminator Riflescope by Burris is an example of a scope with a laser rangefinder and bullet-drop compensating reticle built in.
On the binocular front, improved coatings on prisms and better designs have led to more and more affordable models of roof-prism binoculars. These binos have straight barrels, are more compact and have adjustments on the bridge so you can use your thumb to focus.
"It used to be very expensive to get a good roof-prism binocular, but now you can get a great quality model for around $300," said Mullett.
This has also led to more ergonomic features that provide better balance and feel in the hand, as well as improved eye relief and comfort during extended glassing sessions. Binos in Kowa's SV series are light and have easy-to-grip depressions in their rubber amour. That's a far cry from the slippery, clunky binoculars of the past.
In the area of laser rangefinders, the size of units alone has mirrored the ever-shrinking cell phone. In fact, many of today's models aren't much larger.
Technological advances, such as angle compensation, is one extreme notable improvement to rangefinders in the past 10 years. If you're shooting at steep angles, the LRF gives a truer measure of the distance between you and your quarry.
Improved technology has also benefited users of spotting scopes, who thanks to better coatings and prisms can get the same performance from more compact models, a real benefit when lugging it on all-day hunts. For etching out the finest details at extreme distances, image stabilizing functions in many top models today are without peer when it comes to pinpointing an animal-sized object sometimes miles away.
"There really isn't a whole lot of junk out there anymore," says McIntyre. "Anybody with any name out there in optics is making some pretty good stuff."