Knowing the specific distance to a target is one of the best ways to improve your rifle accuracy. But the instrument to do that—a laser rangefinder—is a significant investment, costing $500 or more depending on the brand and the capabilities of a specific model. Here are some things to consider before buying.
Most units highlight their ability to range targets at extreme distances, but those distances are generally maximum yardage on highly reflective targets, like billboards or metal roofs. When you test a laser rangefinder at a retail counter, ask to take a test unit outdoors and range various targets in all light conditions. See how far you can get range readings on a deer-sized object with various surfaces. Try ranging a moving car or a deer-sized bush. Range targets in full sunlight but also those obscured by shade.
Most hunting rangefinders are calibrated to find the second-priority image in any given targeting situation. That’s different from golf rangefinders, which use a first-priority image system. What’s the difference? First-target systems are used for very evident targets that aren’t obscured by laser-reflecting debris. Think of a golf flag on a green. But hunters are often trying to find targets obscured by limbs or grass. That’s why you want a unit that sends the distance to the second targets it reads.
In addition to the glass inside the unit, the type and performance of the display is also a point of differentiation between brands. Some units display range and other information in liquid crystal display (LCD). Others use light-emitting displays (LED) that adjust for brightness. Also consider eye relief, field of view and the ergonomics of the unit, as well as the style and design of the reticle, or the specific aiming point that you use to range objects.
Many rangefinders are built to display line-of-sight distances but also angle-compensating distances, the difference being that when it comes to ballistics, a bullet (or arrow) can be closer depending on the steepness of the angle from the gun or bow. Many rangefinders use what’s called the “Rifleman’s Rule,” or simple Pythagorean geometry, to determine the angle-adjusted difference. But it’s worth paying more for angle compensation based on ballistics data, which has a much higher degree of precision and can be matched to the specific weight and velocity of your projectile, which are loaded into the on-board processor.