Hunting optics don’t exactly sell themselves. Binoculars and riflescopes all look pretty much the same on the outside. And their interior attributes are so confusing that you can be excused if you zone out as a clerk talks about resolution, aspheric lenses, chromatic aberration, hydrophobic coatings, and the importance of correcting for parallax. Huh?
Here’s what you need to know about optics: You should have them in order to be a more effective hunter. And you can spend thousands of dollars on them. But you also need to know you can find relative bargains for much less money that will offer tons of performance. This piece is designed for savvy shoppers who want to stretch their dollars and ensure they go home with quality glass that will serve them for years.
The first thing you should know is that some of the premium optics brands got to their position through decades—centuries, in some cases—of producing high-end optical products. Zeiss, for instance, started making microscopes well before it manufactured its first riflescope or spotting scope. For its first century of life, Leica was better known for premium German cameras than binoculars.
These European companies commonly manufacture their own optics using high-end components, including glass and coatings. Based on most empirical measurements, their products perform better than their competitors. They also tend to cost more than other brands.
Most non-European brands don’t actually manufacture their own optics. This is one of the big secrets of the optics world and it’s something that you should know when you step up to the counter at a sporting goods store. The Bushnell binocular you’re looking at might have been made in the very same Asian factory as the Nikon binocular in the next case. In fact, they may be identical products internally, the only differences being exterior styling and the brand’s logo.
Most clerks at sporting goods stores aren’t going to tell you about cloned products, if they even know. Here’s the second big secret of the optics world: some clerks may be paid by certain brands to hawk their products rather than those of a competitor. That’s why it pays to do your homework, ask smart and revealing questions and have a few ways that you can differentiate optics when they’re sitting in front of you and the clerk is pressuring you for a buying decision.
KNOW YOUR BUDGET
There’s a truism in optics that you get what you pay for, and you can pay a lot for premium glass. But you also get a lot of optical horsepower for the money with most high-end brands. Bring a realistic budget to your game, but also realize that if you end up settling for a ho-hum brand that’s offering a great deal (or a killer rebate) you might regret the purchase when you can’t see that deer in the last seconds of legal shooting light or when the eyecups fall off your binocular as you stalk an antelope.
You should also consider an optic’s warranty as you make your buying decision. It used to be only a few brands offered a fully transferrable, no-fault warranty. Vortex was one of the first to allow the owner of an optic—even if they weren’t the original buyer—to send it in for free repair or replacement if there were any defects. The service became so popular that it gave Vortex a competitive advantage. Soon, most other brands followed suit. Make sure a solid warranty accompanies any purchase.
KNOW HOW TO IDENTIFY JUNK
Before we get into the features you should look for in optics, you should know how to spot a pig in the poke, an optic that might have a cool logo or even name brand, but which won’t perform up to your expectations in the field.
The best tool for this inspection is your phone’s flashlight (or, if you’re old-school, a small penlight). Hold any optic—doesn’t matter whether it’s a riflescope, binocular or spotter—so that the objective lens (that’s the big end, not the end you’d normally look through) is pointing toward you. Shine your light down into the instrument, through the objective lens, and you should see a kaleidoscope of colors. Reds, greens, violets and others. Those are the anti-reflective coatings doing their job, breaking down the white light of your flashlight into individual colors of the spectrum. If you see bright white light shining back at you, that’s a good indication one or more lens surfaces are uncoated and that’s a sign of a cut-rate optic.
Now, look more closely down the objective-lens end of the optic. See if you can spot dust, grit, or other foreign objects trapped inside the instrument. I’ve seen fingerprints, grease and even a hair by doing this. Optics should be relatively clean and clear of any debris. If you see much, that’s an indication of shoddy manufacturing.
Lastly, heft the optic. That’s right—sort of weigh it in your hand. Does it feel light and unsubstantial? It may have thin or even plastic lenses. Does it feel hefty and durable? That’s a good indication that it’s well-made and contains good-quality glass lenses. It’s a highly subjective assessment, but the “feel” of an optic is often a good indication of optical performance.
KEY FEATURES: RIFLESCOPES
OK, now that you can dismiss the junk of the collection, you are narrowing your selection. But some optics are purpose-built for disciplines that may or may not interest you and you don’t want to pay for attributes you won’t use.
Take riflescopes. The rise of long-distance, precision target shooting has created a relatively new class of scopes with features you probably don’t want if all you intend to do is hunt brush-country whitetails. So be sure you have a sense of the end use of the optic to ensure you don’t pay for features you’ll never use.
Back to precision riflescopes: most are built on big, robust tubes, 30mm or even 34mm in diameter. The girth ensures there’s abundant room for elevation and windage adjustment but, if you’re a walk-about hunter, you may not need all that capability and the extra weight will just bog you down. Precision riflescopes usually feature first-focal-plane reticles. That means the crosshairs get bigger as the magnification increases and smaller as the magnification decreases, a key attribute if you’re either using the reticle as a rangefinder or if you’re basing your distant shot on references, like minutes of angle (MOA) or milliradians (mil). But, if you’re a hunter who doesn’t intend to take overly long shots, you may want a second-plane reticle, which stays the same size as you zoom up or down the magnification.
Consider, too, external focus control. That’s the third knob, usually located on the left-hand side of a riflescope, that focuses the image at various distances. If you don’t expect to shoot at an animal beyond 100 or even 200 yards, this knob is probably superfluous since most scopes are factory-focused at 100 yards.
There’s an arms race in the riflescope industry to bring to market products with wide magnification ranges but you don’t always need what’s offered. An example: the old 3-9X riflescopes had a three-times magnification range. Three times three is nine. Later products had a four-times magnification range (4-16X). Now, brands are bringing five-times zoom (5-25X) and even six-times zoom (3-18X). All that variability costs money. If you need it, great. But if you don’t, then stick with a more restrained magnification range and spend your money on attributes that matter.
KEY FEATURES: BINOCULARS
There isn’t nearly as much differentiation within the world of binoculars as with riflescopes, but you should know the difference between binos containing porro prisms and those with roof prisms. Most modern, compact binoculars are roof prisms, which allow the lenses to be close together. Porro prism binos are wider and bulker and the objective lenses are set more widely apart than the eyepieces. For walk-about hunters, roof prisms are the way to go.
How about magnification? Most bino models are produced in both 8X and 10X versions (with a new class in the 12X and 15X range). For most purposes, 8X binoculars will offer a good mix of magnification, field of view and brightness. If you’re a bowhunter who will be doing a lot of one-hand binocular work, go with an 8X. If you’re a Western hunter who wants a bit more magnification, consider the 10X models, which generally cost a bit more than 8X peers.You don’t want those high-power 12X and 15X models unless you can stabilize them with a tripod or other mount to minimize the shaking caused by human hands. They’re heavier, bulkier and more designed for long sessions of glassing at distant targets, like Southwestern Coues deer.
Lastly, consider objective lens size. That’s the second number in a binocular’s configuration: An 8x32 has a magnification of 8X and an objective lens of 32mm. Similarly, a 10x50 has 10X magnification and a 50mm objective. The larger the objective, the more light the unit will receive, and therefore the brighter the object you’re viewing. Go with larger objectives if you’ll be doing a lot of glassing at dawn and at twilight when there’s little ambient light in the sky.
KEY FEATURES: SPOTTING SCOPES
High-magnification spotters are essential tools in the right conditions—when you’re trying to field judge a distant elk or figure out if that wide-racked mule deer is big enough to stalk. They’re also handy on shooting ranges to see exactly where your distant shot hit the target without walking downrange. But they’re also probably the last piece of glass a hunter needs to acquire.
You’ll need to choose between sizes. Do you want a compact 60mm spotter or a larger, heavier, yet more powerful, 80mm or 85mm scope? And you’ll need to decide whether you want a straight or an angled eyepiece. I’m partial to angled eyepieces, because they’re more versatile in the field. You can rotate them around to get above or below the scope, or turn between your partner when you’re sitting side by side so you can both look without moving. But straight eyepieces are easier to aim at your target, minimizing hunting and pecking while panning around the landscape.