Hunting Optic Options

Hunters know that their glass should be a better quality than their gun. With an investment like that, make sure you're getting the right tool for the job at hand.

Every fold of ground opened new views into the habitat. On the far slope, we counted more than 20 deer, in two's and three's, feeding in the late afternoon light.

Author Gary Lewis caught a glimpse of this running coyote in the sagebrush, picked it up in the Trijicon riflescope, led it with the lighted triangle reticle and dropped it with one shot. Photo courtesy of Gary Lewis.

One buck fed out into the open from a clump of blackberries, then disappeared in the shade of a black oak. Two more bucks fed together on a flat halfway up the slope.

Lance said we'd make a stalk on one if we failed to find the buck we were after.

"He was on this hill, beyond those thistles on the edge of that little valley. We'll find him," he said.

Across the canyon a doe fed out of a streambed. Two hundred yards away, another doe and twins nibbled blackberries along an old two-track.

Light was failing fast. In 45 minutes or less the sun would be gone. We moved quickly and checked each drainage as we reached it.

Ryan peered through his binoculars. "There. In the corner of that field. A buck coming down the fence line."

Lance stopped and picked up his glasses. He was silent for a moment. "That's the buck we want," he said. "And on this side of the fence is another that might be just as good. They're probably 600 yards out."

We started down the hill, in the shadows of the oaks. Near the bottom of the valley, we paused and then checked our quarry with the binoculars. The bucks had bedded, one on our side of the fence and one on the other.

Belly down beneath an oak tree, I rested the rifle on my fanny pack. With his rangefinder, Lance shot the tree behind the deer -- 300. That meant the buck was at 298. I dialed my scope to 8X and snicked the safety to fire. A neck shot was the best option.

My ears pounded with my pulse. I had to be careful not to transmit that energy to the trigger. Crosshairs steady, the trigger broke and the scope filled with an orange bloom.

The buck lay still, while the other stood, stiff-legged, head high. He ran a few yards then stopped to look back. In another moment, he had disappeared. We started down the hill and across the canyon.

With a lesser scope, I would not have attempted the shot. But in the last 10 minutes of daylight, the glass allowed the transfer of light to my eye and rendered the darker line of the buck's neck visible at 8X.

From the swamps to the beanfields, from the coast to the high plains and mountains, how we hunt big game and predators changes from region to region. Constrained by law, some hunters turn to short-range firearms to put deer in their sights and in their freezers. The telescopic sight suited for a 300-yard shot is the wrong choice for a shotgun hunter in a tree stand.

There has never been a better time to shop for optics. Today's hunter has more options than ever. Looking for the right glass to top your rifle, muzzleloader, shotgun or handgun? Let's examine three categories of sights -- riflescopes, red dot sights and holographic sights -- and the conditions where they are best employed.

Advantage: High magnification
Disadvantage: Slow target acquisition

You're looking at black bears 1,000 yards out as viewed through the lens of a Leupold Mark 4 riflescope. The reticle is a proprietary design by hunter Darrell Holland. The new generation of reticles allows hunters to take a lot of the guesswork out of long shots. Photo by Gary Lewis.

Set a tree stand in a grove of hardwoods and shots are likely to be close, from 10 yards to 50. Here, the hunter wants to engage the target as fast as possible. Open sights work, but require a good amount of light to put them to use. And older eyes have a hard time when it comes to picking up the front sight in failing light.

Optics companies recognize the need for short-range sights and offer scopes suited for slug guns, muzzleloaders and shotguns. Light and compact, they come with a low-power variable that ranges between zero magnification and five- or six-power. Nikon's offering in this category is the 1.65-5X SlugHunter.

Alpen's best choice for turkeys and big game at short range is the budget-conscious Kodiak 1.5-4.5x32. Dial it down to 1.5X when shots might present at 10 yards or less. Dial up to 4X if deer are expected at 40 or 50 yards or more. Low-power variables are popular with dangerous game hunters and are built rugged to handle slug gun and magnum rifle recoil.

Leupold's UltimateSlam, in a 3-9X configuration, provides a modified duplex reticle with six aiming points between 50 and 300 yards, tailor-made for muzzleloaders.

Handgun hunters are well-served by low-power optics for shots that range out to 100 yards. Eye relief -- the distance between the eye and the eyepiece -- is the important factor for the handgunner. Eye relief for the handgunner ranges between 9 inches and 26 inches. Handgun scopes are offered in fixed two-power, fixed four-power and variables that range up to 8X. A simple crosshair is the most common reticle installed in low-power dangerous game and handgun scopes.

Advantage: Long-distance precision
Disadvantage: Bulk

If a rifleman wants to reach out to 100 yards or beyond, the field of optics options expands exponentially.

Standard equipment, for rifle hunters across the country, is a 3-9X variable scope with a duplex reticle. Thus equipped, a hunter can dial down to 3X for snap-shots in heavy brush and up to 9X for taking a long-distance shot from a bipod or an improvised rest. Another option is to set the scope at 4X and leave it. Variations on this theme are available, with a compact 2-7X scope from Leupold or the 3.5-10X variable from Zeiss. Swarovski expands the field with a 1.7-10X unit that allows the hunter one scope for several hunting scenarios.

One interesting new product is the Redfield Revolution. Leupold builds this 3-9x40 scope on the same machines they build their other products. The scope they sent me for testing was equipped with the Accu-Range reticle, a duplex with a small circle and a mil dot for additional aiming references.

In recent years, a proliferation of reticles has made it a challenge to choose between brands and models within a brand. The good news is that, when used correctly, the new reticles can take the guesswork out of shooting at long ranges.

Leupold offers four duplex variations, as well as a Mil Dot, Tactical Milling and Illuminated Tactical Milling reticles, among other options available.

Zeiss offers several versions of their Rapid Z reticle to help a hunter deal with elevation and windage challenges. Among Swarovski's reticle offerings is their BRX Ballistic Reticle System that provides 10 reference points in the form of bars and dots.

New from Burris is the Eliminator LaserScope. The hunter can select from hundreds of cartridge ballistics to match his load to the scope. At the push of a button, the scope ranges to the target and indicates the hold-over with a lighted red dot that appears in the vertical reticle.

Trijicon's approach to riflescopes was to simplify, with a concept developed by their founder. The Bindon Aiming Concept employs a simple post topped by a triangle. Lit by ambient light through a fiber optic coil, the reticle is quick to find in low light and fast on target. The Trijicon post is great on running deer and a good choice for coyotes in the sagebrush. In the last three years, Trijicon has added traditional crosshair-type mil dot reticles enhanced by fiber optics for quick target acquisition.

Advantage: Fast target acquisition
Disadvantage: No magnification

Red dot sights, also called reflex sights, were invented by hunters for hunters. The military adopted the technology after the speed of the system was proven in combat.

The red-dot system shines brightest when shots are likely at 75 yards or less. With the right hardware, e-sights can be mounted on handguns, shotguns and bows, as well as rifles, making them the most versatile sights since iron sights.

Anytime a hunter would use irons, and at the same distances, he or she could employ an electronic sight for faster target acquisition in a wider range of lighting conditions. Another advantage is that the hunter, with both eyes open, keeps a natural view of the target and the surroundings. For hunters with older eyes, an electronic sight can extend a career a few more years by making it easier to get the sights on target.

Simple in principle, the red-dot sight system includes a concave lens with a thin metallic coating that reflects red light, but transmits other colors. The red dot reticle is a reflection of a light emitting diode (LED) inside the sight tube that appears projected upon the target.

A set of polarizing filters attached to the sight helps the shooter adjust the brightness of the target by reducing the amplitude of light waves that pass through the unit.

Elevation and windage adjustments are made by moving the diode/lens unit in a horizontal or vertical direction.

Red-dot sights are battery-powered, most often with an inexpensive 2032 type, 3-volt lithium. Trijicon's Dual Illumination RMR uses a battery or fiber optics to gather light. Most red-dot sights are mounted with a Weaver-type mount, while others use traditional rings and bases. The TruGlo Dual-Color Saddle Mount Sight is built to fit Remington 1100, 11-87 and 870 12-gauge shotguns.

Red-dot sights come in two main variants: tubes and heads-up displays. Some units allow dual color capability and multiple reticle options at the turn of a rheostat. You can adjust brightness to up to 11 different levels. TruGlo offers a two-power red dot sight. Aimpoint and EOTech offer magnifiers that mount behind a 1X sight to convert a short-range system for long-distance use. Aimpoint's Hunter H34 is a red-dot sight housed in a full-length riflescope configuration with a 34mm objective.

Advantage: Smaller reticle than reflex
Disadvantage: High battery draw

Holographic sights and red-dot reflex sights are two different technologies that solve the same problem. Unlike the red-dot sight, the holographic sight uses a hologram to project the image of a reticle to the target plane.

Built for speed and close-range action, the holographic sight picture is displayed on a heads-up screen. A flat glass panel forms a window through which a laser-transmitted hologram is projected. The laser is spread out by a lens and shines backward to superimpose a reticle on the image -- "virtually" on target.

The aiming reticle and target appear on the same focal plane. The heads-up display stands taller than a typical tube, which means the unit cannot be mounted as low on the weapon as a typical red-dot scope. Unlike most telescopic sights, holo-sights allow the hunter to keep both eyes open while the reticle is suspended within the full field of view.

Since a laser is used instead of an LED, the reticle can be a smaller dot. In fact, a laser-generated reticle may be a vertical series of dots for bullet drop compensation, a triangle or a dot within a ring.

Lasers use more power than an LED of equivalent brightness, which means battery life is going to be shorter with a holo-sight than with a reflex.

E-sights are gaining favor with hunters. Mounted atop a modern sporting rifle, a handgun or a shotgun, they are a great close-range option for deer, predators, turkeys and small game. (Check local regulations prior to hunting. Battery-powered e-sights are legal in some states and not in others.)

We hunters are accustomed to "making do" with the equipment at hand. The optics we choose represent compromises between what we need, what we want and what we can afford, but technology has solved many of the problems we face.

Laser technology can extend the years we spend in the field and good glass can provide the light we need to make shots that would have been impossible a few years ago. Competition is making excellent optics available to the hunter. New developments -- and more options for the hunter -- are inevitable.

Gary Lewis is the author of John Nosler: Going Ballistic. For a signed copy, send $33.95 (includes S&H) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709

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