Hunting Optics


A hunting guide in Alaska once told a buddy of mine, “If I had a thousand dollars to spend on a gun, I’d put a hundred dollars into the rifle and the rest into the scope.” That perspective is certainly extreme, but the old adage about getting what you pay for applies more fittingly to optics—rifle scopes, binoculars, spotting scopes, range finders—than perhaps any other category of hunting gear. The modern hunter spends a lot more time trying to locate game than he does trying to kill it, and you shouldn’t skimp on these tools of the trade. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t realize the importance of good optics until I was well into my twenties. I just figured, like a lot of guys do, that glass is basically glass and that differences in quality could hardly justify the extra expense of premium brands. But my mind was thoroughly changed one August day when I was hunting caribou with my brothers and some buddies on the North Slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range.

We were butchering caribou meat in our camp when someone noticed a grizzly bear coming up the opposite bank of the river. My friend Chuck and I both scrambled to set up our spotting scopes so we could all take a closer look. Mine was a Chinese-made cheapo, but Chuck had a Leupold Gold Ring scope (plus a set of Nikon binoculars) that he’d acquired the previous fall while working for a moose guide in southwest Alaska. After a few minutes, everyone was waiting around for a chance to see the bear through Chuck’s scope, while I had mine all to myself. Curious to see the difference, I waited my turn and took a look through Chuck’s scope. I wouldn’t have been any more surprised if I had looked in there and seen a Martian. The bear in Chuck’s scope seemed to be an entirely different animal from the one I’d been looking at, even though we were both using the same magnification and lens size. Through my scope I could see that the grizzly had a brown muzzle, but with Chuck’s I could see that its nose was moist like a dog’s and that it had a small scar above its upper lip. With my scope I’d been able to tell that the bear was basically a sort of blondish color, but with Chuck’s I could see that it was actually tri-tone, as its coat faded from chocolate near the body to blond at the tips of its fur. But what struck me most was the way that the bear’s hair parted in cowlick-like patterns that roved across the animal’s body with each gust of breeze, a thing of great beauty that had been invisible to me through my scope.

Through the rest of that trip, I didn’t miss an opportunity to do a sort of Pepsi Challenge between Chuck’s optics and mine. Each time I did so, I noticed something different. While images through my spotting scope and binoculars were always a bit hazy around the edges, Chuck’s offered crystal-clear images out to the edge of the field of view. While mine had a shallow depth of focus, Chuck’s enabled me to look at objects at varying distances without having to constantly tinker with the focus adjustment. And while my optics were rendered basically useless by intense glare whenever I looked in the vicinity of a rising or setting sun, Chuck’s stuff somehow managed to control that effect, allowing me to keep glassing during those early morning and late evening periods when animals tend to be most active. These attributes didn’t just mean greater enjoyment watching grizzlies, as fine as that is. They also meant that I’d be able to find more game and see it better, which is another way of saying that good optics make you a better hunter.


Good binoculars should provide you a crystal-clear image of whatever you’re looking at, be it 10 yards away or 1,000. They should not fog easily. They should not cause your eyes to ache after a day’s use. They should be glare free, even if you’re using them in the evening when the sun is low above the horizon. They should provide an ample depth of focus, meaning you’re not constantly fussing with the focus knob every time a deer takes a few steps closer to you or farther away.

Binoculars are usually described with two numbers separated by an x. For instance, you might see binoculars described as 8×32, 10×40, or 12×50. The first number, the one that precedes the x, refers to magnification. The second number, after the x, refers to objective diameter. This is typically given in millimeters.

A collection of high-quality optics and accessories.

A: Large spotting scope (Vortex Razor ED 85 mm).

B: Lightweight spotting scope (Vortex Razor HI) 50 mm).

C: Tripod and head (Outdoorsmans compact medium tripod with Outdoorsmans pan head).

D: Lens wipe with stuff pocket. E: Binoculars (Vortex Razor HD 10×50). F: Range finders (Vortex Ranger 1000 is an affordable option; Leica Range-master 1600 is a high-dollar choice). G: Binocular chest carrier (Bino Pouch by Alaska Guide Creations).

Magnification, of course, is the magnifying power of the binoculars (or rifle scope or spotting scope). A pair of 10x binoculars, for example, produces an image as if the viewer were ten times closer to the object, while 8x magnification produces an image as if the viewer were eight times closer. The amount of magnification you need depends on how you are using your binoculars. If you intend to freehand your binoculars Locking (use them without a tripod), stick to 8x and 10x models. With any more Diopter magnification, the image is likely to appear shaky. Deciding between 8x and 10x is a matter of personal preference. As a general rule, though, 8x are great for eastern hunting applications, while the extra power of 10x binoculars comes in handy when surveying the wide-open expanses of the West.

As for the objective diameter, a pair of binoculars will produce increasingly brighter and sharper images as the objective diameter increases. A pair of 8×40 binoculars, then, will produce a brighter and sharper image than an 8×25, even though both enlarge the image an identical eight times When shopping for binoculars, you’ll see that many models are offered with three different objective diameters: 30, 40, and 50. (Or 32, 42, and 50.) For general, all-around use, an objective diameter of 40 is hard to beat. If you don’t rely too heavily on binoculars and you value lightweight gear, go with the 30 or 32. If you feel naked without a pair of binoculars against your face and you don’t mind the extra weight, Objective Lens go with 50.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind when shopping for binoculars:


1. Roof prism vs. Porro prism. Prism design refers to how an image is “righted” after passing through the objective lens of the binocular. You can easily tell them apart because roof prism binoculars typically have two straight barrels, while Porro prism binoculars have barrels that bulge out beyond the eyepiece. (Porro prism binoculars look more old-school; that’s what your granddaddy had.) Porro prism binoculars will produce a brighter image than roof prism binoculars of the same magnification, objective size, and optical quality. However, roof prism binoculars are generally lighter, narrower, easier to hold, and better able to withstand abuse and water intrusion. Most manufacturers of quality hunting bin-oculars stick with roof prism designs, and you should, too.

2. Phase correction coatings are used in roof prism binoculars to enhance resolution and contrast. (Porro prism binos do not benefit from these coatings.) When buying roof prism ‘nocs, make sure they have phase correction coatings.

3. A quality rubberized armor coating will provide a secure, nonslip grip and external protection. Make sure your ‘nocs have it.

4. Quality optics are filled with argon or nitrogen to eliminate fogging inside the binoculars. Make sure your ‘nocs have it.

5. Spend the money and buy binoculars with a lifetime warranty. Manu-facturers that back their products with such force are usually building a product of value. Some of the companies will charge you for parts to repair a broken piece, while others, such as Vortex Optics, have an unconditional no-charge warranty: they will repair or replace damaged or defective products at no charge regardless of how it happened or whose fault it was.

6. Consider a chest carrier. Although many hunters still use a simple padded neck strap to carry their binoculars, there are much better alternatives. Chest carriers keep your binos handy and bounce-free, even when you’re crawling on your hands and knees or squirming under a
fence. The device also has a few small pockets for essentials such as a lens cloth, diaphragm calls, a lighter, and an extra couple of rounds of ammo.

7. Get a tripod for your ‘nocs. No matter how stable you think you are while freehanding your binoculars, you’re actually not. Wind, fatigued muscles, heavy breathing from exertion, and even your own pulse all make your binoculars jiggle around like a nervous chipmunk. If you don’t believe me, mount your binoculars on a tripod and see the difference. With the stable platform, you’ll start noticing small movements in the surrounding landscape that would have escaped your notice with a freehand hold: a chickadee flitting around in the bushes across a field, a porcupine uncurling from its slumber in the crotch of a distant tree, the slight twitch of a buck’s ear in the shade of a juniper. Try this method and you are virtually guaranteed to spot more game. For an excellent tripod and adapter system that are compatible with most binoculars.


Spotting scopes are not vital to hunting heavily timbered country, where visibility is limited to a couple of hundred yards, but when it comes to hunting open country they have several important functions. When I’m glassing big spaces with my 10x binoculars, I’ll make a mental note of any areas that I couldn’t quite pick apart to my satisfaction. These might include thick patches of cover, shaded areas beneath rocky overhangs or downed trees, or just interesting shapes that are hard to discern with my binoculars. Then, when I’m done with my initial scan, I’ll bust out my spotter and give these areas a careful, up-close examination. The second great benefit of having a spotting scope is that you can analyze critters you’ve already located. This is especially important when you’re dealing with legal size and sex restrictions. When I’m hunting for does, either at the request of a landowner who doesn’t want to kill his young bucks or because I have an antlerless-only deer tag, I use my spotting scopes to make sure that I’m not mistaking a small spikehom buck for a doe. And when it comes to hunting mountain sheep and moose, a spotter is great for determining whether an animal is of legal size. In much of the West, bighorn sheep need to reach three-quarter curl size in order to be legal; in Alaska, moose usually need to have either three or four brow tines (or a 50-inch overall spread) to be legal. In these situations, you want all the eyepower you can get. The difference between having a spotting scope and not having one can be the difference between having a dead animal and going home empty-handed.

When selecting a spotting scope, you should weigh your concerns about image quality against your concerns about portability. If you’re strictly a long-range backpack hunter who humps into the Brooks Range, get a spotting scope that weighs around 2 or 3 pounds with an objective lens not greater than 60 mm and variable magnification of approximately 10x-30x. If you’re a truck hunter who prowls the wide-open expanses of the Texas Panhandle, an 85 mm scope weighing 7 pounds with variable magnification of 20x-60x will suit you just fine. If you’re looking for a single scope that can do it all, it’s hard to beat a 65 mm spotting scope with variable magnification of about 15x-45x. (In truth, most spotting scopes, even the highest-quality ones, have a distorted image at their highest magnification settings. It’s a dirty secret of the optics world.)


Carrying a range finder helps you eliminate uncertainty about distances when shooting rifles or bows. When you know the actual distance to the target, you’ll have more confidence in taking the shot—or you’ll know that it’s too far away to risk it. The best models have a function that gives you the line-of-sight distance as well as the horizontal distance. When it comes to calculating the gravitational drop of a bullet or arrow during flight, the horizontal distance is all that matters; an angle-com-pensating range finder factors the line-of-sight distance as well as the look angle in order to give you this measurement. (Imagine yourself sitting on a 45-degree slope while looking downward at a deer that’s 300 yards away. An angle-compensating range finder will give you the true horizontal distance—again, the only one that matters—of 250 yards.) Another thing that differentiates a good range finder from a bad one is the device’s ability to detect a small target. A range finder might boast a 1,000-yard capability, but then it only works when you’re trying to range house-sized objects at that distance. Before buying a range finder, test it out. At the very minimum, you should be able to get a reading on a deer-sized target at whatever your maximum comfortable shooting distance is. While there are several good range finders on the market, the Leica Rangemaster 1600-B is one of the finest units ever produced for rifle hunters. If you’re on a tighter budget or you’re a bowhunter, check out the Vortex Ranger 1000.



Range finders can come in handy when planning stalks on distant animals. By taking a reading on the animal itself, as well as various topographical features between you and it, you can select prime shooting locations that lie within an optimal shooting distance of your prey.


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