In the world of hunting optics, we are blessed with the finest products ever made, at great prices and with a myriad of options. It can be difficult and daunting to try to select the right binocular or riflescope for our individual needs given the virtually endless catalog of products. Compounding this selection process is the fact that none of us ever took “Optics 101” in school. We acquired most of our knowledge either by trial and error or by listening to our mentors (who didn’t take “Optics 101” either). There are a lot of myths, lore and sales hype to ferret out to get to an informed choice on what to purchase or carry. Let me try to help out with a little knowledge and experience gained from 45 years of hunting and several years as an optics dealer.
In the course of a year, I’ll attend several hunting shows and conventions running my booth, including our annual event in January, and have a lot of fun talking with folks about their optical wants and needs. Some folks don’t have a clue while a few others could almost design a riflescope, and as usual, most folks fall somewhere along the bell curve in their knowledge of optics. Then there is the flood of marketing information tainting everyone’s opinion of what they need and what they must have in order to kill their next trophy. What I will try to do here is debunk some of the myths and calm some of the marketing hype and help you determine what you need to get the job done.
Your optics are simply tools and the task at hand is to find which tool is the right one for your job. Any mechanic will have a whole box full of tools so that he has the right tool for his jobs. A Phillips head screwdriver is a wonderful tool, but not if you need a 9/16” wrench. Thankfully, we don’t need a whole box full of optics, but we do need to acquire the right tools for the way we hunt. There is way too much ground to cover in one article, so if you enjoy what I can share with you, let Jaimey Bills in the DSC office know and I’ll keep this up monthly and go into greater depth on various subjects. Let’s see if we can have a little fun with a dry (waterproof) subject.
Yes, you need one. The guy at the low end of the bell curve will tell me he doesn’t need a binocular, he’ll just use his riflescope – I’ll never hunt with that man! I don’t like loaded guns pointed at me, which will eventually happen with this guy. Besides, his “glass” weighs around 8 pounds, isn’t handy, and only works with one eye. There is a synergy happening when you use both eyes and you can see much better than twice what one eye can see when you use a binocular. So what do you need? Depends. Will this be a general purpose tool or for a specific type of hunting such as all-day glassing for Coues deer? I generally recommend an 8x42 for general purpose use and whitetail deer hunting and a 10x for the Rockies, but for that Coues deer hunt, a 12x, 15x, or even 20x bino can be just the right tool. Bowhunters may opt for a 6x25 or 8x32, but these sure wouldn’t be my first choice for a rifle elk hunt. So what do these numbers mean – great question, especially if you’re not sure. Let’s touch on this a bit and figure out why they’re important.
The first number is the magnification of the bino, such as 8x or 10x. This is how much bigger or how much closer it will appear compared to the naked eye. A 10x (or 10 power) bino will make an object 100 yards away appear like it is 10 yards away. The second number is the diameter of the front, or objective, lens, in millimeters. OK, so what? The bigger this lens is, the more light it can take in and transmit to your eye, making the image brighter. This is great for sizing up that buck at the crack of dawn. At this point, the uninitiated will say “Well, give me a 15x56”. Hold on there, Buckaroo: the first law of optics is There Is No Free Lunch. Everything in the optics world is a trade-off, a give and take. The more magnification you have, the closer it will appear, but the narrower the field of view, the dimmer it will be and the harder it is to hold steady. Kind of like trying to drink that hot cup of coffee while driving down a bumpy dirt road. The bigger the objective lens (the second number) the brighter it will be, but it will be bigger and heavier than a smaller lens. So the job at hand is to find the best numbers for what you will be using the bino for.
Once you have the size of your bino figured out, the next consideration is lens and prism coatings. In a nutshell, the more, the better, and you definitely want “fully multicoated” lenses and not just “multicoated” or “fully coated”. They all mean something different, but the only way to go is fully multicoated. In future articles, we’ll talk more about lens coatings as well as phase correction, waterproofing, European versus Oriental optics, why one 8x42 might cost $45, the next is $350 and the last is $1500, as well as many other aspects of selecting and using binos.
Ah, here’s where the marketing hype has really exploded is recent years. This is where you need to separate your “wants” from your “needs” from your “what you think you want”. Keep in mind that Jack O’Conner killed almost everything in North America using a 4x scope. OK, there’s the bottom line, but he may not have had A/C in his car back then either. There’s room for improvement.
Much of what was said above about binoculars applies here – the numbers, and picking the right tool for the job. For decades, the 3-9x40 reigned supreme for big game rifles and is still an outstanding size for the vast majority of big game hunting. If the scope manufacturers had just stuck with this size and concentrated on improving optical quality (generally lens coating), we would all still be whacking critters with regularity, but in an effort to capture more market share, they also increased (1) magnification, (2) objective lens size, and (3) gadgetry in their scopes. This isn’t all a bad thing, but one needs to keep the first law of optics in mind here, too (There is No Free Lunch). A 6-24x50 Tactical scope is great on a prairie dog gun, but has no business on a general purpose big game rifle. With this scope, a 6x low-power minimum on a general purpose gun can be too powerful for still hunting, following up wounded game or running shots and usually, a 50 mm objective lens destroys proper gun fit since they require “high” rings for the front of the scope to clear the barrel and this ruins the “cheek weld” one needs for proper gun fit. Having a 3-9x40 or 4-12x40 alleviates these problems and has all the magnification needed to make a sure shot.
As far as reticles, or crosshairs, are concerned, give me a standard duplex. The rage is the bullet-drop-compensating or mil-dot reticle, but for my money the duplex does everything I need on a big game rifle. In the right hands and in the right situation, these new reticles can be wonderful tools, but they can be confusing in the heat of a shot, some obliterate a clear sight picture, and quite often are just not accurate. Often, you’ll see one of these scopes with extra horizontal bars for 200, 300, 400 and 500 yards, but how can they be accurate if I put one on a Weatherby .257 magnum shooting an 87 grain bullet at 3600 feet per second and you put the same scope on a 30-06 shooting 180 grain bullets at 2700 feet per second? Applying the KISS principle to this problem, with most bolt action rifles and calibers, if you will sight in 2 inches high at 100 yards, your bullet will be in the “kill zone” on most game out to 250 yards and about 8 inches low at 300 yards. If the game is farther than that, get closer - or – there are a few tricks that accomplish the same thing without the gadgetry or turret adjustments.
On dangerous game rifles, it’s hard to beat the 1-4x or 1.5-5x scope with heavy crosshairs or a post. Since most of these critters are really big and you shoot them from really close, magnification isn’t critical, but field of view and sight picture is, and when trying to draw down on a black buffalo in low light under the trees, the scope really helps with shot placement. If you’re lucky enough to have a double rifle, scope it only if you really must, but definitely research what open sights work best for you and have that installed. There are better alternatives to the ivory front bead, and your cookies may be on the line with this gun!
Many a savvy gun pundit will tell you to buy the best scope you can afford. I disagree, and here’s why. Buy the best binocular you can afford and get a good riflescope. An active hunter may use his binos 1,000 times a season but only put his riflescope into play a dozen times or less. With binos, you have both eyes gathering light and giving your brain a signal rather than just one, making the judging of trophies easier. It’s like HD TV versus analog. Once you have determined with your bino that the third deer on the left is worth taking, all your scope must do is confirm the third on the left and place the bullet where you sighted it in for.
That’s about all we have time for this month and we’ve barely scratched the surface (which is usually not a good thing to do in the optics world) but we’ll delve deeper into things optic in the coming months. All the big name optics companies are making great products these days. Our job is to find and use the right stuff.