Your Essential Guide to Optics


Your essential guide to optics — the key to a successful hunt.

Optics have forever changed the way we hunt. They have allowed us to become highly  proficient and better hunters. We are now able to find and take game more reliably, under poorer light conditions, and at longer ranges than ever in the past.  Binoculars and spotting scopes help us find and assess game, rangefinders assist us in determining the precise range, and rifle scopes allow us to make accurate shots at distances that vary from “I can see the whites of their eyes” to ranges that can push the limits of a hunter’s skills to the extreme. But the marketplace is just so chocker block full of all but unlimited makes and models of optics that the question: what exactly do I need in the way of optics? arises. I do not intend in this column to delve into the minutia of how they work or how to use optics effectively as there just is not sufficient space to do so.  But I do intend on making recommendations on what a hunter needs in order to take full advantage of the wonderful world of optics.

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A quality pair of binoculars is as essential to a hunt as your rifle and ammunition. Well almost. They always occupy the number two slot on every optics equipment list that I prepare for each and every hunt.  I’m not sure how many pairs I have owned over the years but I presently have seven.  Far too many, but I have upgraded over the years and do have specific pairs for specific types of hunts.  However, prior to discussing optics recommendations on this or that pair of binoculars, there are a number of elementary design factors that need to be aired.

First, there are two basic types of binoculars: the Porro and the roof prism. The Porro, with their offset barrels, are usually less expensive optics choice but are bulkier because of their shape. The roof prism is more compact but requires specially coated lenses to match the sharpness of the Porros, which essentially is no longer an issue as the majority of companies now have the technology to match or better the Porro.

Prior to moving on, there are two important design features that play a central role in the usability and quality of any pair of binoculars and they are brightness and clarity.  Brightness is controlled primarily by the size of and coatings on the lenses. Generally the bigger -  the brighter they are. Next is clarity, oh so important in attaining a sharp image and in avoiding eye strain. Good optics lenses however do not come cheap, but there are trade offs. I recently did a precise comparison or “glass off” between eight pairs of binoculars running in cost from less than $200.00 to over $2000.00.  Hand held, the difference between  a moderately priced pair and the “don’t forget your credit card at home” models was not that notable.  However supported, the separation was more obvious as I could read two more lines on the optics eye-type chart that I had prepared for the test. For example, I could read nine lines out of ten rather than seven with the less expensive models. There was one notable exception to these results and that was a pair of binoculars with an Image Stabilizer. Quite remarkably, hand held, I could read eight lines out of ten as compared to three for even the best European glass.

Lastly,  I need to briefly discuss optics magnification.  Generally I prefer as much magnification as possible, however the trade off is that the higher the magnification, the harder they are to hold steady. But for me the trade off is worth it when that extra bit of magnification can find that last legal point on a buck or bull.

So let’s get right to my two optics recommendations:

  • For hunts where weight is a factor, such as mountain hunts, I would opt for a  high quality pair of roof prism compacts in either 8×25 or 10×25. The reason that I strongly suggest high quality is that even though they are very light and difficult to hold for long periods, they are sharper and you are less likely to encounter eye strain. This pair can also prove very useful for bird hunting as they can readily be carried about anywhere.
  • For most all other hunting situations, except possibly in very low light situations, a pair of 8x40mm or 10x42mm roof prism binoculars will do nicely.  I would also suggest that you additionally look for binoculars that are rubber/armour coated  and, if you are hunting  in wet conditions, are waterproof as well.  Or, if you are becoming unsteady as is the case with this writer, you  may want to take a hard look at a model with an Image Stabilizer. The quality you purchase will be very much dependant on two primary factors -  your resources and the use you will put them to. If you are either a hunter who wants the best out of their hunt or is dependant on finding game and you have the resources to do so, buy the best glass you can afford.  Look at spending more for your binoculars than you have on your rifle.  If not, a pair of mid range priced binoculars that you are comfortable with will certainly get the job done for half the price or less.

Optics: Rifle Scopes

While I have kept my recommendations down to potentially two pair of binoculars, I won’t be able be able to match that number when referencing rifle scopes. Largely because of the number of hunt, rifle and calibre choices that often require a specific scope.  For example, a number of years back I located a mega buck just inside the tree line at last light and while I could readily see it with my top of the line binoculars, I simply could not find that buck no matter how hard I tried in my rifle scope. The next day I went out and bought the brightest scope I could find.  A 4-12x-56mm in a 30mm tube with a lighted reticle. What an amazing difference!

Thankfully, most modern scopes are designed for shock, fog, and water proof integrity and can take some pretty rough treatment. However, once again, premium optics do not come without the associated price tag.  A good scope can cost as much or more than the rifle you mount it on. Often the big difference in cost is in the quality of and coating on the lenses. I would highly recommend buying from a well established manufacturer with a solid track record.  As you will note, I’m also a big fan of variable powered scopes based on their versatility alone. Ultimately with these factors in mind my  optics recommendations are based on seven primary uses.

  • .22 calibre rifle: a Rim Fire 2-7×28 or a 3-9x33mm.,with a Fine Duplex reticle.
  • Predator/Varmint Rifle: a 4.5-14x40mm Long Range, with a Varmint Hunter’s reticle.
  • Mountain Rifle: as weight and size are critical factors here – a Ultralight  2-7x28mm at a weight of 8.2 ounces or a 3-9×33 at a weight of 8.8 ounces with a  Duplex reticle.
  • Standard Big Game Rifle:  a  3.5-10x40mm with a either a Duplex or  Boone & Crockett reticle.
  • Big Bore/heavy cover rifle: 1-4x24mm or a 1.5-5x20mm with a 3P#4, LRS Fast Plex or Heavy Duplex reticle.
  • Muzzleloader: 2-7x33mm with a SA.B.R. (Sabot Ballistic Reticle)
  • Low Light/Long Range rifle: a 3-12x56mm in a 30mm tube with an Illuminated  Ballistic Plex reticle. You may also consider a scope with low profile target type turrets such as the Leupold Custom Dial System or the Swarovski Ballistic Turret.
Note: Scopes and reticles as listed are either Leupold or Burris.

Spotting Scopes

Spotting scopes are nothing short of  a very useful tool when hunting in open country.  They can save you miles of wear on your shoe leather, assist you in ascertaining the quality or legal status of an animal and, in many instances, affirm exactly what it is you are seeing or not seeing. Once again, you need to determine your primary usage.  I have, for example, two spotting scopes and over the years they have met all my needs. So I will keep my optics recommendations at two.

  • Mountain type hunts or where weight and size are a factor: a 10-20x40mm or a 12-14x50mm compact. This spotting scope can be used for just about any type hunt as well. So if it is your intention to only purchase one for both mountain and open country hunts, this is a scope that can do both.
  • For open country where weight and size are not a factor and where tripods or window mounts can be used, a 15-45x60mm or a 20-60x80mm are good choices. However, bear in mind that as you increase the power on these big scopes, mirage can become a real issue especially on hot days.


Rangefinders have gone a long way at taking the guess work out of distance estimation.  In the past and more often that I care to admit, I have missed shots at game by either over or under estimating the range. Rangefinders can assist us in eliminating this problem.  I first started out with a bulky range finder that could provide readings out to 1500 yards but soon found I was leaving it at home because of the bulk. I then went to a small compact unit that was easy to carry and provided readings for ranges out to 1000 yards. More than sufficient for all my needs but, once again, there are a couple of  disadvantages. First, it was difficult to hold on any subject other than a large object at advanced distances and second, as with any rangefinder, you just have one more piece of gear to pack around. So I bit the bullet and bought a top of the line pair of binoculars with a built in rangefinder – simply outstanding.  Unfortunately, they are not cheap. Which leads to a split optics recommendation:

  • If you can afford it, purchase a quality pair of binoculars with a build in range finder such as my 10×42’s as they will kill the preverbal “two birds with one stone”.  If not a 1000 yard compact model with True Ballistic Range will provide accurate ranges under the majority of circumstances you will encounter  including severe elevation variances.

And always remember when shelling out those hard earned bucks that quality optics will not only make you a better hunter but they will also substantially enhance your outdoor experiences.

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