The 8 Best Spotting Scopes of 2018
We put the top spotting scopes for hunters to the test
From top-end, highly priced products that incorporate new designs to familiar spotters that offer great performance at bargain rate, this field of new spotting scopes has a little something for any big-game hunter or long-range shooter.
With this first-rate mashup of a binocular and a spotter, Swarovski has solved one of the enduring problems of optics: eyestrain. The BTX eyepiece, which allows users to settle in behind the scope is one component of Swarovski’s modular ATX/STX spotting-scope system. Swap out the monocular eyepiece of the standard system for this new both-eyes-open eyepiece and you’ll find yourself almost falling into the stunning image it delivers.
Key components of the BTX include an adjustable cushioned forehead rest, two eyepieces that can be adjusted for interpupillary distance and eyecup extension, and a graceful angle that allows users to rest their heads on the optic.
The BTX is a fixed-power eyepiece. Fitted to the 95mm objective in our test sample, the eyepiece delivered a 35X magnification. With either an 85mm or 65mm objective, it delivers 30X. This means you can’t zoom in on distant objects, but at 35X, we had no problem seeing detail in low light and glassing effectively in the middle of the day when heat waves cause distortion at higher magnifications.
All this utility comes at a hefty price—the eyepiece runs about $2,800, and the 95mm ATX/STX objective we tested costs another $2,100. At a bit over 3 pounds for the eyepiece alone, it’s heavy. But if you accept the premise that the longer you glass, the more you see, then Swarovski might be credited with more and bigger game for its users.
Given that we’ve seen iterations of this scope in previous years from Alpen, Cabela’s, and others, we expected to be underwhelmed. But the Vortex outperformed peers priced several hundred dollars higher. The Viper HD scored very well in both low-light and resolution tests, and was one of the clearest full-size spotters in the field. Its design is derivative but lovely, and it includes a functional, gracefully angled eyepiece, a single-speed midbarrel focus wheel, and a zooming eyepiece with a positive eyecup. Optically, the Vortex delivers a fine image at lower magnifications; above about 45X, the image degrades and caused testers eyestrain. Still, for a very good, hard-wearing full-size spotter, the price is excellent.
This compact full-size spotter from Burris has a lot going on. Its most noticeable attribute is a removeable plate on either side of the two-speed focus knob. The plate accepts Burris’s FastFire or any similar red-dot sight to aid in fast target acquisition. How does it work, you ask? Once you align the focal planes of the scope and the sold-separately sight, you fire up the sight and point the illuminated red dot at your target. That reference should allow you to quickly find the target in the spotter’s eyepiece, no matter the magnification.
The second thing you might notice is the class-leading eyecup. Other brands could stand to borrow from the infinite adjustability of the cup. The Signature HD is shipped with a separate fixed 30X eyepiece, which offers wonderful optical clarity and a wide field of view.
The rest of the spotter is pretty ordinary. The angled eyepiece has both coarse and fine focus controls, which we found to be a bit spongy, though we did like the positivity of the zoom control on the variable-power eyepiece. We also noticed some internal marring, evidence of sub-par machining. The Burris turned in decent optical scores, but nothing that really differentiated it from the rest of the class.
There’s nothing wrong with this first spotter from Bushnell’s new brand alignment. But there’s nothing to especially fall in love with on this 80mm Forge, either. It’s sort of like that arugula pie from the new pizza place on the corner. Not bad, but also forgettable.
Let’s start with the porro prism design. That’s the dog-leg configuration that steps down from the straight eyepiece to the objective-lens barrel. It’s a derivative design, but Bushnell handles it well, with the Forge’s magnification control on the eyepiece and a two-speed focus control that allows a viewer to feather the focus without jarring the image. We liked the modern brown-and-black pebbly textured armor and the stylish nickel accents on the hardware.
We weren’t crazy about the image the Forge delivers, though. The spotter scored in the lower third of low-light performers and turned in a disappointing resolution score, surprising for its ED Prime glass. For a big 80mm objective, which should be bright across the magnification range, the image turned dark and grainy above about 40X. We’d also like to see a larger tripod plate.
But the Forge’s price is fair, and the image is decent, and the amenities—including the rubberized objective-lens cap—add distinction to this otherwise average spotter.
A handy intermediate optic between a binocular and a full-sized spotter, this 1.6-pound hunting companion is light and compact enough to go almost anywhere. The question before our optics testers, though, was whether it was up to the do-everything task. The conclusion: not quite, mainly because of doubts about its durability.
Optically, the Endurance ED won’t set anyone’s hair on fire. It’s decent, and actually turned in a better low-light score than most testers predicted. But we noted some scratching on internal lenses, some edge distortion, and flaring. The image turned murky above about 18X.
More significantly, we worried about the durability of the plastic/polymer body and the distended two-speed focus control, which juts out of the body like an appendage, and could be subject to bending or breaking. The fingertip operation of the dual focus control, however, is satisfyingly intuitive.
Still, if you’re looking for an optic that will extend the reach of your binocular and won’t take much room or weight in your pack, the Hawke is priced right and should give you at least a year or two of honest work. We hope.
At first glance, this appears to be either a rubberized mortar tube or an especially well-protected canteen. But the second glance, plus the addition of a little pulling and turning, reveals a handy spotting scope inside all that olive-drab armor. Twist the barrel of the optic and pull, and the 13-inch optic extends to an 18-inch straight-tube spotter, almost like Captain Hook’s brass telescope in Peter Pan.
What the collapsible design allows is extreme compactness. That’s an attribute that will appeal to backpackers, backcountry hunters, and (especially given all that rubber armor) most truck hunters in the country, who might keep the Meopta behind their seat until they want to get a closer look at something beyond their windshield.
The TGA75 ships with a 20-60 zooming eyepiece, which has tons of utility for almost all glassing jobs, from confirming hits at the target range to judging high-country rams. But you can also get a fixed 30X eyepiece with a ranging reticle that is well-configured for spotting long-range shots and calling corrections to the shooter. Optically, the Meopta is decent, scoring in the top three in both low-light and resolution testing.
The retro feel of the draw-tube Meopta actually has tons of real-world utility. The rubber armor is squishy enough to be wedged into the crook of a tree or other found support, negating the necessity of a tripod for long-range spotting. And at 2.75 pounds, the TGA75 is light enough to add to a backpack without feeling like it’s useless weight. Meopta says the optic is not waterproof, but rather water resistant. But protected by the tight-fitting armor, we’d take this spotter out in the worst weather and expect the best performance.
This mid-sized spotter delivers good mid-level performance for a rock-bottom price. The brushed-metal body is solid, and if the metallic finish isn’t especially field-worthy, the pebbled black armor helps subdue its bling and provide grippy purchase. The eyepiece on our model looks undersized, but the reason is because the 15-45X unit also fits on Vanguard’s 82mm spotter, in which case it spans the 20-60X magnification range. The rubberized controls—power control, eyecup, sun shade, and two-speed focus—are nice touches, but we noted significant sponginess in the focus.
The image delivered by the Endeavor ED is adequate, posting resolution and low-light scores in the middle of the pack. We noted some jags of flared light, possibly because of some scratches on internal lenses.
But overall, this is a priced-right and well-fashioned iteration of a very useful spotting scope, sized right to fit into a hunting pack and provide reach well beyond binoculars without the bulk and weight of a super-sized spotter.
In life, sporting events, and OL‘s optics test, someone has to take second place, and this year—by a very narrow margin—it’s Zeiss’s investment-grade spotting scope, the excellent Harpia 95. The Zeiss finished just behind the equally remarkable Swarovski BTX. The spotters settled in a dead heat in low-light competition and both were at the head of the class in resolution scores. But the test team concluded that, while it’s an excellent rendition, the Zeiss is a fairly traditional spotting scope, while the Swarovski’s dual eyepiece represented a quantum leap for the category.
But about that Zeiss. The 95mm objective lens is perhaps the most lovely and exquisite piece of glass in the history of our test. We liked the extremely wide angle of the image—about 72 degrees across the entire zoom range—as well as the elegant lines and tasteful texturing of the angled barrel. The center-barrel two-speed control is intuitive and allows users to zip between close and far focus, and then feather in the fine focus without introducing shake to the optic. But some testers questioned the field utility of the two-speed system, wanting more tactile feedback when making the image sharp. The testers noted that the focus system works great in most conditions, but could be frustrating in time-dependent conditions or in cold weather while wearing gloves.
The Harpie is heavy. At 4.6 pounds, it’s a beautiful beast. But that weight is mainly glass, very bright glass that will allow you to count antler points well before and after legal shooting light. Is it durable enough for field use? Will it perform when the chips are down? Those were questions we struggled to answer in our test, but which introduced just enough doubt to nudge the Zeiss just slightly into second place.