Hunting Optics 2003

Days of field tests showed some clear winners and great buys.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

A binocular should be the number-one item on any hunter's gear list, with the rifle coming in about tenth after such items as a warm sleeping bag and comfortable footwear." So says international hunting consultant Jack Atcheson, and to his statement can be added the fact that without a telescopic sight the modern hunting rifle would lose approximately 90 percent of its long-range and low-light effectiveness. Spotting scopes are somewhat less essential than either binoculars or riflescopes, but they are still extremely useful items, particularly when hunting in vast, open country or when sighting-in.

Given the essentialness of hunting optics, our goal here is to provide you with the results of a series of product tests that are both meaningful and objective. Most of the items our panel evaluated were production models, although some (as noted in the charts) were advanced prototypes with rough spots that manufacturers were still in the process of ironing out.

Though meaningful, the "Editor's Choice" designations should not be your sole consideration when choosing personal hunting optics. For example, when looking over the test results, you'll note that the instruments that garnered the highest ratings, including all but one of the Editor's Choices, tended to be those with oversized objective lenses. (The exception was in compact binoculars, which were judged separately.)

The inescapable truth is that instruments with larger objective (front) lenses tend to be optically superior: 1) because larger lenses gather more of the available light, based on their relative surface areas, which, other factors being equal, results in brighter images; and 2) because they are innately capable of producing sharper images through better resolution. The greater light-gathering capacity of a larger lens is analogous to accumulating more rainwater by switching to a larger pan size-increase the pan's diameter and you increase exponentially the amount of water you're able to collect.

The reason larger objectives produce sharper images-doubling the objective diameter doubles the theoretical resolution-is too complicated to explain here, but decades of optics testing have shown me that the principle works unerringly well.

Also dominating the ratings were those instruments with higher magnifications. This was particularly true of binoculars for which we couldn't level the playing field by using identical powers during the low-light performance tests. (See "How We Test Optics," opposite page) The caveats regarding larger objectives and higher magnifications are: 1) instruments with oversized objective lenses tend to be very big and heavy; and 2) those with higher magnifications tend to have narrower fields of view and are much harder to hold steady.

In any event, it is important to study the tables in their entirety, paying particular attention to the attributes that are most apt to affect your hunting style. These include exit-pupil diameter, size, weight, field of view, eye relief and, of course, low-light performance and resolution. Choosing the right hunting optic usually involves compromises.

It's also important to remember that what we are reporting here is how individual products performed under specific tests on a given day. Some of these models are prototypes. Once many of these new models are in full production, products you purchase may perform better or they may not. That is why it's important to compare both brands and individual products by the same maker before you buy.

We are frequently asked whether premium-quality optics, costing anywhere from about $800 to $2,000, are actually that much better than otherwise-similar low-priced optics, costing from $80 to about $500. There are no definitive answers, but the first rule is that you tend to get what you pay for, which isn't to say that certain items aren't either grossly overpriced or outstaing bargains. Hopefully, our "Great Buy" designations and price-value ratings will provide some much-needed guidance.

When explaining the difference between price and value, investment guru Warren Buffett once said, "Price is what you pay. Value is what you get." When paying more for optics, the values that you have a right to expect include better optical performance, better materials, better workmanship, more stringent quality controls, greater durability, first-rate customer service and no-nonsense warranties. The second rule is that smart shoppers seldom pay the manufacturer's suggested retail price for anything. It pays to shop around!

How We Test Optics
As always, our goal was to evaluate each instrument with the utmost objectivity, which meant setting aside personal preferences and prejudices, particularly regarding brand names and national origins. Sport optics have many uses, but our primary focus remained, as always, on hunting. Quantifiable characteristics, such as length, weight, eye relief, resolution, etc., were measured precisely. Resolution, for example, which is the keystone of optical performance, was measured in seconds of angle using a USAF 1951 Resolving Power Test Target. And, to compensate for the deficiencies of human vision, a 3X auxiliary telescope was used behind the instrument's eyepiece, thereby tripling the magnification.

Low-Light Tests
The low-light performance tests, which we believe accurately duplicate real hunting conditions, were conducted in natural evening light at a distance of 100 yards. The target-a 10-inch-diameter disk covered with alternating inch-wide black-and-gray stripes-was rotated every few seconds (keeping the tester's eyes honest) to determine how many minutes after sunset the orientation of the lines remained visible. The caveat here is that although the rankings would remain similar on other evenings under different lighting conditions (changes in sky light, location, time of year, etc.), the minutes of visibility after sunset would, no doubt, change considerably. In other words, it is a great test for side-by-side comparisons under specific but non-repeatable circumstances.

Leveling the Field
To eliminate the often-misleading effects of higher magnifications (which can reveal smaller details in low light while simultaneously reducing the intrinsic brightness), all spotting scopes were tested at 20X. Likewise, whenever possible all riflescopes were tested at 6X, the sole exception being the Sightron SII 36x42 BRD. The binoculars were, of course, tested at their existing magnifications, except for the Leica Duovid, which was tested both at 10X and 15X.

Tracking and POA Shifts
Riflescopes engender additional concerns, arising from the fact that their primary purpose is to serve as precision aiming devices. The primary factors here are tracking and point-of-aim (POA) shift, which are combined in one rating. Tracking refers to a scope's ability to respond with repeatable accuracy to changes in the windage and elevation adjustments. Accordingly, 40 clicks on a scope having 1/4 minute of angle (MOA) increments should move the crosshairs 10 inches on a 100-yard target. POA shift refers to unwanted changes in the scope's point of aim that can occur during power changing or parallax adjustments. POA shifts of less than 1/2 MOA are considered good for scopes used on big game. Both tracking and POA shifts were measured with a precise collimator of the type used by scope manufacturers.

Other evaluations, such as ergonomics, aesthetics, applicability and price-value ratings, are less scientific in that they reflect the opinions and tastes of the testers. To better understand the testing procedures and optical jargon, see the optics glossary at [XLINK "Gear"].

Scoring Products
Finally, each product was scored independently by every member of our test panel, using a 100-point scale. Scores for each instrument were then averaged to reach its final score. To keep the test team as objective as possible, panelists were not permitted to discuss any products being tested until after all scores and written comments had been turned in. All products were promptly returned to the manufacturers upon completion of our tests.

BINOCULARS (Full-Sized)
Looking for trends in this year's array of binoculars and noting that four of the nine full-sized models had magnifications of above 10X, we hastily concluded that it was simply a further sign of the American hunter's insatiable lust for higher powers in almost everything. That may be true, except there's nothing new about high-powered binoculars. Proof is seen in the 1931 Carl Zeiss catalog of "field glasses," which, together with the standard power/ objective configurations, also featured 12x50, 16x50 and 18x50 models. So, instead of breaking new ground, we may simply be witnessing the natural proliferation of models that occurs as existing binocular series mature.

Typically, a new series begins with 8X and 10X full-size models, which are the most popular. The next models introduced will usually be similar-powered compacts, and finally, assuming the series is successful, there will be 12X, 15X or perhaps even 20X models. Then, after an existing series has run its course, a new series will start the process all over again. (New models are, after all, the lifeblood of the sporting-goods industry.)

Exemplifying the start-over phase is Brunton's new high-end Epoch series, which begins with the 7.5x43 (tested) and 10.5x43 models. The Epoch's notable features include variable-speed focusing, near focusing to 36 inches, FogGuard anti-fog lens coating, long eye relief with locking multistep twist-up eyecups, a 2X extender and a super-tough Pelican hard case. Also new and very promising is Steiner's Peregrine series, which premieres with 8x42 (tested) and 10x42 models. As the name Peregrine implies, it is intended for birdwatchers, who, if anything, are more sophisticated about optics than hunters are. The Leica Duovid 10+15x50 is a more powerful version of the Duovid 8+12x42, which was the 2002 Editor's Choice.

BINOCULARS (Compacts)
Many of today's compact binoculars are astoundingly good, but why give them a separate category? For the same reason that Coues deer get special recognition by the Boone and Crockett Club. Namely, because no matter how good they are, they simply can't compete with their overgrown cousins.

Should compacts be thought of as serious hunting binoculars? A critical study of the test results should answer that question. Their resolutions, though not equal to those of full-sized models, were in all cases considerably better than the visual acuity of average human eyes (60 seconds of angle) est panel, using a 100-point scale. Scores for each instrument were then averaged to reach its final score. To keep the test team as objective as possible, panelists were not permitted to discuss any products being tested until after all scores and written comments had been turned in. All products were promptly returned to the manufacturers upon completion of our tests.

BINOCULARS (Full-Sized)
Looking for trends in this year's array of binoculars and noting that four of the nine full-sized models had magnifications of above 10X, we hastily concluded that it was simply a further sign of the American hunter's insatiable lust for higher powers in almost everything. That may be true, except there's nothing new about high-powered binoculars. Proof is seen in the 1931 Carl Zeiss catalog of "field glasses," which, together with the standard power/ objective configurations, also featured 12x50, 16x50 and 18x50 models. So, instead of breaking new ground, we may simply be witnessing the natural proliferation of models that occurs as existing binocular series mature.

Typically, a new series begins with 8X and 10X full-size models, which are the most popular. The next models introduced will usually be similar-powered compacts, and finally, assuming the series is successful, there will be 12X, 15X or perhaps even 20X models. Then, after an existing series has run its course, a new series will start the process all over again. (New models are, after all, the lifeblood of the sporting-goods industry.)

Exemplifying the start-over phase is Brunton's new high-end Epoch series, which begins with the 7.5x43 (tested) and 10.5x43 models. The Epoch's notable features include variable-speed focusing, near focusing to 36 inches, FogGuard anti-fog lens coating, long eye relief with locking multistep twist-up eyecups, a 2X extender and a super-tough Pelican hard case. Also new and very promising is Steiner's Peregrine series, which premieres with 8x42 (tested) and 10x42 models. As the name Peregrine implies, it is intended for birdwatchers, who, if anything, are more sophisticated about optics than hunters are. The Leica Duovid 10+15x50 is a more powerful version of the Duovid 8+12x42, which was the 2002 Editor's Choice.

BINOCULARS (Compacts)
Many of today's compact binoculars are astoundingly good, but why give them a separate category? For the same reason that Coues deer get special recognition by the Boone and Crockett Club. Namely, because no matter how good they are, they simply can't compete with their overgrown cousins.

Should compacts be thought of as serious hunting binoculars? A critical study of the test results should answer that question. Their resolutions, though not equal to those of full-sized models, were in all cases considerably better than the visual acuity of average human eyes (60 seconds of angle)