Optics Buyer’s Gift Guide: Budget Scopes, Binos, and Spotters That Are Worth a Closer Look
You can pay thousands for best-in-class sports optics, but don’t overlook some excellent values at the other end of the price spectrum this holiday season
You’ve heard the old saw that when it comes to hunting optics, you get what you pay for. It’s certainly true that you can buy wonderful, heirloom-quality riflescopes, binoculars, and spotting scopes with prices to match. But in this era of exacting manufacturing, excellent quality control, and highly informed consumers, you can also buy very good optics for a fraction of the price of those best-in-class products.
These more affordable optics may not have the resolution or light transmission of the super-elite glass, and they are more likely to be made in Asia than in Europe. But our years of testing sports optics has revealed that even entry-level binoculars and riflescopes have enough light-gathering ability to serve well past legal shooting light. And many of the products in this roster offer performances that rival peers costing three and four times as much.
If you doubt that competition in the optics market has been very good for budget-minded buyers, check out these hard-working, affordable binos, scopes, and spotters.
The benefits you get with this entry-level binocular from a classic brand go beyond the adequate glass in the Prostaff 3S. You also get great customer service and a no-questions warranty backing the build. You also get the benefit of decades of optical design and excellent coatings. What’s lacking are the amenities; the straps are disappointing and the lens covers are flimsy. But spend another $50 on an aftermarket harness, and you’ll still be into a utilitarian binocular for under $200.
Consider this binocular from Bushnell’s mid-tier product line the second step in the evolution of an optics owner. It’s not entry-level, but it’s not super-premium, either. Instead, it occupies that satisfying “just-right” middle of the spectrum, priced attractively and delivering some key features. One is the glass. Unlike Bushnell’s Prime line, the Nitro features ED Prime glass and a higher-grade phase coated roof prism. The controls are precise, and the gunmetal-gray chassis is distinctive and appealing. We like the 10×36 configuration for ample magnification in a slightly smaller package than the standard 10×42.
This is a killer price on a European-made binocular with full-featured extra-low dispersion glass and the same quality coatings you’ll find on Meopta’s upper-end MeoStar line. The controls are tight and reliable and the lens grinding is first-rate, which means you’ll see less peripheral distortion than in other binoculars at this price point. The field-worthy armor is grippy. The eye cups are a bit boxy for our liking, and the Czech-made MeoPro feels very square in hand, but those are small considerations on an otherwise excellent and affordable optic.
New for this year, this is a surprisingly well-appointed optic at this price. The Frontier ED X costs less than many Asian-sourced binoculars that aren’t nearly its equal in style or optical performance, and during the 2018 Outdoor Life optics test, some evaluators suggested that Hawke has underpriced this sweet bino. Its glass is very good, though we noticed some edge distortion, but Frontier ED X’s exterior styling is noteworthy. The charcoal chassis and control looks classy, and the brushed-silver touches offer a nice contrast. The two-position eyecups are smooth, stay in place, and have a pleasing taper that will fit most eyes.
One of the most reliable blue-collar optics on the market, this new scope from Bushnell features very good light transmission, 1-inch tubes, and tight, repeatable turret controls. The kicker is that Bushnell uses the same EXO Barrier hydrophobic and oleophobic (oil-repelling) lens coatings in its entry-level Prime line that they put on their high-end Forge line. This 4-12×40 configuration covers most big-game hunting situations, and the plex reticle—Bushnell calls it the Multi-X—is clean and simple.
For under $400 you get all the benefits packaged in more expensive Leupold scopes, including rigorous durability testing, the brands’ twilight-enhancing optical coatings, lifetime guarantee, and a free custom dial for the elevation turret, so you can dial shooting solutions for your specific load. The duplex reticle in the second focal plane is clean and fast, and the 3-9×40 configuration built on a 1-inch tube is one of the best all-around magnification ranges on the market.
This jewel of a riflescope is a step up from an entry-level model, with excellent Japanese extra-low dispersion glass and crisp, precise turret adjustments. It’s built for a discerning hunter who is conscious of weight and doesn’t need a mother-ton of reticle references or external controls. What you get is a simple, pared-down scope that offers either a duplex or a 3-step SHR holdover reticle in the second plane. At 12.4 ounces, with classy brushed-nickel touches on a matte-black 1-inch tube, this scope would be right at home on a mountain rifle.
You could quibble that a $900 riflescope isn’t a bargain, but consider all the features you get in this very good optic from one of the giants of the European optics tradition. For starters, the ZBR-2 reticle features a huge amount of reference for long-distance shooters, but because the reticle is in the second focal plane, it also has plenty of utility for hunters who want to use holdover references for longer shots. You also get precise reticle illumination and parallax adjustment in this 30mm scope, and you get very precise turret controls based on MOA increments. Lastly, you get Zeiss’s proprietary lens coatings and a very good warranty.
For more gift ideas, see our Holiday Gift Guide.
Big, clear glass does not come cheap, which is why 80mm and 85mm spotting scopes often retail for well over $2,000. But for a serious big-game hunter, birdwatcher, or long-distance precision target shooter, that big glass is necessary to resolve distant targets in low-light conditions. Vortex has brought to the market a full-size, full-featured spotter for about half the going rate, but without sacrificing optical quality or substandard controls. We compared the Viper HD against big spotters from Zeiss and Swarovski, and while those Euro brands outperformed the Asian-sourced Vortex, they didn’t win by as much as you’d expect considering the thousands of dollars in price differential. The Viper has a very crisp center-ring focus and smooth power changing in the interchangeable eyepiece.
This spotter has been attached to a tripod for the last several months, since it punched above its weight at the Outdoor Life optics test. It’s become my go-to shooting range spotter. It’s short and compact enough to easily fit on my pickup seat, where it’s proven its durability after holding up to months of gravel-road bumps and enthusiastic dog trampling. The two-speed focus is tight and precise, and the angled eyepiece makes it a joy to use on a shooting bench. The eyepiece I have—a 15-45X zoom—is perfect for most spotting jobs, and the 65mm objective lens is large enough for good low-light viewing but not as big or as heavy as an 80mm-class spotter.