The Best New Spotting Scopes of 2021, Tested and Reviewed
This year’s collection of spotting scopes is light on innovation, but includes some raging bargains
The modest spotting scope may be the last category of sporting optics to resist the integration of electronics. What you see, with most of these spotting scopes, is what you get.
This is despite the fact that non-electrified optics are becoming a quaint throwback. Consider the rise of binoculars with either a laser rangefinder or image-stabilization pack as part of their operation, or riflescopes that have Bluetooth connectivity to a mobile app. Spotters remain much as they’ve been rendered since the days of Copernicus, an analogous system of magnifying lenses and prisms to sharpen and correct the image.
What Makes a Good Spotting Scope?
Where you’ll see the greatest innovations in spotters is their affordability. Used to be, you could count on spending $2,000 or more on a bright, durable spotting scope. But submissions to this year’s optics test average about $850, and that includes some super-sized 80mm and 85mm units.
Spotting scopes really have just one job, but it’s a doozie. They are designed to help us see far and clearly. Everything that a quality spotter brings to this task—from clear and well-coated lenses and its smooth and precise focus to its range of magnification and even its tripod mounting hardware—factors in its performance.
How We Test the Best Spotting Scopes
The task of Outdoor Life’s optics testers is to determine which spotters are worth the money, and which ones are expensive afterthoughts by brands that would rather manufacture riflescopes. We do that by using scopes in the real-world conditions of eastern Montana. We mount them all on tripods and use them to scout mule deer, find missing cattle, and to spot targets at precision rifle matches. We use them in dusty, difficult conditions, and assess their durability, ergonomics, image quality, and mechanics.
Then we take these spotters to our optics lab to measure their resolution, or how finely they can see details of a distant target. Lastly, we gather all the spotters together, mount them on tripods, and measure their low-light acuity. We do this on multiple evenings, then average the results.
We award our Editor’s Choice title to the spotter that achieves the highest overall score. And we give the Great Buy award to the optic that has the best Price/Value score, our way of highlighting the spotter that brings a ton of performance for its approachable price.
The Best New Spotting Scopes of 2021
Full-sized spotters this year from Vanguard, Vortex, and Bushnell are in the $400-500 range, and all deliver a very good image and will provide years of service to backyard birders, big-game hunters, and long-distance rifle shooters. On the high end of this year’s submissions, Tract’s $1,500 TORIC UHD will compete with European spotters costing twice as much. And Bushnell has reinvented the tactical spotter with its excellent Elite Tactical LMSS II, which features a first-plane milling reticle to assist long-range target spotters call shots for their firing-line partners. Here’s a look at the entire category.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Tract TORIC UHD 27-55×80
The latest in a line of premium optics from this direct-to-consumer company, the TORIC UHD spotter features the butter-smooth controls that have defined its binoculars and riflescopes. This full-size angled spotter is built around premium Schott high-transmission glass with an ED (extra low-dispersion) objective lens.
Unlike many lower-end spotters, the Tract has a removeable eyepiece, which means users can easily replace the 27-55x zoom eyepiece with a fixed 22-power or 30-power eyepiece that contains a MRAD ELR reticle to assist long-distance precision shooters. In a typical range session or steel-target competition, the spotter would call shots for his or her partner, and the milling reticle enables the shooter and spotter to communicate using the same terminology, sight picture, and measurement nomenclature. The fixed-power eyepieces are available for separate purchase direct from Tract. The 22x costs $294; the 30-power is $344.
The TORIC’s mechanics are among the best in the business. Many removeable-eyepiece spotters have a clumsy system to mate the eyepiece with the scope’s body. Some use fine threads that can be hard to seat and easy to cross-thread or a quick-detach bayonet mount like that of a camera that tends to get sloppy after years of hard use. Tract incorporates a bayonet mount inside a locking collet that utilizes a rubberized skirt for both positive grip and to keep dust and debris out of the guts of the optic. It’s fast, clean, tight, and easy to use, like most of Tract’s ergonomics. The scope’s aluminum/polycarbonate chassis is light in weight but strong, and should hold up to years of honest use.
The image delivered by the TORIC was the best in this year’s test (which did not include submissions from European brands), and the Tract battled with the 85mm Vortex for low-light honors. Colors were sharp and vivid, and there is minimal vignetting or peripheral distortion at higher magnifications.
Other noteworthy attributes of the Tract include its velvety mid-barrel focus and three-step eyecup extension, its positive barrel rotation detents, and its nicely positioned tripod foot. The TORIC has an extendable sunshade and features a pebbly graphite-colored armor. We’re also happy to see its magnification limited to realistic zoom range. Many spotters have eyepiece magnifications that zoom up to 65x and even 75x, but in almost all practical uses, that extreme magnification is not useful, because it exaggerates heat mirages and makes images unbearably dark and grainy. Even at 55x, the Tract delivers a fairly bright and crisp image, though testers noted that the sweet spot for this spotter is from about 35-40x.
Given that this is the first spotting scope offering from Tract, we’re eager to see future iterations of this platform, including a 65mm mid-sized scope, in the next years.
At $1,494, the 80mm TORIC is not an inexpensive scope—and in fact was one of the priciest in this year’s test. But we felt it was a fair price for the optical quality and pleasing mechanical operation of this spotter, and with the addition of a fixed-power eyepiece with ELR reticle, it’s the perfect companion for a beginning or experienced PRS shooter.
We’re happy that Tract’s first spotter is in line with the fine optics and precise operation of its riflescopes and binoculars.
GREAT BUY: Vortex Diamondback HD 20-60×85
This new full-sized spotter from Vortex does many of the things that its siblings—the Razor HD and Viper HD—do, at a much more accessible price. Among them: it delivers a bright and fairly crisp image. It operates with good controls and mechanics. And it features Vortex’s excellent fully transferrable warranty.
Costing $599 retail (with a real-world street price closer to $499), this angled 85mm spotter provides a solid entry point for birders, Western big-game hunters, and long-distance shooters. While it may disappoint users looking for super-premium optics, it delivers an image and functionality that we associate with spotters costing twice or even three times this amount. For that reason, and because you are also buying Vortex’s excellent warranty and customer service, we tapped the Diamondback HD for our Great Buy in this year’s spotting scope category.
Let’s start with a few drawbacks. The eyepiece is removable by unscrewing the unit from the body. That’s a fairly standard mating system for lower-end spotters, but it’s not ideal because the torque on the fine threads can vary and some users (and, in our case, some testers) can inadvertently unscrew the eyepiece in the course of normal use. If the eyepiece isn’t seated fully, the image can be hard to focus, and over time the design introduces dust and grit into the inner workings of the optic.
Currently, Vortex does not have a replacement eyepiece for the Diamondback, but it’s a good bet that within the next years, a fixed-power eyepiece with an internal reticle will be available for this unit, an addition that will give this optic even more versatility as a rifle-range spotter. Vortex’s higher-end spotters, in the Razor and Viper lines, both have after-market eyepieces that mate up with their bodies, and we hope the company continues that trend with the Diamondback line.
Also, on the demerit side, the eyepiece gave testers a bit of eye strain and fatigue, meaning that it was hard to spend long sessions behind the Diamondback, especially at higher magnifications. One tester noted that “eye strain was noticeable after about 15 minutes of view at powers greater than 40x. At 60x, my eyes could not take it for long before I needed a break.”
However, the optical horsepower delivered by this spotter more than compensates for its drawbacks. The image is satisfyingly sharp and acceptably bright at modest magnifications, and color rendition is spot-on. Testers reported the sweet spot from 20x to about 50x. At its highest magnifications, the image gets pretty dark and grainy. The Diamondback HD topped the class in our low-light evaluation, finishing just behind the excellent Tract TORIC.
The center-barrel focus is positive and precise, and the 3-position eyecup will fit a number of different brow depths and user preferences. The retractable sunshade is a nice touch, as is the premium neoprene case that ships with the spotting scope, and we especially liked the Arca-compatible tripod mount that mates nicely with Vortex’s new line of tripods.
“Why more manufacturers don’t add this simple and smart feature absolutely baffles me,” one tester said about the Arca-compatible foot.
The Diamondback’s integral lens covers fit tightly and protect the glass from dust and scratches. The scope’s rubber armor is adequate, though we would like to see just a bit more texturing to facilitate handling with gloves or in wet or frosty conditions.
In all, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking about the Diamondback. We’ve seen similar models in the past from Hawke and Athlon. But the Vortex has the extra boost of its excellent coatings and the backing of its warranty. For those reasons, and for the very appealing price, it’s a worthy recipient of our Great Buy award. MSRP: $599
A serviceable spotter that’s purpose built for life on the shooting range, the Engage DX has a number of thoughtful features that will enhance its operation. Among the smartest are dual Picatinny rails on the cheeks of the scope for adding red-dot sights, thermals, or other rail-mounted accessories. The wide-angle red dots (not included) enable quick and positive target acquisition compared to the hunt-and-pecking that users often must do through the eyepiece, a task that’s doubly hard with an angled spotter.
Interestingly, this is one of two Bushnell spotters in this year’s test. This Engage DX has cosmetic additions that enable shooting, but its brand companion, the Elite Tactical LMSS II is specifically configured for long-distance rifle work.
The Engage DX comes with tight lens caps, a sheer-fitting neoprene case, and the whole booty is shipped in a premium plastic hard case that will be a welcome part of a shooter’s kit. The 80mm scope is focused by a fingertip knob located on the conning towner of the non-removeable eyepiece. Finally, the barrel rotation hardware and retractable sunshade are nice touches, and testers gave extra points for the Arca-compatible tripod mount, though we wish the foot was made of metal instead of polycarbonate.
On the other side of the ledger, the image delivered by the Engage DX was disappointing. It’s slightly grainy and dark, especially at magnifications above about 35x, and testers recorded a bit of color fringing and eye fatigue. The focus is spongy and strays a bit, meaning users need to keep tacking up the control to keep the image in sharp focus. The power-changing control is hard to turn and the eyecup would benefit from having detents at various extensions.
Testers gave the Bushnell good marks on internal construction and design, and the Engage DX finished in the upper half of the field in low-light brightness, evidence of adequate glass and Bushnell’s excellent proprietary coatings.
The spotter also earned good Price/Value marks, the main determinant for our Great Buy award. If you’re looking for an affordable full-sized spotter to take to the rifle range or to use on your next PRS shoot, the Bushnell Engage DX is a good choice. MSRP: $499
This is a pretty standard full-sized spotter, with a 45-degree angled design, non-removeable eyepiece, center-barrel focus, and retractable sunshade, barrel-rotation lock, and tripod foot. It ships with a carrying case and shoulder strap.
Considering its very appealing price, we didn’t have any major gripes with the Vanguard, which is also available in a 60mm model. But nothing about it particularly wowed us, either. The polycarbonate body seems fairly tight and did a nice job of dampening vibrations from the tripod. We found the internal lenses to be fully multicoated. The fixed eyepiece should add to the scope’s longevity, since there’s no opportunity for dust or moisture to work into the innards.
Optically, the VEO HD was about what we expected for this price. The image is dark and a little murky, with some peripheral distortion at the lowest magnifications. The focus is a bit spongy, and the twist-up eyecup could use a detent or two to demark stops.
But our biggest gripe was external. The finish is very slick, and on a cold day of testing the unit risked being dropped by a couple testers. While the tripod mounting adapter accepts Arca-compatible tripods, the mounting screw is badly undersized. The standard thread size and pitch for spotters (and DSLR cameras) is 1/4×20. The Vanguard has an oddball size and thread pitch that we didn’t find on any other full-sized spotter.
Still, for an entry-level spotter that should offer years of dependable service, this is a solid choice that features a good-enough image and tons of versatility. MSRP: $399
For serious long-range rifle shooters, this may be the ultimate accessory. This wonderfully compact, stylish, and bomb-proof spotter features a first-plane Horus milling reticle. Our sample contained the H322 reticle, but the TREMOR4 reticle is also available.
The idea for this scope is that when used by a firing-line partner, the shooter and spotter can communicate in the same language of holdover, holdoff, and subtension measurements. The shared reticle is especially handy for making fast adjustments to second shots, as the spotter can instantaneously communicate how many mils of windage and elevation to hold after witnessing the impact of the first shot.
With this utility in mind, the LMSS II is very handy, indeed. It is fairly compact, has numerous attachment points for accessory rails to mount shooting aids like wind meters, lasers, red dot sights, or thermals. The scope is bombproof, wearing a heavy rubber armor in coyote brown. And its magnification range is just right, allowing spotters to match the magnification of the shooter or zoom in for closer inspection of a target.
The reticle is focused with a small diopter ring inside the eyepiece, while the image is focused by a knurled ring just behind the removable power-changing throw lever. It takes a bit of work to find and then work the reticle diopter, but once it’s focused for your eyes, it’s a cinch to keep both the image and reticle in hard focus. Note that the controls turn very stiffly. They loosened up over the course of our test, but they remained so stiff that we had to hold the body in order to turn the focus knob, lest the whole scope got torqued off target.
For all its style, durability, and utility, the image produced by the LMSS II was noticeably darker compared to other spotters in this year’s lineup. Resolution was not an issue—images are clear and sharp—but we expected a bit brighter optics for a 60mm objective lens, especially considering Bushnell’s history of producing very good optical coatings. Speaking of that objective, Bushnell has offered a great feature that many users may fail to appreciate. The objective lens cap features a notch cut out of its lower edge. The cap, tethered to the body with an elastic keeper, can be kept mostly on the scope in extremely bright conditions, but thanks to that notch, you can still see the reticle and most of the image. It’s a handy hack for spotting in harsh light conditions that will wash out the image in most scopes.
If we have suggestion to improve the LMSS II’s performance, they’re these: first, the barrel needs to be able to rotate, so that users can easily level the reticle. As rendered, the only way to level the reticle with the horizon is to trim the tripod legs. Second, the tripod mounting hardware is undersized. A simple Arca-compatible foot would make mounting fast and simple, and eliminate the need to fuss with a threaded plate.
All the testers considered whether they would take this scope off the firing line and into the hunting fields, and to a person they concluded that it’s a handy size and has plenty of versatility for a backcountry hunt. The reticle, located in the lower third of the image, doesn’t obstruct visibility of targets, and the straight-tube design fits easily in backpack sleeves or lashed to a lumbar pack. Plus, the armor is so tight and durable you could probably use the scope to pound tent pegs.
Which brings us to the last consideration. At more than $1,700, this is the priciest scope in this year’s test. Yes, it has tons of utility with the Horus reticle, but it’s also competing with a new class of spotters, many of which cost half as much, that can be fitted with aftermarket eyepieces containing reticles.
Still, the Bushnell has its competitors beat on the durability and design scores, and we think this is a task-specific spotter that will give you years of hard-wearing use, whether on a PRS firing line or a wilderness sheep hunt. MSRP: $1,749
The brand Lucid is a newcomer to both the optics industry and to our test. Based in Riverton, Wyo., the company imports a variety of optics for tactical, hunting, and wildlife observation, and this handy compact spotter would be at home in any of those pursuits.
The angled eyepiece zooms from 9 to 27 power, and the scope features a mid-barrel focus, infinitely adjustable eyecups, and a non-removeable eyepiece. Weighing just 1.3 pounds, the SC9 would be at home in a backcountry hunter’s pack or as a handy range spotter. We tested a very similar optic last year, Celestron’s Hummingbird, which shares these configurations and which we also praised as a useful step between a binocular and full-size spotter.
However, the Lucid’s image was tough to love. At its highest magnifications, the image was hard to focus, and tended to cause a great deal of eye strain. The image seemed washed out, as though some internal lenses were uncoated, but in our evaluation of internal construction, it appears all surfaces are coated. And while we generally liked the controls, the focus tended to stray, meaning that we had to constantly refocus in order to keep images tack-sharp.
We’d recommend adding a rotational feature to the tube, so users could change the orientation of the eyepiece while keeping the image in the field of view. The tripod mounting shoe could also benefit from an Arca-style quick-attach mount in addition to the threaded adapter. Lastly, some testers inadvertently loosened the collar below the eyepiece, which allows the eyepiece to pull out of the body. We addressed that by overtightening the collar, but wondered about the durability of that particular design.
We also thought the scope was a bit overpriced for the optical horsepower it delivers.
All in all, it’s a very useful configuration for a wide variety of purposes, and is a capable, easy-carrying optic for those times when a full-size spotter is overkill. If you can pick the light conditions and find the middle-magnification sweet spot of this fun little scope, it could easily become your go-everywhere, do-anything spotter. MSRP: $419