Electro-Optics Will Take Over Hunting—and More Lessons from Testing the Year’s Best Optics

Traditional optics are being replaced by integrated circuits, but sporting optics are still among the best and most affordable investments a hunter or shooter can make
Andrew McKean Avatar
electro optics

More top-end optics are integrating digital capabilities. Bill Buckley

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs. Learn More

The middle months of every year for me are occupied with optics testing. I’m well into my second decade of captaining the annual Outdoor Life optics test, but the content that I deliver to readers in reviews of the best riflescopes, binoculars and spotting scopes represents only a fraction of the time and work that goes into this sprawling project.

While I used to dragoon Outdoor Life editors into the testing, I now invite my friends and neighbors (and kids) with the flimsy promise that they’ll get to handle the year’s best optics. I’m mainly after their eyeballs and their critical insights into which optics give them goosebumps and which give them headaches, which they’d buy for themselves, and which they think are a waste of glass and aluminum.

By the time I convene my testers, I generally have an idea of which will ascend to the top of each class. You can read most of my results in the series of Buyers Guides Outdoor Life published on earlier this fall.

But what those clinical, heavily formatted roundups don’t reveal are the larger themes and trends in the optics world. Maybe because my office is still full of tested optics, or maybe because I maintain that the gift of a good binocular or riflescope is one of the best signs of affection during this holiday season, here are my other take-aways from this year’s test.

The Industry Has Finally Produced True Western Hunting Scopes

western hunting scope
There are now a variety of true crossover scopes for Western hunters. Bill Buckley

For years, Western deer and elk hunters have had to make do, either relying on the very good glass of premium second-plane riflescopes like the Leupold VX-3, Swarovski’s Z3 or Z5, or the Zeiss Conquest. Or we’ve had to tolerate the heft and clunky operation of first-plane precision scopes, like the Nightforce NX8, in order to get enough reticle references and turret travel for longer shots.

Happily, the industry has married the precision of first-plane scopes with the smaller stature and lighter weight of second-plane scopes (Read the Best Riflescopes for Deer Hunting). Good examples include Tract’s Toric UHD Long Range Rifle Scope, Trijicon’s Tenmile HX, and the Zeiss LRP S5. All three of these scopes have modest magnification ranges, first-plane reticles with plenty of holdover and holdoff references, and beefy, tactical-style turrets for hunters who want to dial an aiming solution. While the Zeiss is built on a 34mm tube, the others have 30mm tubes and 50mm (or even 44mm) objective lenses for lower mounts on traditional hunting rifles.

Other models that have abundant cross-over appeal for Western hunters include GPO’s Spectra 6X, and the Hawke Frontier 34FFP. I expect to see the trend continue next year, and if our testing and feedback have any weight, you should see first-plane reticles in smaller scopes. Looking for a first-plane 4-12×44 with MIL/MIL reticles and turret click values? Stay tuned!

READ NEXT: The Benefits of First-Focal Plane Scopes

LPVOs Have Taken Over

Lower power variable optics are at home on ARs or bolt-action hunting rifles. Bill Buckley

For the last few years, with the rise of purpose-built precision scopes, I’ve divided my riflescope field into two subcategories: Precision Scopes and Versatile Scopes. The first group is self-defining – those big long-range scopes with milling reticles in the first plane, exposed tactical style turrets, and aiming systems tuned to either MOA or MIL references. The Versatile category was sort of a catch-all to include second-plane hunting scopes and low-power scopes with smaller objective lenses. The idea embedded in the name was that these scopes could cross over from rimfires to deer rifles to turkey shotguns or muzzleloaders.

But this year we had so many submissions of low-power variable optics (LPVOs) that I gave these 1-10×24 or 1-6×28 scopes their own category. By testing 10 LPVO scopes side by side and head to head, I have come to realize that they are the true versatile scopes on the market. Consider everything a quality LPVO can do. EOTech’s remarkable Vudu 1-10×28 can serve as a fast-reaction red-dot scope on its lowest magnification and highest illumination, or as a precision AR scope on its higher powers. The Bushnell Trophy Quick Acquisition in 1-6×24 can as easily serve on a .22 rabbit rifle as on a straight-wall lever gun or a turkey shotgun.

From dangerous-game rifles to home-defense AR and shotgun platforms, these low-power scopes offer a ton of cross-over utility, and a refreshing new definition of versatility in the riflescope market.

Optics Are Really Well-Made

There’s an old trope in optics testing that’s still employed by some evaluators. You’ve probably seen it: The tester freezes optics for a full day, then removes the scope or binocular from the freezer and dunks it in hot water. The idea is to test the weather-proofness of the optic, to see whether the seals leak or introduce fogging to internal lenses.

I used to employ the freeze-thaw test myself, until I realized that every single optic passed without flaw over the course of several years. I no longer put optics through these rigors, not because they’re guaranteed to pass, but because I don’t think it’s a legitimate substitute for the conditions most of us experience in the field. Living and hunting where I do in northeastern Montana, I certainly take my optics from hot to cold and vice versa in the course of a day, but they generally have long minutes or hours to transition from one environment to the other. I’ve actually had a binocular fog up in my optics test without ever enduring a freeze/thaw test. There was a bad seal that let the oxygen-purging gas escape from the optic. I noted the flaw, asked the manufacturer for a replacement, and went ahead with testing.

My point is that the quality standards of the optics industry are so good these days that it’s an anomaly to find one with major flaws, and generally the problem isn’t with seals but rather with moving parts. I’ve had plenty of riflescopes whose turrets didn’t track precisely, or binocular focus wheels that sounded like they were full of gravel. Those products are scored accordingly, and they don’t win our major awards. But those failings are exceedingly rare, given the dozens of optics I handle every year.

Even more remarkably, even the lowest price budget optics tend to track precisely, hold their anti-fogging seals, and do the job of magnifying and resolving distant objects. And those that don’t are usually covered by no-questions-asked warranties. All those consumer protections are frankly remarkable in an industry that deals with glass, precision mechanics, and integrated circuits. 

Electro-Optics Are Here to Stay

Speaking of integrated circuits, the rise of electro-optics, or traditional optics that have features powered by internal electronics, is complete. Every year for the past 5 or 6 we’ve seen more of these hybrid optics. Think about the rise of laser-rangefinding binoculars. Or the “smart” scope that can talk via Bluetooth with a binocular or rangefinder.

While sports optics are still defined by traditional analog technology—using curved glass to magnify distant objects—I expect that the next wave will be high-resolution digital screens that deliver the image instead of the exit pupil created by lenses. You have only to look at the rise of thermal devices—monoculars, riflescopes, and binoculars—to see the leading edge of the full integration of electronics in the devices we use to help us hunt and shoot better. The images these devices deliver to our eyeballs isn’t real; it’s a pixelated version of reality. But the image can be recorded, shared, magnified, and otherwise manipulated to such a degree that few users care that it isn’t real. That, for better or for worse, is the coming future of optics.

Want to zero in on that distant bighorn sheep? Instead of turning the magnification dial on a traditional spotting scope, all you have to do is double the multiplier on your electro-spotter. Want to move your bullet 2 MILS at 1,000 yards? Don’t dial a turret; instead, just nudge the reticle over on your electro-scope’s screen.

I hope traditional optics aren’t lost in the evolution to electronics. There’s something simply beautiful about the design and function of a classic binocular, or the simplicity of a traditional riflescope. Besides, these antique tools continue to function long after the batteries in your devices fail.

READ NEXT: Leica Geovid Pro 10×32 with Applied Ballistics Elite Is the Ultimate Hunting Binocular

Optics Brands Think Their Customers Are Dumb

optics glass
Don't be fooled by marketing around an optic's glass. Bill Buckley

One of the trends I’m disappointed to see the optics industry perpetuate is the cavalier use of terms that are designed to fool customers. You’ve probably been unwittingly pulled in by the use of ED, or HD, or UHD to differentiate the quality of the glass used in binoculars, spotting scopes, and riflescopes. I’ve even seen XD used, whatever that means, along with the unfortunate VD, for “Vivid Definition.”

All these terms are fluffy. The only one with real validity is ED, which stands for extra-low-dispersion glass. That’s a type of optical glass that helps correct chromatic aberrations, which you may notice as flaring or jags of colored light in the image. A higher class of ED glass is Super ED. You might also pay a little more for FL glass. That stands for glass that contains a certain amount of fluorite, a crystalline material that also has low-dispersion properties.

But HD? Presumably that stands for high-definition glass, which can mean both everything and nothing all at once. Or UHD, for ultra high-definition? Nonsense. Manufacturers might be referring to optical coatings, which can boost color fidelity, make images more vivid, or amplify or dampen certain wavelengths of light. But the use of these terms is deceptive. Who is to say if HD is more or less bright and vivid than ED? Or if UHD is really more “ultra” than standard HD?

I’m eager to see the optics industry take more responsibility for unifying and quantifying these terms. Until then, consumers should look skeptically at this blizzard of confusing initials.

Optics Remain a Bargain

optics testing
The author's daughter with an armful of the year's best optics. Bill Buckley

This year I tested a Zeiss riflescope that retails for right around $3,600. I put SIG’s new KILO10K rangefinding binocular through the paces and got readings out to nearly 8 miles. One of the thermal scopes I tested required me to pass a Department of Defense background check.

Despite all those qualities—optics made with what my buddy calls “unobtainium”—I’m equally impressed with how affordable optics remain. There are few other product lines that get cheaper in terms of real dollars but outperform their predecessors in measurable ways.

The average price of a versatile riflescope in this year’s test is right around $600. That’s a lot of money for most of us, but these are scopes that hold their zero for years, feature precision turrets, CNC-machined tubes and also house an illumination module. Compare that feature set with old scopes that sold for about the same price but whose reticle erectors would strip or the lenses would yellow with age or were marred because they weren’t treated with scratch-resistant coatings.

You can buy a durable binocular for under $500, and use it to see the moons of Jupiter. You can buy a serviceable riflescope for half that price and use it to kill any animal on earth. Add fully transferrable warranties to the mix, and our sporting optics have never been better, or more affordable. That’s a trend I’m eager to see continue.

READ NEXT: The Best Rifle Scopes Under $500 of 2022

Binoculars Have Not Stopped Evolving

I haven’t tested an innovative spotting scope since Nikon introduced its vibration-reducing EDG Fieldscope about 10 years ago. The category is stagnant, with only slight variations on the standard configurations and operation. I have been tempted to say the same thing about binoculars. Sure, manufacturers have added laser rangefinding and ballistics calculators to many models, but you can take the basic platform—two magnifying barrels focused by a center wheel—so far.

But two recent introductions have changed my opinion. The first was Swarovski’s revolutionary NL Pure last year. By redesigning both the optical path and the chassis, this optic offers a crazy-wide field of view and a hand-gripping design that stabilizes the image. My sample, a 12×42, has the field of view of a 10-power and I can hold it shake-free because of its ergonomic hourglass shape.

This year Zeiss reset my expectation of a binocular with its SFL (it stands for SmartFocus Lightweight). My 8×42 sample weighs just over 22 ounces, making it the lightest premium binocular I’ve tested. The field of view is stunningly wide, and the oversized focus wheel is moved closer to my face for better ergonomics, and it zooms from a close focus of just 1.5 yards out to infinity with about 1.4 revolutions of the wheel. That high-speed focus allows me to rip from close-in brush out to distant ridges with just small adjustments of the wheel. The glass is world-class, and the light weight means I hardly feel it around my neck.

With these two innovative optics setting the pace, I’m eager to see what the moribund binocular category shows next year.