Gear Optics

We Put the Best Hunting Optics to the Test. Here are the Winners

Our picks for the best riflescopes, binoculars, and spotting scopes
Andrew McKean Avatar

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Anatomical change, like bankruptcy, happens gradually and then suddenly. Years go by with small tweaks—to a metatarsal bone or a savings account—and then a bad break can undo them both. The same can be said of our sporting optics; this year, there are some tiny, useful evolutions of both internal and external anatomy, and some quantum leaps in design and performance.

We declared the death of the duplex reticle last year, and before that, the demise of the 3X–9X riflescope. A decade ago, we cheered the departure of the porro-prism binocular, replaced by the compact and durable roof prism. What optical trend is in its twilight this year? The simple and the modest are on life support, replaced by scopes with gee-whiz reticles and uber-​­turrets, and binoculars with integrated laser rangefinders and Bluetooth.

Companies making these products are meeting a demand for specialization, to help customers shoot farther and better, to move more nimbly, and to pay less for good-quality glass. But don’t assume all optics in this year’s test are built for a narrow niche. You’ll see some excellent crossover scopes that are suitable for shooting distant targets and close-up deer. You’ll also see a growing trend: the integration of electronics.

We categorized optics according to how you shop for them. In riflescopes, we split precision target scopes and versatile crossover scopes. We divided binoculars into those large, high-magnification units suited for tripods versus those designed to be carried and held by hand. And we reviewed most of the laser rangefinding binoculars on the market to provide prospective buyers with a sense of the capabilities of all units, not just those new for this year.”

Top Hunting and Precision Riflescopes

two rifles with rifle scopes
While long-distance shooting continues to dominate riflescope design, we welcome the renaissance of the versatile optic. Bill Buckley

Top Midsize and Fullsize Hunting Binoculars

three binoculars on a stone ground
These are our picks for the best binoculars of the year. Bill Buckley

Top Spotting Scopes

two spotting scopes in a field
We put the newest hunting spotting scopes through the wringer to see which deserve a spot in your pack. Bill Buckley

Top Rangefinding Binoculars

two rangefinding binoculars on a rock
These are our picks for the best rangefinding binoculars on the market. Bill Buckley

How We Test Hunting Optics

This is a test of sporting optics, so our evaluation mimics real-world conditions where possible. Those tend to be situational and subjective. But this is also a test of optical quality and mechanical precision, and those attributes are scored through objective investigation.

hunters testing hunting optics
Fieldwork with spotting scopes, riflescopes, and binoculars. Bill Buckley

Taking the latter point first, we test the optical resolution of every submission using the industry standard, a black-and-white 1951 Air Force Resolution Target. This test reveals the quality of the glass, precision of the optical design, and richness of the image, but also flaws such as aberrations or insufficiencies in coatings that can show up as flaring or distortion in the field.

man testing steiner rangefinder binoculars
The Steiner M830r. Bill Buckley

Because having optics that perform well at first and last light, when animals are most active, is a priority for hunters, we test the low-light performance of all submissions. We mount all optics, including binoculars where possible, on tripods (riflescopes are all set to 6X; spotters on their lowest magnification), point them at the black-and-white resolution target downrange, and record the length of time they can continue to see the contrasting lines as night falls. We do this on multiple evenings and average the results. Optics that last the longest get the best low-light scores.

rimfire grizzly target groups
A rimfire grizzly target peppered with hits. Bill Buckley

Because riflescopes are designed as precision aiming devices, we mount them to rifles and shoot. We use precision .22s, and evaluate reticle references as well as the repeatability of controls (turret, parallax, magnification, and illumination) by shooting a course of steel plates out to 232 yards. For our rangefinding binocular test, we create a course of targets varying in surface type and distance from 10 yards to 5,000 yards. We use Steiner’s military-grade M830r rangefinder, capable of ranging targets beyond 6,000 yards, to set standards for each distance, then measure each submission’s ranging power, precision, and processor speed against the Steiner (pictured below).

For all optics, testers evaluate ergonomics, durability, versatility, ease of use, and innovation. The optic in each category with the highest score wins our Editor’s Choice award. The optic with the highest value score wins our Great Buy award.