Some rangefinders allow you to switch between rifle and bow modes, giving you the best readings for whatever weapon you choose.
Binoculars, riflescopes and even spotting scopes have been around for a long time and have become standard equipment for most hunters. But one piece of optics that is relatively new and growing in popularity is the laser rangefinder. Technological advances have made them smaller, more accurate and more affordable than ever before, such that no hunter should be without one anymore. Here's what you need to know to choose one that's right for you.
Rangefinders function by emitting and bouncing a laser beam off your target at the press of a button. Then the rangefinder's high-speed digital clock measures the time it takes for the laser beam to reach the target and return to the unit and instantly calculates the distance to within +/- 1 or 2 yards. The range is then displayed in yards or meters on an LCD display built into the lens. The entire process is so fast that less than a second elapses between pressing the button to generate a laser beam to the time the exact range to your target is displayed.
One of the first things you will notice when comparing different models is their maximum effective range. This will vary from 500-1500 yards. When making these comparisons, make sure that you are comparing apples to apples, as the maximum effective range of a rangefinder is partially determined by the reflectivity of the target. Hard or reflective targets such as a rock cliff or a vehicle can be measured at greater distances than soft-surface targets such as a deer. Ranges for moderately reflective targets, such as trees, fall somewhere in the middle. The specifications of most rangefinders will indicate their maximum ranges for these various types of targets.
Although laser rangefinders were originally developed for long range rifle shooting, many manufacturers have introduced models recently that are designed for the bowhunter. Some people may wonder about the need for a laser rangefinder for shooting distances that rarely exceed 40 yards, but serious bowhunters realize that knowing the range to the target with precision is crucial to making accurate bow shots. These archery models excel at providing super-accurate measurements at short ranges, usually a maximum of 100 yards and often in fractions-of-a-yard readings. Some newer rangefinders even allow you to switch between rifle and bow modes, so you can get the best readings for whatever weapon you choose.
Some rangefinders provide accurate aiming information, matched to the performance of your rifle or bow, by calculating the incline, line of sight range to the target, and a projectile’s ballistics. The shown here is an example.
Likely the next difference you will notice among various models is that some are oriented vertically and can be used with just one hand, while others function horizontally and require both hands to operate effectively. This difference is largely a matter of personal preference, but many vertical models are so compact that they will fit in a shirt pocket, while the horizontal models tend to have longer ranging capabilities.
Another recent innovation in the industry is the introduction of a feature known as "true horizontal distance," or some similar term. Bowhunters who hunt from treestands or rifle hunters that have attempted long uphill or downhill shots know that the degree of incline or decline to the target can have a significant impact on your shooting. This is because the distance to your target is actually less than it would be on level ground, and thus gravity's downward pull on your projectile is lessened. Models with this feature factor in the slope and calculate the actual horizontal or ballistic distance to your target, rather than just the mere straight-line measurement to your target. Some of these models will even provide ballistics compensation by displaying the bullet or arrow drop or indicating a holdover aim point or adjustment for that particular distance.
Regardless of what type of rangefinder you choose, they all provide a certain level of magnification, just like binoculars, to assist you in sighting and ranging your target. Most will vary from 4x to 8x magnification. The number before the "x" tells you how many times closer or larger the object will appear than it actually is. Although a higher magnification will mean a better look at the object, the higher the magnification will also mean a smaller field of view (FOV), or the actual width of the sight picture at a specific distance (usually 1,000 yards). A small field of view can make locating your target through the rangefinder more difficult.
The specifications of a rangefinder will also indicate how the lenses are coated. In order to reduce glare and the amount of available light lost during transmission from the object to your eye, special chemical coatings are applied to the surface or surfaces of a lens. The quality, number and position of these coatings determine how much light is transmitted. Here are the terms used in the optics industry and what they mean:
Rangefinders designed for bowhunting often compensate for extreme shooting angles such as those encountered when treestand hunting.
Coated - a single layer is applied to at least one lens surface
Fully-coated - a single layer is applied to all air-to-glass surfaces
Multi-coated - multiple layers are applied to at least one lens surface
Fully multi-coated - multiple layers are applied to all air-to-glass surfaces
The more and better quality the coatings, the brighter -- and more expensive -- the rangefinder will be. However, the overall brightness, as well as the sharpness and clarity of a rangefinder, depends upon a lot of factors. One way to compare the inherent brightness from one model to another is to compare the diameter of the exit pupils. This refers to the size of the circle of light visible at the eyepiece, when pointed at a light source and held about a foot away, but really means how much light is available to the human eye. The larger the exit pupil, measured in millimeters, the brighter the image, everything else being equal. This number is determined by dividing the objective lens (the one that is pointed at your target) diameter by the magnification (e.g. a 4x20mm rangefinder will have an exit pupil diameter of 5mm). A larger lens will generally mean a brighter unit, but because you will not be spending long periods of time looking through a rangefinder the way you do with binoculars, this should not be a big consideration. Larger lenses mean more weight and bulk, and possibly a rangefinder that will often be left back at camp or in your vehicle.
In terms of cost, expect to pay anywhere between $150 and $1,000 for a laser rangefinder, with most being under $400. The exception to this is rangefinding binoculars. These premium models combine a high-quality binocular of 7x to 10x and a laser rangefinder with a maximum range often exceeding 1,000 yards. These are perhaps the ultimate optics for the serious big game hunter, eliminating the need to carry two separate units in the field and ensuring that neither one is ever left behind. This luxury comes at a price, however, in the neighborhood of $3,000.
What other features are available? Many models are rubber-armored, to provide some shock absorbing protection against scratches and bumps in the field, and it also makes them quieter to carry and more comfortable to hold. Top quality models are also waterproof, fogproof and shockproof, through the use of O-ring seals and nitrogen gas filling or purging. Other features such as a camo finish, roll-down or twist-down eye cups for eyeglass wearers, lens caps and neck straps are common on most models.
Now that you are armed with this knowledge, the best way to actually pick a rangefinder that is right for you is to try as many as you can in your price range, and Bass Pro Shops offers a wide selection to choose from. Examine each one and look through them all, preferably at distant objects. Everyone's eyes and tastes are different, so you may have to try a few before you find one that has the features you are looking for and feels good in your hands, offers that perfect level of brightness, sharpness and clarity, in a package that is not too big, heavy or hard on the pocketbook. Once you find it, your days of guessing or estimating range with the naked eye will be over forever.
Shop Bass Pro Shops' entire selection of Rangefinders.