What Rangefinders Can Do For You
September 23, 2010
Stepping off the distance with the push of a button
Leica now offers compact, affordable rangefinders that have drawn rave reviews from hunters.
Your eyes are pretty good rangefinders. Together they give you binocular vision, which helps a great deal in judging distance. If you see a deer on the far side of a meadow or a canyon, or on top of a hill, you can tell instantly whether it is near or far. You may well be in error as to the exact yardage, but because you know the approximate size of a deer, and because you can see much of the intervening terrain, your guess will not be wildly inaccurate. If you had never seen a deer before, and if clouds or ground fog hid the country you were looking past, even a ballpark estimate would be elusive.
Repetition and trial and error train your eyes to measure distance. Lob a rock at a knot in a dead tree, and even if the rock doesn't hit the tree, you should be able to hurl a second rock closer to the mark. Shoot an arrow into a target face, and by noting both the flight and the point of impact, you can make the next shot better. When you fire a bullet, you're denied a visual track; you can correct only after you see the bullet's effect nearby or examine the target face. Bullets fly much flatter than do rocks or arrows, so estimating distance accurately is much less important--as long as the target is within reach of rocks or arrows. But with rifles, we shoot at targets that are typically much farther away. Long distances are tough to gauge. Target details are harder to see, and we see a smaller percentage of the intervening yardage.
A target that looks so small as to be 250 yards off may not appear much smaller than one 175 yards distant or much bigger than one 325 yards away. But your bullet will not hit where you intend if at long range your estimate is in error by 75 yards. Sure, a 30 percent goof seems huge, but it's easy to be short or long by that much. Remember, too, that the bullet's arc gets steeper as range increases. So where sound range estimates become most difficult, they're also most critical.
Terrain affects the accuracy of your estimate. A canyon that pulls the ground away from your eye makes game appear far away because the vertical rise of the ground to the target is so visible. You'll likely guess long because you see so much ground. Of course, your bullet doesn't care at all about the terrain. It doesn't follow ground contours. Shooting uphill and downhill can increase error because the animal is no longer showing you its side. Your eye registers a smaller image because looking at belly or back, you get a narrower profile. Your brain tells you the shot will be longer than is truly the case. At the same time, your bullet will drop less than is indicated even by accurate range determination because gravity affects only the horizontal component of its flight.
As canyons and mountains prompt us to overshoot, so we often underestimate distance to targets on flat ground. If you shoot prone at a distant pronghorn on a Wyoming sage flat, your eye sees a severely foreshortened piece of prairie. Not much ground to cover, says your brain. The animal must be close. In fact, that dainty goat may be many hundreds of yards away.
The vivid color of pronghorns can exacerbate the problem because in the bright light common on the plains, it is a distinct target. No brush obscures it either. The more prominent the target--the clearer it appears to your eye--the closer it seems. A whitetail silhouetted against snow or sky looks closer than one at the same distance that's partially hidden by brush or is backlit in brown field stubble or standing in dim light against a background of shintangle.
When game varies a great deal in size from one animal to the next, you'll make big errors in estimating range. Black bears are notoriously tough in this regard. Though the relationships of ear size to head size and head size to body size change as bears mature, a little bear can look just like a big bear at long range. If you think the bear weighs 400 pounds when in fact it's a yearling, you'll overestimate the yardage. If the bear is larger than you think, you'll likely shoot low.
Rangefinder readouts are commonly in yards, but on some you can choose meters or feet instead.
I indicated earlier that trial and error enables us to come pretty close with our estimates, that we who've seen a lot of deer at various ranges should be able to hit them. But that may be assuming too much. Many deer hunters think deer are bigger than is actually the case. I was astonished when an experienced hunter told me most deer stood about five feet at the shoulder. Truth is, most northern whitetails are closer to three feet. A deer standing 40 inches at the withers is big.
If you think all deer measure 50 percent taller than they are, logic says you'll overshoot a lot of bucks and pass up makeable shots as being too long. But my amigo had killed a lot of deer and didn't miss often. Why? Well, he didn't think in terms of target height when he aimed his rifle. He instinctively held where he'd held on other deer that had looked to be the same size in the scope and that had dropped to his bullet.
Any star in the night sky is bigger than most of us can imagine. It may be many light years away. We can't imagine that distance either. We'd fail miserably at trying to estimate the remoteness of a star by comparing its apparent size or brightness with stars around it. The star is farther away than our unaided eye has any business judging. And slight differences in the appearance of stars can reflect huge disparities in distance. Another complication: Stars are not the same size, nor do stars of equivalent size deliver the same level of brightness. Were we in fact "shooting for the stars," range estimation errors would be measured in light years.
Knowing the distance to a star might help you impress someone. Knowing the range to a military target matters more. That's why optical rangefinders came about to assist heavy artillery. Lobbing shells at a mortar emplacement, soldiers don't want to hit a church. Trial-and-error gunnery also gives away the firing position to enemy cannon. Optical rangefinders help deliver first-round hits. They reduce the need for forward observers, too.
The first lightweight rangefinders for hunters came along after I was old enough to have missed several deer by overestimating the range. The first was a whitetail at 25 steps. My arrow went over her back. The next was a buck standing at what appeared to be many football fields distant. I held the reticle in the Weaver K4 just over its shoulder and fired. The deer looked up unconcernedly, then went back to foraging. Another shot brough
t the same results. In despair, I aimed where I wanted the bullet to go and fired my last round. The buck dropped instantly. Instead of pacing more than 300 yards, I strode only 160 yards to the carcass.
Apparently, other hunters had similar problems because a company named Ranging sold a lot of devices that helped hunters pinpoint the distance to targets. These "coincidence" rangefinders had two small windows. Looking through the sighting window, you'd see double target images. To get a read on the distance, you'd turn a dial that moved internal prisms to bring those images together. A scale showed the yardage. Bowhunters kept Ranging in business, but riflemen found that at long range--beyond 100 yards or so--accuracy deteriorated.
BushnellÃ‚'s Yardage Pro series still owns a huge share of the market in laser rangefinders.
In 1992 Leica broke ground with a new type of rangefinder. The Geovid was both a high-quality binocular and a laser rangefinder. Laser units emit a laser beam, which bounces off a target determined by the user. The beam returns to the instrument and its internal electronic clock, which right away calculates elapsed time.
Since light travels at the constant speed of 186,000 miles per second, time can be converted to distance. The rangefinder runs this calculation instantly and displays yardage--correct to within three feet or so--on an electronic display. A laser rangefinder is faster to use and more precise than any split-image (coincidence) model.
U.S. Army tank commanders had laser rangefinders in the M60 A3 in the mid-1970s, according to Jim Morey, president of Swarovski, North America. He notes that the technology became available to the sport hunting market well before the first instruments appeared. "Even in the Army, hand-held units were not practical for some time."
Swarovski followed Leica's Geovid with a laser rangefinder it labeled the RF 1. Unlike the Geovid, the RF 1 did not incorporate a binocular. Consequently, it weighed and cost less. Still, both products retailed for more than $2,700, representing a substantial investment for hunters. And at 53 and 35 ounces, respectively, they didn't let you forget they were in your pack.
Bushnell delivered the first lightweight, affordable laser rangefinders. The first of the Yardage Pro line came along in 1996. Designated the 400 for its maximum reach on a reflective target in dim light, it could be slipped in a coat pocket, and it cost less than an ordinary binocular. The people at Bushnell have since improved that version of the Yardage Pro and added more sophisticated models. The 800 offers more reach; now you can get Yardage Pro 500 and 1000 models, plus Sport and Scout configurations. Yardage Pros weigh from seven to about 14 ounces. Magnifications of 4X, 6X and 8X let you see targets clearly and pinpoint them easily with the electronic "reticle." Higher power is not useful; the Leica Geovid and Swarovski RF 1 could have incorporated stronger lenses than the 7X and 6X used.
Bushnell rangefinders don't match the early Leica or Swarovski models optically, and few will match their 1,000-yard reach. But they're very accurate (within a yard) to the limit of their range, and they stretch farther than you'll need to deliver a range estimate for a shot. Some models have options that tell the laser to ignore interfering reflections from raindrops or solid objects closer than a specified distance. So you can find the range to a deer on the far side of a clearing while you hide among the oaks.
By dint of intelligent and aggressive marketing, and with an expanding array of user-friendly rangefinders, Bushnell has captured 95 percent of the market. Its catalog now lists 10 models (though two are targeted to golfers and two others are merely duplicates of hunting models but with camouflage finish). Like all laser models, the Yardage Pros work best in flat or failing light. Bright days reduce maximum range by roughly a third.
As the sidebar shows, your options in laser rangefinders are expanding. But no matter which you choose, you may find that "the durned thing's defective." In other words, you won't get a read on a target that's well within the specified maximum reach of the unit. But rarely will a rangefinder that passes muster at the factory give you substandard performance. The cause of a blank screen usually has to do with the reflective properties of the target. A solid, smooth surface that's moderately reflective should give you an accurate read all the time. The ribcage of a deer standing in the open under a hazy sky should bounce back that laser beam like a racquetball from a hard serve. A deer quartering away or partially obscured by thin brush won't give you the same clean bounce.
Neither can you expect the beam to do your bidding in the boughs of a beetle-browsed spruce above the deer. Glare can be a problem, too. Most often, I suspect, read failures result from the user's inability to hold the rangefinder's reticle on target. I've probably read blank screens on every available rangefinder. And I've read absurd yardages on just about every model. In both cases, finding a better surface or holding the rangefinder more precisely on target has delivered a read I could rely on.
Some hunters carry rangefinders routinely. I don't. When I'm hunting, I try to get as close as the animal will allow, closer than maximum point-blank range. Inside 250 yards, I really don't care what the range is. The crosswire goes where I want the bullet to go. Long shots, such as the one that downed my last pronghorn, are an exception.
When I guided hunters, a rangefinder often went along, mainly because clients seemed more comfortable knowing they could learn the yardage at the touch of a button. Besides, a rangefinder is no burden if you're not carrying a rifle.
Clumps of whitebark pine often hide deer, but are those trees 20 feet tall or only 10? Your assumption will influence range estimates.
When I have a rangefinder, I use it more in slack moments than at the moment of truth. Guessing ranges then checking with the rangefinder trains my eye to estimate more accurately. I used to do this by pacing to the object. Not only is the laser unit faster, it allows me to find the yardage to targets on yon rim, across a canyon. New versions enable me to determine distances at steep angles then find their horizontal components. Sometimes during a hunt, I get bored. With a rangefinder, I might still be bored, but I learn something until the hunt gets more interesting.
This last fall, a friend and I spotted a fine buck on a hillside far away. Pressed by impending dusk, we raced across coulees, cutting a big arc in an approach that brought us within long-rifle shot of where the buck had been. But
we couldn't locate him. Inching forward and glassing until our eyes bulged, we could find nothing. Then my partner spotted the deer bedded in low brush in a shadowed pocket some yards off.
"How far?" he asked.
I gulped the bait. "Probably 280."
He pulled out his laser rangefinder and pushed the button. "Almost 400."
"Good grief. Well, I'm not shooting from here anyway." That part was true. Still, missing a call by 120 yards didn't do much for either my image or my confidence. I redeemed myself by slipping up behind the deer and catching him in the 6X scope at 80 steps. It was the beginning of the hunt, so I let him walk. Later, I'd use that .280 Improved on a buck at 55 yards.
Just a couple of months earlier, I'd wriggled across the African plane for the better part of an hour, again hard against twilight. When I got the big hartebeest in the scope field, I whispered, "How far?" This time my companion had no rangefinder. "About 275." That would be meters. Say 300 yards. My guess, too. The wire steadied, just below backline. Slowly I let the last breath ease to a stop. The trigger broke cleanly, sending a 200-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip from my .338/300 WSM. Thwack! The sound reached me after the recoil, after the stricken bull dashed off into the blue shadows flooding the straw-colored grasses stretching far beyond where rangefinders could reach.
I made one more shot at around 300 yards last season. The bull elk stood about in the middle of a big herd spread loosely over a rocky burn. I could see fewer than half the animals, some of which had hung up in the green conifers below me. No options here; I'd have to shoot from this ridge. There was time, I'd decide later, to use a rangefinder. But I had my hands full finding a place to shoot prone, then tracking the bull with my binocular to double-check for the requisite brow tine. Elk below told me by their sounds and body language that they suspected something was up. I had to shoot as soon as the bull gave me a chance.
The animal paused briefly on his way past the charred stumps at the edge of my effective range, at a place where a few more steps would hide him forever. The Mauser fired. The 250-grain Norma hit audibly and hard enough to drop the bull instantly. I could have had a rangefinder in my hand instead of that .358. It might have told me the range, but it might also have delayed the shot just long enough for the bull to slip away. I still can't tell you exactly how far it was across that canyon. But my bullet hit where intended, so numbers are academic.
You may have heard that rangefinders encourage irresponsible shooting, that some hunters use them as they use super-magnum rifles and powerful scopes, to shoot beyond reasonable yardage. That's no doubt true. A rangefinder won't help you dope wind or hold a rifle still. It can only reduce aiming error.
Like most hunters, I'm keen to more accurately estimate shot distance. Dead-on estimates help us deliver dead-on hits. Rangefinders, used before the shot, can help us tell how far, exactly, we're shooting.
RANGE FINDER ROUND-UP
While rangefinding binoculars are still a novelty, the trend toward bigger scopes and long-range rifles has fueled already-strong demand for pocket-size rangefinders. Hunters seem less interested in perfecting shooting technique than in finding new gadgets to help them hit.
Bushnell has the widest selection of laser rangefinders, and they're among the most affordable. If you haven't any particular rangefinder in mind, a Yardage Pro is a great default choice. The six primary models all sell for less than $400 at Cabela's. The YP 500 and 1000, by the way, feature a tripod mount.
Bushnell models are:
- Sport: 4X, 7.4 ounces, 9V battery, range to 800 yards
- 500: 6X, 13.5 ounces, 9V battery, range to 999 yards
- Scout: 6X, 6.8 ounces, 3V battery, range to 700 yards
- Compact 800: 8X, 11.5 ounces, four AAA batteries,
range to 930 yards
- 1000: 6X, 13.5 ounces, 9V battery, range to 1,500 yards
- Legend: 6X, 7.2 ounces, 3V battery, range to 930 yards
For 2003 Bushnell is offering a Yardage Pro Quest, a rangefinding 8x36 binocular. It has BaK-4 prisms, fully coated optics and a 340-foot field of view. The company claims it will deliver accurate range readings from 15 to 1,300 yards. A battery-saving switch shuts off the rangefinder after 30 seconds of nonuse to save the nine-volt cell. The Quest retails at around $600.
Leica obliges hunters with an 11-ounce, 7X LRF 800. The company moved swiftly to eliminate early problems with this unit, which many shooters now consider one of the best available. I carried it on a hunt for a big Wyoming pronghorn and took a buck at 394 yards. Knowing the range not only gave me confidence, it enabled me to calculate correct holdover. The 10-ounce, 7X LRF 800 uses one nine-volt battery and lists for $399. It's been followed by the LRF 1200, a more powerful unit. The 1200 retails for $560.
Nikon catalogs two 8X laser rangefinders, the Laser400 and Laser800. They weigh seven and 9.5 ounces, respectively, and use CR2 lithium and four AA batteries. The Laser800's 236-foot field of view is a lot smaller than the 330-foot window of the Laser400. But field in rangefinders isn't of much account. A binocular's field matters because you're searching for something. The rangefinder comes into play only after you've found a target. You aim it carefully, as you would your rifle. Nikon's rangefinders retail for $465 and $559.
Pentax has just entered the battle for market share in laser rangefinders. Its 600- and 800-yard models have reflective, nonreflective and rain-screening modes, plus a choice of measurement units: feet, yards or meters. They also give you accurate shot-distance readings at acute vertical angles. That is, you can specify actual distance to a target or shot distance, which is essentially the horizontal component of a line to the target. Given steep angles, these two values can be quite different. I've used the Pentax and like it. Powered by one nine-volt battery, the 600 lists for $349, the 800 for $369.
Swarovski no longer markets its RF 1. But while there's no official word on one at this writing, I'd be surprised indeed if the firm does not soon come out with a lightweight, affordable (well, relatively affordable) laser rangefinder. After all, Swarovski has already pioneered rangefinding riflescopes. The big LRS, a 3-12x50 variable, weighs 2 1/2 pounds and made its debut at a list price of $4,500. Powered by four AAA batteries, this laser unit reaches targets up to 1,100 yards away.
The only LRS I've seen on a hunting rifle appeared in elk camp a few seasons ago. So equipped, the rifle (a Dakota Longbow in .338 Lapua) weighed 16 pounds. The hunter was immensely proud of the outfit and did get his elk with it--at a range of about 180 yards.