At Last Light
September 23, 2010
The author takes back everything he's written about oversize optics.
In Europe, shooting hours generally means any time you can see to shoot, so hunters there prefer light-gathering optics, regardless of weight and bulk. On a chamois hunt in Macedonia I used Steiner 10x44 binoculars and a Schmidt & Bender variable with a 56mm objective.
Storm clouds blocked the western horizon, and dark would come early. It had been a blustery afternoon, and the coming storm promised to be a dandy. The deer knew this just as well as I did, and as a gray day grew dimmer they started to feed out of the woods. I had legal shooting light until about 5:30, and it was nearly 5:15 before a mature buck made an appearance--down in the far corner of the field at 300 yards and headed my way.
In the light remaining I could see antlers, but I couldn't tell enough about them to make the call. He vanished into some weeds and when he reappeared he was 90 yards from me with five minutes to go.
His body looked heavy and mature, but on that dark evening I just couldn't judge antlers, even through good 10x42 binoculars. I picked up the rifle. The crosshairs were faint against his dark body, but I could center him up just fine. What I couldn't do was tell what he was. So the clock ran out, and I let him drift away.
While I had one more day on a prized Kansas whitetail tag, that turned out to be my only chance. On a lot of deer hunts in a lot of places I would have taken the chance. But not there. It was an interesting lesson because I'd have sworn that couldn't happen--to run out of light with a good scope before running out of legal shooting time.
There are many places that do not share the common North American concept of legally mandated shooting hours. It isn't uncommon to hunt pigs and even red stag and roebuck well after dark in Europe, and the big scopes hunters over there favor help a lot, but moonlight and background also figure in heavily.
Now, on that Kansas hunt, the rifle was mounted with a Swarovski variable with 30mm tube and 44mm objective lens. This is a good scope that gathers a lot of light, but on that dark evening it wasn't enough. Previously I have written that I didn't care for the added weight and bulk of larger scopes because, for most applications, one-inch tubes and trim objective bells (say, 36 to 40mm) gather plenty of light.
This is not the first thing I've ever been wrong about, and as I tried so desperately to see more than a vague hint of antlers against yellow grass you can bet I was wishing for 56mm objectives on either my riflescope or my binoculars.
Of course, that may not have done it. That was simply a dark evening, and as we compared notes my campmates and I all agreed that the light was failing badly by legal sundown (there was no visible sundown), and we were pretty much finished just a few minutes later.
Actual judging--whether simply determining if it's a legal animal or evaluating trophy quality--is always best done with binoculars or spotting scope because it's a bad habit to wave a rifle in the general direction of anything until it has been properly evaluated and intent to shoot established.
Seeing well enough to shoot is not necessarily the same as seeing well enough to be totally sure of what you are shooting at. Again, I could have shot that buck, but I had no confidence that I'd be happy with the results.
I also have no certainty that any optics would have helped. I had a dark-bodied animal against yellow grass, but the grass made the antlers invisible in the fading light. I couldn't see the crosshairs on the body well, but the shot was close enough that I felt I could center them on the shoulder anyway--if I could tell how big a buck I was shooting at.
With a different background or greater distance, however, losing the black crosshairs against dark hide can be a deal-breaker. That's what lighted reticles are all about. I've used battery-powered lighted reticles for leopard and black bear, both classic low-light situations.
Recently I've done a lot of hunting with Trijicon's tritium-tipped post and newer tritium-centered reticle. These are essentially lighted reticles without batteries. I like them for close, fast work because the eye is naturally drawn to the bold center, and in low light it's quick and easy to establish an aiming point.
Of course, a lighted reticle doesn't help you see what you're shooting at, so I take it all back. Heavy optics with oversize objectives designed for maximum light gathering do indeed have their places--and not just outside the U.S.
I don't want to carry the biggest scopes or the heaviest binoculars up a sheep mountain because I'm probably going to have head back down that mountain ahead of last light. But we have quite a lot of hunting that might push the limit, including almost all whitetail deer hunting.
You have to see an animal properly before you can shoot it, and there are days when brighter optics might make a difference.