Dialing in on hunting optics

by Drew Myers | August 1, 2010

hunting optics

Humans are feeble hunters — at least physically. A wolf, bear, fox , and even snakes with no arms, legs, or claws can catch prey with nothing more than teeth and speed. We, on the other hand, would have a hard time staying alive for an hour in the woods, let alone hunting. Try chasing a deer or moose naked, then take it down with your teeth and fingernails. When (if) you get back, let me know how it worked out. Humans have one advantage, though, our tools. And, apart from firearms, no other modern hunting tools are as important as our optical aids.

When choosing hunting optics, follow a few important guidelines. Buy at the top end of your price bracket. A wise hunter once told me that your scope should cost as much as your rifle, and your binoculars should cost more than both.

Whatever your income bracket, determine how much money you can spend on hunting optics, then spend every cent of it. Good optics don’t go obsolete, so they’re an investment. Choose less magnification, instead of more. Except for in few areas such as logging cuts and power lines, seeing farther than 100 yards in Ontario’s bush, besides shooting something, is difficult. Lower-power magnification optics are more versatile here.

Finally, think about the worst possible conditions you might face during a hunt and look for features that can handle them. We all like to hunt under clear, blue skies and in dry, crisp fall air. But, we need our we’ve looked at some of the basics, here are a few specifics for choosing hunting optics.

Bright facts
With scopes and binoculars, you will want the most light transmission possible through the glass. The more light that gets through without distortion, the clearer you will see the image. This is what you pay for when you buy quality.

When shopping for hunting optics, look for light transmission, not “light-gathering” statistics. Contrary to what some ads say, optics don’t “gather” light, they transmit it. When you’re looking through the glass of a rifle scope or binoculars, you’re seeing a darker image than what’s really there. The best optics let through as much light as possible, about 90% of available light. But, since the optics also enlarge the image, seeing image details in low light is easier.

“Consumers will often look through a scope in a brightly lit showroom and optics the most when it’s dark, wet, drippy, buggy, and dirty. Now that forget that lighting conditions vary based on the time of day or even under a canopy of trees,” said Nikon’s Canadian sales rep Paul Leal. “Try to find a dark corner in the store where you can get a better feel for the brightness of a scope.”

Apart from quality glass, good optics have coatings to reduce the amount of available light reflected away, instead of being transmitted. According to Leica’s Canadian National Sales Manager Brian Bell, lens coatings improve image clarity and colour fidelity of the image. “They help the hunter differentiate their target from its background,” he said. “Plus, they also resist rain-droplet buildup and scratching.”

Chad Fisher, a Bushnell sales rep, echoes these recommendations and outlines the importance of coatings in challenging weather conditions. “Weather coatings can be the difference between a successful hunt and going home empty-handed,” he said. “Fog, rain, cold temperatures, and your breath can often cause lenses to fog up and make an ethical shot nearly impossible. Proper weather coatings will help keep your lenses from fogging and allow you to continue your hunt in almost any conditions.” Fisher says the bottom line is to choose fully multi-coated lenses when you’re looking for serious hunting optics.

Other features to consider are finish and controls. Rubber-coated binoculars are warmer on the hands in cold weather and tend to be a bit quieter when they bump other equipment during a still-hunt or stalk. All hunting optics need to be waterproof and able to handle wide temperature ranges. Controls should be smooth, not too loose or stiff, and easy to manipulate, even with light gloves on. Rifle scopes should have adjustable objective lenses and binoculars should have a diopter adjustment to customize them to your vision.

Rifle scopes
Scopes are standard for modern rifles, many slug guns, and muzzleloaders for good reason. They’re the best sighting system for almost every big-game hunting situation.

Magnification is the first consideration for many hunters choosing a scope. This is the amount an image is magnified from a given location as seen through the human eye. A deer at 100 yards viewed through a 1X scope will appear to be the same size as your normal vision. In a 2X scope it will appear twice as large as normal vision, and so on. The most common variable-power scope is a 3X-9X, which covers a wide range of hunting conditions.

Avoid too much magnification. “The most common mistake made by hunters is ‘bigger is better,’ ” said Leal. “The ideal scenario is a zoom that lets you sight in at 2X or 3X, and quickly extend the zoom to 7X or 8X once you’ve sighted your target. A scope with too strong a zoom will leave you with a much narrower field of view, making tracking a moving target difficult, and virtually impossible if your target moves out of sight. Long-range scopes are best for target ranges where conditions are controlled.”

Magnification comes with a tradeoff. When you increase magnification, you decrease the field of view, which is how much geography you can see through the scope at any one time. This can be a problem if you have a deer pop up right in front of you and your scope is on 10X. You might only see hair on the animal, if you can get it in the scope at all, because your field of view is so small. Low magnification, 1.5X-3X, is the way to go if there’s a chance of an animal appearing within 100 yards.

Another issue is weight. Most high-magnification rifle scopes are heavier then lower-power scopes. This poses problems. If you do any walking, you’ve added major weight to your gun. Because of the law of inertia, the excess weight also puts stress on the scope mounts when the rifle is fired. On high-calibre hard-kicking rifles, this can cause the mounts to shift and break, the scope to lose its centre, and other nasty things. Weighty scopes can also make your rifle top heavy, like an overloaded canoe. Big scopes are also harder to mount on your gun because they take up so much room. They often need special mounts and are particular about where they sit on a gun, making them more difficult to adjust to your eye.

Most rifle hunters in Ontario would be well served with a 2X-7X or a 3X-9X scope, while slug guns and muzzleloaders could sport 1X-4X variables, 2X fixed magnification scopes, or even a 1X red-dot sight. In any case, always keep the scope dialed down to the lowest setting while hunting, then crank up the power for long shots. This way, you will be ready for a quick shot in tight quarters.

Eye-relief (the distance from the back of the scope to your eye when you can see the whole image without a fuzzy dark halo around the edges) is also important. If the scope’s eye relief is too short, when you put the gun up to your shoulder, you will not see a full view of the image. This means you have to move your head forward, creeping up on the stock. It will slow you down, and when you pull the trigger the scope might come back and hit you, normally between the eyes or over your eyebrow. It hurts. To solve this problem, choose a scope with a long eye relief. You want a full-view image appearing in front of your eye when you mount the gun, without having to shift your head on the stock.

The reticle you choose depends on personal preference and what’s available. The most common is a plex reticle, which is a proven style. German, post, dot, crosshair, and bullet-compensating sighting systems are other options. Each works, as long as you’re comfortable using them. You need to be able to precisely place your bullet and, when necessary, with speed. Choose a reticle that will allow you to do both at various ranges.

Illuminated reticles are gaining popularity for good reason. In low light, they help you accurately place your shot. These are particularly useful when hunting dark animals such as moose and bear, which can hide a dark reticle. Most modern illuminated reticles have either a battery that lasts for years or they utilize fibre-optic technology, so you can count on them to work when needed.

Some hunters put great thought into their rifle scopes and then head into the bush with half-rate binoculars. Don’t. Binoculars should be used more than your rifle scope by a factor of at least hundreds, if not thousands. They’re not to be forgotten back in the truck.

Beyond quality, size, and magnification, determine the best pair of binoculars for you. When I was guiding for caribou in the Northwest Territories, I carried a pair of high quality 12X50 binoculars into the field. They’re big, heavy, have a limited field of view, and give great detail at a distance. They were perfect for glassing caribou for clients in wide open country. They don’t go hunting with me much now.

I normally carry a compact 8X23 pair around my neck these days. They can be used to pick apart the bush within 100 yards and also glass large logging cuts and fields. Because they’re light, I’m not tempted to carry them deep in my pack, where they’re not useful. They also have a massive field of view, which means I can often look over a pair of deer or a cow and calf moose within the same sight picture.

Patrick Mundy, communications manager at Leupold, suggests 10X binoculars are a good all-round choice. “The most popular units still seem to be the 10X42s,” he said. “They offer a nice exit pupil and a good field of view, yet still provide enough magnification to discern things like antler tines or an eyeball at moderate to long distances.”

Look for binoculars that suit your style of hunting. If you spend most of your time bow hunting from a tree stand in a local woodlot, then a compact pair of 8Xs will serve you well. If you like to glass large cutovers and beaver ponds, then a pair of 10Xs would be better.

When comparing binoculars, look for sharp images free of distortion or distracting reflection. In good optics, the image will be clear all the way to the edge of the field of view, and the shapes and colours in the image should remain true. “Starbursts” and other distracting lighting effects are also to be noted and avoided.

One often overlooked aspect of purchasing binoculars is the carrying strap. Gary Perry, Canadian manager of customer service for Swarovski Optik, said, “Protect your investment. Binoculars should be carried on the front of your chest, not on a shoulder, to prevent them from swinging and getting bumped too much.” Swarovski recommends the use of a binocular suspender for this.

For light binos, a simple strap with a wide padded strap will suffice. A bigger, more powerful pair might require a harness that distributes the weight and prevents them from bouncing around on your chest.

Final notes
Scopes and binoculars let you see into places that your eye can’t. They let you pick apart a bush, dissecting the pieces of the puzzle until antler or ear become clear. Both enable you to accurately place shots, making one-shot kills more probable. They’re one of the only advantages we feeble hunters have over the game we seek. Choose them wisely and always take them with you.

Optics care
It makes no sense to spend lots of money on optics, then abuse them. Proper care in the field and at home will keep them performing at their best. Read and follow the care and maintenance recommendations in the owner’s manual and carry lens-cleaning tools into the field with you. They’re light and take up almost zero room in your pack.

Dust is a common problem, according to Nikon’s Paul Leal. “Keep the covers in place when not using your scope,” he said. “This will prevent dirt and dust from building up on the lenses. If you notice dirt or dust on the lenses, try blowing it off with a len’s pen brush designed for the purpose. If you must touch the lenses, do so only with a lens pen, lens wipe, or other cleaning products designed for lenses, once the dust or debris are brushed off.”

Brian Bell from Leica offers careful cleaning measures to keep optics working properly. “Never clean even fully waterproof optics under running water,” he advised. “Truly waterproof objects should be submerged in standing water to clean them. Never clean a lens while it faces the sky, only while it faces the ground. Otherwise, all you’re doing is moving dirt from one side of the lens to the other.”

Chad Fisher from Bushnell suggests hunters store their optics in the house and away from dust in the off-season. “Proper storage is key to having a long-lasting and reliable scope. Dust build-up on the lenses can lead to scratches. Purchasing a lens-cleaning kit is always a good idea. And, always store optics dry at room temperature.”

For the most part, storing them in the house when not in use, keeping lenses clean, and giving them an occasional wipe with a damp cloth will keep your optics working great for decades.