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Best binos in the West: its not just having glass, its about having the right glass.


IN 40 YEARS afield, I've met many hunters with expensive rifles. Oddly enough, top-end binoculars have shown up less frequently. Because you must see game before your rifle becomes useful, the binocular is at least as important.

Years ago, hunting with Inuits above the Arctic Circle, I carried a Bausch & Lomb 7x35 Zephyr, a wonderful Porro prism binocular. It was very light; the images were sharp and bright. The patriarch of our group, a leathery man with hair as pale as the wolf ruff on his parka, had a cheap 7x50. He held it with the barrels in vertical line, looking through the bottom barrel because the other didn't work.

After canoeing through rough seas along the northern reach of Hudson's Bay, we pitched tents on a featureless rock spit The next morning, south winds had jammed a mountain range of floating ice against our shore. We shot caribou that day. The old man with the one-eyed-binocular brought in six hides, secured by a rope around his chest. He'd shot all the animals with an iron-sighted .22.

A few years later, near the Mexican border, I hunted with a colleague who carried the very best of binoculars--not only on his neck, but on a tripod. He preferred his giant 30x80 to a spotting scope because it was more comfortable to use over long periods. Finding outsize Coues deer was a game of waiting and watching, of sifting the feathery details of desert flora until the rim of an eye or curve of an antler turned up in the flood-currents of distant mirage. "Unless you look a long time through very sharp glass, you might as well leave your rifle at home," he told me.

Many hunters ply the peaks and prairies between Sonora and the Arctic. Most own binoculars with two working barrels. Few own top-end glasses. These hunters are, in the main, well-served by their optics. That's partly because, like the old Inuit, and my friend in Coues country, they adapt their hunting styles to their equipment. Partly it's because a lot of game is shot without being glassed-up first, or is so obvious that any binocular will do. And partly it's because mid-priced binos these days deliver the resolution and light transmission of top-end glass a couple of decades ago.

Still, it's a good idea to review options periodically. While binocular prices keep rising, competing companies must offer value. You needn't buy the best. As with many things, you pay a lot extra for that last incremental hike in performance. You also pay a premium for names like, Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski. These icons have earned their place in the sun. Expect high quality and strong resale value, should you decide not to keep a binocular for the dozens of seasons it should last. Longevity remains a virtue. Despite the many advances in binocular design over the last decades, improvements in image quality come slowly. The best binoculars from the era of Fortran computer programs are still excellent optics.

Unless you hinge your tactics on your hardware, what you need in a binocular depends largely on how you hunt. Many sportsmen in the West park themselves on a hill and look. Others, like me, prefer to walk. High-power glasses with big objectives offer great reach with high resolution, and bright images in dim light. These binoculars won't work well if you're climbing all day and glassing while winded, or when you're crawling through short sage toward a pronghorn. A good rule of thumb: match magnification with objective diameter to get an exit pupil of 4 or 5mm. A 10x40 binocular gives you 4mm of exit pupil, a 10x50 yields 5mm--and slightly better performance at dusk The trade-off: greater weight and bulk. When guiding elk hunters and toting no rifle, I used a 10x50 Swarovski SLC. Hunting, I use more compact glass: 8x32 Zeiss T* FL (20 ounces), 8x32 Leica Ultravid BR (19 ounces), 8x32 Swarovski Traveler (21 ounces). I adore my Nikon 8x32 Porro prism SE, a less costly but equally brilliant glass. Incidentally, a Porro prism binocular, with offset barrels as opposed to the straight-barreled roof prism, is still a viable design. While roof prism binoculars have received most of the attention and are more compact, the Porro can be made as light or even lighter in weight, and to the same optical standards. It is harder to weatherproof.

A couple of notes on magnification: While 10x binoculars bring you more detail, they also have a smaller field and shallower depth of field. Walking through timber, glassing as you move, you'll catch less cover with each glance, and a thinner veneer will come into sharp focus. Also, shake from heartbeat, wind and muscle fatigue can erase the extra detail you get in a 10x. At 12x magnification or greater, support is almost a requisite, and a tripod becomes useful indeed for extended glassing. (Look for a tripod socket.)


What about zoom and dual-power binoculars? I can't name any zoom binocular worth buying. If the most competent German and Austrian engineers, and R&D people in the best Japanese optics houses can't figure out how to make a lightweight zoom binocular without compromising image quality, I'll do without, thank you. Dual-power mechanisms are more practical. Leica offers its Duovid in 10+15x50 and 8+12x42 versions. At 44 and 37 ounces, they're heavy, but manageable on a harness. The 10+15 doubles as a spotting scope. Optics are predictably peerless. Leupold now catalogs Switch/Power models in its Golden Ring series. Choose a 7+12x32 or a 10+17x42. These are relatively lightweight glasses: 21 and 24 ounces.

Leica came up with the first successful laser range-finding binocular, the Geovid. It combined top-end optics with precise ranging capability. Lighter, sleeker 8x42 and 10x42 successors weigh 33 ounces and, while not cheap, are much better values than the original. Powered by a CR2 3-volt Lithium battery, a Geovid BRF ranges targets in 1.4 seconds to 1,300 yards.

Another laser ranging option is the Zeiss Victory T* RF, 8x45 or 10x45. Its laser unit requires no "third eye" emitter but delivers 1,300-yard range on reflective targets. Reads are fast--you get the range in about a second-and the LED (light-emitting diode) self-compensates for brightness. These are top-end binoculars, with rain-repellent LotuTec coating. The Ballistic Information System means you can program them with computer data to get holdover for six standard bullet trajectories.

While some innovations are truly marvelous from an engineer's perspective, you must weigh the utility of each in the field. Why pay for something you won't use, that adds weight or that even in a small way interferes with the primary function of a binocular? I like center-focus designs because they're faster than IF binoculars, which require each barrels to be focused separately. I can take or leave the detents on focus and diopter dials; if the dials are properly adjusted for friction, they'll turn easily but stay put without detents. I do like locking diopters; once you set that adjustment for your eyes, you shouldn't have to change it often, if ever. Spare me the angled eye-cups; they may block sidelight, but they also catch body heat and moisture that can fog the lenses, and they're never turned exactly right to fit your face. Helical, multiple-stop eyecups make more sense than straight-pull eyecups that can collapse when you press them against your brow. On the other hand, I find nothing wrong with folding rubber eyecups. Camo finish is essentially worthless; game doesn't see your binocular, it sees you. I don't want a knife or a binocular or a billfold that will suddenly disappear if I set it on the ground in the woods. Hydrophobic lens coatings like Zeiss's LotuTec and Bushnell's RainGuard impress me as being worthwhile, especially in wet climates.

I try to keep binocular weight under 24 ounces, so I don't need a harness to distribute the weight. A harness can be a nuisance when you're shedding or donning clothes during the day. A glass in harness is also slow to remove or stow when you want to belly through the bluestem quickly.

Some features that used to distinguish first-cabin binoculars are now so widely available that you can take them for granted. Phase correction, for instance. Others have been claimed for binoculars whose design precludes them--proof that engineers don't write ad copy. Still other refinements are worth noting on any checklist--like multiple anti-reflection, anti-refraction coatings on all lens surfaces. If the specs don't trumpet "fully multi-coated lenses," forget that model. BAK-4 and BK-7 lenses in some descriptions indicate glass types; both may have a place in sound optical design. Glass best suited to an objective lens is not necessarily best inside. You'll work hard to get beneath these designations; unless you've a background in optical engineering won't gain anything from it anyway. The best you can do when getting down to the final few candidates is to look through all of them. Not only in perfect light, but quartering into the sun, in shadow and rain, and in the dark when your pupil exceeds the diameter of the binocular's exit pupil.

Honestly, in a blind test, few hunters can see any difference between good mid-priced binoculars and those that cost twice as much. Remember, you're buying more than the first image in the glass. You pay for the maker's attention to collimation (barrel alignment), the binocular's durability and perhaps the history behind its name. Better to spend a bit more on a glass you really want than try to save a few shekels on another. After all, a binocular is an investment. You can only shoot the animal you see first.
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Title Annotation:Open Country; binoculars
Author:van Zwoll, Wayne
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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