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Laser Range Finders: Bridging The Gap.

Look up the definition of laser in the dictionary and your eyes might glaze over. Just trying to understand the roots of the word "laser," an acronym for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation," could scare some of us into regarding our range finders as one step away from black magic. In truth, lasers were still thought of, not so long ago, as the stuff of science fiction. Lasers were fist harnessed successfully by industry, but the military also had designs on the technology. Their research paid off. Modem armed forces would be seriously hampered if the troops suddenly had to go to war without their lasers.

As is often the case, military technology often trickles down to the hunter. Archers, for whom accurate range estimation is so critical, have been quick to add laser range finders to their wish lists. Rumblings have been heard, to be sure, about the "fairness" of hunting with yet another high-tech device. Proponents are quick to argue convincingly that knowing the exact range means swifter, more humane kills, as well as fewer animals lost.

Laser range finding technology has taken a quantum leap since 1995, the year the first realistically priced units were introduced. Other range finders had premiered by then--Swarovski's premium range finder ($3,000) and Leica's weighty (about four pounds) and costly (about $3,500 at the time; $2,995 now) 7X42mm Geovid range finding binoculars--but neither was likely to be snatched up by the average Joe.

That's why bowhunters awaited, with bated breath, the arrival of range finders, less the traditionally high-dollar price tags. Basic bowhunting skills certainly wouldn't be affected by the technology--you'd still have to spot the animal and wait on stand or stalk close enough, without being detected, to make the shot--but what you would gain, and with a high degree of accuracy, was just how far your shot must travel. The race for a smaller, ever more accurate range finder had begun.

"First-year enthusiasm was overwhelming," said Tim Carpenter, laser products project manager for Bushnell Sports Optics, a company that sells a wide assortment of laser range finders. "Bushnell didn't have any experience producing electronic devices. We ran into problems." Although those first laser range finders were hard to come by, consumer enthusiasm wasn't dampened. In fact, it was intensified.

The principles that make laser range finders work aren't difficult to grasp, even if the terminology behind the word "laser" is. Aim a laser range finder at an object. "The device very quickly pulses a laser diode"--(light travels 186,000 miles per second)--"at that object," Carpenter explained. "An internal microcontroller remembers exactly when the laser was fired. The laser reaches the object, bounces off and returns to the unit where an electronic receiver records its arrival time. A micro-controller computes the distance to the object, plus computes the accuracy. Today's range finders are accurate, but in the next two years they're going to become far more accurate."

Surprisingly, with all the range finders Bushnell has produced and marketed, it has not found consumers to be overly concerned with accuracy. "We've tested some units--not ours--that have been from four to six yards off, and yet the consumer never picked up on it," Carpenter said. "The only exception is the bowhunter. Bowhunters demand accuracy. Some of them even return units for recalibration because they read one yard off."

Laser range finder technology is in a constant state of flux. Nikon (Nikon Buckmaster 800; 14.5 ounces, street price about $375) recently joined Bushnell in the fray, while Simmons is out, at least for the time being. Tasco is also out, while Leica, one of the world's optical titans, recently announced its own reasonably priced (suggested retail $449; street price should be less) compact monocular will soon be hitting retailers' shelves.

What are bowhunters looking for in their laser range finders? Accuracy, compactness, ease of handling, dependability, light weight, efficient use of batteries, adequate eye relief for those who wear eyeglasses, ruggedness and price. A good question to ask is if the range finder you're interested in displays only even numbers--some do--or both even and odd numbers, which is far more desirable. Say an animal is 40.3 yards distant. The LED display on some of these range finders may read 40 yards, while others may read 42 yards. "There's no real pattern to what one of these range finders will indicate," Carpenter said. "When combined with other internal inaccuracies, some models of range finders can be off as much as plus or minus three yards." Another problem some range finders struggle with is "noise" from sunlight. Sunlight bouncing around off bright, glary objects can fool some laser range finders' receivers into thinking the laser pulse has returned sooner than it did. When the micro-controller tries to com pute the distance, it will display an incorrect yardage, or maybe even no yardage at all.

Bushnell is approaching the new millennium by phasing out both the Yardage Pro 400 and Yardage Pro 800. "We're concentrating our efforts this year on the Yardage Pro 500 (13.5 ounces, about $250) and Yardage Pro 1000 (13.5 ounces, about $380)," Carpenter said. Both of these latter units are weatherproof (another consideration for those who bowhunt during inclement weather). The extreme lightweight of the Yardage Pro Compact 600 (10.4 ounces, about $310) makes it an excellent choice, and its unique form-fitting case protects the unit even as it's in use. The Compact 600 also features excellent eye relief; no eyecup is included to keep the design compact "This range finder combines everything so you don't have to compromise on anything," Carpenter said. "It's small, it ranges well and it's very accurate."

Another option is Bushnell's Yardage Pro Bow (12.5 ounces, about $220), a bow-mounted laser range finder that can also be used as a handheld unit. The Yardage Pro bow ranges out to 99 yards and can be used alongside your existing system of bowsights. The unit is not designed to incorporate any of the targeting modes--scan, rain, zip, reflector--included on Yardage Pro 500s, 600 Compacts, 800 Compacts, 1000 or Nikon's Buckmaster 800.

With magnifications ranging from 4X (Yardage Pro 600 Compact) to 8X (Yardage Pro 800 Compact; 11.5 ounces, about $365), some bowhunters are simply leaving their binoculars at home and depending on range finders.

As for Bushnell, "We'll continue to develop smaller units," Carpenter said. "The trade has shown a real tendency to go that way. Consumers want compact units too, even if they have to pay more to get them. Ranging capability must be good as well. We'll probably let our various laser range finder categories stabilize for the next year or so, but then look for dramatic breakthroughs in 2001.

"Our company's long-term goal is to integrate multiple electronic functions into one single device," he concluded. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that one product will probably be a laser range finding binocular. GPS technology is also rapidly changing and could also be incorporated into future designs of laser range finders."
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Publication:Petersen's Bowhunting
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2000

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