Marksmen have used all sorts of methods for determining distance. The length of a football field is popular, height of a human being, length of a car and even the width of a road. When peering through the lens of an optic, mil-dots are a common tool used by shooters to gather range estimation. A decade ago, rangefinders used by the military were large and obtrusive, sometimes requiring special ranges to fire the laser in training. Even then, marksmen were never to solely rely on technology but to fall back on the skill learned in training.
Today, the scene is much different as the latest rangefinders are compact and easy to use. They can be easily stowed in the field kit and readily deployed. Recognizing the benefits of technology, the U.S. Army has awarded Bushnell a contract for a special military version of the Elite 1500 to “enhance combat capabilities of troops in the field.”
When a target is ranged, the rangefinder works off a reflection of the unit’s laser across a given distance. More than a year ago, I participated in a rangefinder test founded on science and reality. At that time, the test was aimed at hunting and an animal hide was used as a realistic component meeting the needs of the intended user. Being that the military was adopting this product, this test would have to incorporate a vehicle, steel, wood, earth and, of course, a human. A large white target board was used as the control.
Lee Estes and I would mount the rangefinder on a tripod and evaluate it on the ground in a prone position at a 1,500-yard rifle range. Starting at 100 yards, we would go back to 200 and then go back to five. After five, we evaluated the different modes at 100-yard increments and wouldn’t stop until we ran out of range or the unit quit.
Working the Rangefinder
The first test was to determine how intuitive it was to operate. The Bushnell Elite 1500 has just two control buttons, a range button on the top of the unit and a mode button that is placed just left of the eye piece. It was quite easy to start picking out distances within seconds after inserting the battery and figuring out how to turn it on. Featuring only two buttons, it didn’t take long to learn that the top button powered the unit.
The unit features three modes: bullseye, brush and scan. Scan mode is great for obtaining continuous updates, which is especially helpful with moving targets. As a suburban drove down to the target area, I stood at the 500-yard line and tested the scan mode. It paused between calculations as the vehicle raced down but slowing to 15 m.p.h. and less, the suburban’s changing range was easily calculated.
The brush mode is represented by an LCD indicator displaying a cluster of trees. This mode is designed to help the laser bypass brush and branches that can interfere with the laser projection. If the laser detects more than one object in this mode, it will give the reading for the object at greater distance. Bushnell offers a useful tip that when in this mode, intentionally moving the laser across many objects will help to display only the furthest objects recognized by this laser. In the prone, this mode proved its effectiveness through high grass that could interfere with other rangefinders.
The bullseye mode got used the most during testing, but required great stability at small and non-reflective targets beyond 700 yards. When more than one object is detected in this mode, the distance of the closest target is displayed and the LCD indicator changes from a bullseye to a bullseye with a crosshair. Like the brush mode, Bushnell’s tip of intentionally forcing the laser to hit multiple objects will ensure that only the closest object’s range is displayed in bullseye mode.
On the Range
The reflectivity of a target is necessary to obtain accurate readings. This is dependent on color, surface, shape and size of a target. A black target is less reflective than a white or red color and a shiny surface like that of a new car or a window is more reflective than a dull surface like concrete or dirt. Larger targets are obviously easier to range and the angle to the target can also have an effect. Lighting conditions have an effect that you might not expect: Overcast skies will maximize the unit’s ranging capabilities where a bright sun decreases the unit’s range.
The test was conducted under less than optimal circumstances, which may account for the result. Temperatures hovered in the 90s with a similar percentage of humidity and an intense sunlight that produced noticeable heat waves past 700 yards. The unit readings were accurate out to 600 yards, +/- 1 yard, regardless of the object or mode. At 700 yards, the accuracy remained constant at +/- 1 yard before shifting to +/- 3 yards at 800.
Driving back to 900 yards, the human target was not returning a reading. It did return a reading off of an 8 x 8 foot white target board and a black one with no variation between the two. The steel targets, berm, suburban and a military water drum continued to offer readings but deviations began to appear as extreme as 9 yards with the dark matte-finished water drum. Looking through the scope of a rifle set at the same power as the rangefinder, clarity was consistent between the two but the heat waves were growing and moving left-to-right.
At 1,000 yards, heat waves radiating across the range were rising half the height of the target area and I began to wonder how this would affect the laser’s ability to read a particular target. Setting into the prone, the rangefinder paused before returning a reading of 993 to a target board. This was a satisfying result.
Driving back to 1,100 yards, we were looking at extreme ranges for combat. For unknown reasons, at this distance the target boards returned a reading of 1,093 with no added deviation. The steel and water drum no longer returned a reading and the suburban was difficult to see with the heat waves. We went back 100 yards and detected a deviation of 10 yards greater than the range we were standing, but we were still getting a reading. In great anticipation to see a rangefinder achieve a 1,500-yard reading, Lee and I drove all the way back.
I flipped through each mode and spent five minutes scanning targets. No result. Disappointed, we each took turns, elevated our perspective and began to walk in 50-yard increments, closing with the targets. It wasn’t until we reached 1,350 yards that we once again got a reading. Considering the instruction manual forecast such difficulties obtaining accurate reading in extreme sunlight and particular objects, I remained quite impressed to be holding a unit that could spot me something very close to 1,350 yards.
“Let technology supplement your skills, never replace it.” This phrase, echoed many times through the ranks of snipers, remains true. Having the Bushnell Elite 1500 ready for deployment will add confidence, speed and accuracy in a marksman’s ability to make a first-round hit. “We have a history of supporting our military and are proud that our products meet the needs of the armed forces,” says Robert Gates, Director of Sales for Military and Law Enforcement at Bushnell.
With any system such as this, I recommend taking the unit out and testing it to understand its capabilities and limitations, before using it on a deployment.