As I bellied into prone, the young man beside me consulted his rangefinder. “It’s 151 yards,” he said at last. Now, I’d guessed it at 300 to 325, and I told him so. “That’s not what it says.” His tone was urgent, as if reading from a pill bottle warning against ingestion by anyone with exposure to gunpowder. I sighed. The elk was moving into cover. Out of courtesy, I asked if that laser was high enough to clear the rock outcrop halfway to the elk. Silence. Then, “Oh. Yeah. That makes a difference. It’s 297 now. Or 298. Wait a minute….” I didn’t.
Before optical sights, hunters managed to kill game without using rangefinders. If the brass bead covered the ribs, the shot was too long. If it didn’t, there was no need to hold over. The bullet would land somewhere inside the sight. Because the sight lay inside the vitals, venison was guaranteed.
Scopes extended accurate aim. They tapped the reach of the .30-06 and, later, the .270 Winchester and .300 H&H Magnum. By the 1950s and early ‘60s, when short-belted magnums appeared, scopes had supplanted iron sights on most bolt rifles. Coated lenses, alloy tubes, fog-proofing and constantly centered reticles won over the skeptics. Less useful were subsequent hikes in power, wider magnification ranges and illuminated reticles. Range-finding and range-compensating devices, in reticle and elevation dial, wooed hunters who’d never killed a deer beyond 86 yards, but were persuaded their next shot would come at 572.
By this time, Bushnell had launched a line of laser rangefinders. These were considerably lighter, more compact and less costly than early military rangefinders. An internal clock time a laser beam bouncing back from a distant target. Range, to the nearest yard, appeared in liquid crystal display (LCD) in the viewfinder. Bushnell sold these laser units by the bushel—not only to shooters, but also to golfers. Other firms rushed to compete. Though technologically sophisticated, the laser rangefinder was not difficult to build. No heavy machine work. No big lenses.
Features To Burn
Rangefinders help riflemen shooting farther than a top-of-the-back hold deliver a killing hit. But even hunters limiting shots to inside 300 yards can benefit. A .270 zeroed at 200 yards plants bullets 6 to 8 inches low at 300 yards. I’ve seen hunters make 100-yard errors in range estimation at middle distances. I’ve done it myself.
Archers buy rangefinders too. An arrow’s drop between 40 yards and 60 yards can be as great as that of a bullet from 250 to 400! But a laser rangefinder built to peg four-figure distance doesn’t shine when deer show up a few feet from your tree-stand. So now units like Bushnell’s G-Force 1300 feature short-range modes. The G-Force gives you true horizontal range from 5 yards to 99 yards—until you switch from Bow to Rifle mode. Then you get distance reads and calculated holdover for your self-programmed load and zero from 100 to 800 yards! There are Brush, Bullseye and Scan modes, too.
“Wait!” you implore, equally tired of techno-babble and simple words veiling complex circuitry. “Translate!” And: “How do all those modes help when you must shoot right away?”
Horizontal range serves bowmen in tree-stands because it displays the component of the arrow’s flight most affected by gravity. The travel distance of an arrow launched at a 45-degree angle is roughly half again as great as the horizontal distance. As you recall from high school geometry, that relationship is the square root of 2 (1.41) and 1. Hold for actual distance and you’ll miss high. The same rule applies to rifle bullets, of course, but because trajectories are flatter, errors at point-blank ranges are smaller. Long-range shots seldom come at very steep angles. So the horizontal read is less important to riflemen and to archers hunting from the ground.
Each of Bushnell’s modes makes sense, though scrolling through them does take time. In Brush mode, the unit ignores the foreground, zeroing in on a solid target beyond the screen of branches hiding you. (Rain modes in rangefinders operate much like this Brush mode, directing the unit to ignore a screen of rain or snow.) In Bullseye mode, the G-Force selects the closest of multiple objects engaged by the aiming device or reticle in the viewfinder. The Scan mode updates the read as you pan an area or keep the unit aimed at a moving animal. The shot-angle correction Bushnell calls Angle Range Compensation (ARC) appears under other labels in other products. Nikon’s is ID Technology. Leupold’s True Ballistic Range (TBR) has four readouts: Mils, minutes of angle, inches holdover and horizontal range equivalent (yards). Bushnell’s Variable Sight-In feature (VSI) allows you to program the G-Force rangefinder with a zero distance from 100 to 300 yards.
Like riflescopes, laser rangefinders use magnification to deliver a better view of the target. The G-Force comes in 6X or 10X. Leupold offers 6X and 8X versions in its RX series. Nikon’s Monarch Gold is a 7X, which seems to me about right for long distances. More power can make a rangefinder slow to get on target and hard to hold there. Bushnell G-Force, Leupold RX and Nikon Monarch Gold rangefinders have focusing diopters, a useful feature that sharpens the target image. These models are waterproof, with “armor” cushioning over lightweight metal frames. The glass is multi-coated for better light transmission. At 3.2 by 5.7 inches and 9.8 ounces, Nikon’s is the biggest. The new Bushnell measures 2.9 by 4.0 inches and weighs 8 ounces, and the Leupold—which, incidentally, offers a choice of several reticles—2.8 by 3.8 and 7.8 ounces.
Though I use rangefinders, they’d serve me as well if they were simpler. I’ve been charitable here, paying tribute to features popular enough to sell. In truth, I’d like a rangefinder that showed only range. Like a watch limited to showing time and a telephone that lets you talk and listen only, a laser rangefinder without other options would please those of us who struggle choosing socks every morning. It would fail at market, because most people who buy electronic gizmos want them to do many tasks, necessary or not.
The trouble with more functions is that they set you up for more malfunctions. I just changed the serpentine belt on a pal’s sedan. It broke because a pulley—one of seven—had seized, putting the car at roadside. In my youth, a fan belt ran the water pump and generator. It if broke, the car could still limp home.
My ideal rangefinder is a simple, pocket-sized device with a textured rubber jacket that won’t slip from cold, wet hands. It features one big, easily depressed button located right where my index finger lands. It uses the CR2 Lithium battery common to all rangefinders, so I can easily replace it. The laser reads reflective objects to 1,200 yards—not because I’ll be sending bullets that far, but because deer aren’t reflective. Makers routinely baptize rangefinders in the name of their longest reach. A G-Force 1300 may tell you a stainless steel walk-in cooler is 1,300 yards off. But to get reliable reads on big game, you must halve that distance.
My ideal rangefinder doesn’t have a camo finish, because if I put it down I want to be able to find it right away. Rangefinders don’t frighten deer. Hunters lifting rangefinders do. I’d like a red rangefinder, just to be different. And it needn’t be waterproof—I don’t swim with rangefinders, bagels or piranhas.
My ideal rangefinder is of 6X or 7X. It has a bright reticle I can see easily under a noonday sun and coated optics, because I’ve been spoiled by coated optics, and my eyes aren’t as good as they were in the days of fan belts. Bushnell’s RainGuard is a nice touch, causing raindrops to skitter off the lenses. I’ll take generous eye relief over wide field of view. Nikon’s 19mm works fine. Also useful: a focusing ring with a simple rubber eyecup, and an automatic shut-off to save battery.
I’d be satisfied with a rangefinder that gave me accuracy to within 5 yards. Or 10. Even 20. Most rangefinders boast 1-yard precision. Leupold claims .1 yard with Digitally eNhanced Accuracy (no typo; they call it DNA). But unless you’re lobbing .45-70 bullets at hedgehogs half a mile away, 10-yard error is meaningless. For bowhunting, though, 2 yards may be all you can afford.
You’re smart to test a rangefinder before you buy one. Try it outside, shooting into shadow and sunlight, at dull objects. Determine maximum reach. Time yourself as you pull the unit from a pocket and press the button at small targets. Like a rifle, the unit should point quickly and operate intuitively. Other assets matter a lot less.