The Pros And Cons Of Building A Laser Into A Riflescope Or Binocular.
When civilian laser rangefinders appeared in the mid-1990’s, many were almost worthless for field use. The first I tested was a prototype from a well-known optics importer. It was larger than a typical 10×50 binocular and worked pretty well on deer-sized objects out to maybe 350 yards, if it didn’t decide to range something else within 50 to 75 yards.
Since then hand-held rangefinders have not only shrunk considerably, but range far more consistently at longer distances. The $200 laser in my range bag came from the same company, is small enough to fit in a generous shirt pocket, and in favorable conditions will provide readings on flat targets out to 600 yards. Spend more money and hand-held lasers will range even difficult targets like pronghorns on flat ground beyond 600 yards.
Well, maybe. The small size of hand-held laser rangefinders isn’t conducive to steady holding. Plus, they’re yet another gadget to carry around when many of us already take too much stuff into the field. Even when small enough to fit in a chest pocket, we’ve got to take them out and fiddle awhile before getting a reading—and then switch to our rifle. This is exactly why various companies started putting laser rangefinders inside scopes and binoculars, eliminating an extra gadget and allowing us to range at the same time we’re glassing or aiming.
Aside from cost, the two early disadvantages to built-in rangefinders were bulk and, in riflescopes, ruggedness. The first Leica Geovid binoculars were so big and heavy, the only ones I saw in the field were carried by guides who weren’t carrying a rifle. The first Swarovski rangefinding scopes were also big and heavy—and turned out to be relatively fragile.
But as with everything else in electronics, prices came down and sizes shrank. Several companies now offer binoculars and scopes with internal laser rangefinders for less than $1,000, and the rangefinders often work far better than hand-held rangefinders in the same price range for two reasons.
First, it’s far easier to steadily hold binoculars and rifles than palm-size rangefinders, allowing us to precisely place the reticle on a distant object. Second, the laser beam is thinner in longer optics, so we’re not nearly as likely to range an object somewhere in the surrounding area. I’ve tested several binoculars with built-in rangefinders over the past few years, and all have provided consistent readings out to at least 1,600 yards, even in unfavorable environmental conditions.
The Burris Eliminator III doesn’t remove rifle skill from long-range shooting.
Instead, it just simplifies aiming.
A good example is the first version of the Bushnell Fusion binocular, rated to 1,600 yards. In many rangefinders the yardage rating is almost laughable, since it often applies only to perfect conditions, say a sizeable road sign on a cloudy day (bright light interferes with the laser beam). Well, the test sample of the Fusion showed up on a bright early September afternoon, and I drove out to a nearby chunk of flat Bureau of Land Management ground. A 2-track road crosses the flat, so ranging accuracy can be rough-checked with the odometer of my pickup. On the far size of the flat stood a small juniper tree, and I placed the binocular’s reticle on the tree and pushed the button. In maybe two seconds 1,609 yards appeared in the view—and yes, that was an accurate reading.
I’ve gotten similar accuracy in unfavorable conditions at even longer distances using rangefinding binoculars from Leica, Swarovski, Steiner and Zeiss—and also Bushnell, since they upgraded the Fusion a couple years ago to a full mile, 1,760 yards. (Personally, I’ve never sat in the field wishing for a mile of ranging ability instead of a mere 1,600 yards, but apparently Bushnell wanted to make sure everybody knew they’d introduced a new model.)
Despite the price of laser binoculars varying considerably, their ranging ability doesn’t vary much. What you get by spending more money is extra features. The latest Leica Geovid HD-B, for instance, includes a built-in ballistic program, so you don’t have to haul out your smart phone to find out how many clicks are needed on your scope’s elevation turret. And the real improvement in the 1-Mile Bushnell Fusion isn’t the rangefinder, but better optics.
Most of today’s laser binoculars will range to a mile, even in bright light.
This Steiner got readings at close to 2,000 yards.
Rangefinding riflescopes can be divided into two basic categories: Scopes where you still have to twist the elevation turret to compensate for shooting at longer distance, and the Burris Eliminator III, featuring a series of 96 LED dots on the vertical crosshair. Enter the ballistic coefficient and velocity of the load you’re using in the scope’s internal computer, and when you press the ranging button the correct aiming dot lights up. (All of this may sound pretty sophisticated, but is primitive compared to some military aiming technology.)
The Eliminator III bothers some “traditional” long-range shooters, who’ve spent considerable money and time finding scopes with reliable adjustments and learning how to use a ballistic program. Now, they complain, anybody can just buy a scope and eliminate the need for their skills. However, an Eliminator III doesn’t steady your shooting position or pull the trigger. All it does is simplify aiming by eliminating the need to twist the elevation turret. (Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Burris calls it the Eliminator.)
A more practical objection to binoculars and scopes with built-in lasers is what could happen several years from now, when the laser might need expensive repairs. By then, the repairs might not even be available. All I can say is I’ve yet to have any laser rangefinder break down, including the one in my Bushnell Fusion, despite having been out and about in rain, snow and temperatures from below zero to over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. All the maintenance it’s ever gotten is installing a fresh $2 battery once a year, and not because the laser quit working but just to make sure.
Another practical objection is unlike a laser-ranging binocular, a laser-ranging scope can only be used on one rifle. But some rangefinder scopes can be purchased for $700 or $800, and many of us are used to paying that much for scopes anyway.
Many of us also have more rifles than we need, though anybody who reads GUNS should already know actual need has nothing to do with over 90 percent of firearm-related purchases. Instead we want stuff. An easy guess is laser rangefinding binoculars and scopes will continue to shrink—both in size and cost—and also improve in quality. Eventually there’ll be no reason not to want one, or several.
By John Barsness