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Hunting optics: Hints on buying

Jack O'Connor once wrote that if you buy a pair of the best binoculars made, you'll never have to purchase another pair. While that's not exactly accurate (because a binocular that is perfect for one hunt might not be suitable for another specialized hunt), what he meant is well-taken: You won't ever have to upgrade if you buy the best, and quality optics last a lifetime.

I've owned cheap binoculars and excellent binoculars. My first pair of high-quality binoculars lasted longer than the 25-year warranty that came with them. My current carrying binoculars, Zeiss 8x30s, will last as long as I need them, I'm sure.

Briefly, then, buy the best binoculars you can afford. Someday I will update this page with more information,. but for now I'll keep it short.

The best binoculars, unfortunately, are the most expensive: Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski. There are some very good binoculars that are less expensive than these top brands. Pentax, Nikon, Bausch & Lomb, Fujinon and Kahles all make some fine binoculars, but some of these companies also put out junk. Zeiss also makes some binoculars that are not as well made as their top-of-the line models. I have never looked through a Steiner that I've liked, and all of those were quite expensive -- $300 to $800. None had edge-to-edge sharpness or resolution that were acceptable to me. Steiner now makes some binoculars that retail for more than $1,000, but I have not had a chance to look through them.

So do your research before you plunk down $400 to $800. I've had the chance to test a huge number of binoculars in the field, and so far I've been impressed with very few of them. If I were looking for a good set that is priced for less than Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski, here's what I would do.

First, I would check out used binoculars. I purchased my Zeiss 8x30s on Ebay, and that's where I sold my previous pair of quality binos. I saved several hundred dollars, but buyer beware sometimes you pay for things on Ebay and never get them.

I've read that the Zeiss Conquest and Zeiss Diafun models should be avoided. The old Classics and all the others that currently sell new for $1,000 or more are excellent. All new Leicas are good, but two of my friends have had problems with eyecups. All Swarovskis made in the past 10 years are excellent.

Next, I would look for specific high quality binoculars that are a step down from the top-end brands. Examples: 7x24 Bausch & Lomb Discoverer reverse porro prism binoculars made in the '80s, Fujinon 16x70 FMT-SX, Pentax 8x32 DCF ED. The optics are great in all the better Pentax roof prisms with ED (extra low dispersion glass) lenses. Many East German Zeiss binoculars are good, but check out the specific model before plunking down your money. Bausch & Lomb Elites made in the '80s were great.

The problem with stepping down from the top brands is that some models are excellent and others not so good. The first two pairs of B&L Elites I used were superb, but then the company must have lowered its standards because the next pair I tried was substandard. Nikon makes some Action Extreme binoculars that have had great reviews, and I recently ordered a pair of them in 16x50.

As for power, 7x or 8x is still an excellent choice for most hunting if you intend to hand hold your binoculars most of the time. Resting on a tripod, or even on a monopod, 7x or 8x binoculars with quality optics can be used to pick out details that a cheap spotting scope cannot resolve.

But if you intend to do a lot of spotting at long range, you'll need a bigger binocular. Most sheep guides carry 10x Zeiss, Leica or Swarovski binoculars. Some Dall sheep guides carry 12x or even 15x. If you have a steady hand, or if you rest your binoculars on a pack or a tripod, these will work if almost all of your spotting will be done at ranges of a mile or more.

I think the perfect combination is to use a pair of 7x35 or 8x30 binoculars for most of your glassing, and then supplement that with a 15x or 16x binocular on a tripod. Avoid roof prisms for your high-powered tripod glasses -- they're inherently less sharp from edge to edge because the light bounces off roof prisms more times than off porro prisms. That means that the margins of error must be much tighter on a roof prism for the image to match the sharpness of a porro prism.

As for objective lens diameter, too many hunters get carried away with trying to get the best brightness factor or twilight factor possible. Believe me when I say that it is simply not that important 99.9% of the time. If you don't believe me, go out at dusk and compare a high quality 7x35 or 8x30 with an 8x43 or 7x42 of the same brand. You will not choose to carry the bigger, heavier binocular after you do that. Many of my friends have had a chance to try this test with me in the mountains of the West or of Alaska, and it seems they always start complaining about the weight and bulk around their neck afterward. Three of my friends have sold their bigger binoculars and scaled down as a result.

On the other hand, when you're using a high-powered binocular on a tripod, the objective lens size is much more important. One of my best friends uses Fujinon 16x70s, and even though they're much heavier and bigger than my own spotting binos, he can pick out deer or bighorn sheep at ungodly distances in dim light. Long-distance spotting also is often from sunny areas to shaded areas because that's where the game is, and huge binoculars (well shaded from the sun) can be an enormous advantage.

For long-range binoculars, buy 15x60 Carl Zeiss if you can afford them. Otherwise, consider the Fujinons, Nikon Action Extreme 16x50s or East German Zeiss 15x50s. The old East German binoculars are not waterproof, however, and they often have lenses fogged by mildew or mold, so be careful. My dream spotting binocular is the Leica 15x56 Geovid with a built-in laser rangefinder.

As for spotting scopes, there are some excellent models nowadays. If you can afford top of the line, go with Swarovski or Leica APO scopes. Get the larger objective lens unless you're strictly a backpacker. If you're on a tighter budget, I really like the Pentax PF-80ED and the Pentax PF-65ED II. They're still a lot of money, however. Check out the link at right for an unbiased comparison of various quality spotting scopes. If you're on a tight budget, buy a used Bausch & Lomb Discoverer with a 15-60x eyepiece. It's not that great but a world better than one of the cheaper new spotting scopes, such as Winchester or Simmons. Leupold makes some pretty good scopes, such as the 12-40x60 Gold Ring Spotter, but some of the companies scopes have been poor, such as the 20x50 I owned for a very short time.

If you get a chance in the field, compare a really good spotting scope, such as the Pentax PF-80ED, with a run-of-the-mill scope, such as an old Bushnell Spacemaster, a Bausch & Lomb Elite 15-45x60 or a standard Nikon 15-45x60, and you'll find yourself constantly checking your budget until you can own a good scope.

Cornell Tests: How spotting scopes compare