Optics Necessities


Good optics are important no matter what shooting discipline you’re involved with. After all, you have to see something before you can shoot it, and binoculars, scopes and spotting scopes make that possible.

Now that my eyes have aged, I don’t know where I’d be without modern optics. Thankfully, there’s a large assortment of glass available for specific needs.

Binocular Basics
I usually carry some sort of binocular, because you never know when you might need to see something at a distance.

The binocular is the most useful tool for hunting, nature watching or the work of a professional operator. The variety of this tool makes it easy — or difficult — to pick one for your purpose.

I have three pairs, which differ mostly in size: a pair of Nikon minis, which I like for pocket glass. They are 10x40s, but are clear and get the job done without the weight of larger models. During shorter jaunts, I carry Shepherd 12x50s. Sometimes, I’ll carry them regardless because their clarity is much better. My midsize Leupold Wind River binos have been taken over by my wife, Lu.

Swarovski and Steiner also produce great products. A friend has a pair of Swarovski’s 8×30 compacts, which provide great clarity for a compact bino.

Binoculars are categorized by their magnification and size of the objective lens. The objective lens is the farthest from the user, and it facilitates focus and light transmission. The rear lens provides magnification.

So, 10×50 binoculars have 10X magnification and a 50 mm objective lens. Unless I’m looking for something compact enough to carry in my pocket, I like to have at least a 50 mm objective. The bigger the lens, the better and more light transmission.

The ability to gather light makes optics so useful at dawn and dusk. That's why the other important factor in optics quality is the glass and how precisely it’s ground and shaped in the optical piece. That’s what determines cost. High-quality glass demands a higher price. Recently, competition and technology have made good-quality glass available to about everybody. You can purchase a pretty good piece for a reasonable price.

The focus-free or one-knob focus is one of the best technological advancements. The Leupold 10x50s I carry are of this type. That makes them easier to refocus after loaning them out. The only thing you must adjust is the interpupillary distance, which is the setting on the hinge that aligns the lens with the pupil. I usually mark this on my binoculars so it’s easier to return them to my setting.

A steady hold greatly improves the use of an optic afield. Lightly pressing the eyepieces to the bottom of your eyelid helps when viewing an object. I wear glasses, so steadying my upper body against something — a tree or vehicle — helps.

Some companies, such as Shepherd, make an attachment that lets you place binos on a tripod, like a spotting scope.

You can improve clarity by using your fingers to block light around the eyepieces when holding binoculars to your face.

Remember, the objective lens will reveal your presence to critters or an enemy when the sun reflects off it. Anti-reflective shields can help, and these are necessities for military and police personnel. >>>More Binoculars

For long-distance observation, spotting scopes pick up where binoculars leave off. They are the most powerful device for scouts, hunters or snipers, and help detect and observe a quarry from great distances.

They have a very narrow field of view, so you often use them in tandem with binos, looking through the latter to detect something and then observing it more carefully with the spotter.

One big discrepancy with spotting scopes is the differences between zoom and fixed power.

I started with a 25X fixed-power spotter years ago and really like it. However, I had to have a 25-60X zoom by Bausch and Laumb a few years ago. It’s a great scope, with a 60 mm objective that gathers more light in 60X mode.

If you need that kind of magnification, get the biggest objective you can. I’ve seen high-magnification spotters with objectives that were insufficient for transmitting light — unless you were looking at the sun.

Usually, I use 30X and like the compact size and weight of a fixed-power scope.

With a spotting scope, a steady rest is paramount. It’s very difficult — if not impossible — to use a spotter without a tripod. Good tripods are inexpensive and come in various forms. Shepherd makes a magnetic base that can be used on a shooting table or bench or the hood of a truck. It’s a versatile tool that can be used at the range or for spotting critters from the pickup. I like it because it’s compact enough to keep in the truck yet sufficiently handy for long-distance observation from a good rest. It also has a rifle-rest attachment, which comes in handy when sighting off the hood or resting a squirrel rifle. I also use it to steady my Shepherd 12×50 binos.

I also use another steadying device that attaches to a partially rolled-down window. It has all the adjustments of a tripod head and features clamp-type attachment that holds on the glass.

It’s compact and can be applied quickly without getting out of the truck and setting up a conventional tripod. I keep a small tripod in my pack for other conditions. It folds to less than a foot long but can be opened to work from a prone position or set on a rock for a sitting position.

I’ve been looking at Leupold’s 30x60X fixed-power spotter. It’s a light, sleek scope with straight-through view, not a prism type. I don’t have anything against prisms, but they usually are heavier. Prism models are shorter and might fit into a pack better.

Most spotting-scope manufacturers provide an additional feature: armor. This ribbed rubber coating makes the scope more resistant to shock.

Hunters, shooters or professional operators must have quality scopes on their rifles. A scope allows a more precise look at a long-distance target, and nowadays, they can help you estimate range and compensate for bullet drop.

Years ago, when rifles were first produced to shoot targets at longer ranges, guiding a bullet to its mark was a problem. The most famous example was the mighty Sharps rifle, which was advertised as “The Rifle You Shoot Today and Kills Tomorrow.”

Before glass, these guns were fitted with sights that were extremely precise despite not having magnifying qualities. Later, these rifles were fitted with scopes.

Smokeless powder and new bullet designs flattened trajectory, and inventors kept up with optics to complement them.

Today, shooters have about everything we could want in rifle optics. That technology is great for professionals, provided they remember optics do not replace proper training. Sport shooters and hunters can use the same criteria.

Most modern scopes have variable magnification or power. Unless you have a specific purpose for a scope, that’s usually a good option.

Fixed-power scopes are usually a bit more rugged than variable models because of the design of the zooming apparatus. Also, they have fewer parts, so they experience fewer failures.

Still, most variable scopes are sufficiently rugged for hard hunting situations and most law-enforcement uses. Maybe the need for varied magnifications outweighs the need for more reliability.

The first scope I ever put on a rifle was a used fixed 6X Weaver I bought from a gunsmith. I mounted it on a .308 and shot many critters with it.

Being barely 16 years old, that’s what I could afford. Later, when I could buy a variable, I found I didn’t have time to change the power in close situations and had a blurry sight picture, anyway.

Now that my eyes are tuckered by age, everything is blurry. Even so, I like a variable scope. When I was a SWAT sniper, we had 3-9X variable Leupolds on our rifles, which were adequate for police situations.

Today, I rely on quality variable scopes. Many advancements help, the biggest of which are quality glass, range estimation and drop compensation.

Although a coyote is a medium-sized target, its kill area is about 4 inches. When calling, I can usually get a coyote close enough so nothing matters except a lower magnification from the variable scope to keeps the dog in focus.

However, when I have a long shot, I need the extra magnification and a quick way to estimate range and where the bullet will pass. Nobody is as good at estimating range past 300 yards as we think. Leica proved that to me.

Range-estimation and drop-compensation reticles are a great improvement. I learned mil-dot years ago, and it served me well. It’s still a great nonbattery system, but you must practice it to master it.

In hunting situations, there are better options, such as the Shepherd System. This reticle uses circle-size comparison to a target of known size to simultaneously range and compensate for drop. It also has scales that can estimate range and windage adjustments after you estimate wind speed.

All reticle range estimations depend on you to know the size of the target or something at the same range. Burris’ LaserScope has a laser range-finder that instantly provides range of an object and has range-holdover slashes on the cross-hairs to compensate for drop, as estimated by a table of varying calibers and bullet weights.

I have used the LaserScope on coyotes and long-distance squirrels, and the instant range feature helps place longer shots more precisely and, just as important, quickly. As with other Burris products, the glass is great quality.

Despite all the wonderful technology available, shooters must practice and shoot to perfect their accuracy. While doing so, you might realize that technology helps you make longer shots and can also advise you when a shot is too long.

— Dave Morelli is a retired policeman, having served as a patrolman, trainer, SWAT operator and a SAR tracker/trainer. He currently lives in Idaho and writes about various topics, including firearms, hunting, tactical gear and training.

To read more about the latest optics, read Awesome Optics, by Kevin Michalowski, for a review of the latest 2008 offerings.

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