Part 1 of 2 – A High-Quality Spotting Scope Is One of the Most Invaluable Pieces of Equipment To Pack On Any Hunt (Click here for Part 2)
By Eric Martin, WHJ Gear Editor
“There he is,” my buddy exclaimed.
Panning my binoculars across the giant basin I focused on a patch of timber in a small feeder draw. There was no sign of life.
“Behind the split trunk fir, by the buckskin log,” he directed.
I looked again, and then again; this time even more slowly. Nothing out of the ordinary stood out to me.
“Here, use the Hubble,” he said, gesturing to his large spotting scope.
Peering into the shadows of the timber, I noticed one of the “branches” extending from the backside of the aforementioned Douglas fir curved up at a funny angle while those around it drooped in a more downward direction. The contrast of the image also made it evident that this “branch” was also several feet behind the trunk. Sure enough, it was the main beam of a good bull. Pulling back from the eyepiece, I stared across the expanse in amazement that even at a distance of over a mile, the quality of the image through ‘the Hubble’ made it possible to spot a segment of antler in the dull shadows of the timber.
There is no denying the importance of good glass when hunting out West, but going beyond binoculars, many would argue a high-quality spotting scope is one of the most invaluable pieces of equipment to pack on any hunt. A saying common with hunters in the west is, “hunt with your eyes, not your feet.” From steep canyons and boulder strewn mountaintops, to expansive open deserts and rolling prairies, simply wandering around afoot, hoping to encounter your desired target, is a recipe for fatigue and frustration.
Finding a vantage point and using a good spotting scope allows not only better odds at spotting and evaluating game, but also a better view of the surrounding terrain when it comes to planning hunts and stalks. Unlike blindly hiking around and busting brush where the most common sight is a spooked animal crashing away into the next zip code, with a spotting scope you can locate animals without risk of alerting them to your presence, and take your time planning the perfect opportunity to get close enough for a shot. The most recent bull I killed, I watched from the opposite side of the canyon for two days leading up to the season opener. Knowing his location and movements allowed me to be in position to make a shot as he fed out of the timber undisturbed on opening morning. Hunting situations aside, spotting scopes also provide a huge benefit to activities such as scouting, shed hunting or simply a day at the range.
Unfortunately, making the decision to add a spotting scope to your equipment cache is the easiest part of the process. When it comes time to actually pick out a spotter, things can get a little confusing. There are literally dozens of models to choose from, and aside from obvious differences such as price and the size of the objective lens, all appear strikingly similar to one another. So do you just pick the model your friend has? Or the one you saw on sale at the local sporting goods store? You can, but the result may end up giving you a headache. Literally.
The biggest driver in spotting scope price and performance is the quality of the glass being used. Think of glass like food cart taco trucks. The market is flooded with options. Some create an experience that will blow your mind, while others just blow. Much like the recipe of a top shelf taco, the ingredients in top tier glass are complex and closely guarded.
The way glass is made, shaped, polished, treated and assembled determines the optical quality of the finished product. While all glass appears to the naked eye to be clear and transparent, it can reflect and disrupt the way light penetrates the lens and is interpreted by your eye. When light is reflected, even minimally, by a spotting scope lens, the result is a darker field of view with less contrast. A single uncoated piece of glass can reduce light transmission by as much as 10 percent. Light is reflected off the outer surface, absorbed as it moves through the glass, and then is reflected again off the back side of the lens. Keep in mind this is just a single lens. Now multiply this by the numerous lenses and prisms used in a spotting scope, and you can easily see the potential for poor performance. Higher quality optics will have highly specialized coatings to increase not only the amount of light penetrating the lens, but enhance features such as color, sharpness and contrast.
If you wear glasses, you are likely familiar with specialized coatings that dramatically improve the performance, as well as dramatically increase price. The same holds true for the coatings on spotting scopes. These specialized films and dielectric chemical coatings must be precisely applied or risk further hindering the performance of the glass. Coatings can be specifically layered and constructed to provide very specialized performance traits such as brightness and color vibrancy, or increased reflectivity off internal prisms.
It is important to understand the differences between the several designations of coatings that are used to describe optical performance. Model A with a “coated” lens is not the same as Model B with “fully multi- coated” elements. Coated refers to at least one air to glass (objective and ocular lens) surfaces being covered with a single coating but no coatings on the internal surfaces. Fully coated is the next progression, where now the front and back of the air to glass lenses are coated, as well as portions of the prism surfaces. Multi-coated, as the name implies, denotes multiple layers or types of coatings on at least one of the lens surfaces. Fully multi-coated is when all surfaces of all elements feature multiple layers of coatings, and commonly found on top shelf spotting scopes. A spotting scope with a coated lens may only transmit 80 percent of the light entering the objective lens, whereas a fully multi-coated scope may transmit over 95 percent. This will make the difference in packing up and heading for camp the last half hour of sunset, or staying to spot a trophy buck.
Dispersion is when the refractive indices of lenses cause the wavelengths of colors to separate. Think of the rainbow given off by a prism. If the focus points of the various colors aren’t close together as they leave the lens, it will produce an image where the edges of objects appear blurred, or fringed in irregular color.
Some of the best lenses for minimizing dispersion are those made from fluorite crown, borosilicate crown (BK7) and barium crown (Bak4). Manufacturers also often use descriptors such as ELD (extraordinarily low-dispersion) ED (extra-low-dispersion) or UL (ultra-low-dispersion) to identify the performance of glass being used. Bear in mind, this is a quick run through of a very complex subject. Ultra-high performing glass, with fully multi-coated treatments, will provide the best brightness, contrast, clarity, edge-to-edge clarity and color fidelity. This allows better performance in low light when animals are most active, and produces the least amount of eye strain and fatigue, allowing you to glass longer for longer periods of time.
The overall size of a spotting scope should be factored in relation to how you will be using the scope. Ranging from 50mm to 95mm, the size of the objective lens plays several roles in scope function. Larger objective lenses transmit more light to your eye via a larger exit pupil size than spotters of the same magnification but with smaller objective sizes. This will benefit performance in low light, and with higher magnifications. A misconception is that larger objectives will produce a better image. Again, glass quality is more important than size. Larger lenses require more material, increasing cost, and also pack more weight, making them less desirable to those who spend a great deal of time afoot. A good all-around size is the 60-65mm, which can easily be carried in most packs, while still having the performance needed for long distance glassing range, hence being the focus of this review. Yes, smaller scopes are better for dedicated pack use, and larger models excel at long distances and low light situations, but those will be the subject of later reviews.
FIELD OF VIEW
Many feel field of view is related to objective diameter; however it is more tied to the focal length of the eyepiece. Field of view (F.O.V.), the width of the viewing area when looking through the spotting scope, is important to consider. Wider F.O.V. will allow faster target acquisition and easier ability to track a moving target. This can be very beneficial when glassing a large area for animals whereas a narrow F.O.V. works well with smaller or stationary targets, such as targets at a shooting range. Some spotting scopes feature modular construction that allows use with multiple eyepieces for varying F.O.V and magnification.
Magnification is most commonly found in the order of 15-70x, with a 3x (12-36, 15-45, 20-60, etc.) range. Just because a scope has a particular magnification doesn’t mean you will always be able to use that setting. Interference from dust, moisture, heat waves, glare or ambient light will dramatically reduce magnification range and performance. Holding scopes steady when used at high magnification can also be difficult, especially in wind or when adjusting focus, thus requiring a high-quality tripod. Image quality and light transmission is generally best on the lower half of a scope’s magnification range, as is field of view.
Focusing mechanisms are also important to consider when selecting a new scope. Common styles are two-speed, dual knob focus, a single focus knob, or a wide focus band on the barrel of the scope. For precise, fine focusing requiring minimal hand pressure to adjust, the two-speed systems are tops. However, these smaller, often low-profile knobs can be harder to manipulate with cold fingers or when wearing gloves. In this instance, the increasingly popular wide barrel band styles excel. Regardless of style, make sure focus adjustment is fluid, with uniform resistance and no slack or slop felt when panning the knob(s) back and forth. Sticky focus knobs can be hard to adjust for fine focus, and knobs with too little resistance can be easily bumped out of focus.
Of course, it is also important to evaluate overall construction. There seems to be an increasing shift in the hunting industry to makes things lighter and more comfortable to carry. Personally, optics is one area I’d rather see built rugged enough to withstand years of hard use. Body construction of aluminum or magnesium, not plastic, is ideal for the strength needed to survive an accidental fall or the wind blowing over your tripod. Rubberized surfaces maintain better warmth and comfort in the cold and rain, not to mention add a degree of protection from scratches and dings. Ratings as waterproof also bring peace of mind. Even the location of the tripod foot should be considered. Models with a foot centered at the balance point of the scope are more stable, especially on light tripods and when adjusting focus. This can be easily checked by setting a scope down on the foot and seeing if it balances or tips forward or back. Lens caps should securely cover lenses and remain in place even when being jostled around in a pack.
ANGLED VS. STRAIGHT
The choice between angled and straight is largely personal preference. Straight spotters are easier to align with a target and work well when used with a window mount in a vehicle, or when doing a lot of downhill glassing. Angled spotters can be used with shorter tripods and work well when glassing from a seated position, or when glassing uphill.
BUST THE BUDGET
The most common mistake when shopping for a spotting scope is adhering to strictly to a set budget rather than searching for the specific features of a quality scope that best fits the intended usage. Unless you plan to maybe only use a scope for a couple hours a year, at moderate distances, avoid the temptation to opt for a lower priced budget model. This can be tricky, because in the perfectly lit, controlled environment of a big sporting goods store, or even out in the parking lot at mid-day, it can be very hard to discern the differences between mediocre performance and top shelf performance. One of the best methods I have found is to check with friends or at the local shooting range and see if someone has a model you are interested in that you could look through under more challenging situations. Budget spotting scopes may be sufficient for range use and the occasional trip to the field, but for long term dependability, eye relief, long distance glassing, comfort during long glassing sessions, and the image quality needed to discern an antler tine from a twig, a well-built spotting scope with premium components will truly open your eyes to all you’ve been missing.