Laser Rangefinders are Pretty Cool
Author: Derrek Sigler
Laser rangefinders take the guesswork out of judging the distance between you and your game.
A few years ago, I was working in a small sporting goods retail chain as the "gun counter guy." One day while unloading some new stock from a box, I came across a product from Bushnell I hadn’t seen before. It was an item called the Yardage Pro. I called over the assistant manager who liked to play with things as much as I did, and we set off to try out this new item on various things throughout the store and parking lot.
I immediately realized just how cool these things were and thought of a time when I missed a really big buck because in my "Buck Fever," I had misjudged the distance and shot under it. I knew I had to have one. Reality came crashing back on me when I looked up the price on that early unit. I didn’t feel like selling my truck to buy a rangefinder. Now these years later, the accuracy and features have significantly improved while the price has gone down. Sure there are top-shelf items out there today, but what all of them can do is simply amazing.
How do they work?
To simplify, the unit projects an eye-safe laser that is "bounced" off the object being aimed at and received back into the unit. A microprocessor instantly determines the distance to the object based on the length of time the laser beam took to travel to the object and back.
This method is quite accurate, to the tune of plus or minus 1 yard, and very fast. According to the FDA regulations and tests, they are also completely safe. Sorry kids. You’re not going to be able to burn up the neighbor’s woodpile with one of these units.
As the maximum distance of a unit increases, the laser’s actual power remains the same. What you will find with units featuring greater distance reading ability are higher sensitivity receptors receiving the laser beam as it bounces back.
Laser rangefinders differ in features and options. The main difference is distance, of course. Some of the better units incorporate filtering technology that gets accurate readings through rain, haze or dust. Some also have a scan mode, which sends out a continuous laser "stream" (for 10 seconds) to track moving objects, or multiple objects in different places. Another feature is an option to only register objects that are beyond a predetermined distance reducing false readings due to interference by things such as grass, close branches, etc.
So what’s new?
Plenty. That first model I got my hands on was a bulky box that only read the distance out to 400 yards or so. Today’s rangefinders offer compact size with some models that can fit into the palm of your hand. They also have one feature I thought was really lacking from that early model, magnification.
Why is that important? If you find an animal or other target with your binoculars, it may be pretty hard to locate it without some sort of magnification. Modern rangefinders offer clear optics for locating the game you want to range.
Most hunters will want the "Big Three" of field optics, meaning quality binoculars, a rangefinder, and a spotting scope. It’s rather bulky and awkward to switch quickly from binos to a rangefinder, especially if the target is on the move. Range-finding binoculars bridge the gap and take everything to the next logical level. A look through this website will show you offerings from major optics companies mating a high-end laser rangefinder with a high-end binocular in a package roughly the same size as a compact binocular. The benefit here is you don’t have to switch optics when scanning for game, and you don’t have to pack in two items. This puts them very high on the "cool" chart for me.
No more elevation frustration!
A relatively new feature that is hitting the market deals with the inherit problem with laser range finding technology. That problem is elevation. If you’re in a tree stand and you’ve got a trophy buck coming in, you can range him at 35 yards, but is it really 35 yards? We all know that point of aim when shooting up or down hill isn’t going to be the same as shooting on flat ground. What these new rangefinders do is compensate for the elevation.
Through the use of a digital inclinometer, you get true readings of horizontal range. This is very important whether you’ve got a rifle or a bow in your hands. If you were hunting a valley and had a monster buck in range, you’d better know accurately where the bullet is going to go to make the shot. Remember that in hunting, the difference between a great shot and total disaster is inches.
Now Hold On...
There are limitations that you need to be aware of when making your rangefinder selection. Let’s take an 800-yard model for example. Does that mean it will read distance on any object out to 800 yards? No. Why not? Think of it this way. A laser is basically condensed light. As I mentioned earlier, rangefinders all project the same basic laser, or light beam. It is the sensitivity of the receptor that determines the effective range the unit will report. So, an 800-yard unit will read the laser reflection from a reflective target at 800 yards. Last I knew deer and other game usually aren’t very reflective. I’ve tried to get them to tack a piece of aluminum foil to their sides but it hasn’t happened yet.
What does this mean then? Well, you need to practice with your unit. Most companies will give you a pretty close estimate of how far the unit will read with a non-reflective target. An 800-yard unit can effectively read on deer out to 500 yards, more or less depending on the actual model chosen. Other factors affecting the ranging distance include weather conditions, lighting conditions, target size, angle of inclination, hand steadiness, and let’s not forget those all-to-important things that just get in the way, like branches and brush.
For rifle hunting, select a model with the longest range you can fit into your budget. If size is a concern, like when you’re going on a pack-in hunt where every ounce counts, one of the compact models may be a better choice but they don’t always offer the most range.
If your rangefinder will be used strictly for archery and/or muzzleloader hunting, longer-distance ranging ability is not as important as accuracy. Size can also be a factor here as well. You may not have much extra room in the treestand or in your possibles bag.
Do you need one?
What kind of question is that? Of course you do. All right, "need" and "want" may be two different things, but you’d still be better off with one. Why? How well can you judge distance? Some of you out there might be pretty good at it. I know I’m not always perfect though, and one of these units is real handy.
Take a look at the picture of the elk. Imagine if you were the one holding the camera. How far away would you guess the bull is? 100 yards? 200 yards? Maybe even 300 yards away? I asked the person next to me to guess, and he figured the bull was about 100 yards away. I used a rangefinder and found the elk was 211 yards from where I stood.
Rangefinders are an invaluable tool for hunting. They allow you to accurately know the distance to your game. This is great for not only judging where you aim, but if you should take a shot at all. If you watch a lot of hunting shows on television, you’ll often see bowhunters using a rangefinder to accurately predetermine distances to points around their stand. That way when Mr. Bruiser Buck waltzes up, the hunter knows when that animal is within range for a safe, ethical shot and you know exactly what sight pin to use. A hunter I know quite well just told of missing a 60+-inch trophy Alaska moose because he had misjudged the distance and used the wrong pin. Yes, he had accidentally left the rangefinder in the truck.
They’re also good for target shooting. Want to sight that rifle in for 100 yards? 200 yards? No sweat. And it is much more accurate than pacing off the distance. Think about bullet drop too. For example, if you’re shooting a .300 Win Mag. with a 180-grain bullet at a trophy mule deer, how confident are you in your distances? The bullet is moving pretty fast but the difference in drop from 200 to 300 yards is 3.2 inches to 11.8 inches. The same can be said for archery shots as the drop in both velocity and range is much more dramatic the further the target. You want that clean, ethical, one-shot kill so you need to have a clear understanding of distance.
A buddy of mine picked one up and we used it to determine distances for goose hunting in an open field, We had patterned our shotguns out to 40 yards and with the rangefinder, had a decoy setting at exactly that range. And for you golfers out there, do I really need to go into the benefits of having one in your bag?
Laser rangefinders have come a long way since they first came out, just like televisions and DVD players. They’ve advanced the outdoor world so much so that they’re right in there as a necessity. The idea behind them forces the question, how’d I ever get along without one? With the models available today at reasonable prices, you don’t have to. Pick one up and you’ll agree, they’re pretty cool.
Click here to purchase Laser Rangefinders