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Friday, March 11, 2011

The Best Binoculars

I have been lucky enough to use binoculars in the field from the “Big Three” of optics manufactures—Leica, Swarovski, and Zeiss. Each has helped me find big game animals and each has led me to the end of at least one successful hunt. They have all been 10-power and, of course, were all tripod-mountable. So which is the best? Some of you might think my answer is a cop-out, but here it is: they all are!

Each has certain features that I like better than the others, but even with the hundreds of hours that I have spent glassing, I am hard-pressed to see much difference in quality between them. For example, the Zeiss Victory RF 10x45s I used last year on my New Mexico antelope hunt has an integral rangefinder. I have not used the Leica Geovid with its integral rangefinder in the field much, but the Zeiss RF has the rangefinder activation button on the “right” side, especially for those of us who are right-handed. In addition, they add their rangefinder to their top binocular model, whereas the Leica rangefinder used to only be available in a lower model. Leica now offers the Geovid in their HD version that compares in quality to the Zeiss, but I have only looked through it at trade shows. Of course, Swarovski has yet to offer a rangefinding binocular.

The new Swarovski SLC 10x42 HD binoculars seem to have a little better color rendition and light transmission than the others, but its all relative. I primarily used the new Swarovskis on my Wyoming mule deer hunt last year where the high elevation and cool, clear air made the glassing easier. I used the Zeiss in New Mexico where it was hot with lots of flat light. My Leicas are over 10 years old so while the clarity and focus are still top-notch, the new advancements in coatings on the newer binoculars have helped immensely.

Typically, the Leicas feel the best in my hands and up to my face, but everyone’s face and hands are a little different. As long as you are using top-shelf binoculars, the ergonomics might just be the most important factor. Assuming you can see really well through all of them, the thing that will keep you looking through them is how they feel. If you can get comfortable with the eyepieces stuck to your face all day, and the controls are easy for you to manipulate then you will glass longer. The longer you glass, the better chance you will have at finding the animal of your dreams.

Luckily, I’m in a unique position where I don’t have to choose just one. Depending on when and where I hunt, I can use them all. If you have to choose just one, I suggest you go somewhere and look through all three. If you can see a distinct difference in quality, more power to you… buy that one! If you can’t see much difference, don’t spend your time trying to find a difference; spend your time getting a feel for each one, and then buy the one that feels the best. You might even try closing your eyes and having the salesman hand you a different binocular to feel in your hands and up to your face. You can try to guess which brand it is, but more importantly, analyze it for its ergonomics. Once you’re out in the field, it won’t matter what you could have seen from the other two—they won’t be there! The performance level between the different brands is so close that I can't say one is better than the other; they are each just a little different.

One final note: Glassing effectively obviously requires skill, but it also requires confidence. Each time you sit down behind your glass, you should expect to find what you’re looking for. Part of that confidence comes from your inherent satisfaction with your purchase. If you think the Zeiss is the best and you use that confidence to find game, who cares what your buddies think? You’re the one looking through the binoculars, not them! Get the “Big Three” binocular you like the best, and then go find some critters!

I used my Leica 10x42s to locate this Kansas whitetail at first light. I watched him until he bedded and then stalked in close, crawling the last 100 yards or so. He got up from his bed and walked towards me. I shot him with a T/C Omega muzzleloader in “self defense” at 17 yards.

This New Mexico antelope fell from my shot of 267 yards. I know how far away he was because I had just ranged him with the excellent Zeiss Victory 10x45 RF binoculars.

I didn’t need binoculars when I finished this Wyoming buck at about 20 yards, but used the Swarovski SLC 10x42 HD to locate the bedded buck the day before.