How to pick out a pair of binoculars that are the right fit for you.
As good as premium binoculars are, the deciding factors that make them ideal for each shooter can be highly individualized. What constitutes a great pair of binoculars? Begin with high-quality, multi-coated glass surrounded by a sealed, waterproof and gas-injected machined frame. Translation? Once the standard of top-grade glass is achieved, it’s the company’s proprietary coatings, basic features, and ergonomic engineering that will drive interest and the sale.
Following is a checklist of features to consider if an optical upgrade is in your future. How far that upgrade goes is up to you and your budget, but be aware that, for many, the lure of great optics happens the moment you borrow a pair of premium binoculars—and that revelation in vision is often strong enough to run up a credit card as soon as a local store opens.
Sharpness is a devil to measure. At the store, find a small product label 30 feet away and compare across binoculars. Take the light quality into consideration and strive to make the comparison where the label is in a shadow, not in bright light.
“Multi-coated lenses” is a well-worn marketing term. All binoculars over, say, the couple-hundred-dollar price point have them, and especially in premium glass, the coatings are proprietary to the manufacturer. Simply put, the layered coatings enhance the sharpness and contrast by cutting glare (some also help repel water, dust, and debris), which maximizes the properties of the optical glass.
Providing the distances that you are viewing are closer than 150 yards, a 7X to 8X magnification is your best bet. If you’re looking at mule deer from 400 yards away, a 10X is the ticket, but even in the open prairies, many hunters choose the 8X and keep a spotting scope on a small tripod to evaluate a rack far away. Wider binoculars are far less fatiguing to use and much easier to keep track of an animal.
More powerful optics, especially beyond 10X, can be a serious challenge to hold still in the wind—and you can get a headache from trying. That said, getting close enough to determine whether an elk will score 280 versus 325 can be the difference in choosing to stalk for miles or not. If you really feel the need for magnification beyond 10X, then employ a tripod or stay with a 10X and pair it with a spotting scope.
Weight is also a consideration here. If you’re packing into a mountain range, a binocular weighing in at less than two pounds is a more important factor than if you’re just walking 300 yards to a stand. While an option could be a premium compact binocular, which would be both less expensive and lighter weight, it may not have the focal lengths or the steadiness for western big-game hunting. (On the other hand, such an optic is a great choice for a whitetail bowhunter.)
Yes, you should always keep binoculars strapped around your neck over water, standing on a cliff, or in a treestand. We don’t always follow the rules, though, and if you drop a pair of excellent binoculars from a treestand and it doesn’t survive, you'll find that most premium companies excel in customer service. In the case of Swarovski, if a repair is necessary and you don’t qualify for warranty work, the bill will usually be at cost. Some companies offer a lifetime guarantee to the original owner, but always check the fine print.
Determine whether your primary use will be while wearing gloves or when in a wet environment. With gloves on, the dials can be difficult to move, and the binoculars may be more challenging to adjust and/or hold on to. Explore those higher-end optics that have textured bodies and work the dials with gloves on before purchasing.
Eye relief is the central issue for any hunter with eyeglasses, and some binoculars are far more “glasses friendly” than others.
Binocular eyecup design varies greatly. Some cups push, some turn, and others fold over. Look for a relief specification of 15mm if you wear glasses. Be mindful to keep your eyecups clean, because sand or debris can quickly mar the coatings on your eyeglasses in addition to the lens of the binoculars.
If your premium binoculars are filthy, you’re wearing glass that visually equals a $200 binocular until they’re properly cleaned. As tempting as it may be, don’t clean your lenses with your shirt. Keep a proper cleaning kit in your pack and rinse the lenses with bottled water to keep the grit from being ground into your valuable lens coatings.
Finely crafted European optics will not disappoint you. Even if you buy a 20-year-old Zeiss binocular, you'll be impressed at the amount of light they gather and the fantastic crispness.
The Europeans have historically been the glass barons, but in the last two decades, the field has become much more diverse. Companies like Leupold and its Pro Guide HDs, older Brunton Epochs, and Nikon’s Monarchs all deliver excellent, comparable products.
Is an $800 Nikon only half as good as a $1,600 Leica? In a word, no. Is a $300 Meopta a third as good as a $700 Nikon? Surprisingly, for many users, the Meopta can be pretty close to the Nikons.
As consumers, we are all impacted by our emotions and our personal interpretation of the perfect piece of gear. That education comes from our hunting mentors, guides or reading stories in hunting publications. If you’ve always dreamed of hunting with a Leica, Swarovski or Zeiss, then go for it.
However, if the coin is more important than what dreams are made of, investigate the price points starting in the $300 to $800 range, or consider a pair of gently-used binoculars in the same price points. There’s only one thing to understand beyond that: Once you’ve seen clearly from the high end of the optic spectrum, it’s extraordinarily difficult to turn back. Clarity can be pricey, and for those who become accustomed to it a near addiction. All that said, you could get pretty spectacular pair of binoculars for under $500 (under $200 not so much)—but move to that $1,000-plus range and while your wallet may be temporarily disadvantaged, your time in the field won’t be.
Are You Covered?
Once the investment is made, it’s a dark day when you realize your premium binocular fell off the bumper of your truck 30 miles back. Homeowners or renter’s insurance could pick up the tab for your replacement, less the deductible. The national average is now at least $500, but with an optic in the $1,500-plus range, you’re still mostly in your way to a replacement. Ask your insurance agent about an individual rider to cover your outdoor gear.
About the Author: Peter B. Mathiesen has hunted, guided and fished in 12 different countries on four continents. As a full-time journalist since 1995, he frequently writes about gear, automotive, travel, fly fishing, wilderness construction, and the shooting sports.
Over the years he has been a contributing editor on the mastheads of Field & Stream, Bassmaster, and Outdoor Life Magazine. In addition, he has written for American Hunter and Rifleman, In Fisherman, Fly Rod & Reel, Popular Mechanics, Shot Business, and Range 360, His most recent book, Tales of The Alaska State Troopers is available on Amazon.
You can connect with Peter on Facebook.