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The Next Generation Of Rangefinders

by J. Guthrie   |  January 3rd, 2011 1

Range estimation is a guessing game for most of us, but it’s a critical part of the equation that puts bullets on target. The newest generation of rangefinders is compact, reliable, and downright smart.

Hugging the tree line and hunkered down in some tall grass, we had managed to stalk down one side and into the back of the cove without the big black bruin noticing. My buddy, Cory, and I were hunting black bears in Alaska with muzzleloaders, and this particular bruin was too busy feeding on spring grass to notice. We quickly ran out of terra firma and had to settle for a long shot across a beautiful patch of Alaska.


Rangefinders were shock tested by dropping them onto concrete from eight feet, three times each. A small piece of cardboard was used to inhibit the marring of finishes.

“What’s the range?” Cory asked.

I reached into my pants pocket to retrieve the rangefinder only to find it missing. I mumbled some choice words and replied that I thought it was around 225 yards. Cory looked at me puzzled and inquired as to where the rangefinder was located. I told him the bad news, and we further debated the range for a few minutes before settling on 225 yards.


The Bushnell Elite 1500 ARC is shown with its rigid carrying case. The unit has some great features, including a function that compensates for extreme angles up to 60 degrees.

The shot was a clean miss, probably a foot or two low because the range was closer to 350 yards, and my only saving graces were finding the rangefinder on the way back to the skiff and Cory’s later success on a huge bear. Without a reference, the big bear and Alaska’s bigger spaces had fooled our eyes into shortening the distance.


SPECIFICATIONS
Bushnell Elite 1500 ARC
DIMENSIONS: 1.7×5.1×3.7 inches
WEIGHT: 10 ounces
RANGING ACCURACY: +/- 1 yard
RANGE: 5 to 1500 yards
MAGNIFICATION: 7X
FIELD OF VIEW: 340 feet @ 1000 yards
OBJECTIVE DIAMETER: 26mm
EXIT PUPIL: 3.7mm
EYE RELIEF: 19mm
OPTICAL COATINGS: Fully multicoated, RainGuard
DISPLAY: LCD
POWER: 9-volt battery
WARRANTY: two-year limited
FEATURES: Waterproof, case and strap included, tripod mount
PRICE: $499
TEST RESULTS
RANGING: Nilgai hide, 800 yards; white target board, 1000 yards
HEAT TEST: Pass
FREEZE TEST: Pass
SHOCK TEST: Pass
WET TEST: Pass

How Far?
For years, the big question facing hunters and shooters was, “What’s the range?” Knowing the exact range is a necessity for any marksman who ventures out from behind the comfort of a shooting bench on a known-distance range and into the world where yard-markers are not an option. Whether you are a varmint hunter, big-game hunter, or just like plinking at long-range targets, that simple question of exactly “how far” is often the most important determinant of a hit or miss.

The ability to accurately judge distance was what separated exceptional marksmen from good shots. It was no easy task under the best of circumstances, and even the most competent rifleman could be fooled from time to time by lighting conditions and circumstances like cross-canyon shots.

A number of solutions came along through the years–scopes with calibrated reticles, for instance–but none offered a to-the-yard-accurate solution that had a wide range of applications. Prairie dog shooters could not use a reticle that measured the depth of a deer’s body, unless a deer happened to be standing by the prairie dog.

When laser rangefinders appeared, most range-associated problems disappeared. If you could get a reading, you knew the range and could dial in the drop or compensate with holdover. Now, the biggest problem is navigating through all the new models and f
eatures that are available.

Like everything else today, rangefinders are firmly in technology’s grip and have gotten smaller and smarter. Shooting Times procured four different models–Bushnell Elite 1500 ARC, Leica Rangemaster 900 CRF, Leupold RX III, and Nikon Monarch Laser 800–and put them through a battery of tests that emulated common hunting scenarios and field conditions to determine accuracy, ranging ability, toughness, and field function. The units vary in price from just over $300 to nearly $600 and have a wide range of features that may or may not be applicable to your shooting situation.

The Tests
Rangefinders depend on the target to reflect a portion of the laser back to the unit to determine the range, and animal fur is a less-than-ideal surface. But many rangefinder users will be trying to get readings off distant animals, and the first exercise was designed to test a unit’s ability to take readings off animal fur.


A tanned nilgai hide was used to test each unit’s ability to range animals at long distances. A canvas target board was also used to determine how well the rangefinders ranged moderately reflective targets.

Blackwater USA–a superb training facility in Moyock, North Carolina–graciously allowed the use of its 1200-yard, known-distance range for a few hours. On a partly cloudy day, a tanned nilgai hide was suspended between a target frame, and readings were taken with each of the four units every 100 yards until they were unable to come up with a range. At several positions down the line, a white canvas target board was used as a control, and plywood target markers, painted black and white, sitting behind the test targets, were used to double-check the readings.

In the field, rangefinders are subjected to cold, heat, moisture, and the occasional drop and tumble. So the test units also spent two hours submerged in water. With batteries removed, the rangefinders were placed in a deep freezer for 24 hours, followed by being baked at 170 degrees for an hour, and then each was function tested.


Shown here with its nylon carrying case, the Leica CRF 900 did well on Blackwater USA’s known-distance range. It was able to range both the nilgai hide and white target board out to 1000 yards.


SPECIFICATIONS
Leica Rangemaster CRF 900
DIMENSIONS: 4.5x 2.25 x 1.25 inches
WEIGHT: 7.76 ounces
RANGING ACCURACY: +/- 1 yard
RANGE: 10 to 900 yards
MAGNIFICATION: 7X
FIELD OF VIEW: 347 @ 1000 yards
OBJECTIVE DIAMETER:
EXIT PUPIL: 3.4 mm
EYE RELIEF: 15 mm
OPTICAL COATINGS: P40 phase-corrected
DISPLAY: LED
POWER: CR2 Lithium
WARRANTY: Two-year limited
FEATURES: Waterproof, case and strap included
PRICE: $579
TEST RESULTS
RANGING: Nilgai hide, 1000 yards; white target board, 1000 yards
HEAT TEST: Pass
FREEZE TEST: Pass
SHOCK TEST: Pass
WET TEST: Pass

The shock test involved dropping the units, three times each, from eight feet onto a concrete driveway. A small piece of cardboard was placed on the concrete in an attempt to prevent marring the finishes. All of the rangefinders handled the tests quite well. They are plenty tough enough for the most rigorous field use.

The test results are detailed in the charts, but they do not give the end user an idea of how the rangefinders handle in the field. It is important to include these descriptions because of the wide range of features and prices these four units encompass.

Bushnell Elite 1500 ARC
The Elite 1500 is the largest of the four rangefinders tested, but it will easily fit into most jacket and cargo pockets. There are just two control buttons–a power/range button on top of the unit and a mode button to the left of the eyepiece. If you take the time to read the instruction manual before maneuvering through the different modes, the Elite is surprisingly easy and intuitive to operate, considerin
g all the different features and functions offered.

Scan, brush, and bullseye modes allow the user to get continuous updates on moving targets; acquire ranges through brush, grass, or small limbs; and pick out small targets against “big” backgrounds. I was able to range columns on a distant porch and then a wall behind a row of pickets.

It took a couple of tries, but the Elite would range cars and houses several hundred yards behind a screen of grass or limbs. The bullseye mode picked out a lamppost at 47 yards while ignoring the side of a building 176 yards away. Selecting a different mode was accomplished with a few clicks.

The Elite 1500′s most unique feature is the Angle Range Compensation (ARC) mode that uses a built-in inclinometer to take the guesswork out of shooting at extreme angles up to 60 degrees. A rangefinder setting is matched to the particular caliber, bullet, and bullet velocity, and after the line-of-sight distance is determined, the unit takes the angle and calculates the correct holdover in inches or centimeters.


Rangefinders have gotten more capable in the past few years, yet they’ve become available in smaller packages. This Leupold RX III is shown with a .308 round.

The program assumes a 100-yard zero. Matching your load to one of the ballistic groups can be a chore if you have a taste for exotic calibers and bullets, but it is possible with provided software. The whole system is certainly much simpler than toting around an inclinometer and calculator on your next sheep hunt.

Because of the notable lack of mountains and canyons in central Georgia, I was only able to test the bow mode, which delivers the line-of-sight distance and the true distance in yards instead of the holdover in inches. The unit worked just fine, correctly spitting out the true distance out to almost 100 yards from a pine-tree perch.

The 7X magnification is adequate for finding targets at extended ranges but offers a field of view that makes it easy to find targets quickly. Aided by crisp, bright optical elements, the large eyepiece makes the Elite very viewer friendly, and there is little fatigue during extended testing sessions.


The Leupold RX III comes with a nylon carrying case with a pocket for extra batteries. The instruction manual is required reading to understand how the unit functions.


SPECIFICATIONS
Leupold RX III
DIMENSIONS: 4x 2.75 x 1.5 inches
WEIGHT: 12 ounces
RANGING ACCURACY: +/- 1 yard
RANGE: 3 to 1200 yards
MAGNIFICATION: 8X
FIELD OF VIEW: 230 feet @ 1000 yards
OBJECTIVE DIAMETER: 28 mm
EXIT PUPIL: 3.5mm
EYE RELIEF: 16mm
OPTICAL COATINGS: Multicoated
DISPLAY: LCD
POWER: CR2 Lithium
WARRANTY: Two-year limited
FEATURES: Waterproof, case and strap included, tripod mount
PRICE: $399
TEST RESULTS
RANGING: Nilgai hide, 600 yards; white target board, 700 yards
HEAT TEST: Pass
FREEZE TEST: Pass
SHOCK TEST: Pass
WET TEST: Pass

Criticisms of the Elite 1500 are few and far between. The LCD display is difficult to see in low light. It is larger than the other units tested, but it delivers a lot of performance for the price. The modes are simple, and the features perform as advertised.

Leica Rangemaster CRF 900
For years, the Leica LRF 1200 was the gold standard for laser rangefinders. The only catch was it was a little bulky. Leica put the system on a diet and introduced the Rangemaster CRF 900, which is some 30 percent smaller than the LRF. It fits easily into a shirt pocket.

There are no functions or modes. You simply press the one operating button, and a red square appears. Press the button again, and the unit rings up the range. The Leica has the best optics of all the units tested, and it has the best and quickest ranging ability. The red L
ED display automatically adjusts to lighting conditions–a very nice feature when the sun slips behind the mountains. The size of the targeting square does make it difficult to pick out smaller targets at extremely long range.

The Leica is the most expensive of the four units tested–the price of premium components–but offers exceptional performance. It lacks frills and multiple features, but it can be counted on to deliver that all-important number.

Leupold RX III
My advice about the Leupold RX III is to read every single page of the instruction manual before you even take it out of the box. With that said, the rangefinder is not overly complicated; it just has an amazing range of modes and functions. If it is not set up correctly, or if you do not understand the different modes and functions, you could run into trouble. The RX III has the most bells and whistles, and it is a miracle of modern science.

There are functions for long-range shooting, taking readings in the rain, a first-target mode, and a last-target mode. There are even functions that change readings from yards to meters and from Fahrenheit to Celsius. The key is to understand how these functions work together and set the rangefinder up for your shooting situation. Once set up, you are on easy street.

The True Ballistic Range system is what makes the RX III stand out. Like the Bushnell Elite, it has a built-in inclinometer that will compensate for readings taken at extreme angles. In addition to a line-of-sight distance, the unit calculates the true distance and gives you the holdover in three different ways.


The Nikon Monarch Laser 800 has good optics and represents a nice balance between price and performance. Here, it’s shown with its nylon carrying case.

The Hold setting gives you the holdover in inches or centimeters. The MOA setting calculates adjustments in minutes of angle. The final mode, BAS, gives you the true horizontal range in yards and is used in conjunction with Leupold’s Ballistic Aiming System reticles.

Again, the rangefinder is programmed to match your particular caliber, bullet, and muzzle velocity. Ascertaining the correct ballistic group is pretty easy with the charts provided in the manual. A laminated quick-reference card is provided to help remind you of operation procedures, and a list of different ballistic groups is printed on the reverse side in case you want to make adjustments in the field to match another caliber/bullet combination. Leupold claims the rate of error is generally less than 1/2 MOA out to 500 yards.


Al of the units were subjected to a submersion test to check waterproofing and then baked and frozen. All of the rangefinders passed the torture tests.


SPECIFICATIONS
Nikon Monarch Laser 800
DIMENSIONS: 5 x 2.8 x 1.5 inches
WEIGHT: 7.4 ounces
RANGING ACCURACY: +/- 1 yard
RANGE: 11 to 800 yards
MAGNIFICATION: 6x
FIELD OF VIEW: 330 feet @ 1000 yards
OBJECTIVE DIAMETER: 21mm
EXIT PUPIL: 3.5mm
EYE RELIEF: 18mm
OPTICAL COATINGS: Fully multicoated
DISPLAY: LCD
POWER: CR2 Lithium
WARRANTY: One-year limited
FEATURES: Waterproof, case and strap included, tripod mount
PRICE: $359
TEST RESULTS
RANGING: Nilgai hide, 500 yards; white target board, 700 yards
HEAT TEST: Pass
FREEZE TEST: Pass
SHOCK TEST: Pass
WET TEST: Pass

There are 13 different reticles that can be changed to fit the shooting application. The plus-point setting is ideal for picking out extremely small targets, and there are several bold reticles that really stand out in low light. For low-light ranging, the LCD display can be illuminated by simply holding down the Set button.

The RX III takes a little time to learn. Getting the unit to function properly and to its full potential is impossible without fist reading the manual. The different m
odes and functions are easy to master and easy to set. The viewfinder is a little crowded, the optics are average, but performance is good. The RX III sets the standard for rangefinder ingenuity.

Nikon Monarch Laser 800
The Monarch Laser 800 is a simple unit that has different modes–First Target Priority and Distant Target Priority–allowing you to sort out multiple readings on the same target. After selecting the correct mode, press the power button to activate the unit and then press and hold down that button again until a reading is made. The Nikon works fast, and its small size makes it a handy addition to your shooting gear.

The Monarch has great optics–bright and clear–which helps find targets at long ranges and in low light. It strikes an excellent balance between price and performance.

After several years of using rangefinders on hunting trips, varmint shoots, and long-range plinking sessions, I consider the rangefinder an essential piece of equipment that greatly increases my ability to hit targets on the first shot at long distances. Units have added an amazing range of options and capabilities in the last couple of years that can be matched with your shooting needs and budget.

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