Big Bucks, Big Performance
September 23, 2010
High-priced optics are on the top of every working man's wish list. Are they really worth the extra cost?
My friends are a hard-working bunch and come by the little bit extra they have to spend on hunting and shooting gear the old-fashion way. Whenever I show up with the latest whiz-bang scope or binocular, two things always happen. First, they peer through the optic at a distant object and marvel at the clarity, definition, and image brightness. Then they ask what it costs and marvel at how anyone could be stupid enough to pay such a sum.
"That's cool, but I could never afford one," they say, handing me the optic back as though it had turned into a Ming vase.
Being an optics editor has its advantages, namely companies send me the latest and greatest to test at no charge. The catch is that I have to send it back once the story is finished, which is why my optics stories are always late to the editors. It also gives me the chance to see the full spectrum of optics. Looking at the boxes on the shelf across from my desk, there are scopes ranging in price from $99 to $2,900 and binos from just over $200 up to $3,100. Both ends of the spectrum have their advantages and disadvantages.
Technology has evened the optics playing field. The cheapest scopes and binoculars are serviceable, as long as the hunting and shooting conditions are not too extreme. Mid-priced optics have gained the most ground, and some are as good now as premium optics were 10 or 15 years ago. While good glass is essential, it is the coatings that do the work. Coating technology and the high-tech equipment to apply coatings are no longer the exclusive property of a select few companies, and nearly every company has allowed its best stuff to trickle down into lower-price-point scopes and binos.
A guy can spend $200 or $300 and get a great riflescope that is bright, clear, and weatherproof. The same goes for binoculars. Twenty years ago a binocular that cost less than $300 was a sure path to eyestrain and headaches. That is no longer the case. So why double or triple that amount to own a truly premium scope or binocular when the performance gains are measured in only a few percentage points? Actually, there are a lot of reasons.
I was recently suckered into a furniture-buying expedition with my wife, and I was amused to see several signs advertising pieces as "heirloom quality." That meant no particleboard, veneers, or plastic parts, just solid wood and brass or steel fittings. Paying a couple grand for a pair of binos or a riflescope will just about guarantee they are made of the best possible materials, and that translates into years and years of service. The chances are pretty good that the kid playing at your feet might one day peer through the same glass, praying for a big set of antlers to appear.
High-quality binocular chassis are usually made of a lightweight magnesium alloy that has the ability to absorb strong blows and still maintain the precise relationship between lens elements. Some companies, notably Zeiss, have started using polymer frames. In no way a quality-cutting move, the new polymers have some advantages over metal chassis that appeal to optical and mechanical engineers.
Bronze, brass, various steels, and aluminums are usually used for internal, moving parts. The exacting tolerances with which these parts are precision machined and then checked and rechecked do two things--increase the price exponentially and guarantee the parts will work together perfectly for years and years. I have picked up more than one low-end binocular to find that, with a few years of hard use, the focus mechanism gears grind and rattle and critical parts like the center hinge are no longer 100 percent in alignment. Spending the money on high-quality glass the first time around makes sense, because by the time you've bought two or three cheaper pairs of binos, you could've paid for the good stuff.
The Nikon Monarch X scope cost as much as the Remington R-25 beneath it. Spending as much on your scope as your rifle is a good rule of thumb because it is as critical to a successful hunt.
Nowhere is this kind of precision more critical than riflescope windage and elevation turrets. If a long-range shooting session requires lots of clicks this way and that, save your pennies and buy a high-quality scope. They track better, moving a bullet's point of impact 2 inches when 2 inches is dialed into the turret, and when the dials are back to zero you can count on the bullets to land at home.
Weatherproofing is another huge advantage of high-quality glass. The materials and techniques used to keep high-end binos and scopes from fogging internally greatly enhance their field performance. Expensive lens coatings resist scratching better and provide quality images for years and years. I have a pair of Swarovski 8X32mm ELs that have been on four continents and a constant field companion for seven years now. Instead of babying the pricey glass, I have shown the binos no quarter and subjected them to the worst Mother Nature has to offer. They have been completely submerged in Alaska, British Columbia, and Georgia. The lenses have been coated with dust from West Texas and South Africa and dropped and dragged everywhere in between. And still the glasses function perfectly, and the image is just as bright and clear as the day they arrived.
Time On Target
Those few aforementioned percentage points of light transmission are another big gain. On average, my high-end binoculars will give me an extra 15 minutes of usable observation time in the mornings and evenings, and those 15 minutes are often the most important in terms of observing wildlife.
Quite a few different game animals require hunters to live in their glass, spending hours and hours looking through binos and spotting scopes to first find an animal and then judge trophy quality. Cheap glass, after a few minutes, will give you a headache and reduce the chances of spotting game. Guides, who earn their paychecks by finding game, will often drive a worn-out truck and have just one pair of worn-out jeans, but they usually have the best glass money can buy.
Quality glass can save you boot soles and sweat, too. On a recent mule deer hunt in Wyoming, my hunting party spotted a bedded buck high atop a distant hill. The buck looked huge at first glance, but a good look through a Nikon EDG 60X spotting scope revealed a little forkhorn bedded down in an antler bush. Good optics saved me 2 miles of walking and climbing and, more importantly, a half-day of hunting.
Most discerning riflemen would nev
er consider buying a cheap rifle because it should last a lifetime--it should be "heirloom quality." The same philosophy should apply to optics.