Pocket Power: Best Compact Rangefinders Right Now

Pocket Power: Best Compact Rangefinders Right Now

rangefinder_f_1

The amount of technology that we incorporate into our daily lives is pretty overwhelming. As hunters, we often head outdoors to escape these electronic leashes, so most of us aren't as excited as the average Joe when it comes to embracing the latest gadget.

There is one device, though, that I consider a must for nearly all big-game hunting these days: a rangefinder.



When I read classic hunting stories written by the legends of our past, I cringe at some of the shots taken at what were clearly guesstimated ranges.


It is amazing that some of these hunters hit anything at all, and the fact is, they missed plenty. These days, we don't have the luxury of 30-day hunts with a pocketful of tags. We may get only one opportunity for a shot on a hunt that we saved years of overtime money to fund.


Often the difference between success and failure is knowing exactly how far away the target is. An effective compact rangefinder can mean the difference between the trophy of a lifetime and a heartbreaking story about that giant deer or elk that you almost hit or, worse, wounded.

We set out to evaluate five of the most popular rangefinders on the market, using the most objective criteria we could come up with. The units were tested in fog, driving rainstorms, and bright sunshine in a variety of terrain conditions.


We established the maximum effective range using both reflective and non-reflective targets, established the accuracy of the readings, tested how fast the units worked, and even judged the optics themselves.

We learned that while many of these rangefinders look similar from the outside, their performances varied tremendously.

Zeiss Victory PRF

zeiss_1

The Victory PRF is the largest, heaviest, and most expensive unit we tested, but it was also the best performer in nearly every category.

zeiss_reticleThe 8X optics on the Zeiss were so clear and sharp that one could probably get away with using it as a monocular for spotting game if you wanted to leave the binos at home. The simple reticle was clean, and the ergonomics made the unit easy to use without bumping oneself off the target when activating the ranging button.

The Zeiss rarely missed a reading, and its performance at long range was head and shoulders above every other rangefinder we tested. One of our practical tests was a small stone wall at 865 yards in light rain — only the Zeiss was able to range it and did so every time.

Other than the aforementioned negatives of size and price, the only valid complaints against the PRF are that it didn't always give us a reading at extreme close range and that it takes a full second to get a range figure.

Hit: Outstanding performance.

Miss: The biggest unit in our test.

Specifications

zeiss_scoreMagnification: 8x

Weight: 10.9 oz.

Angle Compensation: No

Max Range (Reflective): 1,200+ yards

Max Range (Non-Reflective): 1,050 yards

Minimum Effective Range: 8 yards

MSRP Price: $700


Leupold RX-1200i TBR

leupoldThe RX-1200i is a big rangefinder in a small package. This little Leupold is small, light, lightning-fast, and accurate.

leupold_reticleThe Leupold's performance was exceeded only by the Zeiss, and the Leupold gets it done in a smaller and less-expensive package. The RX-1200i has many features, including ballistic software to help with bullet drop solutions, but if you choose not to use those features, you're not faced with any complicated menus.

We encountered fewer non-readings with the Leupold than with any of the other units, but it is possible to get false readings from objects near the target.

This unit performed equally well at long-range rifle distances and extreme short-range archery shots at harsh angles.

Hit: Great performance in a small package.

Miss: False readings are possible on small targets.

Specifications

leupold_scoreMagnification: 6x

Weight: 7.8 oz.

Angle Compensation: Yes

Max Range (Reflective): 1,150 yards

Max Range (Non-Reflective): 785 yards

Minimum Effective Range: 5 yards

MSRP Price: $500


Vortex Ranger 1000

vortexThe Ranger is a compact and solid-performing rangefinder in the same size and weight class as the other non-Zeiss units.

The Ranger has two features that none of the other units we tested have: a reversible steel pocket clip that allows the user to secure the rangefinder in a pocket like a folding knife and a threaded female mount to secure the device to a tripod.

vortex_reticleThe Vortex was only slightly behind the Leupold in its ability to read non-reflective targets, and it actually exceeds the range capabilities listed in Vortex's marketing literature. The Vortex's measuring speed was right at a second, and it takes two operations of the button to display and then use the reticle, making it slightly slower to operate than the others.

This unit struggled a bit at extreme close range (10 yards and under), but practically speaking, that's not a huge issue.

The lifetime, unconditional warranty is a big issue.

Hit: Solid performance and innovative practical features.

Miss: Slight delay in readings.

Specifications

vortex_scoreMagnification: 6x

Weight: 7.7 oz.

Angle Compensation: Yes

Max Range (Reflective): 1,125 yards

Max Range (Non-Reflective): 685 yards

Minimum Effective Range: 11 yards

MSRP Price: $500


Nikon Prostaff 3i

nikon

The Prostaff 3i from Nikon is the lightest and least expensive of the units we evaluated. It's also very straightforward to operate: you won't need the owner's manual.

nikon_reticleThis rangefinder uses a simple and easy-to-use reticle display, and the user isn't overwhelmed with complicated features or menus. The black LCD display is highly visible during daylight but isn't ideal in low-light conditions. The Nikon gives you virtually instant readings, and we were able to use it out to 575 yards on non-reflective targets.

It worked as well as any of the units at extremely close range, making it a good choice for archers. The image on the Nikon was bright and clear and belied the price and size of the device.

With an MSRP that's less than half of the other rangefinders we tested, this little Nikon is an outstanding value.

Hit:  Simplicity and great value.

Miss: Non-illuminated reticle can be a challenge in low light.

Specifications

nikon_scoreMagnification: 6x

Weight: 5.6 oz.

Angle Compensation: Yes

Max Range (Reflective): 850 yards

Max Range (Non-Reflective): 575 yards

Minimum Effective Range: 5 yards

MSRP Price: $230


Bushnell G-Force DX

bushnellThe G-Force is a compact rangefinder loaded with features. The user can choose from archery and firearm modes, as well as bullseye, scan, and brush modes, to optimize the capabilities for the terrain and conditions.

bushnell_reticleThis can be a bit confusing, though, and we found ourselves struggling with the unit until we determined that we were in archery mode. In that mode, the G-Force excelled at close range, but we still had trouble at over 400 yards regardless of the unit's settings.

We achieved readings of over 1,100 yards on reflective road signs, but were only able to reach 452 yards on non-reflective targets, such as trees, our kudu hide target, and live cattle.

Hit:   Different modes to match any scenario or method.

Miss:  A bit complex for some users.

Specifications

bushnell_scoreMagnification: 6x

Weight: 8 oz.

Angle Compensation: Yes

Max Range (Reflective): 1,125 yards

Max Range (Non-Reflective): 452 yards

Minimum Effective Range: 6 yards

MSRP Price: $560


The Findings

score_chart

We evaluated five attributes of each model (max effective range, accuracy, optical clarity, speed, and ergonomics) and recorded the results. In each category, a score of 0-5 was given with 5 points being the highest. None of the rangefinders had a perfect score and the difference from worst to first was 6 points.

Max Effective Range (Non-Reflective)

Reflective targets are fun to range, but I have noticed a distinct lack of road signs and windows in the places that I hunt. Clearly the most objective category, we tested this capability by ranging all manner of objects in bright sunlight, dim twilight, fog, and even rain.

The range given is the farthest that consistent results could be achieved with the various units in all conditions, not fluke readings that could not be repeated. Rocks, trees, grazing cattle, barns, and a sawhorse covered in a kudu hide served as our realistic targets.

We ranked the units 1-5 in order of their performance in this category. The Zeiss received 5 points for its impressive 1,050-yard readings, and the Bushnell garnered a single point for its 452-yard showing.

Accuracy

We wanted to establish the precision of these instruments by using them at a predetermined distance and ensuring that the readings were accurate. Using known distance targets of both 100 and 325 yards, we tested each unit and recorded the results.

Each unit was right on the money, and all received the maximum score of 5 points in this category. Interestingly, when measuring reflective targets at over 1,000 yards, all of the units gave the same reading plus or minus one yard.

Clearly, the industry has figured out how to make these rangefinders work with great accuracy.

Optical Clarity

This was the most subjective of the categories and is the result of hours spent staring through the units in a variety of conditions. Magnification and field of view varied from unit to unit, so there is a bit of apples to oranges in this category. The good news is that all of the units were clear enough to target our kudu at 685 yards in cloudy, misty conditions.

The Zeiss was the head and shoulders winner in this category — clearly a combination of the quality optics as well as the larger objective lens and higher magnification of the PRF as compared to the others in the test. All others were more or less equal and received 4 points.

Speed

Seconds can mean everything on a hunt, and it is important that a rangefinder provides the shooter with the correct distance within a minimal timeframe. We used our known-distance, 325-yard target to evaluate how fast each unit produced a range figure once the button was depressed.

The Nikon, Leupold, and Bushnell produced almost instantly: Each was measured at .25 second using our rudimentary testing methods. With the Zeiss and Vortex rangefinders, a noticeable delay was evident, which required the operator to hold the reticle on target for a full second to establish a range figure.

The faster devices received a full 5 points while the latter two were awarded 4 points since their slower times didn't affect their practical use.

Ergonomics

This was a way to score the intangibles of how user-friendly and intuitive each rangefinder was based on the entirety of the testing. The layout of the controls, the external and internal features of the unit, the way the device fit into the hand, and the method of operation were each considered to achieve a score.

This was essentially a "which one would I buy if price were not an object" category. The Zeiss grabbed all 5 points for this one while the Leupold, Nikon, and Vortex all received 4 points. The Bushnell pulled in 3 points, mainly because it was somewhat complicated to use.

Value

We didn't assign points for value as the prices speak for themselves. Keep in mind that street prices may be lower than the MSRP. Fact is, all of these units are a great value for the price. Since digital rangefinders came onto the market, we have seen prices go down, features and quality go up, and sizes get smaller.

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