Sporting optics hide their best attributes — the glass and the controls that sharpen and focus the image — inside generic black tubes. The exterior of most binoculars looks just like the next one, and while riflescopes have a little more personality, appearance can’t tell you much about performance.
So how do you separate the best binoculars or riflescopes from the rest? Price can be one determinant — the more expensive the optic, the better, generally. But that’s an imprecise metric.
How about brand? Aren’t some brands simply higher-quality than others? That used to be the case, but with recent trends in which formerly elite brands are introducing entry-level product lines, the name on the chassis is no longer a reliable benchmark for quality.
As with many things in life, the best way to determine the sporting optic that’s best for you is to hold, handle, and look through a variety of candidates. That’s impossible to do when ordering from a catalog or website, which is why so many of us in the market for a new binocular or scope head to our local retailer and ask to see a selection of brands and models to help us decide.
This guide is designed for that customer, someone who wants to hold and heft an optic before spending anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars on it.
Prepare A Budget
Before you arrive at the store, determine how much you’re willing to spend on a new optic. Be prepared, however, to throw your budget out the window if you see an optic that simply stuns you. There’s a well-worn saying in optics that you should buy the best optics you can’t afford. Few hunters who exceed their budget regret the up-buy in the long run. The corollary is also true: Few who buy optics below their budget are very happy with the result.
Know The Game
While there are a number of excellent optics that can serve many different functions, there are others that are purpose-built for a specific job. Be prepared to discuss with the clerk how you intend to use the optic.
“The first question I ask is what they’re going to be doing with the optic,” says Mike Burnett, retail manager of Houston’s Gordy & Sons, which is quickly gaining a global reputation as a full-service, high-end sporting goods store. “Let’s take binoculars. If you’re in the market for an all-around hunting binocular, you don’t want a big 15x56mm, which is intended for long glassing sessions at distant targets. They’re heavy, so you wouldn’t want to carry them all day. On the other hand, a lightweight 8x42mm binocular is great for light transmission, field of view, and portability, but it might not be suited for a Western deer hunt, when you’re glassing all day.”
Riflescopes are even more niched.
“People read about the trend toward front-plane scopes designed for long-range shooting and think that’s what they want on a lightweight mountain rifle,” says Burnett. “I have to explain that what they really want is a rear-plane scope that won’t slow them down when they’re in sheep country.”
Consider The Components
Gordy & Sons stocks higher-end optics from European brands like Leica, Swarovski, and Zeiss. The reason: those brands tend to have best-in-class glass and coatings.
“An optic is more than just a collection of lenses,” says Burnett. “How the glass is made and how it’s coated makes a huge difference in light transmission, light refraction inside the optic, low-light performance, and ability to resist the elements like dirt and water. Companies that invest in components tend to have an edge when it comes to performance. Optics from these companies tend to be more expensive, but with optics, you get what you pay for, and you’re paying for the research and development that went into each part of a high-performance instrument.”
Take It Outside
“Every optic looks the same inside a store, because both yellow fluorescent and white LED lighting flatten and deaden images,” says Jake Rush, optics salesmen at The Outdoorsmans outside Phoenix, Ariz., one of the country’s largest retailers of high-end brands such as Leica. “Find a store that will allow you to take the optic outside. If the store is serious about customer service, they’ll mount the optic—whether it’s a bino or a riflescope or a spotting scope—on a tripod.”
Big-box retailers are often uneasy about letting customers leave the store with unboxed optics, because of theft risk, because supervisors are suspicious when an employee leaves their station during their shift, and because a supervised glassing session leaves few clerks to help remaining customers.
“Those are a couple reasons that it’s easier to ask a smaller retailer to take an optic out the front door,” says Rush. “Clerks who are really into optics will leap at the opportunity to talk about glass and show you differences in models and brands.”
Compare and Contrast
You’ll get the most useful feedback if you’re able to view multiple tripod-mounted optics lined up side by side, in the same conditions. You’ll have real-time comparison, but you’ll also be viewing in identical conditions. “If you look through one optic at a time, then you’re going to get misleading results,” says Rush. “If you take a binocular outside on a bright sunny day, and then take another out tomorrow when it’s cloudy, you can’t compare them honestly.”
Glass at Distant Shadows
No matter the category of optic, don’t look at close-in objects, says Rush. “You really want to look out at least 1,000 yards, and focus on something with some detail. If it’s a sign across the parking lot, try to read that smallest print with all the different optics.” The idea, says Rush, is to replicate an eye exam. You don’t learn much by looking at the largest type; it’s the increasingly smaller type that shows whether your prescription is right for your eyes.
On sunny days, glass the shadows. You’ll learn a lot about the low-light performance of the optic if you try to conjure details under the limbs of a leafy tree, or in the shadow of a building, even on a sunny Arizona afternoon.
“You want to buy optics for the worst conditions, not the best,” says Rush. “Every binocular performs well on sunny days. It’s the end of the day, when there’s hardly any light and you struggle to see detail, that makes or breaks a binocular. I have customers glass rocks in the shade and try to describe details and textures of the rock. By glassing shadow detail, you’ll be able to tell differences between optics much more than you will in bright light.”
Consider The Brand’s Investment
One of the secrets of the optics industry is that many brands don’t actually manufacture the products they sell. Instead, they slap their logo and brand name on products that are more or less generic, made by third-party manufacturers who might be manufacturing optics for several different and competing brands.
Burnett says that one reason Gordy & Sons stocks higher-end European optics lines is that they are made by the companies that market and sell them.
“Most consumers aren’t aware that their favorite brand doesn’t actually make the optics they sell,” says Burnett. “I’ll say this about higher-end European brands: they are deeply invested in their products, spending funds on research, development, innovation, and technology. Yes, products from these brands tend to cost more, but that’s because they stand behind the performance of their products.”
Consider Customer Service
Lastly, take a moment to ask about a product’s warranty and after-the-sale customer service. Some brands pay only passing attention to this consideration, but most higher-end optics brands stand behind their products, promising to fix any problems or even replace the product if it proves defective.
“Ninety percent of problems with an optic stem from the fact that the user didn’t read the manual and understand how to operate it,” says Gordy & Sons’ Burnett. “But stuff happens even with higher-end products, and one reason we deal in what might be considered exclusive brands is because the companies stand behind their products. We’ve had riflescopes that were pretty much ruined, and the companies replaced the products so that the customer could be successful on the hunt of a lifetime. Yes, some of these products are expensive, but the other side of that is that the company is willing to invest in the customer just as the customer is willing to invest in the product.”