Spot-On Accuracy Begins with Deer Hunting’s Most Important Tool

Rangefinder

It’s easy to debate the merits of various hunting accessories touted as “must have” items, from illuminated reticle scopes and ammo to the latest scent-blocking sprays or attractants designed to bring a wary buck closer to your stand.

All, of course, have their place. Unless you’re a diehard traditionalist, perhaps using a flintlock or traditional stick ‘n string bow and wooden arrows, you likely have looked at, considered or tried some kind of gear. Otherwise, the high-dollar hunting industry would crumple like a sheet of paper tossed in the round file by a frustrated high schooler writing a literary class essay.

It’s arguable, too, that a laser rangefinder is one of those “must have” accessories. Do you need to spend another few hundred bucks on a hand-held device that tells you specifically the distance of a tree, rock, stump or, hopefully, whitetail deer? Does it matter if you’re thinking 15 yards for a chip shot with your finely tuned compound and a buck is standing 18 yards away? Or the buck of a lifetime is at 175 yards but you estimate it at 200 or more with your rifle or muzzleloader?

It could, and especially at those longer ranges. Deer hunters using firearms often eschew range- finders. With rifles, slug guns and muzzleloaders sighted in typically at 100 yards, gauging distances often isn’t a concern out to about 200 yards. However, there are times where knowing the distance — especially at 250 yards or more — certainly could help when deciding where to hold for the best shot in the vitals.

Bowhunters, though, view rangefinders as an accessory as vitally important as their release aid and fall restraint system. They don’t climb a tree or head into the hills for deer, elk or antelope without a rangefinder. And even with today’s great archery equipment — lightweight carbon arrows, smaller but deadly broadheads and expandables, incredibly faster bows — all that work at the range to fine- tune your setup and then in the field to get the best stand possible can be lost with an error in judgment on distance.

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Veteran hunter C.J. Davis of South Carolina has seen both sides of the rangefinder fence. Along with hunting big game throughout the country, he’s handled public relations for Mossy Oak, Nikon and Blackhawk, and now is president of Montana Decoy.

“I was working with Mossy Oak years ago when I got my first one,” Davis said. “At that time, they were big and bulky, and sometimes we either took the rangefinder or binoculars. Back then, taking both was like having two of the same thing swinging around your neck or stuck in your pack. We’ve obviously seen rangefinders decrease in size to hand-held smaller units as the technology has improved.

“I’ve hunted and shot 3D tournaments as long as I’ve been shooting a bow. Before rangefinders were introduced to the market, just like other shooters and hunters I was constantly guessing the yardage in the woods, at the range on in my yard. I’d say I was pretty fair at estimating the yardage, and there probably were some instances on a hill where it might have made a difference to have one.”Nikon rangefindersWhen he went out west for elk and other big game, “all that (estimation) went out the window.”

Then, Davis got his first laser rangefinder. It was eye-opening to be able to know definitive distances. No more guessing about the decoy at the 3D range. Those gaps in the shooting lane where the buck might step out? Twelve, 17 and 28 yards. An elk standing across a valley or pronghorn on the other side of a water tank? Rangefinder to the rescue for accuracy and confidence.

“I don’t hunt without one,” Davis said. “I always have a Nikon Archer’s Choice Max or Rifle Hunter, depending on which weapon I’m using. For what they cost and the benefits, and especially if you’re hunting out west in open country or with mountains, if you don’t have one you’re crazy.”

Huge Strides
Laser rangefinders hit the market in 1995 when Bushnell gave hunters a device that measured yardage with the click of a button. Before long, other companies began offering devices and hunters had several to choose from to eliminate their guesswork problems.

As Davis noted, those early models were bulkier. Distances were within a few yards, plus or minus. But given the alternative — guesswork — it was a breath of fresh air. Rangefinders also pumped some life into the optics industry and also gave competitive 3D shooters a new addition to their gear bag.

The Truth Laser RangefinderThe first time I ever used a rangefinder was in the late 1990s on a hunt at White Oak Plantation in Tuskegee. We were kind of like kids with a new toy, walking around the lodge shooting invisible laser beams at different things and getting distances. Deer targets off the back deck at the lodge, vehicles, targets on the shooting range, the tractor at the barn … and then we went out to hunt.

In the shooting house overlooking a food plot sandwiched between a fallow field and hardwood creek bottom, I started finding things to guess about and then range. It was still a couple of hours before dusk and I figured it would be a good way to kill a little downtime instead of spooking anything by snoring. I’d taken a notebook and pen to write down my guesses and yardages.

Interestingly, everything I’d guessed on within 20-25 yards was off by only 1 to 2 yards. Longer distances were a different story, sometimes up to 10 to 15 yards between what I’d estimated and what the Bushnell told me. It was a nice wake- up call to not only see what technology could bring the hunting industry but also for me to work more on my yardage estimation.

We’ve come a long way since then. Companies offer lightweight, compact rangefinders that scan great distances. Nikon Sport Optics, Halo Optics, Leupold Optics, Vortex and others provide excellent rangefinding capabilities for a variety of distances. If you hunt closer-range targets then you may not need a unit that hits 800 yards or more. If you hunt the Plains or West, though, or maybe on big agriculture fields in the Midwest or Southeast, perhaps you need one with longer range.

We’re also seeing rangefinders built into binoculars and rifle scopes. The Swarovski EL Range 10×42 binocular has a range of 33 to 1,500 yards, a scan mode for moving game, and other features. Bushnell’s Fusion 1-Mile ARC combines the viewing and ranging features in one unit.

The degree of technological advancement in this optics are in less than two decades is amazing.

“Our opening price point laser rangefinder today will easily out-perform the very first units we produced in 1995 and are half the cost,” said Scott Peterson, laser rangefinder product manager for Bushnell. “That means top of the line laser rangefinders are feature-rich, have outstanding performance, and are a great value.”

Rangefinders definitely give hunters a benefit when making long shots with open backgrounds where judging distance is difficult.

Rangefinders definitely give hunters a benefit when making long shots with open backgrounds where judging distance is difficult.

Among the improvements Peterson cited that have been seen in the industry: smaller and more compact units, faster processors that quickly burn through algorithms, increased memory storage, integrated digital accelerometers on boards that calculate degree of slope for compensated distance (for golf, bowhunters, and rifle hunters), visual displays similar to a fighter jet heads-up display for various lighting conditions, more ranging distance at faster speeds, and better accuracy.

Bushnell’s G-Force 1300 ARC, for example, is packed with numerous features including a turboprocessor that provides 1⁄2-yard accuracy and 1/10th-yard display precision. The metal frame withstands rugged use — not abuse, but normal use in hunting conditions — and a vivid VDT display with multiple settings visible day or night along with a range of 1,300 yards.

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Davis recently turned 40 and admitted his eyesight isn’t as good as when he was younger. Using a rangefinder not only benefits his declining vision, a common occurrence as we all age, but also boost his confidence.

“A lot of the way we judge yardage is based on detail,” he said. “We judge a tree, rock or other feature, look at limbs or gaps where animals may walk, and we lay down a grid of sorts with our mind. As I’ve gotten older, some of those things may not be as easily visible at daylight or dusk, either.

“People are obsessed with light transmission in everything, but I think the rangefinder can do a whole lot more than your eyes will. There’s no reason to not have one, in my opinion. They provide me a measure of confidence because they reduce the guesswork of distances. I use it with our Montana Decoys for various game to set specific distances from a blind or setup, and I take one turkey hunting, too. It’s just reassuring and a confidence-builder to know specific distances.”

Bushnell makes some sport-specific rangefinders, including one for golfers who shoot distances on fairways and to flags on greens. Peterson said their golf versions have a more robust receiver diode that recognizes small objects, such as a flag stick. He said the same receiver diode technology is used on hunting units but at the higher price points. Hunting units also have Bushnell’s angle range compensation technology with a digital accelerometer or inclinometer; those are found in the higher priced golf models.

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