Accurate range finding is key to accuracy in shooting, especially at longer ranges when range can be misjudged by quite a large margin. Projectiles such as bullets, arrows and even golf balls all fly in a similar trajectory, a ballistic curve up from the point of origin; the rifle barrel, bow string or face of a golf club and then gradually down again as gravity takes effect.
This trajectory makes it really important to accurately determine range. With a rifle at extremely close range the point of impact will be lower than your point of aim as the projectile must first climb up from the muzzle until it crosses the point of aim, after that for a while your point of impact will be higher than your point of aim until the range at which you have zeroed your rifle. After that the further beyond the zero range your target or quarry is the lower your point of impact will be.
Here are a few examples of the amount of drop, in centimetres, you would expect from fairly common rifle calibres based on Sako’s ammunition data;
.308 123 grain gamehead
.243 100 grain gamehead
.223 50 grain gamehead
As you can see the drop off beyond your zero range can be considerable and certainly enough to make the difference between a hit and a miss and in a hunting scenario potentially a wounded animal if the range is judged wrong. Also bear in mind that most ammo manufacturers won’t give you more info than is presented above on their ammo and you will have to take quite a few factors into consideration to calculate the drop of your bullet, the range is just one of those. You will also need to know the ballistic coefficient of your bullet, it’s velocity and the range your rifle is zeroed, using a ballistic calculation app or an old school loading data book for longer ranges you will then be able to work out the drop of your round. With this knowledge at hand, some people choose to tape it to the stock of their rifles, you can adjust your aim based on the reading on your range finder.The advantage of a ballistic calculator is that you can put all this information into it and it will give you the adjustment you need to make for that specific range whereas most apps and loading charts will only give it to the nearest 100 yards, if you are shooting at a six inch target or a rabbit at long range that might not be precise enough.
A ballistics calculator with built in anemometer and weather computer like this one by Kestrel can easily be used to enter all your ballistic data into and give you a precise point of aim at any range, even taking into consideration factors like the Coriolis effect, bullet spin drift and other minute factors that are relevant to shooting at extreme long range.
Despite the availability of all this technology for ballistic calculation and range finding if you are planning to do much shooting whether with a bow or a rifle you will need to get fairly good at estimating range with the naked eye whether you carry a range finder or not as it’s very easy to trust a range finder and get something badly wrong. I have guided a few clients who accidentally ranged the bank behind a deer or some other feature close to it and missed badly even though I told them what range it was. Technology in the form of range finders and other expensive pieces of kit do not replace good field craft and experience and if you can’t spot when your range finder is leading you astray you need more practice. When you can effectively use your field craft in conjunction with technology though, rangefinders and other equipment really can make a difference. Out to a couple of hundred yards you should be able to estimate range fairly well without a range finder but beyond that or for very precise range measurements at closer range you will need something to help you out.
Range finders are a tool for field sports, archery, hunting and some other sports but perhaps surprisingly aren’t particularly useful for long range shooting on a range as you know exactly what range you are shooting at anyway but in field target shooting or hunting they can be very useful and even essential at longer ranges. Before we look at the rangefinders available to you though let’s consider how they work.
Table of Contents
- How Do Rangefinders Work?
- Range Finding Using a Scope
- Using Your Rangefinder
- Features to Look For When Choosing Rangefinder
- Best Range Finder Brands
- Best Rangefinder on the Market Review
- 1 Nikon Monarch
- 2 Leupold RX1300i
- 3 Laser Works Mini Laser Rangefinder
- 4 ATN Auxiliary Ballisic Laser
- Long Range Shooting
- 5 Leica 7x24 Rangemaster
- 6 Vortex Optics Ranger
- 7 ATN Smart Laser 1500
- Golf Rangefinder
- Range Finding Binoculars
- 8 Swarovski EL Range Binocular
- 9 Leica Geovid HD-B
- 10 Nikon Laserforce Rangefinding Binocular
How Do Rangefinders Work?
Most rangefinders used by hunters, golfers, field sportsmen and archers use a laser and the ‘time of flight’ principle to determine the range of your target. You aim your range finder using the optic element, most have this built in but other range finders can be mounted to the scope of your rifle and calibrated to match your cross hairs. When you trigger it a laser or more likely a burst of lasers will be sent towards the target. The range finder calculates based on the time it takes for the laser to strike the target and be reflected back. Your range finder will work out based on an average of all the readings what you were probably aiming at and will give you the range of your target. They need to work like this as without some sort of support, especially over longer distances you will find that you can’t hold the rangefinder precisely on target.
Another reason for this is the diffusion of the laser, especially in cheaper models with less advanced lasers the laser beam diffuses over distance and will ‘paint’ a much larger area than the small target or game animal you are aiming at so your device will take an average of all the readings to give you a precise range for your target.
There are other range finding devices that will calculate range based on GPS but these are less useful for hunting as it relies on you being able to pinpoint the location of your target or quarry, which may be moving, and you. There is a very effective range finding trick that you really need to know that you can do with just your scope so if you rely on your rangefinder and the batteries run out you can still make a good stab at determining the range of your target.
Range Finding Using a Scope
To understand this simple trick you need to understand the different reticle options for scopes; the reticle is the marking on the scope that allows you to aim your rifle. Reticles in the very first early telescopic optics were made of wire fastened inside the tube of the scope and give us the term ‘crosshair’. Later as optics technology advanced reticles were etched into the glass of the scope which made it possible to create all sorts of new reticles to aid with aiming, or faster target acquisition or to be more user friendly in low light conditions that the simple ‘crossed hairs’ provided before.
a range of common scope reticles
This etching technology gives us a huge range of reticle options including some types which are designed to aid in rangefinding. There are specialist range finding reticles that are normally reserved for tactical style scopes and others which feature ‘BDC’ reticles which stands for ‘bullet drop compensating’ again which are specifically designed for tactical and combat scopes to aid rapid adjustments of aim to compensate for range, these BDC reticles are specifically calibrated to combat cartridges and you are unlikely to find them in many calibres other than 5.56mm, 7.62x51mm and 300 AAC. This doesn’t mean they aren’t suitable for hunting and field target shooting as the 5.56mm, also known as .223 and 7.62 also known as .308Win are some of the most popular hunting cartridges out there.
For most hunters though there are a few reticles which are most common and these aren’t normally the very specialist range finding type.
The ubiquitous duplex reticle is probably the most common reticle style of all; it features a thicker ‘duplex’ portion at the edges and steps down to a fine cross hair in the centre. This style of cross hair is popular for hunting and allows for slightly faster target acquisitions than a standard cross hair. If you know how big your target is you can also judge range based on how the target appears compared to the central part of your reticle.
For example I know that at 300 yards the distance between the duplex and and the crosshair of my 6x42 leupold scope is about 12 inches this not only allows me to judge range based on a target of a known size but also gives me an extra point of aim if I need it. Luckily the 80 grain Winchester X-points I like to use drop 12.5 inches at 300 yards based on a 100 meter zero making compensating for distance at that range really easy. Duplex reticles are very common and while this doesn’t give the pin point range finding accuracy of a range finder it is often enough for most hunting scenarios.
These reticules feature dot’s along both axis which are used to assist in compensating for wind and range when shooting but you can also use them to judge range: The dots are spaced one ‘milliradian’ apart. A milliradian is a measurement of angle equal to 3.6 minutes of angle. A minute of angle is equal to one inch at 100 meters so a one inch group at 100 meters is known as a minute of angle group, so when a gun or ammo is advertised as shooting to 1 MOA it means it is capable of shooting those 1 inch groups at 100 meters.
Knowing this means you can use your mil dots to calculate range, if one mil equals 3.6 inches, or ten centimeters at 100 meters, it equals a whole meter at 1000 meters.
With these tricks up your sleeve you will be able to judge range relatively accurately even if your range finder takes a tumble in a stream or runs out of batteries.
Using Your Rangefinder
Modern laser rangefinders designed for the civilian market for hunting, archery, golf and other activities are very simple to use. Most have just a couple of buttons and it’s as simple as looking through them and pressing a button to get a reading on the range. They will feature a reticle, not unlike what you would see through your scope, except digital to help you aim at your quarry or target.
The reticle of the ATN rangefinder which will feature amongst our recommended product later in this article.
Some models will also have modes which can judge the speed something is moving and a few other readings. When you activate the laser your rangefinder will calculate the distance and display it, you can then calculate any adjustment you need to make. The ATN, like the scopes by the same company features app connectivity so you can link your rangefinder with your phone or tablet as well but most rangefinders do not have this feature.
They really are as simple as that to use but to get the best results you need to be able to use them from a stable base and many will feature a mount so they can fastened to a tripod and aimed easily, this is most important at longer range as you may not be able to hold the rangefinder steadily enough to keep it on target. Very high powered rangefinders used by the military or by surveyors can be capable of measuring ranges of many miles and these really do need to be mounted on a stable platform. In the field for hunting and field target shooting resting against a tree or your backpack or shooting bag is normally enough to accurately range targets.
A military or surveying grade range finder capable of measuring distances of up to 20 km on its tripod mount.
Features to Look For When Choosing Rangefinder
It’s really all in the name when it comes to rangefinders, most rangefinders used by hunters and field target shooters are a stand-alone piece of equipment not much larger than your average cell phone and they do one thing, measure range. Some do have other features such as the ability to measure speed which isn’t useful to most hunters and target shooters. Others though can be mounted directly to a scope or rifle and some binoculars have built in rangefinders giving you one less thing to carry when you are hunting, these binoculars do come at a premium price though and for those of you on a budget it might just make sense to have a separate set of binoculars and rangefinder.
A lot of rangefinders will have a threaded mount so that they can be mounted on a tripod in the same way as a set of binoculars or a spotting scope could be. While target shooting it might be really convenient to mount a rangefinder like this if you are engaging targets at unknown distances and may also be useful from a high seat or blind while hunting but if you are stalking on foot this sort of set up will be a bit too difficult to move around with. Instead an improvised rest against a tree or your backpack will probably be the best you can do.
Some models of rangefinder lack any optical display though and must be twinned with the sights of your rifle, some models can even be fitted to a bow. You will need to calibrate the rangefinder to your sights but once you have you can use your rifle or bow to ‘aim’ your rangefinder and measure the range. To achieve this you will need a mount for the rangefinder, most are compatible with a weaver or picatinny rail and special rings can be purchased that can add a short section of picatinny rail to your scope so that you can attach your rangefinder.
A section of picatiny rail for your scope and rangefinder
Rangefinders are much more affordable now than they once were but you still wouldn’t want to lose one, they normally come with a lanyard and I wouldn’t want to go without one even if I had to make it myself. A simple wrist lanyard can save your rangefinder from a tumble onto the ground if you drop it while using or a neck lanyard can allow you to carry it like a set of binoculars if you are likely to need it a lot.
I don’t like too many things dangling around my neck though so a secure pouch or pocket and a wrist lanyard are my preference.
Just as a scope for close range or fast shooting can have low or no magnification, for shooting at further ranges you need that additional magnification to give you enough detail to aim at. Likewise with your rangefinder to range far targets you will need to see enough detail to accurately place the reticle of the rangefinder on it. To achieve this a magnification of up around five is normally sufficient
Some level of rubber or plastic armour to protect the internal workings of your rangefinder are a wise precaution and addition. Wet weather, dust and a bumpy ride in a backpack or in your pocket can take a toll on your equipment, including your rangefinder. Pick one that has a robust waterproof armour.
Integrated Range Finders
If you are desperate to keep weight down and avoid the need to carry a separate rangefinder one of the types that can mount on a scope is ideal or you can pick a set of binoculars that features an integrated range finder. This allows you to take advantage of the excellent optics, magnification and picture quality of a set of binoculars which will always be far superior to a rangefinder. These integrated rangefinders do not come cheap though and only the very top brands make range finding binoculars you shouldn’t expect to find a pair for less than a few thousand dollars.
Best Range Finder Brands
There are plenty of optic manufacturers that have added range finder to their product range over the years and as a general rule the brands you would go to for quality optics also produce the best range finder but not always. Simple laser rangefinders are fairly generic and one is much the same as another even if it does say Nikon or Leupold on the side. The very best come in the form of range finding binoculars offered by Swarovski and Leica and for a stand-alone range finder Leica offer a fantastic 7 power rangefinder for under $500 which would be a great choice.
You can also get adequate performance from a number of unbranded products which you will be able to find for under $100.
Best Rangefinder on the Market Review
And on to the main event, the range finders themselves. It’s worth splitting these recommendations into a couple of distinct sections to take into account the different activities they can be used for and the different shooting disciplines and their specific requirements.
For hunting whether you are using a bow or rifle the requirements for your rangefinder are going to be largely the same so we will cover all hunting in one go. You want something light weight, rugged and suitable out to a few hundred yards. Responsible hunters won’t normally take shots at live quarry beyond about 300 yards unless they are very experienced and competent and have a specific need to for pest control purposes for example. Most range finders will offer this capability but also consider than hunters will normally carry binoculars, in fact hunters SHOULD carry binoculars always as the ability to scan and search for quarry is vital and resorting to using the scope of your rifle for this is not only dangerous, remember you should never point your rifle at something you aren’t sure you want to kill, but more tiring on your eyes and more difficult than using binoculars. So as you are carrying them anyway if y our budget can handle it consider the combined binocular, rangefinder option. We will deal with those in a separate category in a minute though.
1 Nikon Monarch
Many people have unshakable confidence in Nikon products and for good reason. They have been producing fantastic optics for sportsmen since 1917 and this is no exception. Over a hundred years of experience has led to some fantastic innovation not least the VR (Vibration Reduction) system that is featured in this Nikon product. It is engineered to limit impact of the vibration of your hands on the image you see through your rangefinder. This technology is a great addition to a hand held rangefinder and aligns the image with the activated laser beam giving you confidence in the reading you get from your rangefinder. The VR system is capable of reducing the effects of your shaky hands by about 80%, the need for this innovation is evidence of the need to rest your rangefinder or use a tripod under normal circumstances, even without though Nikon will get the job done.
The MONARCH 7i VR accurately gives distance readings between 8 and 1000 yards. Readings are displayed in .1-yard increments and Nikon’s Hyper Read technology gives you a rapid reading no matter the distance to your target. Readings of less than 700 yards are accurate to +/-0.5 yards/meters.
A great option from Nikon this product will give you fantastic performance and at under $300 won’t break the bank.
2 Leupold RX1300i
Leupold are one of the best optics manufacturers on the planet and one which I have particular high regard for as I have had a leupold scope on my .243 for deer hunting for well over ten years now. This range finder won’t let you down either. It gives you accuracy to within half a yard all the way out to 1300 yards and a true ballistic range, that is compensating for elevation or declination to 800 yards. It also features Leupolds proprietary ‘Trophy Scale’ which allows you to gauge an animal’s size while you are calculating range, the unit only weighs seven ounces so it won’t weight you down and is also very ergonomic for ease of use in the field and to make it easy to handle in the rain and wet for hunting in even the worst weather conditions.
A great choice for hunters whether you are hunting with bow or rifle and a perfect companion out in the field whether you are elk hunting for trophy’s, aiming to fill the freezer or aiming for field targets.
3 Laser Works Mini Laser Rangefinder
Unlike the other products in this list this inexpensive range finder come in under $200 and doesn’t have an optic element, you don’t look through it to focus on your target instead you calibrate it to the sights of your rifle or bow and can range whatever you are looking at to around seven hundred yards.
While this does give you one less thing to carry do be aware that this range finder and it’s mounting bracket is only suitable for rifles recoiling no more than about 12 ft/lbs that is about equivalent to most .243 loads and all but the hottest .260 loads, anything much bigger and this will not be the tool for you.
It will give you accurate range data from between 5 and 700 meters and is compatible with a weaver or picatinny rail. Rather than having to reach forward to the unit to get a range reading you can activate it with the button which can be attached to the stock of your rifle.
4 ATN Auxiliary Ballisic Laser
This is a very specialist product by ATN, it isn’t compatible with standard scopes or useful on it’s own but it can be fitted to other ATN smart products such as their Thor range of scopes and give accurate range data.
At the touch of a button this product will give you accurate range out to 1000 yards and not only that it will adjust the point of aim for you so all you have to do is take the shot. You do not have to apply any hold over for long range targets or compensate for targets closer than your zero range. This rangefinder combined with an ATN scope allows you to concentrate on your field craft and leave the rangefinding and adjustments to your equipment.
It may seem unnecessary as a lot of ATN scopes already feature a rangefinder but these are a different style of range finder for determining range by measuring a target of a known size and extrapolating the range from that measurement. This style of range finder is perfect for the night hunting that the night vision and thermal technology offered by ATN is known for as laser rangefinding is difficult in the dark.
It might not appeal to some traditionalists but the innovation, quality and potential advantages of the technology can’t be faulted.
Long Range Shooting
Now 1000 yards is definitely long range, even 500 yards is further than most people regularly shoot and takes a lot of practice and skill and most rangefinders, even budget ones are capable of range finding out to 5-700 yards so for true long range marksmanship of the kind practiced by military marksmen and snipers and the kind that requires the larger calibres such as .300 Win Mag and .338 we will be considering ranges in excess of 1000 yards and for that you need a very special range finder. Do be aware though that the specs of these products, in terms of range, refer to the range that the laser can travel and be reflected back which might differ considerably from the range they can effectively be used on live targets for hunting purposes.
5 Leica 7x24 Rangemaster
Leica are one of the all-time best optics manufacturers and this is reflected in the quality of this range finder as well as their other products including binoculars and cameras. This range finder features seven power magnification giving it plenty of magnification to focus on your target or quarry and get a precise range on it.
This rangefinder can range your target from between 10 metres to a maximum range of 1425 metres/1600 yards. It will also measure the angle of elevation or depression from you to your target, an important consideration when shooting at longer ranges, in fact this rangefinder won’t just leave it there and let you make the final calculations it will give you the equivalent horizontal distance taking the elevation or depression into account up to distances of 1100 metres / 1200 yards.
Cheap range finders are sometimes difficult to read in low light, or very bright conditions, a nice touch offered by this product is the automatic brightness correction of the LED display making it easy to read in any light conditions.Every piece of extra kit a hunter has to carry slows adds weight to your pack or pockets but this Leica product at only 180 grams is significantly lighter than most cell phones and won’t weigh you down at all. The Leica is easy to use with either hand and the same coatings that keep the lenses of Leica’s premium optics clear and clean protect this rangefinder as well and give you a clear uninterrupted view. The field of view offered by this rangefinder means it is great for scanning while still balancing that with enough magnification to focus on a target.
6 Vortex Optics Ranger
Offering six times magnification and the capability to range targets out to 1800 yards this product from Vortex will be suitable for shots at extreme range. As we mentioned earlier while a rangefinder might have a maximum range of, in this case 1800 yards, it may not be able to range a live target from that far. In the case of this product from Vortex the useful range on a deer is 900 yards. While this isn’t the full 1800 yards that the rangefinder works over that isn’t a disadvantage for hunters, who shoots deer at 900 yards afterall?
Similar to the Leica rangefinder this product from Vortex features proprietary HCD (Horizontal Component Distance) technology which compensates for angle of elevation or declination when calculating the range of your targets.
As with all Vortex products this rangefinder features fully multi-coated lenses which deliver optimal light transmission and is fully sealed with o-rings for full waterproof and dustproof performance. This model can give you readings in yards or meters depending on your preference.
This model is compact, ergonomic and lightweight without being fragile and can be hung around your neck on a lanyard or made secure with a spring steel clip if you prefer to carry it in a pocket or pouch. A few extra specifications for this rangefinder follow;
7 ATN Smart Laser 1500
ATN products lead the market in terms of their ability to connect with your phone and to perform other functions such as recording video, GPS and other useful features.
This rangefinder features a lot of that impressive technology, it doesn’t simply tell you how far away your target is, when combined with the mobile phone app it is a ballistic computer giving you precise adjustments in MOA (moments of angle) or inches allowing you to make the necessary corrections.
You can enter those correction into a standard scope using target turrets or even link your rangefinder directly to one of ATN’s smart scopes and save you the trouble. This truly is state of the art and offers so much more than just range finding ability. It is also suitable for long range rangefinding up to 1500 meters which really is long range by anybody’s standards.
Golfing requires accurate range finding as well so you can judge your swing, select the right club and make other important decisions. You don’t need quite the range of some of the more expensive rangefinders for golfing but there are some interesting features which can be found in some models that are specifically aimed at golfers. Some feature a ‘flag lock’ that will help you lock onto a flag rather than accidentally range the trees behind or some other feature. There are other features which are specifically aimed at golfers and a whole market full of great range finding products for use on the course but these will be the topic of a dedicated article.
Range Finding Binoculars
They are expensive but from a hunters perspective they are probably the best option for rangefinding. They save you carrying extra equipment and due to the quality of the manufacturing they give you the very best in image quality. Here are some of the very best that money can buy as well as a one which, while still around the $1000 mark, offers exceptional value for the money;
8 Swarovski EL Range Binocular
Swarovski offer some of the very best optics for hunters and this range finding binocular is no exception. At over $3000 it is premium product and certainly not a budget item but for professional hunters, wildlife managers and keen sportsmen this is a fantastic optic. Filling not only the essential role of binoculars but also range finder. 10 power magnification and 42 mm objective lenses give you range finding capability between 30 and 1500 yards and the clarity of the fantastic Swarovski lenses will far outclass even the best stand-alone range finder.
9 Leica Geovid HD-B
Leica offer their Geovid rangefinding binoculars in options all the way up to a 15x56 model but this 8x42 model is probably better for most hunting scenarios. The added weight and bulk of the larger models won’t be ideal for long hunting trips and fifteen times magnification isn’t ideal for effective scanning and spotting.
As with all leica optics the quality of the glass and lenses is unsurpassed and combined with the on-board rangefinding technology you will be able to range targets out to an unprecedented 3000 yards.
10 Nikon Laserforce Rangefinding Binocular
At under $1000 this is a fantastic bargain for a set of rangefinding pinoculars and the Nikon quality is evident in the product just as it is in their scopes and standard binoculars.
Capable of metering range between ten and 1900 yards on a reflective target, 1400 yards on a tree and 1100 yards on a deer. It offers 10 times magnification and 42 millimetre objective lenses which is about perfect for hunting scenarios.
Of all these great products on the market it’s hard to choose just one that I would take into the field with me. For the budget conscience and remembering that a set of compact binoculars is an essential part of your equipment in the field the leupold option gives you a lightweight package that you can carry alongside a standard set of binoculars and still gives you optimum performance out to over 1000 yards bridging that gap between range finders for standard hunting scenarios and the super long range offered by a few of the products here.
If money is no object though a set of Leica Geovids is more or less impossible to beat. Whatever your choice of the best rangefinder though it will be better than an estimate for precise shooting and successful hunting, just make sure you get out there and use it, it’s no good sitting in a kit bag.