Selecting and Caring for Hunting Optics
Part I: Binoculars
by Ed Migale
binocular – n, a portable instrument consisting of two small telescopes mounted side by side, used for viewing distant objects outdoors; field glasses. – From Webster’s New World Dictionary
I used my binocular to glass the distant hillside as the sun rose in the east. Movement caught my eye. Deer! Several does fed, heads pointed downward, along the steep slope. But one deer’s head pointed upwards. The head rubbed against the lower branches of an oak tree. Closer, more focused observation through my binocular revealed that the deer’s head had branches of its own. A buck!
Minutes later I stood over the body of this coastal blacktail, having filled my tag on opening morning, thanks to the light-gathering, distance-closing features of my 8 power binocular.
Invented in 1825 when J.P. Lemiere mounted two telescopes together on a single frame, binoculars have been a part of the American hunting scene since before the advent of smokeless powder. Former president Theodore Roosevelt, arguably the country’s most famous hunter, mentioned "field glasses" often in his books about hunting the West during the 1880’s.
"Once at the top we walked very cautiously," Roosevelt wrote in his 1893 book, The Wilderness Hunter, "being careful not to show ourselves against the sky-line, and scanning the mountain through our glasses. At last we made out three (mountain) goats."
Today, American hunters have a vast array of binoculars to choose from, ranging in price from just a few dollars for bargain shelf models to over $2000 for state-of-the-art European products.
Fit the Need
Too many hunters take the wrong route when selecting a binocular. They peruse the catalogues and base their decision on factors other than the most important criteria: need.
Rather than asking "how much?" or "where was this made" or "what is the magnification?" hunters should be asking themselves "what am I going to use this binocular for?"
"Buying optics is a lot like buying shoes or boots," said Vickie Gardner, Marketing Manager of Alpen Optics, manufacturer of a full line of sports optics in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. "Just like shoes and boots need to fit a specific need, so should optics," noted Gardner.
Long range glassing for pronghorn or mule deer in the intermountain west? Still hunting for Roosevelt elk or wild pigs in dense coastal forests? Scouting for evening flights of geese in the prairies of Alberta or the high desert basins of NE California? Turkey hunting in the oak woodlands of the Central Coast foothills?
Vastly different scenarios, to be sure, and to my mind – having experience in all these venues – the choices in binocular selection could be just as different.
For example, a top quality, mid-weight 8 X 42 binocular that performs extremely well during sustained glassing sessions and in low-light conditions is the way to go for most mule deer hunting, while a lightweight compact binocular might be a better choice for turkey hunters who need optics only rarely during a hunt. Those late afternoon scouting trips for geese? I like the high power and huge lenses of my 10 X 50. Too big to carry afield, this binocular is perfect when I’m standing on the tailgate, elbows resting on the roof of the camper shell for stabilizing this behemoth.
Besides fitting a specific need, binocular choices should also fit one’s budget. The good news is that there are some excellent products on the market today that are priced at very, very good values. So good in fact, that you may find it difficult to differentiate between a $300 binocular and another costing several hundred dollars more.
Choices, Choices and More Choices
So how should you choose the "best" one for your glassing needs that is priced within your budget?
Assuming all the main variables (example: waterproof construction, fully multi-coated lenses, magnification, etc.) are equal, of prime importance is how a binocular fits the physical features of your face. It really is like trying on shoes; some are uncomfortable, some are OK and some are just right.
Try different products; lots of them. And take into consideration whether or not you wear prescription eyeglasses, sunglasses or protective shooting glasses while hunting. As someone who wears prescription eyeglasses, I require my binoculars to have eye cups that twist up and down. The "down" position is for when I am wearing my glasses and using the binocular only occasionally, such as while still hunting. The "up" position is for when I am doing serious, lengthy glassing. I remove my eyeglasses, twist the cups into the "up" position and refocus the binocular. This gives me the widest possible field of view.
When Less is More
Speaking of field of view, another important consideration in selecting a binocular is its magnification (or vpower") in conjunction with its objective lens (the lens at the far end of the optic) diameter. The best all-around combination is a binocular with 8 power magnification and 40 (or 42) millimeter objective lenses. This combination provides a wide field of view (my 8 X 42’s F.O.V. is 393 feet at 1,000 yards) and an exit pupil diameter of 5.0 mm or greater. As the human eye’s pupil dilates to approximately 5 mm in low light, a binocular with an 5 mm exit pupil allows the maximum amount of light to the eye that the eye can absorb. Light transmission is vital for glassing during the low light conditions of early morning and evening.
While those are the facts, many hunters these days are choosing 10 power binoculars under the assumption that they will see better with the extra magnification. That may be true, but only during hours with more daylight, as a 10 X 40 (or 42) binocular doesn’t allow as much light to the eye as the 8 power discussed above. Another reason to choose 8X: 10 power binocs have to be held perfectly still as the extra magnification exacerbates the slightest movement. Eyestrain and headaches are sure to follow.
Treat ‘Em Right
OK. You’ve selected a binocular that fits your needs and fits your face. And while it fit your piggy bank, that was a lot of hard earned cash to lay out. But don’t think of it as an expense; think of it as an investment that will pay you big dividends for years to come.
And the way to get the most out of that investment is with crystal clear glassing. Here’s how:
Start by protecting your binocular at all times; keep it in its padded case while transporting it in the vehicle. As soon as you get ready to hunt, secure the binocular to yourself with a neck strap or, better yet, a harness type strap; these keep binocs close to the body while eliminating neck strain.
Most binocs come with a rain guard that fits over the ocular lenses. Regular use of a rain guard will keep lots of dirt and crud, as well as rain, off the highly exposed lenses.
One excellent product to add to your binocular carrying system is a "Bino-Shield" from Crooked Horn Outfitters in Tehachapi, CA. A simple and inexpensive ($20) pouch that secures around the chest with one strap, it is easy to tuck your binocular into when not in use, and just as easy to take it out for glassing. The Bino-Shield will keep dirt and rain off your binocular; I’ve belly crawled through several hundred yards of sagebrush to close the distance on pronghorns and the Bino-Shield thoroughly protected my binocular.
If you do get your binocular’s lenses dirty, here’s how to clean them according to the Binocular Instruction Booklet from Alpen Optics: "To remove dust or fingerprints from the lens surfaces, first blow off the lens to remove excess dirt.
Then, using a cotton cloth dampened with rubbing alcohol or water, dab the lens gently to remove dirt particles. Then use another clean cotton cloth also dampened with rubbing alcohol or water and using circular motions, gently rub the lens surface from the center to the outside edge.
Heavy rubbing with a dry cloth can damage lens coatings. It is very important to gently clean lens surfaces to maintain the integrity of the optical performance."
Once my lenses are clean, I like to clean the outside of the binocular body with a soft, damp cloth. Less accessible areas can be cleaned with lightly dampened cotton swabs.
As important today as they were in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, a quality binocular can be a tremendous aid to the hunter. When selecting a binocular, remember to first look at what you’ll be using it for, how it fits your face and how it fits your budget. Then protect that investment with some TLC for seasons of trouble free glassing and successful adventures afield.