I grew up shooting with iron sights. BB guns. Archery. The occasional handgun. I wasn’t a hunter then, so it didn’t matter if I overshot the target the first time. Or the second. Practice and repetition, those were my rangefinders.
Years later, I taught black powder shooting skills for the Boy Scouts of America. I lived with one .50 caliber Hawken all summer. I sighted it in every morning, shot it all day, and cleaned it every night. I didn’t miss with that rifle—not at any range under 200 yards. But I wasn’t paying for powder or lead. And I shot for four or five hours a day, every day.
But most of us don’t have that sort of time. So how do you eliminate the guesswork and make sure your shots hit at unknown distances?
There is a high-tech option. Most optics manufacturers make decent scopes, but in order to get the most out of a scope, a shooter really does need to know how far away the target is, if only to compensate for bullet drop. That’s where range finders come in: with that variable removed, a scope becomes much more useful—in theory at least.
What to look for in a rangefinder
The basic technology is easy enough to explain. The handheld box emits a laser which bounces off of the intended target and returns to the handheld box. The computer inside the box calculates the time it takes for the laser to return, performs some crazy mathematical equations, and spits out a distance.
It helps if you are aiming the box’s laser at large objects, or something reflective. It can be difficult to get a whitetail to register at 300 yards, for example, but there are simple solutions. The deer might be near a tree or something larger at a similar distance and a reading on these objects will allow you to make approximations to accommodate for the rangefinder’s limitations.
Prices vary. The Eotech Rulr retails for $32,000. Most likely, this is overkill for the coming whitetail season and would probably elicit a firm “no” to the question, are rangefinders worth the cost, from most people.
Handheld rangefinders offer similar features to these most advanced examples. They are small, light, reasonably inconspicuous and cost much less. Most will magnify to a power of six, and will work up to, if not beyond, 600 yards (the outer reaches seem to be around 1,000 yards). The best handhelds will have ballistic compensation built into the unit. They will be waterproof, shock resistant, have easily manipulated controls. All should offer dependable battery life.
With options like these available in the mid range of $300-1000, I believe that these laser devices are not just worth the cost to hunters—depending on the hunter and the environment, a rangefinder could be considered essential gear. So, limiting myself to products in this price range, here are three solid options I have come across that are worth the money to any whitetail hunter and all offer something a little different:
1. The RX-1000i Digital Laser Rangefinder
It makes sense to buy a range finder from the same company that makes your scope. Leupold makes great optics. Their RX-1000i offers accuracy to 1/10th of a yard and it looks like part of a tree. Additionally the RX series registers distances very quickly, which becomes more appreciated with use (or use of slower models) and can speed up shot time significantly. The RX-1000i is also very well built, which is important to me, as I’m really hard on my equipment.
2. Opti-Logic Recon TAC
Opti-Logic is another solid choice: they focus their business solely on making rangefinders, not scopes, suggesting that they would know the industry better than most. The Recon TAC takes the traditional hunting rangefinder concept and gives it a tactical flavor. The difference seems to be an overall increase in basic durability. This unit is designed to exceed military specifications, and provides accuracy readings within 18 inches out past 1,000 yards.
3. Bushnell Yardage Pro rifle scope
Most shooters seem to pick up a scope before they discover that they need a rangefinder. That makes sense. If you’re thinking ahead, you may want to combine the expenses and eliminate some of the learning curve and buy a scope/rangefinder combination. The benefit here is clear—it eliminates a step in the equation. Instead of looking through the rangefinder and then looking through the scope, adjusting to two reticles, you can simply look through one.The magnification on the Yardage Pro is 4-12×42. The rangefinder is good to 800 yards. In addition, it has a built in bullet drop compensator. This may be the future, and it seems like a great option—if you can find one in-stock. The Yardage Pro seems to be a popular choice and many retail stores are sold out in my experience.
Understanding the differences in rangefinders (at least the mid-range, hand held ones) is difficult. Almost every optics company makes one and they all work well at doing just about the same thing. There is a good side-by-side comparisons here, if this answer doesn’t satisfy you.
The fact remains though that if you are a dedicated hunter or shooter looking to advance your real world, long distance shooting skills, you need a rangefinder. If only for practice. After I got mine, I wandered around the neighborhood guessing distances to odd objects, and then checking my guesses with the range finder. I was appalled at how off I was. Way off. I thought 50 yards was more like 75 and above that, there seemed to be little reason to my guesses.
Now I know better and, through practice with my rangefinder, I have greatly enhanced my skill at accurately judging distances at the range and on the hunt. When time allows, I still measure the actual distance between me and a whitetail before making adjustments with the scope, but if I am working quickly, I feel confident assessing the distance with my naked eye. While I’ll never be as good of a rangefinder as the computer, I’m a lot better than I used to be.
This article originally ran on Guns.com as “Laser Range Finders: Are they worth the cost?” on October 19, 2012 and has been edited for content.