Rangefinder Roundup

By Randy Wakeman


Although not all encompassing, I have had the opportunity to test five different models of laser rangefinders simultaneously. You'll likely not find my ruminations of the type normally associated with heavily advertised magazines. So be it, as I have no rangefinders for sale.

Laser rangefinders have never been better; nor have they ever been more affordable. The selection has also never been better, and more and more hunters (and golfers) have found them to be a valuable tool. The first time I used a laser rangefinder was a distinctly humbling experience. Though I have never fancied myself to be an expert distance-guesser, I didn't think I was all that bad. I soon discovered that my internal ranging abilities were nothing less than pathetic.

The utility junction box that resides in the corner of my lot is not a thing of beauty, but I have gazed at it countless times over the years if for no other reason than, "it's there." I've also shot bags full of pesky ground squirrels and rabbits in that area that enjoy digging and nibbling at things I don't want subjected to such nibbles and digs. Anyway, I always knew that utility box was 35 yards from my porch; I absolutely just knew it. A touch of the button on my first rangefinder instantly displayed 48.0 yards, so much for my knowledge. The target area that resides across a pond with a generous clay-based backstop has been used to sight-in rifles pre-hunt for years. We all knew it was about 100 yards from our bench. Again, the laser revealed us to be horribly off; it is 120 yards on the nose. Many of us feel our step is about a yard, we certainly felt that when we paced off 75 yards to set up targets. Well, it was a laser-verified 85 yards! I think you get the idea.

Laser rangefinders will automatically give you better range-guessing ability. Exact knowledge of range is critical for the bow-hunter, air gun enthusiast, muzzleloader, and vital for anyone that shoots near "maximum point blank range." It is all well and good that we have taken the time to learn that our favorite .270 Winchester 140 grain cartridge should be sighted in 2.5 inches high at 100 yards for maximum point blank range (based on a six inch kill zone) of 295 yards. Just where is that 295 yards up in the mountains anyway? How big is that rock or tree? Hooray for us that we can fire out to 295 yards without concerning ourselves a great deal as to holdover, but where exactly does our hunting sphere of influence end? Laser rangefinders can help take the guesswork out of that process.

Five models were tested and examined: the Leica LRF 900 Scan, Nikon Laser800, Nikon Laser400, Bushnell Yardage Pro 500, and the Bushnell Yardage Pro Scout.

Leica Rangemaster LRF 900 Scan

Leica is one of the greatest names in optics, and it should be no surprise that the 7X monocular portion of the LRF900 has the brightest, clearest view of all the rangefinders tested. It field of view is 367 feet at 1000 yards. The eyepiece is designed to accommodate eyeglass wearers and is adjustable over a +/- 4 diopter range. Its case is made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic for extra durability.

The Leica has a meter / yards toggle inside the unit, and is powered by a single nine-volt battery (included). It is a medium sized unit (4 3/4 x 4 1/8 x 1 9/16 inches), larger than the ultra-compact Bushnell Scout or Nikon Laser 400, closest to the Nikon 800, far smaller than the binocular-sized Bushnell Yardage Pro 500. The LRF 900 Scan weighs 9 7/8 ounces without its battery and 11 1/4 ounces with batteries. The Leica is the only unit reviewed that specifies weight with batteries. Its rubber-armored case is easy to grip, and it feels substantial in the hands. Leica units are protected against water spray, according to the Leica WebSite.

Leica has opted to use a bright red LED, as opposed to the liquid crystal display used in the other four units. This LED is supposed to automatically adjust for ambient lighting conditions and is legible in darkness. I found it distractingly bright in near-dusk conditions and further found the red "spray" of dots around the read-out to be annoying. Ironically, with its superior optics, the Leica would have automatically had the most contrasting black LCD display had they gone that route. If you find the LED readout to be of great value, this unit may be the one for you, as the Leica is unique in this regard.

The controls are simple, just one button to push for ranging. Hold down that button, your Leica enters "scan" mode, which continually updates. This, to my mind, is one of the most usable features you can have in a ranging unit. It is great when searching for a suitably reflective target at longer range, perhaps a tree line along the bush. Though ranging actual animals is not my preferred use of a rangefinder, opting for landmarks instead, scan mode is a must for following moving objects.

Though the model nomenclature of rangefinders normally tells you only a little about real world performance, the Leica demonstrates a strong infrared system that should be useful in many conditions. Leica specifies the range to be 11 yards to 874 yards. I found that it would range a light-colored vehicle out to its 900 yard moniker. Leica claims accuracy of +/- 1 yard up to 218 yards and +/- 2 yards to 874 yards.

Leica has always emphasized quality and ease of use over features. The lack of features such as rain mode (Leica feels that the unit works just fine in the rain without a special mode) and over/under 150 yard mode may be considered negatives by some. The LRF 900 sells for around $410. Leica fans wanting a longer range unit have the identical package available as the LRF1200 Scan (discount priced at about $470). Both units come with carrying cases, and there is an accessory tripod adapter available for those who want it.

There are many loyal Leica fans that have this model in the 800 yard, pre-scan version, and swear by them. Leica products usually do a superlative job, and have one of the highest resale value percentages in the industry, which tends of engender customer loyalty.

The Leica rangefinders are designed in Germany and made in Leica's own factory in Portugal, which is staffed by German technicians and supervisors. Leica units come with a two-year warranty. Your warranty card must accompany any return.

Nikon Laser800

The made in China Nikon Laser800 has an 8x28 monocular that is sufficiently bright, thanks to efficient multicoated optics and a 3.5mm exit pupil. The field of view is 236 feet at 1000 yards.

It includes standard, scan, rain, over 150 yard, and reflective modes. The latter increases potential range to 999 yards for highly reflective targets under ideal circumstances. The range specification for most targets is 18 yards to 879 yards (16 to 800 meters) with a +/- 1m margin of error. The reflective mode is the least necessary to the hunter, and would be useful only under rare circumstances such as ranging a red truck. The display can be switched from yards to meters.

The Laser 800 is designed for easy gripping. It measures 4.8 x 3.6 x 2.0 inches (122 x 92 x50 mm), and weighs 9.5 ounces. A belt pouch is included. Nikon offers a one-year warranty on their rangefinders.

It is powered by four AAA alkaline batteries, which are not included. Nikon feels this may appeal to hunters who travel to foreign lands, as AAA batteries are available practically everywhere, including third world countries, while other types may not be. Personally, I do not subscribe to this theory. The Laser800 is claimed to be good for 1000 ranging pushes on a set of batteries. That may sound impressive, but scan mode drains your batteries extremely fast, resulting in an abnormally short battery life. There is an automatic shut-off after 8 seconds. If you are planning on using this model for a week long hunt in cold weather, carrying a fresh set of replacement batteries is advised.

Nikon claims that the Laser800 is "O-ring sealed" for water resistance, but they don't say which parts. The battery compartment is plastic on plastic, not sealed at all. Also, the battery compartment lid can fly off with a brush of your coat. This is less than ideal for rugged use. As the battery compartment resides next to the monocular, it is not in a particularly vulnerable spot, and a strip of electrical tape over it solves the issue.

Oddly, the Nikon Laser800 is the only unit to claim "inaudible operation." Yet is the only unit tested that makes an easily heard camera-shutter noise with every push of the button. To be fair to the Laser800, the noise is mentioned as an aside, and is not extremely loud.

The Nikon also has a backlit display. Though not mentioned in the instructions, it is one of the Nikon Laser800's best features for after-dusk or nighttime use. When the unit is ranging, the monocular appears normal. Upon release of the firing button, the backlighting engages. You won't even know it is there during normal conditions, but it gives you an easy to read LCD even with no ambient light whatever. It is this feature, found on no other LCD display rangefinder tested, that elevates the Laser800 into the "best buy" category.

The Laser800 accurately ranges under abnormally difficult conditions: through wet windows, and even through screen doors. It will range when no other unit can. While I'd like to have extended battery life and a longer warranty, it is Nikon's best model and definitely worth a look due to its powerful electronics, ability to range under difficult conditions, and strong feature set. It is discount priced at around $290.

Nikon Laser400

The Chinese made Nikon Laser400 is one of Nikon's newest models. Small size is the primary appeal of this unit. It is significantly smaller than the Laser800, and is even a tiny bit smaller than the "world's smallest" Bushnell Yardage Pro Scout. It measures 3.7 inches long and 2.8 inches wide, and weighs only 7 ounces without a battery.

The Laser400's 8 x 20 multicoated monocular has an excellent 330 foot field of view at 1000 yards. Unfortunately, with an exit pupil of only 2.5 mm, it is noticeably dimmer than the other monoculars. Nikon boasts "multiple modes," which in this case means "standard" mode and "scan" mode only. Specified measurement range is 10.5 to 437 yards, with excellent +/- 1/2 yard accuracy under 100 yards, +/- 1 yard over 100 yards. The eyepiece is provided with a diopter focusing system. The LCD display can be switched from yards to meters. A single CR-2 battery powers the Laser400 and promises an ample 6000 cycles per battery. Like other Nikon units, the warranty is limited to one year.

This unit incorporates a water resistant design and the battery compartment is O-ring sealed. The test unit had a battery chamber plug with coarse, poorly machined threads. As a result, it was very finicky to screw into place.

It is certainly better to have a Laser400 than no rangefinder at all, but the skimpy feature set and relatively dim optics are clearly drawbacks. The discount price is around $200. The same unit with more range is the Nikon Laser600.

Bushnell Yardage Pro 500

The Bushnell Yardage Pro 500 is the largest rangefinder tested at 5 x 4 3/4 x 2 1/4 inches, and the heaviest at 13.5 ounces (without battery). This is attributable to the design, which uses separate sending and receiving unit tubes. Even so, it is easy to carry. Powered by a single 9-volt battery (not included), Bushnell estimates battery life at over 10,000 ranging cycles, and recommends only annual replacement.

The Pro 500 offers the best feature set of all the rangefinders tested: reflective, rain, zip-through (the equivalent of a greater than 115 yard mode), as well as standard and scan modes. The Nikon Laser800 shares these, but this ranger also has a target quality gauge, and a "precision parameter" indicator that shows if your accuracy is within one yard or three yards.

The monocular is a relatively low 6 power and only of average brightness with a 3.3mm exit pupil. It has a fixed focus eyepiece (this can mean a permanently blurry view to some.) The field of view is not specified. It can display in yards or meters. The unit comes with a neoprene weather jacket. It is easy to operate right through this weather jacket, as we had the chance to prove on a Newfoundland moose hunt. Finally, the Pro 500 comes with a built-in tripod socket, another nicety found on no other unit tested.

While it will theoretically range up to 999 yards in reflective mode, Bushnell rates this unit at 225 yards for a deer sized target, 500 yards for a tree. It has a two-year warranty, and is assembled in the USA from Japanese parts. While far from the most powerful laser system on the market, nor the brightest or sharpest monocular, its rugged design, generous feature set, and fairly low price (about $229) compensate for its shortcomings.

Those who want the same unit with greater range can look towards the much more expensive Yardage Pro 1000 (discount priced at about $370), which is rated to 500 yards on a deer, 1000 yards on a tree, and 1500 yards on a reflective target. The caveat that the Bushnells will not reliably range through glass is a concern that needs to be clearly pointed out. I also question the exactitude with which targets can be selected at over 1/2 mile range with only a 6x monocular.

Bushnell Yardage Pro Scout

This is Bushnell's answer to the palm-sized rangefinder. The water resistant Scout measures 4 x 2 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches and weighs only 6.8 ounces (without battery). It is rated at 300 yards for a deer, 570 for a tree, and 700 yards for a reflective target such as a stop sign or light colored vehicle. The minimum ranging distance is 10 yards; accuracy is +/- 1 yard. The display can be changed from yards to meters if desired. This Chinese made model has a two year warranty, and offers an "over 150 yard mode" in addition to scan mode. The monocular has a 4.0 mm exit pupil, and is a bit brighter than the Yardage Pro 500. The top of the unit has finger contours built-in, affording easy one hand operation. The eyepiece is diopter-adjustable.

An included CR-2 battery powers the Scout. Bushnell estimates battery life at approximately 10,000 cycles. The (apparently) redesigned battery cover is a bit finicky to install. This new cover has a slot within a slot, so you can remove battery contact completely when the unit is not in use to stop the constant drain.

Neither Bushnell will reliably range through glass. Look to the Nikon Laser800 or the Leica LRF 900 if that is requisite.

I questioned Bushnell about this issue. The answer was that their units do go through most types of clear glass. That does not wash with me, as even the Yardage Pro Scout instruction sheet states, "Ranging through a glass window is not possible in most circumstances." The instruction sheet is correct; the Bushnell units will not. The other brands tested had no such problems.

I also questioned Bushnell about the frugal feature set on this unit. The answer was that this unit, in large measure, integrates most of the analog modes from their Yardage Pro 500 into the electronics of this unit. This may be true to a degree, however it does not fully do so. The 999-yard maximum reflective range of the modest Yardage Pro 500 is not equaled by the newer electronics of either of the more expensive Scout and Legend models.

Those that want more range in this package can check out the Yardage Pro Legend, which bumps up the capabilities to 450 yards for a deer, 800 yards for a tree, with a maximum reflective target distance of 930 yards. The Legend edition is also waterproof and floatable.

The Yardage Pro Scout can easily fit into a jacket pocket, or can be snapped to your belt via the included heavy woven nylon case. The Scout sells for about $300, the Legend in the $350 range.

Finally

The perfect hunting rangefinder has yet to be invented. As the years go by, I would expect all products in this category to improve. Some have bantered a bit about "laser strength," but it is not that simple. There is a limit on what can be considered an eye-safe FDA Class 1 device, and viewing laser emissions through magnified lenses for long periods of time is not recommended by anyone. Improvements will likely come from more sophisticated electronics and more sensitive receiver components, not from sheer "laser strength."

There are a few combination rangefinder-binoculars that offer one less tool to carry. At around $600 and up and with a very limited selection from which to choose, they don't seem to have everyone discarding their favorite set of binoculars just yet. One day, perhaps that will indeed be the case.

There are two theories by which one can select sophisticated electronic devices: the latest technology or the best value. In the case of the relatively quick changing subminiature electronics field, I vote for value. This leaves out combination devices such as ranging binoculars, as today's pricey "new" is likely to be saddled with tomorrow's old capabilities.

In the case of most rangefinders, the supplied instruction manuals are little more than a joke for such sophisticated instruments. This is an area that certainly could be improved upon. All of the rangefinders tested were sufficiently accurate for any big game hunting scenario I can think of.

Though the price / performance issue eventually becomes personal preference, if I had to buy a rangefinder tomorrow it would be a palm size unit that is easy to use, with reasonably bright optics, and a realistic field range of over 500 yards. I find myself caring more about lightness and compactness as time goes by. No rangefinder tested was particularly heavy; it is a matter of container size more than anything else is.

This leads in to the weight claims made by the various manufacturers, which normally leave out the batteries. You cannot use the unit without the battery, so what good is an unusable rangefinder weight? Batteries do not vary a great deal in weight, and there is nothing prohibiting companies from providing a realistic approximate "live weight," but only Leica chooses to do so.

If you believe, as I do, that rangefinders can improve your hunting effectiveness, one of these laser rangefinders is distinctly worthy of your consideration.


Note: A full length review of the new Bushnell Laser Rangefinder Yardage Pro Legend can be found on the Product Review Page.




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Copyright 2003 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.



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