For all their revealing brightness, binoculars are dark and mysterious things. Hidden deep within their barrels are chunks of glass and gears the average hunter barely comprehends. How do they manage to make a dim scene at dusk appear brighter? How can they silently focus without any parts moving? How can a 10X binocular be no larger than an 8X? And, most puzzling of all, why does one unit cost $2,000 and another $200 when the view through the former doesn’t look anything close to 10 times better?
We could write a book about all of this, but you wouldn’t need to read it to understand most of what you need to know to save a bundle on an effective hunting binocular. Just as a $400 rifle can “bring home the bacon” as often as a $4,000 rifle, so can lower priced binoculars perform well enough to help you find that “bacon.”
If you’re on a tight budget, the trick to getting an effective binocular is recognizing adequate performance and knowing what ingredients deliver it. Then be prepared to settle for basic functions, treat the instrument with reasonable care and work within its limitations.
For years I’ve been telling folks they could buy a decent binocular for around $200. It would probably be a Porro-prism unit and might not be waterproof, but optical quality would be surprisingly good. But things have been changing in the optical world, and it’s been years since I’ve checked out $200 binoculars. Let’s examine a few and see if my assessment stands.
I regularly peer through and hunt with the finest binoculars on earth, brands like Swarovski, Zeiss and Leica. I’m also privileged to use a lot of top-end units from Meopta, Steiner, Nikon, Vortex, Minox, Bushnell, Alpen, Brunton, Pentax and others. It seems there are more binocular makers than rifle makers these days, and most know how to make good, better and best. A few companies make only top-of-the-line optics, but most will build to “price points” to accommodate those who can’t afford the high-dollar units. What we need to figure out is how low we can go and still get useful function. It’s a waste of time and money to drop $49.99 on a binocular that can’t transmit an image you can identify.
You want to avoid exchanges like this: “Doofus, is it a rock or a deer layin’ out there?”
“I don’t know, Roofus. Can’t quite tell.”
“Well use them binoculars you bought.”
“Oh yeah. Hmm. It’s bigger now, for sure.”
“Yeah, but what is it?”
“Hmmmm. It’s either a really big deer or a rock. But it could be a sheep or maybe an old feed sack.”
If your binocular isn’t any better than that, why carry it? Here’s what a binocular is supposed to do:
2. Transmit light
3. Minimize flare
4. Resolve images
These are the five things you want. So what ingredients deliver them? Look for the following:
1. Glass lenses properly ground
These coatings also minimize flare, glare or haze. That improves contrast. High contrast is good. It helps you distinguish antlers from branches.
Here are the common codes for delineating coatings:
• Bright optics: Meaningless PR hype. No coatings.
Alas, you cannot tell how many layers are included in “fully multi-coated.” Top-quality units get a half-dozen or more per surface, so we can assume fully multi-coated, low-priced binoculars have no more than two.
3. Efficient prisms
You can’t see prisms without dismantling the binocular, so look for the list of ingredients on the box or company catalog. BaK4 glass (barium crown) is better than BK7 (borosilicate crown) for roof-prism styles. In Porro-prism binoculars, BaK4 isn’t an advantage over BK7.
Unfortunately, BaK4 now comes in at least two “flavors.” It appears the Chinese are playing fast and loose with terminology and selling what they call a BaK4 glass that is of much lower quality than the German Schott BaK4 type. Buyer beware. It’s probable that inexpensive binoculars advertising BaK4 prisms are using the Chinese version.
4. High-quality metals, barrels, gears
5. Precision tolerances, workmanship