January 2013

Range-Finding Binoculars: Zeiss, Steiner, Bushnell, and Swarovski

Bushnell ekes out ahead of well-established Teutonic brands, but there is some compromise on price, features, and quality.

Adding a rangefinder to binoculars seems like a logical combination of technology. Not only does it mean carrying less equipment, there’s less fumbling between binocs and range finder when a target comes into view. All things equal, we initially thought the only downside would be a heavier set of binoculars. We did find the combined technologies added about 11 ounces on average to the binoculars. A pair of Swarovski EL 10x42 binoculars used as the control in our test weighed 29.6 ounces.

The Swarovski EL Range 10x42 ($2979), Bushnell Fusion 1600 ARC 10x42 ($999), Steiner Military 10x50 LRF ($2999), and Zeiss Victory RF 8x45 T* ($1949) all emit a pulsing laser beam that bounces off a target and uses a known variable — the speed of light — to calculate distance to the target.

The combination of technologies does increase the price, but if you were to purchase a comparable laser rangefinder and binoculars separately, you would approach the same cost. If you are frugal, you could purchase each piece of equipment separately at a significantly lower total cost, but the quality and durability may be compromised. If you are on the fence about paying more for a pair of quality binoculars, then look at any guide who knows his stuff. That guide will be using the best optics he can afford because hunting game means finding game, which is where the binocs come in. The rangefinder feature provides the distance to the beast quickly, so a shot can be taken.

All models came with a wide neck strap, battery, eye caps, and objective lens covers. All the models used a rubber armor coating that allowed them to be gripped even when wet. All four binocs employed a two-button set-up: one button activated the rangefinder, while the other allowed the user to change the display from meters to yards.

The Bushnell, Zeiss, and Swarovski were all roof-prism designs, which use two tubes to house the lens. They are usually lighter and more compact than porro-prism binoculars. Porro-prism models use an S-shaped set up that makes the binoculars wider than roof-prism models. The Steiner was a porro-prism type. The Bushnell, Zeiss, and Swarovski all had twist eye cups, while the Steiner had flexible, folding eye cups, which are required for those wearing eye-glasses. Each eyepiece of all the models could be adjusted for focus for each eye. Bushnell, Zeiss, and Swarovski all had center-focus knobs; the Steiner did not.

Only the Swarovski and Zeiss units required a coin or screwdriver to open their battery compartments. The Swarovski included a tool and clip that could easily be attached to the neck strap for when it was needed. The other models had a textured cap that could be unscrewed with your fingers. The Zeiss was a little tricky for fat-fingered testers, but it was simple to replace the battery, as the battery compartment was deep inside the two tubes. A soft case protected the Swarovski, Zeiss, and Bushnell optics, but not the Steiner. 

How We Tested
Testing consisted of stages starting with water and fog resistance, shock resistance, resolution, brightness, image and color clarity, range testing, and finally ergonomics. To start, we submerged the optics for 15 minutes. All four models slipped a few bubbles out of the hinge in the water test, but none of them suffered a leak. Also, the rangefinders on all four could be used immediately after taking the binocs out of the water.

Then we took them from the bath and put them in a freezer. After chilling, we moved the binocs from the -4°F freezer to 90°F outside temp, which caused all the lenses to fog and the bodies to sweat like a bottle of ice-cold cerveza during a Texas heat wave. The Swarovski, Zeiss, and Bushnell did not fog as much as the Steiner. The rangefinder on the Swarovski, even with the fogged lens, worked on a test tree. But the other three took 15 minutes for the lenses to clear and allow use of their rangefinders.

Above Left: The Swarovski’s mode button (arrow) is tucked underneath the tubes. Above Right: The range button is the square-ish green button to the left, which naturally fell under a user’s index finger of the left hand.

We tested in dawn/dusk light conditions and in bright noon-time sun. Our testers said the brightness of the Steiner, Swarovski, and Zeiss units were near equal. The Bushnell was slightly darker, and we attribute this to the slight green tint in the lens used to project the readout display. We tested with a grid pattern and reading the sports section of a newspaper at increasing distances. As far as resolution, the Swarovski and Zeiss tied in this respect. The glass in these two binoculars was excellent, and the Steiner and Bushnell were very close behind. We could read headlines and distinguish made-made and natural colors. We even had a doe show up during a week of testing and named her Seven Ticks. All four models easily allowed us to count seven engorged ticks on her back. The color with the Bushnell was slight muddy compared to the others, and again we attributed it to the green tint. Viewing the grid pattern, the Swarovski and Zeiss easily bested the other two. We were able to discern the finest grid pattern with these two models.

The drop test left all four models unscathed after a fall from a height of 3 feet onto a sheet of plywood.

On our test tree, which measured 35 yards from our test position, all four models gave a slightly different measurement: Steiner, 32 yards; Bushnell, 35 yards; Zeiss, 33 yards; and Swarovski, 35 yards. Measurements were all within the manufacturer’s specifications. We also used the rangefinder during a rainstorm, through leafy trees and off many surface types from vehicles to deer fur. We ranged distances at known distances at a pistol range with three set distances — 12, 25 and 50 yards — and a rifle range with two set distances — 100 and 200 yards. We also tested past 200 yards. The Swarovski and Bushnell consistently provided the same range distance.

Reflectivity of the target determines how well the rangefinders will work. On hard reflective surfaces, like a vehicle, you get better readings. Soft targets, like the fur of an animal, are less reflective. When a target, say a buck, is partially obscured by bushes, tall grass, or leaves, the pulsating beam of the laser helps identify the target rather than a clump of grass or leafy bush. All did a very good job of distinguishing an obscured target. The Bushnell even had a brush mode that allows brush and branches to be ignored by the laser. Rain and snow can cause false readings, and we were fortunate to have moderate rain during testing, so we were able to learn that all four rangefinders ranged our test tree the same as if it had been sunny.

Left, bottom arrow: When the Zeiss rangefinder button is pressed, the reticle lights up so that the target can be sighted. After releasing the button, the distance is displayed immediately in meters or in yards. Right: The Zeiss laser rangefinder is powered by a type CR 2 lithium battery.

Good ergonomics allow an optic to be used for extended periods without user fatigue, and a good design speeds ease of use. The roof-prism models all were narrow and easy to grasp. Operating buttons naturally fell under the operators’ fingertips when they grasped the binocs. The porro-prism model was wider and fatter, like grasping a double-stack hamburger compared to the roof prism’s single-stack burger. All were equally comfortable to use and operate, and here is where we began to see differences in the four models.

Swarovski EL Range 10x42
The EL Range’s reticle intensity could be adjusted to five different settings, or you could set it on automatic and the reticle brightness would automatically adjust the display brightness. Some users felt it was difficult to see the reticle and display in the Swarovski, Steiner, and the Zeiss products compared to the Bushnell, but they soon became acclimated to this characteristic. The reticle was light in color on these three models compared to the Bushnell, which was dark and thick. Testers felt the Bushnell display and reticle hid the target at times. The other reticles were subtle and clean, giving more priority to viewing the target.

The EL’s left tube held the display output, and the right tube held the reticle. The EL’s display could be customized to show the angle to the target. Under the distance display, an angle icon appears indicating, in degrees, whether the target is above or below your line of sight. Or the display can indicate the corrected shooting distance under the actual shooting distance. Swarovski calls it SWARO-AIM, which means the range finder uses the angle to target and distance to target to determine the trajectory of the bullet.

Our Team Said: Bowhunters in the group downgraded the Swarov-ski because it could not range under 30 yards. The optic quality was superb and the ergonomics were excellent. But for the price it should range under 30 yards. Testers gave it a B+.

Zeiss Victory RF 8x45 T*
The Victory RF display was housed in the right tube. Intensity could not to be adjusted manually; the display automatically adjusted to the brightness of the surrounding. Testers felt the optics and ergonomics were again superb. The distance was instantly displayed, and in the scan mode — holding down the rangefinder button — the display distance changed as the user panned across targets. It includes a ballistic calculator called BIS (Ballistic Information System), which has six ballistic curve settings that match most cartridge ballistics curves. Once set, press the rangefinder button, and the distance is displayed. About 1 second later, a correction value is displayed with either an “H” or “L.” So a display of  “H 2” means a shooter should aim 2 inches high on hit the target. We checked the ballistic calculator built into the Swarovski, Zeiss, and Bushnell using a 30-06 Springfield load zeroed for 100 yards and found all three models provided proper hold over information.

Top: The Bushnell’s battery compartment is housed in this hinge extension. It easily unscrewed. Bottom: The Bushnell rangefinding button on the top side of the right tube was small and took a bit more effort to operate.

Our Team Said: One nit-pick with our testers was the rangefinder button was right next to the settings button. The ranging button was larger, and once the users became comfortable with the set-up, there was no confusion over what button did what. Elsewhere, the Zeiss had excellent optics and excelled at determining distance. It is pricey, but most users felt it was worth the investment and gave it an A-.

Bushnell Fusion 1600 ARC 10x42
Where the Swarovski and Zeiss displays are minimal, the Bushnell provides a display that rivals an HUD. The Fusion 1600 has three targeting modes: scan, Bullseye, and Brush. While on scan, the rangefinder works like the others. On Bullseye, a target icon appears in the display and allows the user to acquire distances of smaller targets. A crosshair appears around the target icon, indicating the distance of the closer object has been ranged. In Brush mode, the rangefinder ignores brush and tree branches so only the distance to the target beyond the brush is displayed. A circle appears on the brush icon when the farthest object is acquired. This worked well when we targeted objects through branches — think of a shooting lane from a tree stand or an antlered beast standing behind a juniper or sage.

The Bushnell rangefinder includes a proprietary ARC (Angle Range Compensating) program, which is similar to the Swarovski and Zeiss. ARC has two modes, either bow or rifle, which the hunters in the test group liked. There was one setting for the bow mode and eight caliber-specific settings for the rifle mode. While in rifle mode, the user could also choose the sight-in distance. Bushnell calls this VSI (Variable Sight-In) and it works from 100, 200, 300 and 400 yards, plus you can choose bullet hold-over and drop in inches or MOA. If you choose meters, drop/hold-over only appears in centimeters.

When ranging at distance, some binocs had easy to operate buttons. The Bushnell rangefinding button on the top side of the right tube was small and took a bit more effort to operate. The mode-setting button was on the top side of the left tube. Both buttons were the same size, and there was some ramp-up time needed to distinguish what button did what. This might not seem like a big issue, but when you are ranging on a target at distance, the slightest movement can throw the reticle off target.

Our Team Said: What the Bushnell lacked in optical quality, it made up for in price and performance. Many users liked the bright display and the features and gave it an A.

Steiner Military 10x50 LRF
The Steiner was all business, but it lacked the ballistic calculator feature of the other models. Our shooters liked the brightness and clarity of the optics. The rangefinder display appeared in the right-side tube, and the laser had its own dedicated optic, unlike the other three, which fired the laser out of one of the viewing tubes. The lens-cap lanyards blocked the laser optic unless they were moved out of the way.

Our Team Said: Users missed the center-focus knob found on the others, but they didn’t think the lack of a ballistic calculator was a deal breaker. But they thought the price was steep compared to the others, and graded it accordingly at B.

Specifications for Laser-Rangefinding Binoculars

Gun Tests Report Card Summary