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Rangefinder Buyer’s Guide for Hunting

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We Test Five Niche-Filling Rangefinders

Constants and variables. Ballistically speaking, once we leave camp with a slung rifle, everything that happens behind the muzzle is a constant we can control. Everything that happens in front of the muzzle is a variable that must be accounted for on the fly.

Bullets, velocity, our rifle’s zero, how much coffee we drink — these are all things we’ve accounted for to the best of our abilities as marksmen before we spot an animal. Once the game is afoot, it’s up to us to account for the variables — stability, weather, and target range.

Aside from an accurate rifle, a good optic, and a comfortable pair of boots, the most important piece of kit we carry into the woods is a laser rangefinder. Some people estimate ranges quite well, but for the rest of us, the rangefinder is the link connecting our bullet and our prey. This is especially true for those who use ballistic computers to put rounds within inches of our point of aim when humanely harvesting at longer distances.

A laser rangefinder operates by measuring the time it takes for light to make a round trip from a laser emitter back to a collocated detector.

The emitter spits out an infrared laser that hits trees, rocks, and whatever furry creature you’re hoping to make a meal out of. The light from that laser reflects off the items in its path, and the detector reads that reflection, feeding it to a digital signal processor as raw data. The DSP figures out what’s ambient noise, such as stray sunlight containing IR energy, and filters it out. What’s left is the time it took for the laser to hit whatever it’s pointed at. The wider the beam, the more crap the DSP has to deal with … and the greater chance you have of getting a distance to the tree behind the deer, or not getting a reading at all.

The width of the laser beam is known as a rangefinder’s beam divergence, a measurement that was once the rangefinder marketing equivalent of megapixels in the digital camera world. This gave the guy behind the counter an easy pitch for customers — “the tighter the beam divergence, the more accurate the rangefinder.” That’s still true, but laser rangefinding technology has matured past this simplistic paradigm.

Today, what largely differentiates a decent rangefinder from a great one is the combination of software and signal processing power that powers it. This is called the rangefinder’s processing engine, the brain of the device. It’s what gives the rangefinder the ability to discriminate a target from the objects and visual noise surrounding it.

The performance of the rangefinder’s engine is arguably more important than a unit’s beam divergence. Unfortunately, you can’t compare processing engine performance in the same way you compare the beam divergence measurement on a spec sheet. And the way a RF’s processing engine works is its special sauce. The only way to evaluate it is to test it.

“It really comes down to measuring how much energy you’re getting on target compared to the background noise,” says Nick Vitalbo of nVisti Tactical Innovations. Once you have good beam divergence, a large enough detector and lens aperture, and all the laser power you can, the only way to improve performance is through target discrimination. And that’s a function of the device’s signal processing engine, says Vitablo.

Our testing setup. The deer pelt is on sawhorses to the left of the tractor.

Our testing setup. The deer pelt is on sawhorses to the left of the tractor.

While the RF’s ability to discriminate targets using its processing engine is paramount, it’s not the sole arbiter of performance. Beam divergence is important, but it’s common for even budget-priced rangefinders to have less than 1.5 mils of beam divergence these days, and less is better.

Emitter, detector, and reticle alignment are critical to a RF’s ability to perform. There’s no easy way to test absolute alignment, but you can get a rough idea how close a laser’s POA and POI are by lasing telephone poles with blue sky behind them. If the reticle is on the pole but the RF isn’t getting a return, something’s off. All the rangefinders in our test were dead-on in this department.

RFs lead hard lives, so we favor products that can take a hit and even a dunking, since it always seems like there’s a stream crossing involved when we recover an animal. Pay attention to IP ratings; IPX4, 5, and 6 are splashproof to varying levels, but IPX7 rated products can be submersed in 3 feet of water.

When it comes to lenses, bigger is better — 6x used to be the standard, but 7x optics have become more common and offer better ranging and spotting performance.

To get the best performance from any rangefinder, use a tripod. Stabilizing the emitter and detector means the system has a better chance of catching the returning light, and the more pulses the detector reads, the more the RF’s engine has to work with. Tripods are a must when ranging small objects past 1,000 yards.

Since there’s some IR in sunlight, rangefinders work best in the early morning and evening hours when the detector isn’t getting washed out with noisy sunlight.

Target reflectivity is another consideration that relates directly to a RF’s performance. The more reflective the target, the easier it is for a RF to get a good return signal. Road signs, brightly colored vehicles, and steel targets are easily read at great distances, especially when they’re oriented squarely to the rangefinder. On the other hand, furry animals are more challenging to range since their coats absorb light. Manufacturers list their ranging performance using the best-case scenario, a big reflective target, because that’s what their competitors do. They’ll all tell you real-world performance on an animal is likely about half of a RF’s claimed ranging ability on a reflective target.

We grabbed five rangefinders with unique feature sets that each highlight a different segment of the rangefinder market. We tested each rangefinder, handheld and tripod mounted, by ranging a deer pelt at practical hunting distances in slightly overcast, mid-morning light. We also put the RFs on a tripod and ranged large and reflective objects in early evening light to see if we could find the limit of their abilities in best-case conditions.

In testing and real-world performance, the competition for our editor’s choice was neck and neck between the Kilo2400ABS and the Leupold RX-2800i TBRw. In the end, we decided the value, submergibility, and onboard tripod socket of the RX-2800i edged out the Kilo by a hair. But, if we could afford it, we’d still jump on the Kilo, so the pair earned our Editor’s Choice badge. If we were in the market for RF binos, the Vortex Fury HD would be on our short list.

range test chart


Gunwerks G7 BR2500
KEY FEATURE: Standalone rangefinder with onboard environmental sensors and ballistic computer
CLAIMED RANGES (Reflective/Vegetation/Animal): 2,500 / NS /1,500
BEAM DIVERGENCE: 0.75 x 1.5 mils
LENS: 7 x 26 millimeters
EYE RELIEF: 20 millimeters
WEIGHT: 14.9 ounces
WATER RESISTANCE/RATING: Spray & splashproof, IP55
WARRANTY: 2 years
MSRP:  $1,599

The G7 BR2500 is a true standalone solution for hunters. It’s a capable RF with a suite of onboard environmental sensors that deliver range and firing solutions without the use of a smartphone during use or configuration. Boxy, ugly, but entirely capable and a joy to use, it’s basically the reincarnation of the ’70s BMW’s 2002 Tii Turbo. The car analogy goes further, as this is one of the few RFs that lets you drive the unit like its manual transmission spirit animal. The four buttons give the user on-the-fly access to its four ranging modes (strongest, nearest, farthest, and scan), wind adjustment, and viewfinder brightness. All the other RFs require a trip to the settings menu to change these options. The RF engine is capable, but slow, frustratingly taking a few seconds to display returns whether using the ballistic computer or not.

Our testing shows the G7’s ranging ability is good despite its IBM XT styling, getting accurate ranges on all targets, though it failed to pick up the 1,000-yard pelt when handheld. It managed to pick up the F-150 behind a bank of trees that most of its competitors couldn’t. Ballistic and environmental data was accurate. This guy puts out firing solutions in MOA, mils, and, of interest to BDC turret users, a corrected yardage.

+    Accurate
+    Affords manual control.
+    8x magnification and bright, 26mm objective lens
+    You can sell your Kestrel weather meter.

+    It’s frigging huge — four times bigger than its competitors.
+    It’s frigging slow.

LEUPOLD-rx-2800I TBRw LEUPOLD-rangefinder


Leupold RX-2800i TBRw
KEY FEATURE: Compact, durable long-range rangefinder with onboard ballistic tables
CLAIMED RANGES (Reflective/Vegetation/Animal): 2,800/13,00/1,100
LENS: 7 x 27 millimeters
EYE RELIEF: 16 millimeters
WEIGHT: 8.2 ounces
WARRANTY: 2 years
MSRP: $650

The RX-2800i is Leupold’s new flagship RF. It boasts 7x magnification and a monster 27mm objective lens that produces a vivid sight picture even in failing light. Leupold’s lineup doesn’t have ballistic computer or a built in Kestrel, but it can display generic firing solutions and wind calls from a built in table of cartridges and drop data. When it comes to rangefinding, the 2800i uses a brand new, custom engine that analyzes thousands of pulses per second and sorts through noise extremely quickly and extremely well.

She has two RF modes, regular and last. When you have got a busy target area filled with trees and rocks surrounding your prey, regular mode may average items in the beam area and return an average distance to all of them. Last mode ignores all but the furthest, or last return. It’s a more precise way to use the rangefinder.

The 2800 is fast and accurate, nailing every target we threw at it, even the partially obscured pickup truck at 2,200 yards. It’s extremely fast, too. Returns came back so fast that at one point we thought it was displaying a previously measured range. We’ll be taking the RX-2800i into the field this fall.

+    Fast, accurate returns
+    Compact
+    Completely waterproof
+    Commonly available CR123 battery

+    Needs more buttons to access frequently used options

nikon rangefinder Nikon monarch 3000 stabilized

Nikon Monarch 3000 Stabilized
KEY FEATURE: Laser rangefinder with image-stabilized lens
CLAIMED RANGES (Reflective/Vegetation/Animal): 3,000 / 1,100 / 1,000
BEAM DIVERGENCE: 1.8 x 0.25 mils
LENS: 6 x 21 millimeters
EYE RELIEF: 18 millimeters
WEIGHT: 6.7 ounces
WARRANTY: 5 years
MSRP: $420

Nikon makes some great rangefinders that punch well above their price point. Sadly, this isn’t one of them. We were extremely excited to use an image-stabilized RF for a number of reasons. The accuracy of a Nikon rangefinder combined with a technologically mature image stabilization system that’s been in use in professional photography lenses for years? Sign us up! But we’re genuinely sad to report the relationship between these two didn’t work out. Aside from ranging issues, the reticle moves around as the stabilizing system overcomes user movement. When concentrating hard on a target, the reticle movement was a little frustrating, and sometimes a little nauseating.

We’re not sure why, but Nikon seems to have more work ahead of them in lining up the emitter and detector when the reticle lens is moving. We failed to get returns on big, reflective targets past 800 yards, and we only hit the 800 when stabilizing the RF on a sandbag. Oddly, it managed to hit the house at 1,510, but it took about 30 seconds of breath-holding and praying before it gave us a range. Once. The device works well as a 6x monocular, but its smallish objective lens made it harder to use in failing light. But, to use it as a monocular, it has to be powered on. The way it’s designed, the stabilization lens wiggles and vibrates when the device is in standby mode.

+    Stabilization works, excellent for spotting
+    Extremely compact

+    Small objective lens means dimmer imaging
+    Poor ranging performance
+    System needs to be powered up to use as a spotting scope.

sig sauer kilo2400abs


Sig Sauer Kilo2400ABS
KEY FEATURE: Rangefinder with onboard environmental sensors and ballistic computer
CLAIMED RANGES (Reflective/Vegetation/Animal): 3,250 / 1,800 / 1,400
BEAM DIVERGENCE: 1.3 mils (round)
LENS: 7 x 25 millimeters
TRIPOD SOCKET: No (adapter included)
WEIGHT: 7.8 ounces (9.5 ounces with tripod adapter)
WARRANTY: Optics: forever, Electronics: 5 years
MSRP: $1,599, includes Weatherflow Wind Meter

Once you get used to your RF telling you your holdover, it’s hard to go back to a standalone ballistic calculator. We’ve used integrated RF/solver systems from competing companies, but none are as refined, accurate, and reliable as the Kilo. Sure, there are still a few kludgy spots using the Kilo and iOS app, but once things are set up the combination of dead nuts accurate ranging and dead nuts accurate Applied Ballistics DOPE are about as good as it gets. The iOS app works, though manually updating wind data could be easier and faster, and we experienced no app crashes.

The Kilo came back with returns as fast as the RX-2800i and only blinked once in our test. It wasn’t able to straighten out the signal coming from that 2,201-yard partially obscured pickup truck, even after switching between strongest and last target mode. On paper, it’s interesting to note the limitations of the system. But in reality, we don’t range 2,201-yard trucks often enough that we’d base a purchase decision on that ability. Obsolescence, on the other hand, is something we must consider. As we found out immediately when we tried to plug the included Weatherflow wind meter into the non-existent headphone jack on our iPhone 8, it’s only a matter of time before the sun sets on the application or sister hardware needed to program the Kilo2400. That makes us a little nervous about dropping $1,600 on a device that may or may not be supported past a big operating system update … or if Apple decides to ban shooting applications from its app store.

+    Fast, accurate
+    Onboard ballistics
+    Excellent ranging reticle with option to show windage scale

+    Dependent on smartphone app for AB computer configuration
+    No tripod socket
+    Not submersible

vortex fury hd 10x42

Vortex Optics Fury HD 10 x 42
KEY FEATURE: Binoculars with integrated laser rangefinder
CLAIMED RANGES (Reflective/Vegetation/Animal): 1,600 / NS / 1,000
BEAM DIVERGENCE: 1.6 x 0.7 mils
LENS: 10 x 42 millimeters
EYE RELIEF: 16 millimeters
WEIGHT: 33.6 ounces
WARRANTY: Lifetime
MSRP: $1,599

Since “one less thing to bring” means something very real, RF binos are gold in the backcountry. In fact, they might be gold in the front country, too, based on how much a good set costs. With Vortex’s release of the Fury HD, the pain of buying of a good set of RF binos dropped by about 30 percent. The Fury’s 10x magnification is suitable for glassing game in just about any environment, and the 42mm objectives provide enough light to work right up until the day’s last light. Clarity and contrast are great; in fact they’re excellent for the price and if you’ve never glassed with $5,000 set of binos, you won’t know what you’re missing. The feature set is spartan, but the setup is correspondingly painless. Adjustable diopters and ratcheting eyecups are easy to set and use. A rubberized housing and IPX7 weatherproof rating mean these things will be kicking around for a long while.

When it comes to the RF side, it’s pretty seamlessly integrated into the binos. The fire button has just enough resistance to press without jarring the sight picture, yet it’s firm enough to prevent accidental activation. The laser is a bit on the slow side, about a second to display readings. It also struggled to bring in the farthest test targets, but did eventually report ranges on every target within its advertised 1,600-yard range, reflective and non-reflective. The Fury HDs are a worthy option at a budget-friendly price.

+    Rugged feel and reliably accurate ranging
+    RF accuracy as good as a standalone RF

+    RF is slow.
+    Diopters lack a lock ring, move too easily

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