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Whether pinpointing the distance to the flag, or to a 12-point buck, a rangefinder is invaluable. They're compact, easy to use, and can be incredibly accurate. But with hundreds of different models on the market, choosing the right one can be as difficult as deciding which club you need, from the semi-rough, far from the pin.
Seriously though. Rangefinder technology has become increasingly complex. Most people need help in finding the best model for their needs. They turn to BestReviews for a number of reasons. First, we're independent – tempting as it is to accept manufacturer samples, we never do. We're completely unbiased. In addition to having our own labs for testing, we conduct our own field trials. We also talk to specialists, and gather huge amounts of owner feedback to build a complete picture.
The five rangefinders above are those we recommend. If you're ready to buy, you couldn't do better. However, if you'd like more detailed information before making your decision, please read the following rangefinder report.
There are three types of rangefinder available:
Optical rangefinders of one kind or another have been around for well over a hundred years. Early models – theodolites – were used for surveying. During World War I they were adapted for judging distance and elevation for land-based and naval artillery. By World War II, “coincidence” rangefinders were widespread.
Condensation on lenses can affect accuracy dramatically. A quick wipe with a soft cloth is the solution. If your rangefinder gets wet, let it dry at room temperature. Never apply heat. You could damage optics or electronics.
Ultrasonic rangefinders project a sound wave, then measure the time taken for the wave to return from the target. It's the same basic principle as a laser. The problems come from extraneous noise. Wind, traffic, even birdsong, can all affect readings. As we seldom play golf or hunt in a vacuum, it's a system that never gained great popularity!
Laser rangefinders (LRFs) first appeared on army tanks in the 1960s. They bounce a beam of light (visible or infrared) off an object, and time its return in order to calculate distance. Given that the speed of light is roughly 186,000 miles per second, readings are almost instantaneous.
High-end laser rangefinders can be accurate to 1/10th inch, at a mile distant. While hunting and golf rangefinders don't provide quite that level of precision, they are far superior to optical models. The only real drawback is that severe weather, or dust storms, fill the air with particles that can deflect or absorb the laser beam, thus upsetting calculations.
If you are having problems ranging a small target, try focusing on something larger nearby.
The vast majority of laser rangefinders of the type used by hunters and golfer are monocular. They dominate our recommendations for good reason: They're light, ergonomic, easy to operate, competitively priced, and as accurate as anything on the market. However, there are a couple of alternatives.
Binocular rangefinders are available. Some still use the optical “coincidence” method, so accuracy is compromised. Binocular laser rangefinders do exist, but combining the two functions in one device tends to make them bulky. They can also be expensive.
Keen hunters might be interested in rifle scope and laser rangefinders combination units. However, as with binocular models, weight can be an issue – particularly as they're mounted on the gun. They're also very costly. While some hunters prefer them (finding it frustrating to carry scope and separate rangefinder), the overwhelming majority we surveyed chose monocular LRFs.
Your rangefinder's laser will not cause long-term eye damage, but can cause flash blindness. Never look directly into the laser.
There's a lot of focus on the "laser" aspect of rangefinders, probably because it sounds high-tech. In fact, consumer lasers are restricted for safety reasons.
Of far more importance is how the rangefinder deals with the beam of light generated.
The best rangefinders combine three things:
Clever Digital Technology
Superior Build Quality
Think about your average maximum target distance. If you rarely exceed 500 yards, do you need an expensive rangefinder with 2,000 yard capability?
Anything that "sees" is reliant on the quality of its optics. There's really no substitute for excellent lenses. While accuracy depends on a number of features, optics have as big an impact as any other element.
You'll likely be outside in varied weather conditions. Anti-glare and anti-reflective coatings improve both the accuracy of the rangefinder itself, and your experience using it.
If you wear eyeglasses, an adjustable diopter allows you to tune your LRF to your vision.
Magnification gives you a better view of your target, but decreases your overall field of view. It also amplifies any movement in your hand. Large magnification can make it difficult to stay on the target. If stability is important, you might want to consider a tripod – in which case you need an LRF with a suitable mounting point, or an additional mount to fit it to.
As of 2016, local rules may allow certain rangefinders for tournament golf. Players might want to check model details before buying.
Rangefinder displays are either LCD or LED. The target marks or grids are called a "reticle," and are either black or red. Different styles of reticle may be selectable. Black is thought clearer in normal light conditions. Red is better in low light. However, some users feel red reticles can be either too harsh, or not strong enough, depending on ambient light conditions. The solution is adjustability. Some rangefinders offer it as a manual feature, some do it automatically.
One of the most useful tricks that digital technology affords is "scan" mode. This is great for general ranging, whether for hunting or playing golf, because it doesn't require you to pick individual targets. It identifies distances as you scan a variety of objects. Faster scanning means more rapid target acquisition, and quicker readings.
Heavy rain, snow, fog and mist can interrupt the laser beam. Some rangefinders use software to compensate, and there are expensive models that do this surprisingly well.
High-end rangefinders can incorporate ballistics data, with selectable modes depending on the caliber and load you are using. Some even take air pressure and temperature into account.
Several rangefinders offer specific "bow" settings for archers, and some employ “jolt” technology, vibrating when target distance is acquired.
Golfers should look for "first priority" targeting, because you normally have line of sight on the flag. Hunters, by contrast, usually prefer "distant target priority," which ignores things like trees, bushes, pylons, or anything else that gets between you and the prey.
Some laser rangefinders have clever programs to help deal with weather conditions, but if you can't see through it, chances are your rangefinder can't either.
It's a good idea to treat your LRF with as much care as possible, but it's bound to meet with adverse environments at some point. A good carry case is the first line of defense.
LRF outer shell materials will give an idea of durability. Rubberized, textured or contoured areas improve grip, as well as protect the electronics. Weatherproofing and waterproofing are obviously beneficial. Manufacturers have different approaches, and offer different levels of protection. Sadly there's no universal standard, so it's important to study each one to assess their strengths.
Some rangefinders are very compact, some are not. Most are designed to fit the maker's idea of an "average" person, but if you've got small hands you'll want to check model dimensions.
Length of warranty is a good measure of a manufacturer's confidence in their product. Some offer up to five years, with certain aspects – optical electronics, for example – having lifetime warranties.
Abrasive cleaners will seriously damage your rangefinder optics. Camera cleaning equipment is often recommended, but always follow manufacturer's instructions.
Surface color and texture of the target object impact reflected light, and thus range and accuracy. Bright, smooth objects give the most accurate readings – and are probably what the manufacturer uses when calculating the maximum range of their device.
As a rule, it's safe to assume that real-world performance is somewhat less than stated. Experts we spoke to suggested that any model's best range is around 50% of the advertised maximum. Further than that, accuracy will tail off.
The best manufacturers accept this, and quote a variety of ranges, depending on target type.
Entry-level rangefinders measure horizontally. If the target is several degrees above or below you, readings will be slightly off. Most people soon learn to compensate, but better quality rangefinder will factor in trajectory, and calculate real distance.
While most laser rangefinders are accurate to within a yard, the best will range precisely to 1/10th of that.
There are undeniably some rangefinders that are better than others, but each bell and whistle adds to the price.
Using our comprehensive LRF report, you should be able to identify the aspects that are important to you, make a list, then go shopping! The five models we recommend cover most requirements, but there's plenty of others if they don't quite meet your needs.
The major decisions are:
Optical Quality: Always buy the best you can afford.
Range: How far away is your target, most of the time?
Accuracy: One yard in 500 to 1,000 is common, and good enough for most purposes.
Angle Compensation: Probably more important for hunters than golfers.
Durability: Is it rugged enough to handle the kind of treatment it's likely to get in your hands?
There's a laser rangefinder out there that's perfect for you. It's just a question of identifying the right target!
If you're not going to use your rangefinder for a while, remove the battery.
We have seen cheap laser rangefinders for as little as twenty bucks, but we can't recommend anything in that price bracket because of concerns over quality and durability.
Good, entry-level laser rangefinders start around $80, though it's worth spending a little more – between $120 and $200 – because higher quality optics mean more accuracy. There's a lot of choice at this price, with models ranging between 500 and 700 yards.
LRFs with more rugged construction, greater distance, better accuracy, and extras like angle compensation, start to cost considerably more. At this level, golf and hunting rangefinders also become distinct from one and other.
Be careful when looking at binocular rangefinders. Some use a grid rather than a laser, and are far less accurate.
The very best, USGA-approved golf rangefinders are yours for around $300.
High-end hunting rangefinders can offer customization options to suit your rifle, and specific ballistics data.
However, as one expert pointed out, a $1,000 rangefinder isn't necessarily twice as good as a $500 model. We agree. For between $400 and $500, you can buy an excellent rangefinder that offers all the features most hunters ever need.
However, if marksmanship is your thing – long-range shooting in the toughest conditions – be prepared to invest the $1,400 to $1,800 necessary for the finest instruments available.
Q: I've looked at rangefinders costing from a little over a hundred bucks, to around a thousand. Laser power seems very similar. Why don't I just get the cheap one?
A: Laser power is restricted for safety reasons. You should never shine laser beams directly in someone's eye, but if you do so accidentally, the type found in rangefinders (Class 1), won't cause permanent damage. In terms of range-finding accuracy, this means laser power is almost incidental. The quality of the optics and electronics can be far more important than having a more powerful laser.
Q: Some rangefinders say weatherproof, some say waterproof. What's the difference?
A: Spelling. Seriously though, unless a product has a specific IP (Ingress Protection) rating, it hasn't been independently tested. We only have the manufacturer's word for the level of weather or water protection offered. That said, makers of top laser rangefinders understand that their products will often be in harsh environments. They put considerable effort into ensuring they are rugged enough to survive both wet and dusty conditions. However, they are not usually designed to survive complete immersion.
Q: Does elevation have an impact on rangefinder accuracy?
A: It depends on the model. Cheap rangefinders are normally only capable of horizontal ranging. Better rangefinders offer angle compensation. A golfer might never play courses that have enough variation to make a significant difference. On the other hand, if you're hunting deer from a high overlook it becomes vital to accurate targeting.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.