RIFLES: Fast Glass
By Wayne van Zwoll
Looking for elk is like looking for love. Options can vanish fast; looking in the wrong places can cost you the prize.
In 18 years I’ve never had a hunter pack a .30-30. Alaska black bears run big. Quartering shots are common. And sometimes, on the beach, you’ll want to shoot long,” my guide said. “If you hit a bear wrong and he gets to cover, well, the brush on these islands is thick enough to hide a mastodon with neon ears.”
I took my Marlin 336 anyway, joining one hunter with a .30-06, another with a .340 Weatherby.
Notions about rifles and cartridges make for lots of woodstove chatter. Truth is, it doesn’t much matter what you tote in the woods until you find something to shoot. Hunting is mainly looking. Shooting is what you do when the hunting is over. And if you shoot well, you can finish a hunt with almost any rifle. The important gear is glass.
My .30-30 bear rifle wore a 2½x Leupold. As luck would have it, the close shot I wanted didn’t happen. The bears were hard to find, and late in the hunt my only chance at a big boar came suddenly at 80 yards. We had stalked him through clumps of hemlock and spruce and dense coastal grass. Then the wind made a sharp corner. He stopped foraging, stiffened and looked our way.
Nothing to use for a rest, no time for a sling. I caught the shoulder crease with the crosswire and fired. He dashed away, blood jetting from a severed aorta. A more powerful rifle would not have killed him more surely. Had I been using a high-power scope, I might have been too long settling the reticle and not killed that 7-foot bear at all.
Fast aim had helped me a couple of months earlier in New Zealand, in cover similar to what you’d find hunting Roosevelt’s elk on the Oregon coast. In thick forest, after hours of up-and-down trekking, I glimpsed the only mature red stag I would see all week. Dropping to a knee, I pegged him with the 2½x Leupold Scout scope and triggered the Ruger Frontier. The old stag had figured things out by then and was loading the springs when a 180-grain AccuBond from the .300 WSM pierced both lungs.
For long shooting, you’ll need more time and want higher magnification. But to kill elk in thick cover, finding its vitals fast is far better than seeing it in detail. A low-power scope not only delivers a bright, broad field; it spares you the reticle vibrations you can’t control.
Last October still-hunting elk in Wyoming, I bumped two bulls from their beds on the nose of a heavily timbered ridge. They split, running hard down opposite slopes. I sprinted to one side, hoping for a glimpse through the trees. Luck was with me that day, for the bull stopped in a narrow alley at the cusp of a deeper canyon. I fired instantly. The 4x Nikon gave me a no-nonsense sight picture: the reticle and a patch of shoulder in sharp focus. Offhand, I knew my wobbles would preclude a perfect shot, but the crosswire seemed to do my bidding.
Of course, at 4x magnification, I wasn’t seeing all the movement my pulse and twitching muscles put into that rifle. Just as well. It’s only natural to try to fight the reticle to a standstill. But the battle tires you as it runs out the clock.
Finding what you’re looking for quickly makes looking more fun. We’re most apt to repeat what’s fun, and we get good at what we repeat. Some marksmen learn, through much repetition, to shoot through the “noise” of wild reticle gyrations, minding only the trends and the big movements they can control. That level of discipline comes only with long practice; it’s necessary if you’re shooting from unsteady positions with high-power scopes.
On the Alaska bear hunt, I carried an 8x32 Leupold binocular. I’d really have preferred Leupold’s 6x32; the great depth of field you get with low magnification is nowhere more apparent than in a 6x glass. A deep field puts more yardage in sharp focus, so when you glass a stand of aspens, it’s as easy to spot an elk leg at 117 yards as it is at 52. You don’t have to refocus and make another pass to probe deeper into the timber. It’s a shame the lovely B&L 6x30 is no more, and that Leupold alone offers its 5mm exit pupil and huge field of view in a compact, lightweight package.
Where thick cover limits distance and light, it makes no sense to use a binocular you’d pick for looking across mountain basins above timber. A fast binocular is fast on the draw. I prefer one that hangs comfortably on a single neck strap and doesn’t require a harness. That means a total weight of no more than 24 ounces. A lightweight binocular begs to be used. So does one whose modest magnification squelches image jump. You won’t want to lift a heavy binocular or stay glued to one that makes your eyes hurt.
Looking for black bears or elk or any other big game, you’ll want optics that give you sharp, clear images—fast. This last is important. If you must work hard to find game with your binocular, you won’t glass as much as you should. If you can’t quickly find an animal someone else has spotted or that you spied with the naked eye, you might forfeit a shot. At best, you’ll lose the incentive to glass.
With your eye to the binocular lens, you’re in a tunnel. If the tunnel has a broad mouth, you can respond quickly to most of what happens where you’re glassing. The narrow tunnel mouth of a high-power binocular limits not only your field but your perspective. You may lose track of where on the mountain you have committed your eye. Sometimes the clock runs out before you can get out of the tunnel. “Look! It’s a bull! There, where the timber hooks, a little right . . . “ Well, if you don’t have timber in your binocular or enough field to make out a hook or scan to the right without losing sight of that landmark, you are lost. “He’s up! Shoot him! Between those firs, quartering left! Shoot! SHOOT!”
Powerful scopes can bring on the same nightmare. A fast look is often all you’ll get. You must not only find and identify the target, you must stick the reticle where you want the bullet to go.
Hunters are demanding higher magnification in both binoculars and rifle scopes. The power puts more detail at your disposal, but it delays the acquisition of the image. Magnification reduces field of view and multiplies apparent wobble. It throttles brightness, too. Now, lest you think this a diatribe against current trends in optics, I’ll point out right now that I’ve enjoyed binoculars with 30x magnification, and one of my favorite scopes is the Zeiss 6-24x56 VM/V.
Most of the time, however, I like faster glass.
Decades ago, I shot in one of the first metallic silhouette matches to come across the border from Mexico. In those days, it was truly a hunting rifle event. I used a Henriksen-built .270 on 98 Mauser metal. It wore a 6x Pecar, a heavy steel German sight that helped me win my class. But the fellow who took all the marbles that day earned them with a Model 70 .30-06 and a Weaver K4. I reasoned that if he could clobber turkey-size targets at 400 yards with a 4x, it would work for most hunters—who in fact almost never shoot deer and elk that far. The powerful sights since adopted by silhouette shooters can fill the field of view with iron; but the added bounce to your reticle can make those animals seem harder to hit.
Low power is best not taken to the logical extreme: a 1x scope offers a cleaner sight picture than iron sights but no easier aim. A disadvantage is the image of the barrel poking into view at 6 o’clock. For me, that image doesn’t go away until scope magnification reaches 2½x, which is about as little as I like in a sight. A 24-foot field at 100 yards is all you’ll need, even for game dashing across your line of aim at 50. You’ll get that or more at 4x. Push magnification below 2½x, and 300-yard shots will look difficult.
Keeping magnification modest, you’ll save money on binoculars and riflescopes. There’s no need for oversize objective lenses to get exit pupils big enough for effective viewing in dim light. Smaller front lenses substantially reduce cost; they also make the binocular or scope lighter and easier to maneuver.
But it’s a mistake to assume that low-power optics are always the least expensive—or that there’s no point in paying a lot for them. On the contrary, you’ll want the very best lenses and lens coatings to get superior resolution. Instead of depending on image size to show detail, you’re betting all on image clarity.
Buying into a respected brand can ensure you of quality. Zeiss and Swarovski produce wonderful scopes and binoculars. You won’t go wrong with a Schmidt & Bender scope or a Leica binocular. Increasingly, though, manufacturers are following the high-volume makers to offer multiple lines. Tasco does. So do Leupold and Nikon, and even Zeiss.
Another thing to keep in mind is that new products can deliver better performance than their brand name suggests. The new Simmons and Redfield scopes from Meade are sophisticated optics built to higher standards than earlier scopes under those banners. My first scope was a Bushnell I bought new for $29. The company still sells inexpensive optics, but its top-end binoculars and riflescopes compete with the world’s best. In fact, advances in design and manufacture have boosted the performance of even low-priced optics. The best sights available when I matched my 6x Pecar against a Weaver K4 are second-rate now. A scope from Sightron or a binocular from Alpen may deliver a picture as bright and sharp as one you’d get from a revered European firm. Some hunters play the connoisseur, digging deep to buy brands when they couldn’t distinguish one product from another in a blind test. I’ve looked through lots of lenses, and often I can’t tell a $1,200 binocular from a $200 model.
So why pay the premium? Warranty is one reason. Another is that adverse conditions often bring out optical advantages you didn’t see when comparing products in a store. When you look toward the sun or run out of light in a thicket, you’ll want to see better than you can without glass. Subtle disparities in lenses and coatings may appear only under such conditions or if you’re looking for problems. How true is the color? How flat is the field, and how sharp is its edge? Are the scope adjustments repeatable?
To be honest, you’ll never notice some of the shortcomings dictated by low price. If, like me, you can’t afford the best of everything, buy the most expensive binocular that won’t trigger a divorce. Save money on the scope; you’ll use it less. Try my 30/30 rule—not as regards bear rifles but lens diameters. Get an 8x30 binocular and a 4x32 scope. I doubt you’ll want for bigger glass or more magnification.
Looking for elk is like looking for love. Options can vanish fast; looking in the wrong places can cost you the prize, as will taking too long to figure out what you’re looking at. Once you find what you’re looking for, it’s a good idea to claim it right away.
Wayne van Zwoll has published 16 books and more than 2,700 articles on rifles and shooting. Two of his latest books, Shooter’s Bible Guide to Rifle Ballistics and Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifles are chock full of information. Just out: Mastering the Art of Long-Range Shooting—and yes, Wayne always tries for the close shot.