If you want to make your shots count, you have to know the range. Sure, we have all used ‘Kentucky Windage’ but that’s a guessing game. It works better with open sights but when you start dealing with magnification, it can throw everything off. If you want to be precise, you need the best rangefinder for hunting that you can get.
We all want to be a great shot and that all starts with consistency. Most of us work hard to be consistent with our rifle or bow. We work to make each shot repeatable. If we want to make each impact repeatable, we have to figure range into the equation.
I am not condoning that we all carry bullet drop cards and act like snipers but if you want the best results, it starts with data. Matching a quality scope to a quality hunting rangefinder give you the perfect place to start for excellence.
- What is a Rangefinder
- Types Of Rangefinders
- Who Use Rangefinders
- Popular Brands
- Where to buy a Rangefinder
- How to Choose The Best Rangefinder
- Best Rangefinder Reviews
- 1. Bushnell Bone Collector Hunting Rangefinder
- 2. TecTecTec ProWild Hunting Rangefinder - Budget Choice
- 3. Nikon Arrow ID Hunting Rangefinder
- 4. Ballistics Hunting Rangefinder
- 5. NIKON ACULON Hunting Rangefinder
- 6. Simmons 801405 Rangefinder, 4x20LRF 600
- 7.Leupold RX-1300i TBR Laser Rangefinder
- 8. Vortex Optics Ranger 1300 Hunting Rangefinder
- 9. Bushnell Scout DX Hunting Rangefinder
- What is a Laser Rangefinder?
- How Does a Rangefinder Work?
- How To Use a Rangefinder When Hunting
- How to Get the Most out of your Rangefinder When Hunting
- Pick a Rangefinder that Suits your Needs
- Have your Rangefinder Ready
- Keep it Steady
- Range Before you Have a Target
- Range Deer you Don’t Intend to Shoot
- Range the Brighter Areas
- Range Targets Twice
- Scan for Targets
- Learn Proper Trigger Control
- Know your Rangefinder
- Use Your Rangefinder
- Keep a Spare Battery
- Learn to Shoot Without it
- Final Words
What is a Rangefinder
At its core, a rangefinder is just a tool to determine the range between two objects, usually between the person using the rangefinder and some point that needs a precise distance measurement.
The military has long used rangefinders as a means to work out telemetry to targets, either from long range shooters or for tanks and artillery. This use has translated very well into the civilian sectors that need the same technology to determine distance, notable golf and hunting.
Rangefinders also have applications in land surveying, engineering, and mapping sectors where very precise ranges need to be used to avoid legal or planning disasters. They are also used in plane mounted units to measure elevation differences which can be recorded and used for a variety of map and survey purposes
Rangefinders are also becoming more common in vehicles were automated rangefinders work as collision avoidance systems. This same technology has trickled into the world of drones where they are used to avoid obstacles and make soft landings.
The predominant rangefinders we will be looking at are those used in hobbies by sportsmen but having a good grasp of the breadth of rangefinder uses offers a greater appreciation for these small, handheld devices.
Types Of Rangefinders
The first true rangefinders
The first true rangefinders were coincidence rangefinders. These long tubes were often used on naval ships and with artillery. By adjusting prisms at each end of the device until they coincided in the view finder, you could measure the amount of adjustment of the prisms and determine range with fair accuracy.
Due to the size and time needed to find the range to a target, these have not been a viable option for decades.
Also called stadiametric rangefinders are a magnified optic that can use known or estimated object size alongside a measuring scale to establish range. These have been made popular by military snipers and are still used in that function today. Being a purely optical device, no batteries are needed which makes them very versatile.
These were a trade tool for a lot of early surveyors and cartographers in the past including those who worked on ordinance surveys and topographic maps.
There is a lot of skill and math in using an optical rangefinder which rules them out for most hobby professions where they would be too slow. However, in the hands of a skilled professional with a keen eye, range can be measured very accurately. Sometimes down to inches.
Using high pitched sound, much like sonar, these rangefinders are popular with contractors to measure the dimensions of flat surfaces. Unlike lasers, they are capable of reading at shorter distances where the error in other rangefinders would be an issue.
Though ultrasonic devices do exist that can be used in the outdoor environment they are expensive and large. For the most part, they have been replaced by laser rangefinders in almost every market.
Laser Rangefinders are still an evolving technology but they have proved their worth in most every hobby and profession using them. Even the military has mostly switched to laser rangefinders.
Some of the most powerful models can reach out to distances in excess of 10 miles by use of a tightly focused laser that will shoot at and bounce back from your target to be read by the same machine.
If you look into purchasing a rangefinder now, this is almost universally the one you will end up with.
Who Use Rangefinders
The largest current market for rangefinders is in the hunting community. This market is so large that it has dictated the growth of laser rangefinder technology. Where early rangefinders were marginally accurate at measuring distance, today’s hunting rangefinders have a variety of features which make them more accurate and more useful to the modern hunter.
Some hunting rangefinders are developed with specific hunters in mind. Some models have software that can calculate arrow drop and factor in angles to provide the bowhunter with the best possible information to make his shot. The more advanced models may have target differentiation that helps to see through leaves and brush, making the measurements all the more accurate
For rifle hunters, a rangefinder may have a built-in ballistic computer preprogrammed with common calibers and loads that can estimate the drop of his specific bullet out of his specific gun. Some are even matched with a rifle scope and can give adjustments in clicks rather than dimensions that may require math.
Many golfers, both hobbyists and professionals, have adopted a rangefinder as a part of their standard gear. Much like with shooting, golf is reliant on judging range accurately. A modern rangefinder can get a golfer to within a meter of the flag. At least in measurement, actually getting the ball there is still on the golfer.
Just like hunting rangefinders, a golf rangefinder may have features to help the golfer improve his game. The most common feature is ‘Pinseeker’ which identifies the flag rather than the ground around it, making the ranged distance to the target more accurate.
Some of the higher end models will have an adaptive slope mode that can help calculate the amount of elevation change on a hole, either uphill or downhill. They may also have a mode that will help the golfer with club selection.
The military has been a consumer of rangefinders for decades. All the way back to the time of coincidence rangefinders. The military moved to optical rangefinders as soon as they were proven worthy and have since gone on to using the very best laser rangefinders available today.
The only military profession that still uses exclusively optical rangefinders is snipers. Most other equipment intended for long-range engagements use laser rangefinders, often ones mounted alongside the gun.
Many of the military’s rangefinders are purpose built and are specially designed to fill a role. The rangefinder in a tank has the necessary programming to account for the main weapon on the tank. Even some handheld rocket launchers use a similar technology.
Most military grade rangefinders are beyond the price of what a consumer could reasonably pay.
Map Maker, Cartograpers, Surveryors, And Engineers
Specific rangefinders are used in a variety of survey and mapping-related activities including civil engineering tasks. These units are often mounted on a tripod to achieve the best results possible. While some still have an optical capability, the use of the laser on the rangefinder is almost universal.
The only feature specific to a survey type rangefinder is the extreme level of accuracy desired, sometimes down to inches or less. Occasionally the more expensive units may have the ability to calculate GPS coordinates at a distance using the laser.
While these are the most accurate units available on the market they are often larger than would be convenient for a sportsman. They are also far more expensive, costing thousands of dollars or more.
A subset of these rangefinders are those intended for use in forestry and logging operations that have features appropriate to those conditions such as leaf filters and tree height measurement.
There are far too many brands to name them all or even all of the quality brands. What we can do it point out some notable brands on the market and some of the best names to consider if you are in the market for a rangefinder. Due to their popularity and affordability, we will be sticking with laser rangefinders.
Many of the best rangefinders on the market come from companies known for having quality optics. Nikon is among the best in that category. Having made cameras, spotting scopes, rifle scopes, and many other optical products, Nikon started ahead of the competition.
Nikon makes a full range of purpose-built rangefinders from their more general Aculon series to their ProStaff for rifles, Arrow ID for archery, Coolshot for Golf, and even one specifically made for forestry.
All of their purpose-built models are tuned to the sport or use they were designed for with features to improve anyone's performance.
Another fine glass maker known mostly for their binoculars, Simmons produces some of the clearest optics on a rangefinder anywhere on the market and at a price much lower than most other brands.
While not a feature-rich or sport specific brand, Simmons does provide a great quality rangefinder with impeccable accuracy. The only notable feature Simmons offers on some of their rangefinders is an angle reading that will give you true horizontal distance.
You can use a Simmons for any sport as long as you have a good grasp of the fundamental needs of your sport and can do the calculations in your head or with another device.
The final big name in optics that are also among the best in rangefinders is Leupold. They have been at the top of the rifle scope game for years, producing the best and most accurate scopes you can get. Their rangefinders are very much the same quality.
Like Nikon, Leupold offers a variety of rangefinders for specific sports as well as some general rangefinders without all the bells and whistles. Any of the purpose-built models will provide you with the edge you need to get ahead of the competition.
Their hunting rangefinders offer a variety of features including a ballistic computer and/or true ballistic range which works well for bows as well as rifles. Their golf models offer digitally enhanced accuracy to help you get to the green in short order.
If you follow the world of rifle optics, it's likely you have happened across Vortex a time or two. They are a newer company but are building a strong reputation for durable, feature-rich products to help the shooter.
While Vortex focuses on the shooting and hunting side of rangefinders and does not currently offer a golf model, they are still cutting deep into the sports market. Their glass is clear and their prices are more than fair for the quality.
Vortex offers two models, the Impact and the Ranger. Both of these models offer Horizontal Compensated Distance to assist hunters on the longer shots and can account for angles up to 60 degrees. They may not be the most full-featured but they aren’t slouching on quality either.
Bushnell has made hunting optics for decades but have mostly been known for making budget scopes that weren’t the best quality but were very good for the money. Their rangefinders are in a different category altogether, being fine quality and well worth the money you spend on one.
Bushnell makes a lot of different models, enough to be confusing as to what one is best for you. Some models are solely made for golf and others for hunting. They have rifle specific models, bow specific models, and at least one that has both rifle and bow modes.
All of their golf rangefinders have their PinSeeker technology to help you get the exact distance to the flag without accidentally shooting past it. Their bow and rifle rangefinders have a variety of options such as angle compensation and ballistic range settings. They may make scopes that lack in quality but the rangefinders more than make up for it.
Where to buy a Rangefinder
There was a time when rangefinders were very specific technology and were generally only available at specialty retailers. The surge in the sport of hunting as well as more online availability has made finding a rangefinder much easier.
Big Box Stores
You can often find rangefinders in local department stores in the sporting or photography section. Some stores may offer quality models but many will only offer budget rangefinders that are not worth the money. Be cautious to choose the right brand if you head to the local department store.
Specialty Stores and Outfitters
Golf shops, hunting retailers, and sporting goods stores are all viable places to go check out rangefinders. Most of these places will have better availability and more brand diversity than your local big box store. Your chances of getting a good rangefinder is better but I would recommend having an idea of what you want and the quality before you go. Some employees aren’t as knowledge able as they should be.
Many online retailers sell a variety or rangefinders and, with a little shopping, you can usually find one that has a better price than the local market. The major benefit of shopping online is the ability to see a large number of customer reviews to make sure the product is the quality you expect. Opticsplanet.com is a good source but be sure to check out the outdoor and golf retailers and, of course, Amazon.
How to Choose The Best Rangefinder
Range and Increment
Consider the maximum range that you are likely to need to use your rangefinder. A bowhunter doesn’t need to range 300 yards but a rifle shooter or golfer may. There is no reason to pay for range you are not using.
It may be recommended to add 20% the maximum range you plan to use the rangefinder as the laser does lose accuracy as it reaches the upper limits. This will also give you some leeway on days that aren’t so clear.
An increment is the smallest unit the rangefinder will display distance in. It is usually 1 yard or 1 meter in the latest rangefinders but some cheaper models may be 5 or even 10. Always buy a unit in a 1 yard/meter increment. The other units may be vastly inaccurate in their readings, especially at a distance.
Most rangefinders are either 4x or 6x power. The difference is minimal until you get out around 400 yards. I would always opt for the larger power just in case. More magnification can make sighting your target easier but be aware that it can make having shaky hands harder to deal with.
Very rarely do you find a rangefinder with anything other than an 18 - 22mm objective lens. Both of these work fine but the larger lens will let in more light and make the reticle (if you have one) easier to read. This is not a vital trait to worry over but one you should be aware of.
Any of these features are simply the point you use to line your target up with to get the range. Reticles have been the standard but aiming points are becoming much more popular. Each has their benefits.
In low light, a reticle will be harder to read unless you have a rangefinder with an internal backlight. However, a reticle may offer you more information such as optical range. Many people find the reticle easier to read.
An aiming point serves the same purpose but is generally LED powered for better low light visibility. They may wash out more in bright conditions though and if your LED is too bright, you may have trouble seeing past it in lower light levels.
Rangefinders can be broken down into two distinct types: Optical and Laser.
Optical rangefinders rely on a marked reticle to allow a shooter to accurately gauge distance. They are often lighter weight, more rugged, and don’t rely on batteries to function. For the majority of our history, a military rangefinder was a purely optical device, usually a spotting scope.
Laser Rangefinders are the new technology that has proven so effective that even the military has made the switch. They are essentially a small computer that uses laser pulses to calculate range. There are some complications in using them but most people feel the benefit outweighs any difficulty.
Once again, this is more a concern for laser rangefinders but some optical rangefinders may only be marked every 50 yards or so. The smaller the incident reading, the more accurate the rangefinder is. A rangefinder for archery should have a maximum increment reading of 10 yards.
Some rangefinders will be simple optics but the more advanced laser rangefinders may use an LED or LCD display. The LED tends to be a little brighter and better on battery life. LED displays also tend to be a little more adjustable, making low light conditions a little easier.
Any time you take something into the field, the weight will be a concern. You get what you pay for in weight or more specifically, you can get a rangefinder that light, powerful, or cheap; pick two.
There are a variety of features to make your life easier available on some rangefinders. Try to pick a rangefinder specific to your needs and it should have the features most helpful to you. Some features are a universally good idea.
Waterproof / Weatherproof / rain Proof
This a feature that is very handy considering the situations that a rangefinder will often be in. It is just one layer of protection that can help preserve your investment. Some rangefinders have an additionally thick rubber ‘armor’ to protect them from impacts.
Some rangefinders are set to ignore the first object they encounter. This is mostly used to prevent parts of a deer stand, netting, limbs, or brush from giving a false reading. If you are a golfer, get a first priority rangefinder and you will be happy in 95% of the cases. For a hunter, it isn’t so easy.
Choosing a rangefinder with second priority, sometimes called Last Priority, is helpful in making sure you are on target every time and aren’t aiming at a branch in front of your target.
Some rangefinders allow you to scan larger areas and pinpoint your target that way rather needing to try to push the button right when you are holding the rangefinder on the target. This is also good for getting a variety of readings on a deer trail or other area like a sand trap.
Angle Calculation / inclinometer
If you hunt or golf in hilly terrain this is an amazing feature but it is most useful for those hunting from tree stands. Instead of having to rely on a faulty straight-line reading, you can have the rangefinder take into account the distance and angle to put you right on target.
Some companies have various names for this feature so read up on the device you choose to make sure you are getting what you want.
If you are a rifle hunter that uses a scope, this is the one feature you really want to invest in. Preferably one that is either customizable or has a large variety of loads. It beats having to calculate all of your bullet drop in your head and hope not to make a mistake while the pressure is on.
Best Rangefinder Reviews
The needs of a bowhunter differ from those of a rifle hunter. You don’t need as much range but you need the best accuracy you can get if you want to get your shots on the mark. There are some features that can really help you out along the way of course. Mostly what you need is a small, lightweight option. One that is either easy to get the laser on target or one with some form of priority mode that will allow you to get an accurate reading through brush. Good, clear optics are always a bonus.
- Maximum Range: 600yds
- Incremet Reading: 1yd
- Magnification: 4x
- Objective Lens: 21mm
- Weight: 8.8oz
- Other Features: Weather Resistan
Staring with a simple but effective option, the Bone Collector from Bushnell is a great priced, easy to use rangefinder that should do well from a tree stand with whatever archery tool you choose to take into the woods.
This isn’t a complicated device, just sturdy and durable. It's waterproof with a clear LCD display and small magnification to help see what is around the deer to make sure you aren’t accidentally getting your laser on a bush. The best thing about a 4-power optic is the ability to keep it stable where higher power ones seem to bounce all over.
Sure, it will see out to 600 yards but we don’t need that as long as we can get a solid range increment out to 30 yards or so. There isn’t a lot to the Bone Collector rangefinder, it just does its job well.
2. TecTecTec ProWild Hunting Rangefinder - Budget Choice
- Maximum Range: 550yds
- Incremet Reading: 1yd
- Magnification: 4x
- Objective Lens: 18mm
- Weight: 6.5oz
- Other Features: Speed Measurement, Scan Mode
TecTecTec is a company most well-known for golf rangefinders but their entry into the hunting world has proven to be a solid workhorse of a rangefinder. If you think about the goals of the two sports, the idea is still to arc your projectile into a target. It may be a silly name but it’s a quality unit.
The ProWild has one feature that is unlike any other rangefinder on this list. It has speed detection. This is of marginal use to a hunter but it is a fun addition for a rangefinder. It also has a scan mode so you can easily get ranges on a number of likely areas before the deer even enter your area.
As far as standard features, this is a pretty run of the mill unit. It has a 600-meter range in 1-meter increments and weighs about 6 oz. The glass is high quality and the laser is spot on. And you can get it without breaking the bank.
- Maximum Range: 540yds
- Incremet Reading: 1yd
- Magnification: 6x
- Objective Lens: 20mm
- Weight: 4.8oz
- Other Features: Target Priority Mode, Incline/Decline Measurement, Water Resistant
Of course, if you want a specially designed rangefinder for bow hunting, one with quality glass, good features, and a solid reputation you can always look to a Nikon hunting rangefinder. Much like the previous Nikon, the Arrow ID is a great unit in a small package that will help you get the job done in every way possible.
Despite the looks and price, this is not some cheap archery rangefinder but a quality unit with features to really up your chances. It has a target priority mode to help you get a good reading in the thick of the woods, it has Nikon’s incline/decline technology, it is water and weather resistant. Best of all, it is tiny and weighs only 4 and a half ounces.
Even with all that, it costs less than most other units and still has a 550-yard range in 1-yard increments. Sure, it may not be the best rangefinder on the market but for bowhunting, it's the best rangefinder for the money, any day.
If you are looking for a general rangefinder for rifle hunting at a reasonable distance of under a hundred yards, you don’t have to spend your money on fancy optics and a powerful laser, you can focus on the features that will really dial in your shots. Alternatively, you can go with a rangefinder that will get you spot on with the best glass and have a very versatile tool that will work for most any hunting you could do. In essence, these are the finest in their class rangefinders 2018 has to offer.
- Maximum Range: 1093yds
- Incremet Reading: 1yd
- Magnification: 6x
- Objective Lens: 22mm
- Weight: 5.4oz
- Other Features: Ballistic Calculator, Bluetooth
If you want a feature packed rangefinder that still won’t set you back a fortune, ATN has come up the just about the perfect option. It is a masterful piece of technology that uses your smartphone’s processing power to give you the most accurate and detailed calculations of any rangefinder on the market.
This rangefinder can take a range up to 1093 yards and communicate all the data to your smartphone to give you the calculations. You can use it without that connection and range manually or use the data it provides to precisely calculate your shot.
If you opt to add an ATN scope, this rangefinder can tell you in detail how much to turn your dials to get you dead on target. If you are a tech-savvy hunter, this rangefinder may be the best option on the market.
- Maximum Range: 550yds
- Incremet Reading: 1yd
- Magnification: 6x
- Objective Lens: 20mm
- Weight: 4.4oz
- Other Features: Far Target Ranging, Weather resistant
In the middle of the spectrum, you have the Aculon. Just like most of their optics, this Nikon rangefinder is known for pure, clean glass. It’s compact, lightweight, and effective at what you need to know without adding a lot of unnecessary stuff many hunters don’t want.
The range is lower than a lot of options at only 550 yards but with its super clear LCD display and 1-yard resolution, you will get good data back on the distance to your target. The Far Target Ranging technology only tightens up that data to the very best.
If you want a plain and simple rangefinder that will get the job done while being slick and lightweight enough to forget it's even there, this is the top of the food chain. Very few optics have the quality of Nikon and the Aculon rangefinder shows it.
- Maximum Range: 600yds
- Incremet Reading: 1yd
- Magnification: 4x
- Objective Lens: 20mm
- Weight: 9.8oz
- Other Features: Weather Resistant
If you aren’t a tech-savvy hunter at all and only care about the range to your target, Simmons is a solid choice. It's nothing but great glass and a high-quality laser. It’s fast and easy to get on target and it will give you the range as accurately as any rangefinder on the market.
This rangefinder is a bit heavy at 9.8 ounces but not enough to notice. Its sturdy, weather resistant, and above all, easy to use. There are no strange calculations or readouts, just pure distance that leaves the calculating up to you.
If you want a simple as it gets rangefinder with no-nonsense, Simmons is a better choice than any other. It will do what you need and only what you need and do it well!
Most shots hunters take are going the be fairly short range with most falling under a hundred yards. For those of us who want a little more challenge, reaching out a little farther with your shots will definitely provide. Though some may argue, any shot beyond 300 yards is long range. You could probably shorten that but for sake of having a starting number, we will go with that. Once you start shooting this far, you have to be dead on to make an ethical kill shot. It isn’t for the faint of heart or those without patience. You have enough to deal with long range with the wind, movement of the animal, and just getting yourself into the zone. A rangefinder can at least take one of the variables out of long-range shooting.
7.Leupold RX-1300i TBR Laser Rangefinder
- Maximum Range: 1300yds
- Incremet Reading: 1yd
- Magnification: 6x
- Objective Lens: 14 mm
- Weight: 7oz
- Other Features: True Ballistic Range, Inclinometer, Scan Mode, Waterproof.
Few names in the long-range shooting world are as prestigious as Leupold. They have made some of the best hunting and precision shooting scopes on the market for decades. Their optics are known for quality and clarity, you should expect the same from their rangefinders.
When it comes to features, Leupold has them in spades. Not only is it water and weather resistant but it features an inclinometer and scan mode. Best of all is the True Ballistic Range technology which takes all the guesswork out of the equation. The RX-1300i will calculate angle and distance to provide you with spot-on shooting data.
With a 1300-yard maximum range and an accuracy of +-0.5 yard, you can count on knowing your exact range, even at extreme ranges. It’s lightweight, fast, and affordable. You can never go wrong with Leupold.
- Maximum Range: 1300yds
- Incremet Reading: 1yd
- Magnification: 6x
- Objective Lens: 22mm
- Weight: 7.7oz
- Other Features: Angle Compensation, Scan Mode, Weather Resistant
Vortex is a newer company that is taking the hunting and shooting world by storm with their optics. When it comes to a rangefinder for long range shooting, not only do they provide a feature-rich, competitive model but one that is very cost effective as well.
Not only is the Vortex weather resistant, but it also features scan mode and a combination of Horizontal Corrected Distance and Line of Sight Distance to provide you all the tools you need to get dialed in for the long shots.
Unless you are shooting farther than you should the 1300yds max range with +-1yd accuracy is sure to be enough. This may be the best long-range rangefinder for the money and a solid bet if you want a 1000-yard rangefinder that can get you there accurately.
- Maximum Range: 1000yds
- Incremet Reading: 5yd
- Magnification: 6x
- Objective Lens: 22mm
- Weight: 6.6oz
- Other Features: Bow & Rifle Modes, Variable Sight in, Angle Adjustments, Waterproof
Let's face it, Bushnell has never been known for the greatest products on the market. Some of the optics are flat out crap. But in the case of the Scout SX rangefinder, they have finally made a product worth owning.
The solid 1000-yard max range coupled with a phenomenal .5-yard accuracy is sure to get you on target and. With its bow and rifle modes, angle adjustment, and fully waterproof housing have no doubt that this is a solid rangefinder.
If the Vortex captured the best long-range trophy, the Bushnell may be the best hunting rangefinder for the money. Forget their past, if this is their future, it looks to be a good one. You won’t go wrong with this Bushnell rangefinder for anything out to 600 yards plus.
What is a Laser Rangefinder?
There are four primary components of a laser rangefinder that are vital to how it functions and how we use it. What this means is that a rangefinder is actually four different devises that have to be tuned to perform together with exacting accuracy if you want a total unit that works. If any one of the four pieces is sub-par, the whole unit will be affected.
The four individual devices are:
Monocular or Binocular
Just like any other optical device, the quality of the glass and how much magnification you have will have a direct bearing in your ability to accurately hit a target with the laser and get a good reading. Glass that is dull or cloudy will limit the range of your rangefinder no matter how good the rest of the parts are.
Most laser rangefinders use an overall weak laser, usually a class 1 laser that is eye safe. While it may seem more beneficial to use a more powerful laser, there are a lot of advantages to using the weaker laser. No matter what, the laser light will travel at the exact same speed and that is the most important aspect of the laser.
Older rangefinders and a few of the cheaper ones still rely on sold beam lasers but the more modern and accurate models use pulses of laser light. This allows more exact readings and allows you to be more accurate when sighting your target.
The principle of a rangefinder is to emit a pulse or beam and then catch the reflected light. The receiver is what captures this light. Some factors that will affect the ability of the receiver to get a good reading are sensitivity and aperture size.
A more sensitive receiver can read signals that are weaker and have travelled a longer range but will be more susceptible to false readings from other light sources. The size of the aperture will allow the unit to capture more readings that may have been thrown off from a direct return to do target angle.
Inside each rangefinder, there is a microprocessor that is responsible for doing all the math and calculations that translate the time it took for the laser to make a round trip into a reading on the range to the target. The more advanced the computer, the faster the calculation will be and the more complex calculations it can do in a given time.
In a modern rangefinder, the computer is usually of sufficient power. It is the program that handles the data that can be inferior in cheaper products.
How Does a Rangefinder Work?
Now that we understand the very basics of the parts of a rangefinder, we can look at a very elementary example of how it works.
The process begins when we have spotted a target, let’s say 1000 yards away, through the optics and press the button to send the laser down range. We will assume we are using a quality modern rangefinder that emits a pulse of laser beams.
We will also assume a commercial rangefinder as professional or military rangefinders may work with an entirely different technology. Most commercial rangefinders use ‘Time in Flight’ to calculate range. The longer the beam takes, the farther away it is.
From the Unit to the Target
While it’s easy to assume the laser will fly perfectly straight, that would be incorrect. There are several factors that can affect the way the beam travels.
The most devastating of those would be anything between you and your target. This could be anything from leaves, weeds, brush, or any other visible barrier. It could also be water vapor, dust particles, smoke or other things that you can’t see with the naked eye.
The second factor is vibration of the unit either by shaking of the hand, your pulse, or anything in the environment around you that is emitting sound. Generally, the amount of deflection caused by these are very small.
The fact that our example rangefinder emits a pulse is a bonus, even with some of the light being deflected, a few will hit our target a thousand yards down range and begin their return journey. Since light could travel around the earth 7 ½ times in one second, the amount of time this took is incalculably small.
Speaking of incalculably small, most of the deflections you will experience could be fractions of a millimeter over 1000 yards. Just a point to keep in mind.
From the Target to the Receiver
Since we have a laser pulse and some of the light was deflected away from the target or was interrupted and reflected back before hitting the target, we will get different results back from each beam of that pulse that hits our receiver.
All of the same factors that affect the beam on its way to the target will also affect its return trip. Additionally, the angle of the surface and how reflective it is will affect the return of the light. A target that is less reflective will return a weaker signal. A target that is angled will send the beam off at a different angle. The pulse may have sent out hundreds of small beams. Some of them will hit the receiver.
Calculating the Results
This will be a very simplified explanation of the way calculations occur. There are a variety of methods used to calculate results and many companies have a variety of different ways of handling those results. Understanding every possible method would be a massive undertaking.
In short, the computer will look for trends in the results to try to determine what reflected values came from your target and what ones can be discarded as errant beams. The predominant two methods used in a pulse rangefinder are clusters and spikes.
A cluster reading will look for the most returned beams in very close range to each other to try to identify what you were pointing the rangefinder at. If you range a target and the rangefinder gets 7 readings back that are very close together, it may assume that is the target. Sometimes this can be the most accurate, especially at closer ranges.
Spikes are measured by the number of returned values at the same range. If you were to get back 6 readings that were in the same range or VERY close to the same range, it would be a spike. At longer ranges or when there are a lot of various surfaces throwing off beams, this is typically more accurate.
Some of the most advanced units may use both methods and even some proprietary methods between. When the calculations are complete, the range to the target will be displayed. Considering the speed of light and the speed of modern processors, the time elapsed should still be well under a second.
While this is a very simplified explanation it should be sufficient to allow you to become more proficient with a rangefinder. Understanding the mechanics of a laser, the limitations of the receiver, and the incredible complexity of the calculations would take a book or more. Things have come a long way since those early models.
This explanation leaves out some of the finer details of rangefinders used in hunting which may have additional calculations to help you with a rifle or bow. If you want to know more about hunting rangefinders, check out our article here.
The important points to take away from this are:
- Time in Flight = Distance
- Rangefinders use a pulse and not a single beam
- Any obstruction from leaves to water vapor cause issues
- The computer is smart enough to get around most issues with obstruction
To avoid most issues with a rangefinder, buy a high-quality unit, use a tripod, and practice like you would with anything else. Head to the firing range and use pre-marked targets with known range to make sure you are getting a good reading.
How To Use a Rangefinder When Hunting
If you are a serious hunter, it's pretty likely that you already own a rangefinder. If not, I am sure you have considered one at least once and need to go ahead and bite the bullet. Having and knowing how to use a rangefinder will be one of the biggest steps you take to increase your odds.
In hunting, there are a lot of things that have to come together to get that perfect shot. There is a lot of timing, luck, and preparation involved. You have put a lot of effort and money toward having that opportunity. We owe it to ourselves not to miss because we failed to accurately account for range.
With any new device, this starts with understanding how it works and its limitations.
At its most basic level, a rangefinder is simply a laser, a light meter, and a clock. When you shine the laser at an object, a part of the beam will bounce back and register with the light meter. The time it takes to make its round trip is measured by the clock and can be used to accurately estimate the distance between you and the target.
All things reflect light, it's just a matter of how much so anything you shine the laser on will reflect it back. Some objects, like harder objects, will return a more powerful beam where softer objects tend to diffuse the beams more.
A rock will return a sold beam and therefore can be ranged accurately farther away. A deer is soft and its fur will diffuse the laser light and the reading may not be as accurate, depending on the distance. While many rangefinders boast of ranges near or over a thousand yards, they may not be effective against an animal that far, the best ones at maybe half that distance.
Understanding those limitations, we can then look at best practices.
This section is what I would call basic operations of a rangefinder. How I use one from the time I identify my hunting location all the way up to the time I take my shot. Accurately planning and practicing these steps will help you get the most out of the investment you made in your rangefinder.
Carry it Scouting
Always carry your rangefinder when you go into the woods. If are a rifle hunter, being able to gauge ground distance to locations that show deer activity gives a good idea of where we can set up our blind or hide. At this point, I don’t need to be dead on accurate, I just need to know the difference between 150 yards and 300 yards.
For a bowhunter, knowing the distance from the base of the tree you may use to locations where deer sightings are likely will help you assess how good your location is or if you would benefit from moving your stand to a different tree. Either hunter can use the rangefinder to effectively locate where he will hunt from.
On the Hunt
Once the season starts and you are in the woods for real, range early and often. You don’t have to have an animal in front of you. It's good to know the location of ‘landmarks’ in your hunting area. This can help you decide what shot to take and when to wait a little longer.
For a bowhunter, get points on trees around your area that are in locations you could take a clean shot. Sometimes a deer won’t stop and wait for you to get a bead on him and KNOWING, not guessing, the rage to his location could be the difference in a kill and a missed opportunity.
Similarly, with a rifle, I want to take notes on landmarks around where I hunt. I don’t restrict myself to areas that I think are likely for deer but any location around that I might be able to make a clean shot. Deer don’t follow plans and may pop up where you don’t expect them.
As a rifle hunter, you usually have more time to make your shot so don’t rush it. You may know the distance to the wood line but it pays to get a second reading to make sure, especially if you are an extreme range hunter.
Deer in Sight
When you actually have an animal that you can get a shot at or that will likely move to a position where you can get that shot, the rangefinder will really pay for itself. The key here is slow, steady movements to not alert the animal, this is especially true for bow hunters.
Having a rangefinder with scan mode really shines if you are tracking an animal and waiting for him to get in a good position. With a bow, I don’t like to be ranging when he stops in a clearing. By that time, I want to have my bow drawn and ready.
I range as the animal moves and stop a few yards before I would want to shoot. If I ranged my area well, I should have a solid number in my head for that range.
If you have the time or it’s a farther rifle shot, don’t settle on just ranging the animal, remember they don’t read as well on a rangefinder as hard targets. Range the tree or rock he is near. Anything you can to get a more solid range. If you are out at 300 yards, the difference between a hit and a miss can be very small.
Remember, slow and steady. You want your movements so clean and silent that your prey never knows you are there.
Three Pieces of Advice
- Get the best one you can afford. Buy once, cry once
The differences between a good range finder and a bad one are huge, don’t make that mistake.
- Get a rangefinder suited to your chosen hunting tool
One for either bow or rifle will have features better suited to that tool, you may not think you need them now but it’s better to have them up front than to pay for them twice.
- Buy more than you need
Because of the limitations on range, get a rangefinder that has the longest range you can afford. Very few people hunt at 1000+ yards but a rangefinder that will read well past that will likely be more accurate at shorter ranges than one that is near its limits.
How to Get the Most out of your Rangefinder When Hunting
For those hunting at ranges longer ranges, be that 40 yards with a bow or 400 yards with a rifle, no piece of technology has been more beneficial than the rangefinder. While the early models were only marginally accurate, modern rangefinders can nail down a target is less than a second, ensuring you have a precise distance to aim for.
While some situations may be trickier than others, rangefinders are fairly easy to use. To avoid running into any issues with any difficult situations, here are some tips and tricks to help you along!
Pick a Rangefinder that Suits your Needs
This cannot be overstated! Sure, there are generic ‘do anything’ rangefinders but you will have much more success if you use a rangefinder suited to your needs. A proper rangefinder will have specifications and software intended to help you use the unit and provide data that is most useful for you.
So, if you hunt with a rifle get a rangefinder meant for ballistic hunting. If you bow hunt, get an archery specific model that has angle compensation. The amount of difference this makes is huge!
Have your Rangefinder Ready
If you keep your rangefinder in a pocket, make sure that pocket is easily accessible and can be done with a minimum of movement and noise. My hunting vest has a D ring on the left side above the pocket and I keep my rangefinder there on a long lanyard. It is easy to get with minimal movement and is out of the way of my bow when I shoot.
A rangefinder you can’t get to when you need it is just added weight you don’t need to carry.
Keep it Steady
Modern rangefinders are very accurate and have software that is intended to make them more accurate. Don’t make the cause of inaccuracy your shaky hands. Steady the rangefinder on a tree, limb, shooting stick, or anything you can get your hands on to keep it steady.
It’s just like shooting a rifle and you don’t want to miss. If nothing else use a supported stance with your elbow tucke Everything you Need to Know About Rangefinders close to your body. Whatever you can do to keep the rangefinder steady while you range.
Range Before you Have a Target
When you get to your stand or hunting location, start picking out areas that deer are likely to travel. I make a written list and then use my rangefinder to get ranges on all of them and note the range. If a deer comes through faster than I am comfortable getting to my rangefinder, ranging it, then moving on to my bow, I have a good idea of the ranges around me.
If you are on a deer trail, place markers. I usually do this on a tree with some trail tape. If you are really serious, you can use different colors for different ranges but I usually place one around 20 yards and one about 30 yards.
Range Deer you Don’t Intend to Shoot
This piggybacks off the last idea. If you are in your stand or blind and a doe walks past, range it. If it’s a buck to young or small to shoot, range it. If a turkey happened to walk out of that same area, I would range that too.
The idea is that wildlife follows game trails and if does are coming out of an area, a buck will likely come out of the same area. I want to know that range just in case I have to make a quick shot and don’t have time to go to the rangefinder.
Range the Brighter Areas
Whether you are ranging locations around your hunting area or a deer, aim for the brighter colored spots. The idea is that the brighter an area is, the more reflective it will be. Because of the way that rangefinders work, this will give you a quicker and more accurate reading.
When I say bright, I don’t mean areas that are lit by the sun, I mean brighter colors or more reflective areas. While it is unlikely that a sunlit spot will cause any issues with your rangefinder, it doesn’t accomplish the goal of getting a solid reading.
Range Targets Twice
Just to make sure you are hitting what you think you are hitting, range it, lower your rangefinder off target for a second and then range it again. Compare your results. They should be close, within a meter or so.
This doesn’t apply if ranging twice could lead to missing a deer. If you pre-ranged the area, you should have a decent idea of where your buck is and are just using the rangefinder to confirm.
Scan for Targets
I like a rangefinder that has a scan mode. I will frequently use this just to keep ranges in my head but it can also be a great tactic to get that whole ‘Range it Twice’ thing done. If you are scanning, the rangefinder may not be as accurate but if a deer approaches, hit it with scan and then change over and quickly get a pinpoint range on it. Compare the two.
Learn Proper Trigger Control
We already compared the rangefinder to a rifle. To continue on that trend, learn to trigger your rangefinder the same way you would if you were making a long-distance shot. The steadier and more accurately you can hit a target with a rangefinder, the better your results will be.
Don’t get sloppy or you won’t get the best results from your rangefinder.
Know your Rangefinder
Just like any other hunting device, you have to know how to use it or why did you spend money on it? I take my rangefinder on hikes, when I am scouting, or just out on the back porch and practice with it. Use it at ranges you know to make sure it’s getting a good reading. Learn to be consistent in how you hold and use it.
Use Your Rangefinder
When I say your rangefinder, I mean the one you used when sighting in your bow and the one you carry. If you have a buddy calling ranges out, make sure he is using your rangefinder. While most rangefinders are accurate to within a meter or so, different rangefinders may show different ranges.
This means they will consistently show the same range but how precise that range is measured on a tape may differ. If you sighted in using your rangefinder, make sure it’s the one you use when ranging your target for real.
Keep a Spare Battery
The second most important lesson I have learned when using a rangefinder is to always keep spare batteries. I have had one die on the way to the stand because it kept getting activated in my coat pocket. Any number of things can cause it to run low on juice, including colder temperatures.
A rangefinder without a battery is just an expensive and pointless scope
Learn to Shoot Without it
There are times, even with a spare battery, that your rangefinder will not work. They have trouble in thick fog and rain for example. While it’s great to have a rangefinder and be able to dial in exactly on your target, learning to get close enough by eye may make the difference between a trophy buck and an unfilled tag.
Also be cautious about ranges in the snow. Some units handle it better than others, do some testing with yours before you take it in the field.
Of all the tools available to the modern hunter, I would rate the rangefinder as one of the best and most useful. It goes with me every time I am out. Don’t get stuck in a situation where you are counting on it and it doesn’t produce the results you need. If you bought a decent unit, it’s up to the task but user error may defeat it.
Take your time, read your manual, and practice! You are likely to be spending a lot of time together, might as well develop a strong working relationship.
The world of rangefinders can be a little confusing. There are a lot of different technologies and each company has their own name for them. Some rangefinders see farther than the laser can read or at least read accurately. Selecting the right rangefinder is a challenge, that's where we come in to help.
Long range shooting is a challenge, especially with a bow. A rangefinder is the absolute best way to take some of the guesswork out of the equation. The proper choice will work for you and make everything a little easier because the last thing you want when you get a deer in your sights is to start second-guessing.
Hopefully, you have found the rangefinder that is most suited to your chosen discipline. No matter how you hunt, we are confident that one of the above options will be a solid choice to help you in your next hunt.