Rangefinders are becoming more and more a part of everyday life. What was once reserved mostly for military professions has spread out in the world of sports, photography, and even automotive design. There have been a number of different technologies used for the purpose though most modern rangefinders make use of lasers to get a precise measurement.
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 Uses 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 Makers, Cartographers, Surveyors, 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 knowledgeable 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.
Rangefinder Buyer’s Guide
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.
Reticles / Aiming Point
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.
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.
If you are involved in any sport or profession where knowing distances down to the meter is something you need, invest in a rangefinder. They are widely available and can be very affordable, depending on the features you want or need.
When choosing a rangefinder, always consider all of your needs and what jobs you would want that rangefinder to do. It's great to have a 1300-yard rangefinder but if you just shoot a bow, you are paying for a lot you don’t need. Using a rangefinder that has ballistic software for golf is a waste of its potential and your money.
Invest in a good rangefinder but moreover invest in the right rangefinder. You don’t have to be a brand snob but realize that the big-name brands have spent more in R&D to get the rangefinder made. The features are likely to be more reliable and accurate and the glass will be sharper and clearer.
If it comes down to a hit or miss and you shoot low, just remember that the right rangefinder could have saved your day!