July 07, 2021
I’ve had a couple of hunts that educated me on the importance of handheld optics. Choosing observation tools is difficult because they’re usually expensive, and opportunities to test drive spotting scopes and binoculars don’t come along often. Just about every rifle wears a scope these days, so it’s not hard to check out what a buddy might have. However, spotting scopes and binoculars are most often found in hunting camp or at matches. Opportunities to examine spotters are fewer and further in between.
Anyone who’s hunted out west knows how important it is to have a good spotting scope and/or good binoculars. A guy can grab a seat on a hilltop and spend a few hours checking out every detail in sight. This saves a ton of time and allows the eyes to do the work instead of the legs. I’d much rather glass up and down mountains than hike them, and good glass makes this possible.
I had an opportunity to hunt Alaska in late summer and leapt at the chance. Traveling around the 49th state is difficult and often relies on small aircraft and boats. Those usually have limited cargo and weight capacities. My hunt involved a hop in a small aircraft followed by a lengthy boat ride upriver.
The boats were inflatable rafts and the river was shallow, so every hunter was limited to 50 pounds of guns and gear for the week-long hunt. That sounds like a lot of weight, but it isn’t considering our hunt was well inside the arctic circle, we were camping next to the river for the duration, and temps got down to freezing at night.
As I and the other hunters prepared ourselves for this final flight and rode toward the source of the river, we all started to worry about weight. My time in the service helped me decide what I needed and what I could leave behind. I decided I would wear one change of clothes and keep a single spare set so I could have dry clothes if I needed them. When living rough, there’s no such thing as “clean” and “dirty,” just “wet” and “dry.” I also chose to leave some snacks behind (and wept silently as I did so), as well as an extra set of boots.
The optics decision I made was both good and bad. I took Leupold’s BX-5 Santiam HD 10x42 binoculars but abandoned my spotting scope. I knew we would spend a lot of time glassing for caribou and grizzly, and figured I would make it happen with just the binos.
The BX-5 Santiam binos were a great choice and I was glad I took them. They’re only 6-inches long and weigh 11/2 pounds. Optically, I can tell no difference between them and binos costing twice as much.
Years ago, on another hunt, binoculars became the topic of conversation among the gunwriters.
We all agreed that when shopping for the best-quality binoculars, it was wise to think in two price brackets: $1,000 and $2,000.
The $2,000 bracket is where the expensive European manufacturers of Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski sit. Binoculars in this category are luxurious, and I recommend them for anyone with the cash. However, actually seeing the $1,000 difference between top models in each category is going to be impossible for most binocular users, myself included.
Leupold’s BX-5 Santiam binoculars dominate the $1,000 category, which is about what mine would cost on the street. I used them to great effect when glassing from hilltops and never experienced eye fatigue or headaches that can come with inferior optics. The BX-5 Santiam line is Leupold’s top-of-the-line binocular and my field experience verified its position. I have only good things to say about them.
The error I made was in abandoning a spotting scope and trying to handle all of my observation needs with just binoculars. The terrain we were in was open and allowed almost unrestricted views from one horizon to the other. The BX-5’s 10X magnification was enough to tell if critters were out and moving, but it wasn’t enough to make out critical details.
My hesitation in bringing a spotting scope revolved around the size and weight. Most of our hunting involved movement by boat from one piece of high ground to the next, along with a hump up the mountainside to get to the top. Toting a large spotting scope wasn’t something I was willing to do.
While sitting atop one hillside, lamenting my decision to abandon my spotting scope, a fellow hunter casually mentioned that Leupold makes a Gold Ring compact spotter. I immediately requested a unit to test once I returned home from Alaska.
An important point to remember about Leupold is they are one of a few American optics companies that does everything from engineering the glass lenses to manufacturing the internals and body. The only thing Leupold doesn’t make on their Gold Ring products are the lenses; however, they design each one.
The GR 15-30x50mm Compact spotting scope retails for $585 and can be had for around $450. That is not a lot of money for a spotting scope and I couldn’t help but wonder what the image quality would look like for such an inexpensive optic. But, after taking it on a Colorado elk and mule deer hunt this past fall, I’ve come away impressed. The 15X to 30X magnification gave me plenty of detail on animals loitering past 1,000 yards in all lighting conditions.
Budding optics enthusiasts might see the 50mm objective lens and think this spotting scope struggles in low light. That is not true. Objective lens diameter determines the size of the exit pupil and, even at maximum magnification, this spotter yields a 1.66mm exit pupil. That’s on par with most high-end spotters at maximum magnification.
The reason the image quality is so good on the GR Compact is the Porro prism. There are two general optical designs in the world of observation optics: Roof prism and Porro prism. Roof-prism optics dominate the binocular field because they are more compact. Roof prisms are also a lot more expensive. Straight optical barrels are a key feature of roof-prism optics.
The GR Compact spotter has the signature “Z” shape, which is synonymous with Porro prisms. Porro prisms are far more economical than roof-prism designs because they don’t require complex lens geometry to get excellent image quality. However, they are usually bulkier and are harder to weatherproof.
The GR Compact solves the size problem by limiting magnification range, 15X to 30X, and keeping the objective lens a reasonable 50mm. The weatherproofing problem isn’t as much of an issue because there’s only the single barrel, and Leupold uses sealant in all the right places. They also have a gang of mechanical engineers that designed the lens seating systems to ensure all the glass stays where it’s supposed to.
Leupold’s Gold Ring 15-30x50mm Compact will be my constant hunting companion in the years ahead. It disappears in a backpack and offers high magnification in a portable and inexpensive package. Higher-magnification spotting scopes are probably a good idea when spending days glassing on a western mountaintop, but this Compact will easily handle 90 percent of my spotting needs.
Leupold BX-5 Santiam HD 10x42mm Specs
- POWER: 10X
- OBJECTIVE: 42mm
- EXIT PUPIL: 4.2mm
- LINEAR FOV: 341 ft./1,000 yds.
- CLOSE FOCUS: 5 ft.
- LENGTH: 5.9 in.
- WEIGHT: 1 lb., 7.4 oz.
- EYE RELIEF: 16.6mm
- FINISH: Shadow Gray
- MSRP: $1,300
Leupold GR 15-30x50mm Compact Specs
- POWER: 15X to 30X
- OBJECTIVE: 50mm
- EXIT PUPIL: 1.6mm to 3.3mm
- LINEAR FOV: 136 ft./1,000 yds. to 30 ft./1,000 yds.
- CLOSE FOCUS: 13.5 ft.
- LENGTH: 11 in.
- WEIGHT: 1 lb., 5.5 oz.
- EYE RELIEF: 17.1mm to 17.5mm
- FINISH: Shadow Gray
- MSRP: $585
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