You’d think that it’s a reasonable request: I want to look at something through my spotting scope and immediately be able to measure distance to it.
It seems like optics companies don’t think so. Options for doing just that are very limited – it seems like a market gap and it’s surprising that manufacturers aren’t taking more advantage of it.
I wrote this article to help you figure out what your options are in this case, and we’ll go through them one by one.
One more note before we dive in: I’ve seen articles on other sites that purport to be about the best spotting scope with rangefinder, but actually just list 10 crappy $100 spotting scopes that have no distance measuring capabilities whatsoever. Like zero.
Just ignore those.
It’s obvious those people either didn’t do their research, or just don’t understand what they’re talking about at all.
So back to the topic.
Why Do You Need a Rangefinder Spotting Scope?
In order to be able to figure the best solution for yourself, you first need to know why you actually need a spotter scope with range finding capabilities. The most likely users for such devices are hunters and target shooters.
Hunters will want to estimate the distance to their game, be it elk, moose, deer or whatever. That way they can adjust their rifle optics to be able to deliver a clean shot. Hunters do have the advantage of knowing the approximate size of their targets, but they also need mobility, so overly bulky or heavy setups might not work for them.
Target shooters also know the size of their targets, but typically don’t need as much mobility. You drive to the range, unpack, set up and there you are.
There’s also the military, but soldiers typically won’t go out shopping battle gear on their own, so we won’t discuss that.
For both hunting and shooting ranges, having the accurate distance is critical for the purpose. Without the correct distance, a hunter may miss his prey, or worse, wound it without killing it. A range shooter may lose score points.
Other spotting scope users might also want to be able to measure distance, primarily out of curiosity or for some other non mission critical reasons.
And in any case, you want to be able to measure the distance without having to scan for the target with a separate device.
From my considerable research, I have come up with 3 solutions to this problem, and I will outline them below:
The first thing I’m going to suggest is to get a spotting scope with a range finding reticle. This is basically a pattern that will be overlayed on top of the image you see through the scope consisting of some dots or stripes.
Reticles are immensely useful, since you can get an estimate of the distance to your target while looking through the scope, without fiddling around with anything else. Their downside is that you need to know the approximate size of your target to get a reading.
A hunter will typically the know the height of the typical deer and a range shooter will know the size of the target downrange. That way, there’s no need for extra gear – just the spotter.
A great thing is, nowadays, you don’t have to do any math in your head, there are other solutions, such as the ATN X-Spotter below:
The first thing to know is that this is a digital spotter: you will be seeing a digital image when looking through the eyepiece. This has both upsides and downsides. The downside is somewhat weaker optical quality compared to all-glass spotting scopes, though users still say that the image quality is great. The upside is that the thing is packed with features: ability to stream the image to phones and tablets live, nightvision, digital compass and gyro, bullet profiles etc.
One of the fancy features is the rangefinder. It still works by estimating the distance by knowing the height of the target, but there’s no manual calculation. You press a button to set the top and bottom of the target in the viewfinder and the scope will perform the calculations itself – can be very convenient. Plus, the heights of most common targets are pre-saved, so you can just select the correct one from the menu, or enter your own number.
For a more traditional spotter with superb optics and a TMR reticle, I definitely recommend having a look at this Leupold Mark 4:
Leupold’s optics are fantastic and the ergonomics of the Mark 4 will have both hunters and range shooters satisfied. Though the product is fairly compact, the images it produces will blow many bigger and bulkier scopes out of the water. To use the TMR reticle, you’ll need to know the calculation involved, but it’s not complicated. With practice, you’ll be able to read the distance very quickly.
We happen to have a whole big article on choosing spotting scopes with reticles, so you might want to read that if you choose to go this way.
Okay, this is a bit more involved, but definitely has its merits. What I suggest is to get a spotting scope that has a Picatinny rail mount (yes, there are those, see below) and attach a laser rangefinder on top.
For example, the Vortex Viper HD has a small rail for attaching accessories:
If you click through the pictures, you’ll see a small rail just ahead of the eyepiece. Now, just to be clear, the Viper HD is in itself an excellent scope, used by birders, hunters, target shooters etc. The optics are really very good and it comes in two different configurations: a 65mm lens and an 80mm lens, so you have some choice here.
Coming back to the rail, what you can do then is attach a high quality laser rangefinder to the scope, e.g. this one:
This rangefinder is meant specifically for mounting on rails. You can adjust the windage and elevation to align it with the spotting scope.
The end result is that you can sight your target through the scope, press a button and get a precise distance reading. The whole thing functions like a spotting scope with a built-in rangefinder, except that the latter isn’t actually built-in. Though the setup may appear bulky, it has one significant advantage: You get to choose the optics and the rangefinder separately. You won’t be stuck with crappy optics just because you happened to find one spotter that did indeed have the range finder built in. Plus, the two devices don’t interfere with each other’s functions: there won’t be any overlays obstructing your view through the scope and the two can be used separately whenever needed.
If you want a more affordable and also more compact spotter that will work with this setup, have a look at this rather military-looking Bushnell:
Great glass, though not as great as the Viper HD above, but certainly has plenty of rail for attachments. One thing to note: it also has a Mil Hash reticle, so you can double-check the distance by using both methods.
Okay, finally you need to gauge how important it is for you to actually have a spotting scope. These devices almost always have more magnification than a binocular, but a high-quality bino with lower magnification can, in many cases, successfully do the job of a lower quality spotting scope.
The point is, there are way more shopping options around for rangefinder-equipped binoculars than for rangefinder-equipped spotting scopes. And remember, most binos can be mounted on a tripod using a tripod adapter, making their usage more similar to that of spotting scopes.
For example, as a hunter, you might not necessarily need the huge magnification power offered by most spotters to be able to identify the animal or to determine the shape of the antlers. For shooters, a bino might not provide enough resolution to see bullet holes, but it depends on your range and the type of bullet/target combination you’re using – and will be quite helpful for seeing bullet traces.
Let’s look at some options:
Nikon is a major player in the world of optics and Laserforce is one of the most popular rangefinding binos out there. The magnification is a decent 10x: a very good choice for binoculars, a bit low for a spotting scope, of course. The quality of the optics and the ability to use both eyes does make up for a bit of the loss in magnification, though.
The rangefinder is very powerful: it can range an animal such as a deer at more than 1000 yards – the distance is even greater for more reflective targets. Do check the user reviews over at Amazon – it’s a solid product and may actually free you of the need for a spotting scope altogether.
Now, you might think the price is quite steep. But remember, if you actually found a scope of comparable quality and featuring a builtin rangefinder, it would cost way more than that.
The great thing about the Bushnell Fusion is that it comes in a version with 12X magnification and 50mm lens (same as many compact spotters). The optics are very good, as Bushnell’s usually are, but the rangefinder is packed with features, especially for hunters. The promised ranging capability is not as high as Nikon Laserforce's though.
Well, that about covers the options that, at least according to my research, you have in the current market. The gap for distance measuring spotting scopes remains unfilled and until that happens, you will have to settle for other solutions. They’re not bad solutions though and each has its merits, so have a look at the suggestions above, check out the products and see if anything fits the bill for you.