No More Excuses for Hunting without a Rangefinder

elk in rangefinderI’ve written several articles about how distance estimation effects shooting (see list at end of post) and have bought, used and trained field biologist about how to use a variety of range finders.

To emphasize how important it is to carry a rangefinder while hunting, we can hunt for a short time without food, or water or even without proper clothing, but if you hope to get a shot at distances greater than 200 yards with a rifle or greater than 25 yards with a bow, you shouldn’t shoot without a good estimate of the range and if you have been stalking around, that requires a rangefinder.

I make sure my rangefinder (and extra battery) is one of the first things I pack when I hunt.

Most hunters don’t need the most expensive range finders because we are never going to take shots over 400 – 500 yards. And you better believe those that do take longer shots already have good rangefinders and spend many hours practicing long shots. So for most of us, any simple range finder that quickly determines the range to a target out to 500 yards is all we need, especially in flat terrain.

Bow hunters need accurate estimates for all distances over 20 yards and up to about 70 – 100 yards.

Yes, some archers practice enough to make 100 yard shots ethical, but they still don’t need to range targets over 250 yards unless they want to use the same rangefinder for the rifle season.

Some of the less expensive rangefinders may be good for bowhunting, but may not consistently range targets quickly over 200 yards to be good enough for hunting with a rifle on public land in the west.

The following table compares basic Range Finders for Bow and Rifle Hunting. For this list, I only included rangefinders with at least 4.0 rating from at least 90 customers  (See below for advanced Rangefinders):

Comparison of Rangefinders Priced $100 – $200

Model Rating Mag & Obj Wt (oz) L X H (in) Range (yd) Eye Relief FOV @ 1000 Yds Notes
Rangefinders Priced less than $100 – limited time*
TecTecTec Pro Wild  4.2 6X24  6.5  4.0 X 2.8   5 – 540**  adjusts  ??? 1 CR2 battery, Accuracy +/-1 yard, measures speed
Rangefinders Priced less than $150*
Halo XRT6  4.1 6X24  ?  4.2 x 3.0   ? – 700**  ???  366 ft (7°) 1 CR2 battery, scan mode
Nikon 8397 ACULON AL11  4.2 6X20  4.4  3.6 x 2.9   6 – 550** 18 mm  315 ft (6°) 1 CR2 battery Target Priority
Simmons LRF 600  4.2 4X20  7.7  4.2 x 3.6  10 – 200 20 mm  320 ft (5.7°) 9 v battery; “Tilt Intelligence” Accuracy: +/- 1 yard
Bushnell Bone Collector  4.2 4X21  7.7  3.8 x 2.9  10 – 200 21 mm  320 ft (5.7°) 9 v battery Accuracy +/-1 yard
Rangefinders Priced between $150 and $200*
Leupold RX-650  4.4 6X20  6.3  3.6 x 2.9   6 – 575 16.3 mm  366 ft (7°) 1 CR2 battery Accuracy +/-1 yards at 100
*Be aware prices are for comparison only and are subject to change

You should notice in the first list of rangefinders that the Simmons includes “Tilt Intelligence”at a very low price, but may not range deer or elk at distances over 200 yards, but is a low cost rangefinder for bow hunting. Also notice that both the Simmons and Bushnell rangefinders use 9 volt batteries. In the past, I was forced to buy rangefinders that used 9 volt batteries because they were easy to find (no batteries are easy to find in many small western towns) and 9 volt batteries last a very long time.

Also notice that many rangefinder models have numbers associated with the model name. These numbers reflect the maximum distances they can range, but those distances are for very reflective surfaces. A deer or elk in the shadows on a hillside is not very large and not very reflective.

For example, The Leopold RX-650 (Table 1) is capable or ranging distances up to 650 yards. To most of the manufacturer’s credit, they advertise both the maximum distance and the maximum distance for ranging a deer (575 yards).

TecTecTec, Nikon and Halo do not publish both values. Nikon always makes great optics and I have Nikon binoculars and a Nikon spotting scope and I have used Nikon rangefinders, but do not expect to range deer or elk at the maximum distance in the field with these TecTecTec, Nikon or Halo rangefinders in the table above.

The Ratings Scores of the rangefinders are Amazon’s Customer Reviews (number of stars out of 5 stars).

The following table compares Rangefinders that include corrections for high shooting angles:

Comparison of Rangefinders with Shooting Angle Correction – Priced between $250 – $300

Model Rating Mag & Obj Wt (oz) L X H (in) Range (yd) Eye Relief FOV @ 1000 Yds Notes
Vortex Ranger 1000  4.8 6X22  7.7  3.9 x 3.0  11 – 500  17 mm  315 ft (6°) 1 CR2 battery Accuracy +/-3 yards at 1000
Leupold RX-1200i  4.9 6X22  7.8  3.8 x 2.9   6 – 800  17 mm  320 ft (6°) 1 CR2 battery Accuracy +/-0.5 yards at 125; over +/- 2 yards
Nikon Prostaff 7i  4.4 6X21  6.2  4.4 x 2.8   8 – 1300**  18.3 mm  395 ft (7.5°) 1 CR2 battery Measures 0.1 increments
Bushnell Elite 1 Mile Con-X  4.6 7X26  12.1  5.1 x 3.7   5 – 600  ??   ?? 1 CR123 battery; 3 scan modes (BullsEye, Brush and Scan), Includes Ballistics calculator and Blue Tooth for smart phone
*Be aware prices are for comparison only and are subject to change

Range Finders that include Horizontal Component Calculators

high angle bow ballistics diagram

Figure 1. Diagram of a High Angle Bow Shot.

Since bow hunters often shoot from elevated positions from tree stands, a very high angle shot is a possibility, especially if the ground slopes away from the stand in any direction.

Hunting in the mountain and canyon areas of the west also make very high angle shots a possibility.

High angle shots taken with rifle or bow have to be adjusted or the bullet or arrow will impact too high.

I’ve read talk in hunting forums about how this is not common and not important when shooting very close with very fast bow speeds. That’s all true, but come out west and hunt elk or mule deer. You will realize there will be opportunities for high angle shots with bow and rifle.

Why will high angles cause you to shoot over target? Because gravity does not act on the bullet or arrow for the entire bullet or arrow path, but only on that horizontal portion of the distance between the hunter and the target.

high angle rifle ballistics diagram

Figure 2. Diagram of a High Angle Rifle Shot.

See the examples for bow hunting in Figure 1 and for hunting with a Rifle in Figure 2.

The correction for shooting at high angles can easily be calculated using simple trigonometry and many rangefinders will calculate the true ballistic range (TBR) that takes the shooting angle into consideration.

Vortex calls it HCD (Horizontal Component Distance), Nikon calls it ID (Incline/Decline) Technology, Simmons calls it “Tilt Intelligence”, but they are all calculating the horizontal component of the shot.

In most cases, the shooting angle is small and little or no correction is needed, but if a deer walks under your tree stand or if you shoot at an elk or mule deer that is deep down into a canyon, or high up on a steep ridge, knowing the true ballistic range may be the difference between making a good shot and missing completely or making a mess out of it.

So how much of an angle do we need to see a major effect on a bullet or arrow impact point? That depends on several things; how fast is the bullet or arrow going and the difference between total distance and the true ballistic distance (or horizontal component).

I created the two tables and the two diagrams to illustrate the point of why and how high angle shots have to be adjusted for both rifle and bow shots.

Table 1 shows examples for various angles for shooting a bow. The Table shows data for two different arrow speeds (175 and 275 fps), both with a 430 grain arrow.

Table 1. Ballistics Table for High Angle Bow Shots

high angle bow ballistics table

The top row shows the target 10 yards away with no elevation. The 175 fps arrow drops 6 inches in 10 yards and the 275 fps arrow drops 2 inches in 10 yards. There is no shooting error because the horizontal component and the total distance to the target are the same.

If we were elevated by above the target by 5 yards, the shooting angle is 26.6°. Now if you set up for the total distance to the target of 11.2 yards, the 175 fps arrow should drop 7.1 inches and the 275 fps arrow should drop 3 inches. But the horizontal distance is only 10 yards so there is a shooting error of 1.1 and 1.0 inches respectively. Not a big deal.

Now double the elevation to 10 yards. So 10 yards down and 10 yards out is a 45° angle and the total distance to the target is 14.1 yards. The 175 fps arrow drops 11.5 inches and the 275 fps arrow drops 4.8 inches for differences of 5.5 and 2.8 inches respectively. How big is your kill zone?

If we were elevated by 20 yards, the angle becomes 63.4° and the total distance to the target is 14.1 yards. The 175 fps arrow drops 29.7 inches and the 275 fps arrow drops 12.2 inches for differences of 32.7 and 10.2 inches respectively. If we don’t adjust for this high angle shot we are in trouble with either arrow speed.

Look back at Figure 1 which accurately represents a shooting angle for the 63.4° angle shown on the bottom rows of Table 1.

Now look at Table 2 for an example with a rifle. The ballistic calculations are for a 160 grain 7 mm Rem. Mag. at 8,000 ft and 40° (zero set at 200 yards).

Table 2. Ballistics Table for High Angle Rifle Shots

high angle rifle ballistics table

The difference between an flat shot at 300 yards and an elevation difference of 50 yards (9.5°), shows the difference in hold-over or scope adjustment is only 0.5 inches.

At a 45° shooting angle (300 yards out and 300 yards up or down) if we ranged the target, the direct shooting line distance to target is 424.3 yards. Holdover or scope adjustment for that distance would be 22.9 inches for an error of 16.3 inches. The kill zone on an elk is 12 – 14 inches, but still best to try to stay within an 6 – 8 inch circle.

I have seen elk and mule deer in situations that represent the last line in the table; a 51.3 with the direct distance to target at 480.2 yards, but the horizontal distance is still just 300 yards. The hold-over for the shot (if level) would be 33.4 inches for a 26.8 inch error. Good luck with that.

Figure 2 accurately represents the 51.3° shooting angle shown on the bottom row of Table 2 for a 160 grain 7mm Rem. Mag.

To Learn more about how rangefinders calculate the horizontal component, check out Randy Newberg’s and Leupold’s video

How the Leupold Rangefinder (TBR) Works

How Does a Laser Rangefinder Work?

Range finders made for hunting, shooting and for playing golf work by sending a beam of infrared light towards the target. The light bounces off the target and the rangefinder measures the distance by measuring the amount of time the round trip (from you to target and back) took. Since the “beam” travels at the speed of light, the timing clock must be very fast.

There are several factors that determine how well the rangefinder is able to detect the returned beam of light.

  1. Spread (Divergence) of the light energy
  2. Reflectance of the target surface
  3. Size of target
  4. Atmospheric conditions
  5. Rangefinder support (steadiness)

Several years ago on opening day of the General Spike Elk season, I heard five shots coming from over the hill from me. Later that morning I ran into the young hunters that fired those shots. They had seen a spike elk running up the hill away from them at what they estimated to be 500 yards. I looked at where they pointed and ranged it. It was closer to 600 yards, but they said they were closer when they shot at it. Two of the teenagers shot twice and one shot one time; which explained the five shots I heard.

In my opinion, shooting at a running elk that far away is totally irresponsible.

I asked one of the boys” Out of curiosity, what was your hold-over at 500 yards with that rifle?” The young man responded with “What’s hold-over?”

Canting a Rifle Causes Additional Problems with Shooting

I have heard hunters say they had to take such an awkward high angle shot from a ridge that they had to tilt the rifle towards one side. This is called canting. Think about what that does to the bullet impact.

When we “zero” a scope, the scope is aligned so the cross-hairs match the bullet impact for right and left, but mostly we are taking into account the drop of the bullet as it moves towards the target. Gravity always pulls the bullet straight down towards the Earth. If you lean the scope off center, you lose the adjustment for gravity and also add an error to one side or the other.

canted rifle scope elk shotIf I cant my scope to the right while making a shot, the cross hairs are only showing me part of the bullet’s drop are now also adding an unnecessary correction towards the right. The bullet will hit low and to the right, not on the cross hairs.

Read my other posts about shooting and distance estimation:

Comments, Opinions, Questions?

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