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Rifle Magazine
May - June 2002
Volume 34, Number 3
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 201
On the cover...
The D'Arcy Echols Legend rifle is built on a Winchester Model 70 bolt action. A Leupold scope is secured in custom rings and mounts. Rifle photo by Gerald Hudson. Dall sheep photo by Mike Barlow.
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Even out here in the wide-open West, half the hunters don’t carry binoculars. Of those who do, at least three-fourths carry low-price compacts, often stuffed inside coat pockets. So only about 12 percent actually wear optics around their necks - and of those, perhaps half actually use them to find game, instead of merely looking at antelope, deer or elk they’ve already seen. Add all those numbers up, and maybe one in 20 hunters actually gains much from binoculars.

The truly handicapped are, of course, the hunters who think binoculars were made obsolete with the invention of the 3-9x riflescope. Instead of carrying clunky “field glasses” around their necks to see if the object across the canyon is a stump or a deer, they crank their scopes up to 9x. This   is wrong on every level possible - though the practice was suggested in several hunting magazines back in the 1960s, when variables first started taking over the scope market.

Most obviously, scope-glassing breaks the primary safety rule: Don’t point any firearm at any object you can’t afford to blow a hole through. This includes another hunter, who may grow irritated when you point a 7mm Magnum in his direction.

Also, even the finest 3-9x riflescope doesn’t help you see as well as any decent, full-sized 8x binocular. Why? “Binocular” means two-eyed, and the stereoscopic effect of good binoculars gives a depth to the world a one-eyed telescope cannot. Consequently, most people can see detail better out of 10x binoculars than a 15x telescope. Plus, it’s a lot easier to glass with a 2-pound binocular than an 8-pound rifle, and looking through two eyes produces much less eyestrain than squinting through one.

Even many hunters who actually carry binoculars make the mistake of wandering the wilds with their prized glass safely inside a daypack or case. This ensures they’ll only glass game that’s already seen them, and very little of that.

A few Novembers ago, I sat with my back resting against a limestone boulder in the Beaverhead country of southwestern Montana, glassing across a canyon. The afternoon sun lay only a hand’s width above the horizon, signaling that magical hour when game begins to wander.

Pretty soon some mule deer appeared. Through my 10x Bausch & Lombs, they appeared to be a big doe, two fawns and a small 4x4 buck, probably a 2 1/2 year old. The young buck was sniffing the doe in hope of getting lucky. A doe in estrus is the finest buck-bait in the world, so I sat back and kept glassing, hoping for a bigger buck.

Soon two hunters appeared on the same hillside, a half-mile from the deer, hiking hard as if competing for an Olympic medal. The doe saw them almost immediately and trotted uphill to the edge of the timber, where the rest of the deer soon followed. They watched as the two guys closed the distance to 200 yards, whereupon the old doe thumped into the trees, followed closely by the young buck.

The hunters heard the thumping, so stopped and looked up, seeing only the fawns. One of the hunters put a hand inside his jacket, retrieving a small black object, from which he eventually wrestled a compact binocular. He aimed this at the fawns for awhile, then shrugged to his partner, and their forced march continued.

Over my years of glassing public lands, I’ve seen variations on the same scene repeated over and over. Sometimes somebody gets a shot off, though not usually effectively, but the basic pattern repeats itself like any unlearned history lesson. All these hunters carry optics of one sort or another, yet none of them ever use the darn things (even their riflescopes) before they see game, thereby violating Rule #1 of glassing: Look carefully at any “empty” landscape, because it may hold game.

Human eyes are quite good at perceiving detail, partly because most of us can discern color. Our sharpest vision occurs in a very small area in the back of our eyeballs called the macula lutea. Images that fall outside the macula lutea, in our peripheral vision, aren’t perceived with nearly as much detail, though peripheral vision picks up motion very well. The detailed vision of our macula lutea works best when our head’s still, the reason hunters who merely hike through the countryside (like the two guys in that canyon) rarely see deer before deer see them.

Magnification effectively shrinks the macula lutea. At 10x, the most popular binocular power, the macula lutea perceives only 1/100 of its normal field of view. Why? The macula lutea’s essentially a circle, and 10x “shrinks” this circle to 1/10 its normal diameter - which covers 1/100 of the area of the unaided macula lutea.

Go ahead. Pick up a pocket calculator and do the math, using the formula you’ve forgotten since junior high: the area of a circle equals its radius squared, times pi (3.142). A circle 10 inches in diameter, for instance, has an area of 78.55 square inches (5x5xpi). A circle one inch in diameter has an area of .7855 square inch (.5x.5xpi)

Even our unaided eyes can’t perceive much detail if we don’t stand still and look hard, but they see even less when we “sweep” the landscape with 10x binoculars. They’ll miss the white throat of a buck bedded in the shadows of a Douglas fir but will see the deer bounding away, because our motion-sensitive peripheral vision still works even through 10x glass - the reason many hunters only see alarmed deer.

Consistently successful hunters don’t hike around the woods, blasting away at running deer. Instead they sit still, or take just a few steps before standing and looking for a long time. Being still helps us see deer, even if they’re bedded down, because bedded deer often twitch ears, scratch ribs or chew cuds. Seeing deer first allows these careful hunters to stalk closer, or ease into a steady shooting position, making the shot certain.

Unless we use binoculars to search for unseen deer, even the finest 10x50s in the world are mere neck-weights. When glassing much beyond 100 yards, we should try to be as steady as when shooting, so our eyes can do their job.

Let’s refine Rule #1: Stop and really look. Don’t pan the hillside like a TV camera in a baseball park following The Wave. Instead, hold the binocular steady on one piece of landscape, and look around inside its circular field.

Get as steady as you can. Sit down, preferably with your back against an oak or sagebrush. When hunting I often wear a baseball-style cap, partly because grabbing the bill along with my binocular steadies the view considerably. Or use a pair of cross sticks as a rest, or stand your rifle up (bolt open) and use the barrel to steady the binocular.

Rule #2: Glass inconspicuously. A few years ago I informally guided a friend who’d drawn an antlerless mule deer tag in the Missouri Breaks. We mostly hunted chunks of public Bureau of Land Management ground that could be reached by county roads. These often hold deer, especially if you hike over any ridge, away from the road.

We’d driven about 10 miles to a single square mile of BLM land at the head of a dry “crick,” as they’re called in Montana. These headlands usually have plenty of mule deer cover: erosional cuts that splay like fingers from the main crick with patches of juniper at the heads of the draws. I parked the pickup beside a low ridge and hiked up, my friend behind me. Near the top I got down on knees and elbows and wormed over, Swarovskis ready.

Rule #3: is to first look nearby with bare-naked eyes, just in case something’s right there. In this case some mule deer lay along a cutbank 250 yards below us. Through my glasses they turned into two does and a 3x3 buck.

About this time my friend walked right up to the top of the ridge and stood there, glassing the uphill reaches of the crick, half a mile away, where a few patches of juniper clung to a bluff. “Nothing here,” he said, as if conversing in a noisy restaurant. The deer didn’t much care for all this, so eased to their feet and started to walk away.

“You want to shoot a mule deer?” I asked.

“Well, yeah,” my friend said.

“You could shoot one of those,” I said, pointing downhill.

Upon seeing the deer he jerked his slung rifle off his shoulder, then floundered into a sitting position as if racing a falling tree. The deer, previously only mildly disturbed, now bounced away in that beautiful mule deer “stott,” then stopped to look back at about 300 yards, whereupon my friend shot over the bigger doe’s back (right where he’d aimed, it turned out, since he’d decided a .30-06 needed a little “help” at that range, even when sighted 3 inches high at 100 yards).

Rule #4 involves patience. Despite the marvels of modern optics, it’s hard to see game sitting perfectly still a half-mile away. While I’ve found many deer by spotting their throat patch, ears or antlers, more often we see something move. The movement can be extremely obvious, as when black bears ramble around an avalanche slide on a bright May afternoon, but it can also be exquisitely subtle.

Early one September in the Alaskan interior, three of us sat glassing for caribou and moose. It was huge country, mountains and willowed river bottoms rolling on without fence or road or any other human object for 20-odd miles. We sat on the end of a grassy ridge overlooking the valley, and each took a direction. I had the left flank, and eventually started glassing a birch-covered north slope almost a mile away. After 45 minutes something white appeared on the edge of a small clearing I’d already glassed six times.

Putting down my 10x binocular, I leaned over and grabbed our communal spotting scope, already on a tripod. Turning it down to 15x, I found the white spot and was cranking the magnification up when the spot disappeared. At 30x, I could see that dark red had replaced the white.

Then the moose turned his head again, and the white reappeared.

It happens just like that. For a long time the landscape lies peacefully slumbering, and then one detail crystallizes. Attached to that detail a large mammal appears, as if materializing from the shimmering air.

In this case a bull moose lay bedded in the shade along the clearing’s edge, one antler visible - an antler so freshly cleaned of velvet that the bottom surface was still dark red with clotting blood, while the upper surface had been washed white by rain. Each time he turned his head the color changed.

For such long-range glassing, many hunters choose 10x or more. I do this often myself, but for most glassing 8x works better. Why? Our macula lutea doesn’t shrink as much, allowing us to find pieces of game more easily. For typical woods ranges, I’m tempted to suggest going to 7x or even 6x - except you can’t buy many 7x or 6x binoculars anymore.

Why not? Because we won’t buy them. In the typical American approach to everything, we believe bigger is always better. We buy far more 10x binoculars than any other magnification, even in pocket models with such tiny objective lenses that they go blank well before shooting light ends. I own a dozen binoculars from 7x to 12x, but if I had to settle on a single model, it would be one of the 8x40s. Eight-power is much more versatile than anything else, doing remarkably well when finding game, even at long range. This is the most important job of binoculars, not evaluating antlers 1,000 yards away. For that you need at least a 20x spotting scope.

Which brings us to Rule #5: Never hunt without glass around your neck. Many woods hunters believe binoculars are worthless at close range, but when still-hunting or even stand-hunting, they’re much more effective than our eyes, especially when looking at deer screened by branches and (once again!) much less conspicuous in use than any riflescope. Less conspicuous is always good when glassing, especially at 75 yards.

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