Combos. Again

Wieland hunting Cape buffalo in the rain on Mount Burko, in the Great Rift Valley of Tanzania. When you are clinging to a cliff by your toenails, having a binocular that is not bouncing around is a great boon.

by Terry Wieland

For the last ten years or so, my range bag has permanently carried, tucked into a side pocket, a small Leica rangefinder—permanently, that is, unless I am big-game hunting somewhere; then it finds its way into the side pocket of my pack.

Around my neck, you would find a Leica binocular.  For years it was their superb 8×32 Trinovid—the legendary model with the black ribbed armoring—and now it is the Ultravid 8×32 HD with Leica’s proprietary water-repellant coating on the glass.  The Trinovid has been retired to the car and accompanies me everywhere I go—rain being less likely to present a problem.

For the 8×32 Ultravid, I’ve rigged a system on all my backpacks:  A thin belt and buckle, attached to a D-ring high on the pack’s left shoulder strap, grips the binocular firmly.  The binocular strap itself is around my neck, but the binocular is securely immobilized to prevent it bouncing around when I’m climbing.  If it’s needed, the buckle is quick-release.

Everyone and his brother has come up with an elaborate harness to secure the binocular, but you can find yourself practically hog-tied if you don one of these harnesses, then put on your backpack over top, and complete the strait-jacket arrangement with one of the new-fangled and complex rifle slings.  These all work well enough separately, sort of, but together?  Forget about it.

The Leica line of one-unit, one-function rangefinders are wonderfully light and compact, and do what you need them to do, when you need them to do it, with no complications.

Serious backpack hunters have all come up with their own arrangements.  My pack-and-binocular system is then augmented by a rifle wearing a simple Brownells latigo sling—in my opinion the best sling available, and it has been for many years.  It’s uncomplicated, can be lengthened or shortened instantly, and is unburdened by any bizarre “cobra” feature or pad, neither of which contribute anything useful.

This missive began as a comment on simplicity in optics, so we will now get back to that.

Last summer, I found myself in possession of a new model binocular with an integral rangefinder.  Not having any immediate way to test it out, I gave it to a friend who’s a serious shooter.  After a couple of months, he returned it with the complaint that it ate batteries at an alarming rate, and drained them even when the rangefinder was switched off.  I duly returned it to the manufacturer, who expressed great surprise—“no one else has had this problem!”—and have heard nothing since.  My friend then hunted throughout the season using his old, serviceable, uncomplicated, but none too sharp binocular.

I repeatedly enquired about the faulty one, and kept getting promises of answers, or a replacement, or the original returned, repaired, and ready to go, but to date none of the above have materialized.

Which brings me to my point:

When you combine two important functions in one unit, and one stops working and the unit needs to be returned for servicing, then you have the use of neither.

What’s more, putting a rangefinder into a binocular makes the binocular heavier and bulkier than it otherwise would be, and the tendency of most of us, if we are going to spend big dough on such a multi-faceted instrument, is to go for more powerful, and with more light-gathering huge lenses.

Around 1996, Leica, which was a pioneer in the field, introduced the first binocular with integral rangefinding, and a magnificent device it was.  I took one to Idaho elk hunting, and the binocular in its protective case was so bulky it had to be tied onto a pack horse like an extra duffel.  It was highly impractical to carry around the neck, ready for instant use if an antler was spotted on yonder meadow.

Of course, I had my normal Trinovid as well, but the problem was that we ended up carrying an awful lot of extra optical weight.

A year or two earlier, Swarovski had incorporated a rangefinder into a riflescope—the first to do so—but it was about as handy as a lunar telescope.

Today, all the technology has been reduced in size and weight, while at the same time becoming much more powerful, and all of it vastly less expensive, that being the nature of technology.  I have a couple of other binoculars with integral rangefinders, which certainly have their uses, but if I was setting off into the mountains with a pack on my back, I would carry the Ultravid binocular, the 1250-metre Leica rangefinder, and my trusty Swarovski spotting scope.  I’d have an extra battery for the rangefinder, of course, but that would be the extent of the technological concessions.

When the going is rough—and backpacking in the mountains is never anything but—the simpler, the better.  Simple is more durable, more dependable, more waterproof—more everything except heavy.

I’m not saying the combination units are not technological marvels or that they have no place, only that they should be chosen only after careful thought, and with due consideration to back-ups of some sort.

Remember:  That which can go wrong, will go wrong.  It (almost) never fails.

From the accuracy of test rifles to the durability of optics, Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland always seems to find himself having trouble where no one else does.  Funny, that.