All About Laser Rangefinders

Do laser rangefinders really work? Yup.

Do you need one? Nope.

Would you benefit from one? Probably.

Laser rangefinders work by projecting a narrow beam or pulse of concentrated light that strikes what it’s aimed at and bounces back to the unit. A computer then calculates the distance based on how long it took the light to make the round trip. Given the speed of light (186,000 miles per second,) that’s one quick calculator!

The best units read from 5- to about 2,000 yards, at least four times farther than anyone has a right to be shooting at anything other than targets. But that’s OK because it’s a blast shooting at rocks or clumps of dirt at ridiculous ranges just to see how close you can come. And knowing a critter is 1,000 yards away gives you an idea how much closer you have to stalk, which helps in route planning.

Bushnell binoculars, Swarovski El Rangefinder, and Burris Eliminator Rifle ScopeRangefinders come in stand alone units such as this little Bushnell binoculars (left), or this Swarovski EL Range (right), and scopes such as this Burris Eliminator (top).

Laser rangefinders don’t always work as advertised, however. A unit rated to 800 yards, for instance, might only read a particular target to 400 yards. Rarely, it might read one at 900 yards. What gives?

Manufacturers advertise top end numbers to attract buyers. If a laser reads highly reflective objects at 1,200 yards, it’ll probably read things such as deer at 600 yards. Dust, fog, rain, and heat shimmer scatter light and reduce the laser’s effectiveness. A flat subject on flat ground, such as a coyote lying flat in short grass, doesn’t offer much of a target. Most of the light bounces off at a tangent rather than straight back to the unit. Don’t expect full-range performance from your rangefinder all the time.

This is a good reason to buy a unit with twice the range you think you might require.

Most rangefinders provide a Scan mode (distance readings change as you move across different objects); a bull’s-eye mode, which reads the closest object if the beam also strikes one in the background; a brush mode, which ignores branches and grass between you and the target; and a rain mode which is supposed to shoot through rain (with varying degrees of success.)

Some Calculate True Ballistic Range
Many rangefinders include additional technology that calculates angles (up and down shooting) and true ballistic range. A few even measure environmental parameters, such as air density and temperature, and plug that data into ballistic calculations.

All stand-alone rangefinders employ a monocular, usually 6X to 8X, for enlarging your target to help you aim. A few, such as Bushnell’s Fusion, Zeiss’ RF, Swarovski’s EL Range, and Leica’s Geovid, are full-blown binoculars that include a rangefinder. These reduce the number of gadgets you must carry. Glass, press the button, read the range and done.

There are also rangefinding scopes from Bushnell, Burris, Nikon, and Zeiss. These are handy, but a bit bulky and heavy. Still, no matter how much your game moves, you’re always ready to take a last-second range reading while looking through your sight. You can’t beat that for convenience and precision.

Some rangefinders require two hands for operation. One-handed units are better, and most new ones are small enough to permit this. A basic rangefinder is faster and easier to use than one that does everything, but cook breakfast. If you buy one of the more advanced tools, study the directions and practice often until you can use it as automatically as a hammer. In the field, at the moment of truth, our brains have a funny way of freezing up. Simple is best.

Some lasers are powered by a 9-volt battery, some by a smaller, lighter CR123. In my book, small is beautiful. Prices vary from about $100 to $3,000, all of which can be justified when your rangefinder shows that deer you thought was 300 yards away is really 500 yards. Better to not shoot than cripple. Better to sneak closer than to miss. Better to know the range than guess.

Shop The Sportsman’s Guide for a great selection of Rangefinders!

Ron Spomer has been photographing and writing about the outdoors for nearly four decades. He’s written seven books, hunted on six continents and been published in more than 120 magazines. He’s currently rifles’ editor at “Sporting Classics,” Travel columnist at “Sports Afield,” Field Editor at “American Hunter” and “Guns & Ammo” — Optics Columnist at “North American Hunter,” Contributing Editor at “Successful Hunter,” Senior Writer at “Gun Hunter,” and TV host of “Winchester World of Whitetail.” He will write on Shooting Tips weekly for You can read his blogs and catch some of his YouTube videos at

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2 Responses to “All About Laser Rangefinders”

  1. Walter Janoski

    pretty reasonable priced

  2. Almo Gregor

    i use the bushnell arc series. they compensate for angle and drop. Tree stand angles make an impact on yardage, not a great impact, but still some. Nikon archers choice is nice too, but restricts you to 100 yards. My bushnell arc can range to 1000 yards, but if you have ever tried to range something at 1000 yards, its nearly impossible.