During the past few years, I've shot thousands of rounds at targets using rangefinder reticle scopes, and I've also used them on a significant number of centerfire rifle hunts for big game and varmints. Because of this experience, I feel qualified to tackle four of the most common questions regarding these high-tech riflescopes.
Do Rangefinder Reticles Work?
Yes, but in terms of providing an exact yardage, they aren't as accurate or fast as a laser rangefinder. There are three basic operating systems used in rangefinder reticle scopes. The first—and simplest—involves comparing a measuring device in the scope's field-of-view against a known-sized portion of an animal (or target). This means placing a circle, set of bars, dots or tick-marks on an animal. These measuring marks are scaled to match a given number of inches on an animal, usually 16 or 18 inches. There might be a number of measuring marks in the field-of-view that represent apparent image size at various ranges.
Another method of correlating measuring marks to a known-dimensioned part of an animal is to simply vary the power ring so the animal appears larger or smaller. Marks on the power ring will then indicate distance. This works with the simplest rangefinder reticle design: the duplex with 16- or 18-inch spacing between the ends of the posts. It's also employed in Leupold's Boone and Crockett Big Game Reticle. Leupold engraves two indicator marks on the power-ring that are used for medium or magnum performance cartridges.
The third rangefinding reticle design involves the use of mathematical equations and/or calculators or slide-rule devices. I'm talking about the Mildot, which in my opinion is one of the least understood and least user-friendly reticle designs—period. And that's because the process is just too complicated. Mildot scopes are actually used for mil-ranging, which involves a healthy dose of mathematics—and memorizing a formula or two—and most shooters don't like the idea of involving math into their shooting.
How Accurate Are Rangefinder Reticles?
There's no definite answer to that question because the shooter is a major variable. First, you have to understand how a particular reticle works, then you need to hold the reticle extremely still on an animal or target to ensure a good reading. Then, you have to interpolate what you're seeing. Sometimes this is quick and easy, but other times deciding where the scope markings fit onto an animal can be difficult.
I've tested several rangefinder reticles on life-sized deer decoys in the field at known distances, and my results weren't great. Some reticles worked well enough that I would've held properly for the known distance, but I had several reticles that simply took too long to be practical, or were incorrectly scaled so my accuracy suffered. In general, the reticles designed for tactical use performed better than those for sporting use.
Keep this in mind: Most game animals are shot within 200 yards, so rangefinder reticles aren't necessary for the vast majority of hunters in North America. Most deer rifles are sighted in to be dead-on at approximately 200 yards, so a hold on a deer's chest results in a quick kill in all but the longest of shots. Most hunters aren't sure where to hold at distances of 300 yards or more because of the inability to estimate distances accurately, as well as the lack of knowledge regarding bullet drop and wind-drift. For extremely long shots, say 500 yards, a rangefinder reticle will provide better distance info than you can "guestimate," but most shooters should never consider pulling the trigger at animals that far away.
Which Rangefinder Scope Is Best?
The popular duplex reticles were some of the earliest and simplest rangefinder scopes, and they still work well. Then, T.D. Smith developed his excellent TDS reticle that's licensed by Swarovski and Kahles. The TDS system works so well that the multiple bar concept has been copied by several other scope manufacturers.
By far the most complex and accurate rangefinder reticle I've used is the Horus from a company called Horus Vision. No other reticle offers so many hold-off and ranging options. The downside is the Horus patterns dominate a significant percentage of the field-of-view. Once you get used to the grid and scales, however, this isn't a problem. Where the TDS reticle has four vertical hold-off points, the Horus has up to 15 or 16 vertical bars and a maximum of 50 bars and tic-marks horizontally. The Horus is a very good long-range reticle, but it does require a bit of practice.
My favorite rangefinder reticle is the NP-R2 from Nightforce. It employs minutes-of-angle that are the same graduations as on my scope turrets, which makes for simpler calculations. I've taken numerous animals with the R2 using hold-offs and adjusting the turrets for elevation and wind. My longest hold-off shot was just more than 700 yards on a whitetail during a CWD deer cull in my home province of Saskatchewan. The deer died in its tracks. I was so confident in my bullet placement with the scope that I shot a second animal at the same distance later in the day.
Are Rangefinder Reticles A Viable Hunting Tool?
Yes—for some hunters. I prefer to get as close as possible to an animal to ensure proper shot placement, but there are habitat types and game animals that demand longer shots, and this is where a rangefinder scope is valuable. Obviously, there's no reason to mount one on a close-range slug gun, but I do have them on a couple muzzleloaders and a variety of long-range centerfire rifles.
Truth be told, laser rangefinders have become so compact and affordable that I rarely use a scope's rangefinder reticle for estimating distance. But if the batteries fail in my laser rangefinder, or I forget to pack it, a rangefinding scope is a great back-up. Obviously, the secret is to practice with your rifle and scope so you can confidently place your shots with lethal accuracy from a variety of distances.