Choosing the best optical configuration for western big game hunting

Five thousand feet away, two male mule deer grazed along the nearly vertical wall of a canyon. My 13-year-old son, Josiah, had seen them through his binoculars a few minutes earlier, and now I looked at them through my spyglass, intending to determine if any were mature. Sure enough, they were both shooting dollars. We shouldered our packs and made our way toward the deer.

It didn’t take long to close the distance. Crawling on our bellies, we turned under the branches of an old juniper and climbed the cliff high on our side of the canyon. Josiah placed his Javelin Pro bipod under his rifle and lay prone while he hit the male with my laser rangefinder. Huge and unusual, the top male was 499 yards away. Josiah spun the custom dial on his 2.5-8x36mm Leupold scope and dropped the ball with a single accurate shot.

Young Hunter with Mule Deer

Hunting big game like mule deer, elk or pronghorn in the wide expanses of the West requires a specific set of optics. Western big game tags are getting harder and harder to come by, and the smart hunter will go to great lengths to capitalize on the few opportunities that come their way. That means using good optics and using them effectively. This is what he will need:

Male hunter with binocular vision on the side of a distant mountain

The first order of business during a wide-open hunt is to find game. That can be a difficult task in a territory where there may be only a few animals per square mile. Walking around hoping to run into your prey isn’t going to cut the mustard. You will need good binoculars through which you can study large amounts of habitat. My favorite full size is 10×42, although I like an 8x lens for hunting in thick cover, or a 15x binocular for hunting very elusive game like deer coues, or really big country where I’m looking miles away.

To use your binoculars on the right, go up to a vantage point where you can see a lot of good country. Get comfortable and then part the area through your glass. Study the obvious good points first, but don’t neglect the rest. Many times I have seen a large male or bull where no one expected him to be. Methodically survey the entire area, and then start over. Repeat. Due to vegetation and uneven terrain, only a percentage of the landscape can be seen from any given point. Much of the game time in the area will simply be out of sight. Look long enough, and they’ll move on sight. Patience and diligence are truly valuable during this stage of the game.

Maven Optics ground-based telescope on tripod

ground telescope
Once you’ve seen the game, you’ll need to determine if it’s an animal you’re interested in stalking. This is where the spyglass comes into play. You’ll want a spotter with at least 20x magnification, and sometimes up to 60x can prove to be a real advantage. My favorite telescopes include a Zeiss 15-45x65mm and a Maven 12-27x56mm. They are both lightweight; the Zeiss is better from a distance, while the Maven is extraordinarily compact and lightweight for the most intense backpack hunts.

To use your spotter effectively, you’ll need to mount it on a sturdy, lightweight tripod. A word of caution here is in order; don’t try to get by with a cheap tripod. His spyglass will vibrate and shake like a cricket on meth every time the wind blows, making it difficult for him to get a good look at his target. Instead, spend the extra money to get a good tripod. Once you’ve seen the game with your binoculars, set your spyglass on the game, get it in sharp focus, and determine if you want to stalk what you see.

Father and son hunting

The last role your scope will play is during the actual shot. Whenever a hunter is shooting over 300 yards, it is best to have an experienced hunting partner who sees the action through a large lens. He can help make wind calls, detect bullet impact and call for a correction if needed. It’s also important that he can see what’s happening on the other end of the action. Typically, an animal that has been hit will either lose sight of it or run behind cover, often leaving the shooter (who has just dealt with the recoil of his rifle) bewildered and unsure whether or not he made a good shot. A good observer using a good spyglass will have the answers to all those questions.

Maven Optics RF.1 Laser Rangefinder

Modern laser rangefinders have single-handedly changed the way we hunt. Now we can measure the yards exactly. That’s important any time you shoot past 250 yards, which is the distance most calibers will start to get out of the “dead” zone. With a good rangefinder, you can simply press the button, read the range, adjust your scope to compensate, and make an accurate kill shot.

Zeiss Victory RF Laser Rangefinder Binocular

My favorite rangefinders are built into high-quality, well-designed binoculars. This eliminates the need to carry an additional piece of equipment. Better yet, it eliminates the need to put the binoculars down, grab the rangefinder and laser-point at the target, and then put the rangefinder back in your pocket. With a binocular/rangefinder combo, you simply press the button and read the range; no need to worry. That said, there are some excellent stand-alone rangefinder units available. I have used them a lot and love them. Today’s best rangefinder units, both bino-combo and stand-alone units, incorporate software and atmospheric and ballistic capabilities, and will provide you with a dial to raise that matches your rifle and caliber. Then all you need to do is mark the turret in your scope (if applicable), read the wind, and prepare to fire.

Male hunter shooting rifle out of hunting pack

Rifle sight
This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. You’ve spotted a deer or bull with your binoculars, assessed it with your spotting scope, measured the distance with your rangefinder, and now it’s time to shoot. A good scope is the final link in the optical chain that connects you to your prey.

Too many hunters opt for extreme magnification in their hunting scopes. I’m talking about rigs with superior 20x-plus magnification power and gigantic objective lenses (front). After more than 30 years of hunting big game in the west, I have never shot an animal with my scope above 12x. And that includes the “long range” shots I’ve taken. In fact, my most common power setting during hard shots is nine. I can see clearly (thanks to excellent glass), and because I’m using a mid-range power setting, I have a large enough field of view that I can keep an eye on my game even during backtracking. That’s a valuable thing when a follow-up shot may be necessary, which applies to all hunting situations.

Gunwerks rifle with Leupold telescopic sight

My preferred size for a western hunting scope is in the range of 2.5-8x36mm up to 3-18x44mm depending on the terrain and game I am hunting. There are excellent viewers available from Zeiss, Swarovski, Maven, Leica, GPO and others. I use and love them all, but I confess that my favorites are Leupold. They’re absolutely reliable, sport great glass and fantastic engineering, and are made in the USA.

Your western hunting scope should possess a good ballistic turret, ideally one with a zero lock and zero stop type mechanism. Get a custom yard marked turret that matches your caliber, ballistics, elevation, and anticipated weather conditions. I like my rifles zeroed at 200 yards for western big game hunting. Get your turret cut accordingly. Then all you have to do is measure the target or animal, mark the custom turret to match, and pull the trigger. It’s an amazing, near-foolproof setup, ideal for taking challenging shots over a huge turf.

Hunter with horses carrying mule deer

Now that you understand the value of this complete four-optic system for hunting the wilds of the West, I’d like to stress one last thing to you before you start building your own set of optical tools: get the best quality. possibly you can. The difference in clarity, accuracy, reliability and weight can be huge, and at some point in his career as a hunter it will make the difference between success and failure.

When I was just a lanky 17-year-old, I recognized that hunting optics were going to play a big part in my future. I started saving every dollar I made. It took me a year and a half to save up enough to buy the best binocular on the market. I’ve used them extensively from Alaska to Texas, and have never regretted the sacrifices it took to buy them. They have never let me down. Even today, 30 years later, they are superb glass. If you use the same strategy, your glass will outlast you and be prized by some hardened grandson hunting in the West like you did.