Spotting Scopes – A heads-up shoot-out

Well folks, after several months of extensive testing and evaluation we finally completed our spotting scope review on Thanksgiving Day! Before I say another word I have several people that I need to thank; without their assistance this review would not have been possible. First is Chris Farris from S.W.F.A., Inc. This comparison would not have happened without Chris loaning us four of the six scopes reviewed. Thanks also goes Jon Lacorte from Nikon for the loan of the Spotter XL outfit, as well as Humphrey Swift and Jane – sorry, Jane, you never gave me a last name – from Swift Optics for the Panther scope. And last but certainly not least, my partner, Eyeman. Eyeman, for those that haven’t seen his handle, is an ophthalmologist and was of invaluable assistance with this review. Oh, he shoots too!! Now with the BIG THANK YOU out of the way, let’s get going.

First, I want to fill you in on the requirements I placed on the scopes. They had to have a variable power eye piece, nothing less than a 60mm objective, and finally the price had to be $500.00 or less. All the scopes in this review met these requirements except the Panther (which exceeded the $500 price point), which you’ll see in the table I’m placing later in this article. Yes, I’m going to try and put all this information in a table that I HOPE will be readable and useable.

All scopes where tested at 50, 100, 200, and 300 yards. We also did some “looking” at 600 and 1,000 yards, but more on that later.

At 50 and 100 yards we looked at three different items: a Hoppes sight-in target, a Snellen Eye Chart, and a dollar bill. First was a Hoppes Sight-in Target that had previously been punctured with an appropriate number of .30 caliber rounds to make viewing easy. We were more interested in seeing individual holes than groups at this distance. This target was used throughout the entire testing process.

Next, also used during the entire testing process, was a standard 20′ Snellen Eye Chart as seen here. You know, the one you have looked at every time you’ve gone to the doctor! I’ll now turn this over to Eyeman! Why an eye chart?? There are many reasons for including this non-standard target. Most everyone has seen one. The letters are precisely printed so that the letters on the 20/40 line are twice as large as the letters on the 20/20 line. Yes Matilda, the 20/200 line is 10 times larger than the 3/8 inch letters on the 20/20 line!

You mil-dot enthusiasts will be interested to know that when viewed at 20 feet, or 6 meters, the letters subtend an arc of 5 degrees and each subsection (black bar that forms part of the letter) has an arc of 1 degree. For example, the 20/50 line letter subtends the same 5 degrees when viewed at 50 feet as the 20/20 letters did at 20 feet. This ratio is consistent throughout the chart to the 20/200 line. Sound familiar??

The numerator is the testing distance and the denominator is the size of the smallest letter that can be read from said testing distance. Interestingly, the black bar parts of the letter also subtend an angle of 1 minute of arc at that distance. 20/40 also means that the test distance was 20 feet, but the subject was only able to read what a person with normal vision can read at 40 feet. 20/10 means you see at 20 feet what most people can only see at 10 feet.

Line:

  • 11 = 20/10
  • 10 = 20/13
  • 9 = 20/15
  • 8 = 20/20
  • 7 = 20/25
  • 6 = 20/30
  • 5 = 20/40
  • 4 = 20/50
  • 3 = 20/70
  • 2 = 20/100
  • 1 = 20/200

Have we put you to sleep yet?? If not let us try again!

Why the one dollar bill?? For starters, everyone has one—and if you don’t, this article ain’t gonna mean much to ya! The printing is very precise and we needed a smaller target at 50 yards as all the scopes could easily resolve the smallest line on the eye chart. There are two types of contrast items on the dollar bill: black-on-white (United States of America) and white-on-black (One Dollar). The font is the same size in both instances. If you are in a store comparing scopes and you’re wondering if the one the salesman is trying to push off on you is better than the one you really want, or you’re wondering how it compares with the ones you fondly remember from this article, you can whip out your $1, tack it to something (no, not to the guy’s forehead—even though you may want to!), pace off 50 yards, and have a look! This clean dollar bill test was only done at 50 and 100 yards.

For the eye chart, these were simple yes/no observations. If one of us indicated he could read the line, he would have to do just that. If more than two letters were missed in reading a line, the line was not counted as having been read and the line above it was recorded. If there is a dual answer it means Eyeman, again, could see it and Sarge’s poor old eyes couldn’t! (Yes Sarge’s eyes are old but that has nothing to do with it! Remember, he wears GLASSES!) Light is bent every time it travels through a different medium. As light moves from the air to your eye it is bent tremendously, and this does more for focusing than the lens of the eye. The reason everything is blurred when you open your eyes underwater is the air-eye interface is lost and the lens of the eye is not strong enough to pull things into focus. For those of you who wear glasses there are two additional interfaces that degrade the light signal: the air-glass interface on the front of the glasses, and the glass-air interface as the light leaves the glasses. Besides, have you EVER seen anyone with really clean glasses?? Sarge did have a slightly better view when looking through the scopes without glasses, but we felt the article would have more value with both points of view.

Also included in the data is whether or not mirage was a factor.

Now let me introduce the candidates, listed in order by the highest low-power to the lowest low-power—did that make sense?? Anyway, here they are:
Kowa TS 612, Swift Panther, Bushnell Spacemaster, Burris Signature, Nikon Spotter XL, and the Leupold Wind River. Now, lets see if I can get this table to come out right! (Note from the Webmaster: Whether he can or not is not the issue – whether I can is at stake here!)

Now, I said I would mention some work at 600 and 1,000 yards. We did try all the scopes at both of these distances but the mirage prevented any useful testing. The best thing we can say for any of them is that we could see the sight-in target and we could see the eye chart, and this varied greatly depending on how heavy the mirage happened to be at that moment. As far as trying to distinguish anything specific we would really have to look HARD to do this, especially as the mirage was getting VERY HEAVY! We did experience one cloudy break and the mirage dropped long enough for us to read the 20/70 line at 1,000 yards using the Kowa scope. The sun came back out, the mirage returned, and we were dead in the water before we could test any of the other scopes. We have no reason to believe the other scopes, which demonstrated approximately equal resolving powers, would not have performed equally as well. Taking that into consideration we decided that any real useful information would not be forth-coming, so we ended our testing at 300 yards.

As for our opinions as to how the scopes break out, well…REALLY look at the table and make your decision. To us they all did quite well, within the limitations of the individual optics.

The Kowa and the Swift can be had with different eyepieces, as you desire. The Nikon and the Bushnell are “outfits” that come with tripods and cases. The Leupold also has an included case. The Nikon is a nice set-up as it has a case for the scope itself, which can be mounted to a tripod with the case still on the scope, plus a case to carry both the scope and the tripod. The tripod goes from about 12 inches to 4 feet in height. The Bushnell comes in a foam padded backpack with cut-outs for the scope and the small “table top” type tripod. This tripod adjusts from about 6 inches to approximately a foot or just a bit more.

All scopes came with lens caps for both ends of the scope (and a Butler Creek cap for the objective end on the Burris). About the only complaint we had on any of the scopes was the objective lens cap on the Bushnell. This cap is made from the same “armour” material as covers the scope and is attached with the same material to the scope. Problem is, it has a lot of “memory” and wanted to flip back up in front of the lens. If this were my scope, it would be a simple matter to either score the rubber or remove it completely and replace it with a Butler Creek cap. Not a big problem, but a nuisance nonetheless.

One of the other things we noticed was the lack of continuity in placement of the focusing knobs. Some are on top of the scope, some on the side, others in back of the power ring, and one (the Bushnell) very conveniently placed into the side of the scope body. All scopes had some type of rubber-like material covering them, with the Bushnell being the heaviest.

OK, OK, so which did I like best? Well, for my money the Bushnell would be very hard to beat. As well as staying right in there optically with the Kowa and the Swift, it has the case, the tripod, and a price almost $200 less than the more expensive Swift.

When it comes to the prices quoted, all prices except the Swift are the prices as seen on the S.W.F.A. website. The price on the Swift is as quoted to me in an e-mail from them.

Well, folks, there it is! I hope this will assist you in selecting a new or replacement spotting scope.

The Hermes 1 Spotting scope

Spotting scopes are often one of the most overlooked and under-researched pieces of gear available to the shooter. The average man on the street has little idea of how useful a device the spotter is and will often forego owning one at all. Many hunters, if the urge hits, will simply buy the cheapest, least effective unit on the market in the hopes that they can cheat their way into seeing at long range. This often results in the purchase of one of those $45.00 Russian spotting scopes that are at best, usable and at worst, a boat anchor. Other low dollar alternatives have included equally poor offerings from Bushnell and Tasco. These scopes, to be blunt, suck. They are not worth the cardboard they are packed in. As in everything dealing with optics, you do get what you pay for and spotting scopes are a perfect example. Low dollar units perform exactly how you would expect. Poorly.

Investing in a spotting scope is not something to take lightly. If you are a trophy hunter who travels to distant places, you want the best you can afford because you will spend hours behind this thing, glassing potential game for quality and size. If you are a benchrest shooter, hand loader, target shooter or competitive marksman, the spotting scope becomes one of your most important tools. It is indispensable. It gives you instant feedback on wind corrections and characteristics and mirage, group dispersion, group size, and overall conditions at the target – as they change! Without a quality spotting scope, a high power shooter is at the mercy of the wind. As a tactical shooter, you know what a good spotter can do for you. Not only will it assist you in your wind calls, it is a must for target identification, intelligence gathering, low light observation, detail enhancement, identifying useful information ranging from hide selection, object identification, counter-sniper interdiction and identification, and good old fashion observation of terrain. Without a spotting scope you may never close in, visually, on that binocular target that may just be what you were looking for. A spotting scope is not only a must for calling long range shots, it can save you an immense amount of work, allowing you to get “close” to a target without ever having to leave the hide or move up to a dangerous physical distance to I.D. something.

For any of the above tasks, a low dollar, poor optical quality telescopic sight is more of a hindrance than help. Poor resolution and contrast plague bargain optics. Your $100 would have been better spent on a lobotomy because once you spend a few hours in the field with one of these things, that is what you wish you will have had. Only high quality optics will allow you to observe for any length of time without headaches and eyestrain. There is no getting around it. Do not cheat yourself where optics is concerned. Good money spent on good glass is always a good investment. Good money spent on bad glass… well… live and learn. I am still asked questions on a “good” $100 sniper scope. My first reaction is to reach through the email and smack the living snot out of the idiot on the other end. If you can’t afford to buy something decent, save up till you can. If you are too cheap? Screw you.

Into this market steps IOR-Valdada. Long known for their excellent optical quality, IOR has stormed onto the American scene by selling high-end glass at mid range prices. They do this by taking advantage of the many top-end European glass manufacturers who, with the end of the Soviet Empire, have gone commercial to stay afloat. This has allowed Valdada, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to simply request a product with a certain specification and within a reasonable time, have that product on the market. They started with excellent quality binoculars and have since added tactical scopes, hunting scopes, high quality scope mounting systems and now a spotting scope.

IOR-Valdada’s latest introduction is the Hermes 1 -a 70mm Spotting scope. Its goal was to compete with Kowa, Swarovski, Leupold, and other high-end brands, but at a price that a serious shooter on a budget could afford. By all counts they seem to have succeeded. A quick glance at a competition shooting supply catalog will prove the point. In the 80mm objective range, a Swarovski AT-80, without eyepiece, will run you $990 and an extra $250 for an ocular. The excellent Kowa TSN-821 without eyepiece, will set you back $465 plus another $136 for the eyepiece. Dropping down to one of my all time favorites, the versatile Kowa TS-611, with a 60mm objective – this will run you $310 sans eyepiece which will cost you an additional $136. By way of comparison, the Hermes 1, with a 70mm objective comes with your choice of either a 16x, 25x or a 40x fixed eyepiece. It retails for $599 but can be had for as little as $475. For those needing the versatility of a variable, it is now available with a 16-40x variable eyepiece for an additional $80 to $100.

Do not let this mid-range price fool you. This is no cheap commy rip-off. In recent and ongoing tests, the Hermes 1 has ranked equal to some of the best glass Europe and America has to offer. The Hermes has exceptional anti-reflection multi-coatings on all its optical surfaces. Its interior is a matt black/gray to further reduce glare. The four-element eyepiece is said to be of the apochromatic type which should help reduce incorrect color halos around bright nighttime objects (I have not yet been able to test this). The Scope itself is of the achromatic type. In side-by-side testing with my Kowa TS-611 equipped with a 25x LER (long eye relief eyepiece), the Hermes 1 easily equaled the Kowa’s performance. The only noticeable difference was in the eyepieces themselves. The Hermes 1’s 25x Wide Angle ocular, when viewed with the eye up close to the lens, provided a wider field of view than the Kowa 25x LER, by maybe 5 feet at 100 yards. Eyeglass wearers will lose a little of this benefit, but with the roll down eyecup provided they can make it up to some extent. Interestingly, when I backed off both eyepieces to the point where I could just make out the circle of the image area holding my target, both oculars gave similar performance in field of view and clarify, with the Hermes 1 providing a bit more contrast. As a high power competitor, you will not need to crowd the scope to see your target. Just center the bull in the field of view and sit comfortably back to observe your target from four inches away. Eyeglass wearers are free to move back off the lens to view their target also. At approximately four inches from the lens, on either scope, the central target was crisp and clearly visible.

As a second target, I chose a wood board at 150 yards. My goal was to see how much of the grain in the wood was discernible and use that as a way to gauge how the scope performed. I am happy to report that the Hermes 1 excelled at sharply defining the intricate detail of the grain. Contrast was excellent and outperformed the Kowa control unit by a small margin. I did however notice a slight imperfection of the image near the center of the field of view. It is hard to describe as it was practically invisible – nearly on the edge of perception and it did not interfere with the performance of the scope at all. Curious, I looked down the objective. I believe it was the crest of the internal prism that I was seeing. But it was there on the edge of perception so it is hard to say. When looking down the objective and into the scope body, you can clearly see the prism used to angle the image 45 degrees off the centerline of the scope body. The forward edge appeared to have a small chip in it where the two surfaces meet. I believe it was this chip that I was “seeing”. It was so minor that I cannot really complain about it and it did not effect my usage of the scope at all, but I wanted to point it out so you know what to expect if your scope has a similar trait. The image area was crystal clear right to the edge in all views and distances, but did darken slightly at the very edge. I would rate the field of view and clarity on par with most every high-end spotter I have observed through with a similar sized objective.

The scope body is, I believe, aluminum. Knowing the Eastern European penchant for rock solid equipment, I was not surprised at the apparent strength built into the unit. The scope, with eyepiece attached, weighs in at approximately 40 ounces. It is 12″ long with the sunshade retracted and the eyepiece detached. The eyepiece adds an additional 1.5″ to the overall length. The integral sunshade extends two inches beyond the forward rim of the objective and totals 2.25″ from the edge of the glass. With everything attached and extended, the overall length of the complete unit is 15.5″ long. The body is painted in a very nice textured Olive Drag green and has matt black fixtures. The scope can be rotated about its axis via the integral tripod mounting ring, which has a friction lock. The foot of this ring attaches to your tripod via a 1/4″ universal threaded hole. A second hole is provided in the foot for an alignment pin as is often found on today’s tripod mounting plates. In use, the ring allows you to position the ocular at any angle required! Simply loosen the friction knob and rotate the scope body until the eyepiece is situated for maximum comfort. In a tactical environment, this is ideal as you can turn the scope “upside down” and view the target area with minimal exposure to yourself, or position the scope around a corner without exposing any of your body. The eyepiece is at a 45-degree angle to the scope body, so in effect you have a periscope if you need it! Of course, as many snipers and tactical shooter have learned, you can completely forgo any tripod at all, using a backpack or buttpack for a rest.

The four-element eyepiece is of high quality. Focus is attained by rotating the ocular until sharpness is achieved. The eyepiece drum screw mounts into the scope body. I much prefer this to the bayonet type mount found on my Kowa. While the Hermes 1 is sealed against dew and water, you could add an O-ring to the threads for extra security. On my Kowa, I had to purchase a drum that completely encased the eyepiece to get this kind of water resistance!

In all, the Hermes 1 is a simple, utilitarian spotting scope of excellent clarity. Its image is on par with anything I have tried to date. With its 70mm objective, low light situations will be a snap. In spite of the one imperfection I found due to the prism, this scope performed flawlessly at the range and in the field. Its excellent contrast made determining bullet holes easy and its clarity allowed me to distinguish fine detail at great distances. For the money, the IOR-Valdada offered Hermes 1 is an excellent buy, performing in the same league of spotters easily twice its price. While I have some quality issues with items coming from the east, they are usually minor in detail and seldom effect overall performance, especially when budget is a concern. Were I to have to choose between the Hermes 1 and the similar Kowa TSN-1, both 70mm spotters, I would be hard pressed to decide… that is until I examined the price tag. At under $500, with eyepiece, the Hermes 1 is the hands-down winner.

Apparently you can be thrifty, to a point, and still get quality optical performance. IOR has proven it time and again.

For part 2 of this article, I am sending the Hermes 1 off to PeteR for use in a tactical match. He will present his feelings after this match. My tests were all performed at the range or in the field, but under no pressure. Seeing how Pete has enough to think about in the match, I figured this would be a great way to get a real feel for just how user-friendly this scope may prove to be. If an old coot like Pete can perform well with it, it can’t be half bad! Your gear should never require extra special handling or detail. The sign of something good to go for tactical use is how well it performs without you having to think about it. I will stick my neck out and say my guess is that in this case, we have a winner.

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