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Optics for Sheep Hunters

July 1, 2020

Author - Andrew McKean
Editor - Keith Balfourd
Photo - Steven Drake | Annuli Collective


Bright, reliable, and durable. Those adjectives might describe nearly any gear we carry in the field, or even our best hunting buddies. But I’ll provide one more—light—to define the characteristics of the optics that sheep hunters require to perform at a high level in the upper country, miles from a trailhead.

Magnified optics are the opposable thumb of sheep hunters, giving us an advantage that no four-legged mountain hunter can achieve. The best optics provide an extra edge over those two-legged hunters who might share the mountain. Premium binoculars allow us to see farther, better, and longer into the murk of an alpine twilight. Just as importantly from a resource and legal perspective, they make field evaluation for determining age and curl possible. Clear, precise riflescopes allow us to make longer and more certain shots when the ram of a lifetime quavers in the crosshairs. But not all optics are created equal, no matter what marketers would have you believe. Here is a collection of rugged, capable optics—and optical accessories—that every wild-sheep hunter should consider.



Leupold VX-3i with CDL

The latest trend in sporting optics is gargantuan riflescopes containing first-plane reticles and bulbous turrets that allow you to place precise shots at extreme distances. There’s a lot to recommend this line of optics. Figure out how to use a milling reticle in one of these 2-pound scopes, and you’ll become a better shot, especially at the far end of your rifle’s effective range.

But those scopes are best left on the target range. For hunters conscious of the weight and versatility of their kit, more traditional second-plane scopes are the thing, and there are few better than Leupold’s trim, durable VX-3. The venerable scope has been upgraded with some smart features, including a customizable elevation turret—Leupold’s Custom Dial System—that can be tuned to the specific drop of your bullet. Even more critically, for a backcountry hunter, the turret locks in place, so it can’t be accidentally bumped off zero as you slide it into a saddle scabbard or cinch it onto a pack.

Go with the 4.5-14x40mm configuration with side focus. It’s built on a 30mm tube but weighs only 13 ounces and is an elegant companion to a lightweight mountain rifle. Add illumination (that’s the lower-case “i” in the scope’s name) if you need to highlight your aiming point in dim light conditions. The side focus allows tack-sharp target acquisition even at way-out-there distances.

The basic VX-3 ($715) comes with a simple duplex reticle. If you dial the CDS turret to the specific range of your target, you don’t need any holdover references. However, I recommend the Boone & Crockett reticle ($845). It’s a duplex with two holdover references. Zero your rifle at either 200 or 300 yards, and the holdovers give you aiming points out to either 500 or 600 yards, and the choice of dialing to your distance or using the holdover references.

SIG Sierra3 4.5-14x44 with KILO1800 rangefinder

The electro-optics revolution has finally come to riflescopes, and this SIG system is one of the smartest and most user friendly on the market. Here’s how it works: the riflescope is bonded with a rangefinder that in turn is connected to a smart-phone app. Load your specific ballistics into the app, transfer it to the rangefinder, and your range shows up as a precise holdover point on the vertical crosshair of the scope.

When the system is tuned and working together, placing first shots at far distances is as easy as ranging the target and then holding the illuminated dot on the adjusted aiming point. The system’s brain figures out the hold at any magnification, so unlike most second-plane reticles, you don’t have to operate the SIG at the highest power in order to get precise holdovers.

The first generation of SIG’s BDX (it stands for Ballistics Data Xchange) relied on all three legs of the stool to work in tandem. BDX 2.0, released earlier this year, allows each component to work independently, which can save a hunt in cold weather or other conditions that can sap batteries.

The combo kit, which costs $1,170 and includes the 4.5-14x44mm riflescope and KILO1800 rangefinder, comes bonded from the factory. The rangefinder is preloaded with 8 ballistic groups, in case you don’t want to fuss with inputting your load details into the app. On the other hand, you can still use SIG’s excellent BDX app to upload ballistic data, but because each device works on its own, don’t have to worry about toting your phone along, and you don’t have to worry (as much) about connectivity between devices.

Vortex Razor HD LHT 3-15x42

Vortex has elevated its riflescope capabilities with this do-everything scope that features excellent glass, precise center-dot illumination, and a reticle that has abundant references but a relatively clean look. This is a big scope, weighing 19 ounces and a bit over 13 inches in length, but it is configured to make long shots in low-light conditions, whether in whitetail country or on the side of ram mountain.

The LHT’s reticle is available with either MOA or MRAD references, both in the second focal plane. While I generally don’t like exposed turrets on backcountry rifles, because they can easily be bumped off zero, the Vortex features a locking feature along with its excellent RevStop system that allows you to easily dial the turret back to an established zero.

The 30mm tube has generous mounting dimensions both fore and aft of the turret, a helpful feature if you’re trying to mount this on a magnum-length action. At $1,399, it’s priced south of the super-premium European brands.



Leica Geovid 3200.COM 10x42

From the company that pioneered the rangefinding binocular category, Leica’s newest Geovid combines super-premium glass with one of the fastest and most precise rangefinders on the market. And a Bluetooth interface allows the binocular to communicate with a ballistic app on your phone.

The entire optical and ranging system is housed in an elegant and distinctive chassis that borrows its curvaceous lines from a prism system that enhances field of view and hand-filling ergonomics.

Inclusion of the new Geovid in a roster of sheep-specific gear should be self-evident. Instead of carrying a laser rangefinder and a binocular, the Leica supplies both, and both perform at a high level. There’s a good reason you often see mountain guides carrying Geovids; they are reliable and durable. Their glass is among the best in the field, and the rangefinder reaches out to 3,200 yards. About the only element lacking from the unit is an angle-compensating range feature.

The addition of Leica’s Hunting App 2.0 and the ability to transmit specific ballistic data to the Geovid elevates the rangefinging binocular’s capabilities, but also its ability to provide aiming references matched to your bullet dynamics. The display gives ballistic solutions out to 1,100 yards, expressing holdovers in a number of different formats. If you don’t want to tether to the app, you can use one of 12 pre-installed ballistic curves that matches your rifle’s trajectory.

The 3200.COM is available in 8x42 or 8x56 in addition to 10x42, which costs $3,000.

Swarovski NL Pure 12x42

Optics companies pour a disproportionate amount of resources into their flagships, those signature optics at the very tippy top of their product lines. These remarkable instruments might not sell as many units as more accessibly priced products further down the catalog, but they are expressions of a brand’s capabilities.

With that context in mind, Swarovski’s capabilities have never been more ambitious, or more capably rendered than with its new flagship binocular, the stunning NL Pure. If you’re looking for a sheep binocular that delivers best-in-class image, plus twilight-piercing brightness, and a stunning field of view, the NL Pure should be around your neck.

The NL Pure line, which includes binoculars in 8x42, 10x42, and 12x42 configurations, should be available later this fall, hopefully in time for the latest sheep seasons. I managed to get an early 12x42, and found that it lived up to all the pre-production hype. The image it delivers is sharp and vivid, the focus is responsive and precise, and the field of view—a whopping 399 feet at 1,000 yards in the 10x42 and 339 feet at 1,000 yards in the 12x42—is among the widest in the industry. Zeiss’s flagship binocular, the Victory SF, which came out earlier this year, features 390 feet at 1,000 yards, putting it right behind the Swarovski.

Another remarkable attribute of the NL Pure is its curvaceous profile. Instead of being square and boxy like most roof-prism binoculars, the Swarovski has a pronounced taper in the midsection of its barrels, just in line with the oversized focus knob. The indentation allows your hand to fully grasp the barrels, with the balance point of the optic just in line with the web of your thumb. Ergonomically, this makes the NL Pure seem almost weightless, and allows for hours of effortless glassing.

A smart addition to the basic binocular is Swarovski’s FRP forehead rest, which screws into the NL Pure bridge and allows users to deaden any vibration. That’s a very useful feature for higher-magnification binoculars, especially if they’re mounted on a tripod for long glassing sessions.

A flagship binocular with all this innovation and optical horsepower doesn’t come cheap, even for Swarovski’s standards. The NL Pure starts at $3,300, making it not only a good investment for a once-in-a-lifetime hunt, but an heirloom-worthy piece of your kit.



Zeiss Harpia 85

Let’s get this out of the way: spotting scopes are heavy and bulky, and are one of the first items that get jettisoned from a pack when you’re trying to save both weight and space.

But they are also worth their weight when you must know for certain the age of a ram, whether that right horn is broomed, or whether that darker ram has heavier bases. That’s a very sheep-specific way of saying that a spotter can provide a level of optical resolution that no binocular or riflescope can deliver. But spotters built around standard glass are guaranteed to cause frustration and eye strain. That’s because at high magnifications, the image will get grainy and dark. The answer is to invest in a scope with first-rate glass. You’ll still curse the weight (and the price), but a good spotter will save you miles of hiking simply because you can assess trophies at longer distances.

Zeiss’s Harpia 85 is one of the brightest and most durable scopes on the market. It weighs a ponderous 4.25 pounds, but the gorgeous 85mm objective lens, made of fluoride glass, is responsible for much of that weight. Add extremely precise two-speed focusing and a durable armor, and after one use, you’ll start to find room in your pack for this spotter, which costs $3,700 for the body and another $800 for the 22-65x eyepiece.



Meopta Carbon Tripod

A full-size spotting scope like the Zeiss Harpia isn’t much good without a stable platform, and Meopta’s carbon fiber tripod will give you an excellent, vibration-free base at about half the weight—and cost—of its peer group.

The tripod retracts to just 18 inches, but its total rise, with center post extended, is 70 inches, giving you plenty of reach even if you splay the legs against a buffeting wind. The kit includes a ball head with two mounting plates, a fluid head with two mounting plates, and a smart-phone adapter to take photos of that trophy that you spotted from across the canyon. Best part is the price: $300.

Sitka Mountain Optics Harness

Sitka has taken the standard binocular harness to a new level with this chest-mounted toolbox. The centerpiece of the three-unit carrier is a roomy binocular pouch with a silent, secure front flap to protect your optic and a magnetic closure that is easy to operate with a single hand. But the harness also features removeable, modular side pockets that will accept rangefinders, a GPS, cell phone, or other items like elk calls, compact camera, or a walkie-talkie.

The unit has an abundance of elastic pockets to carry a wind gauge, reading glasses, a lighter, or any number of smaller items that are useful to have at your fingertips. Think of those molle chassis that paratroopers rely on, and you have a pretty good idea of the utility of this essential piece of mountain hunting kit. Cost: $149.

Phone Skope Optics Adapter
One attribute of human nature is our desire to capture the moment, and modern hunters often reach for our phones to do the job. But one of the constants of sheep hunting is that some of the most remarkable moments are a long way from the object of our attention. That’s why we rely on powerful optics to close the distance.

You can capture the view that your spotting scope or binocular delivers with this extremely useful adapter that tethers your smart phone to your optic and lets you shoot high-quality photos and video. It’s like having a telephoto lens for your phone’s camera.

Phone Skope has an adapter for nearly every model of phone and every brand and model of optic, so putting the two together is as easy as using the company’s online “Phoneskope Builder” to create your own custom adapter. Costs vary, but are generally around $60-90 for phone case and optic adapter.

Vortex 2X Doubler

Okay, here’s one you may not have considered. It’s a small monocle that weighs about as much as a deck of cards that will double the magnification of your binocular. The pocket-size doubler slips over the eyepiece of most Vortex binoculars—and many other brands and gives you magnification similar to that of a spotting scope.

The image quality decreases with magnification, and you’ll probably want some ability to stabilize the binocular, because apparent shakiness also increases with magnification. But for a handy, extremely packable lens that can really help out in a pinch, this is a good accessory to carry. Cost is $240.

Zeiss Precision Riflescope Rings

Zeiss is out this year with a line of premium scope rings that are light, tight, and have some very useful features. The low-profile rings, ranging in size from 30mm to 36mm and in various heights, are milled from T6 aluminum with a lustrous black oxide finish. Rings weigh only 4.4 ounces for a set and they ship in a hard case with T15 and T25 Torx driver bits included to cinch the top-cap and base screws. Most remarkably, each set contains a bubble level that is easily viewed from the shooting position and lets you know if your rifle is canted. Costs range from $180 to $200.


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