HE PAST THIRTY YEARS have seen major changes in binocular manufacturing, yet some hunters are
still wandering around in the past, making assumptions that are no longer true — or never were.
Let's start with the revolution that took place in the late 1980's. Before then Porro-prism binoculars, the "old-fashioned" kind with the crooked barrels, provided the
sharpest view. This was because light reflected through the prism system like bouncing off mirrors, so the image remained basically the same.
Roof prisms, used in binoculars with straight barrels, split the light in two after it entered the front (objective) lenses, then put the two halves together again before it
reaches the rear (ocular) lenses. Due to this splitting and recombining, the light-waves of the two halves didn't recombine perfectly. In optics-speak this is
called being "out of phase," and it resulted in a slight softening of the view compared to Porro-prism binoculars.
So why did roof-prism binoculars even exist? There were three factors: bulk, waterproofing, and ruggedness.
Porro prisms require more room inside a binocular, so the barrels have to be larger and, because of their "dog-leg" shape, the objective lenses aren't in line with the ocular
lenses, resulting in more bulk. Also, the complex shape of the barrels makes sealing against water more difficult than with the straight barrels of roof-prism binoculars.
Since the roof prisms themselves are smaller than Porro prisms, they can also be mounted more securely inside each barrel. The straight barrels also allow the use of
stronger hinges between the barrels, whether a long "piano" type hinge, or shorter bridge-type hinges.
Due to all these factors, many hunters preferred roof-prism binoculars despite their optical shortcomings. But to approach the view through Porro prisms, roof-prism
binoculars had to be much more precisely made, with more expensive glass.
Montana's Missouri Breaks requires serious long-distance glassing. Many other top spots do as well.
As a result, considerable demand also existed for high-grade Porro prisms, because for some hunters and other binocular users (such as bird-watchers), their sharper view made up
for their relative bulk and weight. Most better manufacturers offered both kinds of binoculars.
In the late 1980's, however, optical advances resulted in roof-prism coatings that greatly reduced and, eventually, essentially eliminated the phase-shift. At first
such phase-correction coatings were only available in the most expensive roof-prism binoculars, whether made in Europe or Japan, but eventually the technology spread into
lower-priced binoculars as well.
It inevitably does in a world-wide marketplace, and trade agreements made since World War Two, partially to discourage further armed conflict, allowed technology to spread even
quicker. By then computer programs also allowed optics companies to improve their designs without nearly as much expensive, cut-and-try engineering, and within about a
decade "phase coating" (the shortened term) spread to mid-priced roof-prism binoculars.
Excellent optical glass also became available around the globe. Before then the best glass had been almost the exclusive product of Schott in
Germany. Originally started as a working partnership between Germans Otto Schott, a glass chemist, Ernst Abbe (considered the father of modern optical science), and
Carl Zeiss, by the 21st century Schott had become a world-wide company, with factories around the globe.
Both Schott glass itself and modern coatings weren't exclusively German anymore, and other countries sometimes even had an advantage over German and other European
factories. Varying amounts of lead had long been part of high-quality optical glass, because lead increases glass density, makes it easier to "bend"
light. This is exactly why lead is a major component of so-called "lead crystal" glass, and also why the Zeiss Night Owl binoculars of the early 1990's were also
sometimes referred to as the "boat anchor" line.
The view through Night Owls was marvelous — I first visited the Zeiss factories when they were introduced, and a couple of older optics writers proclaimed them so good
that binoculars could no longer be improved. (Those two writers were younger than I am now, but even back then I didn't believe any device could be perfected for all
time, so just rolled my eyes while keeping my mouth shut.) But in 2006 the European Union passed laws against lead and other hazardous materials in manufacturing, and
one of the casualties was lead in optical lenses. European binocular manufacturers soon compensated, but lens manufacturers in some other countries can still include
lead, including several of the 40-some Schott glass factories around the world.
But even before the European anti-lead laws, optics manufacturers in other parts of the world had caught up. In the summer 2002 I brought two full-sized, roof-prism
binoculars of the same magnification and objective-lens diameter to a gathering of knowledgeable hunters — with the names and any other identifying marks taped
over. One binocular was from what's often known today as an "alpha" European firm, and the other the latest, hottest Japanese binocular among bird-watchers. I
asked at least a dozen people to evaluate the optics in the two binoculars, and the overall winner, by a small but definite margin, was the Japanese model.
Essentially the same thing occurred later that year, when a long-time friend from "back East" came to Montana to hunt mule deer with me in the Missouri Breaks, which require
serious long-distance glassing. I brought the Japanese binocular, while he showed up with the same model of Euro-binocular I'd brought to the summer
gathering. While glassing he sometimes couldn't quite make out stuff I could, and eventually I handed my binocular to him and said, "Take look." He did, and
became depressed because his binocular had cost twice as much.
However, shortly after that European binocular manufacturers started improving their wares. Since around 1990, when phase-coating became universal in higher-priced
Porro prisms, they'd pretty much been making the same binoculars, but suddenly the rest of the world was catching up, and they had to do some catching up as well.
They have, and today's top Euro-binoculars are better optically than they were 15 years ago, and slightly better than almost any binoculars made in the rest of the
world. But any more Asian firms come very close, and the price of really good Asian optics has dropped even further, thanks in part to direct marketing made possible
by the Internet. Cyberspace has revolutionized sales in many ways (including how writers reach readers) by allowing companies to sell anything from books to binoculars
directly to customers, rather than depending on a network of wholesalers and retailers, each taking a piece of the pie.
Part of the reason I know about the quality changes in optics over the past 30-some years is not only visiting various optics plants around the world, but the availability of
professional optics laboratories where more quantifiable tests can be made. But part of it has also been a wide variety of optics passing through my
hands. Over those decades probably at least 200 binoculars of all sizes have appeared, for long enough periods, that I can not only test them thoroughly myself in a wide
range of "field conditions," including light and weather, but arrange for other people to look through them. Often this is done by inviting 2-3 friends over during the
last hour of light, but my wife Eileen has also been of enormous help. She's been here during those 30+ years, and is not only an enthusiastic hunter (and birder) but
served for several years as the optics columnist for the now-defunct NRA women's magazine.
Right now we have a few dozen binoculars in the house, but those include top models of all the alpha European brands, plus some others going back to the 1980's, and a couple even
earlier. Thus we always have a means of direct comparison with what are considered the best optics in the world. During that process we've discovered some
misconceptions about optics.
The first and most obvious is that only "alpha" Euro-binoculars is suitable for serious glassing. While they're obviously among the top choices, others also work
great. I've proven this on numerous hunts, not just the one with my friend in the Missouri Breaks. Another example was a bear hunt in south-central Alaska,
where my young guide had just spent considerable money on an alpha binocular, though not the absolute top-of-the-line from that particular company. (Even alpha companies
sell various binoculars at different price-points.)
I'd brought a new binocular made in, believe it or not, China. It had already been used for some hunting that year, and I'd been impressed both by the detail revealed
by the optics and the lack of eyestrain during long hours of glassing. The same thing happened as during the Breaks trip: I'd see details my guide couldn't quite, and
when I left to head home, he ended up with my binocular — which cost less than half the alpha.
Another interesting instance also started unfolding when I was sitting around one evening at the SHOT Show, having a few beers with an old friend, the public relations agent
who'd arranged the Zeiss tour a decade earlier. Now working for a different European optics firm, not one of the alpha trio of Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss, the PR agent
confessed the company was now getting its binoculars made in Japan. Only the rubber armoring on the outside was applied in Europe, imprinted with the European country's
name. This was interesting, but even more interesting was the quality of the company's binoculars got BETTER. (This story was confirmed two years later on
another bear hunt in Alaska, where one of my hunting partners was the optics buyer for a major American retailing company. He visited several factories in Japan every
year, and saw the European company's binoculars being made.)
These days most companies are more open about such stuff. Zeiss now has several products made in Asia to their specifications, including spotting and rifle scopes made
in Japan, and binoculars made in China. However, they provide lower-priced products for Zeiss, with the optics good but not the best in their line-up, and there's no
subterfuge about where they're made. (Zeiss tried this once before in 1990's, by having a lower-priced binocular made in Hungary. But unlike the newer
Asian-made stuff, the optics sucked, and the experiment didn't last long.)
One of the other misconceptions often heard is that hunters are better off buying a used Euro-binocular than spending money on new Asian stuff. This can be true IF the
used Euro-binocular is a recent model, made within at most the past decade, but if it's older many recent Asian binoculars are better. Remember, optics from everywhere
have been improving over the past 30+ years, including European brads.
Another example from my hunting trips was one to Alberta after big mule deer a few years ago. Some of my hunting trips are at least partially paid for by various
manufacturers, but this was totally on my own dime, yet I dared to bring another Chinese-made binocular that had already impressed me considerably. My guide and hunting
companion had older Euro-binoculars, both from alpha companies, and again my "cheap" binocular proved just as good, if not better.
In fact I was the one who glassed up the pair of bucks my companion and I took after a two-hour stalk. They were feeding on chest-deep brush, in the early-morning
shadows along a cutbank over a mile away across the prairie, where they didn't exactly leap out of the scenery. And my guide was not inexperienced, a guy who'd not only
guided in Alberta and other parts of western Canada for many years, but had also spent time as a PH in Tanzania.
Does this mean you should rush out and buy Asian binoculars? No, partly because they can still vary in quality, though these days even the lowest priced are still
better than some of the junk that appeared in the 1980's. It also doesn't mean I'm trading off any of my alpha Euros. What it does mean is that some of the
stuff we still hear about today's binoculars isn't true, primarily because so many hunters still absolutely believe that somehow central European optics manufacturers have locked
up a bunch of optical secrets (and perhaps ancient factory workers), keeping them totally under wraps for decades so that nobody else in the world can make anything approaching
Euro-glass-despite the fact that Japan has dominated professional photography for decades. But the reality is that great binoculars can be made anywhere, thanks to
the worldwide market, just like pickup trucks, rifles or any number of other hunting products.