HIGH-END SPOTTING SCOPES
13 months later
LIGHT, MEDIUM AND HEAVY WEIGHT
One year later…a lot has happened since Dec 2019, a storm of international events followed by a series of lockdowns. Luckily I had these 3 beautiful high-end spotting scopes to keep me glassing the world around me.
Spotting scopes truly change the way we view the world around us, they certainly have changed the way I see and observe things. They have enabled us to change the way we observe nature, identify species of animals, birds, game animals, insects you name it.
For the rifle shooters amongst us, they have enabled us to spot impacts and misses as well as reading the environmental conditions around us in ways often thought impossible. For those that use them for their military application, they can be the difference between life and death gathering intelligence on matters that may change the course of history. That’s quite a ticket and bucket list to fulfil isn’t it?
For today’s exercise, I picked the following 3 spotters which I have been using for over 13months now. Today I shall touch on a few points that differentiate them as well as show you some images taken through these spotting scopes at an eyesight test target at 150meters and then snapped a few pictures of a castle at a lasered 535m away using the Leica Geovid HD-B 3000. Afterwards I setup these spotters at 300m at a road sign to try to establish the difference between them in order to show you what you can expect.
These spotting scopes will be on the firing line at Extreme Shot One Mile Italia 3-7 March 2021.
Swarovski ATS 65 | Swarovski BTX 95mm | Kowa Highlander 82mm dual spotter.
Heavy eyes? These huge 82mm Kowa Highlander spotters will make your session truly enjoyable.
Spotting scopes come in all sizes and price tags so I wanted to share a little bit more about these high end optical gems. I have had these for about a 13months now so I’ve done a fair bit of glassing with them and I admit, I have a soft spot for all of them for different reasons.
I have carried them on a few trips overseas from hunting in French/Spanish mountains for moufflon to ELR rifle matches in Denmark, filming the king of 1 mile competition in Caylus military camp in France and spotting for our rifle practice from 300m to 1mile using all of them. I hope to bring along the most salient practical points that I’ve learnt along the way keeping in mind that spotting scopes are a significant investment ranging from $1k to over $6k in different formats and setups.
Above: Swarovski BTX 95mm Spotter seen here on the Ulfhednar tripod
When selecting a spotting scope, you need to identify your needs well to opt for the one that suits you best. It’s hard to say what is the best spotting scope because it has to be defined by a number of criteria.
Here are a few criteria I always look at when opting to pick one for the job.
Spotting scope weight
What is your intended use of this spotting scope? It cannot be an end all be all so identify what you will be using it for mostly and in which sort of activity? You can carry the hubble with you on the range but taking it on a hunt or tactical competition will require different setups.
I did carry my 6.2kg Kowa Highlander with me to destination in a backpack for a few hours. Even for someone that enjoys working out, it felt like a really long workout but it was worth it!
Most spotting scopes are between 12 and 16 inches long with some a tad larger due to the sunshield which is important to keep the glare away from the lenses or the water when it’s raining. During the filming of King of 1 mile in Caylus, the weather was awful, 5hours of continuous rain, wind and cold weather. The larger sunshield kept the water out of the 82mm dual lenses which meant I could keep filming and taking pictures.
Spotting scope portability
Portability is a serious consideration especially for the traveller/shooter/hunter that has space and weight on a premium. If you’re flying you’re paying for your weight too and it’s often the reason whether you take the spotter with you or not so choose carefully.
Notice the Kowa High Lander 82mm spotter sits on a solid axis which enables the smoothest operation and the most stable platform but it’s really heavy. On the other hand it enables the best setup for Digi scoping with unparalleled clarity and stability.
Seen Above, my shooting buddy Bob looking through the Swarovski BTX 95mm spotter at 1mile targets.
Packing your spotter
The smaller Swarovski ATS 65mm is my go-to spotting scope for general use. I bought it with the 20-50 eyepiece which enables comfortable viewing across a number of scenarios. I also have 2 eyepieces with reticles in them, one in MOA and one in MRAD to enable spotting for different shooters. They are fixed 30x magnification. This enables spotting from 500m out to a mile easy to get a shooter dialed in. I previously had a leupold 12-40×65 spotting scope which I used for 3 years while shooting in Switzerland with the FCSA. This spotter is ideal for carry, hunting and tactical matches due to its light weight and compact nature. The lower magnification lends it self well to close up targets and bad weather when less magnification is more.
For hunting, nothing beats portable spotters. Here I’m using an ATS 65 during a hunt in the mountains. We managed some great footage and video.
You can view the clip we shot during the hunt in this post here
Spotting Scope Clarity
At this level of spotting scopes, the differences are subtle and often only discernible in bad weather or gloomy days. Spending quite sometime shooting in the Mediterranean I don’t often see the difference until I fly to northern Europe to shoot where sunny days are on a premium and often, wet weather will accompany you throughout your trip. This is when you see the difference between one scope and the other.
Some spotting scopes are easier to carry as you can remove the body from the rest of the spotting scope. This enables you to gain a few inches of space too. The Swarovski BTX 95mm is an excellent example of a highly portable spotting scope with the capability of some truly stunning images.
What sort of environment will you be using your spotting scope? For the serious competition shooter or hunter, weather is just another condition that he has to contend with and the spotting scope should be able to function in adverse conditions. Even though we should do our best to safeguard the spotter in the best way possible, most highend spotters are waterproof even when exposed to awful weather.
Is the spotting scope rubber armoured to protect it from falls, bumps and scratches? Even though we do our best to protect the spotter, drops and bumps are inevitable. The Kowa High lander for example is not rubber armoured so you have to take extra care not to drop this high-end heavy weight spotter.
High-end spotting scopes digiscoping needs
Above: Two different digi scoping options, a variable phone adapter from Swarovski and a Kowa phone-specific adapter which acts as a phone protector as well with easy thread on adapter to attach to the Kowa eyepiece. Due to the size of the eyepiece and the fact that there was no space between the phone/adapter/objective lens, the fit achieved was the best with the Kowa. It was also easier to film with it in the rain as the water could not get in between the phone’s lens and the spotter’s eyepiece. At one point, I was filming using the Swarovski adapter and the rain coming in at an angle got between the phone lens the spotters lens forcing me to unmount the adapter, wipe the lens dry and set it up again. I personally prefer the phone-specific housing, the fit achieved is superior.
Digiscoping has to be experienced to be appreciated. When you attach a digital camera or even your phone, the capabilities of the spotting scope are enhanced phenomenally. I have attached my Samsung s9 phone to all 3 spotters to film hunts and competitions so I can enjoy those moments again later. I have also filmed load development with these spotting scopes at 600meters enabling me to go through the video later and evaluating best performance of my 308win. Also noteworthy is the digiscoping attachments available for the spotter you use.
Drenched in the rain at the King of 1 Mile Competition in Caylus France.
For the Swarovski ATS65 I have a clip-on adapter that fits perfectly. It seals around the eyepiece so no water or rain can enter the eyepiece. On the other hand when I use the adjustable Swarovski adapter which is meant to fit multiple units, it is a little different. The fit is not as tight around the eyepiece which at times causes the setup to slightly slip especially if the weather is poor. The weight of the phone unit doesn’t help either. The universal Swarovski adapter can be adjusted to various mobile devices which has its advantages.
On the other hand, the disadvantage is that there is space between the phone and the adapter. When it rains even in a drizzle, it can wet your lenses. On the other hand, Kowa makes a phone-specific adapter for a huge variety of phones. This means you can find a perfect fitting phone housing for your particular device. You can remove the circular eyepiece adapter to use it as a phone cover protector and then just screw on the eyepiece adapter. This is the most stable way to do it. Please checkout the pictures I took below. The thread on the adapter is a female thread which protects it when the eyepiece ring is removed.
High-end spotting scope ripod requirements
I’ve gone through 3 tripods since I got started. I have a small portable manfrotto tripod which folds into a very compact unit for travel or hunting, a larger benbo tripod which I had picked up at an auction and recently I upgraded to Ulfhednar carbon tripod UHHD40 which can take upto 40kg carry weight!
What can this sort of setup (digiscoping) do for you during load development?
Take a look below, I filmed this while load developing for my surgeon 308win at 600m to find the best load with the lowest vertical. Notice the difference it makes as soon as you crank up the digital zoom over and above the 32x optical zoom.
Above, the Manfrotto tripod is ultra compact seen here at Cold Bore range Denmark engaging 2km targets with the RPA 300 Norma Mag rifle, happy times.
The latter is the gold standard. I learned to appreciate that if you buy top glass, you need top tripod to be able to observe quality images. The Ulfhednar is ultra-steady, weighs in at 3.2kg and opens up to 1.7m. It can be mounted almost flat on the ground or open up to cater for an adult.
I didn’t go into the reticle armed spotting scopes in this article. There are still many spotting scopes out there that do not carry a reticle which are still excellent for long range shooting especially if you’re not doing unknown distance shooting. Below however you can see two vortex eyepieces in MOA and Mrad that I use with my swarovski ATS 65. Before you ask, I have also checked that these measure accuractely before I started using them since they were made for another spotting scope not this specific model.
Above: KOWA Highlanders 82mm
Here are a few pictures from the 150m tests.
150 meter high-end spotting scope vision test
For this test, I decided to use a traditional Snellen chart used for visual acuity testing this time at 150meters. I tried my best to take various pictures to show you the quality.
Swarovski ATS 65 at 150m
Below you can see the chart at 150m and the chart at 1ft from the phone camera.
Swarovski BTX 95 at 150m
I had to add some digital zoom to better show the image quality of these spotters.
I could just make out between the 6th and 7th line seen above, almost read all the letters except where the string covered them.
KOWA Highlander 82mm spotting scope at 150 meters
Even in January, mirage remains an issue as you crank up magnification. Notice the mirage above the rubble wall.
300 meter high-end spotting scope test
For the next test, I picked a street sign which had 3 small diamond sized boxes. I wanted to see how clear we would see the lines defining the contours as well as the three diamond shaped boxes.
Swarovski ATS 65 at 300m
Swarovski BTX 95mm at 300m
Notice how clear the 3 diamond shaped items show up when we used the digital zoom in conjunction with the optical zoom and a voice operated shutter. It is almost impossible to show you the clarity of the optic without adding digital zoom.
Kowa High lander 82mm at 300m
After you take a look at these pictures, I invite you to actually try one of these high-end spotting scopes. These pictures taken with my phone do not do these high-end spotting scopes any justice.
I have also taken the liberty to include some night pictures I have made with these Kowa Highlanders at subjects over 3-4km away. The level of detail is something that has to be experienced to be appreciated.
The footage below was shot during the King of One Mile Competition in Caylus France. Next upcoming competition is Extreme Shot One Mile Italia.
Read more about these spotters on their official sites
One thought on “HIGH-END SPOTTING SCOPES”
Great post lots of useful information. I have used a Kowa Prominar 82mm spotter before so can only imagine how good the highlander is& you correctly point out how you need to experience them in person.
Maybe you should have added more direct comparison opinion . For instance in purely visual quality terms, do you rate the BTX or Kowa better?
I’m leaning toward BTX 95mm purely for weight reasons. I would also add that Swarovskis customer service is outstanding and on an investment like this it’s reassuring.