12>15: How 12x binoculars are changing the game

This may be heresy… but I’m going to say it. The long-standing king of western long-range glassing, the 15X binocular is dead. Or maybe not dead, just usurped, in a non-violent coup-d-tat. The new ruler is a slimmer, trimmer, (better?) up and comer, the 12X.

Let me explain.

12X binoculars offer enough power to find animals and discern sex and size classes (lumped into groups such as 80-90″, 140-160″, etc) at long distances, but offer a wider field of view in doing so. And it’s the field of view that ultimately  lends itself to finding animals, especially during peak hours when game animals move most. There needs to be a balance between power and field of view. Field of view is about discovery. Magnification power is about recognition of what is discovered. 12X offers the best of both worlds. More power than a 10, more field of view than a 15.

Glassing Tactics

During peak periods, all glassing rules of thumb (such as following grids) fly out the window. The most effective tactic is to keep your eyes and attention focused in one location of the view window (what you actually see when you put your eyes to the optics), and move your binoculars from open area to open area looking for movement. Doing this, you cover more ground more often and increase your chances of finding visible animals. A wider field of view during this “frantic” glassing means there’s more to notice by the sheer definition of wider field of view.

And when game activity slows and it’s time to start glassing grids, or at least start moving your eyes and attention from within the non-moving view window of steady glass, it’s only at very close distances that 15 power is enough to see into trees and shadows anyway.

The Specs

The field of view for the Swarovski 15×56 SLC, the standard bearer of 15x binoculars is 231 feet at 1,000 yards. These binoculars are being replaced by the 15×56 SLC W B (an HD upgrade) in January 2014, which have an increased FOV of 234 feet at 1,000 yards. The Vortex Kaibab HD 15×56 has an even narrower field of view, at only 226 feet at 1,000 yards.

Contrast those numbers with the FOV specs of the Swarovski EL 12×50. At 1,000 yards you’ll see an additional 69 feet (300 feet at 1,000). That’s another 10 yards on both sides of your center of vision. And the Vortex Razor HD 12×50 binoculars give you additional 59 feet (over the Kaibabs). The Kowa SV 12×50 (a sub $300 binocular) gives you 275 feet at 1,000 yards).

This photo shows the magnification power and field of view differences between the Swarovski 15×56 and Vortex Razor HD 12×50 binoculars

Other Considerations

But field of view isn’t the only important factor. Consider that 12x binoculars aren’t strictly a long-range binocular. They can in limited amounts be used hand-held, unlike 15s, which must be rested on a tripod. This difference recently made itself evident to me on my latest desert Coues deer hunt, when hunting solo I decided to move in on two bucks before they disappeared into a canyon to bed. While moving down the hill, I stopped twice to check to see if they’d moved, each time having to secure the tripod to the ground. This cost me valuable time, and was one of a few factors that contributed to me losing the bucks.

Further, with increased hunting pressure, many hunters are going deeper and deeper into the woods to find areas with less hunting pressure. For these hunters especially, 12x binoculars save considerable weight. The Razor HD 12×50 binoculars weigh only 28.7 oz, whereas the Swarovski 15×56 SLC are over 45oz. Even the newer HD version will still weigh over 42oz. It’s a considerable difference on backcountry hunts when every ounce counts.


Counting Inches

Now, you might be saying that the loss of 3x magnification is too much. It means you won’t be able to tell the difference between a 95″ Coues deer and a 100″ Coues deer. Well that may be. But for those of you who fall into this category, 15x is probably not really enough magnification to accurately tell the difference anyway. To truly field judge an animal, you need a spotting scope that offers 30x magnification power. This puts the 15s in an awkward position really, too much power for near distance glassing, not enough field of view for mid-distance glassing, and not enough power to truly field judge trophy class animals. So they’re heavy, and you’re going to end up carrying a spotting scope any way.

So yeah, I’m a heretic. A heretic that recently traded my Swaro 15×56 binoculars in for Vortex Razor HD 12x50s. But one that’s well reasoned in my action, and less burdened by heavy glass that doesn’t truly serve my purposes. And that is what this is really about. Your purposes. Knowing what, where, and how you hunt; and developing a system of equipment and strategies that best contribute to successfully finding game. For me that means being able to move quickly and cover more ground with good high quality glass. So my system comprises the Razor 12x50s, paired with a Swarovski STX modular spotting scope with both an 85mm objective for hunts near the trailhead, and the 65mm objective for backcountry forays.