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Binocular Basics

Optically challenged? This primer will bring everything into focus for you.

April 01, 2003  |  by Roy Huntingon


Let's face it, when it comes to the glamour spotlight, a cop's duty sidearm gets the bright light. A uniformed police officer just wouldn't be the same without a pistol playing a balancing act with a portable radio on the other side of a duty belt.

Yet, while that hunk of polymer and steel may garner the most attention in the press, when it comes to cop equipment, the role a decent pair of binoculars can play in the day-to-day grind may actually be just as important. "How's that, again?" you say?

Look on the front seat of the vast majority of police cars today and I'd wager you'll see a beat up pair of K-Mart binoculars (or worse). At least most cops are thinking in the right direction, but all too often they short-change themselves in this all-important bit of help. Just as you wouldn't buy the discount duty handgun (we hope), so the same rules should apply to that trusty pair of miscreant seekers on the seat beside you.

The Good/Bad and Ugly

This isn't rocket science but since, as a breed, we cops are often cheapskates, we have a tendency to penny pinch in all the wrong places at times. It's hard to turn down those "Sale Price: $12.99" Chinese mini-binocs or those "Genuine military surplus tanker binoculars," but be strong and just say no. There are a few reasons why, and let's see what they are-lest you be led astray by those tempting low prices.

Military Spec Glass


Nikon’s StabilEyes binoculars feature a vibration reduction system that makes them suitable for observing distant subjects while riding in a patrol car.

The real question is, "Whose military?" If the Lower Slobovian Reserve Home Guard and Drill Team spec a pair of $5 binoculars that later find themselves on the surplus market, does it make them a good deal? Hardly.

Most foreign governments view binoculars as disposable equipment and allow lots of plastic and glue. The U.S., on the other hand, still regards binoculars as long-term investments. So beware of "Genuine German Military Surplus" binocs since many are from former communist block countries and are often of very poor quality. They often have issues with grit and dirt inside where all the delicate parts live. If you can examine them personally, you can tell, usually, if they're junk or not, even if they look really cool.

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

Other than costing between 20 and 25 percent more than fixed-focus binocs, being about 20 percent heavier and just about impossible to keep in collimation (everything all lined up optically), zoom models are great. Okay, actually they aren't anything close to great. Unless you pay thousands here (think Zeiss, etc.) forget it. A dime store $50 zoom binocular makes a good fishing weight.

Inspected or Not?

On some Japanese binocs you might have noticed tiny gold labels that say "passed" along with numbers like "1, 2, 3" and such. Some people think the number that follows signifies the "grade" of glass, but it doesn't. It simply designates the area or "district" in Tokyo in which the item was inspected. So don't believe those salesman stories about how a "1" means it's the best one. Nope.

Bigger is Better?

Another myth is the higher the power (or magnification) the "farther" you can see. Well, pick up any cheap pair and you can see the moon and stars. That's pretty far. But here on earth, other factors enter into the viewfinder. You can only see so far here on Terra Firma. Trees, buildings, and, hopefully, miscreants will get in the way.

As the magnification increases in your binoculars, less and less light is allowed through, until finally it's too dark to see much. Factor in heat waves and your own shaky fingers, and you'll find that much above eight or 10 power is a waste of money and won't work in the real world.

Old World Quality?

I'd imagine if you stuck with the big brand names like Zeiss, Swarovski, Steiner, and others, you'd probably be safe. But, at least a few years ago, there was no law saying Korea couldn't make optics for companies in Germany, who then stamped them "Made in Germany" and sold them. Something to think about. Remember those "Genuine German Military Surplus" good deals?

CONTINUED: Binocular Basics «   Page 1 of 3   »

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