Bowhunting Rangefinders Past and Present

In the author’s opinion, only the treestand has been more beneficial to what a modern-day bowhunter can do than the laser rangefinder.

Bowhunting Rangefinders Past and Present

It’s easy for millennials and Gen Zs to take for granted many of the technological marvels they carry afield today. Smartphone? Can’t live, let alone hunt, without one. Hunt apps for smartphone? Likewise. Digital scouting cameras that can send real-time pics to your phone or computer? Pretty cool! Precision-made compound bows and arrows that are straight within .001-inch tipped with mechanical broadheads that fly like field points? But of course.

For us older folk, we’ve watched all this stuff come of age with wide-eyed amazement. Compared to the crude gear we started bowhunting with — my first compound was a six-wheel Bear Alaskan purchased in the mid-1970s — I sometimes wonder how we ever miss a shot with today’s gear.

But miss we do, and a big reason why we miss is we misjudge the distance to the target. That’s why, to me, the development of affordable laser rangefinders is perhaps the most important bowhunting equipment development of the last several decades.

How important is knowing the exact distance to the target? In bowhunting, it’s everything. Even with a compound bow sending its arrow off at near 300 fps, at 40 yards if you incorrectly guess the distance to a deer by +/- 3 yards, you’ll miss the vitals. And don’t think you can eyeball the distance accurately, because you cannot. Military testing has proven this.

This difficulty is what spurred the first rangefinders for hunting, which of course borrowed technology from the military. At first all we had to use were “coincidence” rangefinders, popularized by Ranging, which use the triangulation principal. That is, they featured two windows and a combination of prisms and lenses that produce two separate images the user sees when looking through the sighting window. As you view the object, you turn a dial with your finger until the images “coincide” and appear as one. You then read the distance on the dial. These units have to be calibrated before use, and in skilled hands can be reasonably accurate. This type of rangefinder was used in fire control systems for long-range naval guns and anti-aircraft guns from around 1890 to 1960.

Laser rangefinders took this to the next level. The first were developed in about 1964, with the first military application on a Soviet T-62 tank in 1972; the technology has improved by leaps and bounds since.

How do laser rangefinders for hunting work? With the press of a single button, a unit sends out an invisible Class 1 laser beam (as classified by the FDA) which is “bounced” off distant objects. The rangefinder’s high-speed digital clock then measures the time it took for a laser beam to reach a target and return to the unit. Next, using advanced digital electronics, the rangefinder instantly calculates the distance and shows the range in either yards or meters on a through-the-lens LCD display. The entire process is so fast that less than a second elapses between the time you press the button to generate a laser beam to the time the exact range to your target is displayed. The best laser rangefinders are accurate to +/- 1 yard from as close as 10 yards to distances of a half-mile or more. Top-end units also feature a built-in angle compensator which tells you exactly where to hold on steep uphill or downhill shots.

In terms of technology, today’s laser rangefinders are lightyears ahead of the units available even 5 years ago. Contemporary units are much more rugged, use far less battery power and can withstand more physical and environmental abuse than ever before. Many units also give you the ability to focus the eyepiece, a valuable feature. A low-magnification eyepiece also helps you hit your target exactly. And prices have come way down for high-quality units that will do everything a serious bowhunter needs it to do.

There have been some amazing bowhunting equipment innovations in the last 75 years. From the development of aluminum and then carbon arrow shafts, to the evolution of the compound bow and high-tech bow accessories, it’s been incredible. But in my mind, only the treestand has been more beneficial to what a modern-day bowhunter can do than the laser rangefinder, which has allowed skilled archers to extend their maximum effective shooting range to distances once thought absurd.

There was a time when a handful of “purists” called rangefinder use “unethical,” saying a device that took the guesswork out of distance and angle compensation gave the bowhunter an unfair advantage. Thankfully, those days are gone and their use has become widely accepted. I’d personally feel naked afield without one.

Here’s a fun rangefinder story. One time I was changing my battery in a treestand when I dropped the battery compartment cover to the ground. Oops! Gone forever. To keep my unit functioning, I placed a small wad of aluminum foil on top of the battery and held it in place with duct tape. The unit worked great! Then, when I got home, I called the company, and they sent me a new cover.

Do you still bowhunt without a laser rangefinder? Have some fun stories to tell about how they’ve helped you, or let you down? Email me at, I’d love to hear your stories.


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