How Accurate Are Laser Rangefinders?

How Accurate Are Laser Rangefinders?
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Laser rangefinders may all claim to be extremely accurate, but is that really true? Just about every model boasts of enough accuracy to be right within 1 yard of the true distance of the target.

While that may be easy to measure by hand for targets just a few yards away, it’s not quite as easy to verify when the target is almost a kilometer away. Where would you find the tape measure for that?

So, How Accurate Are Laser Rangefinders Really?

Fortunately for you, you don’t have to actually use a tape measure to check. You just need a basic understanding of how a laser rangefinder measures the distance to the target.

The device sends out a laser beam straight to your target. Your target then reflects back the beam. The rangefinder actually has an advanced clock that measures the time it takes for the light to travel and get reflected back. Obviously, the longer it takes, a greater distance is involved.

For the most part, these devices can get that plus or minus 1-yard accuracy. Some advanced rangefinders are even accurate and measure within half a yard.

You may also find models that display distance readings with a tenth of the yard (47.6 yards instead of 47 or 48 yards), though they typically don’t claim to be accurate to within a tenth of a yard. Even for hyperbole, that’s pushing it.

However, this type of accuracy is only possible in the best conditions. This means you’re using it during a clear day and there’s no fog, rain, or extremely bright lights that can affect the accuracy.

So Why Are There Mistakes Sometimes?

It’s also true that some rangefinders may provide inaccurate readings. You may try it once and get a reading, and then a few minutes later you may get a wildly different distance measurement. What explains this?

There are several possible reasons:

It may be out of range.

This is one of the most common problems that many rangefinder users just don’t realize. You can read it quite often, when a customer with negative review whines about how the supposed 1,000-yard maximum range isn’t really all that accurate beyond 500 yards.

The truth is that when a rangefinder comes out with a maximum range estimate, it’s often when talking about highly reflective surfaces. So if you point the rangefinder at the side of the huge barn, you certainly have a surface that can reflect the laser beam back to your device efficiently.

With some other types of targets, the reflective capacity isn’t as great. A common example is the hide of a deer. When you target the deer with your laser, the hide diffuses the laser beam and it’s not reflected back as effectively. That’s especially true at greater distances.

Many rangefinder manufacturers are now releasing particular estimates on various types of targets. So for highly reflective surfaces, it may be 1000 yards. But that may only be 750 yards for trees, and even only just 200 yards for deer.

You’re focusing on the wrong target.

Generally, these rangefinders offer some zooming capabilities. Usually this is about 6x magnification. This allows you to make sure that the reticle is actually targeting your intended target.

But you can make a mistake, and when you zoom in even more you may find that the laser beam is pointing elsewhere. That’s one possible reason why you may get a different reading each time—you’re pointing at different targets every time.

This is also a common problem when you’re using the rangefinder during lowlight conditions such as dawn or dusk. If your rangefinder isn’t equipped to deal with low light conditions, then it may be a bit too dark to see where the reticle is pointed at.

That’s why you don’t really want to use these things at night unless you’re using a powerful spotlight.

There may be something blocking the beam.

For example, you may not realize that your laser beam is actually hitting a small tree branch or even a leaf on the way to your target. It may be raining, and the beam is hitting drops of rain instead. Other types of interference may include the fog and a lot of extremely bright lights around.

Finally, you can’t discount electronic error.

While many rangefinders are reliable, they may not be equally tough. Sometimes just dropping a device on a hard surface can make it malfunction.

Your battery may also not be providing enough juice for the unit to work. A new battery may make it good and accurate again.

Line of Sight Distance

This is of course the most problematic. What you may not realize is that laser rangefinders give you the line of sight distance, and not a true horizontal distance.

What this means is that you may miss your rifle or bow shot, or also miss a golf shot, when you don’t account for the elevation angle of your intended target relative to your position. While some rangefinders may take the slope into account, take heed: such features in rangefinders aren’t allowed for official golf rounds and tournaments.