How Do Rangefinders Work: A Beginners Guide

There are many reasons why you may find yourself needing a rangefinder. Whether you are a hunter, archer, or golfer, a rangefinder can help you improve your skills and efficiency.

This guide will answer the questions: how do rangefinders work? I’ll go over the technical side of a rangefinder and the types designed for different activities (golf, hunting, etc.)

I know some of you out there are thinking to yourself, isn’t using a rangefinder cheating? Doesn’t a rangefinder take the sport out of the game?

But that’s the wrong way to view this tool. Rangefinders help you become more efficient.

If you’re a hunter, this is the difference between hitting your target with a quick, humane kill or injuring the animal and having it experience prolonged pain before finally dying. 

If you’re a golfer, a rangefinder is a great way to practice your swing. It can help you judge distances and, in time, fine-tune your swing. 

If you are that person who doesn’t want to have an edge, then consider using rangefinder while practicing. 

For a hunter, take the rangefinder to a shooting range. For a golfer, use a rangefinder while practicing on a course or at the range.

Of course, you can use rangefinders for more than hunting or golfing. You can use a rangefinder for archery, animal spotting, cattle herding, and other outdoor sports activities.

So let us dive into what is a rangefinder? And how do rangefinders work?

What is a rangefinder?

A rangefinder, at its most stripped-down definition, is a piece of equipment with a single feature. It measures the distance between the user and the target.

To give you an idea of the kinds of rangefinders, check out our review of the best laser rangefinders. You will find reviews of laser rangefinders that sell for under $150 and to just under $300, and you will get a glimpse of what you can expect at what price.

There are different types of rangefinders: laser, optic, sonar, RADAR, and LIDAR. Most hunting rangefinders nowadays use laser technology to measure the distance.

I’ll go into more detail about the differences between some of these in sections below.

Technology is advanced enough that pretty much any rangefinder will be accurate.

Like pretty much anything out there on the market, rangefinders run for less than $100 or several thousand dollars. 

Most people will not need a high-end rangefinder for day-to-day uses like hunting, swinging a golf club, archery, or animal watching.

Now you know what a rangefinder is and that there are different types, but it would be helpful to answer the question: how does a rangefinder work?

How do rangefinders work?

I will answer the question, how do laser rangefinders work in the next section. But for now, I want to discuss the optical rangefinders.

Optical rangefinders were all we had before the invention of laser rangefinders.

There are other kinds of rangefinders, but optical and laser are the two most popular. 

Regardless of type, rangefinders determine the distance between the user and the target. Some do so by using a laser and measuring the time it takes to return, while others use things like sound.

Though laser rangefinders are more popular amongst hunters and golfers, optical rangefinders are great for those looking for less technologically advanced rangefinders.

Optical rangefinders

These are the cheapest and most basic rangefinders you will find on the market. They are compact and easy to carry.

Optical rangefinders are like a scope that you hold in your hand.

It is a monocular device, rather than the more common binocular, consisting of two lenses, one on each end. 

These are the cheapest of the rangefinders and are simple to use.

It measures the distance using built-in scales. It measures the height of the pin inside the eyepiece, then converts the height to distance by using a pre-loaded conversion chart.

Optical rangefinders require zero batteries, lightweight to carry, and a cheap option for the casual golfer, hunter, or bird enthusiast. 

How do laser rangefinders work?

All you do with an optical rangefinder is the point. No buttons, no batteries.

The first thing you’ll notice about a laser rangefinder is that you push a button. Some may have more than one, but all of them have at least one.

When you push the button down a laser emits from the rangefinder. These beams travel until they hit something that reflects the beam back to the rangefinder.

The rangefinder has a sensor which detects the reflected beam.

A high-speed clock measures the total time it took for the laser to leave and return to the rangefinder. It then calculates the distance based on the time it took for the laser to reflect off the target and return to the sensor.

All of this happens in a matter of seconds.

From here, things can get a bit more technical.

Some laser rangefinders can tell the difference between an animal and a tree, some can have multiple targets, and others can compensate for the angle. 

You can find out more about the different features rangefinders have in our review post, Rangefinders Under $200. It provides a starting point in your search for a laser rangefinder.

If this basic answer to how do laser rangefinders work is not technical enough, I would recommend reading this more in-depth article here. It will discuss in way more detail than what I can in the space allowed in this post. 

How rangefinders work for different activities

how do laser rangefinders work archery girl in white shirt shooting bow target range

I have been discussing rangefinders in a general sense. Now we’ll get into rangefinders designed for a particular activity. 

While some rangefinders work for multiple purposes, others have a single activity in mind. Someone who only golfs won’t need some of the features a hunting rangefinder might have and vice versa.

While you can use a hunting rangefinder for golfing, you won’t find a golf rangefinder very useful for hunting. The same goes for several other specific activities like forestry rangefinders.

Here are a few activities with a designed laser rangefinder for that purpose.

Forestry rangefinders

Obviously, these rangefinders are designed for the needs of the forestry service.

They can ignore the leaves on trees so the brush doesn’t interfere with your readings. These rangefinders measure the distance between the user and the target and the height and volume of a tree.

Forestry rangefinders are a great example of a rangefinder with narrow activity in mind. Hunters don’t need to determine heights or volumes of trees.

Photography rangefinder

A camera with a rangefinder allows the photographer to measure the distance between the camera and the object to bring the object into sharp focus. 

The rangefinder shows two overlapping images. You spin the wheel until the two images perfectly overlap and bring the object into focus. 

Aligning the images calculates the distance.

Unlike LSR or DSLR cameras, you don’t look through the lens of a rangefinding camera; instead, you look through a viewport typically located in the upright corner of the camera. Think of a disposable camera but with a lens to adjust the focus of the camera.

Ballistic rangefinder

A ballistic rangefinder is a category of the laser rangefinder.

They are the most powerful rangefinders on the market, some with the capability of measuring a target up to two miles away. 

On top of measuring greater distances, it can calculate ballistics like the ballistic coefficient, sight height, and muzzle velocity. Some can also measure wind speed, moisture in the air, and temperature, which all can affect the range of a shot.

Ballistic rangefinders are military-grade, and most people will not need such precise ballistic measurements. Plus, most people are not looking to spend thousands of dollars on a rangefinder.

Bow hunting rangefinder

Again, a bow hunting rangefinder is a kind of laser rangefinder. You can use any laser rangefinder for bow hunting, but some have features designed with a bow in mind.

For instance, some will have a bow mode and a rifle mode to take into account the differences in velocity from firing a bullet versus firing an arrow. You can read about these differences here.

Bowhunting rangefinders also will usually include an ARC feature, so it will automatically compensate for the angle. A gun fires differently from a bow.

You can watch this review of Leupold’s Archer’s Advantage software. This software takes specifications from your bow to calculate the arrow’s trajectory and shows its max-height:

Lastly, bow hunting rangefinders are designed for shorter distances and can measure near targets with an accuracy of .5 yards up to a couple of hundred yards out.

How do golf rangefinders work?

How do golf rangefinders work golf course man in yellow golf swing green fairway

TecTecTec VPRO500 Golf Rangefinder

TecTecTec VPRO500 Golf Rangefinder - Laser Range Finder with Pinsensor - Laser Binoculars - with Battery

  • Range: 540 yards
  • Magnification: 6x
  • Weight: 6.52 oz.

Check out our full review on the TecTecTec VPRO500 Golf Ranger in our post, best golf rangefinder for your money.

In golf, you don’t need to worry about moving targets or trees in the way. Your main concern is the distance between you and the flagpole.

Luckily for you, golf rangefinders will do just that. They can detect and lock onto a flag pole up.

So how do golf rangefinders work?

Well, there are two main types of golf rangefinders, GPS and laser.

GPS rangefinder requires you to download a map of the course. In return, it can tell you how far away you are from the green.

The laser rangefinders are more accurate in that they tell you a specific distance to a specific target rather than your distance from the green.

In other words, you can target the flagpole, a tree, or the bunker in front of the green.

You can have a more detailed analysis of the course with a laser rangefinder than a GPS one.

How do hunting rangefinders work?

Bushnell Laser Rangefinder Bone Collector

Bushnell Laser Rangefinder Bone Collector Cam_202208

  • Range: 600 yards
  • Magnification: 4x
  • Weight: 7.2 oz.

You can find a full review of the Bushnell Laser Rangefinder Bone Collector Cam in our other review of the best hunting rangefinder for the money.

Hunting rangefinders are made to match the different ways in which people hunt. So you’ll find rangefinders designed for multiple purposes, but also ones designed for a single purpose, such as bow hunting.

The main difference in how hunting rangefinders work is that they can tell the difference between a deer or a tree. You’ll often see that the companies will give a range based on finding a deer (non-reflective target) and a tree (reflective target).

The other key feature you’ll find in many hunting rangefinders is they will have two main settings, LOS (line of sight) and ARC (angle range compensation). LOS measures the straight line of distance, whereas ARC considers the angle to calculate a true distance.

Some hunting rangefinders can even calculate the speed of your target if it is on the move.

Final thoughts

Now that I’ve answered how rangefinders work, let’s wrap up some thoughts.

You know a rangefinder finds its target by sending out a signal that hits the target, whether it’s a laser or sound, and reflects the beam back to a sensor in the rangefinder.

You also know that rangefinders can range in price from $50 bucks to thousands of dollars. Being able to answer how do rangefinders work does not help you navigate the market.

I’ve explained the basics of how rangefinders work and different activities you can use them for. Now, you need to research the options and brands available to purchase.

Lucky for you, we’ve compiled a list of rangefinders in several posts that can help you understand the differences in features and prices.

For those most concerned about the price, particularly, a price that is as low as possible. You should read through our review of laser rangefinders under $100.

Now, if having the lowest price isn’t your concern, but you don’t want to commit big bucks to a rangefinder, then I recommend you check out our review of laser rangefinders under $150.

You’ll begin to see the effect different features have on price. Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how do rangefinders work and a clearer picture of different products out there on the market.

Don’t waste any more time guessing at distances. Up your game (whatever activity that may be) with a rangefinder.

So go ahead, check out these posts linked out in this article and find the rangefinder that is right for you. 

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