June 8th, 2011

Optics Review: Kowa TSN-884 Prominar (PFC) Spotting Scope

Kowa TSN-884 Spotting Scope Review
by Danny Reever
It has been a couple of years since I wrote the review of high-end spotting scopes for AccurateShooter.com. In that time there have been some advances in technology and unfortunately some hefty price hikes to go along with that technology. Not too long ago, few top-end scopes exceeded $2300.00 with eyepiece. Now some premium spotting scopes top the $4000.00 mark with eyepiece! My Pentax PF100-ED, once a top-of-the-line product (but now discontinued by Pentax) would now be considered a mid-price spotting scope, given the current pricing of premium spotting scopes from Kowa, Leica, Zeiss, Swarovski and other top brands. “Street Price” for the Kowa TSN-884 reviewed here, is roughly $2800.00 with eyepiece. That’s a serious investment by any standards.

“The Kowa Prominar (TSN 88X series) is quite simply the best spotting scope I’ve ever looked through. In all instances the Kowa out-performed everything I was able to compare it to. The Kowa had unrivaled clarity, and I could resolve 6mm bullet holes at 500m with it better than with my 100mm Pentax. After testing the Kowa, I sold my Pentax PF100-ED, and I’m planning to purchase a Kowa TSN-884.”

kowa Prominar 883 884 scopeBeing like many shooters out there I’m always looking for that better mousetrap in regard to seeing 6mm bullet holes at extended yardages. That’s how I ended up with the Pentax PF100-ED. Recently I had been hearing rumblings here and there from other shooters and on various websites raving about the Kowa TSN 883/884 spotting scopes. In fact right here on AccurateShooter.com’s Daily Bulletin it was reported that the Kowa Prominar was rated number one by the Cornell Ornithology lab in their 2008 Scope Quest — a detailed review of 36 spotting scopes. However, they did not compare all spotting scopes that were available at that time. The super expensive Leica 82mm Televid APO HD was missing, along with my Pentax PF100-ED. The Cornell test also was geared more toward birders than shooters, but it was enough to pique my interest in regard to the Kowa, which features an 88mm objective with Pure Flourite Crystal (PFC) main lens elements.

I had to find a Kowa 883/884 to review and compare to what shooters were currently using out there. I contacted Kowa USA, which graciously agreed to furnish me one to review for Accurate Shooter. I requested the Kowa TSN-884 straight body along with the 20-60X zoom eyepiece that Kowa had redesigned for the 77-88mm spotting scopes. I chose the straight body over the TSN-883 angled version. With a straight spotter you can easily monitor flags and conditions downrange without moving your head very much. I admit the TSN-883 angled model may be more user-friendly for some applications, such as prone and F-Class shooting. With an angled body you can also set the scope slightly lower on your tripod. Straight or Angled — you need to choose what works best for you in your particular application.

kowa Prominar 883 884 scope

Kowa TSN-884 Highlights
Even though the Kowa has a large 88mm objective I was struck by the compactness of this scope. With a length of a little over thirteen inches without eyepiece it is compact indeed. Weight (without eyepiece) is a trim 53.6 ounces due to the use of Magnesium alloy for the scope body. With the 20-60X eyepiece installed, length is 16 3/8 inches, and weight is 65.1 ounces. Compare this to my monster-sized Pentax PF100-ED which is 23 ¾ inches long and weighs 111.1 ounces (6.94 pounds!) with eyepiece. The Kowa is 7 3/8″ shorter overall, and the Kowa is an amazing three and a half pounds (56 ounces) lighter in weight! The smaller size and weight of the Kowa allows you to use a much lighter and more compact tripod for this scope if you so desire. (Note: You might think the Pentax’s weight might actually stabilize the unit. However, the problem is that much of the weight of the Pentax is way out front, where it is cantilevered far forward of the mounting bracket. We’ve found that just a light touch on the front end of the Pentax will cause it to shake and wobble. Because so much weight is cantilevered way out front, the Pentax can wobble easily even on a massive tripod.)

kowa Prominar 883 884 scope

The most impressive quality of the Kowa 883/884 is its bright, ultra-sharp image. This super-sharp, distortion-free image comes from superior glass. The objective lens of the TSN 884 incorporates Pure Fluorite Crystal (PFC). Kowa claims 99% or higher light transmission and after looking through the scope I have no reason to doubt that claim. One focuses the Kowa via a system of two focus controls along one axis. The larger-diameter knob provides course adjustment to rapidly bring the subject into focus. The smaller-diameter control fine-tunes the focus for the sharpest image. This system works well in practice and one adapts quickly to the dual controls.

Like most high-end spotting scopes, the Kowa 883/884 is designed to function in all weather conditions. The nitrogen-purged body is fully sealed, and Kowa claims the “housing” is waterproof — but no you don’t want to dunk your scope in a river. Note: Even though this scope is robustly constructed, I must point out that the Kowa does not have any rubber armor coating. This does keep the weight down, but if you are tough on scopes, you may prefer a different design, such as the new Zeiss Diascope which boasts full rubber armor over the entire scope body. Kowa does offer a padded cover for an additional $125.00 which would help protect the scope. Given the high cost of the TSN 883/884, the padded cover is probably a smart investment.

Kowa TSN-884 Field Test Results
Initially I set up the Kowa and my Pentax PF100-ED on separate tripods side by side on my front deck. I was immediately impressed with the optical clarity of the Kowa, especially at the lower powers. I aimed both scopes at my neighbor’s log house, perhaps 150 yards away, focusing on a particular log end cut. With both scopes set at 60-power I could easily count the growth rings on the log with both scopes. However, the Kowa, without question, was clearer. How much clearer? I can best describe it this way. Imagine looking through a car window with the window up. Now imagine rolling the window down and looking again. With the Kowa, it was like having the window rolled down — contrast was a bit better, colors were a bit more vibrant, things seemed slightly sharper — as if a thin haze had been removed.

Using the Kowa TSN-884 at the Range
I have taken the Kowa to the range on numerous occasions over the past few weeks. I’ve used it in many different environmental conditions, comparing it to as many different spotting scopes as were available. In all instances the Kowa out-performed everything I was able to compare it to. Sometimes (but not always) the difference was startling.

kowa Prominar 883 884 scope

One of my tests included a Snellen Eye Chart, just like the one at your optometrist office. Instead of it hanging on a wall, I placed the Snellen Chart at 500 meters along with some previously-shot paper Ground Hog targets. Conditions were hazy and humid with moderate mirage. My Nightforce 12-42x56mm Benchrest riflescope set at 42X could read line 6 on the chart and I could distinguish only a few of the 6mm bullet holes. My Pentax PF100-ED set at 60X (to match the Kowa’s maximum power) was better. With the Pentax I could read line 7 on the chart and see more of the bullet holes. With the Kowa set at 60X, I could read line 8 on the chart and see all of the bullet holes on the white parts of the targets.. FYI, line 8 on the Snellen Chart defines 20-20 vision at 20 feet. Reading that at 500 meters (1641 feet) is pretty impressive!

I could make out perhaps one-third of the bullet holes in the black parts of the targets with the Kowa. That’s not that great, but the Kowa did better than the Pentax or the Nightforce. Rodney Smith, another Shippensburg shooter, had his own Pentax PF100-ED on site. Comparing his PF100-ED with the Kowa, Rodney agreed that the Kowa TSN-884 was markedly better. (It is interesting to note that both Rodney’s Pentax and mine were optically identical in every respect when compared side by side. And the Kowa out-performed them both.) Another shooter, Bob Chamberlin, had the smaller Pentax PF80-ED on site so we could compare the smaller Pentax with the Kowa as well.

kowa Prominar 883 884 scope

Since then I’ve tested the Kowa in some really severe mirage. When the mirage is really running it’s a hard test for any optic. When the mirage is building, I’ll say that the Kowa can perhaps give you a longer timespan or “viewing window” — starting when you start to lose sight of 6mm bullet holes until you lose them all together. How much is the “viewing window” extended? That depends on the environmental conditions, your eyesight, and your age. My son Logan, who is fourteen with eyes like a hawk, can see 22/6mm bullet holes when I can’t see a thing. Youth and 20/20 vision trumps old eyes every time.

Kowa TSN-884 Performs Great in Ground Hog Match
I used the Kowa at the Shippensburg, Pennsylvania Ground Hog Match on May 28, 2011. At that match, I managed to set a new course record for the 200/300/500 meter distance. Here’s the important fact — using the Kowa I could easily see my 6mm bullet holes at all yardages. That sure helped my shooting and contributed to setting the course record. But then, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.”

Overall Assessment — Superior Performance, and a Hefty Price
The Kowa is a truly outstanding spotting scope. I’ll go on record and say it’s the best I’ve ever looked through. However, this level of optical performance does come with a hefty cost — “street price” is about $2800.00 with eyepiece. Is the Kowa TSN-883/884 worth almost $1000 more than a Pentax PF100-ED (if you can find one)? Is the Kowa worth $1700.00 more than the excellent Pentax PF80-ED (a ‘best buy’) which costs around $1100.00 with 20-60 zoom eyepiece? Only you can decide that.

In my situation, I decided that the Kowa was worth the price. After testing the Kowa TSN-884 and using it successfully at a match, I decided to purchase one. I have sold my Pentax PF100-ED, and I’m shopping right now for a Kowa TSN-884. So far, the best price I’ve found is on Amazon.com — $2100.00 for the TSN-884 body only.

Three Eyepiece Options Available
Kowa offers three new eyepieces designed for its 77-88mm family of scopes: a 25X long eye relief; a 30X wide angle; and a 20-60X zoom. These current eyepieces are held securely within the body by means of a locking button on the scope body that needs to be pressed while un-mounting an eyepiece, so accidental removal is prevented. (Older Kowa eyepieces may be used with the purchase of an adapter for those upgrading their scope bodies.) The new generation 20-60X zoom eyepiece will be of most interest to shooters. This has a field of view (at 1000 yards) of 115 feet at 20 power and 55 feet at 60 power. Minimum eye relief is 16.5mm — that’s pretty good for a spotter with 60X magnification. Exit pupil size ranges from 4.4mm to 1.5mm. The shortest distance at which the TSN-884 can focus is 16.5 feet — so, yes, you can use this for handgun spotting duties.

The eyepiece features a twist-up eyecup with four detents. One possible annoyance is the eyecup can come unscrewed when you are trying to adjust it due to the fact that the digiscoping adaptor is designed to fit in the place occupied by the eyecup. I didn’t really find this a problem but it is worth mentioning in cases where multiple users are constantly adjusting the eyecup. If I had to suggest anything to Kowa to make the TSN-884 better it would be to increase the magnification to 75X for those times when you could use the extra power. Rumor has it that Kowa just might have a higher 70- or 75-power eyepiece on the drawing board. That would make the TSN-883/884 an even more impressive product.

Disclosure: Kowa provided Danny Reever with a temporary “loaner” TSN-884 (with eyepiece) for testing and evaluation. Kowa provided no compensation to the reviewer.
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June 8th, 2011

ShootingUSA TV Reprises SHOT Show Special Today

Here’s your chance to see a wide selection of interesting new products from SHOT Show 2011. Today, Wednesday June 8th, ShootingUSA re-broadcasts its hour-long SHOT Show Special, originally filmed on-site at the Sands Convention Center in January. This 60-minute telecast features nearly 50 new products, including Colt Centennial 1911s, Smith & Wesson 1911s and Performance Center Hunting Revolvers, new Die Sets from RCBS, Les Baer Monolith AR10s, Mossberg Tactical Shotguns, Ruger Mark III Pistols, Hogue stocks for Savages, new Wood LaserGrips from Crimson Trace, and Thompson Center’s new Venture hunting rifles.

ShootingUSA Shot Show

ShootingUSA Shot Show

ShootingUSA SHOT ShowShooting USA’s hour-long SHOT Show Special airs on the Outdoor Channel on June 8, 2011 at the following times:

Eastern Time: 4:00 PM, 8:00 PM, 12:00 Midnight
Central Time: 3:00 PM, 7:00 PM, 11:00 PM
Mountain Time: 2:00 PM, 6:00 PM, 10:00 PM
Pacific Time: 1:00 PM, 5:00 PM, 9:00 PM

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