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June 11th, 2008

Tripod Gizmos make Spotting Easier, More Precise

While shooting at the Pala Varmint Silhouette Match recently, we had a chance to test drive John Adams’ Pentax PF-80ED Spotting Scope. It’s a great scope, fitted with outstanding lenses. We tried both the 20-60 power zoom and the superb Pentax XW-10 wide angle/extended eye relief lens, which provides a fixed 52X image. The XW-10 is the most user-friendly spotting scope eyepiece I’ve ever tried–ultra-bright, with nearly an inch of eye relief.

One thing that made the Pentax such a pleasure to use was the mounting set-up. John has his PF-80ED set on a sturdy Manfrotto tripod with a special geared tripod head, the Manfrotto model 410. The geared head allows you to make very fine, precise movements in vertical or horizontal planes. You don’t have to unscrew a clamp, fiddle around to re-position the scope, and then struggle to lock it in place again without altering the position. This unique, compact head offers precise gear movement in three directions: pan (horizontal movement left to right), elevation, and angular rotation around TDC (horizon tilt).

The Manfrotto 410 geared head was superb. While spotting at 600 yards, I could easily move up or down a few inches on the target with just a quick twist of a knob. If I wanted to move down the line to a sighter plate, it was just as easy to pan a few feet horizontally, without disturbing my vertical setting at all. I don’t know how Manfrotto does it (the gearing system is patented), but very little effort is required to turn the knobs in any direction, and there is plenty of travel.

If you want to make large adjustments, as when moving your view from a 1000-yard target bay back to the 100-yard line, you can disengage the gear drives and manually move the entire head. The Manfrotto 410 incorporates a unique feature that allows you to instantly disengage the gears and rough position the camera by hand, then instantly reengage them for precise final alignment. The model 410 head supports up to 5 kg (11 pounds), and is also suitable for 35mm SLR and medium format cameras. The head incorporates a quick release camera plate system.

So what does this superior technology cost? The Manfrotto model 410 costs about $210.00 at large camera outlets, but you can sometimes find one for about $180.00 on sale. Is it worth it? If you’re on a very tight budget–spend your money on a barrel first. But, if you have an $800+ scope that’s used quite often, the geared head is worth the investment. Others seem to agree — three other Pala shooters added geared heads to their tripods after trying John Adams’ rig. The gearing makes it much, much easier to move the scope in very small increments while spotting at extreme ranges. But what about resale? These geared heads are also extremely popular with commercial photographers, so they hold their value well.

The Manfrotto 410 was previously sold as a “Bogen-Manfrotto 3275/410″ and you may still find older versions listed that way. Manfrotto also makes two other geared heads, the model 400 ($680.00, 22 lb. rating) and 405 ($385.00, 16 lb. rating), but these are much more expensive, and designed for very heavy cameras.

Pipe and Post Level
To get the best results from any tripod when using a spotting scope (or chronograph), you need to make sure the base for your scope is set level to the horizon. Deluxe heads, such as the Manfrotto geared heads, have built-in bubble levels, which make it easy to level the scope. If you don’t have a level on your tripod, but it has a telescoping center shaft, you can use a simple, inexpensive Pipe and Post Level. These attach with an elastic band around the vertical shaft and provide bubble levels in both horizontal and vertical planes. You can purchase these levels for under $5.00 at hardware stores and home supply outlets.

Good, Inexpensive Tripod
If you want for a good, solid tripod that will hold a heavy 80+ mm spotting scope at a bargain price, look for a used Davidson Star-D on eBay, or one of the optics forums.

Star-D tripodThe Davidson Star-D tripod is a solid, all-metal rig that is sturdy enough to be used for movie cameras. Star-Ds feature convenient rotary cam (collet) leg height adjustments and all-metal tilt and pan controls that lock solidly. The center post is clamped with a big locking ring that adjusts for tension. The rugged, machined-aluminum Star-D tripods are no longer in production but you can find good “previously-owned” models for sale on eBay. This tripod is ideal for use with a chronograph or spotting scope (for viewing in sitting or standing positions). You’ll see a variety of Star-Ds on eBay. What you want are the newer Star-Ds with all-silver heads and cam-locked legs. You can often pick them up for under $25.00. Look for the latest versions, as shown in the picture.

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June 11th, 2008

March Scopes — Source and Pricing

Right now the March line of scopes represent the “state of the art” in high-magnification Benchrest scopes. They are unexcelled for brightness, sharpness, and perhaps most importantly, shot-to-shot reliability. Many top short-range benchrest shooters, who can’t tolerate even a tiny shift in the scope’s reticle moving the point of impact a few hundreths of an inch, are using the March 40X, 50X, and 60X, and now the new 10-60X Zoom.


March scopes are made in Japan by DEON. In the USA they are sold exclusively by Kelbly’s. Jim Kelbly reports: “Some 40s and 50s are in stock now. The 10-60X zooms will be in stock in about two months unless the back order list gets longer as it is everyday. If you want a March scope you should not wait till they are in stock. We have a waiting list and you should get on it if you would like one in next two months.”

Current March Scope pricing:
40×52, 50×52, and 60×52 fixed focal length: $2100.00
10-60×52 Zoom: $2400.00

March Benchrest Scope

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