Arizona’s Unit 24b is a brutal, nasty place.
Consisting almost entirely of the Superstition Wilderness, 24b is big enough and roadless enough that it’s core is seldom visited. Trails that look clear on maps are actually “trails,” canyons appear from nowhere, and springs run when they feel like it. Life is hard here.
In other words, 24b is perfect. A perfect, joyous unit where you can go days in the middle of deer season without seeing a single other person. A place where there are no tree stands, no warm nights at the hunting lodge, and no water you didn’t drag in yourself. A place where you have to earn your hunt.
Coues deer are the primary target here. They are small and gray with unnaturally good eyesight and an unbelievable ability to avoid ridgelines. They are ghosts. You are going to need good binoculars to find them. Enter the Vortex Talon HD.
WHAT IS IT? Vortex Talon HD 10×42 Binoculars
HOW LONG HAVE YOU OWNED IT? Six months
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? Around $400
PROS? Razor sharp center, open bridge design, wide field of view, excellent color fidelity
CONS? Heavy, noticeable sharpness drop off near the edges
WHO SHOULD BUY IT? People who want excellent glass without breaking the bank, people who love open bridge designs
WHO SHOULDN’T BUYT IT? People who have more money than common sense, people who really want a 15x binocular
DID SOMEONE GIVE IT TO YOU FOR FREE? No, I bought these binoculars with my own money. This post does contain affiliate links, however, which do provide a small kickback to us if you purchase through them at no additional cost to you.
The Vortex Talon HDs are the last of a dying breed. To make an absurd oversimplification, there are essentially two ways to design a set of binoculars: open or closed bridge. Closed bridge binoculars are what you are used to seeing every day, with a single central hinge connected to the focus knob. Open bridge binoculars have two sets of hinges, one on the back and one on the front. This makes open bridge systems stronger at the cost of being longer and slightly heavier.
Make that longer, slightly heavier, and less sexy. Unfortunately open bridge systems just look a little clunky relative to their closed bridge brethren. I’m sure somewhere there is a grumpy old man screaming about how looks shouldn’t matter when you are in the field, but the fact of the matter is that no one wants to look like a goob. Paired with the fact that some people find closed bridge designs more comfortable to hold, this has led open bridge systems to go the way of the dodo (Editor’s note- to that point, technically this model has been discontinued by Vortex, though they are still available from many sources such as Amazon).
And that is a shame because open bridge systems also have an incredible advantage to those who glass from a tripod. When a tripod adapter is attached to a pair of binoculars, it (generally speaking) screws in at the bridge. In closed bridge systems, this single bridge is centrally located, which means that the stalk of the tripod will be directly in line with the center of the binoculars, with the eye pieces fairly close behind. On the other hand, in open bridge systems the attachment point is on the front bridge, which has the effect of moving the eyepieces back toward you, the user. This means less leaning forward and more breathing room between your face and the tripod stalk, both huge positives when you are going to be glassing all day.
Onto the glass itself, the Talon HDs are better than anything in this price range has any business being. They are very sharp in the center with a reasonably large sweet spot and spotless color rendition. I have not not noticed any chromatic aberrations to speak of. As you would expect, the tubes are argon purged, the glass is high dispersion, and the lenses are fully coated.
If you made me pick nits, I’d say that the focus throw is far too slow (a full 540 degrees from close to infinity) and that the sharpness drop off near the edges is noticeable. The focus throw problem is a cheap, easy fix that Vortex should be sure to resolve if these binoculars are every redesigned. The sharpness drop off is probably something you will have to live with unless you want to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on binoculars.
It is also worth noting that the Talon HDs do not come in higher magnifications, such as the increasingly popular 15x. While 15x binoculars certainly have their place, I’ve always found their field of view too small and their mass too great for the type of light and fast backpack hunting I prefer. When I’m going to spend a week in the backcountry hunting in diverse conditions, from dense canyon bottoms to long open ridge lines, a single versatile solution is the only real option. 10x42s are hard to beat in this regard.
COMPARED TO THE COMPETITION
TALON HD vs. VIPER HD
Vortex’s main alternative in this price range is their classic closed bridge Viper HD. I have a few years of experience behind these, as they were my go to pair of binoculars before an unfortunate house robbery removed them from service. On paper, the Viper’s have a lot going for them. First of all, they are lighter, nearly two ounces lighter. Now, two ounces might not seem like much, but when they are slung around your neck all day, ounces add up. Second, the Viper’s are a little sharper, especially around the edges. Lastly, eye relief is just a touch longer and the close focus distance is just a little bit shorter.
So why not just buy the Viper HDs then? Most important to us normal folks, though prices vary a little day to day, the Viper HDs have historically been about 25% more expensive than the Talon HDs. 25% is a lot! Second, though the Viper HDs are a little sharper around the edges, they also have a slightly narrower field of view. To me, any reasonable tradeoff between field of view and edge sharpness is a good one– better to have the subject in frame than miss the subject entirely.
Some reviewers have made a big deal out of the fact that the Viper HD frames are made of polycarbonate while the Talon HD frames are made of magnesium. Ignore these people. Modern plastics are excellent, and you almost certainly would do irrevocable damage to the optics long before you break the frames of either.
Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that the Talon HDs are a open bridge design while the Viper HDs are a closed bridge design. I spend most of my glassing time behind a tripod, and as discussed above, I am in favor of literally anything that moves the eyepieces of my binoculars away from the tripod stalk. Open bridges are not as sexy as closed bridges, but they just work better for the type of glassing I do.
TALON HD vs DIAMONDBACK
On our most recent coues deer hunt, I got the chance to spend a ton of time behind Curry’s pair of Diamondback 10×42. For the price, around $200 (half of the Talon HDs), I was impressed. The Diamondbakcs are a reasonably sharp, well built pair of binoculars that any beginning hunter would be happy with for a long time. The fact that, through the magic of globalization, you can buy glass this good this cheap is a wonder in and of itself. We are a spoiled bunch, modern hunters.
That being said, going to the Diamondbacks is a significant step down in quality from the Talon HDs. The Diamondbacks are not HD glass, and it shows. While sharpness isn’t bad color fidelity is a problem, with everything taking on a slightly warm hew. Colors matter, especially when trying to differentiate between a grayish coues deer and a slightly less grayish bush from hundreds of yards away. If you can afford to jump to the next price level, do. If you can’t, buy the Diamondbacks and give them to your kid when you have the money and need an excuse to upgrade.
What does it take to hunt a place like this?
Well, patience and reliable gear that does everything well. Yes, in a perfect world, you would have a few different pairs of binoculars with you, covering all the magnifications from 8x to 15x. But this isn’t that world. When you are going to be carrying everything you need on your back for days on end, you will need to pick one set of binoculars that are durable, optically excellent, and comfortable to use.
The Talon HDs are just that. Light enough to carry, sharp enough to use, and with a comfortable open bridge design to boot, the Talon HDs have already become one of my most beloved pieces of gear. They get used. They get used all the time. I can think of no better endorsement than that.
Correction 10/11/18: A previous version of this post had the open and closed bridge design definitions backwards. The text has been corrected to reflect the correct definitions. Huge thanks to reader Pete for catching this!
Disclaimer: This post, and all posts on LesserPlaces, may contain affiliate links– links that allow me to receive a small kickback at no additional cost to you when you shop through them. This is how we keep the lights on.
You can follow Lesser Places by email, or on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram using the menu at the top of the page. Or, you could click the links below to share with your friends directly. Or, copy and paste the URL someplace you think people will find it useful. Or, print the story, place it in a nice envelope, and send it to one of your friends. Basically we support any way you want to share. No, we aren’t above begging.
Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.