Leupold & Stevens optics

From surveying to scopes
5

Leupold’s first 1" scope was a 4x in 1954. This M-8 4x, a fine hunting sight, came a decade later.

“You can’t go there now! The passes are closed!” So spoke locals in the middle of their northern Wisconsin winter. But the farm had sold — 160 acres, the new house, the dairy cattle and machinery. The $18,000 auction bid wouldn’t cover the labor of wresting arable ground from boreal forest or reward a life so Spartan the IRS once responded skeptically to a tax return: “No one can survive on this little.”

They’d nurtured dreams of other places. An invitation from Oregon had triggered the sale. In stiff wind-driven heavy snow, they left. The Chevy sedan was packed with all they owned.

Beyond Minnesota the weather relented. They trailed plows through the Rockies. In the shadow of the Cascades, snow gave way to greensward splashed with rhododendron scarlet. Another world. The farm family from Wisconsin bought a relative’s house just east of Portland, a city which 60 years earlier had attracted Frederick Leupold.

By 1942, after moving to the corner of Glisan and 45th in Portland, Leupold & Stevens was making bomb fuses.

The Start

German immigrant Leupold had first worked for C.L. Berger & Sons, a Boston firm building surveying instruments. Keen to establish his own business, he moved west. In 1907, with help from his brother-in-law Adam Volpel, he opened a one-man shop in Portland to repair drafting and surveying equipment. The enterprise soon outgrew its fourth-floor room in the old Phoenix building on the corner of Oak and Fifth.

In 1911 the young fellow installed a new German dividing machine yielding precise graduated circles on survey instruments. Alas, street vibrations compromised its accuracy and about this time a fire in the building caused widespread smoke damage. Leupold moved his shop to a residence near his home at Northeast 70th Avenue. There he worked long hours but also studied Spanish, learned to play the flute and cultivated a flower garden.

Stevens Arrives

Enter John Cyprian “Jack” Stevens from Kansas. Born in 1876, Stevens led a more pedestrian life. A civil engineer with a degree from the University of Nebraska, he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey before moving to the Pacific Northwest. In 1910 he left government employ to start his own civil engineering practice.

The inventive Stevens saw a market for a water-level recorder that could be left unattended for more than the eight days covered by current models. He came up with a recorder that needed checking just a few times annually, a boon to hydrologists working in remote places. To put his Type A recorder into production, he signed a royalty contract with the Leupold & Volpel shop to market the device. After working abroad at hydroelectric plants, Stevens returned to Portland in 1914 and became a partner in what then became Leupold, Volpel & Co.

Steady if anemic growth carried the firm and its 40 employees through the Depression without a layoff.
Changes and war

Frederick Leupold’s son Marcus pivoted the company to hunting optics with a rifle scope in 1947.

Changes And War

Adam Volpel’s death in 1940 prompted another company name change. By the outbreak of WWII, Leupold & Stevens Instruments had moved to a bigger building and added a second story at 45th and Glisan Streets where it produced bomb fuses, sextants and Pelorus.

Frederick Leupold died in 1944. His sons Marcus and Norbert, with Jack Stevens’ son Robert, were already active in the company, Robert and Norbert having pursued other careers before joining the firm in 1939 and 1943. Marcus, a talented pianist, had turned down a music-teaching career at age 22 to work at Leupold, Volpel & Co. Legend has it he decided to build a better rifle scope after missing a shot on a deer hunt. During the war he and his crew developed what would debut in 1947 as the Plainsman, a 2.5x scope with a 7/8″ tube. It wasn’t air-tight, so it fogged. A redesign without internal adjustments reduced fogging.

Marcus Leupold then borrowed war-time technology from the Merchant Marine. To keep optics clear on its vessels, engineers had evacuated air from tubes and replaced it with nitrogen. In 1949 Leupold became the first American manufacturer with a nitrogen-filled, fog-proof rifle scope. It was also hailed as the first with a leak-proof tube, along with ocular and objective bells.

A 1907 repair shop for survey gear became an optics firm building exquisite scopes like this VX-6.

Pioneering Efforts

The company was committing to products Frederick Leupold could hardly have imagined.

By 1951 Leupold had announced its 2.5x and 4x Pioneer scopes with fixed reticles. Micrometer-style thimbles near tube’s center adjusted windage and elevation on a 2.25x Riflescope. Leupold offered a High Power Converter to bring magnification to 8x in the 2.5x Pioneer and the 2.25x Riflescope. The 4x Mountaineer, first in Leupold’s line with a 1″ tube, appeared in 1954. It was followed three years later by the 8x Westerner. Both had internal adjustments. The 8x Pioneer, announced about the same time, did not. A 6x Mountaineer came in 1958. By the next year all Pioneers had been discontinued

Jack Slack married Marcus Leupold’s daughter Georgia. A rifle enthusiast,
he spent his career at L&S and was key to many innovations.

Taking Up Slack

To help market its scopes, Leupold hired Jack Slack in 1953. An avid rifleman and hunter, Slack shared the field with the luminaries of his day. “Jack O’Connor insisted early on,” he once told me, “that external scope adjustments would become obsolete. And he urged scope-makers to adopt the 1″ tube long before it became standard.” Jack Slack would marry Marcus Leupold’s daughter, Georgia.

During a career at the company, he helped design several flagship items. While scopes fashioned after the Lyman Alaskan didn’t bring a flood of orders, the Leupold Vari-X II and Vari-X III have become two of the best-selling scopes ever.

As Marcus Leupold explored ways to make better and more innovative rifle scopes, Jack Stevens continued to invent hydrologic devices. By the early ’50s he’d patented 17. But a stroke in 1953 left him physically impaired and in 1960 Leupold & Stevens sold its line of forestry surveying instruments to narrow its manufacturing focus.

The same year it introduced the M-7 series of rifle scopes, first a 3x and a 4x. A 3-9x variable arrived in ’61. All had a short tenure, giving way to the M-8 line in 1964 and the Vari-X II short months later. These included a fixed-power 7.5x and a variable 2-7x. In ’69, after moving its offices and manufacturing plant to Northwest Meadow Drive in Beaverton, Leupold would add 8x and 10x M-8s. The next decade would bring more.

Duplex Succeeds

One of Leupold’s most successful features, the Duplex reticle, appeared in 1962. Prominent legs or bars direct the eye to a slender crosswire in the center. With elegant simplicity, it affords both fast and precise aim. It’s been widely copied and is by far the most popular hunting reticle in the U.S. Incidentally the “Duplex” moniker still belongs exclusively to Leupold though like “Frigidaire” and “Xerox” it is often used carelessly to reference similar products. Such is the result of pioneering something so good it becomes ubiquitous!

In 1970 the last vestige of the original Leupold & Volpel partnership disappeared with the closure of the survey instrument repair and rental shop.

Full Circle

Shortly thereafter I met a young woman whose family had carried its dreams to the City of Roses from a snowy Wisconsin farm. Portland would bring me other relationships too — with gunmakers, fellow competitive shooters and rifle enthusiasts of whose prized collections I’ll not again see the like. The lady is still with me. Leupold still makes superb rifle scopes just off the Sunset Highway. The rhododendrons still bloom while mountains lie deep in snow. But old Portland as I recall it — surely as Frederick Leupold found it — is no more.

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