The Deal Ain't Sealed!

Putting The Euro-Scope Mystique Under High Magnification

The brand and model of these scopes has been fuzzed out, because one wouldn’t adjust
correctly and the other wouldn’t hold zero. Word got out quickly and they were also quickly
fuzzed out of the marketplace.

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” is a frequently quoted bit of wisdom from George Santayana’s Reason in Common Sense, published in 1905. Born in Spain in 1863, Santayana came to the U.S. at age 8 and attended top-notch schools here and in Europe, including Harvard University, where he eventually taught. Santayana thought of himself as American, but spent the latter part of his life in Rome.

What does this have to do with riflescopes? Santayana’s observation is usually invoked when discussing serious stuff such as war, but many recreational shooters forget the past. Plus, the 21st Century scope industry is as internationally mixed as Santayana’s life — one reason today’s scopes are often great bargains.

The German Touch

In 1990 even some expensive scopes weren’t very good, and the reason goes back to the great burst of optical science in Germany during the 1800s. So much time and energy were expended improving optics, the glass itself became the major, uh, focus. Consequently, German optics became known as “The Best.”

Many shooters assumed excellent optics meant German scopes were excellent in every other way, but until the mid-1990s most German scopes (and others made in bordering countries) weren’t sealed against atmospheric moisture. As a result, damp air could enter the scope, condensing on the interior surfaces of lenses when ambient temperature dropped to the dew point. Even great optics don’t provide much of a view when misted over.

For some reason, early field-adjustable turrets were really tall. Today they’re more normal height.

Fighting Fog

Interior “fogging” was a common problem with early scopes, but most American companies started sealing their scopes by 1960, a trend started by an Oregon company initially known for surveying tools — Leupold & Stevens. One of the owners, Marcus Leupold, was an avid hunter, and on a hunting trip his expensive scope fogged inside. He started making riflescopes sealed against moisture, and other American companies soon followed.

An Austrian company — Kahles — also started sealing their scopes around 1960, but most European companies didn’t consider interior moisture a problem, partly due to cultural reasons. European big-game hunting is pretty expensive, so most hunters have above-average incomes. Unlike most American hunters, they had gunsmiths sight-in their scopes, often on heated indoor ranges. Consequently, many German and Austrian scope manufacturers couldn’t really grasp the possibility of scopes actually fogging.

The Lyman Alaskan “All-Weather” actually wasn’t weatherproof, since it wasn’t sealed against moisture —
but did have turret caps, unlike the original Alaskan. Many European optics companies still used this method
of semi-weatherproofing into the 1990s.

Water, Water Everywhere

I know this because in 1993 several American gunwriters visited a major German optics factory, and asked one of their hosts why the company didn’t seal their scopes. He replied, rather condescendingly, that the threaded caps on the adjustment turrets kept moisture out — a concept not encountered in the U.S. since 1944, when Lyman put adjustment caps on their “All-Weather” Alaskan scopes in 1944. (Unfortunately, even capped Alaskans could fog, the reason so many mid-20th Century American hunting rifles had quick-detachable scope mounts and back-up iron sights.)

One of the Americans suggested removing the caps could allow moisture to enter the scope. The German raised an eyebrow and asked, “But vy vould you effer take the caps off?”

During the ensuing conversation it became apparent the major point of the tour was to convince the American writers German scopes were the absolute best in the world. The writers could then return home and convince American shooters their “cheap” (but sealed) scopes were inferior.

However, during the next few years more American shooting and hunting magazines started running in-depth optics articles. Before 1990 most articles about riflescopes consisted of rehashing an old booklet published by Bausch & Lomb explaining optical terms, rather than dispensing practical advice. In the 1990s, however, both hunters and magazine publishers apparently decided scopes weren’t a passing fad.

One of the scope-tests performed for this new style of optics writing was removing the turret caps, then submerging the scope in warm water: The warmth expanded the nitrogen gas inside sealed scopes, or the air inside unsealed scopes, pushing bubbles through any leaks. Eventually some European test-scopes ended up not merely fogged but containing various amounts of water. As a result, by 2000 most European factories finally started sealing scopes — 40 years after most American scope companies.

These days, even scopes without turret caps won’t leak when submerged in warm water.

Accurate “Clicks”

Another revolution in scope design also started in the 1990s, not long after the appearance of affordable, hand-held laser rangefinders. Reticles started sprouting extra “crosshairs” for longer-range aiming and, a little later, scopes grew tall elevation turrets meant to be twirled in the field. Exactly why the turrets were so tall is a mystery. Today almost all have shrunk to more normal heights.

Multi-point reticles were relatively easy, but the turrets involved some growing pains, because the adjustments of most scopes truly sucked — even expensive ones. The “clicks” of many scopes were barely detectable by human fingers, and few still had non-clicking friction turrets, with hashmarks almost invisible to middle-aged eyes. Plus, the hashmarks and clicks often didn’t match the listed amount of reticle movement. Often, moving the turret didn’t move the reticle at all. Strangely, many shooters accepted this, apparently because most scope adjustments had acted in this manner for a very long time.

Despite improvements, some still do. During a recent discussion of scope adjustments, an older hunter said he carried a small rubber hammer in his range-bag to tap scope turrets so the adjustments would “take.”

In response, a younger guy, used to “dialing” elevation turrets up and down, said he also used a hammer to fix balky scope adjustments — a sledgehammer, with the scope placed on an anvil.

Due to more shooters adjusting their scopes in the field, a pretty high percentage of today’s scopes have much better adjustments — if they don’t, they’re outed on the Internet. In 2010 I went on an industry-sponsored coyote hunt where the writers used rifles with a new scope with field-adjustable turrets. The adjustments didn’t work, either in returning to zero or, sometimes, simply holding zero. Within a year the scope disappeared from the market.

Modern manufacturing techniques are another reason many of today’s scopes are such good bargains. Computers not only run most machine tools, but optical design programs capable of saving weeks of R and D.

Optical glass factories have also appeared in many countries. Some shooters still assume legendary Schott glass is produced only in Germany, but the company now has several dozen factories around the world. Some shooters still believe really good scope lenses can only be made in central Europe, but today they’re made all over the world.

Good — even great — scopes can be made anywhere, often for less money. A few decades ago, Japanese manufacturers started making better cars and trucks, forcing American automakers to build vehicles that didn’t fall apart about the time their one-year warranty ended. For the same reason, Japanese scopes are now considered among the best in the world.

One particular factory in Japan makes scopes — or supplies the lenses and other parts — for at least half-a-dozen “American” companies whose scopes have reputations for good-to-great optics combined with repeatable, rugged adjustments. One major German optics company even has some riflescopes made in Japan.
Scopes made in the rest of Asia are still considered second-rate by many Americans, who remain absolutely convinced they’ll always be second-rate. They’ve apparently never heard of George Santayana’s famous observation, and if they did wouldn’t get it, even while driving Japanese pickups while talking on smart-phones made in China.

Judging from the past, riflescopes will continue to improve, no matter where they’re made.

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