Vintage Scopes Can Still Serve In The
Field If You Accept Their Limitations
By John Barsness
While new and more astonishing riflescopes appear every day, many shooters prefer much older ones. Sometimes they have an older rifle, maybe an all-original pre-’64 Model 70 Winchester looking a little too weird with a 21st-century super-scope’s 30mm tube, big adjustment knobs and matte finish. Others just prefer older scopes, often because they prefer hunting with “primitive” technology, such as a sporterized 1903 Springfield and a 2-1/2X Lyman Alaskan.
However, older technology does have downsides. When I started hunting, way back in the Paleolithic Era, steel-tube Weavers were considered very reliable even on the hardest-kicking rifles, but they occasionally fogged inside due to moist air in the scope. Most scopes did back then, because unlike modern scopes, their adjustment turrets weren’t sealed with O-rings, or “purged” of moisture with nitrogen or argon. Most American scopes (or scopes made elsewhere for the American market) were sealed by the 1960s, including Weavers. Oddly enough, some very expensive European scopes weren’t sealed until the 1990s.
This is exactly why one old piece of hunting advice was to keep scoped rifles at hunting temperature. Bringing a cold scope inside a heated cabin or tent could cause condensation inside the scope where it couldn’t be wiped off. Interior fogging is essentially unknown today, and younger hunters think a “fogged” scope means dew or rain on the outside surfaces of the lenses—also becoming less common due to hydrophobic lens coatings.
Still, some hunters like old scopes, especially Lyman Alaskans and steel-tube Weavers, because aside from fogging they’re pretty recoil-resistant, and their bluing matches the finish of older rifles. However, be aware. Though later Alaskans were called “All Weather,” the name only referred to the steel caps on their adjustment turrets, not internal waterproofing. Earlier Alaskans, like many older scopes, including many Weavers, didn’t have anything covering their adjustments. (Come to think of it, many modern “dialing” scopes don’t either, but their turrets are sealed.)
Many hunters also like the older Redfields, made in the factory in Colorado, or old Zeisses, or several other brands. Aside from simplicity, one attraction of most old scopes is price: Today they can often be purchased pretty cheaply, and many still have years of service left.
A vintage (circa 1960) Mannlicher-Schoenauer .30-06 cries out for a period correct scope like this Lyman.
After all, for serious rifle guys, sometimes aesthetics trumps technology. Photo: Roy Huntington
However, one potential problem is mounting the things. Today almost all scopes have either 1-inch or 30mm tubes, but older scopes often had 3/4-inch, 7/8-inch, 26mm or 26.5mm tubes—and the metric sizes appeared on some scopes made in America. For a while I owned a Kollmorgan 4X Bear Cub, made in Massachusetts. Kollmorgan originally made scopes for the Stith scope-mount company of Texas in the early 1950s, then for a few years in the late ’50s made them under their own name before selling the company to Redfield in 1959. All the Kollmorgan-brand scopes were excellent, but had 26mm (1.023-inch) tubes, so wouldn’t quite fit in 1-inch rings—and various European companies made both 26mm and 26.5mm (1.045-inch) scopes. Some European factories even made scopes with 22mm (0.866-inch) tubes.
Weaver used to offer both 3/4- and 7/8-inch rings, but lately doesn’t list them, though they can often be found at gun shows or on internet sites. Luckily, Talley makes their excellent, elegant steel rings in 7/8 inch, and Brownells offers Delrin inserts for 1-inch rings to mount 3/4- and 7/8-inch scopes, along with 26mm inserts for 30mm rings. A few European companies offer actual 26mm and 26.5mm rings (I have a set of 26mm CZ rings on hand, just in case), but both tubes also usually fit in the polymer inserts of Burris Signature rings, since the plastic’s flexible enough to spread around the slightly larger tubes. In fact, the last German-made Nickel Supra scope I owned, a 4-10X with a 26mm tube, came on top of a custom 98 Mauser purchased at a local gun show—with the scope mounted inside Burris Signature rings.
The other big problem is fixing old scopes. Here I must confess to sometimes working on ’em myself, back when old Weaver scopes were more common. Newer scopes can’t be taken apart without special tools, partly because scope companies grew weary of receiving boxes of parts from customers, with a note saying, “I took my scope apart because it fogged, and couldn’t figure out how to put it together again.” Preventing easy disassembly prevents scope owners from totally unscrewing the eyepiece, allowing moist air inside the scope in the first place.
Back when Weavers could be easily taken apart, many parts were interchangeable between various models. I once ended up with a steel-tube K3 I planned to put on my first .338 Winchester Magnum, but didn’t like the fine crosshair reticle (standard in many older scopes) for hunting dark timber. I had another old “parts” Weaver with an early plex-type reticle, so took the K3 apart and installed the reticle-cell from the parts scope, a relatively easy job involving loosening a few short screws, then tightening them again with Loctite to make sure they stayed put.
Some shooters like hunting with old scopes, partly because they’re lower-tech than today’s models, and partly because they look good on traditional rifles. These may include foreign oddities such as (top) a 4X Hensoldt on a SAUER drilling, a steel-tube K4 Weaver on a pre-’64 Winchester Model 70 Featherweight (middle), and a 2-1/2X Lyman Alaskan on a custom 1903 Springfield built by Frank Pachmayr.
The K3 worked fine on the .338 for several years, until early one November morning its optics refused to reveal the antlers on a whitetail buck. He was about 225-yards away, harassing a small herd of does, along with a smaller buck. The antlers on both bucks were invisible through the old Weaver, and all the milling deer looked pretty much the same. It took some fast binocular work to decide which whitetail to shoot, and I did get the bigger buck—but afterward mounted the K3 on a .22 rimfire for rabbit hunting, putting a newer, brighter scope on the .338.
Back then I knew a guy who had a small optics-repair shop in Missoula, Montana. He dried out fogged Weavers (and other old scopes) by removing the eyepieces, then warming the scopes in his kitchen oven before putting them back together again. This seemed to keep them from fogging, at least in the relatively dry West. He long ago went to the big repair shop in the sky, but several companies repair old scopes, and sometimes other optics.
Of course, some older scopes are still under warranty, due to lifetime guarantees. Leupold is well known for their absolute guarantee, but if they can’t fix one of their older scopes they replace it instead. More optics companies offer this sort of deal these days, but not many have made scopes as long as Leupold & Stevens.
However, some shooters still prefer to have an old scope fixed, whether because they simply like old scopes, or because it’s on a Savage 99 they inherited from their grandfather. Luckily, many old scopes can be fixed by somebody, somewhere, and will keep going for many more years.
John Barsness’s book Modern Hunting Optics was published in 2014, and can be ordered through www.riflesandrecipes.com, P.O. Box 579, Townsend, MT 59644, (406) 521-0273.
The book Old Rifle Scopes by Nick Stroebel, now out-of-print, contains a wealth of knowledge, including tube diameters and other essential stuff. The latest version is available in PDF and e-book formats only from www.gundigeststore.com, and combines both of Stroebel’s original books on scopes and old gun sights.
Iron Sight (repairing Leatherwood, made-in-USA Redfield and Weaver scopes)
4814 S. Elwood Ave., Tulsa, OK 74107
Leupold & Stevens
14400 Northwest Greenbriar Parkway, Beaverton, OR 97006
L & K Scope Repair
P.O. Box 32, Eldridge, MO 65463
(417) 426-5041 (no calls after 6 p.m. Missouri time please)
Parsons Scope Service (almost all vintage and antique scopes)
1563 Compton Rd., Cincinnati, OH 45231, (513) 867-0820