Our rifle scopes are most directly related to refracting telescopes of which the first practical versions were seen in about 1608 in the Netherlands. These first refracting telescopes are credited to Hans Lippershey and Zacharias Janssen, spectacle-makers and Jacob Metius. We are probably more familiar with the name Galileo Galilei who heard of the invention in 1609 and proceeded make his own version. The first experiments to give shooters a telescopic sight go back to the early 17th century but all the early attempts had practical or performance limitations.
The first documented telescopic rifle sight was invented shortly after 1835 by Morgan James of Utica, NY. John R. Chapman, a civil engineer, worked with James on some of the concepts and design, and they produced the Chapman-James sight. In 1855, William Malcolm of Syracuse, NY began producing his own sight. Malcolm incorporated achromatic lenses like those used in telescopes. He also improved the windage and elevation adjustments. Malcolm’s sights and those made by Mr. L.M. Amidon of Vermont were the standard during the Civil War.
Telescopic sights were used to good effect by both sides during the Civil War. There were a number of noteworthy shots and some rumors of hits from 1000 yards or more. At Spotsylvania the Union General Sedgwick was reportedly killed by a sniper from a distance of 1000 yards. The actual measured distance is about 550 yards which is still very impressive for a black powder rifle in combat conditions, (the shooter fired from a tree).
Variable power rifle scopes were not developed until the late 1940s and it was several years before they were reliable products both in performance and longevity. They frequently did not return to zero after adjusting for elevation or windage and would fog up in wet conditions or just from altitude changes. Waterproof scopes appeared about 1960.
The introduction of variable power rifle scopes also introduced the issue of mounting the reticle at the first or second focal plane. In general a scope with a first focal plane reticle will cost more than a one with a second focal plane reticle. In first focal plane optics the reticle cell is located at the front of the lenses that control the magnification level so as the magnification level changes the reticle will appear to get bigger and smaller from the shooter’s perspective. The reticle is actually maintaining its size in relation to the target which means range estimation, trajectory compensation, and leads can be done at any available magnification level.
The more common arrangement for a variable powered rifle scope is to have the reticle in the second focal plane. This arrangement is cheaper to design and produce compared to a first focal plane reticle. The second focal plane reticle cell is installed at the end of the erector tube so as the magnification level changes the reticle will appear to stay the same size. This means that accurate ranging, hold-overs, and leads can only be done on one magnification setting without some sort of conversion.
The basics of scope design have remained much the same since the 1960s with some added details such as multi-coated lenses in the 1970s and parallax adjustment (only needed above 8x magnification), and illuminated reticles which can extend morning and evening shooting times. The basic crosshair has been enhanced in a multitude of varieties including adaptations of the military Mil-Dot range finding system. Each manufacturer has also created proprietary range finding reticles.
The most significant and recent change to rifle scope design is the incorporation of laser range finders into the scope itself. In 1997 Swarovski Optik introduced the LRS series telescopic sight, the first rifle scope on the civilian market with an integrated laser rangefinder. The LRS could measure ranges up to 600 meters (660 yard). The LRS sights are out of production, but scopes with similar but superior features are commercially available from Burris and Bushnell. There are scopes available in every price range and with a huge variety of options. Carefully consider your needs and evaluate the available options and you will find a rifle scope that is perfect for you. If you find yourself in need of laser range finding scope or other rangefinder scope please visit http://www.rangefinderriflescopes.com