Wayne van Zwoll looks at the history of custom rifle scopes. He also offers tips for custom rifle scopes.
Custom rifles have served American shooters since flintlocks were fashioned on home forges. Then each rifle differed from the next.
For the most part, rifle scopes have been mass-produced. While scopes appeared on rifles more than 150 years ago and were even used by Civil War snipers, they didn’t take the hunting field by storm.
That’s partly because they were expensive. In 1926, well after smokeless cartridges like the .30-06 and .270 were sending bullets on flat arcs at over 3,000 fps, a Zeiss 4x Zeilvier cost $45. By pre-Depression standards, that was an enormous sum. Even twenty years later, as scopes inched up in price, you could still buy a Fox Sterlingworth shotgun for $65, a Winchester Model 21 shotgun for $111. A Parker skeet gun would set you back $184.
In 1926, you could buy a good house for a four-figure sum. Automobiles cost hundreds of dollars, not tens of thousands.
Then there was the reliability issue. Scopes fogged. Reticles of fine spider web broke. Windage and elevation adjustments were crude and didn’t always move point of impact as expected. Even when a scope functioned as intended, it was plagued by optical limitations of the day. Uncoated lenses lost up to 4 percent of incident light at each surface, producing dim images at dawn and dusk. Eye relief was critical and discouraged shooters who’d teethed on iron sights. Moving the adjustments moved the reticle in the field of view, so after zeroing, the reticle often appeared off-center. Sometimes it was far off center. Rain and snow not only distorted the sight picture by accumulating on outside glass but moisture could leak into the scope.
During the 1950s and 1960s, you could buy very good scopes at very reasonable prices. Coated lenses brightened images. Nitrogen injection prevented fogging. Mechanical advances brought the constantly centered reticle. Scopes became lighter in weight when alloy tubes replaced steel. Adjustments were refined to yield reliable quarter-minute adjustments. In that era, the switch from iron sights to scopes on hunting rifles gathered steam. Within another decade, barrels would appear without iron sights. Since then, as hunters came to consider scopes necessary on all but double guns for big African beasts, scopes have vaulted in price and sophistication.
There are now so many scope makers and models that you could ask: Why on earth does Leupold offer a custom shop? What could you want that’s not already on the market, sometimes replicated many times over? I asked Alan Ransom, who runs the CS at Leupold’s Beaverton, Oregon headquarters.
“For one thing, you can get a scope that’s no longer made,” grinned Alan. He knew I had draped myself in sackcloth and mourned many days when Leupold discontinued its M8 3x, one of the sleekest and most useful scopes for big game rifles ever made. “Our CS 3x isn’t exactly like the older model. It’s better, optically, and there are slight cosmetic changes….”
I interrupted him to order one.
Another CS service is the installation of custom reticles, in new scopes and as retrofits to those already in the field. You’ll see 18 reticle designs on the CS pages of Leupold’s current catalog. “We can also install a long-range reticle matched to your specific load,” Alan said. “You send us the factory load, or the ballistic coefficient and starting velocity of your pet handload, and we’ll build a reticle with marks that indicate dead-on hold to 500 yards, at 100-yard increments.” I’ve used those scopes – by Leupold and by GreyBull, which fits Leupold scopes with its own 1/3-minute elevation dials. For shooting at distant targets, such reticles boost your odds for first-round hits.
Cosmetically, the CS can put benchrest rifles and Indy cars to shame. From 24k gold plating of Leupold’s emblem, to brilliant colors – even multiple-color schemes – and the imprinting of names and illustration, a custom scope affords you the chance to make the tube uniquely yours.
Are there limits as to what’s available? Sure. “Illuminated reticles, for example, can normally be installed only in scopes already configured for illuminated reticles,” said Alan. And optically, Leupold must hew to the constraints already imposed on design teams at every scope company.
Alan pointed out that some scopes and features draw enough interest to keep them on a CS list of recommended items. “Though they’re not so popular as to justify standard production runs. We call them CS exclusive scopes. It does not include distributor specials like those Zombie cosmetics that flooded us with orders at the 2012 SHOT show.”
Here’s that list of exclusives:
1.25-4x VX-R Scout