Scopes: Past, Present and Future

The history of the rifle scope is one that has its very origins in science and practicality. Most people associate the telescope with Galileo Galilei but actually two Dutch spectacle makers in 1606 invented the first working refracting lens, a whole year before Galileo’s telescope was embraced by the scientific community. Regardless of who gets all the credit it wouldn’t be long after its inception that the telescope would be repurposed to enhance accuracy with firearms, whether for hunting or for weaponry, the scope would forever change our idea of what it entails to be a straight shooter.

Fast forward a couple hundred years and crossing the Great Atlantic, in 1835 a civil engineer located in Utica, NY came up with that first rifle scope, called the Chapman-Jones sight. During the American Civil War, this newer technology was used on both sides for advanced accuracy when in combat. It is said that a Confederate sniper killed a Union General from a distance of over 500 feet. An amazing feat considering the man was hidden in a tree and the weapon he fired during the skirmish; a black powder rifle. Through each successive war, rifles have been consistently used and modified, though it wouldn’t be until the 1960’s that the lenses were manufactured to be water-proof, a great improvement over foggy lenses and smeary images.

Let’s take a look at the inner workings of the basic rifle scope:

  • Lens: No scope would be complete without an explicit understanding of how the lenses work. The larger lens (objective) is located at the end of the scope, furthest away from the stock; this is responsible for transmitting light back to the ocular lens (lens nearest your eye). The objective lens sits on what’s called the objective bell and the ocular lens is in the eyepiece. The magic happens when light passes through the objective lens and focuses on a point inside the scope; it is the ocular lens’ job to magnify the light from the focal point. That image you see when you look through the scope is allowed by this light.
  • Magnification: Scopes have multiple settings that allow different levels of magnification that you can adjust to zero in on your intended target. For example, a magnification of 5 means your image is five times larger than your normal vision.
  • Reticle: These are the cross hairs you see inside your scope and when using a basic reticle you want to keep your target in its center point.
  • Parallax: This is an interesting phenomenon that has to do with aim and a change in positions. Think of when you hold a pencil against a backdrop, when you close one eye, the object will shift right or left. When you are using your scope, this same phenomenon occurs, despite the fact that you are keeping your rifle still. When you change positions it will make your aim off target. Check with your rifle’s manufacturer, chances are they will have built their scope with adjustable objective lenses that correct for parallax error. Another aspect to think about is whether you want to adjust your scope so that it actually aligns with your firearm. This is achieved with two additional aspects; windage (adjusts horizontal settings) and elevation (vertical)
  • Sights: Sights should not be confused with scopes, they allow aim but without any magnification. Open sights consist of two notches or two tabs that are placed on a plate and when the two align you can set your sight on your target. Aperture sights use a ring for a rear site that when it is aligned with the front site you make your adjustments to center your aim in the ring. Red dot sights project a red dot or another illuminated target reticle on your image. Laser sights project a laser beams towards your target.

Through its primitive beginnings the scope has consistently improved throughout the last four hundred years, even though its foundations have remained virtually untouched, the scope still uses those primary scientific principles of optics and physics. Once you understand the inner-workings of how the scope is designed and how best to maximize its elementary function; all you need to do is practice. Unfortunately, no matter how advanced the design becomes, it will never make up for lack of shooting time. So get out and get shooting, you’ll be grateful later when you consistently increase your accuracy, and if you’re a hunter, you’ll be especially pleased with that trophy buck or freezer full of elk meat.

Louann Barstow is a modern frontier woman who grew up on a Paint Horse ranch in Texas. She is a crack shot and enjoys hunting and fishing with her family. Among other things, she blogs for, home of the best deals on scopes.

Categories: Gear