A Brief History of Telescope Rifle Sights

A brief history on telescope rifle sights- Optical aiming devices on rifles have been around since the 17th century. The first documented modern telescope rifle sight was invented in the 1830’s. A man named Morgan James, a gunsmith had created the first documented rifle scope known as the Chapman-James sight.


In 1855, an optician from Syracuse, New York named William Malcom produced his own telescope sight that incorporated windage and elevation adjustments. These sights were between 3x-20x magnification. These sights became a common piece of equipment for sharpshooters in the American Civil War. In Charles Willson Peale’s “Riffle With a Telescope to it,” he depicts attaching some sort of telescope aiming device in the year 1776. Needless to say the history goes back hundreds of years now with mainstream adoption during the American Civil War.

Above is a picture of Union Sharpshooters equipped with heavy bench rest rifles. Notice the long metal tube above the bore of the rifle. This is one of the primitive aiming devices that first saw combat in the American Civil war.

First Mainstream Adopted Weapon Sight

Above you can see this heavy octagonal cut barrel bench rifle fitted with an early optical aiming device that uses a form of elevation adjustment. This rifle still utilized a percussion cap ignition system. The muzzle loader was quickly replaced by a more modern metal cartridge ammunition similar to the type of ammunition still used today.

Original Rifling

As you can see, this rifle was equipped with bore rifling. This primitive rifling in the bore, aids to stabilize the projectile. A massive advantage over the smooth bore muskets of the American Revolutionary War. This advancement in technology extended the maximum effective range of the shooter. It has been documented that during the American Civil War, on multiple occasions, sharpshooters would eliminate enemy Officers at distances claimed up to 1 mile per the NRA National museum. Barrel rifling was invented in Augsburg Germany in 1498. In 1520, August Kotter, an Armourer from Nuremburg, improved upon the design although it did not become common until the early 19th century.

Modernizing Ammo

Some of the first modern rifle cartridges were percussion cap initiated. This looks similar to Louis-Nicholas Flobert’s first rimfire metallic cartridge in 1845. Modernizing ammunition is what drove the need for telescopic weapon sights.

Fast Forward to World War 1

One of the biproducts of war is the rapid expansion of technology. War drives innovation. War drives some of the brightest minds to create some of the best advances in medicine, machinery and weapons. Although the atrocities of war can shadow the creations of revolutionary equipment, none the less, the technological advancements are incredible. Above is a soldier utilizing a modernized telescopic sight. Looking at the timeline for the use of telescopes in combat, it was merely a generation removed from its inception. Primitive riflescopes, rifles, and ammunition had been relaced with centerfire rifle cartridges capable of lethality well past 1000 yards.

With the battlefield having vast expanses of land known as ”NO-MANS-LAND,” the need for extended range capabilities became priority number 1. The soldiers had to defend positions across barren wastelands without the ability to gain terrain. This drove the telescope sight rifles to the front lines for use of covering the unpassable land. Sharpshooters would use these telescope equipped rifles to eliminate enemy troops who dared to expose themselves from the trenches. It became very common for these shooters to wreak havoc on opposing sides along with the advent of modern machine guns. Sharpshooters had been known to pluck off any soldiers not covered by a trench or micro terrain.
Above is a French model 1886 M93 fitted with a A.P.X. 1916 scope. This was an example of the French’s main Sniper weapon system going into the first World War. These scopes were side mounted and had ocular adjustments along with a primitive elevation and windage.
Above is a photo of French Sharpshooters utilizing the 1886 fitted with a telescoped weapon sight on the front lines during WW1.

Above is a German GEW Model 98 Sniper rifle used during WW1. This rifle utilized a Mauser style action and was capable of hitting point targets well past 800 yards. This was a very common weapon system used by the Infantry and generally only Snipers were equipped with the telescopic sights.

World War 2

Above is a collection of Sniper weapon systems from World War 2 representing all 4 world super powers. Starting from the top, a Russian Mosin-Nagant Model 1891. This Rifle setup is most famous for the Battle of Stalingrad in which Vasily Zaytsev killed an estimated 225 German Soldiers. Simo Hiyah, a Finnish Sniper killed 505-700 plus Soviets in the Winter War with one of these. Below that is another iconic British Sniper weapon system the Lee Enfield Rifle Model no.4. This weapon system was fitted with a large capacity magazine. Below that is the German Mauser 98 fitted with a Ziess 4x or 6x scope. These were known to be accurate out to 1000 yards. Below that is the American Springfield M1903 fitted with a Weaver m73 2.75x telescopic weapon sight. This was eventually replaced by the M1 Garand.


Above is one of the most iconic photos of a military Sniper. This is a picture of Carlos Hathcock. One of the deadliest Sniper in modern military history. In this picture, he is utilizing a Winchester Model 70, chambered in 30.-06 Springfield. At the beginning of the war, Marine and Army Snipers were ill-equipped and still using some outdated equipment. This photo, Carlos is using the Unertl 10x scope and a heavy bull-barrel. These scopes generally were acquired in Okinawa at the PX exchange for hunting rifles along with the scope base and rings.

Above is a picture of the reticle for the 10x Unertl Scope. It has been documented to have been capable of shooting roughly 1 MOA with the m70 Winchester. This scope gave Snipers the ability to engage targets out to several hundred yards.

M14 National Match

This is an example of a later more modernized Sniper weapon system used in Vietnam, the m14 Springfield chambered in .308 Winchester. This rifle was a Semi automatic, or fully automatic weapon system vs. the bolt actions that were common on the battlefield. It was equipped with a 3-9x adjustable ranging telescope (ART) made by Redfield. This combination was later designated the M21 and maintained the position as the primary Sniper weapon system of Vietnam. The M21 would not be replaced until 1988 by the M24 bolt action Sniper weapon system.

Introduction To The Modern Era Weapon Sights

Skip a generation and lets move into the modern era of Sniping. This where the most radical changes in technology have occurred in regards to the telescopic weapon sights. Not only were the previous generation of telescopic sights merely an afterthought, but they were nothing more than hunting scopes with some variation of a duplex style reticle. Nothing up until the 1980’s had spawned anything resembling the modern reticles or scope technology. With the need to engage targets not only during daylight hours but night-vision capable also, the modern tactical milling reticles were born.

Modern Weapon Sights

As previously stated, war creates some of the largest gains in technological advancements. The Military tactical mil-dot reticles were able to be used to measure, range and engage targets precisely. They were now able to make precise adjustments to account for wind, elevation, angle and movement speed. The U.S. Army re-opened their Sniper Course, and drove the long range shooting capabilities to the next level. Numerous companies had a hand in mainstreaming technologies such as reticle patterns per the needs of modern combat.

These two rifle scopes were adopted early in the War on Terror. The scopes are able to be adjusted in magnification, using a front focal plane technology. Unlike the previous telescopic sights which were all second focal plane, these have accurate hold over style reticles that can be used on any magnification level. Second focal plane scopes have to be used on maximum power to have an accurate point of impact. These modern scopes are equipped with the ability to adjust parallax with a simple movement of a knob making any distance target crystal clear. These scopes are capable of running night vision devices forward of the scope and even include illuminated reticles. leupold.com
This reticle is a culmination of everything learned over the past 170 years. Not only can you accurately measure an object and range it, but you can use the reticle to hold over, and hold off for wind with extreme precision. Over the past 170 years since the first use of telescopic weapon sights, optics and reticles have made long range shooting almost effortless. Reticles like this are common among long range enthusiasts, Military and Law Enforcement around the world. I hope this was interesting, and again to keep it as brief as possible. HOW TO MAKE DENSITY ALTITUDE DATA CARDS Applied Ballistics

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  1. Liam Riley says:

    awesome writeup

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