Rifle Scopes: “Uncle Sam Was Right, and Europe Was All Wrong”

An amusing article on the US Army adoption of sniper scopes was published in September 1915 of Modern Mechanix (1 year after the outbreak of WWI but 18 months before America’s entry into the war.

I must admit I love the archaic language used in this old magazine article

… the German made the finest telescope rifle sights in the world, as he made the finest lenses and cameras and field glasses, they were confined to his hunting rifles, because before the war he labored under the delusion that fighting would be a grand shooting match between thousands of troops in the open where the mass of fire counted, and the accurate fire of a few men was not worth while.

The Britisher found out to his surprise that nobody in England made telescope sights worth while, so he sent in hurry-up orders to the American firm equipped to turn them out for this Government, to rustle a few over to the firing lines in Western Europe.

Then and there a board of American army officers, who had recommended the adoption of the telescope in 1908, sat down and chuckled right merrily. It was the first time in seven years they had had a chance to chuckle so far as the telescope sight was concerned; their judgment had been vindicated by the “flop” to their position by their most patronizing critics.

By all accounts none of the optics fielded in WWI to rifleman by any country were successful. It was not until 1941, when the German Army introduced the Zf-41, that a rifle scope was issued to regular non-sharpshooter troops (and it was also not a successful scope). Only in the 1970s did some nations adopt scopes instead of iron sights as the standard sights for their service rifles. It took until the late 90s until we saw widespread adoption of optics as a replacement for iron sights. This was not because military users were shortsighted (excuse the pun) but it simply took this long for scope technology to reach a point where scopes were practical and offered a significant advantage over cheap, easily maintained, iron sights.

Getting back to the Modern Mechanix article, the scopes in use by the US Army prior to WWI were the Telescopic Musket Sights Model 1908 and Model 1913. These scopes resembled telescopes more than modern rifle scopes. The eye lens was offset both horizontally and vertically from the objective lens, not great for accuracy or ergonomics. The bulky middle section of the scope contained a complex prism mechanism. See these photos below …

WW1 M1903 Sniper Rifle with scope and M1910 Maxim Silencer (photos by robinb)

The War Department’s publication “No. 1957 DESCRIPTION OF TELESCOPIC MUSKET SIGHTS MODELS OF 1908 AND 1913″ describes how these scopes should be cared for …

Telescopic sights are necessarily delicate instruments and must not be subjected to rough usage, jars, or strains. When not in use the telescope should be kept in its pouch and stored in a dry place. It should be occasionally examined to insure its not being corroded and all traces of dust or moisture should be removed before being put away. To obtain satisfactory vision the glasses should be kept perfectly clean and dry. In case moisture collects on the glasses place the telescope in a gentle warmth; this is usually sufficient to remove it. A piece of chamois skin or a clean linen handkerchief will answer for cleaning purposes, care being taken that the cleaning material does not contain any dirt or grit…

It is not hard to see why these scopes were not popular. The maintenance manual was written by someone who had never envisioned that the scope would have to be used in muddy trenches on the Western Front.

Trench warfare. A scope unfriendly environment. 1st Division in the trenches, Ansauville Sector, 1917

[ Many thanks to Sven (Defence and Freedom) for emailing me the link. ]

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • Avery

    That scope would be more suitable the other way around, with the eyepiece off-sight and the objective on-sight.

    I wonder if the prism system was done to make the whole thing shorter, as a 6x scope would be around ten inches long.

    I’ve felt that a lot of the improvements done to small arms in the American military all stem from lessons learned with the ACR program in the late ’80s. I recall one of the conclusions, outside that none of the weapons could really improve ballistically on the M16, that the use of swappable, zeroed scopes did more to improve accuracy than any other factor presented in those trials.

  • bbmg

    Interesting adjunct to the British lack of sights, might be apocryphal but “Se non è vero, è ben trovato”.

    From this article: http://www.magazines.co.za/editor_letter/201206012.html (though I’ve seen the story elsewhere).

    “In short, as the slaughter worsened in 1915, the British Army needed around 10,000 optical lenses to help fight against Germany. The British needed these high-quality lenses for everything from binoculars for infantry officers monitoring troop movements, to telescopic sights to help snipers deal death in the trenches. The problem was that the equipment was made by a private company in the heart of deadly rival Germany.

    The warring nations, which could not manage to hold peace talks that could have saved millions of lives, agreed to trade the optical lenses for rubber from Britain’s colonies in Asia and Africa. The deal was done and the goods were exchanged across the Swiss border with Germany.

    So British soldiers used German optical lenses to help kill German soldiers; German soldiers used British rubber to make tyres to help speed troops to the front to kill British soldiers.”

    • Burst

      Great article- a pretty neat system, all told. Conscript the poor into dying for their nation’s alliances, while their social betters make deals to ensure they have the material to do so.

      The more things change…

  • Michael

    In the 1970s the British used SUIT sights on their FAL rifles. Then replaced them with SUSAT sights. Now being replaced with ACOGs. I have seen some EOTECHs as well
    I think they were ahead of the field with infantry optics.

    • Jess

      Only some of the SUSAT sights were replaced with ACOG sights. Most of the SUSAT sights are being replaced with SpecterOS sights.

  • Paul

    interesting physical resemblance to much later Soviet PSO1 scopes

  • toadboy65

    I have a very nice WW1 german sniper rifle with the original scope that is every bit as accurate and well made as pretty much anything you can get today. Granted they were not issued to every rifleman on the front, but the history of telescopic sights in warfare is more complicated than this article would lead you to believe.

  • Scout

    Archaic language? I don’t see it. You made it sound like it was Shakespeare. I read old books a fair amount and I found unintentionally they can greatly improve your vocabulary and speaking ability. Proper langauge is never “archaic” … However, ‘street gangsta’ talk does get annoying and sends a good man off to read an old book (about shooting usually). Too many comic books read by the “no politics” boy?

    • RocketScientist

      I’m siding with Steve on this one, the language is definitely dated. the first example I notice is how the author refers to Germans, Americans and British subjects as ‘The German’, ‘The American’, and ‘The Britisher’ respectively. Using metonymy (or would it be synecdoche in this case? always confuse the two) in such a construct is definitely something I haven’t seen used in anything written in the last 6 decades or so (unless the intent was to be intentionally formal or archaic sounding). Just read this passage and tell me it’s not obvious it was written about a century ago:

      “Both games proved to be howling successes, and the British, who used to think that only they could shoot, became violently enraged at the recipients of the attention of the parties with the telescopes and the single shot target rifles. At first many of the Allies were shot through the brain, when they exposed their heads above the trenches. Later, while some «of them still were shot through the head from this cause, they were not shot through the brain. Early experience had been enough to keep anybody so equipped from sticking up his head during daylight hours.”

      Unless you live in an episode of Downton Abbey I can’t see how you think any of this sounds like contemporary writing.

  • Brad

    “It took until the late 90s until we saw widespread adoption of optics as a replacement for iron sights. This was not because military users were shortsighted (excuse the pun) but it simply took this long for scope technology to reach a point where scopes were practical and offered a significant advantage over cheap, easily maintained, iron sights.”

    Oh, I so much disagree.

    Military conservatism, in the shape of deliberate doctrine and policy was responsible for the post WWI reliance on iron sights, not scope technology.

    The fact is the poor bloody infantryman was considered as little more than cannon fodder by virtually all armies until the post-Vietnam post-draft era U.S. military began a training revolution. Until then mass conscription and speedy training were the primary needs of an ordinary infantry force. What’s the point of providing an infantryman a fancy scope if you don’t bother to provide him rigorous training in rifle fire (since the lifespan of an infantryman in combat is expected to be brief anyway).

    This attitude was evident even in the U.S. Army, as a close reading of the infamous ORO study reveals. The whole reason ‘project salvo’ and the SPIW project came out of that ORO study is because it was assumed impractical to train ordinary Army infantryman to a higher standard of marksmanship.

  • WOW that gun has got to be worth alont.