While at the Nightforce industry event back in November 2016, TFB received the privilege of talking one on one with Ray Dennis, the Australian dentist who founded one of the premier optics companies of our time.
The Firearm Blog- Before we get into the history of Nightforce Optics, could you talk about your background beforehand?
Raymond Dennis- I’m from Southern Australia and was born in 1954. My parents were immigrants from Germany after World War Two. At a very early age I learned to sit on the back of my grandfather’s motorbike while he went rabbit hunting. In Australia it was then still a free country, where you could go hunting, go shooting, and no one really frowned upon you if you had a rifle on your back while riding on a motorbike through a city to get into the hills to shoot rabbits. So from about five and a half years of age onwards I was a self-professed rabbit hunter, learning from my grandfather. That was really where my love of the outdoors and hunting started. Traditionally in Australia most hunting occurs at nighttime. This is because many animals there are nocturnal due to the high heat of the day. Foxes are predominantly nocturnal, kangaroos are as well, in areas that have a high populace. So the only way to control feral animals or just to hunt game is at nighttime with a spotlight. It is very different from the United States, wherein the majority of hunting takes place during the day and night hunting is frowned upon, if not illegal in many states. Except now it is opening up more and more for predator hunting. But in Australia it was quite a legal pursuit. Anyways, grandfather made up a little 6 Volt light with a motorcycle battery where you could jump the terminals to get the higher voltage as the bulb warmed up. It was mounted underneath the rifle barrel, and that was his nighttime spotting rig while he walked through the hills shooting rabbits. That was my introduction at a very early age, until I was old enough to do my own hunting. Rabbit and fox shooting every weekend was the name of the game. It developed I suppose, until I got to my mid-teens when I built up my first centerfire rifle which I got when I was 16, a .22-250 Ackley Improved in a Sako action, Shilen barrel, Unertl Scope and a thumbhole stock. That was my foxing and rabbiting cannon as I called it. It was a custom built rifle, and I thought I was a king with that. Because with foxes I could shoot them well out to 300 yards those days. Later on, I learned that I could make money out of selling the pelts, but I was overkilling the foxes with huge exit wounds that could destroy the pelt. Before 7mm Rem became popular, I had to custom build build 7mm .222 Improved which I used for harvesting fox pelts along with minimal skin damage. But then I gravitated towards night hunting and I needed a really good light. Because with the newer cartridge I only had about a 5 inch drop at 300 yards, so I had a very flat shooting round. But at night time the problem was seeing what I was trying to shoot. Most of the spotlights would go out to 100, 150 yards but didn’t have the power to push further.
TFB- So you developed your own lights then?
RD- Yes, they were injection molded plastic, seven inch reflectors, 100 Watt Halogen bulb, but it was a projector bulb. Rather than a traditional automotive bulb. The projector bulb gave it far better color rendition, and having much tighter focus through a smaller filament. Therefore by focusing the light by movement of the bulb relative to the reflector you could really get a pinpoint beam. That could get you the ability to get target acquisition well over 400 yards away. They were very lightweight and had incredible performance at a relatively economical price. You could hold it all night and not have wrist fatigue. Brilliant power that, but now I could see what I was trying to shoot, I had a rifle that could do what I wanted it to, but I didn’t have a scope that could utilize both of those functions. The problem with European optics was that the reticles were in the first focal plane, and were too thick. There was no parallax adjustment and there were very few models with high power magnification. Picket post or too heavy thickness of crosshairs were also an issue. The reason the Germans used that was because they were doing moonlit shooting at close ranges. But that doesn’t work on a fox’s head at 300 yards at nighttime where you can just see the two ears and the head above the wheat stubble. I quickly realized there was nothing out there that could really do it for me. The U.S. scopes in the late 70s and early 80s; Leopold, Barris, Redfield, had the disadvantage in that they all had fine reticles, small objective lens, didn’t have the light gathering power. You’d lose the reticle at night time unless you had perfect focus, and for all the reasons that we know now, it wasn’t a suitable candidate for a night hunting scenario. That is what really pushed me to develop a type of scope that had unique features. Such as incorporating a 56mm objective lens with good light gathering power. Europeans had that of course, but they never combined it with the illumination, and they never combined it with parallax adjustment. At nighttime you have to have parallax adjustment because you have a lot of difficulty getting your reticle and your image both in image at the same time when you no longer have the receptors for color working to your advantage bringing the two together.
TFB- It was time for a change then?
RD- Well, I figured I had to do something about this so I went to the 1986 SHOT Show in New Orleans. I went there with my spotlight to see if I could market it in the U.S. and I successfully did so. More for the Marine market than the hunting market because of the illegality issue. But I found a manufacturer that could make me a scope from Japan, that encapsulated all those features. A 30mm tube, illuminated reticle, second focal plane because I didn’t want the reticle to “grow” and obliterate the fox head at 300 yards. And I wanted parallax adjustment with a large objective lens. For a little bit of arm wrestling I got them to make up a batch of 500. That was for Australia, for fox hunting on .17 Remingtons, .222s. Back then fox skins were bringing in 20-30 dollars a pelt. Which in those days was really good money. And it worked very well. We sold everything we could get into the country and then I came up with a number of magnifications, up to 15 power. Eventually I decided to open up my own company in the U.S. and that was in Seattle at the time. We organized an office there, had two staff members working there. The main criteria I had was to sell the lights. I had no idea that people in the U.S., the land of optics, would be interested in my scopes. But we had it, as apart of what we made. And in no time at all, it was apparent that everyone in the U.S. was enamored by the optics and not really by the lights because it was illegal in most places and no one wanted to take the risk of getting caught. I was more focused on the lights, but they actually reversed roles entirely.
TFB- You established Lightforce in Australia first, and then in the United States, but it hadn’t turned into Nightforce yet?
RD- Correct. Both the lights and scopes had Lightforce imprinted on them in the U.S., until we received a letter from a person in California who was making light bars for emergency services and police forces, all those flashing lights on the top of emergency cars. The company was named Lightforce and I had no idea about that. They didn’t want me to use the name in the U.S. When I asked them if I could buy the rights to use the name, they said for $25,000 I could. That was a lot of money for a small business I was trying to start. So I said bugger that, I’ll change the name, I’ll call it Nightforce. So one letter change and away I went. Later on, the company from California went out of business, so we changed over the name for just our lights in the U.S. to Lightforce because that made sense with the light market around the world. But because the scopes had taken over so well, I determined that it should keep the Nightforce brand name.
TFB-Throughout the design and evolution of the different products, did you get into the details and mechanically design things, or were you more about the concept and what needed to be done?
RD- I’m not an optical engineer, I’m not a mechanical engineer, I’m a dentist. But what dentistry in those days did, is it gave us a very good overview and brushstroke education over a whole range of things. Obviously being interesting in things, you pick up the skill sets you know and you need to be able to innovate to do what you can’t do. As most successful people realize, they can only do so much themselves, they have to get the engineers to take over and put those ideas into reality. That is the innovation part of the concept. I was very innovative, I hand built my own lights back in the early days. But when it came to making an injection mold, I had to get a designer to do that, and a molding engineer. There is a separation there, in knowing what you want, but you haven’t got the skills to make it, therefore you need to find the skill set to create the final solution.
TFB- Then the real talent is finding that skill set and communicate correctly through collaboration in bringing the product to fruition.
RD- Yes, then you have to market, and brand it, and go down that journey. I mean, it is one thing having a great idea, it is completely another getting it to sell. And from Nightforce’s perspective, it was doing very well but only as Lightforce. We had a good little niche there, but the U.S. market has completely superseded that. And what we’ve focused on is the higher end market because unbeknownst to me, the features and benefits that I wanted which was rugged, repeatable, reliable operation under adverse conditions, where it was beaten to death in the back of a Ute (truck) to shoot a fox was something that most people had never really understand as an application. But what it resulted in was a very robust and user-friendly scope. And that was something that nobody in the U.S. probably had a need for. But once they realized what they could do with that repeatability and night viewing ability, which really translates in the day time to really good resolution, and clarity of optics, then the rest sort of fell into place.
TFB- Those initial optics were manufactured in Japan?
RD- Yes, that was when I was still in Australia, those products were still in place when I came over to the U.S. from the same manufacturer, but the interesting stepping stone that you have to learn when you apply it to a different market is that in Australia, most of the optics we used on relatively low powered firearms. The most recoil that an Australian hunting rifle would have could be a .243 Win. Recoil really wasn’t an issue. We came into the U.S. and people were putting our scopes on .300 Win Mags, and of course the recoil was entirely different. We were finding we had mechanical problems with the original ones. Optically they were beautiful, but mechanically they were couldn’t withstand repeated hammering through the big Magnums. We did a complete rethink and that is what started us off on our own QA and manufacturing journey. Because we realized that everything we got, we needed to actually rework. Get it to the point where it could perform under all sorts of conditions. In Australia they were tough, but they weren’t recoil tough. We had to completely rebuild the way lens were bedded in. We had to use a new bedding compound, which seated every lens in its own internal housing. So no longer was it a metal to metal or metal to glass interface, that gave a little bit of resiliency to the scope. That’s why we can beat it, bang it, and usually 99.999 percent of the time it protects the lens group, and prevents point of impact shift, and it keeps the scope very rugged. Today O-rings help out as well, but they can still fail. Whereas with a bedding compound properly applied, it can’t leak.
TFB- How did this change in business affect locations between the two countries?
RD- We stayed in Seattle for a while, but we swapped manufacturers because in the process our specifications started getting to a much higher level where we could no longer afford problems with mechanical designs. We got in an engineer, Kevin Stockade Stockdill, who is still with us now, and we started doing internal repairs and more modifications to further bulletproof the scopes. From there we got a better understanding of what we needed to do to produce an optic to perform under all conditions. That has been an ongoing on wherein we shifted from Seattle to Idaho in around 1998. Bought land there, put our first building up, and have since grown drastically over the last twenty years. When it came to actual manufacturing, sourcing of components comes from around the world, we get glass from Europe, Japan, China even. Parts can therefore become multi sourced. But we make a number of parts ourselves, we make our own body tubes, turrets, and all of our own assembly. In addition to all of our own design.
TFB- What about reticle etching?
RD- No, reticles is one of those things in that it is a really high speciality. There isn’t too many scope manufacturers that do their own etched reticles. It is too specialized for the volume required to set up just to do that. And the technology is changing so quickly, that we would bury ourselves. It’s a job within a job. So we buy reticles in, as well as polishing glass. I don’t know whether the investment to do our own glass polishing and cutting from a billet is a cost efficient way, when there are dozens of businesses that do it. The trick is to pick the best of the batches and know what you are getting, and know that the quality is within the specifications that you defined it as.
TFB- So how did the scope line begin, and evolve into what we know of Nightforce Optics today?
RD- Well our Varmint scope was our earliest version of what we call the 3.5-15 power, and then soon after in 1998/99, we came up with the NXS series. Nightforce Xtreme Scope. We had that in a number of different magnifications, so we used the same basic footprint and expanded on the magnification. The NXS line went from 3.5-15, a 5.5-22, then we had the 8-32, and the 12-32 powers. Then we built the compact line which is the 1-4, the 2.5-10×24. It was the first standard bearer for Nightforce products that was suitable for military application, but also hunting. However the main focus was the top tier groups in the military, and then work down from there. But everything at that stage was F2 (second focal plane) reticle technology. Eventually we realized that the military market was morphing, moving across to F1 (First Focal Plane), which has always been a European share. Main reason being ranging. So the first move into that was the modification of the 3.5-15 NXS into our first focal plane version, and sold that very successfully into the military. However this eventually morphed into the ATAC-R line or the TAC-R. The bottom line is that this was the next tier that really places us at another level because of the First Focal Plane options. The pinnacle of that is that B.E.A.S.T scope with the 5-25 and with all the special reticle configurations, as well as the turret configurations. And the ability to put a T3 reticle and a Horus reticle system into the design. The 5-25 ATAC-R is literally the same optical package, but had different mechanical backing to it. The next step in that direction is the 7-35 line that we are bringing to market next year.
TFB- When did the military contracts start coming in?
RD- We started getting military contracts in the early 2000s. But within a couple years the military realized it was a scope that they could beat to death, it has elevation adjustment that is applicable to distance shooting. The only scope at the time that could reliably stay on a .50 BMG, and not change point of impact. In those days reticles weren’t really at that point, being hairs or wires. As an example for really adjusting for distance, you really had to dial it, and not many scopes were reliable in their dialing. You might go up 20 minutes, but then you’ll have to go back down 22 to get to where you started. There was no consistency, tracking problems, point of impact shift, etc… Our scopes were the first ones that started building reticles with the ability to use for accurate holdovers, as well as precision dialing, to give you the same effect. Not we have the ability to do either, or.
TFB- The SEAL Teams were very interested in the scopes to begin with as well?
RD- As a general rule, we really focused on the needs at the time of the Navy SEALs. They are still very much focused on the F2 reticle in fact. In the meantime the rest of the military had shifted across to the First Focal Plane (F1), and we were somewhat slow on that uptake. Now of course we a whole range in the First Focal Plane. The SEALs wanted a scope that could withstand several atmospheres under water, in addition to the opposite side of the spectrum, many thousand feet above land, and then transitioning between the two of them. It was quite an interesting process because we had to develop test equipment to ensure that everything that we sent them actually passed. We had to get a pressure testing vessel which tested for pressure, we did our own impact testing, and our own resolution testing, all that in house. It came with quite a mechanical set up to support the requirements to support the Mil-Spec needs of the SEALs. And that resulted in the scopes that we sell to the U.S. Military being that much more of a quality assurance, and material build, right through the whole range.
TFB- Did Nightforce bid on the PSR contract?
RD- Yes we did, but Schmidt & Bender got it because of the earlier PSR contract, and at the time we didn’t have our F1 version ready yet. They had their 5-25 PM2 F1 and Premier Reticles were the only ones out there, and they won it, on the basis of that.We were essentially 6 months behind, and we didn’t want to introduce something that we hadn’t perfected yet.
TFB- Why has there never been a large movement to break into the Aimpoint, Trijicon, Elcan, or EoTech 3 power or reflex sights?
RD- No, we see ourselves at this point to be long range specialist suppliers. Most of those companies are close quarter combat stuff. But even now there is a movement to push away from a reflex sight to a magnified optic, because even in those compact close quarter guns, they can have the accuracy to deliver really precise shooting out to 600, 700 yards, with the right projectiles and the right twists on the barrel. A lot of these red dot sights and 3 power sights are very limited by what they offer at long range. They are good for close quarter combat. Now because of the accuracy and projectile choices, the typical close quarter firearm is good for much more than just close quarter fighting. So a good variable 1-4, 1-6, or 1-8 would probably have an advantage because it is excellent for up close red dot shooting, but then it can instantly switch to longer range, like 700 yards away, with excellent clarity, a ballistics compensated reticle, and now have the ability to have excellent target acquisition at long range.
TFB- What have been some of the pitfalls and bumps in the road that the company has encountered over the past 25 years?
RD- It’s always a battleground, trying to balance growth with the market movement. I mean obviously you don’t want to grow too quick and kill yourself, but you don’t want to lose market opportunities by being too slow. So the real challenge is to build the processes to support the growth have been a bit of a challenge. But I have to say that we’ve fortunately navigated 99 percent of that, very successfully in our pathway forward. At this stage we have managed to keep abreast of all the market forces. And we think you believe that you have a really good handle on what the market is, and you make your products as such. One of the biggest obstacles is when there is a political shift. Whenever that happens, to the adverse, then there is a big panic buy and everybody wants everything tomorrow. We fortunately haven’t been affected badly by that. But those are the sorts of things that can pull you under, there is no stability in it.
TFB- How has the increase of firearms regulation in Australia affected the Lightforce market?
RD- When all the political change happened in Australia, we shifted from handheld lightening for hunting, and put more focus into driving lights. In Australia that is a really big thing, because anyone who drives anywhere in the countryside, really needs auxiliary lighting. Because the kangaroos, and the vermin on the road. So to get the extra visibility, that has been our market focus for quite a few years. Now the sporting market is slowly coming back again. It took a dive for several years when everyone got their firearms confiscated. It was an interesting time from a lighting and firearms perspective. So when the optics took off, we were better off developing that in the U.S. where there is a shooting culture, but in Australia it would have never economically paid for itself, especially when the political shift happened in the mid 1990s. You can’t rely on a market so grounded in politics, one moment you have it all, and then with a stroke of the pen, it’s gone.
TFB- What makes Nightforce so different and sets it apart from every other scope maker?
RD- I think that what everyone tells us is that the reputation we’ve gained over the years for the 3 Rs, Rugged, Reliable, and Repeatable, epitomizes what the brand stands for. We’ve not taken shortcuts, we’ve not tried to work out how we can address a huge market with a low quality product, when we are more than content to stay at a fairly high level. We’ve never had a bummer, or a failure that has dropped us off the radar, it’s not happened. All our products are carefully QC-ed, and we build them all ourselves.
TFB- What about the competition within the high end scope market? Schmidt & Bender for example.
RD- Well, it isn’t about saying they are no good and we are, but more about we had a place in the industry that is unique, and we have maintained that place, and we believe that what we’ve done within the industry differentiates us because of what we do perform. We have the feature sets. Everyone has had their day, and we have to lift ourselves continually to keep up with the game.
TFB-So what is the future for Nightforce?
RD- There is no doubt that what we call the digitalization of the optics industry will gradually progress, and that the acquisition of the Horus reticle technology, and the patents surrounding ballistic programming when it comes to reticles will be part of where our next levels of innovation are going to occur. Whatever the digitalization is, we want to be apart of it, whether it is incorporating laser range finders, digital elevation and windage, bringing in ballistic information, Wi-Fi, or full digitalization of an optic so you would essentially be looking into a camera screen. And we are going to push to that level, knowing that we have the intellectual property to allow us to navigate that really well.