Somewhere between sporting and effective
Shooting Times & Country|July 14, 2021
The riflescope has come a long way since the mid-19th century, says Graham Downing, but people have always grumbled about change
Graham Downing

Deerstalking has generally been an early adopter of improvements in firearms technology, many of which are a result of the constant development of military small arms. That has certainly been the case with sighting devices.

As the accuracy of rifles improved in the early 19th century, there was a clear need for a better sighting system for precision marksmanship. While there had been a number of early experiments with telescopic sights, the first reliable riflescope was invented by Lt Col David Davidson, who exhibited his new design at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where he demonstrated it to keen deerstalker Prince Albert.

Davidson patented his invention in 1862. It was applied to Whitworth’s new muzzle-loading rifles and was successfully used by Confederate marksmen in the American Civil War.

Riflescopes were also made by Edinburgh opticians for use on the Scottish hill, and by 1887, when Henry Holland took out a patent for a sight similar to Davidson’s, they were already being fitted by the top Scottish rifle makers Alexander Henry, John Dickson and Daniel Fraser.

Vision of the future

Within 30 years, snipers on both sides were using them to deadly effect on the Western Front. Of course, there were some grumbles about the riflescope being unsporting for use on a stalking rifle, but any negativity probably had much more to do with the fact that early riflescopes, which were inadequately sealed, were prone to misting up in damp weather and the mounts used to attach them to a rifle were less than perfect.

Kenneth Whitehead pointed out in his Half a Century of Scottish Deer Stalking that scopes were generally detachable, carried in a leather scope case and, if the weather was wet, were only clipped to the rifle immediately prior to the shot being taken.

Constant removal and replacement caused wear on the attachment lugs and one can quite see that it would only take a series of unexplained misses, in which the chance of that once-in-a-lifetime beast was ruined by a fogged or misaligned riflescope, for the sportsman to throw the damned thing away in disgust and return to his trusted open sights.

That all changed after World War II when improved optics manufacturing in the US and Japan, which was soon to lead the world in camera technology, provided stalkers with cheap, reliable riflescopes.

While sporting writers were, as late as the mid-1990s, still lauding the merits of open sights for close-range woodland stalking, few stalking rifles supplied today are fitted with them. Furthermore, the technology of the scope itself has moved on massively over the past 20 years.

My first riflescope was a fixed-power Schmidt & Bender 6x42 with a German number 4 reticle, an excellent sighting device, but now superseded by variable-power scopes with a variety of illuminated reticles.

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