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This question was raised in my post of July 25th: If variable scopes are so terrific, how come hunters like Jack O’Connor didn’t use them, preferring straight 4Xs and the like? The answer is that Saint Jack began hunting just about at the time that scope sights became practical for use on hunting rifles, and his career ended at just about the time that variable scopes became reliable enough that you could rely on them, sort of. Early scopes were enough of a nightmare without the added complication of power selection. But once variable magnification became practical, it converted even the old-timers. Warren Page, who did the bulk of his hunting in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, was a fixed power shooter for all of that time, but by the early 70s, he was using a 2X-7X.
Scope optics have improved so much in the past 20 years that there is no comparison with what went before. Lens coatings are far tougher than they used to be and transmit far more light. Where things really have not progressed much is in scope machinery. There is no shortage of fragile adjustments, adjustments with vague, mushy clicks, adjustments that don’t repeat reliably, adjustments that flat-out break, and crosshairs that detach from their moorings.
Part of this is because scope designers think of their products as optical instruments first and foremost, whereas what they should be, first and foremost, is rifle sights, able to withstand the thousand and one shocks that rifles are heir to. To be fair about it, however, scope makers must produce instruments that are light and compact, and since the machinery that moves crosshairs or the lenses in a variable scope is complex, you end up with a lot of fragile, complicated parts.
I’ve seen no correlation between price and scope reliability, with one exception. That is the scopes made by Nightforce, which cost a small fortune, but really do seem to be mechanically a cut above the rest. They are very, very tough, and their adjustments are dead reliable, which is why so many F-class shooters and .50-caliber shooters love them. I finally coughed up the money for a 5X-15X Nightforce, and found that you can crank it up and down from 200 to 300 to 500 to 600 yards and back again, over and over, and be dead on all the time.
A Bausch & Lomb Balvar scope and Kuharsky mount with the spring-loaded plunger system that held the scope in place.
Why not external adjustments, which are simpler and much more robust? It’s been tried. Back in the 50s and 60s Bausch & Lomb made a series of scopes called Balvars, variables and fixed powers, with no adjustments except for the power selector. Windage and elevation were in the base, and the scope was held in place either by a bar which screwed in place (B&L), or by a spring-loaded plunger system made by a company called Kuharsky. Either way the base stayed on the rifle, and you could detach the scope in a few seconds and mount it on another rifle.
The Balvar was an extremely good scope for the time, and the system, although on the heavy side, worked very well, although you had to have a light touch with the adjustments. However, it didn’t sell.
Unertl and Lyman, which made long, high-powered target and varmint scopes, used external adjustments that worked fine but were bulky and required some care in handling. But in 1970, Redfield came out with the first high-power scope with internal adjustments, the 3200, and that was that.
Scopes continue to be, advertising copy notwithstanding, fragile objects, and will be for the foreseeable future. If you drop one, or your horse rolls on one, or the ramp apes have fun with your gun case, or if you misuse a scope (screwing the elevation and windage adjustments up to and past their limits is a fine way to break it) or mount it on a vicious-kicking rifle, it’s probably going to break. About all you can do is treat the thing with consideration and bring an extra scope along whenever you go hunting.