Historic firearms have always fascinated me. The precision with which they were made during wartime and their unique feel has long held sway over me. While I have a fair amount of experience with their modern counterparts, I find myself often drawn to the old warhorses. Each ding and scratch holds a story and the seemingly endless number of proof marks, inspection stampings and manufacturers' codes can keep a collector busy for weeks at a time trying to sort them all out. As part of this loss of sanity and cash, I have been bitten (no surprise here) by the sniper rifle bug. Many of these so-called sniper rifles are nothing more than a standard service rifle pulled from the production line when it exhibited above-average accuracy. In some cases, no effort was made at all to separate out accurate rifles for conversion. Perfect or not, a telescopic sight was mounted and the rifle issued to the troops, qualified or otherwise. Some rifles, like the Enfield No.4 Mk1 (T), went through a detailed accurizing process. Others were issued as is after the installation of a telescopic sight, with little else in the way of improvement. The telescopic sights varied greatly, but two trends seemed to have been adopted by the warring nations. You will find either long-tubed commercial grade optics no different than those found on hunting rifles, or you will find short-tubed telescopic sights manufactured specifically for the weapon in question. There are some aberrations from this state of affairs like America's M-85 and Britain's No.32 Series. But for the most part, especially in the European nations, one finds high-grade commercial sights or mass-produced sights of abbreviated stature.
Having an evening free, I decided to compare the units available to me: a British No. 32 Mk1, a Russian PU and a German ZF4-fach. The combatants at large employed all three of the sights with varying success. Two of the three lived on to fight almost half a century after their inception. Both the No. 32 and the PU were employed well into the 1980's in one form or another. I am sure that if you visit the armory of some third world countries you will certainly find them still performing reliable service. Though not high tech by today's standards, both of these telescopic sights were capable of delivering fire precisely where their snipers directed. I thought it would be interesting to compare these units as a break of sorts from the modern optics we actively analyze today. It is interesting to note that for over a century, the battlefield sniper had been achieving excellent results with optics and rifles we in modern times would consider substandard or highly obsolete. In many ways, this just proves the adage that the man makes the success, not his equipment.
We love to compare modern precision optics. However, there are a multitude of choices that can make it very confusing. Modern optics has achieved levels of reliability unimagined just 40 years ago. It would be easy to discount sighting devices from the past as being less than ideal. From our modern perspective, these devices look downright useless. Certainly when compared to what is available now, they show a definite lack of refinement and ability. Yet many of these systems have been used as front line equipment, with deadly success, right up to and including this very year, 1999. I find that a little telling about the way we think. While we are proud of our technological advancements, and firmly believe in the superiority of our equipment, I find it sobering that something designed 100 years ago was capable of making shots at ranges in excess of 1500 yards, or that so seemingly crude a device as any of the following telescopic sights were capable, even in the 1940s, of delivering one well-placed shot time and again at ranges we still consider excellent.
Not surprisingly all three of these sighting systems proved affective and accurate enough for their design purposes. While none can compare to their modern descendants, they were the leading technology in their day. They enabled their users to go forth and place fear into the heart of their enemy, robbing him of freedom of movement and killing his field level leadership and valuable trained assets, which is after all, the military sniper's reason for being. While not one of the rifles these sights were placed upon was capable of sub moa accuracy, they all did their part effectively.