When you picture a sniper, the image that comes to mind is often a camouflage-clad man carrying some variant of a long rifle with a distinct, high-powered optic mounted on top. Technology has undoubtedly changed, and the capability, form and function of those rifles and optics have changed too. But it is specifically the scope that sets that image apart from your common soldier. The conventional definition of the sniper’s role and capabilities centers around that high-power optic. It is the scope and his skills that allow the sniper to deliver accurate fire beyond what an infantryman and his rifle are expected to engage.
Numerous companies across the globe have supplied high-quality scopes to soldiers of every army. Companies like Nightforce, Schmidt & Bender, Zeiss and Steiner are all revered for their craftsmanship. If you ask 10 different shooters to name the company that makes the best scopes, you will likely get 10 different answers. Nevertheless, one company has dominated the market and supplied more pieces of glass to the snipers of the United States military than any other: Leupold & Stevens, Inc.
In 1907, two brothers-in-law—Fred Leupold and Adam Volpel—started a small business manufacturing and repairing surveying equipment. Business quickly picked up, and the brothers—along with new addition J.C. Stevens—made a name for themselves because of their quality and innovation. By 1942 the company was producing surveying equipment, rifle scopes and water measuring systems all under the Leupold name. Fast-forward to 1985, Leupold ventures into the tactical optic market by supplying scopes to the U.S. military. Since that point onward, Leupold optics have been a leading choice for hunters and snipers alike.
What does it take to be a leading supplier of optics to the U.S. military? Leupold explains, “The mission was clear; build a rifle scope that would outperform anything on the market or even in development at the time. It had to be what the military referred to as ‘jump proof.’ … basically, it had to be the most badass scope anyone had ever created.”
Before going much further into Leupold’s optics, first let us explore what led to the need for magnified optics on rifle systems. Colonial-era marksmen and sharpshooters had been delivering effective fire against distant targets for decades. However, with the greatly increased precision offered by the rifled barrels and ammunition of the mid-1800s, magnified sights became necessary to engage more distant targets. Applying the “aim small, miss small” concept, marksmen would choose individual enemies or even body parts rather than large formations of people. In today’s operating environments, the military is having to stretch capabilities just to see targets, let alone engage them effectively. Further adverse conditions, such as low light, naturally complicate the situation even further.
Enter the Leupold ULTRA. Leupold states, “This scope is the foundation of what would become Leupold’s legendary Mark series.” The Mark series would grow to be synonymous with military-grade tactical scopes. Meeting all their required criteria, the ULTRA greatly surpassed the military’s expectations. In 1988, the successor to the ULTRA M3A—the Mark 4 LR/T—would win the contract and come fitted to all M24 Sniper Weapon Systems.
The Mark 4 LR/T was offered with fixed 10x magnification, a 40mm objective lens, M3 turrets with 1 minute of angle (MOA) adjustments and a MIL-Dot reticle. The MIL-Dot reticle was a vast improvement over the hunting-style duplex reticles commonly used before. The reticle allowed the user to measure the apparent size of targets and, by utilizing the MIL relation formula, accurately estimate distance to targets. The same reticle could be used to create holds (holding points) for wind and moving targets. While the MIL-Dot was revolutionary in that day and era, it required training and a lot of practice to use effectively.
Another version of the Mark 4 LR/T was released about a year later. It had similar turrets and the same reticle. However, the scope had a bigger 50mm objective lens and offered variable magnification. Originally expected to be fitted to a bolt-action rifle, the 4.5-14x power scope would be chosen to accompany the .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle.
In 2008, Leupold won the contract to equip the M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System with their new Mark 4 LR/T. It would offer 3.5-10x power magnification, 1/2 MOA adjustable turrets and a 40mm objective lens. In addition to an adjustable magnification range on smaller-caliber rifles, Leupold rolled out the Tactical Milling Reticle (TMR). This reticle featured stadia lines in smaller 0.2 MIL increments, as opposed to using round dots. This optic’s functions could greatly enhance the capabilities of the sniper.
2010 would bring about the Mark 4 ER/T in 6.5-20x power. Intended for use atop the M2010 .300 Winchester Magnum sniper rifle, it would utilize 0.1 MIL turrets and a Horus 58 (H58) reticle. Finally, a military optic that would ditch MOA adjustments, eliminating the need to convert the measurements in your scope’s reticle and the click value of the turret. With these advancements in weapon and optic, snipers could now effectively engage targets out to 1,200 meters.
To further explain the improvements of this optic, one needs to understand how the H58 reticle works. Todd Hodnett, a developer of this reticle, describes “The Horus reticle is a patented grid system replacing the 40-year-old archaic MIL-Dot shooting method. … The H58 has extended wind dots placed at each 1 MIL mark outside the main hash grid. These wind dots are unobtrusive, providing a clearer view than an extending grid, but still allows [sic] accurate holds in high winds. The H58 also incorporates the Accuracy 1st Speed Shooting Formula. This is the staircase-looking pattern in the upper half of the reticle.”
Further advancements from Leupold and Horus brought about the Mark 6 ECOS (Enhanced Combat Optical Sight). It would be offered in 3-18x power magnification and employ the new Tremor3 reticle. This sight was not designed to accompany any specific rifle system; rather, it would enhance any rifle system on which it is mounted.
The Tremor3 reticle is a new generation of reticle that employs familiar finite MIL stadia lines arranged on a grid/Christmas tree pattern and includes wind dots. The wind dots allow for rapid holds under varying wind conditions. Unlike previous wind holds, however, the wind dots are limited for use when holding for elevation only. If the user dials on an elevation correction to the turrets; the wind dots lose their value.
Scopes continue to evolve and undergo refinement. Some new technology is being invented every day to enhance the shooter’s capabilities further: Built-in ballistic calculators, laser range finders and smart reticles are just a few examples. Snipers employ these advancements to increase their lethality through higher hit probability. Companies like Leupold are at the forefront of increasing that effectiveness. With over 100 years of history and almost 30 years producing tactical optics, Leupold and Stevens, Inc. is on track to remain a leading supplier of scopes to snipers across the globe.