Category Archives: Optics

Crimson Trace’s “Foundation of Success”

crimson-trace-laserFrank Miniter writes in the normally anti-gun Forbes magazine with a remarkable business story — a profile of the way the spirit reduced to a few handwritten lists, recited with the faithfulness of a cloister’s vespers, animate a business in our industry: Crimson Trace, the maker of compact lasers and laser handgun grips, like the one on the Glock at right. A taste:

There are two handwritten lists on the sheet of notebook paper. They are written in black ink on a sheet of paper torn from a legal pad in 1994. He tells me he used to read these aloud with his business partners—mostly engineers—every morning. Small edits show it was tweaked and added to until they thought it perfect. So perfect, he says, they got so they could say the numbered lists without the piece of now crinkled and smudged paper. When that happened Lew put the lists in a frame and tacked it on the wall.

Under the title “Our Mission: What it’s going to feel like” is:

1. Our futures are financially secure
2. We all own part of everything
3. Work is fun
4. Our tools and equipment are topnotch
5. Our customers love us
6. Our building and property are impressive to say the least
7. We own other profit-making corporations
8. Our profits are at all time highs
9. Our competition cannot touch us
10. We are moving forward into the future

Lew proudly says these ten hopes and dreams aloud to me as he did every morning with his team for years.

via The 21 Rules That Built An Industry Leader.

Miniter seems to have lasered in on something that is of bedrock importance to the Wilsonville, Oregon company. While the first list describes how the founders of the company intended to wind up (and did), a second and perhaps more-important list was titled, “How do we get there?” and comprises 11 more rules. (To read it, you’re going to have to click over to Frank’s article and Read The Whole Thing™, which you know you wanna do anyway).

And here’s founder Lew Danielson’s ideas about why these rules are about people, not things; and how it influences hiring:

The rules to run a business by must deal with people, not products. This is because people create the products. When I hire someone, and I still interview everyone, I ask them about their hobbies and passion. I want to know them as a person—I figure if they made it to my office others have already vetted their resumes. When I ask someone if I can count on them and they get these misty eyes and tell me they better believe I can, well, then I know I have a loyal and passionate part of the Crimson Trace team.

Frank Miniter has far more information about the culture of Crimson Trace and the character of its people packed into his column. We’d tell you you-know-what, but we already did, right?

Road to Precision

This YouTube playlist documents at excruciating length (the whole playlist is hours long) Canadian Ryan Pahl’s four-year effort to break into F-Class high-power rifle competitive shooting.

Spoiler: in the end, he decides he just doesn’t have the resources (human or capital, we’re not really sure what his problem is) to get to the next level. So he decides to take his shooting in a different direction, at the end of the playlist. But if you hang in for the whole thing, you’ll learn a lot about rifle competitive target shooting and the level of competition that’s out there these days. You’ll also learn quite a bit about what it takes to put lead on target, when “on target” is defined as very small and quite far away.

The fact is, Ryan shot better than many elite military unit snipers, and he was still, at the end, disappointed in his performance, measured against the real high-power competition gravelbellies.

And benchrest shooters look at high-power shooters’ best groups, kind of like physicists look at psychologists – “they do interesting stuff, but is it really science?” — and they have the groups to justify that attitude.

There are two sets of things that competitors do. The first is a variety of things that actually improve shooting performance, including such things as handloading with extreme uniformity. These things are mostly unchanged from competitor to competitor and year over year. Then there are the superstitions, which do tend to change: they get swept up as enthusiasms or fads by the community for a while, then they’re all on to the next fad. But an outsider has little hope of figuring out which is which. (Best guide to a fad is the absence of a plausible physical explanation of why it helps, but that’s not perfect as some useless superstitions sound perfectly plausible).

This could be edited down into a single, shorter presentation, that would be worth buying as a DVD or download. We’ll admit we fast-forwarded past the many groups that were recorded in apparent real-time. Shooting holes in targets is one of those things that’s much more interesting when you’re doing it than when you’re watching the other guy do it.

Good luck to Ryan, and thanks for the video tour of a short career in high-power.

FDA Moves to Regulate Lasers, Ban High-Powered Units

Is that a warm glow we’re feeling, or are you just glad to range us? The Food and Drug Administration, apparently upset that all kinds of other agencies are getting their Nazi on and leaving the pill police behind, wants to restrict and, functionally, ban, all but the lowest-powered laser pointers. Everything but the green five-watters in the chart below? Banned. “Stroke of the pen, law of the land. Pretty neat,” as some politician or other said.

WL-Powerabilitiesnew

Why? Because they’re from the Government and they’re here to help you, and because occasional asshats have aimed pointers at aircraft. (The usual outcome: asshat in prison. It’s a Federal felony to point a laser at an aircraft in flight. A guy got 14 years for this, last month). As the above chart (from laser vendor wickedlasers.com shows) higher-wattage and -wavelength lasers are powerful enough to, as your mother warned you, put your eye out. Kind of like a scissors, then, which the nannzies at FDA haven’t gotten to. Yet.

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration published new draft guidance that could effectively put an end to high-powered lasers in the United States. It will not be formally approved until the 90-day comment period has passed.

The move is likely in response to the growing threat of laser strikes against aircraft. Since early 2014, the FBI has offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who reports a laser strike to federal authorities, leading to an arrest. Since the FBI began keeping track in 2004, there have been more than 12,000 reported incidents nationwide—and the incident rate continues to climb.

Earlier this year, a California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison in a lasering incident, believed to be the harshest such sentence in the United States, and possibly in the world. Pilots say that being struck with such lasers can be terrifying, causing temporary blindness and sometimes lingering headaches.

The new draft regulation expands the definition of surveying, leveling, or alignment (SLA) lasers, which are currently capped at five milliwatts of power, to include consumer-grade lasers. Sites, like WickedLasers.com, openly sell lasers with up to 2W of power for $200 to $600.

via Feds issue “draft guidance” to restrict high-powered laser pointers | Ars Technica.

The clowns managing the transition from nanny to Nazi at the FDA (which is where we get the neologism nannzies) announce their power over lasers on a web page, but have yet to announce their intent to ban large sections of the things, although they do assert that any laser not now making less than their future limit IS ILLEGAL. (Emphasis theirs).

Even the smallest handheld, battery-powered lasers are capable of emitting laser light at hazardous powers. Larger models, the size of a small flashlight, can burn skin and pop balloons. More importantly, consumers should assume any size handheld battery-powered laser they do not directly control has the potential to blind or permanently affect eyesight.

Do not purchase a handheld, battery-powered laser labeled with hazard Class IIIb, Class IV, Class 1M, Class 2M, Class 3B or Class 4 unless the manufacturer has an approval from FDA (called a “variance”) to allow the purchase.  Sales without a variance, or sales that violate the conditions of the variance, ARE ILLEGAL.

You might have something to say to that, but the only thing they want to hear from you is “Jawohl,” and a smart click of the heels. If they want any lip from you, they’ll scrape it off their brass knuckles.

So how did the payroll patriots at the FDA come to regulate lasers? They just decided to grab the power one day, and they up and did it. And nobody objected, so they kept grabbing more power. As they told the owner of the website LaserPointerSafety.com, they didn’t bother to announce the new regulation in the Federal Register, as the law requires regulators do. Why not? “Because of the way the regulations are stated, the FDA determined that a guidance document was not needed when making this determination.” (More detail in this pdf).

If that sounds like Because F!&% You then you’ve tapped into the essence of Washington attitude. What’s the best way to deal with criminal misuse of a product? Ban it! If they want any lip from you…

For the time being, of course, high-powered lasers remain for sale. The ArsTechnica story linked above shows you a 2 Watt laser (often stated as 2,000 MW, because 2 Watts sounds tiny when it’s actually a gorilla among lasers) for $600, featuring hip/cool/George Lucas-ified Star Wars styling. If your taste in lasers runs more to the functional than the theatric, you can get the same power in a knurled alloy tube from Sky Technologies for $270. It has a neat focus feature making it useful as a long-distance flashlight. And here’s one for $170, that’s visibly cheaper in both senses of the word.

But even if the ban slides through, despite the complete lack of applicable statutory authority, the FDA’s nannzies can’t — yet — come into your home and stop you from building one. Here’s an example:

And this site seems to be one source of expertise and parts. Scroll down past the ads. When will they ever learn, you can’t stop the signal?

What’s a WWII Carbine worth?

T3 Carbine serial numberWell, maybe about a grand or so. What if it has a low serial number? And is in really good condition. Well, that elevates the price a little.

What if it’s an M3 with sniper scope? Well, a lot more. For one thing, the M3s were all select-fire — a selective-fire M2 carbine, on the National Firearms Registry and Tracking Record database (in other words, civilian-transferable) is worth quite a bit, maybe $10k.

With the M3 infrared sniper-scope, then, the price ascends; it’s now a rare and historic weapon (the second night vision system used in combat, and the first American one, and the first US production system).

 

But what if it’s a T3, not an M3, one of the original run of a very short number of experimental, prototypical systems? Then… the sky’s the limit. We have now launched from the pinnacle of rare and historic weapon into the stratosphere of extremely rare collection centerpiece, and the price must rise accordingly. (This T3, also, appears to be semi-auto only, simplifying transfer and possession — some states still ban private ownership of Class III toys).

T3 Carbine with Scope Left

But what if it’s the prototype, complete with provenance from the inventor and a ton of information about the thing? We have now rocketed from extremely rare collection centerpiece into the rarefied interstellar space of unique historic museum piece, and you can expect that if you bid for this gun at Rock Island’s upcoming auction, you’ll be bidding against some pretty big museums. Not to mention the first rank of US Martial Arms collectors.

Here’s how Rock Island Auctions describes the piece (paragraph breaks added, and a couple of obvious typos fixed — grammatical howlers were left alone as an exercise for the reader):

This is the Original Inland Division T3 Carbine serial number 00306 along with the Prototype M2 Infrared Sniper scope that was used by Mr. William Garstang in 1943/44 when he developed this system for the US Army. There is solid supporting documentation, original letters and photographs of Mr. Garstang and his wife holding this exact T3 Carbine/M2 Sniper scope set-up in their house when he was working on this design, that authenticates this entire lot.

The T3 Carbines were developed and produced on an extremely limited basis with less than 1000 total ever made in their own serial number range. As all carbine collectors know 99.9% of all these carbines were demilitarized after WWII, with the only true examples known to have survived having been retained by either the Inland Division or Winchester factories as display models. One or two may have been retained by the optical companies.

This one being the original T3 carbine/M2 Sniper scope set-up remained in Mr. Garstang’s personal possession while he worked on the design in 1944 and then after WWII until 1976 when he sold it. The documentation that accompanies this lot are letters from Mr. Garstang to one of the past owners briefly explaining how he had this weapon along with a discussion about an article he wrote in 1946 for the Electronics Laboratories, Inc. company newsletter, “The Electronic Beacon”. This article discussed his involvement with the design work and specifically listing the serial number of this carbine. Also accompanying this lot is a copy of the magazine that shows Mr. Garstang on the cover as well as several pictures on the inside with him at his company in 1945/46 showing several civilian and military officials when he demonstrated this design.

Also accompanying this lot is a copy of the December 1946 issue of “Mechanics Illustrated” which has another article by Mr. Garstang about his small electronic company and work he did during WWII and in the post war years, with a mention of his numerous electronic patents (over 50) he held. This article also shows his wife holding this carbine and M2 scope setup in their home.

These T3 carbines were specifically designated to be used with the M2 Infrared Sniper Scope. This was the original “see in the night” design on which all following night vision devices were based. These T3 carbines and infrared sniper scopes saw service towards the end of WWII especially on Luzon and Okinawa.

The primary difference between a T3 carbines and a standard M1 carbine is that the T3 carbines had a one piece integral scope base brazed and pinned on top of the receiver. This integral base may have been one of the primary reasons for the removal and demilitarization of this model from Army inventory as it was later replaced by the standard M3 Infrared Sniper scope conversion package, with the separate long mounting bar. This allowed all standard carbines to be converted for use of the infrared system and then back into a standard M1 carbine.

This one-piece integral scope mount forced a relocation of the nomenclature and serial number from the top of the receivers to the right rear side of the receiver. This carbine has the following markings; top of the barrel “INLAND MFG. DIV./GENERAL MOTORS” and the right side of the receiver “U.S. CARBINE/CAL. 30 T3″. The top rear portion of the receiver heel is marked “INLAND DIV/0306″.

The carbine still retains all of its original issue parts, and factory parkerized finish. Some of the noted parts are a type three barrel band with bayonet lug, a flat blue bolt, the magazine release with only a single capital letter “M” on the side, a parkerized trigger and a parkerized unmarked push button safety. The carbine is fitted with a late four rivet hand guard and a super rare all original T3 carbine stock. The stock has the Inland “IO” proof in the sling slot with a large crossed cannon ordnance cartouche on the right side of the butt stock. The left side of the stock has been correctly modified and is fitted with the original “silent” on-off switch as designed by Mr. Garstang for the T3 carbine. The carbine has an original T3 stock that has the large squared off bulbous forend where the original M2 Infrared lamp and pistol grip assembly is mounted.

The M2 electronic telescope or sniper scope that is mounted on top does not carry a nomenclature plate (which would be correct for this model being a prototype, prior to full production) and is only marked with “D-5637-7-1″ on the underside of the body of the scope.

In addition to the items noted above, this lot contains the following additional original accessories: the original M2 power pack and M2 battery for this model (uncharged brand new) an original hand-held, “snooper-scope” pistol grip mount assembly, an original first pattern green plastic/rubberized designed backpack/carrying pouch with original 1936 straps that carries the power pack and battery, (this is not the later black rubberized backpack), an original green canvas carrying case to carry the carbine with the scope and emitter lamp when installed on the carbine, an original spare electron tube (still in the original WWII box), for the electronic telescope an original WWII green canvas web belt with double M1 carbine magazine pouch with two magazines, an original M4 M1 Carbine bayonet and scabbard made by A.C.C., an original T-23 designated M1 carbine flash hider, marked “Hider-Flash-T23/Carbine/CAL.-30″, a super rare field recharging cable that allows the power pack battery to be charged by Jeep battery, a super rare electron tube, removal tool, and an original (unaltered) hard back War Department Technical manual (TM 5-9341) dated June 1945 showing complete operation of the M2 scope, with disassembly procedures wiring diagrams etc. still marked secret and signed by William Garstang on the back cover.

To adequately store and show this rare carbine and scope set-up, the previous owner purchased a small steamer trunk with metal corners and edges that he had converted to a complete “turn-key” display set up. Inside is a custom designed storage areas made from oak that has compartments for the T3 carbine, M2 telescope and lamp/pistol grip assembly, and all the aforementioned accessories all packed inside the trunk.

RIA sees this going for $35,000 to $65,000, and who are we to disagree? (That sum does not include a “buyer’s premium” of 17.5%, which goes to the house). In our past experience, Rock Island, like most auctioneers, tends to understate probable selling prices slightly, especially on exotic lots; this encourages more bids and, in the end, gets the house and the consignor the best possible price, and helps those of us interested in the market understand it. (All markets run on pure information).

T3 Sniperscope Display

The condition of the T3 set is described as follows:

Excellent plus, totally original overall. The T3 carbine retains 99% correct original parkerized finish with only slight wear on the correct blue bolt from cycling the action. The stock and hand guard are also excellent plus, showing only minor handling marks in a few areas with clear sharp cartouche and proofs.

The mounted infrared lamp and pistol assembly and the actual electronic M2 telescope are also like new showing 99% original finish with minor edge and high spot wear. All the various accessories; M4 bayonet and scabbard, web belt and magazine pouch etc. are all excellent. The magazines and pictures are all original and also excellent.

This carbine (00306) and its attached original prototype M2 scope, being the prototype “rig” used for development of the infrared M2 program would be the first successful infrared weapon system in history, put into production, making carbine 00306 and its scope the “first of the first” infrared weapon system in history. The M1 infrared scope program plagued by design and technical problems was rolled into the M2 program and never reached full production stage. This significant example of World War II history best exemplifies our technological edge over our enemies and is worthy of being in the Smithsonian Museum!

Here’s RIA’s Kevin Hogan’s preview of the auction as a whole:

There are hundreds of sporting arms, 250 US martial arms including, for example, five Johnson M1941 rifles and an original USMC 1903A1 sniper rig, 175 German weapons, including at least three MP43/44s and a Himmler inscribed presentation Walther PP, and numerous weapons from other nations, including an extremely rare (in the USA) Izhevsk Dragunov SVD. There are also some fine edged weapons, if you roll that way (and we do).

There also seem to be none of the “five rifles with a mix of junk and jewels” that we’ve noticed at some earlier auctions. In most cases, where a lot comprises a pair of weapons, it’s a logical pair. All in all it looks like a great auction.

Is a red dot better than iron sights — for a pistol?

Here's a Glock 17 with a TRijicon RMR, The guns in the study were the slightly smaller but similar G19

Here’s a Glock 17 with a TRijicon RMR, The guns in the study were the slightly smaller but similar G19

According to what appears to be a Norwich University undergraduate study from 2011 that was recently noted by Soldier Systems Daily, the answer is in and it’s a strong “yes.” From the report’s Executive Summary:

This project examined the comparative effectiveness of traditional iron pistol sights with Trijicon, Inc.’s red dot optic sight. Twenty-seven students from Norwich University participated by undergoing a simulated training course of fire using International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) silhouette targets for four different stages. Thirteen students used iron sights and 14 students used the optic. The results of the project indicated that there was a statistically significant difference favoring the optic for “hits on paper” in Stage 1 (15 yard slow fire) and for accuracy (hits near the center mass of the target) for all four stages of fire. 

Summarized Summary: more hits with the Trijicon RMR in Stage 1, and better hits in all stages.

The study is credited to James Ryan, apparently a student at the university, and Robin Adler, a professor of Justice Studies and Sociology.

While the summary led the report, and the statements made in the summary are well supported by the study data, at the end, the study reached three conclusions. The interesting thing is that we can only find support for two of the three in the findings and data. The conclusions were:

  1. This comparative pistol project indicated the Trijicon Inc.’s RMR was more effective than traditional iron sights.
  2. The results suggest that trainees in military and law enforcement specialties may gain proficiency more efficiently with the RMR.
  3. In addition the RMR is useful for seasoned professionals.

We find support for the first two conclusions in the study, but didn’t see anything at all to support the third. (We would expect that the RMR would be useful for pros — we’ve found it useful –but we could find nothing in the study itself that backs that statement up).

If this study is repeatable, we’re going to see more sights like the RMR on more handguns in the coming years. The key limitations of the study are that it was of short duration (one range day for each group) and very small groups (the control and experimental group were each 15 pistol shooters,  plus three alternates. Both groups were generated by random assignment, and about evenly split betwen complete novices and people with some shooting and/or pistol experience. In the end, 27 total students participated, 13 using three-dot iron sights and 14 using the RMR).  This experimental data set is too small to generate a high degree of confidence, but the group with the RMR steadily and consistently outshot the iron-sight group.

The pistols were otherwise identical Glock 19s. The targets were modified IDPA standard targets (the head was removed as a point-advantaged target, because the shooters were instructed to engage the targets only at center mass).

The small sample size meant that a result would have to be extremely disparate between the two groups to meet measures of statistical significance. The measure used judging the variance between teh groups’ mean scores in the stages was the non-parametric Mann-Whitney U.  In each of the four stages, the RMR group had more hits than the iron-sight group, but only on Stage 1 was the difference statistically significant. The measure used for evaluating overall accuracy was the chi-square, familiar to every survivor of freshman stats. The accuracy advantage of the RMR was statistically significant.

For both the mean scores in Stage 1 and the accuracy superiority overall, the probability of these results being the consequences of random chance, rather than an actual advantage of the RMR over iron sights, was 1 in 100.

WeaponsMan Analysis — Why the RMR “wins.”

The key advantage of the RMR on a pistol is the same as the key advantage of any optic on a rifle, compared to iron sights: it eliminates the need to consciously focus on one of three focal planes (the front sight) but allows a shooter to focus on the target and have the aimpoint superimposed in the same focal plane. A secondary advantage is the red-dot’s ability to compensate to some extent for poor presentation, pistol cant, etc., in ways that iron sights cannot.

The key disadvantage of the RMR is the way it juts out from the top of the pistol slide, making the pistol more awkward. While optical sights are often considered frail and vulnerable, the RMR  is a fairly robust unit, and a blow that would dislodge or damage it might well dislodge the standard three-dot iron sights also.

The full study can be read on SSD at this link or downloaded from here: 2011_Norwich_Study_RMRvIronSights.pdf

Optics for Beginners, by Chris Hernandez

Pick one. But how? (photo of a pile of scopes found on an online forum).

Pick one. But how? (photo of a pile of scopes found on an online forum).

Here’s a small snip from a post by Chris Hernandez at The New Rifleman, a blog aimed at rifle n00bs. Hey, everybody’s a n00b once, and the variety of optics available now can be confusing, so a review of the basics hurteth not.

Example: for complicated reasons, when the SOPMOD I gear shipped, we got bare equipment with no instructions and no training, so we had to figure it out on our own. That was not entirely fun.

In this snip, Chris tells you what he used, and a few facts about the civilian rifleman. Some of these facts probably qualify as “Tough love.”

I’m not a sniper, nor do I have extensive experience with optics in the civilian world. What I do have, however, is a decent background in military optics from my twenty-plus years in the Marine Reserve and Army National Guard, including two combat deployments where I used an Aimpoint CCO (Close Combat Optic), Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG), and Leupold MR/T (Medium Range Tactical scope). In the Marines my secondary MOS was 8531, Marksmanship Coach. I’m also a school-trained Army Squad Designated Marksman (SDM), meaning I’ve attended a two-week course which taught me to hit man-sized targets with an M16A4 out to 600 meters with iron sights and ACOGs. So I’ve got a decent background in medium to long range shooting, with and without optics.

So, first thing: If you’re a typical civilian shooter with limited training time and limited money for an optic and training ammo, there’s no reason to try to make yourself a sniper. It’s not going to happen. In the Army, with government ammo and decades of institutional marksmanship knowledge, the average soldier only shoots to 300 meters. And some of them struggle with that. So it’s not really feasible for the average civilian shooter, with extremely limited training resources, to expect to shoot like a sniper.

Second thing: For most modern combat, 300 meters is plenty far. I carried an M14EBR (Enhanced Battle Rifle) in Afghanistan, and I could consistently hit a torso-sized rock at 900 meters – at the range, with perfect weather conditions, a good firing position, on a stationary target at a known distance. In combat, with extreme heat or cold, unknown distances, hasty firing positions, adrenaline and moving targets, plus little annoyances like incoming fire, I would have been ecstatic to smoke a mofo at 200 meters.

Third: 300 meters is about the practical limit for civilians in any foreseeable domestic combat situation. If you’re preparing to defend your family from rampaging gangsters, it’s not likely you’ll find yourself sniping them from 500 meters. Urban combat is a close-in affair. In Iraq, enemy snipers sometimes engaged from within 100 meters. Unless you’re defending a farm in the middle of acres of cleared land, you probably won’t do any long range shooting

There’s a ton more good info on the site, so get thee hence and Read The Whole Thing™.

We’d add a few bullet points:

  • Almost nobody is as good a shot as he thinks he is.
  • If he hasn’t been practicing, he’s not the shot he used to be, either.
  • And he’s definitely not the shot he thinks he was. 
  • ACOGs are the heat. They have something many scopes don’t: durability. In our opinion, they lose sales because they’ve got so many variations and models that it confuses people. Just get one with the right BDC for your barrel length and caliber.
  • But for a home defense or truck gun, a high quality red dot is probably your best choice.
  • In optics, you get what you pay for except at the very high tail of the cost bell curve, where most people can’t exploit the marginal differences in performance.
  • The flipside of that? You’re better off buying a cheaper rifle and a more expensive scope than you originally planned.
  • Lots of phony optics out there. Protect yourself (we wrote about this back in 2012, a couple of times).
  • Scopes put the target and the aiming point in the same focal plane, so they’re extremely beneficial to novice shooters, and also to shooters who wear glasses or have some eye problems.
  • Night vision compatibility is cool. Shooting with night vision is also a perishable skill that needs to be practiced. If you don’t already have a night vision monocular or goggles, and don’t have a need or a way to practice with them, don’t pay extra for this capability; all you get is bragging rights, nothing practical for you.
  • Chris’s post is a great place for a beginner to, well, begin. Read The Whole Thing™ (you knew we were gonna say that, right?)

Finally, don’t be too eager to step in to complicated and advanced techniques like shooting at moving targets, shooting on the move, clearing structures, obstructed areas, or linear targets, or engaging targets that are higher up or lower than your position. Work on accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. Speed will come in due course, once you’re consistent enough to be accurate.

Tracking Point — new videos

Late last week, in anticipation of the NRA Annual Convention, Tracking Point released new video. This one shows two features: the way the precision-guided firearm can compensate for motion of target or shooter, and the precision cold-bore first shot capability.

Right now, precision guided firearms are very expensive, and are only the province of extreme shooters and early adopters. We predict that that will change, and this kind of precision technology will be increasingly common — and much less expensive, as economies of scale kick in — going forward.

A good day at the range

This M&P 15 Sport resembles the gun we had, but ours had an M4-cut barrel -- on a civilian gun that will never mount an M203, a styling affectation.

This M&P 15 Sport resembles the gun we we were sighting in, but ours had an M4-cut barrel — on a civilian gun that will never mount an M203, a styling affectation.

Spent a good day at the range yesterday. Well, the range was part of the day. It wasn’t a usual range or a familiar gun, and gettiing there was half the pleasure.

We’re far away from home precincts, and don’t have our own guns. But friends are here to help, and to beg help — particularly with an M&P 15 (a Smith and Wesson AR clone) that had resisted taking a zero on its optics. We’d handled, but never shot, the Smith AR before, and this gun’s optics were new to us.

This is the Burris AR-332. Secret to sighting it in? Mounting it tight.

This is the Burris AR-332. Secret to sighting it in? Mounting it tight. The Fastfire was attached to the top rail.

The main scope on the gun was a Burris Tactical AR-332 and the sight, too was new to us, as was the backup red-dot Fastfire (also a Burris product). The night before, we did our homework on the glass and tried to do the same on the Fastfire, but the Burris website only has product information on the newer Fastfire II and III, and no user manuals even for those. We didn’t care about what Burris marketing had to say about the silly thing, we wanted instructions for adjusting it. Was that too much to ask? Evidently. The Fastfire was mounted to the Picatinny rail that’s integral to the AR-332.

We also had a few other guns to shoot. Now, as a rule of thumb, you get more done at the range, and you get it done more elegantly, if you’re only trying to do one thing. This is time to be the hedgehog, not the fox.

The AR-332s reticle (ours was black). The ring gives you a CQB sight, but you still have the eye-relief-sight-time issue with any scope.

The AR-332s reticle (ours was black). The dots give you holdover. The ring gives you a CQB sight, but you still have the eye-relief-sight-time issue with any scope.

The problem sighting in the AR-332 was simple. It wasn’t firmly locked on the rail. The S&W AR turned out to be a real tack-driver, and we soon had groups adjusted right where we wanted them for a battlesight zero with 55-grain M193-equivalent ammo.

We didn’t like the AR-332′s reticle. It has a bullet drop compensator, but this particular one was black, apparently unlighted, and was easily lost against a black bull’s eye; it’s also not obvious from looking at the scope whether the compensator is for 62 or 55 grain ammo (they have different part numbers). We’re sure with more experience, we’d get better at using the scope, but the premium price of an ACOG is worth the money in our book.

This is actually a newer FastFire II. For some reason, it couldn't adjust below about 8-9 feet above point of aim at 25 yards.

This is actually a newer FastFire II. For some reason, it couldn’t adjust below about 8-9 feet above point of aim at 25 yards.

We never did get the Fastfire dot sorted out. It is boresighted about eight feet above the target and there isn’t enough adjustment to bring it on. Anybody have a manual for a first-generation Burris FastFire?

We did like the Smith AR. It’s a simple, DI AR with no forward assist (a dead weight, in our opinion). It worked fine, accepted PMAGs, and handled well. Even the Okeechobee range staff, who see lots of guns, liked it.

There was plenty of ammunition available for range members and guests, at (post-crisis) reasonable prices. We do think they gave us a military and police discount, but we paid $12.49 for 5.56 ammo.

The Seminole Inn, 1946. Only the cars have changed!

The Seminole Inn, 1946. Only the cars have changed!

Lunch stop enroute was the Seminole Inn, about the only interesting thing in Indiantown, FL. It was owned by the father of Wallis Simpson, later Duchess of Windsor, and contains one room where the Duke and Duchess once stayed (Palm Beach was more their style). It is quite venerable by Florida standards, built in 1926, and architecturally fascinating. The lunch was a dreadful, listless buffet, but the uniqueness of the setting made it enjoyable.

(This is a hastily published report, we hope to add some images later, although we shot no pictures at the range Done! -Ed.).

Auction Action

Every once in a while we like to call out an auction with some cool stuff in it. How is this for some cool stuff?

MGs ar Auction April 2013

This was the collection — well, part of the collection — of the late Richard Wray. His collection includes some 200 weapons, 90 of them Class 3 weapons comprising a history of the development and deployment of the 20th Century machine gun. His other weapons include such rarities as a Mexican Mondragon semi-auto rifle, a weapon so rare we’ve only seen it in pictures. Jack Lewis of Cowan’s Auctions teases the auction, coming in April, with some great photographs and scanty description.

It’s remarkable what range and quality of weapons there are here, including a llot of large crew-served guns: Water-cooled Browning, a bunch of Maxims including distinctive Russian (1905 and 1920) and German (MG08 and 08/15) models and their British Vickers cousins, a Lewis gun with an unusual AA sight; and a Danish Madsen, once a huge worldwide commercial success, with bipod and rare tripod. Tripod mounted, magazine fed guns of any kind or nationality are rare.

Parabellum M1913And those are just the guns in your face in this photo. Right behind them is a rarity! An Austrian Schwarzlose, a blowback-operated, tripod-mounted machine gun of the Great War. But that’s as common as a 10/22 compared to some of the other vintage pieces, like this M1913 Parabellum machine gun. This air-cooled weapon was used by the air forces of the German Empire, primarily as a flexible gun by observers and gunners on two-seaters, large bombers, and Zeppelins (yes, we’re aware that technically the Zeps were operated by the Navy). This rare bird is complete with the much rarer optical sight, gun mount and belt spool, and is in stunning condition (click to embiggen the picture).

Benet Mercie Machine RifleBut we haven’t hit the real rarities yet. Sure, there are strange Japanese and Italian light and medium machine guns, which are rarer by far than the collection’s standard SMGs like a Sten and an MP 38 or 40. But they can’t compare to this baby: the Benet-Mercié Machine Rifle of 1909, complete with the rare Warner & Swasey “Telescopic Musket Sight” of 1908 (the sniper variation of which we discussed in this blog last month) and the even rarer tripod adapter. This Hotchkiss derivative replaced the superior M1904 Maxim whose introduction we also previously discussed, citing an article written by an officer involved, Parker K. Hitt (is it just us, or is Hitt a great name for an infantry ofifcer?).

At the time of the Mexican Punitive Expedition (1916) and the US entry into World War I (1917) this forgotten gadget was the standard US Army and Marine machine gun, and because nothing was too good for the troops, they got next to nothing: both services could inventory mere dozens as we declared war on a nation that had put a machine gun every few yards along its battle front for three plus years. (According to an article from the American Rifleman, 670 were made, by Springfield Armory and Colt. The auction gun in the photo is a Springfield piece).

They were used in the Philippines and Haiti as well as in Mexico. In Europe, our doughboys would be equipped, mostly, with weapons bummed from Britain and especially France. (It wasn’t that much of an imposition on our hosts: the French were running out of living Frenchmen to issue guns to, and by 1917 the bedraggled remnants of what had been Europe’s largest and strongest army were mutinous). The Benet-Mercié is fundamentally a Hotchkiss, which might have come from the pen of Rube Goldberg. The troops generally disliked it, although the Warner & Swasey prismatic telescopic “musket sight” got mixed reviews. The American Rifleman article explains how the gun turned off infantrymen:

The Chauchat notwithstanding, it is fortunate that our troops did not have to go into combat against the Germans with the “daylight gun.” A well-known small arms authority of the day, Edward C. Crossman, noted the following: “I remember one cold day how a government inspector and I lugged one of the government Benet-Mercie machine guns out of the great Colt factory where they were made and set it up in a testing yard. Although the gun was in the hands of a most skilled man, a man there on purpose to inspect machine guns—that gun broke six parts in the first 20 shots. It broke extractors and firing pins as fast as we could put them in—because the weather was cold, and the chilled parts were brittle. Imagine tumbling out in the chill dawn of a winter’s day with the Huns coming over No Man’s Land, and having your machine gun break apart the first rattle of shots!”

The “Daylight gun” nickname came from the difficulty of reassembling a dismantled Benet-Mercié. Even the feed strips could be put in a right way or a wrong way, and inserted the wrong way, they wouldn’t work. Later Hotchkiss models would resolve some of those problems. The Empire of Japan’s troops used Hotchkiss-based machine guns very effectively — by day or night. But they had the luxury of more years of development; the USA had new Browning designs waiting in the wings, and the Hotchkiss action and its brass feed strips were an evolutionary dead end.

Iron Sights and their Limits

AK-47_sight_pictureIron sights are not dead yet, but this 18th-century technology needs to expire. It has hung on as long as it has due to the innate conservatism (technical, not political) of the gun culture, and due to the persistence of myths about optical sights — and low-cost, ultra-low-quality optical sights that reinforce the myths.

What’s good about iron sights

Well, to start with, they’re iron. That means there’s no glass to break. A tumble or explosion that breaks a sight would be enough, for instance, to bend a barrel, and there’s no securing against that. They’ve been around for a long time, and so everyone knows how to use them, or thinks he does, at least. They’re small and low-profile, in most cases, important when dealing with handguns particularly. And they often come “free” with the gun — don’t underestimate the effects of that “bundling” on iron sights’ market penetration.

What’s not so good about iron sights

ar-10_porto_rear_sight_from_behindThey’re aligned slightly differently for every user, to one degree or another. While you often can pick up and shoot somebody else’s sighted-in scoped rifle to point of aim, you’ll have more difficulty doing that with an iron-sighted rifle.

The sights are difficult to align, and require explicit training in the somewhat unnatural learned behavior of sight alignment. Furthermore, an error caused by improper sight alignment is much more serious than an error caused by, for example, improper sight picture or improper breath control.

Most importantly of all, ocular biology means that our inborn sighting tackle has a relatively narrow depth of field. Meaning that, if you focus on something a certain distance in front of you, your focus on things that are nearer and farther is degraded. That is the reason that you are instructed to focus on the front sight blade in basic marksmanship instruction — you can’t focus on that, and the rear sight, and the target; you have to pick one. That is the reason that, among iron sights, ceteris paribus, a peep sight is a much more accurate sight than a notch rear sight (it is more readily aligned when out of focus).

Iron sights vanish in conditions of low light. So do normal telescope reticles, but illuminated scopes make up a higher percentage of that kind of combat sights than illuminated iron sights. (We’re big fans of tritium illumination — with all its failings — for both kinds of sights). It’s a sad fact that most civilian (including police) engagements happen in low light conditions, as do a large number of military engagements. While being able to see in the dark (like soldiers do with their NV goggles or monoculars) is the gold standard, at least being able to see your sights in the dark is a great advantage over individuals equipped with standard factory sights.

The advantages of an optical sight

An optical sight can provide: passive light gathering, a single focal plane, and magnification. Each provides a different kind of advantage; together, they add up to huge superiority for optical sights.

“Light gathering” is the term used in the rifle optic world, but the unfortunate fact is that it is a lie; optical sights have no gain (or actually, negative gain). There is no way an optical (non-electronic) scope can put out its ocular lens (the end near your eye) any more than it takes in at the objective lens end (the end near your target). So what “light gathering” really is, is a high percentage of light transmission (which must be less than 1, so a superior scope is in the 0.98 light transmision area, an fair one 0.93, and airsoft crap and Walmart specials about 0.8 and 0.9 respectively. What you want is the largest possible “exit pupil” and objective lens you can get. (Rule of thumb for exit pupil in mm: Objective lens size in mm, times divided by the magnification. Therefore, as the day’s light dims, you can see more through a variable-power scope by dialing the magnification down).

These Japanese warship glasses have a 120mm objective lens.

These Japanese warship glasses have a 120mm objective lens.

The benefit of a really big exit pupil (and therfore a really big objective lens) is frequently underestimated, but hunters have known about it for years. It’s especially advantageous in morning or evening twilight, when game tends to be highly active.  They’re not the only ones, of course. In World War II, Japanese warships had a significant advantage over Allied ships in night engagements, because the IJN had equipped its vessels with binoculars, optical rangefinders, and weapons sights that had superior optics in general and superior “light gathering” in particular. One way the Japanese did this was by making stuff with monster sized objective lenses. (They were also wprld-class at lens grinding. Nikon didn’t spring fully-formed from Zeus’s brow after the war, you know). With a large objective lens and a large exit pupil, you can feed more light into your own pupil, which is probably somewhere between four and eight millimeters in low light, depending on your own age and anatomy.

Of course, the larger an objective lens is the more difficult its manufacture is, and — you knew there was a tradeoff, didn’t you? — the more it costs.

You might have thought we covered focal plane enough above, in our discussion of sight picture. But the focal plane advantage isn’t just about sight picture. Seeing your point of aim superimposed directly upon the target lets you see how your breathing and position influence the motion of your aim point on the target, and therefore increases your probability of hitting and killing the target.

Finally, optical sights can provide magnification of the target, which has aiming benefits and also tactical benefits (it’s a reconnaissance tool, amplifying human senses). You may not carry a binocular, given all the other crap you have to haul,

Why the military resisted optical sights for so long

Military shooters first used telescopic sights in the mid-19th Century. Civil War snipers had scopes, based on target-shooters’ scopes of the day. But the Army here, and other Armies worldwide, resisted them for general issue. There were two objections to optical sights, one technical and one cultural.

In war, the cultural is to the technical as three is to one, to disrupt an epigram of Napoleon’s. So the cultural objection — that using an optical sight is somehow cheating — has been the dominant one. (Some units still resist using issued optical sights for marksmanship refresher training, and then expect troops to use them effectively in combat).

The technical objection — the fragility of scopes — was overcome by events sometime in the 1960s. The M16A2 style rear sight is more readily disrupted than a well-built modern service scope, like an ACOG. But before we had anvil-tough ACOGs, our guys had to work their way through the zero-losing Warner & Swasey of WWI, the fog-prone-if-not-coddled Lyman Alaskan and Weaver scopes of mid-century, and the brilliant but fiddly Leatherwood ART II that made the M-21 deadly — when it worked. Each was an improvement over its predecessors, as were the Unertl and Leopold Ultra M3A used on more recent sniper weapons (The Ultra M3A was better than the Mark IV that replaced it in Leupold’s line; it was only replaced because it cost a fortune to manufacture). But it took the example of our British cousins to move us to optics for everybody, not just sharpshooters.

The British Army, which is often accused of having centuries of tradition untrammelled by progress, and might still be selling commissions if that hadn’t gotten their asses handed to them in the Crimean War, went to an optical sight early — a fixed 1.5x power, Tritium-equipped unit called the Sight Unit Infantry Trilux — and never looked back. Three decades of British success with the Trilux let the US military, special-operations-forces first, dip its toes into the optical water. Once the Joes started using scopes — ACOGs — the inherent advantages of modern optics made sure that the scopes were here to stay.

It didn’t happen all at once. After the success of the ACOG on the carbines of Spacial Special Operations Forces, first the Marines, who are always a bit more forward-thinking than the Army, and finally the Army went to ACOG optics as well (these slightly different versions all are good choices). In addition, the Army issues the Canadian-made Elcan M145 optic for light machine guns. SOF has a later Elcan, the one sold on the civilian market as the SpectreDR, and it has received mixed reviews — it is beautiful glass with an interesting 1x and 4x dual-magnification capability, but it doesn’t match the ACOGs for durability. And if you’re buying it yourself, its extremely expensive.

In addition to these sights, the military uses Aimpoint red-dots and EoTech holographic sights. We’ve shot ‘em all and for everything but close-range use, we come back to ACOGs.

Picking the right optical sight

The aphorism that applies here is horses for courses. The right sight for an under-bed home-defense AR is not the right sight for popping jackrabbits (or people) at 300 yards. So you begin with a major division between red-dot and holographic sights for close range, and scopes for medium and long ranges. For general purpose use (i.e., not for a dedicated CQB gun) we strongly recommend a scope over a red -dot, and for CQB we almost always recommend a red-dot over a holo — which is another post, but one reason is battery life, which is ridiculous: ridiculously short for EoTech, ridiculously long for Aimpoint. (The EoTech has some specific advantages but as we said, that’s another post).

Field of view needs to fit the mission. If most of your shots will be under 200m, and your targets are motile, a Leupold Mark IV is not only overkill, it also is much too narrow a picture. You’ll constantly be transitioning from head up, scanning, to head down, sighting. This is, to steal a line from the President, “not optimal.” And in general, field of view and power are inversely related. If you’re popping steel targets at 1600m with a .50 BMG rifle from a bench rest, 28 power is probably useful to you. If you are hunting deer, elk, or the Independent Wealth Redistribution Technician™ in your family room, it probably isn’t.

The world’s militaries seem to think a 1 to 4 power scope is best for hunting homo sapiens. What good is one power? All the good in the world. It puts the target and the aiming point in the same focal plane and gets you on target fast.

While SF went to the very expensive Elcan, we’re huge fans of the much more rugged Trijicon ACOG. The ACOG TA01NSN is the one from the SOPMOD I kit and is an excellent product. It is as nearly indestructible as any scope ever made. (That said, we’ve recently heard a litany of broken-ACOG stories, and the guys still serving say the newer ones are even more durable. And we’ve seen a lot of insults delivered to an ACOG that kept zero and kept on rocking).

Do you need night vision compatibility?

This adds to the capability, but it also adds cost and complexity, and very few of you will ever use it. Do not spend hundreds of dollars for this “in case.” If you do not currently use night vision devices, have access to them and practice with them, are you really going to use that capability? Humans are creatures of habit, and you will almost certainly keep doing what you’re doing now, even if you spend a lot of money on a new gadget. If NODS compatibility becomes important to you down the range, trade your non-compatible sight in.

Wrapping it up:

So that leaves us with an understanding that almost any scope beats no scope, and with an optical sight checkist that looks like this:

  1. _________________________ is my intended use
  2. a wide/narrow field of view works best for that (pick one)
  3. My minimum and maximum power requirements are (if you don’t know, 4-power is a good all-round scope)
  4. I do or don’t need: variable power (default, no)
  5. …Night vision compatibility (default, no)
  6. Name brand and warranty. (You will probably never need the warranty for your scope. If you do need it, though, you will need it very badly. A company that stands behind its products is also an indicator that the products weren’t just slapped together in the first place. And yes, you pay for that).

It’s good to buy the best scope you can afford, within reason, as long as you are planning to keep the weapon. If you think you might resell it later, bear in mind that used scopes depreciate more than used guns do, and when you sell, you’ll probably do better separating the weapon and scope and selling them separately.

And finally, before you buy it, try it. If the eye relief suitable for your application? (We can walk into any large gun shop and find used guns that have scopes set up with bad eye relief. Eye relief is also inversely related to magnification, in general terms).