Outdoor Life Archives: Century-Old Optics Advice Still Resonates

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My office is filling daily with boxes of optics, all submissions for Outdoor Life’s annual optics test, which will be conducted next month here in eastern Montana.

The optics test is one of OL’s benchmark evaluations, and I take a lot of pleasure in weeding out the great products from the junk. This is especially important with optics, because these generic-looking black tubes don’t reveal their assets readily. It takes a practiced eye and a battery of tests that measure (instead of estimating) performance to determine which optics are worth our audience’s valuable dollars.

I’m not the first Outdoor Life editor to spend so much time evaluating glass. My predecessor as Optics Editor, Bill McRae, is a legend in the industry. But it turns out we’re both students of the art.

Exactly 100 years ago this month, John Donovan, a medical doctor who combined his analytic skills with a love of hunting, wrote a fascinating review of sporting optics. What he says is both dated and timeless.

He spends a great deal of time in his story, "Field Glasses for Sportsmen," defending his opinion that 6x binoculars are the best all-around optics for hunters. Given the magnified optics of the time–either celestial telescopes that were heavy and fragile or Galilean glasses (we'd now call these "opera glasses") that were simple, unadjustable tubes with a convex objective lens and a concave ocular lens—that's a pretty good conclusion. You can read about his description of what he calls "bifocals" in the story. These binoculars featured independently focused lenses and porro prisms and are the ancestors of our modern roof prism binoculars.

A TIMELESS TEST OF OPTICAL BRIGHTNESS
Although he doesn't call it by name, Donovan suggests a great test to determine the exit pupil of a binocular. You can do this just as he recommends:

“To judge of the light delivered, adjust a glass for distant vision, then hold it a foot from the eye, facing the bright light outside, and observe the small circle of light in the eyepiece. This circle shows the size to which the rays have been condensed by the objective. When purchasing glasses, be sure to keep this test in mind.”

And then Donovan, like all optics writers who have followed, submits a bit of real-world cynicism. “The dealer of most glasses will fail to call your attention to this test even if he knows.”

This week, as I unpack optics made with magnesium, carbon-fiber, and polycarbonate materials, I had to grin at Donovan’s critique of binocular construction.

“Unquestionably, the drawn tubes of nickel-steel have it over the aluminum body ones, yet the latter, well covered with leather, will stand considerable hard use.”

Lastly, Donovan provides a great reader service, one that will be familiar to any reader of Outdoor Life’s gear tests: a chart that delineates all the optics worth considering. While he doesn’t give them a performance grade, it’s fascinating to see the entries, and to think about how much the world of sporting optics has changed—and stayed the same—over the past century.

opticstest

Donovon took care to note specs like field of view, relative view, weight, and price of each binocular.

To see the full chart, click here.

Bausch & Lomb figures prominently in the list. One of the great optical companies of the world is now known mainly for its contact lenses. Bausch & Lomb's sporting optics unit was sold to Bushnell in 1973, and the legacy brand is now part of the new Vista Outdoor group.

The curiously named Perplex optics line was a major supplier to the German Army, and its optics were used in both world wars.

Hensoldt and Goerz, both legendary German optics houses, have been absorbed into the Carl Zeiss company. And Busch, another historic German optical pioneer (Emil Busch is credited with helping invent the wide-angle lens), didn’t survive World War II.

And Leitz, maker of high-end German optics, is now owned by another German optics behemoth: Leica.

REWARD: We still seem to be missing a few issues from our collection. If you happen to have access to any of the issues published in 1898—our first year in print—drop us a line at letters@outdoorlife.com. We’re offering a bounty for any of our missing issues.