Official History of Optics and Firearms
Before thermal optics, night vision, red dot lasers, rifles, riflescopes, handguns, cannons and rudimentary muskets, there were fire lances. Fire lances were the proto-gun, the 10th century ancestor of all modern firearms. Fire lances were essentially spears with explosive bags of gunpowder at their tips and were first used in China during the Liao Dynasty. Those ancient Chinese soldiers used fire lances as a melee-weapon in the opening moments of combat, to gain a critical shock advantage and frighten the enemy with loud noises and puffs of black smoke. Even the dreaded Mongol horse-archers, who considered the Chinese to be inferior warriors, feared the power of fire lances. Fire lances were enhanced over the following decades, becoming a blend of a flamethrower and a shotgun. Sometimes, an overzealous officer wanted to use an enormous fire lance with extra gunpowder, and because some of those were too heavy for one man to wield, they were launched from the ground and became the first proto-cannon. From these unpredictable, unwieldy devices, all firearms originate.
Firearms technology has evolved parallel with warfare. Throughout history, people have strove to find more efficient ways to win battles with fewer risks and greater rewards. By the year 1276, fire lances had evolved into rudimentary guns with metal barrels and pellet wads as bullets. When this technology was introduced to the Middle East circa 1300, fire lances were condensed into the first bronze ‘hand cannons’. Around 1450, iron sights were situated on top of these ‘hand cannons’ and consisted of a beaded front-sight and a notched, standing rear sight – marginally improving accuracy. By the year 1500, any army without hand cannons was severely outmatched. In 1690, flintlock muskets were introduced, revolutionizing warfare yet again. Flintlock muskets could be reloaded in under a minute, they could pierce plate armor, and when used by a long line of infantry for ‘volley fire’, they could devastate an opposing army before the battle truly even began.
However, for early fire lances, hand cannons and flintlock muskets, something was missing – true precision. There were few, if any, methods to aim those early weapons. For cannons and trebuchets, elementary geometry and physics could help with the direction of their shots, but these were approximations at best, a trial-and-error method which yielded inconsistent results. No – to truly make firearms effective, they needed to be consistently accurate. It wasn’t until the 1770s that the fledgling firearms industry found its true love, its ideal mate – astronomy.
For astronomers, those quirky little men who stare up at the sky and try to understand outer space, telescopes have been around since the 1630s. They were originally wooden devices, two to three feet long, with lenses inside that refracted light to provide magnification. No one ever considered pairing telescopes with firearms until the 1770s, when painter and soldier Charles Peale attempted to mount an entire telescope on his rifle in order to see further. His experiment failed because the telescope was too large to permit eye relief, and the recoil made the telescope smash into his face. Although Peale was unsuccessful, he made careful notes of his idea and attempt, and 60 years later, the first telescopic rifle sight, which actually improved precision, was documented.
Morgan James is the man credited with making the first workable riflescope. He demonstrated the scope’s accuracy in public exhibitions, and the crowds were reportedly amazed at his invention’s ability to withstand multiple rounds of recoil. Without hesitation, dozens of manufacturers began to innovate their own magnified rifle sights. It is worth noting many people were wary of this new technology, and iron sights remained the default for a vast majority of shooters. However, by 1880, rumblings of international conflict, coupled with the desire to gain leverage over hostile foreign nations, pressed the firearms industry to mass-produce a riflescope that was safe, consistent, and held appeal to the average American consumer.
World War I was the catalyst for the next wave of riflescope development. The Germans, recognizing trench warfare was optimal for snipers, issued 25,000 of the most advanced riflescopes they possessed to their best shooters. Their success was instantaneous, and America was forced to play catch-up. The first successful American riflescope was the 6x Warner and Swasey scope mounted on top of a .30-06 Springfield rifle. While crude by modern standards, the Warner and Swasey riflescope reduced the gap between American and German snipers dramatically. Yet again, the evolution of optics was trending parallel with the evolution of warfare.
World War II accelerated optical technology even further. By that point, thousands of soldiers were dying in battles from machine gun fire, tank fire, chemical warfare and munitions. Generals began to realize their armies did not have unlimited supplies of men, and they needed the ability to kill from longer, safer distances. During this time, the American Unertl scope, with 10x magnification, was unveiled. The Unertl scope quickly became a favorite of snipers, with reports of successful, lethal shots over 2,000 yards away. With such amazing range, innovators began to turn their energies towards engineering riflescopes with different capabilities.
Since the beginning of warfare, ruthless warriors have exploited the darkness of night. History is replete with tales of armies attacking their opponent in the darkest hours, ambushing them in their beds and gaining spectacular victories. Naturally, the engineers of riflescope optics recognized tactical low-light advantage, and thus, night vision (NV) was born. The first mentions of NV devices in the history book is 1939, early in World War II, when the German outfitted Panther tanks with night optics. Those optics are often referred to as Gen 0.
30 years later, during the Vietnam War, NV was more widely utilized, and those early versions of NV devices were affectionately labeled Gen I. They generally relied on ambient light to function. They had image intensifier tubes that could amplify light 1000x, but they were also unwieldy and often ineffective. Nonetheless, the improvements continued.
Gen II NV devices featured an image intensifier tube, but they were also equipped with a micro-channel plate with a photocathode, which resulted in a much brighter image through the lens. Gen II devices could amplify light 20,000x, and their image resolution and durability were markedly improved.
Gen III NV devices are modern. They still use a micro-channel plate, but they also feature an improved photocathode with gallium arsenide to increase image resolution up to 50,000x. Gen III device lenses are specially coated to last longer, and they are often equipped with accessories, such as laser-range finders and image identification, which significantly improve effectiveness. For the future of NV, expect to see longer detection ranges, clearer images and more durable, comprehensive optic systems.
Infrared cameras were invented in 1929 by Hungarian physicist Kalman Tihanyi. The magic of these devices is their independence from light to function. Infrared devices can ‘see’ electromagnetic radiation, or heat, which humans cannot see naturally. The more heat an object emits, the more radiation it gives off. Of course, just because infrared cameras were invented in 1929 does not mean they have been coupled with riflescopes all that time. It wasn’t until the 1990s that thermal optics were fitted atop firearms, able to function and withstand recoil.
Enter 2020 – thermal riflescopes are considered the most advanced optics in the world. They are a combination of various other technologies: video and audio recording, laser range-finding, color palettes, smart device compatibility and defective pixel repair features. Thermal devices may function over 7 hours with internal batteries and possess over 2,400 yards of detection range. Thermal devices are also the most expensive optics in the world, generally costing $1000 or more. Moreover, thermal devices have found purposes beyond shooting – home inspections, animal observation, law enforcement measures and medical functions are all aspects of modern thermal imaging.
For the future, expect thermal optics to gain longer detection ranges, improved battery life, greater recoil durability and lower pricing.
The future of firearms-related optics is anyone’s guess. Optimistic shooters would like to see through walls, but Superman has been reluctant to reveal his secrets. Instead, expect to see optics utilizing greater digital power and illuminated reticles, with daytime color modes coupled with enhanced video recording. Built-in ballistics calculators, which calculate range, drop, velocity and trajectory will also become more widespread, essentially telling shooters exactly where to aim. But who’s to say what the future holds? If history has taught us anything, it’s that optics evolve parallel to the evolution of warfare, and for humanity, that could be a very good outcome.