Sniper rifle technology was still relatively primitive during World War II. Despite the obvious technological advances war inevitably gives rise to, the scopes of the day appear hopelessly antiquated compared to modern sniper optics. However, for the time these scopes were considered to be the cutting edge of individual warfare and contributed to the kill rates of legendary snipers such as Lyudmila Pavlichenko of the Soviet Union, who retains the world record among female snipers to this day and Matthäus Hetzenauer of Austria. In this article we will discuss the overall technology of WWII-era scopes and how they were employed in combat. Many of these scope designs have not changed today, and are used in some of the best rifle scopes available in today’s modern combat situations.
Basic Scope Design
Despite “tweaks” and refinements by opticians such as Zeiss, Bausch and Lomb, and Weaver, basic scope design had not changed a great deal since the Chapman-James telescopic sights invented between 1835 and 1840 by two men in New York. Most early reticule sights were constructed of hair, spiderweb or even human hair. While this posed certain advantages, it also made scopes prone to damage from moisture, impact and environmental factors such as aridity. Because of this, certain high-end scopes adopted etched-glass reticules, but this was largely avoided in the standard field-issue scopes because of expense.
While the standard infantry carried variable-sight scopes which allowed for changes of windage, elevation and magnification, snipers largely set their own standards for scopes based upon personal preference and advanced knowledge of sharpshooting techniques. Many snipers disdained variable-sight scopes for fixed scopes with 4x or 8x magnification. The most common reason for this choice was that snipers dared not risk their scopes being knocked out of alignment while lining up a crucial shot or while getting into or out of firing position.
Types of Scopes
Most scopes were “purpose-built,” intended for various battlefield roles such as sniping and infantry shooting. These scopes were designed to work with one or two varieties of weapon, but were largely useless otherwise. While this was not generally a problem in the field because of standardized weapon issue, specialized combat roles such as scouts and snipers which required weapons tuned beyond standard military specification often encountered difficulty when trying to field-requisition functioning scopes.
For general military use, like many of the AR 15 variable-sight scopes used today, they were the most popular option, allowing for greater range and flexibility in a variety of hostile situations. Among snipers and their ilk, fixed-sight scopes tended to be far more popular because of the reduced likelihood of sight slippage. Some sharpshooters, such as the legendary Simo Häyhä of Finland, eschewed scopes altogether, preferring to stick with traditional iron sights with spectacular results.
As a result of the lessons learned in WWII and since, scope design has been refined many times. New and cheaper manufacturing methods have allowed regular soldiers to have engraved-reticule scopes, a lavish extravagance for most regular infantry in WWII. Before one dismisses the scopes used during WWII as hopelessly archaic or useless, however, bear in mind WWII snipers put up body counts that have not been bested in combat since.