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History of Rifle Scopes and their Use by Sharpshooters

Riflescopes date back a few decades by now. The first documented telescopic rifle sight was invented by John R. Chapman somewhere between the years of 1835 and 1840. 

History of Rifle Scopes and their Use by Sharpshooters


First uses of Riflescopes

The first ‘real’ use of rifle scopes to support sharpshooters (at least in North America) was seen around the time of the American Civil War. These early scopes were very simple in nature.

They consisted of a more or less long tube of metal with some fixed optics in the tube. There were no crosshairs to help the shooter fix the target. A shooter had to train very well to be able to shoot with the help of such an early-day scope. These rifle scopes also reduced the field of view significantly down to just a few degrees.

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Historic Rifle With Rifle Scope
Historic Rifle With Rifle Scope (Source: Berdan Sharpshooters)

Shooting 1000 Yards

It has been recorded that skilled sharpshooters during that time were able to hit targets 1000 yards away with the help of a scope. A more reasonable distance to the target during that time was more like 500 yards for a sharpshooter or sniper. The average range for rifle shots during the civil war area was more like 75 yards.

You can read a lot more about the history of rifle scopes and their use during the American Civil War here.

While researching the subject, I discovered that the first documented telescopic rifle sight was invented between 1835 and 1840 by John R. Chapman, he was an English civil engineer, and as an engineer he was very familiar with a surveyors transit and therefore was very familiar with its fine cross-hairs, precision lenses and good definition of distant objects. He was also an expert rifleman and familiar with rifle sights of that time. It is believed that Chapman designed the first practical telescopic rifle sight and that he and Morgan James worked together to produce a telescopic sight that came to be known as the Chapman-James telescopic rifle sight (Comparing Hunting vs Tactical Scopes – What are the Differences?).

Have a look at the article to read more about the history of rifle scopes and how they worked in the early days. They certainly have come a long way since then. It’s hard to imagine today to shoot with a scope without a reticle. One can only imagine what level of skill was necessary to hit a target without any of the modern adjustment capabilities.

Modern Era Scopes

Modern sniper scopes offer a wide array of adjustments and pointers to help the shooter successfully place a shot at the target. You get adjustments for windage and elevation. More and more scopes offer parallax adjustments (find out what other adjustments your scope needs!).

Today’s scopes often also feature variable magnification. Riflescopes from old times had fixed magnification only which did reduce the usefulness of the scopes across different ranges. You can use a modern scope for medium to long-range shooting or short to medium-range depending on the magnification range.

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The optical sights you can get today can be used for hunting or tactical or military purposes. Where there originally might have been clear distinguishing factors, nowadays these differences are no longer there. 

Advancements in glass quality as well as technology allow building scopes that are more compact while providing a better image and higher magnification. Technology improvements digitize the former optical sights and you get night vision and thermal sights at prices that are similar to optical scopes.

If you’re looking for the best riflescope then make sure to look through our rifle scope reviews.

Kevin Collins