How expensive were scopes back in the 1860s?

SeaTurtle

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I think today we take for granted that you can pick up optics of some variety for affordable prices on the commerical market. But back in the 1860s I imagine that telescopic sights were a good deal more expensive for the average joe ... does anyone know what sort of prices we might be talking ca. American Civil War, and whether marksmen/sharpshooters were known to purchase their own scopes or be issued with them by the army?
 

Booner

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From firearmshistory.blogspot.com/2010/11/sights-telescopic-sight-i.html

"The first mention of telescopic sights was by John Chapman in the book The Improved American Rifle, published in 1844. The author mentions that he was a civil engineer by training and had given Morgan James of Utica, NY, the concepts and part of the design of a sight that James had built for him. The Chapman-James sight was the first known telescopic sight designed for firearms. Later improvements were made in 1855 by one William Malcolm of Syracuse, NY, who learned how to make telescopes from a telescope maker. Such sights were in use during the American Civil War. The first telescopic sight that actually worked well for practical use, was invented in 1880 by one August Fiedler from the town of Stronsdorf, Austria, who worked as a forestry commissioner of Prince Reuss. There were other improvements made by various parties and soon, an Austrian firm named Kahles started factory production, thereby becoming the oldest known manufacturer of rifle scopes. So it was close to the 1900s that the popularity of telescopic sights really started. The Kahles Company is still around as a division of the Swarovski group (the same people known for making Swarovski crystal jewelry and chandeliers) and still making quality rifle scopes."

I couldn't find any mention of prices for telescopic sights until the 1920's where a sight was offered at $20.00. $20.00 in the 1920's was a lot of money.

I also think the use of a telescopic sight in the mid 1850's was more of a matter of practicality, and therefore out of the reach of most people, not only from a cost standpoint, but need. Other than a target shooter, most people would not be needing the more precise targeting ability a scope would afford. Not only were scopes expensive, they were fragile and the optics were crude. The market for a scope would be small, and only be of interest of the well-to-do target shooter, or the most serious hunter. It's interesting that in America, the invention of the telescopic sight was in the state of New York/New England area, which was not only the center of arms manufacturing, but competitive shooting until the 20th century.
 

SeaTurtle

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The market for a scope would be small, and only be of interest of the well-to-do target shooter, or the most serious hunter.

I have definitely seen examples though of telescopic sights used on both Union and Confederate sharpshooting rifles. Albeit not in large numbers, but certainly used. I was curious to know how they were procured ... given their apparently small numbers I assumed that some might have been private purchase rather than military issue. If so, it'd be interesting to know just how expensive they were back then, and what sort of soldiers could afford them.

Interesting article, thanks for sharing.
 

leftyhunter

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los angeles ca
I think today we take for granted that you can pick up optics of some variety for affordable prices on the commerical market. But back in the 1860s I imagine that telescopic sights were a good deal more expensive for the average joe ... does anyone know what sort of prices we might be talking ca. American Civil War, and whether marksmen/sharpshooters were known to purchase their own scopes or be issued with them by the army?
https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/07/charles-willson-peales-riffle-with-a-tellescope-to-it/
The idea of a telescopic rifle sight is not new as one was developed in 1776 although it wasn't quite practical for field use.
Leftyhunter
 

SeaTurtle

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I’ve seen an invoice (1870’s) of a scope for a Sharps rifle for $60… a couple months wages for a blacksmith. They weren’t all that powerful usually about. 2-5x with no crosshairs and were rather fragile. At best comparable to a modern Tasco.

No crosshairs? I didn't know that. Thought the ones ca. Civil War might have used the thin wire crosshairs like you'd see on the Malcolm long rifle scopes later in the 1800s.

In fact, wasn't Malcolm already making scopes during the 1860s?
 

johan_steele

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No crosshairs? I didn't know that. Thought the ones ca. Civil War might have used the thin wire crosshairs like you'd see on the Malcolm long rifle scopes later in the 1800s.

In fact, wasn't Malcolm already making scopes during the 1860s?
Some did, like the Malcom but it wasn’t integral to the glass. The wire was… not the answer for consistent accuracy.
 

Booner

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I'm relying on my memory here-so don't take what I'm going to say as the truth, but I seem to remember that early telescopic-like sights were nothing more than a hollow tube with cross hairs in them. What gave them an advantage is the bases that attached the tube to the rifle were adjustable elevation, and perhaps windage too. But other than the cross hairs, the tube was hollow. Perhaps that's what Malcolm did to create what we would consider a scope, he added glass magnification?

To take this thread down a slightly different path, the following system was state-of-the-art, although in the 1870's-1880's, for long range shooters. I have a reproduction 1874 Sharps rifle and have these types of sights on them and can confirm they are very accurate. Think of the "bucket" scene from the movie "Quigley Down Under," and you'll know what I'm talking about

This is the front sight, which would mount to the barrel via a dove-tail cut. It has a bubble level in it to prevent the shooter from canting the rifle (doing so would throw the round to the right or left). The cross hairs can be changed via an insert that slips into a slot in the top of the tube sight. Some of these sights had a screw in the base which would allow the sight to move in either direction for windage adjustments.
1623988209582.png


This is the rear sight, called a Vernier Tang Sight, and would be mounted to the tang of the barrel. You look through the little hole in the middle of the round eye piece, and on some sights the aperture was adjustable to let more light in which would help to(0 throu sharpen the front sight image. The round wheel at the top of the sight is the adjustment for elevation. On the base there would be another screw piece that would allow the sight to move either left or right for windage. On the side of the sight staff you'll notice a set of marks that run for most of the length of the sight with the numbers 1 and 1/2 on it. There are 20 marks to the inch. Just to the left of these marks and a small slider with 6 marks on them, (actually the bottom mark is 0, then 5 more marks higher). This slider is what is moved up or down to change elevation and the combination of the 6 marks on the slider and the 20 marks on the staff gives a possible elevation change point to point of 1/100th of an inch. In the hands of someone who knows their rifle and how to use these type of sights, long range accuracy can be outstanding, and there is no magnification involved. You just need good eyesight. In 1874 at the Second Battle of Adobe Wells, Billie Dixon, a buffalo hunter, using a borrowed 50-90 Sharps rifle, killed an Indian warrior at 1538 yards, or 7/8th of a mile.

1623988668651.png
 
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johan_steele

Regimental Armorer
Retired Moderator
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Location
South of the North 40
I'm relying on my memory here-so don't take what I'm going to say as the truth, but I seem to remember that early telescopic-like sights were nothing more than a hollow tube with cross hairs in them. What gave them an advantage is the bases that attached the tube to the rifle were adjustable elevation, and perhaps windage too. But other than the cross hairs, the tube was hollow. Perhaps that's what Malcolm did to create what we would consider a scope, he added glass magnification?

To take this thread down a slightly different path, the following system was state-of-the-art, although in the 1870's-1880's, for long range shooters. I have a reproduction 1874 Sharps rifle and have these types of sights on them and can confirm they are very accurate. Think of the "bucket" scene from the movie "Quigley Down Under," and you'll know what I'm talking about

This is the front sight, which would mount to the barrel via a dove-tail cut. It has a bubble level in it to prevent the shooter from canting the rifle (doing so would throw the round to the right or left). The cross hairs can be changed via an insert that slips into a slot in the top of the tube sight. Some of these sights had a screw in the base which would allow the sight to move in either direction for windage adjustments.
View attachment 405125

This is the rear sight, called a Vernier Tang Sight, and would be mounted to the tang of the barrel. You look through the little hole in the middle of the round eye piece, and on some sights the aperture was adjustable to let more light in which would help to(0 throu sharpen the front sight image. The round wheel at the top of the sight is the adjustment for elevation. On the base there would be another screw piece that would allow the sight to move either left or right for windage. On the side of the sight staff you'll notice a set of marks that run for most of the length of the sight with the numbers 1 and 1/2 on it. There are 20 marks to the inch. Just to the left of these marks and a small slider with 6 marks on them, (actually the bottom mark is 0, then 5 more marks higher). This slider is what is moved up or down to change elevation and the combination of the 6 marks on the slider and the 20 marks on the staff gives a possible elevation change point to point of 1/100th of an inch. In the hands of someone who knows their rifle and how to use these type of sights, long range accuracy can be outstanding, and there is no magnification involved. You just need good eyesight. In 1874 at the Second Battle of Adobe Wells, Billie Dixon, a buffalo hunter, using a borrowed 50-90 Sharps rifle, killed an Indian warrior at 1538 yards, or 7/8th of a mile.

View attachment 405126
Vernier sights weren’t around yet though there were several post style rear sights that were similar. The front sights you have pictured with the level came later.

the first telescopic sites were literally small telescopes. But they didn’t have the technology yet to truly seal them so foggingvwas a real issue. Etching lines in glass wasn’t developed until several years after the war. Crosshairs were wire or horsehair and often missing altogether. There weren’t that many scopes in North America at all, a few hundred at most.
 
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