Leica - The Past, Present and Future of Sports Optics
January 16, 2019
The town of Wetzlar, Germany, is located about an hour north of Frankfurt. Wetzlar is unique among cities in the world because it’s the birthplace of modern sports optics. In 1849, a man named Carl Kellner started the Optical Institute in Wetzlar. This think-tank is why just about every major European optics manufacturer can trace its roots to Wetzlar.
Ernst Leitz began working at the Optical Institute in 1864 and became a partner there the following year. In 1869, he assumed direction of the company and added his name to the Institute’s title, calling it the Ernst Leitz Optical Works.
Leitz rapidly grew the company and increased the output of the preferred optical device of the era — the microscope — until the company was producing 4,000 units a year in 1900.
In 1907, the company produced their first binoculars, 17 years before the first production camera left the factory. The cameras proved so popular that in 1986 the company changed its name from The Leitz Company to “Leica” for LEItz CAmera.
While there are a lot of great optics companies the world over and many places to study and learn about them, only Leica can lay claim to the entire body of knowledge on the subject. No one has more experience in making optics than it.
I had the opportunity to visit Leica operations in Wetzlar and was amazed by what I saw. They have recently opened a new factory and an academy on the edge of town, complete with a five-star hotel for those attending the academy or wishing to visit the optics holy land. The buildings look like a set of binoculars and a camera lens when viewed from the air, which is a fitting tribute to the products that have built the brand.
While shutterbugs geek out over the cameras and lenses that Leica produces, my focus was its binoculars and riflescopes. The reason for my excitement was tied directly to Leica’s organization. They are one of the very few optics companies that employs a large body of engineers (over 100). The strong engineering team coupled with a huge factory means that Leica has the freedom to build whatever they design.
Most optics companies cannot make the same claim. There is a huge burden of overhead that comes with paying so many engineers and most companies simply don’t have the budget, nor the infrastructure. That means companies are forced to work with one of the big design houses and production facilities to produce product to the optic company’s specifications. This business model brings to market many fine items, but it is limited to what the production facility can do.
Leica owns everything they need to design and produce truly innovative products. They have all the machining and manufacturing equipment required for producing their entire line of scopes and binoculars in-house. The only piece of the puzzle it outsources is unfinished lenses; Leica does not turn sand into glass. Unlike just about every other optics manufacturer, Leica brings in the unfinished pieces of glass and does the final shaping and finishing themselves. I watched this process with fascination.
A small sanding arm gently touches and shapes the lens under a watchful computer-controlled device that monitors lens shape and displays it on a video screen nearby for the machine’s operator. Portions of the lens that need to be removed are displayed as red high spots on the lens and the machine sands away until the high spots are gone. The tolerances held in this process are incredibly tight, necessary for the supreme optical performance to which Leica aspires.
I spoke at length with the engineering team at Leica about their design and manufacturing process. Basically, it boils down to two key aspects behind good optical performance: the design and the manufacturer’s ability to make that design. The more sophisticated the optical design, the harder and more expensive it is to produce. Making a scope shorter, lighter and with more magnification — while adding a wider magnification range — all serve to complicate the design and compound expense.
Many of Leica’s products have very sophisticated designs and require tightly controlled processes to manufacture correctly, which leads to cost. Leica is limited to where they can purchase the lenses for these products because lens composition must be perfect. It cannot be fixed. Leica frequently purchases lenses from Schott and Ohara.
Optics snobs will occasionally get worked up about whether or not a scope has Schott glass in it. It’s a great German name, so it has to be good, right? Schott and Ohara make equally good glass because they can hold exceptionally tight tolerances on lens composition. However, each company has factories all over the world and it does not matter from which factory the lenses came from as long as the lens composition meets Leica’s specifications. I hope this helps dispel some of the talk that one brand of lens is better than another. It either meets the manufacturer’s specifications or it doesn’t.
Time in the Woods
During my visit to Wetzlar and Leica’s factory, I managed to get in hunts for roe deer and wild boar using Leica’s Geovid HD binoculars and a Magnus 2.4-16x56i. If you’ve ever wondered why European scopes have such large objective lenses, it’s because Europeans hunt well after sunset and use no artificial illumination. I spent many hours in a stand overlooking fields at night and frequently stayed out past midnight using nothing more than my binoculars and riflescope.
These are very difficult lighting conditions for any optic and require a large exit pupil and exceptional contrast if the hunt is going to be successful. Exit pupil is the size of the hole in the back of the scope that the shooter looks through to see a full field of view. As magnification increases, the exit pupil gets smaller. If it gets small enough, the image the shooter sees will darken.
The Magnus that I used on my hunt had an exit pupil of 3.5mm at maximum magnification of 16X. That meant that I could use this scope to hunt at all hours and under all lighting conditions while at maximum magnification.
Leica’s excellent lens coating gave the scope ideal light transmission and the tightly controlled lens composition made the contrast so good I could discern dark hogs in the middle of the night.
The Geovid binoculars I used combine one of the world’s best rangefinders with one of the world’s best binoculars. Hunting with a really good rangefinding binocular eases the transition from spotting game to getting on target and is more convenient because it eliminates having to drop the binos, pick up a rangefinder, locate the animal again, range it and then transition to the rifle. You simply go from binoculars to rifle with the Geovid.
Leica’s first rangefinding binocular debuted in 1992 and it was large. In the 23 years since, the form factor of rangefinding binos is no different than regular binoculars. Leica’s latest rangefinding bino is the Geovid HD-B and it incorporates a ballistic calculator into the binocular. This allows the shooter to range the target and see both the distance to the target and what they should dial or hold on the scope to hit at that distance.
The way the HD-B works begins with the shooter downloading Leica’s ballistics program to a computer. Next, the shooter builds a rifle and ammunition profiles in the program. They can choose from factory loads or specify the ballistic coefficient and velocity from their own load. The shooter must then specify zero range and the environmental conditions they’ll be shooting under.
That information gets loaded on a mini-SD card and the card goes into the Geovid HD-B. When you hit the range button, the range and your dope come up in the viewing screen. It’s that easy.
Leica’s products usually occupy the premium portion of the market. They have built their company around innovation and performance, so I don’t expect to see a $300 riflescope from them any time soon.
What I do anticipate seeing are more offerings in the precision-rifle and long-range categories along with greater connectivity between their Geovid binos and Magnus riflescopes. When you’ve been in the business for as long as Leica has and employ as many engineers as it does, there are very few things Leica can’t do.
Leica Geovid HD-B 10x42mm
Length: 7 in.
Weight: 2 lbs., 2 oz.
Battery: CR2 lithium
Manufacturer: Leica, 800-222-0118, us.leica-camera.com
Leica Magnus 2.4-16x56mm
Power: 2.4X to 16X
Tube Diameter: 30mm
Adjustment: .1 mil per click
Windage: .1 mil per click
Length: 14.2 in.
Weight: 1 lb., 11 oz.
Eye Relief: 3.7 in.
Manufacturer: Leica, 800-222-0118, us.leica-camera.com