When Ford unveiled its Mustang in 1964, drivers raced to the bank to check their balances. In its first full year, the Mustang became such a hit that one Michigan restaurant put a sign in the storefront window that read, “Our hotcakes are selling like Mustangs!” Lee Iacocca and his engineers had come up with something that looked just right. John Browning did too when he designed the 1911 Colt pistol. We buy many things now that by some standards should be obsolete. They survive at market because nothing better has replaced them—they’re that good.
Now, early riflescopes and binoculars can’t match the performance of current top-ranked glass. Lenses and coatings have improved a great deal since my youth: CNC machines cut to closer tolerances. I once used a 2.5X/5X scope, charitably called a variable. A turret knob changed power from one to the other—there were no powers in between. That scope had a heavy steel tube and fogged in rain. The thick crosswire perched in the upper left quadrant after zeroing. It was fuzzy, as if sprouting mold. These days, even inexpensive riflescopes deliver bright, sharp images. Ditto binoculars. Pay a bit more, and the images become brighter and sharper. You also get bigger objectives, higher magnification and extraneous features—you buy more weight too. As with the Mustang, improved innards have come in new cosmetic packages, not always as sleek as the original.
When I started hunting big game in the Michigan woods, roughly half the hunters used scopes—very few carried a binocular. The year the Mustang appeared, several gun companies sold scopes. Browning, Colt, Marlin, Savage and Weatherby competed with firms still hawking optics like Hensoldt, J.C. Higgins, Marble and United, which have since faded away. The 4X scope was most popular: objective lenses ranged from 32mm in diameter to around 38. The other day, I thumbed through a 1964 catalog and found 4X scopes from half a dozen makers (Bausch & Lomb, Bushnell, Leupold, Lyman, Unertl and Weaver), averaging 9 ounces in weight. They retailed from $45 to $65.