Tuesday, January 27, 2015

All About Scopes - III

In our last couple of posts, we studied about different types of scopes and what they look like from the outside. In today's post, we will look at some of the stuff inside a scope. Specifically, we are going to study about a part called the reticle.

We actually dealt with reticles a little over four years ago, when we studied telescopic sights originally. A reticle is a device consisting of fine lines, which is embedded into a telescope and helps the user to line up a target precisely.

The classic image of a telescopic sight is a target centered around two crosshairs, such as the image above. This is usually what is shown in movies and TV shows. However, there are many different types of reticles, which we will study.

Different types of reticles. Public domain image.

Thanks to movies, most people are familiar with the Fine Crosshair type of reticle above. Fine crosshairs allow the user to see more of the target and do not block out much light. However, it is easier for the user to lose sight of the lines, especially in complex backgrounds. Thicker lines are more visible, but they block out more of the image and lose some precision. Therefore, modern telescopic sights use a mixture of both (i.e.) thicker lines on the outside and thinner lines closer to the middle. Examples of this would be the Duplex Crosshair, the Mil-Dot and the Modern Rangefinding reticle above. The thick lines allow the user to quickly figure out where the center of the reticle is and the thinner lines allow for precision aiming.

Back in the day, the crosshairs of reticles were made of  natural fibers, such as hair or spiderweb. Later on, they were made of thin wires (and many scopes still use wire crosshairs to this day, especially cheaper ones). The wires are mounted on the inside of the telescope tube. By flattening the wire in different places, the manufacturer can make Duplex Crosshairs or Target Dot type crosshairs. The nice thing about wire reticles is that they don't block out much light and are very durable.

Another technique to make the crosshair lines is to etch the lines onto a thin plate of glass, using a diamond cutter. The thin plate of glass is then mounted inside the scope. The etched lines allow for more complex crosshair shapes, including circles, lines that don't need to touch or have gaps in between. This allows them to have features such as estimating range and bullet drop (such as that seen in the Modern Rangefinding and the SVD type above). The etched lines block off a bit more light and the thin glass plate may reflect some of the light back instead of letting it through. Modern scopes usually coat the glass with special coatings designed to minimize the reflected light.

For aiming in low light conditions, many scopes have illuminated reticles. The illumination is usually provided by a few methods. The first is to use a bit of fiber optic cable to collect ambient light from the outside of the scope and deliver it inside to the reticle. Another technique is to use a battery powered LED to provide enough light to illuminate the reticle. While this method requires the user to carry a battery with the scope, it has the advantage that the user can usually adjust the brightness by turning a knob. The user may also be able to change the color of the backlight illumination, if the LED method is used. The third method, which is used in military scopes, such as the Trijicon ACOG, or the British SUSAT sight, is to use tritium, which is a mildly radioactive form of hydrogen, to provide illumination. The tritium slowly decays and emits light as it does so. The nice thing about this is that tritium glows for a long time and could last 11 years or more before the tritium tube needs to be replaced.

As you may have observed in movies, if the crosshairs are backlit, they are usually red, though some products use green or yellow. There is a good reason for this. Red happens to be the color that least interferes with the user's night vision.

Reticles may be mounted inside the telescope tubes in one of two spots: the first focal plane (FFP) or the second focal plane (SFP). For fixed power scopes, it doesn't make any difference which focal plane the reticle is mounted at, but it makes a difference for variable power scopes. If the reticle is mounted at the first focal plane, then the size of the reticle resizes with the target (i.e.) if the user adjusts the magnification to zoom into the target, the reticle also appears to enlarge in size and if the user adjusts the magnification to zoom out of the target, the reticle also appears in decrease in size correspondingly. If the reticle is mounted on the second focal plane (i.e. closer to the eyepiece), then the size of the reticle remains a constant, irrespective of the magnification power. Americans tend to prefer scopes with reticles mounted SFP and this is used in the majority of the scopes. Some high end European manufacturers make FFP scopes on request.

We will study more about the advantages and disadvantage of FFP and SFP scopes, when we study the topic of scopes and rangefinding tomorrow.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

All About Scopes - II

In our last post, we looked at some basics of rifle scopes. We will continue our discussion in this post.

As we saw in our last post, there are mainly two types of scopes: the fixed power scope and the variable power scope. The big difference between these two is that the variable scope has adjustable magnification. 

We will now look at how these scopes are specified. Fixed power scopes are usually specified as two numbers separated by x. For instance: 4x32, 12x40 etc. So what do these two numbers mean? The first number is the magnification factor of the scope. Therefore, in a scope marked as "4x32", this means it magnifies the image 4x times (i.e.) the object appears 4 times larger when viewed through the scope, than if it was viewed using just the eye. So what is the second number mean? The second number is the diameter of the objective lens in millimeters. Therefore, in a scope marked as "4x32", this means the objective lens is 32 mm. in diameter. In many cases, the unit of measurement is specified, so instead of "4x32", it may be more clearly specified as "4x32 mm."

A Bushnell 10x40 Fixed Power Scope. Click on the image to enlarge.

In the above image, we have a fixed power 10x40 scope made by Bushnell. What this means is that it has a 10x magnification and the objective lens is 40 mm. in diameter.

Variable power scopes also have similar designations, except that they have three numbers. The first two numbers are separated by a hyphen (-) and the third number is separated by x. For instance: 4-16x42, 6-24x50 etc. The first two numbers indicate the range of magnification power of the scope. Therefore, in a scope marked as "4-16x42", this means that the magnification factor of this scope can be varied between 4x and 16x. The third number indicates the size of the objective lens in millimeters. Therefore, in a scope marked as "4-16x42", the objective lens is 42 mm. in diameter. As with the fixed scopes, sometimes the specification includes the unit of measurement as well, so instead of "4-16x42", it may be more clearly specified as "4-16x42 mm."

A variable power 4-16x42 variable power scope made by Nikon. Click on the image to enlarge.

In the above image, we have a Nikon model M-223 scope, which is a 4-16x42 mm. scope. This is the model we studied in our last post, when we were studying the different parts of a scope.

So, a 10x magnification is better than a 4x magnification, right? Not quite. It is true that the object appears a lot larger on a higher magnification scope, but you see less of the surrounding area through the scope. For instance, if you're looking at a herd of deer through a powerful scope, you can probably see the fur very clearly, but you will be unable to tell which particular deer you're looking at, because you can only see a part of a deer's body through the scope. Also, it is very easy to lose sight of a particular deer if it moves off a bit, because the powerful scope only shows a small area at a time. Bear in mind that with a 10x scope, the field of view of an object at 100 yards (90 meters) is about 2 feet (0.66 meters) diameter. With a lower powered scope, you may be able to see both the head and the body of the deer and can tell which one it is in the herd. 

Higher magnification also reduces the brightness of the image. For instance, if you have two scopes, a 4x40 and a 10x40. They both have the same size objective lens (40 mm.), but they have different magnification power 4x and 10x. The image seen through the 4x40 will be brighter than that seen through the 10x40. This has to do with the exit pupil, which we studied about in the last post. The 4x40 scope has an exit pupil of size 10 mm., whereas the 10x40 has an exit pupil of 4 mm.

A scope with higher magnification is useful against targets at a long distance, but not as useful against targets close by.

Therefore, for general purpose hunting, a scope with magnification in the range of 3x to 10x works fine for many hunters. Some use variable power scopes that work in this range (such as a 3-7x or a 3.5-10x scope), others are perfectly happy with a 4x or 6x fixed power scope, some even go for lower power, such as 1.5x or 3x, because they don't hunt at longer distances. For long distance shooting, scopes with magnification of 9x to 18x or so are used and anything more than that can only be used for shooting at targets that don't move.

For most soldiers, the US military have generally equipped them with fixed power scopes, because soldiers work in stressful environments and a fixed power scope saves them worrying about which magnification factor the scope is currently set at. Most military scopes have relatively low magnification, so that they are useful at ranges where combat usually occurs. The US Army, Air Force and Marines use the Trijicon TA31RCO ACOG sight, which uses a 4x32 fixed power scope. The scope has advanced features, such as dual illumination technology provided by fiber optics and tritium.

US Marine using his ACOG scope. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

Most other military forces also do the same thing for their soldiers. For example, Canada's soldiers are equipped with a C79 optical sight which is a 3.4x28 scope, British soldiers have a standard SUSAT L9A1 sight which has a 4x25.5 scope, Steyr AUG rifles (used by Austria and Australia) have a built-in 1.5x scope made by Swarovski (the same people that make luxury glass chandeliers and jewelry).

Canadian C79 Elcan sight. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

Snipers have also traditionally used fixed power scopes until recently. During World War II, German snipers used 4x fixed power scopes and US snipers used 8x scopes made by Unertl through World War II and the Korean war. By the Vietnam era, 10x fixed power Unertl scopes were in use by the US Marine snipers, although a variable power Redfield 3-9x scope was also tried out. The Unertl model MST-100 which is a 10x42 fixed power scope, remained in US Marines sniper service for quite a while (until about 2007 or so). The US Army snipers used the Leupold Ultra M3A 10x42 mm. scope or the Leupold Mk 4 LR/T M3 10x40 mm. scope until recently as well. In the recent years, US snipers have been experimenting with variable power scopes. For instance, US Marine snipers have been working with the Schmidt & Bender 3-12x50 mm. scope and the US Army snipers have been working with the Leupold Mk 4 3.5-10x40 mm., Leupold Mk 4 M1LR/T 8.5–25×50 mm. and Leupold Mk 4 6.5–20×50 mm. ER/T M5 scopes. Sandia National Labs also recently demonstrated the RAZAR (Rapid Adaptive Zoom for Assault Rifles) technology based on a request from the US military to develop a compact zoom rifle scope.

In our next post, we will look further into some of the technologies inside a scope.

Friday, January 23, 2015

All About Scopes - I

Many months ago, we had studied about rifle scopes briefly, when studying different types of sights. In today's post, we will cover the subject in a bit more detail.

There are two types of telescopes available to shooters:
  1. Fixed Power Scope - These are simpler and have a fixed magnification factor.
  2. Variable Power Scope - These are more complicated and allow the user to adjust the magnification, according to the distance that the target is from the rifle.
To understand more about these two types, let us first look at the main parts of a scope:

A scope made by Nikon.

  1. Eyepiece
  2. Ocular Lens
  3. Exit Pupil
  4. Power Ring
  5. Windage Adjustment Control
  6. Elevation Adjustment Control
  7. Objective Lens
  8. Eye Bell
  9. Objective Bell
  10. Parallax Compensation Control
In the above image, 1 is the eyepiece, which is the end of the scope that the user looks through. The eyepiece encloses a smaller lens, called the ocular lens (2), through which the user views the target. The eye piece generally has a focusing control at the end of the sight to obtain a sharp image of the target and the reticle.

The exit pupil (3) is the size of the column of light that comes through the eyepiece: the larger the exit pupil is, the brighter the image. The exit pupil size is defined as the diameter of the objective lens divided by the magnification power of the scope. So, if the diameter of the objective lens is (say) 40 mm. and the scope has 4x magnification, then the exit pupil is 10 mm. For variable power scopes, the magnification can be changed, for instance, from 4x to 10x. This means that, assuming you have the same 40 mm. diameter objective lens as above, the exit pupil will vary from 10 mm. to 4 mm. (i.e.) if you increase the magnification, it will decrease the exit pupil size and vice versa. A smaller exit pupil means the image will appear dimmer and a larger exit pupil means the image will appear brighter. 

The power ring (4) is a feature that is only found on variable power scopes. By turning the power ring, the user can change the magnification power of the scope. This feature is not found in a fixed power scope.

The windage adjustment control (5) allows the user to adjust the scope in the horizontal direction (left or right). The elevation adjustment control (6) allows the user to adjust the scope in the vertical direction (up or down).

The objective lens (7) is the large lens which is further away from the user. This lens concentrates the light that goes through the scope. Larger lenses let more light in and in general, the larger the lens, the higher the magnification power of the scope. Typically, the diameter of the larger lens is measured in millimeters.

The eye bell (8) encloses the eye piece and the objective bell (9) encloses the objective lens. 

Variable power scopes of higher quality have a parallax compensation control (10). Basically, parallax is an optical effect caused by the objective lens not being coincident with the reticle. Therefore, putting the eye at different points behind the ocular lens makes the reticle crosshairs appear on different points on the target, which could cause aiming errors. The parallax compensation control allows the user to adjust for the parallax effect.

Some scopes (both fixed and variable types) also have a brightness control for the scope's reticle, so that the crosshairs can be seen in low light conditions. Some high-end scopes also have a feature called Ballistic Drop Compensation (BDC) which allows the user to adjust for the effect of gravity acting on a bullet (i.e. the amount the bullet drops as it travels a certain distance horizontally).

In addition to all these, we must also define a term which we used above: magnification. This is the ratio of the size of the image as viewed through the scope, compared to if it was viewed by the naked eye. For instance, if the magnification factor is 4x, this means an object appears 4 times larger in the scope than if the object was seen without it.

In the next post, we will study some more details about scopes.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Are Rifle Calibers Getting Smaller?

In the last 50 years or so, there have been several arguments about the 5.56x45 mm. cartridge and its small bullet. Some argue that the larger bore 7.62x51 mm. cartridge is harder hitting and therefore better. Others argue that the 5.56x45 mm. cartridge is lighter, but hits adequately, therefore a person can carry more of them. This caliber debate has been going on for a while. Bear in mind that in the early 1950s, when the 7.62x51 mm. cartridge was first introduced, several people from that era thought that *it* was a smaller cartridge! This is because it replaced the larger .30-06 cartridge which was in service since about 1906. As we will soon see, the decrease in size of cartridge calibers has actually been going on for a lot longer.

In the early part of the 19th century, soldiers mounted on horses (cavalry) were still an important part of many armies. We hear accounts of several famous cavalry battles, such as the Charge of the Light Brigade (and the lesser known Charge of the Heavy Brigade at the same battle),  Pickett's charge, Battle of Little Bighorn etc. It was the opinion of military experts of that period, that the bore of an infantry musket must be large and the bullet heavy enough, to stop a charging cavalry soldier. It was believed at that time that a smaller bullet, even with greater velocity and equal momentum  compared to a larger bullet, would only wound the foe, but not instantly disable him. However, it was later found by experiment, that the increase in velocity of a bullet makes up for what it loses in mass, and a lighter bullet has greater range and a soldier can carry more of them, which makes the infantry man much more effective in the field. Therefore, since about 1850, as firearm technology gradually started moving towards rifles, the size of bullets have been decreasing with every advance in infantry weapon technology. The following table is largely transcribed from The Gun and its Development by W.W. Greener and lists the diameters of bullets from various military forces in Europe and America from 1850.

Year Country Firearm Caliber
1850EnglandBrown Bess (11 bore).750 inch (19.2 mm.)
1850EnglandBrown Bess (14 bore).693 inch (17.85 mm.)
1852EnglandEnfield.577 inch (14.8 mm.)
1854Austria28-bore rifle.550 inch (13.8 mm.)
1860Sweden40-bore rifle.488 inch (12.6 mm.)
1866France59-bore rifle.433 inch (11.0 mm.)
1867Austria62-bore rifle.420 inch (10.7 mm.)
1869Switzerland75-bore rifle.400 inch (10.4 mm.)
1871Germany, Spain and Holland58-bore rifle.433 inch (11.0 mm.)
1871England51-bore rifle.450 inch (11.43 mm.)
1874France58-bore rifle.433 inch (11.0 mm.)
1878Sweden76-bore rifle.396 inch (10.15 mm.)
1880Serbia76-bore rifle.396 inch (10.15 mm.)
1886France and Portugal150-bore rifle.315 inch (8.0 mm.)
1887Turkey.350 inch (9.5 mm.)
1887EnglandEnfield Martini.400 inch (10.25 mm.)
1888Germany156-bore rifle.311 inch (7.9 mm.)
1888Germany150-bore rifle.315 inch (8.0 mm.)
1889England172-bore rifle.303 inch (7.7 mm.)
1889Belgium173-bore rifle.303 inch (7.65 mm.)
1889Denmark150-bore rifle.315 inch (8.0 mm.)
1891Switzerland.295 inch (7.5 mm.)
1891Italy.256 inch (6.5 mm.)
1891Russia.300 inch (7.62 mm.)
1892Spain.276 inch (7.0 mm.)
1892Holland and Romania.256 inch (6.5 mm.)
1893USA.300 inch (7.62 mm.)
1895USA (US Navy only).236 inch (5.87 mm.)

As can be seen in the table, the diameter and size of the bullets has been decreasing for quite a while. As propellants improved and black-powder began to be replaced by more powerful smokeless powders, the sizes and weights of the bullets began to decrease as well.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Differences Between the VZ-58 and the AK

First, I'd like to wish all the readers of this blog a very happy 2015.

Quick, identify the firearm in the image below:

Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

If you said something along the lines of "AK-47" or "AKM", then you're wrong. What you're looking at is the Czechoslovakian vz. 58 rifle. The vz. 58 does resemble an AK-47 or an AKM externally, but there are a lot of differences underneath the hood. We will study more about this rifle in this post.

The name "vz. 58" is actually a contraction of "vzor 58' (i,e. "model 58"). The official full name of this weapon is "7,62 mm samopal vzor 58" (i.e. 7.62 mm. automatic firearm model 58"). The number 58 is because this weapon entered service in the year 1958 (the AK-47 is named similarly -- it first entered service in 1947).

After World War II, the Soviet Union started using the 7.62x39 mm. cartridge for its AK-47 and AKM rifles and insisted that all the Warsaw Pact countries use the same cartridge for standardization. Many of the Warsaw pact countries (Poland, Hungary, Romania etc.) adopted the cartridge as well as the AK rifle for their military forces, but the Czechoslovakians decided to only adopt the cartridge, but use their own rifle technologies. They already had a history of developing firearms for 300 years or so, and the city of Brno was most recently known for developing the precursor to the famous Bren gun of World War II. A designer named Jiri Cermak was assigned to develop the new rifle in Brno in 1956 and the new rifle entered service in 1958.

The new rifle was chambered to use the 7.62x39 mm. cartridge, the same as the AK-47. This is about where the similarity between the two ends. What are some of the major differences?

  • Action: The AK-47 (and AKM and the rest of the AK family) uses the long stroke piston system, whereas the vz. 58 uses the short stroke piston system. In the short-stroke system, the piston moves for a very short distance (in the case of a vz. 58, it moves 19 mm. (or about 0.74 inches)), whereupon it is stopped by a projection. The short backward movement of the piston imparts a sharp blow to the bolt-carrier, which separates from the piston and then continues backwards due to momentum. In a long stroke system, the piston and the bolt carrier move backward together. This means that the short stroke piston system has a smaller mass of moving parts, since the bolt-carrier weighs less than the combined bolt-carrier and piston together. Therefore, there is less vibration and balance shift due to the moving parts and the vz. 58 is easier to keep pointed to the target.
  • Firing mechanism: The AK-47 uses a traditional rotating hammer mechanism, whereas the vz. 58 is striker fired.
  • Safety/Fire selector lever: The easiest way to tell if a rifle is a vz.58 or an AK is by looking at the fire-selector lever. The AK-47 family is famous for its clunky large fire selector lever, which is located on the right side of the weapon above the trigger and is cumbersome to operate. The user needs to take the firing hand off the pistol grip to manipulate an AK fire selector lever. The vz. 58 has a smaller, much more ergonomic selector mechanism and the lever can be manipulated without taking the hand off the pistol grip. The following two pictures show the differences (click on the images to enlarge -- the fire selector levers are enclosed in red ovals in the images below):
AKM fire selector lever. Note the length of the fire selector lever and its position relative to the pistol grip.
Click on the image to enlarge.

vz.58 fire selector lever. Notice how it is positioned close to the pistol grip and can be easily manipulated.
Click on the image to enlarge
  • Magazine: The AK-47, AKM and vz. 58 all come with 30 round box magazines, however, the vz. 58 magazine is shaped a bit  differently, so it cannot be inserted into an AK and vice-versa. The vz. 58 magazine is also made of a lightweight aluminum alloy and therefore, it is lighter than the steel magazines of the AK family. The vz. 58 magazine can also be loaded via stripper clips, without removing the magazine from the rifle.
  • Receiver: The early AK-47 receivers were made of milled steel, until the Soviets mastered the art of producing stamped steel parts from the Germans and the AKM (and all subsequent AK models) all have stamped steel parts. This was done to improve the production rate. The vz. 58 still uses a milled steel receiver. While it takes longer to make a milled steel receiver, it is more rigid and therefore has a bit more accuracy.
  • Lock action: The vz. 58 has a tilting lock action with a falling breechblock (similar to Beretta 92)
  • Bolt hold-open feature: When the last round has been fired in a vz. 58, the bolt catch locks the bolt carrier to the rear of the gun and it stays open, which alerts the user that the firearm is empty. In an AK, the majority of the magazines allow the bolt to go forward on an empty magazine, therefore, the user cannot easily tell that the rifle is empty.
  • Stock: The early vz. 58s were made using beech wood stocks, but they soon switched to using a wood-impregnated plastic stock. If you click on the image of the rifle above to enlarge it, you'll notice that the stock has a somewhat grainy look to it. These stocks are affectionately known as "beaver barf" to collectors and are light, durable and economical. AK rifles use laminated wood stocks (earlier models used normal wood and later models use plastic), which are also durable and cheap to produce, but they are a bit heavier. Later stocks on vz. 58 were made of steel and alloys and designed to be foldable or collapsible. One more difference is that the stock on a vz. 58 is designed to be modular and easily detachable/interchangeable.
  • Dust Cover: The receiver on a vz. 58 has no ejection port dust cover, because the receiver is completely enclosed by the bolt carrier. Therefore, the ejection port is huge compared to an AK. This can be easily seen when the rifle is being operated. 
  • Disassembly: The vz. 58 is held by two pins and is designed to be disassembled without using any tools.
Even though the AK family and the vz. 58 look very similar externally, the vz. 58 cannot exchange parts with the AK family because of the vast differences in the mechanisms.

The following video makes the differences between the two very clear.

The vz.58 was manufactured between 1958 and 1984 and around one million rifles were manufactured, which means they are not as widespread as the AK family. They still remain in use with Czech and Slovak military forces, and they were exported to some other countries as well (Cuba, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Uganda etc.)