When it comes to the pioneers in modern sniper rifle optics, there are a few names that come to mind. Perhaps the Original ART series of scopes on the M21 with its radical range finding and bullet drop compensating mount would be a pioneer, or the Hensoldt and Kahles scopes found on many European sniper rifles in the early days. But when one starts to really get into the modern scopes, especially in the USA, the list narrows down to just a couple. Of course, the original Unertl USMC 10x as used on the M40A1 is one that will be mentioned with its pioneering use of the Mil-dot system as we know it today. Then there is Leupold with their introduction of their Ultra series of tactical scopes developed for the US Army and adopted on the M24 SWS. Those Ultra Mark 4 scopes were known for literally being able to pound in nails without losing zero or rendering the scope inoperable. Perhaps the real pioneering thing that Leupold did was not to stop with just a military grade tactical scope like the other manufacturers did, instead they continued to develop a mid grade line of Mark 4 scopes that even the smallest of law enforcement agencies around the world could afford. Leupold pioneered the modern tactical scopes available to the general public as we know it today.
Sniper Central recently made a visit to the Leupold factory to meet with some of the decision makers to get an idea of how Leupold manufacturers their scopes and more importantly to get an understanding of their devotion and dedication to the sniping and tactical community. What we found was eye opening and revelatory and told us a lot about the company. The Leupold campus is located on 27 acres just west of Portland Oregon in the neighboring city of Beaverton. Beaverton also is home to the headquarters of Nike and other prominent world wide businesses, but the difference with Leupold is that it is not just headquartered there, they design, build and test all of their scopes right there at their Beaverton campus. To do this, they employ 700 men and women with good paying high tech manufacturing and engineering jobs.
Leupold has been a family owned business since its founding 110 years ago and the company still has a feeling of a family ran business. The average length of tenure for their employees is quiet high and it seems that a strong effort is made to provide good career opportunities for all levels of employment. We talked with several people who had been working their way up through different careers paths over the years to be where they currently were and with more potential growth ahead of them.
Leupold & Stevens was originally founded as a company that built very high quality precision surveying equipment back in the early 20th century and then when World War 2 started, they too went to war and started making naval optical equipment. It wasn’t until the son of one of the founders, then the head of Leupold and an avid big game hunter, had his scope fog up while hunting blacktail (mule deer) on the coast of Oregon that he decided Leupold could build a better rifle scope. So in 1947 that is exactly what he designed and prototyped on his own time. A few years later, Leupold & Stevens brought their first rifle scope to market. The sport optics side of the businesses continued to grow until it was the dominant side of the business in the 1960’s and Leupold & Stevens eventually sold off the surveying and naval optics side and became solely the sport optics business we know today. They were originally located in Portland Oregon, but when they needed to expand and grow, Portland would not give them a permit to build their shooting range for testing optics, so they moved right outside of town where they could build their range and planted their roots in their current location.
As one might imagine, the Leupold facility has grown and expanded several times over the years to its current size and iteration. The entry to the campus is beautiful and while the facility is next to U.S. Highway 26, the entrance is tucked away and found at the end of a cul-de-sac and somewhat hidden by large trees. The facility is very clean and professional looking and does require security passes to get past the locked doors, but Leupold is proud of their factory and they were happy to give us the grand tour and answer our many questions.
As mentioned, Leupold is still privately owned, and one area where that appears to really resonate with the company is with the importance of their product being made in America. Readers may have even noticed that their new tag line message that Leupold is pushing out is “American to the Core”. This is seriously how they think. They want to build everything in America. Currently their low end rifleman series of rings and some of their electronic devices such as laser range finders, are the only items manufactured outside of the USA and their stated business goal is to manufacture everything, including the mentioned items, in the USA by 2026. Leupold views ‘American’ as an actual trait of their products and it means a lot to them as a company. Made in America does not guarantee anything in terms of quality, and they know that, but it allows them to more closely monitor and make immediate changes and/or fixes very fast which helps them be able to effectively work toward their other stated business objective, to be the worlds dominant performance optics manufacturer. Leupold’s choice of the word phrase ‘performance optics’ was done purposely as they do not make what they referred to as “toys”.
Walking the factory floor one is impressed with the operation as you watch the bare aluminum go through its various stages of manufacture to end up as a finished scope. Leupold uses only very high end CNC machines, those produced by Index, and they are the largest Index user west of the Mississippi. These machines run constantly and are scheduled based on the current daily work orders where they allocate manufacturing time on a CNC based on a “family” of scopes for optimization.
As you might imagine, considering the number of scopes that Leupold makes and the fact that they are all made from aluminum, Leupold goes through a great deal of the metal. In fact, they are the second largest Alcoa customer in the Western USA. Alcoa is the number one aluminum supplier and the only western business using more Alcoa aluminum than Leupold in the west is Boeing, and each one of Boeing’s jets uses a bit more aluminum than a scope. Leupold goes to great lengths to salvage and reuse the scrap aluminum shavings and defective parts with a dedicated team that compresses the shavings and scraps into large nuggets to sell back to their supplier and then be recycled. Being responsible stewards of resources is beneficial financially and ecologically and it is nice to see.
All of the scope parts are manufactured inside of the Leupold facility in Beaverton, that is, everything except for the glass itself. There are really only three companies in the world that can manufacturer high quality glass in enough quantity to fill the needs of Leupold, unfortunately, none of those companies are located in the USA. All of the scope manufacturers essentially get their glass from these three companies and it is just a matter of specifying what “grade” of quality they wish the glass to be made to and then it is priced accordingly. Before anyone asks, yes, one of those companies is Schott, which actually has multiple facilities in different countries. So what makes the glass unique between scope manufacturers? That would be the coatings, both quantity and quality. Leupold has six dedicated engineers that work purely on optics performance. In fact, Leupold has nearly 100 in house engineers that design all of their products and these optical engineers are a part of that team. Their coatings are all proprietary, of course, and having these engineers on hand and constantly working to improve their product is a huge asset.
Once all of the scope parts are manufactured and the glass is sourced, prepared and ready to be used, the parts are sent to the assemblers to be assembled into a new scope, set of binoculars, a spotting scope or other optical device. There are several different classes of assemblers, A, B and C. The complexity of the scope determines the class of assembler required and they are able to work their way up the assembler classes based on training and experience. The scopes themselves are assembled in a clean room and as the assembled scopes come out of the assembly area they immediately are “baked” to remove moisture. They then go into the purger where they are nitrogen purged using Leupold’s own proprietary method that involves a much more involved process than simply pumping nitrogen into the scope and capping it off. Once this is done, the scope then goes through their Quality Control process which includes a submersion check, optical check, adjustment check and others. Every scope goes through this same process to insure their quality standards are met.
Once the scope passes the quality assurance check, a serial number is assigned, packaging is taken care of and then the scopes are moved to an offsite storage and shipping location. There is a lot that goes into building a high quality rifle scope that includes everything from engineering, machining, assembling and testing. It was very impressive to be able to walk through the factory and follow the complete process, and it built our confidence in the Leupold brand to be able to see what lengths that they will go to in order to do it right. But that is not the whole story of Leupold, especially when it comes to their tactical scopes.
A few years back, the Mark 4 line of tactical scopes had grown tired. It had been decades since the Mark 4 line entered the market where it soon dominated. As newer competition entered the field, Leupold did not react and they admit now that they became complacent in the market place, and as free market capitalists know, that can be a mistake. Leupold went through an eye opening period and they had to wake up, adjust and then dedicate themselves to a makeover, in essence, they had to evolve or risk losing their dominance. This included the sports side of the company as well as the tactical side, and over the past few years we have seen the fruits of that evolution. It was painful, and they experienced some backlash, but this evolution included discontinuing the legendary Mark 4 line in order to move on. Now they have the Mark 6 and the Mark 8 as their primary line of tactical scopes with others on the way. On top of that, they introduced some mid weight tactical scopes that perhaps are not pure tactical, but more precision rifle, such as the VX3i scopes.
They continue to utilize their distinguishing manufacturing features and capabilities to work toward their goals of market dominance, such as their “punisher” recoil simulating device, their optical lab, and complete in house manufacturing facility. Their actual service department is an actual service department and they do not just send out a replacement scope if there is a problem. By opening up the scope and seeing what actually went wrong, they are able to identify errors or faults in design or manufacturing and can address it immediately. This has been a huge benefit to their engineers and manufacturing team. Leupold is now much more open about their factory and processes and they have evolved to the new way of doing business in the 21st century market place. When we asked difficult questions, they did not hesitate to give honest answers and were very willing to admit mistakes and where they could improve and then went on to explain how they were addressing those concerns.
Honestly, we went into our visit to Leupold with some preconceived notions, but we tried to remain open to what we would see and hear. We were rewarded with a very enlightening experience into the scope manufacturing process and to Leupold’s dedication to world dominant, American made rifle scopes and sport optics. We have also brought in several new Leupold tactical scopes and will be conducting in depth reviews of those soon. Initial impressions of these scopes are extremely favorable. Many pioneers in many different fields end up fizzingly out and going away, we are excited to see that Leupold is not about to let that happen and have continued to evolve into one of the dominant players in the whole spectrum of mid to very high end tactical, and sport, optics.
Sniper Central 2017