As far as the infantry is concerned, it would appear obvious that it is in everybody’s interest that they achieve the maximum performance from their primary instrument, the rifle. What is required here is the ability to accurately engage and neutralise targets both in close quarter battle environments and in long-range engagements. To achieve this objective the optimum combination of rifle and ammunition is required, but beyond that the maximum utility of an individual weapon can be obtained with the installation of an optic, otherwise known as an optical sight.

An optic provides the ability to identify and accurately engage targets at all desired battle ranges. What is perplexing is that there was so much resistance, even in the most advanced forces, to equipping the infantry rifle with an optic. Even today you can see the infantry of major European militaries operating with modern rifles, which even have Picatinny (MIL-STD-1913) rail or equivalent rail systems fitted, with absolutely no optics. Now, it might be that standard practice in a particular military to not install an optic during training, more likely it could be that either there are no optics to install at that point in time and they will arrive at a later date, or there are just no optics available to install. Fundamentally, the enemy of optics installation on rifles still remains conservatism and/or cost.

US Marine Corps patrol activity in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Note the Rifle Combat Optic (RCO) sight, this is the Trijicon Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG), which was adopted in 2004. The RCO is being replaced by the Squad Common Optic (SCO), which is the Trijicon Variable Combat Optic Gunsight (VCOG), a 1-8×28 optic.
Credit: US Marine Corps

Starting Points

In many respects, the small arms landscape of today is the result of decisions made in the post-1945 era. At that time, the standard rifle calibres of the primary combatants were 7.62 × 63 mm (.30-06) for the US, 7.92 × 57 mm for Germany, 7.62 × 54 mmR for Russia and 7.7 × 56 mmR (.303) for Britain. These were proven, powerful rounds, but it became increasingly obvious that these rounds were, perhaps, too powerful and that what was needed was an intermediate round. In response, Germany developed the 7.92 × 33 mm Kurz round, the round that was used in the StG 44, and Russia came up with the 7.62 × 39 mm M43 round, this was the AK-47 round. Following this trend line, Britain came up with its own intermediate round in the 7 × 43 mm calibre. The British had developed a new rifle to utilise this new intermediate round in the form of the EM-2, certainly a unique and innovative weapon, and one with an integrated optic.

Others were not convinced by intermediate rounds, starting in 1949 there was an effort to achieve ammunition standardisation between the US, Britain and allied powers. Inevitably, the wishes of US were paramount, and they pushed for a full-power round that would be suitable for extended range engagements for rifles and machine guns, resulting in the adoption of the 7.62 × 51 mm as the standard NATO round. The EM-2 and its integrated optic could not accommodate the power of the 7.62 × 51 mm round and was therefore consigned to oblivion. On the other hand, the FN FAL, a rifle that had started off using intermediate calibres, did have the growth potential to handle the NATO round. Canada was an early adopter of the FAL and initially they equipped the weapon with an optic, but when the rifle was fully rolled out across the Canadian military, the optic was jettisoned.

It was to take until the 1970s for the optic to emerge as a serious proposition, the starting point for this was the Steyr Armee Universal Gewehr (AUG) in 5.56 × 45 mm, adopted by the Austrian Army as the Sturmgewehr 77 to replace the FAL. The AUG featured an integrated Swarovski 1.5× optic. Elsewhere the British army were starting to get back into the rifle optic game, with the L2A2 Sight Unit Infantry Trilux (SUIT), a 4× optic for day and low-light conditions, attached to the Self-Loading Rifle (SLR), the British version of the FAL, and the GPMG machine gun. However, this optic was never widely issued.

Both Britain and Canada were to achieve the full adoption of rifle optics when they adopted their replacement for the FAL. In Britain, the mid-1980s saw the arrival of the L85 rifle in 5.56 × 45 mm as the SLR replacement, while the rifle might have been dire, it was to take many years and a lot of effort by Heckler & Koch to fix all of its problems, the optic teamed with the L85, the L9A1 Sight Unit Small Arms Trilux (SUSAT), a 4× optic, was actually rather good!

In Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) chose a successor to their C1/C1A1 (FAL) rifles in the form of the Colt Model 715 in 5.56 × 45 mm, entering Canadian service as the C7 and the C8 carbine variant. The CAF wanted to equip these weapons with a new optic of Canadian design, to that end ELCAN were selected to design, develop and deliver a new optic, with the Canadian government providing funding support for this process. This resulted in the SPECTER OS, a 3.4× optic, being adopted by Canada as the C79. Since the SPECTER OS arrived at the end of the 1980s, Raytheon ELCAN have delivered 475,000 sights to more than 40 countries. On top of that, as we shall see, they have added a major order that will significantly boost their optics deliveries.

The Optic Era

If anybody was to bring optics into the military mainstream it was inevitably going to be the US military. Trijicon was a small US company, but in 1987 it came up with a product that would change small arms optics in the shape of the TA01 4×32 Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG). In 1995, United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) ordered 12,000 ACOG sights, while the next year saw Israeli special forces order 5,000 ACOGs for designated marksman applications.

Between 1987 and 2005 Trijicon built 100,000 ACOGs, then the US Marine Corps selected the ACOG for their Rifle Combat Optic (RCO) requirement and within 18 months Trijicon had built 100,000 units for the Marine Corps. Orders kept on coming for the ACOG and by 2017, one million systems had been built! The next major military order came with another US Marine Corps procurement, in the form of the Variable Combat Optic Gunsight (VCOG), 1-8×28 optic, which was selected to meet the requirements of the Squad Common Optic (SCO) programme.

USSOCOM was to have a major influence on small arms optic acquisition, for example in 2001 they acquired the EOTECH Holographic Weapon Sight (HWS). EOTECH continues to be an important player in terms of small arms optics. In January 2023 the company announced an order from Kopassus, Special Forces Command of the Indonesian Army (TNI-AD) for 1,000 HWS and magnifiers. Other USSOCOM acquisitions would include sights from Aimpoint and ELCAN.

Gunners of the 40e régiment d’artillerie on an urban warfare exercise with their Heckler & Koch HK416F rifles. The rifle is fitted with the appropriate rails, but no optic at this point. Back in July 2018 it was announced that France would be purchasing up to 120,000 Aimpoint CompM5 sights for the HK416F.
Credit: French Army

Earlier in this article we mentioned the Steyr AUG and its integrated 1.5× Swarowski optic as being the starting point for the modern optic, this weapon also provides an excellent example of how small arms optics have developed and the enhanced performance that they can offer. The Australian Army had adopted the AUG (known as F88 in Australian service) as the replacement for the SLR and the M16A1 in the late 1980s, the AUG and its optic were more than adequate to support envisaged engagements out to a range of 300 m.
By 2015 the Australian Army was replacing the F88 with the more modern EF88 variant, this used the AUG as its starting point, but is a significant enhancement on the original rifle. The integrated optic was replaced by a rail system and a new optic in the form of the ELCAN SPECTER DR, a 1-4× optic, optimised for close quarter and extended range engagements. Did the new optic make a difference to the rifle? The answer to that is a clear yes, as the Australian Army had to change its marksmanship qualification standards to accommodate engagements out to 600 m.

One of the most significant European optic acquisitions of recent times occurred in Germany in late 2021 with the announcement that the Germany Army HKV Main Combat Sight programme was won by Raytheon ELCAN and Leonardo Germany. In total 107,929 HKV sights are to be acquired, these are based on the Raytheon ELCAN SPECTER DR 1-4× optic, featuring customer specific requirements including a bullet drop compensator, etched reticle, Picatinny rail integrated into the housing, anti-reflective device and an ambidextrous throw lever to switch between magnification levels. Germany also has a contract option to increase its order of HKV sights by 50%. More sights will certainly be needed, as the new German assault rifle, the System Sturmgewehr Bundeswehr, will see some 118,718 G95A1 and G95KA1 rifles acquired.

The German Army HKV Main Combat Sight programme was won by Raytheon ELCAN and Leonardo Germany. The HKV sight is based on the ELCAN SPECTER DR 1-4× (shown here), with a bullet drop compensator, etched reticle, Picatinny/STANAG rail integrated into the housing and an ambidextrous throw lever to switch between magnifications.
Credit: Raytheon ELCAN

Possession of an effective optic can significantly enhance the combat capabilities of a modern rifle, it can also increase soldier effectiveness by enhancing situational awareness. On the other hand, all optics are not equal. Attaching an optic to a rail which is in turn attached to a rifle is not the end of the story, the optic will be expected to operate in a challenging environment, at different temperatures and in different climatic conditions. To be a viable solution, an optic must be able to cope with everything the rifle has to cope with and continue to deliver specified performance throughout its extended service life.

David Saw