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Retro Optics for Fun

In an era of ever larger, more powerful, and more complex riflescopes, here's the case for a scope that is small, lightweight, uncomplicated, inexpensive, and a lot of fun to use.

Retro Optics for Fun
The combination of Terry’s Mannlicher-Schönauer Model 1903 rifle chambered for 6.5x54 M-S and a Leupold retro FX-II 2.5X 20mm riflescope makes for an extremely fun-shooting outfit.

Leupold’s FX-II 2.5X 20mm Ultralight riflescope is a little gem that has been in the company’s lineup, under one name or another but virtually unchanged, for at least 30 years. It’s an 8-inch-long, straight 1-inch tube that weighs a feathery 6 ounces. Scopes don’t come much lighter or more compact than that.

According to Leupold, it was added to the lineup decades ago at the insistence of its employees, most of whom are serious hunters and shooters and roam the dripping forests of the Northwest. Ranges are short, conditions are bad, and shots are quick or not at all. They wanted a riflescope that was short, lightweight, and low power. And, of course, it had to be made with Leupold quality.

Back in the ’90s, variable scopes were relentlessly taking over, and a fixed-power scope seemed hopelessly retro. And only 2.5X? I mean, really. Since about 2005, however, I’ve never been without one. Right now, it’s riding an old Mannlicher-Schönauer Model 1903 “African.” It ended up there through a series of happy but unplanned circumstances.

The rifle came to me fitted with a long-discontinued Leupold mount called the Adjusto, which was intended for scopes with external adjustments. It had 1-inch rings. Finding a mount that fits the Mannlicher action is difficult enough, but fitting a scope to the rings that still allows the bolt to cycle is even more challenging. The FX-II not only fits perfectly with proper eye relief, but also allows the wing safety to operate, and it looks unobtrusively elegant on the rifle. The rifle itself is a brilliant piece of Austrian riflemaking, and the scope looks right at home.

The 6.5x54 M-S is a mild cartridge in its traditional loadings, but ballistically, it’s not far behind the 6.5 Creedmoor, which is now being touted for hunting at (to me) vastly unrealistic distances. If I had a more powerful scope on the Mannlicher, I could probably stretch its range beyond 250 yards, but that would move the rifle away from the use for which it was intended. It was made to be carried, mile after mile, across the veldt—and not by someone’s gunbearer. This is a rifle for stalking and still-hunting, creeping in close, and placing shots precisely.

I like shooting it offhand, sitting, or using shooting sticks. Its 26-inch barrel makes it very steady, and the scope’s modest 2.5X magnification makes me look steadier than I am.

Long ago, handgunners learned that putting a scope on a revolver may improve their ability to see but at the same time impair their ability to shoot. You certainly see the target more clearly, but the scope magnifies your wiggles and wobbles and encourages you to wait for the sight picture to be exactly right before squeezing the trigger.

Conversely, old-time offhand shooters recorded their high scores by squeezing the trigger when the sight picture through their aperture sights was close, trusting to the law of averages to put a good portion of those shots into the X-ring. They knew that if they waited until the sight picture was precisely right, they would delay shooting. They then became unsteady, so they rested and started over. That is a bad habit. Over the course of a day’s shooting, it tires you out, and you end up with a lower score, not a better one. If you don’t believe me, ask Harry Pope.

Shooting my lovely old Mannlicher offhand is one of the most fun things I do with a rifle—dashing from bush to bush, shooting quickly at targets of opportunity. It’s not formal competition, and a hit is generally registered by a thwang from a steel plate or a puff of dust from a clay on a sandbank.

For this type of shooting, the Leupold FX-II 2.5X is perfect, and everyone should own at least one. Put it on an old rifle and shoot the way we did when we were kids. It won’t make you any younger, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself cackling with glee and calling for more ammunition.

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