SO, WHAT DID HAPPEN TO UNERTL OPTICS?

As you may have noticed my love o vintage target/varmint weapons and optics have been on my brain recently.  Last night I got thinking about Unertl again after a friend asked me something about those old beauties and remembered some years ago there was a forum discussion some where or other about what happened. As usual with most gun forums, few of the poster new much about much and were posting all kinds of BS about Unertl and US Optics ( which did some shady stuff after Unertl went into limbo and got sued for their troubles irrespective of what you may hear otherwise) until most unexpectedly John R Unertl himself popped up to set the record straight.  I saved his comments as they were a peak into the history of a legendary firearms industry company.   I have long forgot where I got it from but a clever googler I’m sure could turn it up.  No need anyway.  I saved Unertl’s only post on the matter and the rest of the posts were nonesense. AS one forum “expert” even made the idiotic claim that the Unertls were made in a barn.. 

 

Gentlemen, Let me clear up some inaccurate or most likely a lot of bogus information out there regarding the Unertl Optical Company and make clear some facts about the rifle scopes themselves. I have the authority to discuss the intimate details of this since I AM the last John Unertl that worked at the company you are referring to.

My grandparents started the company, my parents worked at the company, I worked at the company. All of the personalities involved here were strong personalities in their own right. Each conmtrbuted to, and detracted from the business. I don’t plan on writing a book here so I will condense this discussion to it’s bare bones form. My grandmother being a company founder was quite reluctant to leave the company even though she was getting up in years.
This gradually built a resentment within my father and their relationship began to fall apart. My father John Unertl Jr., was a brilliant engineer, but frankly didn’t care much at all about ‘marketing’, relegating this to mostly bullshit.
He also had quite an abrasive side and could alienate people fairly easily. I was schooled as a mechanical engineer because that was what was expected. Going  into the late ’70’s several issues were at play. Family discord for one. Secondly I could see that my father was not doing the necessary training and improvement for future development and expansion. I elected to resign at that point and move on. I took a job with Leitz, a well known optical instrument company. We used Leitz autocollimators and related equipment in our optical testing. Ultimately I became a Division President for that organization.

When my father died, my mother (who did not have a clue about the technology here) asked if I was interested in coming back to run the company. When I went back, I saw the company in the shape I figured it would be in. Not much had changed. It would have needed a small fortune to bring it up to speed. I had neither the time, inclination, and didn’t want to make the financial
commitment. I already had another business. I must say it was a sad moment. My heart strings pulled, but the realities of the situation were compelling. I suggested to my mother to pursue other alternatives.

Enter Rocky Green. My understanding is that he had two different involvements in the company. One as a liason to an initial group of buyers. They couldn’t handle the project, so the second time around he was a principle. I met Rocky one time when he came to visit me with the 1911’s. At that point I knew they were not
going to make it building scopes. I fear that anybody who wasn’t involved directly with the company couldn’t know the painstaking manufacture and care that went into building them. They were assembled, taken down, re-assembled,, numerous times. Hand fit parts meticulously assembled by true artisans. I can only assume the guys that bought the company just figured to buy some drawings,
program a CNC machine, stamp it Unertl & watch the money roll in. Sorry, didn’t work that way. I’m not sure if any of you out there were aware we made very sophisticated optical/mechanical instrumentation, optics for military jet gunsights, fire control optics (military stuff, not firemen) and wind tunnel instrumentation. Unertl Optical was far from operating out of a barn. We made the money with the high end optics, not making scopes. The scopes were that
labor of love because that’s how the company started. The scopes had the benefit of this financing. I fear the other guys missed this key ingredient.
The Unertl employees were true atrisans that made these rifle scopes. I doubt you can find guys like this any more with this kind of skill and dedication. The marine corps sniper scope was the last offering that my father made for Rocky Green when he was still in the service. At that point our old guys started dying off, and with them closed a page in the anals of the shooting industry.

I still have the opportunity to get together with the few remaing
company people. They have all played an important part in my life and I hold  special reverence to each and every one of them. They are truly the last of abreed.

Enjoy those scopes, I would have no reservation saying they are STILL probably the best scopes out there.”

John Robert Unertl

There it is from the man himself.  I only wish he would have written a book or an article about the company in some form for posterity.

If you didn’t know, this Rocky Green fellow did market a few  M1911s made with the Unertl name on them  and they were a take on the  older USMC  used 1911s  before MARSOC. I never touched one but I did see a couple.   They were pretty meh if  you are a real 1911 guy. Around that time a few scopes trickled out.   Some years ago I got in touch with a fellow who did work at the original Unertl and had bought out the rest of the bases and accessories  that were on hand when the real Unertl closed its doors.   I regret that I have since forgot his name and lost his contact info.  I do agree with Mister Unertl.  They are pure art and they  are still some of the best optics ever made.   A man can only dream about what they would have made had the younger J. Unertl had taken over the company and expended it and moved into modern designs.   The original Unertl closed its doors in the mid 1980s.  You can see in the image below what a high grade riflescope with all the trimmings looked like.  Box included.

J. Unertl Sr.  immigrated to the US from Germany and  worked for J. W. Fecker. Fecker scopes was a company that built the highest of quality target scopes which started selling his optics in 1922.  How high quality? Well, in 1926 when a Winchester Model52 rifle cost $36 yankee greenbacks, a Fecker optic would cost from $30 to $50 yankee dollars.  You can do the math on what the equivalent to 30 dollars   in the mid 20s  would be to today.   Unertl worked there as one of Feckers most talented and skilled engineers  until leaving to start his own optics business in 1928. In the early days of the Unertl Optics Co.  J. Unertl even supplied his scopes with Fecker mounts ( or what you would think of as “rings”) until developing his own.    Below is a Fecker advertisement and you can see the resemblance.  Fecker as a rifle scope maker more or less ended July 1956 as it was bought out by some one who had no interest in shooting. The company was purchased for its advanced designs for missile tracking and guidance systems during the cold war.  As of 2002 it still exists as a division of Contraves Co.    But the story of Fecker scopes will have to wait for another day.

AS mister Unertl said above, the last Unertl to  be developed and sold  as a new design was the USMC  10X sniper scope. A very tough optic that was the first to use the Mil-dot crosshairs.  A model was also made for use on the M82, 50BMG sniper rifle.  The original was developed for use on the M40A1 sniper rile and was in use even through to the M40A3 and A5  models though it is now probably complete phased out.  The USMC sniper 10X was a fixed power scope but it had some pretty trick features, especially for its time.   I promise that there will be  a longer upcoming article about it. The 10x was much loved by  Carlos Hathcock himself as he was one of the original  testers of the optic for adoption  to be used on the M40A1.   He even told of using the scope to pound a tent stake into frozen ground one day and the scope  was unfazed. 

It is a little sad to me that today few younger shooters even know the name.  A few years ago I saw a post on TFB where one of their worthies ran into a guy who had a Unertl optic and he was shocked as he had never seen nor heard of one.  Though I would expect  that from TFB.    Unertl optics helped set many world records,m win matches and make history in wars.  All of the  who’s who, of the shooting world used Unertls and knew  John Sr. back in the day and John Sr. was very active in the shooting community. He tried to give shooters what they wanted and offered nearly anything the heart desired.  

John Unertl Sr. pictured below, top row second from left. If you know who the other famous shooters are witout me telling you I will be very impressed. You can see  how well they thought of Mr. Unertl’s  product. The picture was taken in 1948 in Johnstown, PA at an important event in precision shooting history.

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13 thoughts on “SO, WHAT DID HAPPEN TO UNERTL OPTICS?”

  1. Good post. You are correct in that there are not many people familiar with the Unertl name. Seeing a longer article would be welcomed.

  2. ” I can only assume the guys that bought the company just figured to buy some drawings, program a CNC machine, stamp it Unertl & watch the money roll in.”

    I hear this all the time from gun buyers. Doesn’t matter the product – 1911’s, Pythons, revolvers in general, double guns, you name it, match rifles. Now I’ve indirectly heard it about optics.

    Most people don’t know what they don’t know about CNC machines, starting with the spindle TIR. Most CNC machines have spindled hearings that are no better than the bearings on most manual – 0.0002″ TIR. Most CNC machines can repeat positioning to no better than 0.0002″.

    There are some machines that will do better, eg, the Kitamura’s MyCenter mills. In general tho, most machines hold the precision I’ve outlined above (eg, Haas, et al).

    Lots of people who have never made a part in their lives, never mind actually fit something together in firearms, think that CNC machines are magic: you just draw up something in a CAD program, stuff it through a CAM system to come up with a toolpath, drop in the blank material on the workholding or fixtures, hit the green button and go get rich. Most people have never fit parts together by using a smoke lamp or marking blue, and have no idea what the resulting dimensional changes are when this is done.

    You’d think that if it were so damn easy, someone would have scooped up all the money in the market that could be had by making a Colt Python for less than $1K/copy.

    • funny you mention the python, while talking to colt a few months before the cobra was announced publicly and I was being told about the cobra. the python came up and how labor intense it is and how everyone thinks now Colt can just use a CNC to shit out pythons all day. I was told they have been working on the process of trying to convert some of the making of the python for CNC for a few years before that point and even what they did have in the computer set up for it still wasn’t enough to be able to make them faster or as cheap as people want. but they couldn’t get buyers to understand that.

      • From my experience, there are very few American gun buyers who have any appreciation for quality in firearms any more. They have no clue what goes into making a quality gun, and no desire to learn. Most American men any more haven’t got the mechanical aptitude to be able to so much as change a spark plug in their lawnmower without instructions on how to do it laid out in a Youtube video.

        But even the perception of quality is warped and gone; American gun buyers have been completely dumbed-down by gun rags and marketing hucksters to the point where they think piece-of-crap guns are worth their money (as long as they’re black and tacti-kewl) and quality’s price is “outrageous.”

        Many gunsmiths/gunmakers blame this on Glocks and AR-15’s. They’re both functional guns, but neither one is a quality firearm, and neither one can be turned into a quality firearm any more than you could turn a cowpie into a bronze sculpture.

        But the truth is, the company most responsible for this depressing state of affairs is Remington. Remington was the company that set the industry on their downward spiral into mass-produced POS guns starting in the late 50’s, with such firearms as the 870, the 700, etc. This resulted in Winchester doing absolutely stupid things in response, trying to out-schlock Remington. Then the unions at many gun companies finished the deal off, and… here we are.

        I can’t even get most gun buyers to sit still long enough to explain to them why Colt revolvers lock up tighter than Smiths or Rugers, or what it takes to make that happen. All most modern gun buyers know is that “revolvers don’t hold enough rounds!” and that anything less than a Glock 19 is “under-gunned.”

        • great point, Remington is guilty of starting the march to offering cheaper and cheaper junk. the 870 and 700 are so popular among so many and held so high and few know they exist just as a cost and corner cutting economy option. People can get angry at me for this but Ruger has a hand in that as well. Among current companies those shadey shysters at PSA are doing more damage to the industry and causing larger older firms to keep making cheaper and cheaper crap to compete so as to stay in business in the face of palmetto state armory churning out garbage. Same thing with a lot of the pure crap “M1911” makers out there. people want cheap, and they want quality but they cant have both. but they will believe anything a marketer tells them if the price is cheap enough, Its OK if its made in the Philippines in a garage. long as its cheap

          • Post the “PSA love” over at Arfcomm haha. I do agree sir in regards to Remington and PSA both. Finger a Wincheshter Model 12 (preferable pre 1960 model) verse the 870 as example of quality verse crap. The PSA business model of mass produced junk and glut the market with throw away guns is frustrating to observe. Unfortunately this trend is in all sectors, take a look at furniture for instance. Its some sad times we live in when masses only demand more throw away junk.

          • Ain’t that the damned truth. I see it all day with people who consider the Glock high end.

            And call thier 770 a sniper rifle.

            I want to start drinking heavily after every day behind the gun counter.

          • haha. it is enough to make a man start drinking or snorting coke or some thing. they dont realise either that all that junk forces good companies to keep making their stuff cheaper and cheaper to stay in business

  3. I remember this from back in the day as well. I had a chunk of deployment money set aside in the hopes of finding one of the few (legal) Unertl 10x’s floating around the market to set atop a TBA M40A1 build. When the US Optics scopes were announced and then delayed for years (I still have the original sheets and order forms) and then the Unertl company appeared to be resurrecting and bringing lawsuits I didn’t know if I’d ever get a scope.
    I actually spoke with Rocky Green a few times and met him at SHOT in ‘05. I bought an A1 mount from him about the same time too. He seemed a decent enough guy and in the short non-business interactions I had with him I can’t say a bad word about him for what that’s worth.
    I wished Unertl could’ve made a go of it as a renewed company even if it was in name only.

  4. Thank you for posting this. I am a huge fan of the USMC 10x. It’s what I came up with. I am not sure it was ever fielded of the M40A5. I only know of the A1 and A3. I speak from my own experience only. Thanks for the post and keep up the great articals.

    • Yeah I don’t think it was used on the A5 but if I hadn’t said that some one would have come to the comments telling me how I don’t know anything because they saw a picture one time of an Unertl 10X on a n A5 or some other BS. you know how it is.

  5. There is a older Savage-Anschutz 22 that a local dealer has for sale, it is topped by a 12 power Unertl that is clear and sharp with very fine crosshairs.
    When you look through it and slide the scope back and forth the very high quality is seen and felt.

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