August 14, 2018
Everyone wants a Swarovski Z8i, Schmidt and Bender, Leica Ultravid or Zeiss Victory FL, but few want to pay upward of $3,000 to get one. But as I found with diligent research, there are still a few 100-percent European-made scopes and binoculars available for under a grand. To my eye — and maybe it's bias associated with European brand panache — they're just a bit crisper, optically, than their foreign counterparts. While you may find optics that have more external features in this price class, I'll doubt you'll find any that are optically superior or more durable.
Keep in mind, this isn't a budget optics article. If it were, I'd recommend a half dozen other excellent Japanese-made options. Rather, here are three Euro-made scopes and three binoculars in three categories — compact, hunting, and long range sizes — that perform similarly to the world's best. Keep in mind, they're also available for a half t0 a third less cash. (Note: Prices listed below are not the company's suggested retail, but rather the best real-world prices at the time of this writing.)
Meopta MeoStar 3-12x56 R1: Long-range riflescopes with 30mm tubes, huge objectives, side parallax adjustment and target dials are all the rage right now. Trouble is, a great one will cost you $2K or more. There is a Czech company called Meopta, however, that's been producing optics on par with the best in the world for a long time, but for less cash.
Meopta's MeoStar 3-12x56 R1 scope is top-notch in anyone's book. It's as bright as scopes get with its pie-plate size objective, 99.8 light transmission per lens thanks to European glass and Meopta's MeoBright Ion-assisted lens coatings. It's available in first or second focal plane reticles with multiple reticle styles and a side parallax adjustment. It's Meopta's flashship that's made and assembled in the company's Czech Republic factory via very tight tolerances that assure its adjustments are precise and its seals are pristine. The only negative is that this particular model doesn't have the high-end magnification that some shooters prefer nowadays. To get it, you can pay a little extra for the 4-16x version (or a 6-20 MeoPro model) that costs $1200. All in all however, this baby is as bright, tough and repeatable as long-range scopes come — all for right around a grand. ($999)
Swarovski Z3 3-9x36: For years my favorite hunting scope in the world was Swaro's 3-9x-36mm. Containing Swarovski's amazing, Austrian-made optics, this scope was brighter than all of my cheaper 40mm and 50mm scopes, yet I was able to mount it in low rings so my cheek would meld onto the comb while looking through it. At just 12 inches long and 12 ounces in weight, it's just about the lightest hunting scope available, and I believe it might be the toughest ever. And it's still available — it's just been rebranded under the Z3. It also costs less than it used to.
I found it at for $699! My only wish for this optic is that it were available with a ballistic reticle, but I've found that I can use the lower post of the duplex German No. 4 reticle as a hold-over point. In sum, for this price, I believe the Swaro "3-da 9 by 36" to be the best pure hunting scope for the money, bar none.
Docter Basic 1-4x24: After searching everywhere, I found only two top-notch true European-made CQB/Dangerous game-type optics for under $1,000. They are the Romanian-made Valdada IOR 1-4x26mm scope that I found for $800, and the Docter Optic Basic 1-4x24. However, the U.S.-based Valdada company says it's not sure how much longer supplies of that scope will last. That's a shame, because it's a wonderful optic whose reputation is growing swiftly among the precision rifle community. So, that leaves Doctor Optic's Basic 1-4x24R.
In case you didn't know, Docter Optic was a subsidiary the Carl Zeiss AG company, but in 1991 when the German wall fell, Docter was purchased and remains viable. While the firm is lesser known than its Zeiss parent, it still makes wonderful optics. Its versatile 1-4x24R model is no exception. It was designed for European boar hunting and the heavy-recoiling rifles used in that demanding sport. Its illuminated dot is placed in the first focal plane, so at 1 power it can be used as a red dot scope with both eyes open. It also features an automatic shutoff so the battery lasts forever. If you haven't tried a Docter, you'll be amazed at its clarity, robustness and value. ($950)
Steiner M1050R 10x50: Steiner is also underrated for some reason, but the fact remains that this German firm has been building top-notch binos for militaries around the world since 1947. It specializes in durability, and I believe it's probably the toughest binocular ever made. After all, if it can last in the torturous environments of tank and naval warfare, where everything is constantly jostled, beaten and coated in dust and salt water, then it will do just fine in your truck or treestand. Indeed, Steiner was the inventor of nitrogen purging that prevents internal fogging regardless of temperature changes.
But what makes the M105R (the military version that's made to stringent mil-spec) so tough is the thick, ribbed rubber armour, its Makrolon polymer body, and most unique, its floating Porro prism design that flexes slightly if faced with a major impact rather than breaking. Do not confuse this model with the company's less expensive Military and Marine, Marine and other similar-looking models — this one is better.
The Steiner is also unique in that it features what Steiner calls Sport Focus. Each eyepiece is focused one time specifically for each eye of the user. Once it's adjusted, the focus is good from about 20 yards to infinity without having to do anything. There's no focus wheel, and there's no faster system for hunters and snipers who can't afford to spend a few moments trying to bring a moving target into focus. As for negatives, Porro prisms are not en-vogue these days because of their old-fashioned, bulky look, but they do have several advantages including slightly better depth perception.
It should be noted that this model features a built-in reticle so it can be used to reference distances and to call holds for riflemen. If you don't prefer the internal reticle, choose the 7x50 Commander model. ($999) steiner-optics.com
Meopta Meostar B1 8x42: Meopta is likely the most underrated brand in optics, and the reason — sadly — is likely because its stuff doesn't cost more. Its products all feature the quality glass, engineering, manufacturing processes that place it alongside the most expensive brands in the world. What it lacks is the crazy price tag. Its flagship Meostar B1 8x42 is on par with anything out there, and only the world's top aficionados under just the right conditions will be able to tell any difference between it and optics costing three times as much.
Like all optics in this price range, it's fully multi-coated, waterproof, nitrogen-purged shockproof and everything else, but there is just something about the glass (likely due to its Schmidt roof prism design combined with glass quality) in this unit that makes it slightly more clear and bright to my eye than the Asian-made optics of similar price. This unit is heavy, at 31 ounces and rather fat in the hand, but when you put them to your eye you'll forget about any discomfort. Trust me on this, for just under $1,000 you won't find a better all-around bino that will outlast you. ($999)
Swarovski CL Companion 8x30: I recently took Swarovski's new Companion series bino on a spring bear hunt, thinking that because the bears are baited to 25 yards from the stand I wouldn't need a big, heavy bino. Boy, was I right. Despite the unit's small 30mm objective, it's so surprisingly bright for its size that at times I wonder why I ever carry an 8x42. Now my swank-looking Companion is my go-to glass for everything except dedicated western hunts where glassing all day long is anticipated. For everything else, especially whitetail hunting back east, bowhunting and going to a ball game, it can't be beaten.
After all, it weighs only 17 ounces, which puts this bino in a whole new class. Make no mistake, the Companions should not be compared to the cheap little folding pocket binoculars that you see for $99 — the Swaro's are way out of that league. Swarovski put everything it has into this Austrian-made dynamo. It's waterproof, shockproof, bright as can be and light as a hawk's feather. Once you try a pair, you'll be reluctant to hang anything else from your neck. ($850)