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.
A follow up comment with Mr. Unertl’s stepson who I have since been in contact with.
“John R Unertl has passed away. He fought cancer for 12 years after being told it would take him in less than 2. He was a tough SOB, and loved when I called him that. He was my step dad, and is sorely missed by my mother, his two biological children, 4 step children, and many grandchildren. I believe there is only one remaining person who built scopes in those early days. I will leave his name out of it to respect his privacy.“