We quite often hear people talking about ‘military spec’ binoculars or just plain military binoculars. We’re not exactly sure what makes a binocular military, but from an examination of google images for that search term it seems that that military binoculars posses at least one of the following characteristics:
- Green body color or other camo scheme
- Rubberized armored body
- No central focus wheel
- Built-in compass
- Thick binocular body frame
- Attached lens caps
You may notice what is missing in there: namely “actually used by one of the world’s militaries”. Sadly there are a huge number of manufacturers out there who think that just plopping one of the above features (or in the case of #3 lack of features) they can call them ‘military’ or ‘tactical’ or ‘mil-spec’.
While some of these models are actually very good binoculars one should be careful not to be seduced by the all the ‘mil-spec’ features. One should even be wary of binoculars that are being used by a nation’s military forces. Why? Well let me explain the different philosophies:
Back when I was doing science experiments, I needed to wear a watch. Trouble is, I was exposed to things like Tesla Coils, Liquid Nitrogen, Van de Graaf generators, chemicals and load other things that went into making fun experiments. I needed a watch that could handle this – or did I? I was worried that if I bought an expensive watch that claimed to be ‘shock-proof’ etc, and it broke anyway I would be very sad as I was out a lot of money on a museum worker’s salary. So I chose another route: I bought myself cheap watches and replaced them when the abuse of my job destroyed them Yes this did mean I would be without a watch for a day or two about every six months when the effects of my job took their toll, but it felt better than risking a more valuable watch.
Many, many militaries take the same philosophy that I did. They consider binoculars to be a disposable item like cans of ammo or rockets. If you break one you replace it with another cheap model and go one with life. To be sure they have some standards for the optics, but nothing that makes the price too much to bear if the binoculars are lost. Other militaries do the exact opposite, carefully setting standards for binoculars and choosing high-quality models. Binos in these militaries are considered as valuable as the soldier’s weapon, if not more so.
In World War 2, most of the Allied powers treated binoculars in the former fashion, considering them to be just one more piece of gear. In most of the Axis powers (Germany and Japan especially) they treated binoculars in the latter manner. Neither was wrong in philosophy: The ‘disposable’ philosophy meant a lot of soldiers could have binoculars in hand rather than just officers, and there were plenty of replacements to be had. In the ‘quality’ philosophy the high grade binoculars may have often given officers (in all branches) a much better image of what they were looking at and could avoid ambushes, attacks, etc.
These days more of the major militaries go with the ‘quality’ philosophy. But a lot of smaller armies often go with the cheaper option since they operate on small budgets. Once a binocular company rep came by and was explaining how one set of binoculars was being used by UN Peacekeeping forces. I looked through them, and they weren’t bad, but they certainly weren’t something to get excited about.
So when shopping for binoculars, keep the two philosophies in mind when you hear the word ‘military’ around the binocular you are looking at.