Guide to military binoculars
We no longer sell military binoculars, so this article is for interest-sake only, to see all of our products (including other optics such as magnifiers and microscopes) click here.
This page is about handheld military binoculars that are available on the domestic market, but more specifically it is about those that we used to sell. I would be very glad (for my own information if not for publication) to know about any other current models that are definitely military that I may have missed. You may wish to jump to the bottom of this article to read why these binoculars are always 6X or 7X, and the merits of eyepiece focus over centre focus.
When these first came onto the market they were the Russian Military 7X30, there was only one model: hard plastic screw-down eyecups (allows perfect vision for spectacle-users), firmly-tethered lens caps over the objective lenses, a rain guard with two screw-cap compartments containing a pair of orange filters (they clip over the eyepieces to enhance the contrast in misty conditions), and when you look through them you see sighting graticules (to measure the distance of targets of known height or to measure the height of target of know distance). The binoculars were marked with Russian script.
That was in the 1990s. I doubt that they were the actual binoculars issued to the Russian military, I strongly suspect that the factory was continuing production for the domestic market because there was no money left for the military following the collapse of the USSR.
As time passed the model changed subtlety, and this is the model I sold for £95.0
- the optics are identical to the military version, same quality, same sighting graticules; the hard plastic screw-down eyecups are replaced with the standard fold-down eyecups you see on nearly all domestic binoculars; the firmly-tethered lens caps over the objective lenses aren't quite so firm (if you pull, they fall off completely); the rain guard has no screw-caps (or if it does, there are no filters inside). You will also notice English characters printed on the binoculars, a dead-giveaway that they could not possibly be original Russian military. But they are the same optical quality. Originally I had just a handful and was selling them for £149.00, but then I bought a few dozen and reduced the price to £95.00. Please remember, these were brand new not second-hand.
The story does not, however, end there. Later versions were shoddily constructed, not of the same optical quality, with dust inside. I heard that factory workers were taking parts home and making the binoculars on their kitchen table. So if you do find these at 'bargain' prices, do check very carefully that they are internally perfect.
At the antiques fairs and on eBay I would often see a black metal Russian 8X30 marked with Russian script, described as 'military' and usually for sale at between £20.00 and £30.00. I know these well, I used to import them, they are not military and my retail price (when I imported them) was £12.50. So please don't assume that any binoculars with Russian script is military.
The Chinese are relative newcomers to the optical market when it comes to selling military-specification binoculars. We know that China produces every conceivable type of domestic binoculars, we know, academically, that they must have an optical industry for the military (I'd be surprised if they source military equipment from Japan, America or Europe!) - but what are their binoculars like?
The "Artemis" 7X50, £185.00, is not just incredible in optical quality, it is built to the most rugged military specifications (so the official blurb tells us anyway) and it manages to be small and lightweight. In fact, when I took delivery of my very first sample I thought they'd sent me a 7X40 by accident and I had to measure the lens to confirm that it was a 7X50.
As with the Russian military binoculars, not all is as it seems; there is a heavier version that uses the same optics but has been designed for the domestic market - I think the idea is that customers don't think they're getting value for money unless the item is really heavy.
A lot of British buyers think that because I sell the FUJINON FMTR-SX as, "Made to U.S. military specification" that it must be made especially for (and currently used by) the U.S. military. This assumption is because the British military have (traditionally) had binoculars made only for the British military, they are never on sale to the public.
It is not like that in the U.S. The U.S. military will (like the British) have their own "military specification" (mil-spec) but they will find something that is already made, off-the-shelf and (in all probability) already in the shops. They may, on occasion, ask for variations and I'm sure they negotiate a good price for large quantities, but the mil-spec binoculars you buy in the shop IS the same as the mil-spec binoculars the U.S. Military have approved. And such an item will still be mil-spec even after the military have stopped using it. So it is with the FMTR-SX 6X30, 7X50 and 10X50. Now I know, for a fact, that the U.S. Military used to use the 6X30 but don't any more because it was too expensive (!); and I've spoken to American servicemen who say the 7X50 may well be U.S. mil-spec but they don't remember ever seeing them in service; and I know the 10X50 wouldn't be used because 10X is considered too powerful for handheld binoculars. But they are all mil-spec nevertheless.
Finally, two little stories about the FUJINON FMTR-SX series.
Firstly, I once placed one of these (at one of our shows) on a high shelf. A customer asked if he could lift it down, I said no, I'd pass it to him, he ignored me, grabbed it and dropped it onto the concrete floor. To my utter amazement not only did it remain in perfect alignment  but there wasn't a dent or scuff on it! I do not, however, advise a deliberate 'drop test' for any binoculars!
Secondly, I listen with glee at the 'purists' in optics comparing the FUJINON FMTR-SX range with the same magnification / lens diameter in Zeiss and Leica: they think the optical quality of the FUJINON is better. I hasten to add that I have never compared them directly, if Zeiss or Leica would like to donate to me a 7X50 and 10X50 I would gladly make the comparison and report back on this web site.
It's difficult to get new genuine military British binoculars, and they are very expensive, but the quality really is astounding. If you click on the second picture at the top of this page, you will see details of a current 6X30 made by NATO. Evaluating this, Brin Best (binoculars expert and author of Binoculars and People) said that this was about the same quality as the all-time best 6X30 by Fujinon.
The only 'recent' ex-MOD (1980s) binoculars you see on the open market that is obviously military is the fixed focus 7X40 AVIMO. These are usually released by the MOD (Ministry of Defence) when they are considered Beyond Economical Repair. If you are lucky this is because the outside is tatty, but often it is because they are out of alignment. This is one of the very few binoculars that cannot be re-aligned. Its distinctive shape makes the AVIMO instantly recognisable, even when the name has been removed. It is, in fact, fairly awful binoculars but I like it because it is (when in good condition) quite a good seller providing the price is reasonable. It is fixed focus (not auto-focus) focused on infinity - that works providing you have normal eyesight. A high proportion of the population wear spectacles, and their only option is to keep their spectacles on, and because of the badly-designed rubber eyecups you can't get your eye close enough to the eyepiece to see anything. Also, the unusual shape means that you have to raise your head quite high above a parapet and then you get shot - though not, I suppose, if you are using it for bird watching.
I did once have a very nice very lightweight 6X30 by Edna. Unremarkable in appearance, completely bland, noticeable only because of its unusually good optical quality and light weight. Confidently described, by my suppliers, as 'military', supplied as a 'production overrun by the factory. I had several dozen of these, they sold quickly, I have never seen them since.
WHY SUCH LOW MAGNIFICATION?
The military have the money and the authority to order binoculars of any magnification they wish. They know (as does every binoculars dealer and enthusiast) that the lower the power the easier it is to get good quality with small binoculars; the lower the power the brighter the image; the lower the power the wider the field of view. And the entire point of binoculars is to be able to see what is going on, there's no point in having binoculars so strong that you can identify the rifle held by a soldier on a distant hill but not have the field of view to see his colleagues shooting at you.
This is why the standard strength for the infantry (and the smallest and easiest binoculars to carry) is 6X. And the 'powerful' binoculars used at sea (though these binoculars are always quite large) are 7X. They do have 10X, but a decent 10X (decent in optical quality) would be too large to hold and would be mounted on a stand. In WWII they used 5X on the anti-aircraft batteries, because a feature of low power is a wide angle of view - they could scan large areas of the sky very quickly, and they were still good enough quality to identify enemy planes. And I had a recent (captured in the first Iraq war) 'flash spotter' telescope which was 4X magnification. So please don't think that high magnification is best.
WHY EYEPIECE FOCUS?
Those who have become used to centre focus binoculars get to like them so much that they object to binoculars that are eyepiece focus. With centre focus you must turn the centre wheel to focus both eyes but have only one eye open (usually the left) then you must shut the left eye and focus the right eye by turning the eyepiece, then you turn the centre wheel again to focus both eyes together, first on something nearby then something far away, and if one eye is slightly out of focus you start again. Why people fall in love which such a complicated system I really don't know, eyepiece focus is so much simpler.
With eyepiece focus you turn each eyepiece separately (focus the left eye, focus the right eye). All military binoculars use this system. The eyepieces on military binoculars will be marked clearly in dioptres (+ and - with zero in the middle for 'normal'). You remember your dioptre number for each eyepiece then if you lend the binoculars to someone and they focus it differently, you simply turn each eyepiece back to your setting when you get them back, no need to look through them, you now know that they will be in focus for your eyes, so simple! And if you notice, over the months and years, that your dioptre setting is changing, then you know it's time to go and see your optician.
You may think that you have to focus binoculars continuously for near and far targets. Well, yes, you do with powerful binoculars, but with 6X and 7X the only time you will have to re-focus for distance is if you are looking at something very close. So if you are a keen bird watcher and you must be able to focus on a fast-moving bird as it lands a few meters away, then you may prefer centre focus. But please don't ask me for military centre focus, they don't exist.