Sporting Rifle’s Thomas Nissen visits one of the world’s largest manufacturers of hunting optics, Leupold Optics.
The optical manufacturer Leupold Optics—or Leupold & Stevens Inc, as the company is actually known—is located in a beautiful industrial neighbourhood in the northwest corner of Beaverton, on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.
The stringent, well-designed entrance to Leupold’s residence stands in shiny aluminium; the raw material that best represents the iconic US company.
The optics producer is at the very top of the American list of companies’ consumptions of 6061-t6 aircraft aluminium, only surpassed by the aircraft behemoth Boeing during periods of high production rate.
At the entrance I meet Leupold’s international sales agent and fifth generation family member, Jon Slack. The family representative, along with Shane Meisel, the director of international sales and marketing, will show me around the factory and tell me a little about the family, business history, production principles, ownership, market strategies, quality controls and more.
Fearless young man
Back in 1891, Frederick Leupold said goodbye to his homeland, Germany. Alone, at just 16 years old, he sailed across the Atlantic and landed a job in Boston at CL Berger & Sons. The company produced scientific instruments, which fell well in line with the young German’s interest in mechanics and machines.
In Boston, Frederick met a Polish immigrant called Adam Voelpel, with who he became a good friend and business partner. During the start of their own scientific instrument production, Frederick fell in love with Adam’s sister Rose, who he later married.
In 1907, the two friends opened a small factory in Portland, Oregon, which helped cover the growing need for scientific instruments and machines at that time. By 1914, the engineer JC Stevens joined the company as an inventor. He was later made a full partner of the company, which among other things, led to the company name Leupold & Stevens Inc.
In the beginning, hunting and shooting were not part of the company’s DNA, but that all changed when Frederick Leupold’s son, Marcus, took
over. Marcus Leupold was introduced to hunting through his wife, who grew up in the rural parts of Oregon.
While hunting in the 1940s, Marcus missed a shot on a deer due to a faulty riflescope. Disgusted, he decided to make his own riflescope. During the war, Leupold & Stevens Inc helped the Navy make watertight telescopes, and thus had the knowledge and technology available to make superior optics. After years of research, Leupold released its first riflescope in 1947.
Marcus designed a simple telescope with 2X magnification that could only be zeroed by adjusting the mountings. The crosshair was made of the silk thread from the black widow.
When the company began to produce the aiming telescopes for sale—under the name of the Plainsman—they employed a man who only took care of looking after spiders and extracting silk thread from these. These days this man might have been called ‘Spider-Man’, but at that time spider wrangler gave more meaning, so it was the title he went by.
In 1949, Leupold became the first company to produce waterproof, nitrogen-filled sights, and in 1953, Jon Slack’s grandfather, Jack Slack, came to the company, later marrying into the Leupold family.
Jack was a dedicated hunter and rifle shooter, and over the years became a bit of a celebrity in the industry, just as he helped to draw the company’s hunting profile outward.
In 1963, Leupold introduced the golden ring, which has since become an iconic and easily recognisable ‘brand’ on their hunting optics.
The year before, the world-renowned Duplex crosshair was invented, which since 1978 has been found in the company’s logo. When Leupold reached 150 employees in 1968, the factory was moved to the current location in Beaverton.
Leupold now employs approximately 700 people worldwide, and has branched into eight product lines, exclusively for the hunting market: binoculars, riflescopes, spotting scopes, rangefinders, mountings, accessories, clothing and thermal optics.
Leupold & Stevens Inc remains a private family-owned company, where the shares can only follow the bloodline. This means the company’s shares will always be in Leupold or Stevens’ hands regardless of other matters.
Just because someone is part of the owner family, they are not guaranteed work there. As a child, Jon Slack knew he would work here one day, though. He started as a young man ‘on the floor’ in the production department, from which he worked his way up the system.
“In addition to myself, my brother and cousin also work in the company, just as there are four family members on the board. Beside family members, the Board of Directors consists also of four members from the outside, controlling the company that today has more than 700 employees, of whom around 100 are engineers,” Jon says.
“The fact that this is a well-run company is emphasised, among other things, that a number of employees work through the company through life, just as some families have worked for Leupold for several generations.
“The employees in the production work on average 20 years for the company, while replacement quite naturally takes place a little more often in the administrative departments.”
Sales and strategy
The director of international sales and marketing, Shane Meisel, tells me all the riflescopes are designed machined and assembled in the United States. He does not want to state how many units the company produces annually, but notes that in one month they produce close to the same number of units that the largest European brands do together over the year.
“There are at least 75 optic brands in the US, and a new one comes every two weeks, many of which are produced in China,” explains Shane, “We know we are fighting the market forces by producing in the US, but we refuse to make cheap stuff. This choice means that we have chosen to focus on select parts of the market, with 24 per cent of all optics sold in the US costing less than $200.
“However, quality is more important than quantity, and it is important for us that the consumer can rely on our products. We therefore have a lifetime guarantee in the USA and, due to EU regulations, 30 years in Europe.”
He emphasises that being family owned means that they think long-term, so that future generations have the opportunity to work in the right direction instead of having to rectify old mistakes.
“We are not the optics company in the United States that produces the most units, but we are number one when it comes to turnover. We also have the feeling that we are number one in New Zealand and Australia, but from there we do not have secure data, to evaluate it. We are, however, of the knowledge that we are leaders in the US and in Canada,” says Shane.
He reveals that Europe is the market that they will invest the most in for the coming years, as this continent has great potential for the company.
“We believe that hunters in Europe are quality conscious and interested in performance optics, but Europe also has other great quality brands and the competition is big. However, it already does well on the continent, and sales figures have risen. Where exactly we are on the ‘hit list’ of sales of hunting optics in Europe, we do not know for sure though.”
Proud to be hunters
Quality control is attacked by Leupold from two angles. On the one hand, all units are continuously checked during the production, where they are finally tested for waterproofing and the ability to withstand impact/recoil.
On the other hand, individual units are sampled and tested for “extreme weather change over 90 years”, with heat degrees higher than they are found in any desert and colder than anywhere in the Arctic.
Leupold has one of the best optics testing labs in the US outside of NASA and the University of Arizona. Shane explains: “We are very thorough with our tests… it can be mentioned that sights sampled for testing are exposed to what corresponds to 5000 shots in a recoil test machine, which we call ‘The Punisher’. The machine delivers a more powerful recoil than any rifle ever produced.”
The company, which now has more than 100 years in the bag, does not hide the fact that hunting and shooting are the primary markets.
“Everyone is welcome to buy our optics, but at the same time all our customers have to accept that we are a company with a focus on hunting and shooting,” explains Shane.
He adds that at one point, Leupold removed the Duplex crosshair from the logo to signal that the optics can also be used by anyone other than hunters, be it golfers, ornithologists and nature users in general.
However, the company received so many complaints from dedicated Leupold fans within the hunting and shooting world that the crosshairs had to be restored.
Leupold & Stevens Inc thus refuses to apologise for being hunters, not least because they see hunting as nature conservation. The company annually donates between $3.5-4 million to foundations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, The Wild Sheep Foundation and a number of other funds.
With such clear corporate values, there seems to be nothing to fear for the descendants of the fearless German kid who at the end of the 19th century seized the opportunity to live out the American dream.
More interviews and behind the scenes
- Behind the scenes at BSA – the GTN interview
- BioAmmo founder Enrique López-Pozas Lanuza interview
- GMK MD Karl Waktare – the GTN interview
- CPSA CEO Iain Parker – GTN interview
- Behind the scenes: Key moments in Alan Paine’s history