Review of the Elcan Specter DR 1/4x combat sight with 5.56mm calibrated reticle. Distributed by Armament Technology Inc.
By Les (Jim) Fischer of opticsthoughts.com (BigJimFish on AR15.com and SnipersHide)
May 26, 2012
The Elcan Specter DR mounted to my 16″ AR
It is a commonly accepted maxim of most rifle scope users that the magnification settings between the lowest and highest magnification of a scope are largely unused. This seems to be particularly true of the 1-(n)x scope class. The Elcan Specter DR dispenses with these intermediate settings all together in their design. They do this, not by using conventional methods such as those employed in the Pitbull by IOR, but rather by fundamentally rethinking the assumptions made by virtually all other products in the industry. These assumptions such as internal adjustments and strictly coaxial lens placement are quite fundamental and challenging them has resulted in a dramatically different product.
In the vast majority of variable power rifle scopes the change in magnification of the image is facilitated by movement of lenses along the axis of the scope main tube within a second smaller tube known as the erector tube. When you turn the power adjust ring you are literally sliding lenses backwards and forwards. This is not so with the Elcan. When you flip the power selector lever on it you are rotating a second lens group, that serves to decrease the magnification of the primary group, into the sight line (for 1x) or out of it (for 4x.) I find it hard to adequately and quickly explain the difficulties that doing this imposes on an optical designer but I will try.
The group of lenses that the Elcan substantially alters the placement and function of, housed in the erector tube in a conventional scope, are multi-function in nature. Depending on the particular scope, they can be used not only for magnification, but also for parallax correction, to flip the image right side up (this is what the erector in erector tube means,) for elevation and windage adjustment, and lastly, even as the location of the reticle element itself. Since the Elcan scope will only have these lenses as part of the optical system half the time (on 1x) these functions will have to be otherwise dealt with. Elcan accomplishes this by having a fixed instead of adjustable parallax, putting the reticle in the second instead of first focal plane, moving the erector lens outside of the lenses that control magnification, and lastly, moving the windage and elevation adjustments outside the main tube. At this point the reader is probably somewhat lost regarding the technical details of optical design. That is quite alright. We will move on the testing of the optic and evaluate whether all the remarkable and unusual changes in the design have added up to a net improvement in combat optics or not.
Here is the lineup of scopes that were used as references for the Elcan Specter DR 1/4x in this review. From top to bottom:
GRSC Japanese-made 1-6x
US Optics SN-3 3.2-17x
Nikon M-223 1-4x
Elcan Specter DR 1/4x
GRSC Korean-made 1-4x (prototype)
Leupold VX-6 1-6x
Table of contents:
-Reticle description, explanation, and testing
-Comparative optical evaluation
-Exit pupil and eyebox discussion
-Mechanical testing and turret discussion
-Close quarters testing
-Summary and conclusion
I think the first thing to discuss when talking about the background of this optic is its unadulterated military focus. Perhaps even more than the ACOG the Elcan SpecterDR is sight specifically designed for combat. In both cases the ranging elements of the reticle are entirely based on the human body with little or no mil, moa, or other generic stadia elements present. Both sights use chest width brackets in the same, now familiar, method for bullet drop and ranging. For its longer range drop lines the Elcan than switches to circles for less precise “area of fire” use. These circles are based on the height of a human at these ranges. Both of these sights have their bullet drop calculated for military rounds fired from common military rifles. In the case of the Elcan it can be purchased in 5.56mm 7.62mm flavor. The Elcan’s external adjustments can only be described as zeroing only so it is important to note that if you are compensating for bullet drop or windage the reticle will be your only aid. The windage and elevation knobs are not capable of being used in that fashion. The Specter DR 1/4x carries the somewhat cumbersome military designation SU-230/PVS in the SOPMOD Block 2 kit. It is also designed to be compatable with the AN/PVS-24 clip on night vision device. The SOPMOD version of the Specter DR has a slightly different reticle than the version imported by Armament Technology for civilian sales. I believe the imported version to have the slightly better reticle of the two. The reticles do not differ greatly.
The reticle in the SU-230/PVS-C version (The same reticle as the Trijicon TA01ECOS SU-239/PVS):
Design aspects and fielding history aside, there is another way in which Elcan is really a step further into the Military world even than the Trijicon, (who manufactures a line of hunting scope in addition to its ACOG and designed its ACOG without government dollars.) Elcan is wholly owned by Raytheon who’s primary business is cruise missiles, obtains more than 90% of its revenue from military contracts, and is the 5th largest military contractor in the world. I mention all of this because the gun community is large and diverse and it’s members buy rifle scopes for different intended purposes and hold widely varying political values. Know the purpose of this scope, its limitations for other uses, and from whence it came and make your decision according to your values and the merits of the optic.
This sight is a pretty strange looking contraption. I am not really sure where to start in describing it. About half the folks I show it too look in the wrong end first. I don’t even think its immediately obvious that it is an optical sight at all. It looks something like an obscure auto part that might be bolted somewhere on the engine. It is much shorter than most rifle scopes and has none of the controls located in the conventional locations. The optic consists of a single piece main tube attached to an arms throw lever base by the windage and elevation adjustments. This is quite unusual. while rare external adjustment scopes exist, such as the U.S. Optics SN-9, this is the first such scope I have seen that actually uses the adjustments to attach the main tube to the base. The quality of construction of the scope appears to be very high though quite unadorned. Finish is simple hard anodizing and care has been taken to apply thread locker to many of the external screws. I suspect all relevant fasteners have had this treatment though it is more apparent on some types of fastener than others. This is very much in keeping the practices preferred by the military customer. As for the weight, it is heavier than you would expect given its small footprint. However, its 22.7oz weight includes the mount and is less than most higher quality 1-4x scopes when mounted in a 6.9oz Larue LT104 mount. This is despite the fact that most of those scopes have a 24mm objective and the Elcan has a 32mm. The area of a 24mm lens is only 56% that of a 32mm. I do not consider the Elcan overweight. Rather, it is significantly lighter than comparable designs while delivering larger lens area. All in all the appearance of the Elcan, though unusual displays quality of construction and a clear focus on durability.
Reticle description, explanation, and testing (refer to the pic below while reading the description):
The Specter DR combines several elements most users will be quite familiar with in its reticle and provides that reticle in versions calibrated for the two most common military rounds (5.56 NATO and 7.62 NATO). The version I tested and have pictured is 5.56. All ranging must be done on 4x as this reticle is 2nd focal plain. The basic desingn of the reticle is a simple floating duplex crosshair but it has been embellished with a variety of ranging and bullet drop features. The ranging lines out to 600m are 19″ wide at the corresponding distance and are calibrated for the drop of 5.56 NATO from an M4. This is similar to the well known Trijicon system as well as that of several other makers. I tested the sizes and positions of these reticle elements on a calibrated target and they are correct. Below the 600 meter line is an additional 4 circles for further ranging. I was unable to find the exact specs for the position and size of these circles. I understand that a man standing at the correct distance can be roughly bracketed height wise. It is important to note that these ranging circles are set up for the M249 light machine gun and not the M4. The ballistics of these two weapons are significantly different at this range with the drop from an M4 being less than that of an M249. These circles are therefore higher than they would be if compensating for drop from an M4. Lastly, there is a 300-600m calibrated stadia section in the lower left of the reticle. This displays 30″ heights at the appropriate range. I have seen similar sections to this on many European sniper scopes (they typically use 1m.) These stadia sections can be used against a variety of sitting or standing human dimensions. Overall, I find this reticle to be a better than average stadia based ranging reticle. I will also mention at this point that the Elcan includes a set of back up iron sights on the top of the scope. Due to the external adjustment scheme of this scope they are theoretically zeroed in concert with the optics. This is quite unique for this type of sight. These sights sport a 4″ sight line similar to many handguns and I expect that is about the accuracy you would get. Still, it might be enough to get me to forgo full size backup sights to save weight.
Elcan Specter DR reticle with 5.56mm calibration and flash dot illumination
Comparative optical evaluation:
There are many, many good things to say about the Elcan here. As you can see from the list of comparison scopes I am ran this thing side by side with some very nice upper mid range stuff, the GRSC and Leupold, as well as one top tier full size sniper scope of considerably higher cost, the USO. I spent a good bit of time comparing the Elcan to the USO at 4x. It is very close though different. It has an even larger field of view than the USO which is already a whole lot larger than the other two. It has clarity that looks on parity with the USO at 4x in the center of the field though it shows more distortion towards the edges of its remarkably wide field. This is amazing clarity and the distortion is not very problematic at 4x because you are not trying to merge the images of both eyes at 4x. I have often said I would rather have a bit more field of view with distortion at the edges at high power than give up the view to get flatness. At 1x the Elcan does not distort things and allows for your brain to easily merge the images from both eyes. I also think that it is important to mention again here that the Elcan has a 32mm objective that offers almost twice the area of competing 24mm objectives. As a consequence of this it’s low light performance is easily class leading. The optics of this Elcan are quite impressive, in line with top tier European stuff.
Scope compilation photo with scopes set at high magnification:
Exit pupil and eyebox discussion:
Some old spec sheets I had found on the Elcan listed the 1x exit pupil at 28mm. Sometimes I don’t know how these numbers come to be. It is not that big. I measured it at 8mm and that is also the number on the current Armament Technology (the U.S. civilian distributor) literature. Interestingly, due to the unusual optical system this 8mm number only drops to 7.4mm at 4x and not 2mm. that is a huge 4x exit pupil but a small 1x exit pupil. This is something of the reverse of what you would desire. As I have mentioned in previous articles, exit pupil is the variable that corresponds best to, though not completely with eye box, the amount that you can move your head and still get a sight picture. Bigger is decidedly better at 1x where one will be when moving around and doing CQB stuff. The eyebox is not the best feature of the Elcan though it does feel a bit bigger than the numbers suggest it should. This is probably due to better than average forgiveness regarding head position front to back.
Here are the values I have measured for exit pupils that I have personally tested on various scopes so far in descending order of 1x exit pupil size.
Nikon M-223 1x, 16.7mm, 4x, 5.3mm
Viper PST 1x, 16mm 4x, 6.4mm
Razor HD 1x ,13.2mm 4x, 6.5mm
GRSC K 1x, 13.1mm 4x, 6.7mm
GRSCJ 1x, 11.2mm 6x, 4.6mm
Leupold VX-6 1x, 10.7mm, 6x, 4.4mm
Leupold CQ/T 1x, 9mm 3x 4.86mm
Elcan Specter DR 1x, 8.0mm 4x, 7.4mm
Another unique result of the Elcan Specter DR flip to the side optical system is a consistent eye relief regardless of power setting. In most traditionally designed scopes the eye relief changes with the magnification sometimes by more than an inch though often by only a half an inch. The DR exhibits no change, an obvious positive as no head movement whatsoever with be necessary.
Elcan’s illumination system is operated by a knob on the left hand side of the tube. This knob is the closest any control gets to the traditional position on this scope though it has a good deal more function than most other illumination systems. Dialed forward from off illuminates just the central dot. Dialed backward illuminates the whole reticle. There are 5 settings in each direction. These settings are sufficient for everything from night vision to daytime bright illumination. It is important to note that because the dim settings are adjacent to the off spot on the dial and no tactile indicator of dial position exists visual inspection of the dial or counting from an end point is necessary to make sure that the off selection has been reached unless you are using nightvision and can actually see those dim settings. The illumination dial also houses the battery and features a tethered cap to keep you from loosing it. The battery is a very unusual DL 1/3N size. I sent my wife had my wife do a little survey at a local hardware and grocery store and neither stocks this size. It is a bit uncommon.
The dot illumination on the Specter DR is bright. I mean it is Aimpoint, daytime, you will not doubt or complain bright. You want a 1-4x that is red dot bright here you go.
1x illuminated compilation photo:
Mechanical testing and turret discussion:
Much discussion has been had on the unique flip to the side lens system that changes the power of the Specter DR and has been claimed, by some, to cause larger than normal zero shift with power change. I have seen many claim large shifts with their Elcans and others have claimed none. Having tested a variety of scopes of conventional design I have found zero shift on virtually all of them regardless of 1st (supposedly immune) or 2nd (susceptible) focal plane design. The fairly large central dot on the Elcan did not allow the testing to be as precise as I had hoped for the power change test. You can see that the 1x group is larger than most of the 4x groups but that notwithstanding I saw a very small, on the order of 1 MOA shift. This is less than most scopes I have tested have and I find it easily acceptable.
Elcan Specter DR 1/4x power change test
As for the box test, I hesitated to even do one of these for this optic and I think the reasoning behind that hesitation is a good place to discuss the unique mounting and adjustment system on the Elcan. As I mentioned before, the Elcan attaches to its mount via its adjustments, which are external. This mount is limited to Picatinny rails and unfortunately uses A.R.M.S. throw levers which have difficulty fitting on out of spec rails and being MIM instead of forged have been known to break on rails that are to large…. They loose their arms from time to time. If your rails are not in spec or if you simply wish to have the flexibility of mounting your sight on other, out of spec, rifles you may desire to have the stock A.R.M.S. levers subbed out for MK II levers. This can be performed by the folks at A.R.M.S. The cost of this conversion is something in the neighborhood of $20. You can also have them send you a conversion kit to do it yourself.
The windage control is a 1/2 MOA click coin driven screw located at the front and on the side of the mount. The front end of the main tube is actually anchored to the base via this adjustment. The elevation adjustment is a large flat wheel located directly underneath the main tube at the rear of the mount. Like the windage, the elevation also anchors the main tube to the base. Unlike the windage, the elevation can be finger adjusted and also has a little locking lever to prevent accidental movement. These adjustments are for use zeroing the optic only and not for compensating for windage or drop.
Because of the uncomfortable positioning of the elevation adjustment and the tool necessity of the windage they are not well suited for regular use. They also are not accurate or independent according to the below box test. Given adjustments that display the right magnitude of movement and also only adjust the direction they are supposed to adjust each group should have the same positioning relative to its corresponding box that the first, upper left hand group, had to the first box. You can see this is not the case. This also does not matter because you couldn’t easily use the adjustments for drop and windage anyway. That is why I almost didn’t do the test at all. I was curious though so I did it anyway and I thought that you probably were as well so I have written it up. I found the adjustments functional for zeroing and the scope held zero fine but don’t get any ideas about using these controls for other purposes.
Elcan Specter DR box test:
Close quarters testing:
The Specter DR 1/4x was part of my very first formal close quarters testing exercise. have received many requests for opinion regarding which optics are the fastest at 1x. This lead me to start testing specifically to that end. The testing consists of a display of vital sized targets between 10 and 25 yards away that are engaged from a variety of positions as quickly as possible. The targets are audibly reactive making hit identification easy. It is not unlike some stages of 3 gun competitions except that, being as cheap as I am, I use an airsoft. The airsoft also allows for targets that move since having someone down range poses no safety hazard beyond welts. This course of fire was run though by several individuals of varying abilities in order to get as diverse a set of opinions as possible. In the future, I will be writing a composite article with generalized recommendations and guidelines for picking close quarters optics but for now I will be focusing more specifically on the Elcan.
A photo during our close quarters testing with a very ugly hat:
The specific scopes used as references in evaluating the Elcan’s close quarters performance were: a Leupold VX-6 1-6x Leupold CQ/T, GRSC 1-6x, and a cheap Simmons red dot. Individuals opinions of, and performance with each optic varied. This was especially true of the red dot, which rated as high as second for one reviewer but which was last for many. Testers were less split on the Elcan. It took home half the first place votes and never scored less than the middle of the pack. Overall it ranked second though I liked it best.
The Elcan’s performance was effected by a number of variables for the better or worse I will discuss the impact of each. The first thing to mention is that the remarkably bright red dot illumination of the Elcan was best in class and a great asset to the sight. It was actually brighter than the red dot sight used in the line up. All users chose to use the Elcan in this point illumination mode though it could also be used unlighted or with full reticle illumination. Not surprisingly, everyone agrees that a red dot is faster than no red dot.
The Elcan is also benefited by a very flat and generous field of view. No problems were noted by participants with eye synchronization when moving about with one eye looking through the scope and the other not. Poor eye synchronization is the number one variable when it comes to speed in CQB situation. A bent field or lack of a 1x setting is a non-starter. The good folks at Armament Technology sent me a Specter 1.5/6x in addition to this 1/4x. While its construction and optics are at the same level I did not find the 1.5/6x near as useful as the 1/4x. I was not alone in this assessment. I received these scopes directly from a military tester. They came to me with the 1/4x having an almost dead battery and the 1.5/6x a brand new one. I switched the batteries.
Another important factor in speed is having an aim point centered in the field of view. All refracting scopes exhibit this as a function of the optical system. The Elcan actually accomplishes this a bit differently than other optics but the effect is the same. Red dot sights to not necessarily have the dot centered in the field of view. In fact, it will almost never be centered and in the case of our example it was not even close. An off center aim point slows you down a good bit.
Not everything was completely in the Elcan’s favor. It suffered from two variables that slowed it down relative to its peers. The first, and most important was the cross hairs. The scope to Edge out the Elcan has mostly circular reticle elements and no cross hairs and though it had more reticle elements they covered a much smaller area of the field of view. The big crosshair the Elcan has doesn’t actually benefit the scope any and, due to the unique optical system actually wags at the user. Allow me to describe this unique phenomenon. With most refracting scopes as users eye moves within the eye box the image bends slightly but the reticle appears the same. With the Elcan part of the reticle actually bends. Specifically, the horizon line of the crosshair moves. It appears to be waving to you. Very strange indeed. This reticle was certainly not the most problematic in the lineup for CQB but it was not the best either.
The last difficulty for the Elcan was the exit pupil. It was smaller than any of it’s competitors and so head position was more critical. I thought that this would be a very large problem. In truth it was only a minor one. Exit pupil seems to have less effect than I originally anticipated.
Summary and conclusion:
If you have read this far and have some familiarity with the Specter DR you are probably quite baffled that I haven’t mentioned the easy and remarkably quick power change. For many people this is the reason to buy the Elcan. The throw lever is quite simply the quickest, easiest, and best power change mechanism. I think it is also illustrative of many of the features that Elcan has been able to become class leading in with this design. It not only has the best power change system but also the largest objective lens, shortest length, dramatically best field of view, and the best illumination system. It is also top shelf with regards to optical clarity.
The cost for all these bests is really fairly minor compared to the gains. It has limited system for adjustments and an A.R.M.S. base. It is heavier than many would like, though lighter than most comparable optics. It also has a very uncommon battery. Lastly, it sports only a 1 year manufacturers warranty despite it’s price tag of close to $2k. This warranty can be increased to three years by purchasing from Armament Technology, the U.S. distributor. No other optic even near this price range has so limited formal support though Elcan does provide repair services so breakage does not mean the end. The simple fact to remember, regarding the warranty, is that the Elcan is not made by a commercial company but rather by a military contractor. They are not in a customer service business.
There is little doubt in my mind that I would rather be deployed with one of these than an ACOG, red dot, or some combination of those. It is worth the extra 10 or so ounces. The Specter DR ranks very high on my list of 1-(n)x scopes. It is both truly unique and excellent.
Here is your pro and con breakdown:
Quickest, easiest, fastest, best power change operation
Largest objective lens in class for best low light performance
Largest field of view in its class by a substantial margin
Class leading daytime bright, night vision compatible, dual mode illumination system
Near the top in close quarters performance
Optical clarity on par with 1st tier European optics
Slightly lighter and much more compact than comparable optics
Integrated BUIS that are zeroed with the scope
Kill flash and clip on night vision can be purchased separately
Expensive at close to $2k
1 year warranty (or 3 year through Armament Tech) is much less than anyone else offers at this price point
Adjustments are zeroing only and are exposed to the elements
4x top magnification is less than most other scopes in this price range now offer
Unusual and hard to come by battery for illumination system