What is excellence? You may ask many people, and from each you will have a different answer. However, we feel that excellence applied to a product is when people strive to build the best they can, above and beyond of outside requirements and specifications; developing new ideas, new technologies, redefining quality and workmanship ahead of the current state of the art, pushing the envelope beyond what most would deem safe.
“Excellence is the result of caring more than others think is wise, risking more than others think is safe, dreaming more than others think is practical, and expecting more than others think is possible” (Ronnie Oldham). This is what, in our humble opinion, would be a possible definition of Excellence. And this, incidentally, is exactly how we would describe Hensoldt’s ZF 3.5-26x56mm variable magnification, long range professional and military riflescope.
We received a sample of this product directly from Hensoldt, now an Airbus Defense company (formerly EADS), complete with an IEA Picatinny 30 MOA canted mount. The manufacturer claims that the ZF 3.5-26x56mm riflescope has been developed based on the feedback of sniper requirements for long-range engagement, improving every area, and offering the pinnacle in any specification.
This optic offers one of the highest zoom ratios among available military riflescopes with unsurpassed optical performance, manages to be short enough (370mm) to be easily mounted on almost all rifles even in conjunction with night-sight attachments (such as the Hensoldt NSV-1000 or the thermal IRV 900), and the elevation turret features an astonishing 400 cm / 100 m adjustment range.
Additionally, the whole scope is ruggedized according to DIN ISO 9022 (salt mist) and to MIL STD 810 G; the scope is finished with a Type III Hard Coat anodizing process exceeding 8625 F military specification. It can be ordered in Matte Black or in Desert Tan. Many optional accessories can be ordered as well; proprietary mounts, specific 1064nm laser protection filters, yellow and polarizing filters, eyeguards, sunshade and ARD devices.
However, this level of performance has to be balanced with a few tradeoffs: the Hensoldt ZF 3.5-26x56mm riflescope appears to be not very compact, as it is 95mm wide and 85mm tall, and very heavy, weighing 1.3 Kg without mounting hardware. The maintube diameter is also an unusual 36mm.
The Hensoldt ZF 3.5-26x56mm riflescope comes in a plain white cardboard box, packed with the manual, a cleaning kit with a professional nylon pouch, objective covers and the IEA KH-S mount with 30 MOA cant adapter and 36mm rings, factory mounted and centered.
On a riflescope of this level, there is not much to discuss on appearance or design quality. Mechanical and optical performance, and ergonomics are the only benchmark; that, and whether the claimed specifications are true - apart from a few colorful comments among ourselves lifting the very large Hensoldt ZF 3.5-26x56mm out of its box (along the lines of, “boy is this thing heavy” and “we could use it in a bludgeon melee”).
Size and weight, however, should be mentioned since both ergonomics and complete weapon handling depends on it. The width and height of the Hensoldt ZF 3.5-26x56mm are considerable, and may add cumbersome bulkiness to smaller portable weapons, although when mounted on antimaterial and large caliber, long-range sniper rifles this may prove to be a lesser issue.
We had the chance to use it extensively as a spotter scope to try out its pure optical performance mounted on a test stock, in every weather condition and terrain, including direct sunshine, heavy rain, early morning with fog and mist, nighttime and more. Taking into account this scope’s outstanding 7.4x zoom ratio and equally outstanding field of view at each magnification extremes, the optical performance of the Hensoldt ZF 3.5-26x56mm is nothing short of ‘state of the art’. Few riflescopes managed to impress us this much: clarity and contrast are excellent, aberrations are nonexistent and definition is amazing.
And, at the same time, subtler optical qualities become obvious, such as how forgiving the eyepiece is in relation to scope shade. The large diameter eyepiece (equipped with a fast focus diopter adjustment ring with a -2.5 to +2 setting) allows to observe fully the image circle at all zoom settings without the annoying “tunnel effect” at low magnification and with a comfortable, wide and forgiving view at high magnification. Slight movements of the shooter’s eye do not cause scope shade in the eyepiece even at 26x. At the same time, eye relief does not change significantly at zoom extremes: claimed to be 90mm, the actual eye relief varies from 95 to 85mm from low to high magnification, less than 10mm, and allows for an accurate and constant shooting position at any magnification. The optical scheme reportedly uses AOS (Carl Zeiss’ Advanced Optics System, with Schott glass) and includes many fluoride glass elements.
The standard reticle that the Hensoldt ZF 3.5-26x56mm integrates is the MRAD Hash Reticle, notable for its “transparent”, fine line design, a hallmark of most Hensoldt reticles. It is very simple and clean, almost Spartan, compared to the ‘Christmas tree’ reticles used in most tactical scopes. Hashes are the standard 1 mil, each subtension measures 0.5 mil, and 0.2 mil finer subtensions are available inside the ‘bounding box’ style posts. The reticle is placed in the front focal plane; this means that it becomes almost invisible at the lowest magnification setting.
Firing up the illumination solves completely the problem, and the brightness is enough to make the reticle visible even in broad daylight, although the apparent size of the laser etched reticle at 3.5x makes rangefinding impossible. Other reticle designs are available upon request, although this may not be feasible for civilian sales.
The battery used is a 3V, CR123A Lithium cell, housed horizontally under the eyepiece. The smaller, coaxial knob on the parallax turret is pulled out to turn on the reticle illumination on, rotating this knob adjusts the brightness; a nice feature is that once adjusted, the setting will be retained turning off, and again on, the illumination.
A word on the perfectly braked parallax adjustment knob: to prevent disturbing the parallax setting, the force needed to rotate it is considerably more than the force needed to adjust the brightness. There are no distance markings on the parallax knob, only a generic 50< infinity repeated on the diameter of the knob.
For live fire testing in a shooting range, we mounted the Hensoldt ZF 3.5-26x56mm on a selection of firearms ranging in caliber from 7.62x51mm to .338 Lapua Magnum, and tested it on the range in different conditions and distances. We used well-known, high-end riflescopes, such as Hensoldt’s own 4-16x56 FF-LT, and others, to compare optical, mechanical and reliability performance. Mounting hardware in all tests is the original, Picatinny IEA KH-S mount with 30 MOA cant adapter. To be noted, that the scope has limited mounting space on the maintube, only 40mm on the forward portion of it, and this may limit positioning on the weapon integrated rail of the scope for eye relief purposes.
The turrets are very large in diameter, and are very easy to positively grasp and manipulate even with winter gloves. The double-turn, clockwise rotation, Zero Stop elevation turret features 180 0.1 MRAD clicks per rotation for a total of 36 MRADs, equivalent to 126 MOA.
The elevation turret also allows five additional clicks below the zero mark before ending the rotation, to compensate for different climate zones… so a total of 365 clicks are actually available.
The double turn feature of the elevation turret is very cleverly implemented: once a full rotation of the turret is reached, the shooter pulls up the turret and another full rotation is available. Even a single click past the 18 MRAD mark locks the turret in the ‘up’, second rotation position, and so no error is possible.
Having 180 clicks per rotation on the turret means that each click is extremely close to the next, and this is obvious looking at the turret markings.
However, the turret has an MTC (More Tactile Clicks) system, in that every ten clicks (at the whole MRAD mark) the force needed to rotate by one click the turret doubles, giving a very perceivable tactile feedback. So, it actually is very easy and quite fast, i.e. in complete darkness, using the felt feedback and starting from the first MTC click located at the zero mark, to count the number of whole mil clicks and then fine dial the 0.1 mil clicks to the desired value.
Considerable force is needed to rotate the turret, and double of that is needed at each MTC click, not only by design, but also because of the technical challenges to exceed some very stringent military specifications and tests.
As a consequence, each click is very stiff, more so than most competitor’s tactical turrets, but also extremely crisp and well defined, falling positively into each adjustment mark. The turrets track perfectly, and repeatability of each setting is absolute, and beyond our possibility to measure.
Using preprinted targets with caliper-precision measured scales, we found that the clicks are almost incredibly accurate at a measured distance of 100m.
An interesting fact about the elevation turret is that it has been developed, patented and licensed to Hensoldt by US Optics.
In our opinion, with the introduction of the Hensoldt ZF 3.5-26x56mm, a new benchmark for excellence is available. However, excellence always comes with a cost. Literally, in this case, as the price tag of the Hensoldt ZF 3.5-26x56mm riflescope is quite hefty: about 5500 € in Europe, and 6500 $ street price in the USA.
On the other hand, considering its stellar performance, quality, and the market and intended use of this riflescope, for many customers price may not be an object…