I was still wet-behind-the-ears in the accuracy game in the mid ‘90s when I first realized how complex magnified optics can be. My epiphany occurred during a complimentary “Optics 101” class provided to a group of new and old military snipers by Dick Thomas- then owner of Premier Reticles, Ltd. While the instruction boggled my young mind, eventually the salient points settled in and helped me understand the capabilities and limitations of scopes I’d come to rely on down the road. I paid a visit to Premier Reticles’ Winchester, VA shop several years later and received a refresher class from Dick’s son and current president /part owner, Chris Thomas. Three generations of the Thomas family have taken care of military and civilian shooters in similar manner and decades of shooters have Premier Reticles to thank for much of the technology their scopes incorporate, if not the actual reticles themselves. That this small company is thriving after 63 years in the very competitive riflescope market is testimony to their good work. To better understand how a one-man, home-based reticle repair shop became a full blown company making premium scopes on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s necessary to start at the beginning.
Robert "Bob" Thomas started Premier Reticles after WWII in response to the sudden need for repairs to riflescopes brought back from the war by American GIs. He's pictured here with a riflescope combo typical of that era.
The Early Days
WWII affected many aspects of life in America and few households remained untouched. While most able-bodied men were pressed into active military service, folks on the home-front made whatever small sacrifices they could. In addition to losing the man-and many a woman-of the house to the war effort, families contributed to scrap drives, planted “Victory” gardens, blacked out their windows at night and rationed coffee, sugar, silk and most items we take for granted today. Citizens with special skills deemed too critical to lose through front line service were kept stateside to make war contributions in classrooms, labs, factories and civil service jobs.
The meat and potatoes of a vintage Norden bomb sight, pictured here inside Premier Reticles' current Winchester, VA facility.
During WWII, Robert “Bob” Thomas’ profession placed him squarely among this group. Bob began working on optical lenses for the Navy in Washington, DC shortly after graduating from high school in 1938. By 1943 he was a master lens maker and had transferred to Milwaukee, WI. His employer, Perfex, made lenses for the Top-Secret Norden bombsight; a device so secretive that aircrews using it swore an oath to defend its technology with their lives. Bob’s skill and attention to detail placed him in charge of the Norden’s optical manufacturing efforts. This aiming device was considered one of the wonders of the war, with many B17 and B24 crews crediting their successes with the sights’ accuracy. In order for the Norden to function properly, a telescope was trained on the target, tracking it until bomb release. In later models, the Norden actually flew the plane’s auto-pilot on the final run in to target. Only the highest quality glass was acceptable for so important a mission and a Norden Bombsight was even used to guide the Enola Gay for its drop of the atomic bomb “Little Boy” over Hiroshima on April 6th, 1945. In addition to working his craft for Perfex during the war, Bob met his future wife Gladys there, who worked on the shop floor polishing lenses and mounting prisms.
Post War Beginning
After the war, Bob left his job at Perfex and returned to his home in West Virginia. Tapping into his pre-war and wartime experiences, Bob gave birth to Premier Reticles in the same way most businesses start: servicing an unfilled niche. Many GIs returning from European battlefields brought back German riflescopes. Though generally of good quality, these scopes commonly fogged or suffered broken wire reticles and soon Bob Thomas was busy resealing and repairing them. Competitive shooters found the heavy German reticles too thick for precise aiming and since no other companies would work on these optics, Premier Reticles also became the go-to company for reticle retrofits.
Use of spider web for reticles required the amazing process of "milking" an Appalachian brown spider for its web, then spooling it for future use.
The actual reticles Bob developed are a story unto themselves. The glass reticles of the 1940s couldn’t be etched finely enough for practical use and were difficult to keep clean during manufacturing. Bob tried all manner of mechanical reticle materials and finally found his solution in Mother Nature. How he came up with the idea of using spider web is unknown, but eventually he found that the web of a brown spider, native to the Appalachians, proved to be the ideal “crosshair” material. This web was 30 times finer than a human hair yet it was strong enough that Bob could emplace dots along the stadia using a proprietary method that’s guarded to this day. Bob Thomas figured out that if he agitated the spiders, they’d spin enough web to be spooled for later use. Though the first scope he worked on was a veteran German Hensoldt, Bob began getting requests from scope manufacturers to do original equipment (OE) reticle work on US and other foreign-made scopes. In time Premier became the largest provider of mechanical reticles in the world. Naturally, this required a larger supply of material than Bob could find tramping around the woods and hills of the Virginia borderlands. For several years Bob’s spiders were able to keep up with demand but business simply became too brisk for the eight-leggers to manage. Another problem he found was that the spider web decomposed over time, so a replacement material was sought. Though it was used until the 1950s, natural web was replaced in that decade by a material known in the Thomas family as “quartz wire”.
Bob Thomas eventually switched to a tungsten wire blend that Premier uses to this day for their wire reticles. When the US Army adopted the Redfield sniper scope in the 60’s, Premier’s reticles were installed in all of them. It’s believed that some USMC scopes of that era may have also carried Premier reticles. Bob continued his work retrofitting individual scopes and manufacturing OE reticles for nearly every riflescope manufacturer in the world through the 1970s. Tragically, Robert Thomas died as a result of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident in 1978, ushering in an unplanned new era for Premier Reticles.