British binoculars from the 1950s and 1960s

A selection of British binoculars from 1946 to 1975

British made binoculars from the 1950s and 1960s are the best kept vintage secret. At the time firms such as Ross, Barr & Stroud and Wray struggled to compete against German and Japanese imports. They turned out well-made binoculars which were just too expensive in the highly competitive market.

Today, collectors focus on military binoculars or German made Zeiss binoculars. British made civilian binoculars from this era are largely ignored. Most benefit from coated lenses, a significant advance over pre-war glasses, and can offer top quality optics at bargain basement prices.

Bird watchers and amateur astronomers are starting to realise this and forums are beginning to buzz with questions about Ross Stepruvas or Barr & Stroud CF18s.

Grab yourself a bargain now, whilst they are still cheap!

Brief history

In the war years, UK binocular manufacturers concentrated exclusively on making military equipment. After the war they quickly switched back to civilian production. Most produced slightly updated version of pre-war models.

At the time, British made binoculars were an important part of our export drive and a Barr & Stroud binocular, the CF18, was chosen for the Britain Can Make It Exhibition in 1946. Unlike other exhibits, the Barr & Stroud binocular was by no means a new product. The company first introduced the design in 1929.

Barr and Stroud CF18 binocular, 1946

In the late 1940s British manufacturers enjoyed a modest boom as other countries, particularly their main competitors in Germany, were not in a fit state to market products effectively. The market-leading German firm of Zeiss found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. However, American soldiers helped some Zeiss personnel to escape to the West before the new boundaries were drawn and two rival Ziess firms set up in business, one in the GDR and one in West Germany.

The British firms, Ross, Wray, Barr & Stroud and Kershaw concentrated, as they always had, on the top end of the market, producing high quality binoculars with prices to match.

They did little to push home their advantage over Zeiss and for the most part continued with pre-war designs. One modification they did make was to upgrade old designs with coated lenses. This was a Zeiss invention from 1939. It reduced unwanted reflection in the binocular and allowed the maximum amount of light to reach the eye.

In the 1950s and into the early 1960s binoculars were an exclusive and expensive product. In the 1960s only 0.2% of families had a pair (1). Whilst 20% of families had cameras, 20% had telephones and more than 75% had televisions.

There were some attempts to widen ownership by British firms. Both Ross and Wray launched cheaper ranges in 1957, the Ross Solaross and the Wray Wrayvu. Both ranges started at around 20. Before then you needed to pay much more for entry level binoculars by the top UK firms.

Ross Solaross binoculars introduced 1957

Both Ross and Wray benefited from these new models and saw sales and profits rise. There was clearly a demand for cheaper glasses. In the 1950s and early 1960s this demand was met by French imports and by MOD surplus binoculars.

The Consumer's Association Magazine, Which?, reviewed binoculars twice in the 1960s; in 1960 and again in 1969. In both reports they concluded that quality was proportional to price. British manufacturers were getting the quality right. Which?, never made allowances for home produced products, but praised the Wrayvu and Solaross in 1960 and gave the Barr & Stroud CF18 and CF24 binoculars best buy status in the most expensive category £35 to £50.

However, the sweet spot in the market was at the £20 level. With the growth in leisure and foreign travel, more and more people wanted binoculars, but could not afford British products. What the UK market wanted was slightly lower quality optics for a much cheaper price. In 1965 British consumers got their chance when the UK Government lifted restrictions on the import of Japanese binoculars.

The Japanese binocular industry had risen from nothing in 1945 to a world class standard by 1965. The Germans had been less worried about Japanese imports, but by 1963, 82% of all binoculars sold in West Germany were made in Japan. UK makers did not stand a chance.

Japanese made glasses were good quality. The Japanese Government carefully controlled the quality of exported goods and only those which earned the 'J' symbol of quality were allowed to export. A favourable exchange rate also helped.

Initially Japanese binoculars were sold anonymously as 'Binoculars from Japan'. You could get an 8x40 binocular made by a good Japanese maker for 17 17 6d in 1966. No quality UK glasses were anywhere near this price. By the end of the decade names like Swift, Asahi Pentax, Canon, Yashica and Tasco were well known to British consumers.

One by one British manufacturers went out of business. Barr & Stroud ceased the manufacture of binoculars in 1971, preferring to concentrate on defence contracts, Wray also bowed out in 1971. Ross soldiered on until 1975, when the factory in Clapham finally closed.

The main reason why British manufacturers did not succeed was that they failed to provide the quality the market wanted at the price it wanted to pay. This does not mean that they did not make not excellent binoculars.

Today you can buy vintage British binoculars from the 1950s and 1960s at rock bottom prices. There is little interest from collectors, but bird watchers and amateur astronomers have already realised the potential of British made binoculars from this era.

If you are after top quality optics at reasonable prices then search for Ross, Wray, Kershaw and Barr & Stroud products on eBay. You might still find them going for just a few pounds at a car boot sale or charity shop.

Manufacturers

  • Ross, based in Clapham closed 1975 - see guide to Ross models and Ross Solaross range.
  • Wray, based in Bromley, Kent ceased manufacture 1971 - see guide to Wray models
  • Barr & Stroud of Anniesland, Glasgow, ceased manufacture 1971 - see guide to Barr & Stroud models
  • Kershaw, based in Leeds, ceased making binoculars in the late 1940s

Binoculars from Japan

From being almost unknown to the British public in 1965, a large number of Japanese manufacturers were selling binoculars by the end of the 1960s. The following list is of Japanese makers selling binoculars in the UK in 1969:

  • Concord
  • Greenkat
  • Frank-Nipole
  • Tohyoh
  • Hilkinson
  • Yashica
  • Swift
  • Canon
  • Asahi Pentax
  • Tasco

Source: Which? published 5 June 1969 and contemporary advertisements.

Values

Binoculars in working condition, free from major faults and good cosmetic condition:

  • Barr & Stroud 6x24, 6x30.5, 8x30.5 - £20 to £50
  • Barr & Stroud 7x42, 7x50, 10x50, 12x50, 15x60 - £40 to £100
  • Ross Solaross (except 16x60) - £15 to £40
  • Ross Solaross 16x60 - £40 to £60
  • Ross Stepruva 9x35 - £20 to £50
  • Ross Stepvue 8x30 - £30 to £50
  • Ross Stepmur 10x50 - £30 to £80
  • Ross Stepsun 12x50 - £30 to £80
  • Ross Enbeeco 13x60 - £40 to £50
  • Wray Eleven 11x60 - £25
  • Wray Nine 9x60 - £25
  • Wray Wraylite 8x30 - £15
  • Wray Wrayvu - 8x40 - less than £10
  • Wray Magnivu 8x30 - less than £10
  • Wray Clearvu 8x30 - less than £10

Shop on eBay for:

Top tips

Avoid binoculars with optical faults

Avoid binoculars with any of the following problems:

  • Collimation faults - double vision
  • Mould inside the binocular
  • Damage to lenses
  • Loose lenses
  • Lenses that need cleaning inside the binocular

Many of these faults are listed by eBay sellers; I would avoid these and look for binoculars with no faults. These faults will be expensive or impossible to fix, unless you are an expert.

References

(1) The Times, March 1967

By Steven Braggs, May 2014

Add your comments

"hi can you help trying to find history of a pair of claranden binoculars were the farther in laws who was a seaman on the atlantic and russian convoys
any info will much appreciated thanks" bruce worthington 14/07/2015
"Hello,
One very sad reason for our binoculars makers vanishing is they were sold and asset stripped.

This is the single reason for the downfall of these superb companies." John Noble 16/01/2016
"The destruction of a company as described by Mr. Noble has been a common reality in the US since the Age of Reaganomics. I, however, suspect that the unwillingness of manufacturers to improve product when they had an advantage over competitors and also British adversarial labor-management relations and a tendency to favor an educated (meaning from "public" schools) element with the right connections in administrative roles are the true causes for the decline of the British optical companies as well as of other sectors of British industry. I also noticed the absence of Dollond from the list, although there are several of its binoculars for sale on eBay." Richard Nash Creel 21/03/2016
"Hi Richard,
Thanks for your comment. I agree with you about the British binocular industry. A strong case in point is the Barr & Stroud CF18 pictured above. It was displayed the Britain Can Make It exhibition in 1946, but the design dated to before the War and it was still being sold in 1969. West German Zeiss on the other hand were innovating and were able to charge premium prices.

The real problem for the UK was that it failed to compete with Japan on price and with Germany on quality." Steven 22/03/2016
"I have a pair of Wray Magna-Vu bought some fifteen years ago on eBay for $70 as an example of a British industrial product. They had some haze and proved to be difficult to clean and reassemble, but now they are ready for use. Comparing them, however, to two pairs of Japanese Stellars 7x35, indicates that the Japanese product is clearer and ages better. There is a list available on-line of Japanese binocular manufacturers from the age of emphasis on exporting, and it is amazing in its number. There are many "generic" items out there available for a song which are of excellent quality for ordinary users. Long before the concept of kaizan become known in the West, those Orientals were busy making good products and improving on them as they went." Richard Nash Creel 22/03/2016
"I recently purchased a pair of Stellar 7x35 and compared them to a Wray Magni-Vu 8x30. The Japanese pair were clearer and aged better, as the Wray set proved difficult to clean and reassemble. On-line information about Japanese makers and their codes reveals an astounding number of businesses involved in this line, something evocative of workshops staffed by colonies of ants. As with cameras, they made so many that prices are low due to little value as collectibles, but as users, they are (not just the Stellars, not by a long shot) well worth choosing as did people many years ago. It wasn't just in price that the Japanese beat the Germans." Richard Nash Creel 22/03/2016
"For a list of Japanese optical manufacturers and their product identification codes, see home.europa.com/~telscope/jbcode.t. The length of the list is amazing and explains the success of the Japanese and demise of the British in this field. German quality versus Japanese prices should not be exaggerated, as Nikon, Canon and several others have and still demonstrate their superiority in the manufacture of top-quality cameras. The Germans, by sticking to luxury goods (in binoculars) are defending a position that their competitors will eventually conquer, if they so please. The lower and intermediate markets will be taken by the Japanese and Chinese." Richard Nash Creel 23/03/2016
"Can anyone list British binoculars makers from World War II on? I have encountered Watson Baker, Hilkinson and Curry and Paxton, but it occurs to me that there may have been more. As I noted in my fist post, Dollond was not mentioned with Barr and Stroud, Ross, Wray and Kershaw, although it stayed in business longer than the fourth of those, even appearing in ads in the Countryman for sellers from the 60's. Searching in the Internet is something akin to looking for a needle in a haystack...of needles! Thanks for yout help." Richard Nash Creel 05/04/2016
"Whilst clearing out my father-in-law's house today, I found his Greenkat 10x50 binoculars. The optics are excellent. They now sit proudly next to my Nikon 8x50 bins." Alan Rogers 27/04/2016
"I bought a pair of...as were labelled. ...sporting binoculars today. No brand name or spec details but they have 'The Ascot' on the end of each eye piece. Work on, not great magnification so are definitely for sports. Objective end 50mm. Any info?" Nigel Lavender 24/08/2016
"would you be able to tell me if theres any worth in 2 binoculars we have? could I send you pics via email? thanks" nick 20/10/2016
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