Last week saw me heading to Absam in Austria as a guest of Swarovski optic. Since my move to Swarovski earlier in the year I have been astounded by the level of support I have received from them both in terms of products and information about the products. The products themselves are well known for their outstanding optical performance but even I was surprised how good they have been in so many different light conditions and situations having had nearly every bit of high end glass on my rifles at some point or another.
The purpose of the visit was largely for the benefit of the retailers, to give them an insight into the products, the whys and wherefores and how to pitch the product in an ever-increasingly difficult and price conscious market. For me it was an opportunity to find out more about the company as well as its products and coincidentally to get my hands on a pair of the new eagerly anticipated EL Range binoculars with a built in laser range finder.
It was due to be a fairly short but busy trip with barely a minute to ourselves, flying into Munich from Heathrow on Sunday followed by a bus ride to our final destination gave us a chance to strike up a few conversations. It transpired that the majority of the guests came from the bird watching and camera sector with the hunters, as they call them, being a minority. Interestingly the five of us from the hunting fraternity struck up an almost immediate accord, funny how a common theme can do these things, but with representatives from the Sportsman Gun Centre, Weldon Gun Room, John Bradshaw and the West London Shooting School we fell into an easy banter that continued for the duration of the trip.
Monday morning and the alarm sounded at 07.20, I’d left myself an hour to get my aching wreck in order for the day, unfortunately when I heard voices outside I knew something was amiss, a glance at my watch confirmed it, I’d put my watch forward but not my phone, it’s amazing what feats the human body is capable of when necessary and 10 minutes later I was boarding the coach praying that on arrival I could blag a coffee or some other such restorative – my prayers were answered and after a brief introduction and welcome, espresso and the ‘Black Doctor’ (Coca-Cola) was freely available, 30 minutes later the shakes had stopped and I began to feel human again.
The main theme for the morning was pretty much as I had hoped for, a thorough and informative presentation on the new EL Range, the range finding binoculars. It was at this point that I really started to understand the whole ethos and thinking behind Swarovski and their products. One of the questions I had in my mind which I needed answering was how the products commanded such a premium in the market. Before we got onto the range finders, we concentrated on the EL Swarovision, the binoculars I use. It is difficult to put into words the passion, dedication as well as the technology behind what is to most people just a pair of binoculars – the development of the EL Swarovisions is just astounding with each of the 150 odd parts being individually designed, tested, constructed and tested again before even becoming a saleable product and only then when it has achieved what it was designed to do, needless to say I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the range finders – I wasn’t to be disappointed.
The presentation on the Swarovision having ended we moved swiftly on to the EL Range. Having had combined range finders and binoculars before from both Leica and Zeiss, it is fair to say that optical performance has always been hindered by the inclusion of laser range finding capability with the Leicas field of view and colour rendition being badly affected and the Zeiss light transmission, edge to edge clarity suffering as well as being significantly more heavy and bulky. Swarovski have received some criticism in the past about not bringing a product to market sooner, something Zeiss and Leica have both cashed in on but it goes back to what I was saying earlier about the company ethos and in some ways my own – if something is worth doing then do it right in the first place. Swarovski have sat back and listened and learnt whilst developing a product that stands out from the rest.
Admittedly not all the technology could just be put into the range finders, the Swarovision and field flattener lenses could not be incorporated although several coatings have been included to give the best possible colour rendition and an astounding 91% light transmission as well as perfect edge to edge clarity and in all fairness it really does take a trained eye to tell the difference – but it is there.
Since changing to Swarovski some months ago and giving up a combined binocular/Range finder I have managed perfectly well. Most of my stalking situations do not require shots over 250 meters and much of my ground I know well enough to be able to judge the distances easily enough anyway but sometimes it is just nice to know! However, every now and then a situation arises when a range finder comes into its own and this is where the EL range comes into its own. Part of the technology incorporated into the EL Range is a system called Swaroaim – this is a compensating measure which calculates the angle of the shot, an inclinometer so to speak and makes allowances for this in the measurement – two readings appear, the top one being the distance either in yards or meters, the bottom one being the recalculated distance having taken into account the inclination. Now, for many of us who shoot over what I would call average ground where there may not be many valleys and mountains this may seem irrelevant but there are instances such as out on the hill in Scotland or when ranging down a steep valley where this can be invaluable. Again Swarovski have looked at other offerings such as the Zeiss ballistic program and have come up with a more user-friendly version. The other main improvement Swarovski have come up with is the similarity in design to their other binoculars in particular the EL Swarovisions – the only main difference in ergonomics between the two being the ‘fins’ on the underside which actually fit very snuggly into the palm of the hand aiding one handed stability and being considerably less bulky than other offerings.
Later that morning we were split into two groups, hunters and the rest. The hunters were given an in depth insight into the Z6I and in particular the Ballistic turret which having used the competitors offerings I can hand on heart say is the most accurate and user friendly available today, particularly now that the ballistic program is available as an App for IPhones and other devices – this will be of huge benefit to me at the range when clients bring a Z6I to set up!
After the product presentations we lunched with the rest of the staff at the factory before going back to the hotel to prepare for our afternoons entertainment. Prior to our visit we were informed that our itinerary was changing slightly, it was only when we arrived that we found out how. For the purposes of product testing there is a 100m underground rifle range but because the majority of the tour consisted of non-shooters instead of having a shooting competition we would be going on a nature walk – a nature walk, I don’t wear sandals and I don’t do quiche, a nature walk! However having spoken about the range to Daniel, the man in the know at Swarovski it turned out that we would be going up into the mountains to look for wildlife – including Moufflon and Chamois sheep and I could take a pair of the range finders with me to play with! Considering that I spend most of my life with a gun in my hand how could I be disappointed?
We were dropped off and introduced to our guides and set off on the long ascent – unfortunately what the guides were used to and what we were used to were very different and after about half a mile we had to admit that fitness was not our strong point coupled with the very warm conditions it made for pretty arduous work at some points. On the way up we were treated to some of the most breathtaking scenery and views and had several opportunities to stop and look around for signs of the elusive sheep. We continued the climb and after an hour and a half reached the highest point planned where we had the best chance of seeing some sheep and a fantastic opportunity to try out the binoculars. Unfortunately the hot conditions appeared to have driven the sheep higher up the mountains and it wasn’t looking good. The guide was all for giving up when I spotted a shape at which point he got his larger spotting scope out and sure enough when I had got it set up there was our Chamois – 937 meters away. Over the next half an hour a couple more came over the rocky precipices and came to within around 300-350 yards, close enough to observe more carefully, luckily the nearer ones were down steep inclines and the Swaroaim came into its own, shortening the distance to under 250 meters to allow for the reduced bullet drop. During our antics with the Chamois one of the group had spotted what was thought to be a golden eagle which subsequently turned out to be a buzzard – but when we pinged it with the range finders it proved that even small targets could easily be acquired giving us a reading of 308 meters.
During the long descent I had an opportunity to speak to the guide about the hunting in the area and how it is controlled – very differently to ours, with hunters having to pass strict tests before being allowed anywhere near the hunting ground which are also more tightly controlled than ours with state permits being issued or individual landowners issuing the same with numbers of animals to be taken being strictly controlled to include yearlings as well as mature ewes and rams – it just goes to show how lucky we are in the UK to be able to monitor our own populations of deer – I wonder how long it will last?
That evening having recovered form the ‘nature walk’ we were treated to a traditional Austrian evening with many specialties including food, drink and Austrian entertainment including yodeling and a bizarre array of instruments the like of which I have never seen before as well as copious amounts of schnapps, oh God the schnapps!
Bright and early the following morning (more early than bright!) we again headed for the factory for a tour around the inner sanctum, this was the part of the visit that would hopefully answer the lingering question – how can the price be justified?
We started with the main component to all their products, the glass. The glass is sourced from 3 suppliers to ensure a regular and consistent supply and rather interestingly is considered a commodity, like oil or wheat – a raw material if you like. It is how it is treated, cut, polished and coated that sets it apart. Every employee at the factory (around 650) are individually trained by Swarovski with all having served a 3 ½ year apprenticeship before being molded into a particular skill set – we joked about the crèche facilities on site for employees children going on to work there later in life – it wasn’t a joke! After this we were shown the processes by which the glass was turned into prisms and various lenses surprisingly involving a great deal of manual labour as well as state of the art machinery. Every process was explained to us from the design of parts to the manufacture of housings through to the individual inspection and testing of the finished prisms and lenses, the coatings and treatments and finally the assembly of the product.
After the tour it was evident from the mood of the group that every single person was astounded by not only the complex processes and designs involved but also the ethos and atmosphere that was evident in the factory and that clearly shows in every Swarovski product made.
Sadly, later that day we were flying back home with a brief stop in Innsbruck for lunch enabling us to enjoy a little more of the Austrian culture.
To sum up, I had gone to Austria with questions, not doubting questions, more curiosity as to how the premium price tag could be justified, I was also keen to see not only the range finding binoculars but see more of the development that had gone into them causing them to be so late to the market. In every respect my questions, curiosity and expectations were far surpassed – the only downside will be the very limited availability of the product to the UK market although I am assured this will improve early next year – now the big question, will I be changing my Swarovision for the range finders? You bet I will although I’m not sure when!
My thanks to Peter Antoniou, Christine Percy and all the staff at Swarovski for making us feel so welcome and making the unseen, seen.