Argus C3

camera Argus C3
type rangefinder
film 35mm, 24×36mm
producer Argus, Inc. / IRC
place Ann Arbor, Michigan
country USA
date 1939-1966
units +2 million approx.
shutter Ilex leaf shutter
speeds 10, 25, 50, 100, 300, B
lens Argus Coated Cintar 50mm ƒ/3.5
mount Argus C screw
rangefinder coupled, separate window

English is not my native language. Please, contact me about any grammar or spelling mistake, thanks!

The Argus C3 is probably the most popular camera of the so called American way of life. Made during almost thirty years, it's a very nostalgic piece of American history. It was an upgraded version of the Argus C and Argus C2, adding a rangefinder gear and flash synchronization.

The Argus C3 was a low cost and good quality camera. It was a sales success from the very begining and a fierce competitor against similar American cameras, such as the more expensive Kodak 35 RF and the Perfex.
The best rangefinder cameras were imported from Germany, but they were very expensive. By 1940 an Argus C3 with flashgun cost $30 (today's $500 worth!), while the cheapest Leica was about $140, the cheapest Contax $190 and a Retina was in the $50-120 range. The Argus C3 was built as a mass product while achieving a good quality and featuring some specifications not so common at that time, i.e., built-in and coupled rangefinder, interchangeable lenses and internal flash synchronization.

Although sometimes considered as an ugly and unreliable camera, its low price and the rising interest on 35 mm format (especially after the introduction of the Kodachrome in the thirties) made the Argus C3 an instant sales success in the amateur photographer's market, something remarkable for an independent maker. I don't feel that the Argus C3 is an ugly camera. Actually, I love its unique design, so square and full of rounded dials, knobs and gears. Did I mention that the camera was nicknamed The Brick?

Are you worried about using your old Argus C3 camera today? Read the manual and start shooting film with it! I've managed to use it twice with astounding results.

“To Argonuts, the C-3 is a thing of a beauty. To others not so mitten, it is, at best, a utilitarian tool that they'll grudgingly admit takes adequate pictures. It was not the "best" miniature camera on the market, nor was it the simplest or least expensive. It was, however, the most commercially significant 35mm camera produced in this country. That distinction it still holds.”
— Henry J. Gambino, Argomania [1]

“The public seemed to be captivated by its scientific appearance. This surprising fact was turned up by informal surveys taken by competitors who queried dealers, salesmen, and customers in an effort to determine the secret of its success.”
— Kalton C. Lahue and Joseph A. Bailey, Glass, Brass, & Chrome [2]

“The unbeautiful Argus C3 and its later brother the C33 were produced in vast quantities in the USA, and, with coupled rangefinder, an adequate-quality ƒ/3.5 coated lens and ruggedness akin to builder's wheelbarrow, performed tolerably well in their youth. Be warned, however, that they rarely perform well now, and are not to be recommended for taking pictures, although as a doorstop or paperweight have much to recommend them. [...] The omnipresent American Argus models were (and in some cases are) worthy if ugly cameras, but nobody could accuse them of being masterpieces of engineering.”
— Ivor Matanle, Collecting and Using Classic Cameras [3]

“Possibly only with the exception of the French Verascope stereo camera, [...] no independent maker had ever achieved the marketing success of the Argus C3. It sold over 2 million oblong, boxlike cameras during the next twenty-five to thirty years.”
— George Gilbert, Collecting Photographica [4]

“Although built down to a price, it was still a serious 35mm camera, not just a box.”
— Roger Hicks, A History of the 35mm Still Camera [5]

“Not technically advanced, not expensive, and certainly not rare, but a landmark camera nonetheless.”
— Brian Long, 35mm cameras [6]

“Once it's nicely cleaned up it becomes a very pleasant camera in spite of its awkward ergonomics, as well as a conversation starter; and it takes pretty good pictures too. [...] Okay, no jokes about "IF it works". The Argus C3 is actually quite a reliable camera and I think rather nice looking in its unique way, though certainly not an ergonomic masterpiece.”
Rick Oleson

“Argus Cameras thoroughly documented 1940's and 50's America due to their sheer overwhelming numbers. Their legacy is priceless memories of family and friends long gone by.”
Stephen Gandy

“A classic solid shooter.”
Matt Denton


The Argus C3 has two separate finders: the viewfinder itself and the rangefinder. The first one is used to aim, while the second one is used to focus with the aid of a split image. The bottom half image moves horizontally as you focus the lens. In order to focus your subject, you have to join top and bottom halves. First versions had this bottom half with a blue or green dye, but it seems that they were soon replaced by a yellow dye.

The rangefinder of the Argus C3 is coupled to the lens through the idler gear. That means that you can focus the lens either by turning the rangefinder dial or the lens itself. In my opinion, this is a very simple and yet effective rangefinder mechanism. However, after the years the focus usually become stiff and hard to use, but Rick Oleson has proved how much this can be improved after a good clean and lubrication.

Kalton C. Lahue [2] reports that lots of C3 cameras were returned to the factory for rangefinder adjustment: “The rangefinder assembly was mounted on a mechanical plate, which was then inverted for insertion into the camera. The mechanical plate was a thin piece of metal which formed part of the top of the camera and was so positioned that, when the user grasped the C-3 firmly [...], the pressure flexed the mechanical plate. Repeated use tended to throw the rangefinder mechanism out of line. Argus received approximately 50,000 complaints a year about the C-3 rangefinder.”
If this is your case, Rick Oleson and this service manual explain how to adjust it yourself.


The Argus C3 is equipped with a three-blade leaf shutter. There are versions with five, seven or ten different shutter speeds, but never faster than 1/300 second.
It was designed by Ilex (patent US2176621) and has been sometimes referred to as Micromatic [2]. 

Unlike other leaf shutters, this one is placed behind the lens, not between the lens elements. This allowed more space to build the shutter mechanisms inside the body and also allowed for interchangeable lenses. For a detailed explanation on how the shutter works, check this Rick Oleson's page.

You must always turn the shutter speed dial in the direction of the arrow (counter-clockwise), otherwise the mechanism can be damaged. The extra tension when setting the slowest speed is normal. 

The shutter needs to be cocked before each exposure by pressing the shutter cocking lever. Pressing the shutter release button will fire the shutter at the desired speed if the instantaneous mode is set. You can shoot in B mode by rotating the shutter release button from the I (instantaneous) to the B (bulb) position.

Be careful about double or blank exposures, this camera has no double exposure prevention mechanism. I always recommend to wind the film right after a photo has been taken. To do that, hold down the film catch, turn the winding knob about a quarter of a turn, release the film catch and continue winding as far as the knob will turn.


The Argus C3 was fitted with an Argus Coated Cintar 50mm ƒ/3.5. Prewar versions had the non-coated Argus Cintar. This anastigmat triplet was at first supplied by Bausch & Lomb, Ilex and Graf until Argus took over the Graf company in 1938 and started manufacturing its own lenses [1, 2].
Some rare versions sold in the UK were named Minca Cintar. Researcher Phillip G. Sterritt had never seen any example before, until I myself found a C3 Minca Cintar camera in eBay and told him about it. None of us bought the camera, but at least it cleared up a mystery.

The screw mount allowed the use of different lenses, such as the wide angle Argus Sandmar 35mm ƒ/4.5 and the Tele-Sandmar 100mm ƒ/4.5 made by Enna Werk in Germany and imported by Geiss-America. Bausch & Lomb offered a 75mm ƒ/5.6 lens and a 350mm telephoto lens. In 1954 two Japanese lenses were imported under the Soligor, Fujitar and Robin brand names, a 135mm ƒ/4.5 and a 35mm ƒ/3.5 [1].
In order to remove the lens, the idler gear must be unscrewed first, see how.


Argus itself provided some accessories for the C3: wide-angle or telephoto viewfinders, flash guns, selenium exposure meters, filters, lens shades and cases. The largest range of accessories specifically for the Argus C3 came, however, from lots of third-party manufacturers: clip-on viewfinders, close-up equipment, extension tubes, diaphragm controls, wind knobs, self-timers, flash extension cords, underwater housings, stereo attachments, parallax correction devices, double-exposure prevention devices, etc. There were available even accessory shoe attachments for the early C3 versions that didn't come with one. The Argus Collectors Group lists some of these accessories and Henry J. Gambino [1] provides several examples.


According to the BBC show The Genius of Photography (third episode), the American soldier Tonny Vaccaro used an Argus C3 during World War II in Europe. He remarked the advantage of such a small camera, compared to the larger press cameras used in the 1940s. He could have his 36-exposure-loaded Argus C3 in one hand and his rifle in his other hand.
During the war he developed his own films using found chemicals in a destroyed photo store in France and using his helmet as a developing tank, obviously waiting until complete dark night.

The word "argus" comes from the ancient Greek. The root arg- means shiny or shining. In fact, the silver chemical symbol, Ag, stands for argentum. Argus was also the name of the giant Argus Panoptes, a mythological and effective guardian with one hundred eyes who served the goddess Hera. In English the word "argus" describes a sharp-eyed, vigilant or watchful person. Well, that's a proper name for a camera, isn't it? Probably the Russians thought the same, because the name of the Zorki cameras has the same meaning!

A newspaper called The Ann Arbor Argus was published in the late 19th century in the same city where the Argus cameras would be born later. It was also the name of a counterculture underground paper printed between 1969 and 1971.

The March 1953 issue of the Argus Eyes, the newsletter of the employees of Argus, contains some interesting information about the Argus logo (page 6).



This camera was designed by Gustave Fassin, a Belgian optics designer moved to the US in the 1920s. He worked for Kodak and Bausch & Lomb in Rochester. He started working for Charles A. Verschoor, president of the International Radio Corporation (later known as International Research Corporation and later Argus). In 1936 he designed the Argus A, Argus' first photographic camera and first sales success. Later, Fassin designed the Argus C as well as an enlarger, a printing easel and a slide projector.

Gustave Fassin made such a good design that the C-series cameras remained almost unchanged during their entire lifespan. It should have been quite shocking to find a prewar designed camera in the retail stores of the mid-1960s. Camera technology changed a lot in the 1960s, but the Argus C3 kept being the same camera. In fact, it was covered by a lifetime guarantee! They did know how to make cameras, didn't they?
Later Argus cameras were improved with brightline viewfinders (Argus 21) or combined view/rangefinders (Argus C4), but none of these new features were added to the C3.

The original Argus C of 1938 had a rangefinder not coupled to the lens. The very first version had a lever to switch between fast and slow shutter speeds, but it was soon replaced by a second version with a more simple and reliable shutter without any switch. The Argus C2 was born also in 1938 adding just an idler gear between the rangefinder dial and the lens. Adding internal flash synchronization turned an Argus C2 into an Argus C3, and that's how it was born in 1939.
Argus C
Picture by AADL (CC-BY-SA)
Argus C2
Picture by AADL (CC-BY-SA)
An early Argus C3
Picture by AADL (CC-BY-SA)

The first Argus C3 had ten shutter speeds (between 1/5 second and 1/300 second), a Weston film speed reminder and chromed pieces.
Over the years the Argus C3 remained almost unchanged, but there were several small changes concerning internal mechanisms, shutter speeds, lens apertures and external design.
Some of the internal changes can be seen in this Phillip G. Sterritt's website. It seems that the main body was made of molded bakelite (phenolic resin) and the rest of the pieces were made of metal. The shutter became progressively simpler, from ten to just five speeds in the latest versions.

In 1942 Argus ceased civilian production and contributed to the war effort by making military equipment. There wasn't any special military Argus C3 version, although a service manual seems to have been provided to the US Army. Some soldiers, such as Tony Vaccaro, managed to use an Argus C3 after the Normandy landings.

The production of the Argus C3 was resumed in 1946, adding a coated lens and a standardized ƒ-stop scale. Previous versions had bizarre apertures, such as ƒ/3.5, 4.5, 6.3, 9, 12.7 and 18, but they got standardized to modern ƒ/ stops (3.5, 4, 5.6, 8, 11 and 16).

Some chromed pieces were eventually replaced with black plastic ones, probably to cut expenses. Some other minor pieces (film catch, shutter release, coupling gear...) had also different designs.

The Weston film speed reminder dial on the back was changed to the ASA standard around 1948, but sadly this beautiful piece was removed in 1955. The back itself had different designs: with two chromed lines or just plain.

By 1950 a very beautiful Argus nameplate was added in the bottom left corner. Around 1955 the Color-Matic setting system was added. This was just a color coded system to suggest shutter speed, aperture and distance combinations. For example, you should match the yellow values (1/50s, ƒ/6.7, <15 ft) for outdoors with color film and the red values (1/100s, ƒ/8, >15 ft) for b/w film. The green value (1/25s) was intended for flash synchro.

In 1957 an accessory shoe was added. There are some previous versions that actually have an accessory shoe, but they seem to have been added later on request.
Argus C3 Standard
Picture by AADL (CC-BY-SA)
Argus C3 Match-Matic
Picture by John Kratz (CC-BY-SA)
Argus C3 Golden Shield
Picture by John Kratz (CC-BY-SA)

In 1958 was introduced the Argus C3 Standard. Apart from some redesigned knobs and dials, the main change of the Standard version was the lens barrel, completely redesigned. According to Gambino [1], by that time Argus had been taken over by Silvania Electric and the new management probably wanted to give a new look to their long-lived camera.

Along with the C3 Standard, in 1958 also appeared the Argus C3 Match-Matic, very similar to the Standard, but with a beige and black finish and a selenium LC3 exposure meter. Besides, instead of the common ƒ/ stops and shutter speeds scale, the values of the C3 Match-Matic were coded in a EV scale. There was also a quite rare version with a silver Mylar finish, the Argus C3 Golden Shield. This deluxe version was produced for the Golden Shield Corporation to be sold in jewelries.

When the Argus C3 was discontinued in 1966 it was the only Argus camera that remained in production. It never got superseded by any other Argus camera. The Argus C4, “arguably the best camera that Argus ever built” [1], was made in lower quantities and discontinued in 1962 in the form of the C44R. The Argus C33 and the Autronic series, both different attempts to modernize the C3, never became popular with the public and were also discontinued.
Argus C4
Picture by AADL (CC-BY-SA)
Argus C33
Picture by AADL (CC-BY-SA)
Argus Autronic
Picture by AADL (CC-BY-SA)

According to Lahue and Bailey [2], there had been several attempts to discontinue the Argus C3: “The sales curves of the C-3 were like a Coney Island roller coaster. Sales would dip to an almost-zero level, and Argus would announce the camera's demise. Panicky dealers would then stock up with the remaining supply to ensure stock of a slow but certain seller. To fill these orders Argus would have to schedule another production run, and so it went for years”.

According to Argus specialist Phillip G. Sterritt, Argus built between 2,220,500 and 2,296,000 C-series cameras. About 1,829,000 of the total were Argus C3 models, most of them (+1,6 million) made between 1945 and 1957.


This classification is based on the excellent book Argomania by Henry J. Gambino. Some manufacture dates and units made are based on Phillip G. Sterritt's researches. As Gambino says, “There are so many little variations that trying to catalog the evolution of the Argus C-3 and its many variants is a lot like trying to chart the human genome. It is difficult to characterize each and every variant of the Argus C-3. The transition from one variant to the next was seldom orderly, many coming as the factory ran out of existing parts and manufactured new ones.”
Needless to say, the following information is approximate and exceptions do exist, but until a more accurate classification is achieved, this one is good enough to begin with.

Among the several minor changes, I've only remarked the ones I consider more important, i.e., shutter speeds, Argus nameplate, exposure counter, shutter cocking lever and film speed reminder. There are detailed images of each version in this highly recommendable Chinese blog.

My own C3 is a 7th version made in 1957, recognizable by the accesory shoe. Serial number, engraved inside the camera, is 1596xxx. For more information regarding serial numbers and manufacture dates, check Sterritt's site.

camera version date units notes speeds
(in fractions of a second)
Argus C 1st 1938-39 2,000 Slow-Fast speed lever. Very rare. slow: 5, 10, 20, 30, 50
fast: 75, 100, 150, 200, 300
no chrome chrome no
2nd 16,000 No Slow-Fast speed lever. 5, 10, 20, 30, 50, 75,
100, 150, 200, 300
Argus C2 1st 1938-41 71,000 Rangefinder idler gear added.
2nd 1941-42 7 shutter speeds. Weston film reminder. 10, 20, 30, 50, 100, 200, 300 Weston
Argus C3 1st 1939-40 79,000 As C2 1st version but with flash synchro. 5, 10, 20, 30, 50, 75,
100, 150, 200, 300
2nd 1940-42 As above, but with 7 speeds. 10, 20, 30, 50, 100, 200, 300
3rd 1946-48 1,600,000 Coated lens and standardized f-stops. black
4th 1948-49 As above, but with ASA film reminder. ASA
5th 1950-54 Argus nameplate. Black frame counter. yes black
6th 1955-56 Color-Matic system. 10, 25, 50, 100, 300 no
7th 1957-58 Accessory shoe added.
Argus C3 Standard 1958-66 +150,000 New design. New lens barrel design.
Argus C3 Match-Matic 1958-66 +300,000 As above, but beige-black finish.
Exposure meter. EV scale.
4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (EV) chrome chrome
Argus C3 Golden Shield 1958-? +2,500 As above, but silver finish.


US Design 110,516
Gustave Fassin. IRC Corporation.
Photographic camera
Filed June 1938
Theodore M. Brueck. Ilex Optical Company.
Shutter mechanism for pocket cameras
Filed August 1938
US 2,298,107
William F. Carr. International Industries.
Filed December 1939
US 2,298,787
Gustave Fassin. International Industries.
Filed December 1939
US 2,397,546
Clinton H. Harris. Argus, Inc.
Camera shutter
Filed October 1941
Other Argus patents


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Instructions manuals

Repair, service, disassembly, clean


[1] GAMBINO, Henry J. Argomania: A Look At Argus Cameras And The Company That Made Them. Aeone Communications, Doylestown (Pennsylvania), 2005. ISBN 0-9770507-0-X.

[2] LAHUE, Kalton C. and BAILEY, Joseph. Glass, Brass, & Chrome. The American 35mm Miniature Camera. University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 2002. ISBN 0-8061-3434-8.

[3] MATANLE, Ivor. Collecting and Using Classic Cameras. Thames and Hudson, London, 1993. ISBN 0500276560.

[4] GILBERT, George. Collecting Photographica. Hawthorn/Dutton, New York, 1976. ISBN 0-8015-1407-X.

[5] HICKS, Roger. A History of the 35mm Still Camera. Focal Press, London & Boston, 1984. ISBN 0-240-51233-2.

[6] LONG, Brian. 35mm Cameras. The Crowood Press, Ramsbury (England), 2007. ISBN 978-1-86126-948-5.

GAMBINO, Henry. The Argus Museum: Ann Arbor's Hidden Treasure.
Available here: Gambino-ArgusMuseum.pdf [Hosted with author's consent].

KUZYK, Hrad. 35mm For The Proletariat: A Modern User's Guide To The Argus A/A2 Camera. Hrad Kuzyk, 2007. ISBN 0615144888.
Available at

Text and pictures, unless otherwise noted, by Daniel Jiménez Chocrón.

First edition: 30 Jan 2013. Last update: 30 Oct 2014.

Published under a Creative Commons BY-NC License.