Before reading this article, I would highly recommend you to read my overview guide to the Leica M3 first. Following the runaway freight train success that was the M3, Leica felt the need to make changes to the model lineup in 1958, adding the M2 to the range (to be sold alongside its bigger brother). And therein lies the rub, to many the M2 is simply a lesser version of an M3, a young sibling riding on the back of the family name without making its own well-deserved way in the world. This is a view sometimes supported by the fact that the M2 was sold more cheaply when new and had less features than the M3.
However, although this is often the train of thought that many had with regards to the M2, in recent times it has perhaps begun to show through that this model is possibly as deserving of the spotlight for classic Leica body affections as any model. For starters, the claims of ‘budget M3’ really need to be addressed head on. Firstly, the Leica M2 is, in fact, really a late model single stroke M3 with a few differences. Its build is second to none and features the same legendary all brass construction, inside and out, from gears to top and bottom plates. It’s an M3 with a few things missing and some new tweaks, the idea of a ‘budget model’ from Wetzlar in the 50’s simply meant a few things left off or out but everything still made of the same amazing materials and screwed together to the same impeccable standards. There’s no difference in quality between an M2 and an M3. There was no shortcut, cost-cutting cheap and cheerful model available, that’s not how Leica did things in the 50’s.
The finder was changed from the M3’s .91 magnification to become the now ubiquitous .72 affair. This also allowed Leica to now fit a new frameline combination into it. It was still a set of three but the focal lengths covered had changed to become 35, 50 and 90mm. This choice was a reflection of how more commonly used the 35 was becoming and to allow for lenses wider than a 50mm to be deployed without the special ‘goggled’ M3 versions. This now meant that around this time, certain 35mm Leitz lenses were available both with and without the ‘goggled’ lenses, hence their more accurate nomenclature of ‘M3 version’ vs. ‘M2 version’ which isn’t always used with clarity today. Not all M2’s have a self-timer (although many do) but they typically all sport the frameline preview lever. Gone was the tidy little guard around the lens release button, never to be seen again. Also off the menu for this model was the magnified bubble window and automatic frame counter display. Leica here saved money by using a ratcheted, rotating, manually-set disc as a frame counter. It seems to be the subject of some debate these days, with people either describing it as something they can adapt to easily without a second thought or something that they simply can’t abide and even selling on the camera as a result, in extreme cases. I personally find it to be a complete non-issue and even a well thought out design (although the auto M3 version is perhaps a little easier as there’s nothing to remember when using it whereas the M2 version does require an occasional bit of forethought every now and again to keep it on track).
From the outside, the two models can easily be confused. The main thing to note is that an M3 its trademark raised edges or borders around the viewfinder windows as a first giveaway whereas the M2 is more flush with some recessing. The film counter will then tell you the rest of the story from there. The film rewind knob end of the body on an M2 is the same, old school knurled little fella that has to be gripped and twisted to rewind the film. This design sometimes draws heat when compared to the later angled knob rewind that first appeared on the M4 (continuing for twenty five years or so) but my take has always been that if this design was so off the mark, why did Leica eventually return back to it again decades later for the modern MP? Having owned both types, I can see the merits of each but think that I honestly prefer the older style. Shutter speeds were the same as the M3. Again M2’s were nearly all chrome and yes, you’ve guessed it, original black ones are rare and command a silly premium indeed. Film loading is the same as the M3 in almost every case apart from the very end of the production run where some of the modern system started to be phased in.
I think that if you like to mainly shoot a 35mm then you might not be too ill-advised in skipping an M3 altogether and just going straight down M2 street. The framelines are simple and cleaner for such a shooter and you lose nothing in terms of build quality and reliability. Any good M2 is just as good as any other good M3, there’s simply no point debating it too seriously. The second-hand prices of the M2 used to be quite a bit cheaper than the M3 (oh, they were happy times) but people have talked it up on the internet over the years and it’s become quite the star in its own right, deservedly so I feel. An M2 with a nice fast prime is a wonderful rig that brings smiles for miles. I personally think that this is best with some period correct glass that was made for it such as a Summaron 35, or an early pre-asph 35 lux… simply sublime. It’s also great with a nifty-fifty of course, it’s just that seeing as this whole model’s raison d’etre is arguably the 35mm lens, it just makes so much sense to run one that way. If you do try this, I am fairly certain you will never be left wanting or disappointed in any way whatsoever.