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Iron Sights or Glass?

By Glenn Barnes

Iron Sights or Glass?

The morning sun spilled over the cactus-choked Texas hillside where I sat in a box blind hidden beneath an ancient mesquite. The stand provided a good view of several well-worn game trails leading to and from a feeder that spewed its contents twice a day, regular as clockwork.

About an hour after first light, a dainty little doe stepped from the brush, followed closely by a small 4-point buck. Both were headed for the breakfast buffet. Fifteen minutes later, the buck raised his head sharply and stared intently in my direction. I froze and stared back. When it became obvious he wasn’t looking at me, I slowly turned my head and spotted a buck that dwarfed the deer I’d been watching.

The regal buck wore an impressive crown sporting 10 fine jewels. He seemed to float across the cactus and rock-scattered ground as he headed toward the feeder. Apparently intimidated by the king, the small buck decided to quickly head for parts unknown. The dainty doe swished her tail, held her ground and continued to browse.

I raised my Ruger Super Redhawk .44 Magnum revolver, rested it across my pack and peered through the 2-7x  handgun scope. As luck would have it, the 10-pointer stopped, presenting a broadside shot at 50 yards. Thumb-cocking the Ruger’s hammer, I settled the crosshairs behind the buck’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger. 

The handgun barked, sending a 210-grain hollowpoint bullet on its way. At the shot, the big buck simply dropped from sight, thrashed around in the brush and lay still.

Iron Sights or Glass?
This quality Burris handgun scope on a Ruger Super Redhawk .44 Magnum revolver helps the author place shots with precision and confidence.

Today, more handgun hunters are using optics than ever before. When conditions are less than perfect, scopes provide a big advantage over iron sights.  If I’d been using open sights on my Texas hunt, chances are good I’d have missed that buck. About 15 yards in front of the animal was a small mesquite limb blocking the deer’s vitals. The variable scope set on its lowest power allowed me to spot the protruding limb and shift my point of aim.

More isn’t always better when it comes to handgun scopes. With powerful optics comes a decrease in field of view. This makes finding an animal through the glass a difficult task under ideal circumstances, and practically impossible when conditions are less than perfect. I prefer to keep the adjustment ring on my handgun scopes set at 2x or 3x for this reason.

Most handgun hunters limit their shots to under 100 yards. At this distance, 2x or 3x is more than enough magnification to enable you to place a shot in a deer’s vitals.

An added bonus of leaving your handgun scope on 2x or 3x is a noticeable decrease in perceived movement. The shake that comes from using a less-than-perfect rest or the heavy breathing and a pounding heartbeat you get from seeing a trophy animal is exaggerated with a scope set on its highest magnification.

Iron Sights or Glass?
Top quality aftermarket sights are avaialable for handgunners wanting to upgrade the open sights of their factory handguns.

Which reticle is best for handgun hunting is largely a matter of personal preference. I prefer the heaviest or boldest reticle I can find. Fine crosshairs work well when there’s plenty of light, but seem to disappear at dawn and dusk. Heavy reticles allow you to hunt longer.

Although there is no difference in the inherent accuracy between open sights and optics, it’s much easier to shoot small groups at extended ranges with a scope. When using open sights, you have to concentrate on three things at once - the rear sight, front sight and the target.  Throw in a few variables like imperfect vision, low light, rain or snow, and your chances of making a successful shot diminish greatly. The hunter using optics has to concentrate only on the crosshairs and the spot on the animal he wishes to strike.

With all the advantages optics offer the modern handgun hunter, why would anyone even bother using open sights? If most of our hunting is done from a stand, with a solid rest for our handgun, and we have plenty of time to place our shot, optics are the best choice. But as is often the case, hunting isn’t always this simple.

The Texas buck I harvested last year was part of a combination deer/hog hunt. After attending to the deer that morning, my guide suggested we try to locate a group of pigs he’d spotted the previous day. Back at camp, I swapped my scoped Ruger for an open-sighted Freedom Arms in .44 Magnum. After bouncing around for an hour or so in a pickup, we finally spotted a group of hogs dozing under a mesquite surrounded by waist-high cactus, no more than 200 yards away.

I slid out of the truck and attempted to stalk within range of the porkers. At 50 yards, one of the hogs noticed I wasn’t a natural part of the landscape, and shot out of the prickly pears followed closely by his compadres. I quickly drew the big Freedom Arms out of its holster, cocked the hammer and watched as the first pig speed through a small clearing in front of me. As the second hog came into view, I placed the front sight on his shoulder, squeezed the trigger and fired. The heavy cast bullet broke both shoulders, and he stumbled, crashed and fell.

For this type of hunting, a scoped handgun is usually out of the question. It’s practically impossible to track a fast-moving animal with optics that are wholly dependent on proper eye relief to see and shoot clearly. The open sights on the revolver saved the day by providing me with the ability to acquire the target quickly and place the shot with precision.

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Today!Today’s open sights are rugged and extremely well built. However, there are a few design features to look for. Many open-sight designs feature lines or bars to outline the rear sight blade along with colored front sight inserts for easier visibility. In truth, while they do look good and work relatively well at the range, they are often quite distracting in the field.

For this reason, all of my open-sights on hunting handguns feature a plain-black rear sight and an all-black serrated front sight. This allows an uncluttered view of a game animal with no distractions to hinder precise shot placement, while the serrations remove accuracy-reducing glare.

If optics were pitted against open sights in a contest, there would be no clear winner. Both offer the hunter advantages, but neither is the best choice for all situations. The savvy handgun hunter should keep both ready, selecting the appropriate sighting system for the job at hand.

This article was printed in the August 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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