By Clair Rees
Delightful to carry and shoulder, lever guns never were intended to be used with scopes.
Look around any hunting camp, and you’ll see few rifles not wearing a scope. Iron sights have gone out of fashion. They’ve been replaced by increasingly larger and more powerful magnifying optics.
That’s too bad, because iron sights are incredibly useful. What’s more, some rifles were never meant to be scoped!
Winchester and Marlin lever guns are nearly as popular today as they were a century ago. The .30-30 cartridge would have long since been abandoned if these slick-handling saddle carbines didn’t continue to sell. These rifles owe their amazing longevity to their easy-carrying, fast-handling balance. Adding a scope to a lever-action carbine turns a sleek firearm that’s a pure delight to carry into a clunky piece of machinery that feels awkward in your hands.
Created when riflescopes were almost unheard of, these exposed-hammer lever guns were intended to be used with iron sights. Countless deer, elk, pronghorn and other critters have been killed cleanly over open sights. And what worked a half century and more ago still works very well today.
I admit that many of the centerfire rifles I own wear magnifying scopes. That’s in deference to aging eyes and long shots that sometimes tempt me. But I’ve always liked iron sights and still use them every chance I get.
When I first started hunting, iron sights were an economic necessity. An eager but cash-poor teenager, I shot my first doe with a borrowed Arisaka rifle. I fed it Japanese surplus ammo with the jacketed nose filed down to expose the soft lead core. The coarse barleycorn sights were designed more for sturdiness than precision, but they did the job at 70 yards. It was five years later before I bought my first scope.
When I hunt high mountain country or open deserts where long shots may be called for, I often carry a scoped rifle. Y’know what? That scope is seldom needed. The vast majority of deer, moose, bear and other game I’ve taken in never mind how many years of hunting were less than 100 yards away when I fired.
Because your eye naturally centers the front sight at the strongest point of light, you can remove the screw-in aperture entirely and sight through the threaded hole.
For a recent Montana deer hunt, the outfitter told me to come prepared for long-range shooting. The scoped .300 Magnum I brought was sighted for a dead-on hold out to 280 yards, and a trajectory table taped to the buttstock provided hold-over info to more than twice that distance. I shot my buck offhand at 65 yards.
Because I prefer stalking closer rather than attempting “hail Mary” shots, that’s the kind of shooting I usually encounter. The longest hunting shot I’ve taken in the past five years was at a big-bodied Saskatchewan white-tailed buck contentedly browsing 100 long paces away.
Pronghorn? I’ve killed several of these gorgeous fleet-footed animals at ranges well shy of 100 yards.
My aging eyes aren’t as sharp as they once were, but I’m still confident of making clean 50-yard kills over a good set of open sights.
Be aware that not all factory iron sights are created equal. Some are rudimentary affairs supplied by the manufacturer in the full expectation they’ll never be used. The vast majority of centerfire rifles sold today leave the store with a freshly mounted scope attached.
All factory open sights have certain things in common. The rear sight typically features a horizontal flat-topped or tapered V-shaped blade with a shallow U-shaped notch in the center. The front sight consists of a vertical straight-sided blade with a rounded bead-shaped or squared-off top. The front sight may or may not be protected by a removable steel hood. Most rear sights allow rough adjustments in elevation, while many allow changes in windage. Corrections are made by moving the rear sight in the same direction you want the bullet strike to move. If the rifle groups left of the bull’s-eye, tap the rear sight to the right.
“Express” sights found on some big-game rifles consist of a series of gently sloping V-shaped folding rear blades, each regulated for a different distance. A thin vertical line centered on the face of each blade is designed to attract the eye and speed front sight alignment. For stopping a charge at close range, express sights are favored by many professional hunters.
In my opinion, the best open sights for non-dangerous game are the semi-buckhorn variety found on Marlin and Winchester lever rifles. The rear sight is step-adjustable for elevation, and can be drifted sideways in its dovetail for rough changes in windage. Old-fashioned full buckhorn sights sported large looping ears that curved inward on either side. These sights looked impressive, but covered up too much of the target.
A modern open-sight variation features fiber-optic tubing that outlines front and rear sights in vividly contrasting colors. Thompson/Center’s new .22 autoloader comes so equipped, and an increasing number of turkey guns wear similar sights.
To use open sights, you place the front blade on the target immediately below where you want the bullet to strike (this is called the “6 o-clock hold”). Then nestle the top of the front blade into the rear sight’s U-shaped notch. The trick is to position the front sight and rear sight together in exactly the same way each time you shoot. If the front bead rises too high in the notch, the shot will go high. Old-time shooters (I’m one of them) took a “fine bead”- with the top of the front sight flush with the top of the rear sight - for close targets, and a “coarse bead” (the front sight rising slightly above perfectly flush) for longer shots.
The big disadvantage of open sights is that they force the eye to simultaneously focus on the target, front sight and rear sight. The eye can’t accomplish this, so it compensates by rapidly shifting focus between these three objects. Young, healthy eyes can pull this off, but this ability fades with age. I once had little trouble shooting tight 100-yard groups with open sights, but time has reduced this “bragging group” distance to 50 yards. I can still kill deer at 100 yards (or more) over open sights, but I’m less confident of precise bullet placement at that range.
While open sights are nearly ideal on many rifles, I like aperture (“peep”) sights even better. Aperture sights are every bit as light and handy as open sights, but offer some very real advantages. In the first place, the rear aperture is typically mounted at the rear of the receiver (tang-mounted sights are even farther back). This creates a longer sighting plane, resulting in better accuracy.
Even more important, aperture sights don’t require you to try to get the front and rear sight in precise alignment. You don’t even look at the rear sight. Instead, you look through it. Simply focus on the front sight, and the wonderful laws of optics automatically center it at the strongest point of light. When you look through a disk, the light is always strongest at the exact center of the disk. That same principle applies regardless of aperture size. When hunting, I simply remove the screw-in aperture disk and sight through the hole it leaves. Nothing is faster than aperture sights - not even a low-power scope.
During Army basic training, my fellow grunts and I had little trouble hitting man-sized targets at 600 yards with peep-sighted M1 rifles. Scopes provide a brighter, sharper long-range image, but with aperture sights, I’ll happily shoot deer 200 yards away.
Reprinted from the September 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine