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The Case for Iron Sights

The Case for Iron Sights

Peep-sighted rifles are more accurate than you might think.

By John Haviland

For those who are wedded to scopes and consider iron sights relics of the past along with horse buggies and buffalo herds, bear with me. Iron sights still have many uses in the field. They are quick to aim, and with the correct type of sights, they’re close behind a scope in aiming precision. In addition, iron sights are rugged, weatherproof and can mean a lighter rifle.

Iron Sight Types

Hunters are most familiar with the two-piece open sights that come on many centerfire rifles and most .22 rimfires. The rear sight may have an angled base or a sliding step for vertical adjustment and requires drifting the sight in its dovetail for horizontal adjustment. Most of these rear sights have a leaf cut with a V  or U-shaped notch and wings that blot out most of a target and the area around it.

Aperture or peep sights are a step up in precision adjustment and are easy on the eyes. An aperture is mounted on a rifle so it sits close to the eye, which increases the sight radius for a precise aim. An aperture also improves focus because the eye doesn’t have to shift focus from the rear sight to the front sight and the target. Many aperture sights, like the Lyman 57, incorporate precise windage and elevation adjustments. This allows switching back and forth between different shooting distances and saves a pile of ammunition when sighting-in a rifle.

The first aperture sight I used was on a .22 rifle my uncle gave me when I was a boy. I wondered how I was supposed to see anything looking through that tiny hole. My uncle instructed me to pay no attention to the peep other than to look through it. The front sight and target both came into focus at nearly the same time, and all the world was visible. I squeezed the trigger, and a can rolled at the shot.

Front Sights

A variety of front sights have been developed to compensate for differing light, targets and eyesight.

The Daisy Model 99 BB gun of my youth had a globe front fixture that accepted different sight inserts. At first, my favorite was an aperture. All I had to do was place the target in the center of the circle and pull the trigger. It worked well on circle targets on paper. But when I lined up on targets at long distances, I saw the whole target.

I replaced it with a squared post with a flat top. The post provided more precise aiming, but covered up a large portion of the target. Finally, I put in a bead on a thin post. I placed the bead right where I wanted to hit on targets near and far (well, for a BB gun), and the slender post covered up hardly any of the target or surrounding area.

The Case for Iron SightsI’ve pretty much stayed with a front bead ever since. The one I like is a blade with a flat bead presented to the eye. If all shooting was done on sunny days, a black bead would show up fine against nearly any color target. But big game sticks to the timber shadows and moves in the dim light at the first and last of day. A front sight painted a bright color or sights of ivory, gold, brass or copper reflect light to help see the sight against a dim background and on game.

The brass bead on my Winchester Model 94 shows up fairly well in faint light. The trend is toward fiber-optic pipes that present a glowing colored dot.

I once owned a 1930s-vintage Winchester Model 54 carbine with a Redfield aperture sight and a front brass bead. Chambered in .30-06, that rifle would shoot honest 2-inch groups at 100 yards.

I loved hunting with the old Winchester. I especially liked hunting elk far from road’s end with the rifle. The peep sight weighed only a few ounces, which kept the gun light and compact. No matter how hard November blizzards pounded the mountains, the receiver sight was ready to use. A puff of breath quickly removed any snow that might catch in the aperture. The only waterproofing required was a wipe with an oiled rag at the end of the day. After hard falls on slippery talus, I checked to make sure the index marks remained aligned to ensure the sight was still set.

Shooting

How narrow of an aperture is too small? That depends on how close to your eye the aperture will be. A small-holed aperture mounted on a rifle’s tang or cocking piece can be easily seen through, but one affixed farther forward on the receiver requires a larger hole.

The Case for Iron SightsMost of my tang-mounted aperture sights have .093-inch holes, which is fine for casual target and field shooting. An aperture sight mounted ahead of the cocking piece of my Springfield Model 1898 rifle measures .078 inch. That smaller diameter 2 inches from my eye provides a clear view of targets at 100 yards.

I mounted a sight with a similar-sized aperture on my Thompson/Center New Englander .50-caliber muzzleloading rifle. The tang-mounted sight positioned the peep 2 inches from my eye. The rifle delivered 2- to 3-inch groups at 100 yards, so I decided to take it mule deer hunting.

The first morning, I spotted a buck standing in the shadows at the edge of some timber. The small-diameter aperture and front black bead provided an indistinct sight picture of the deer, and I squinted for a full minute at the fuzzy picture. Finally, the buck stepped into the sunlight, and there was enough light to see the black bead against the buck. I dropped him at 80 yards.

At home following that hunt,  I unscrewed the aperture disk from the sight and put it in a drawer, never to be used on a hunt again. I now use the .188-inch aperture. Targets and game appear much brighter and distinct in low light viewed through it.

XS Sight Systems’ Ghost Ring sights takes this large aperture a step further. The Ghost Ring comes with .191- and .230-inch apertures. Adjusting the sights is as easy as turning a screw for windage, and screwing the aperture up or down in its base for elevation.

The XS Ghost Ring is thick and stout, and would require the slam of a big rock to break. It’s also fast to aim.

After mounting  a Ghost Ring sight on my Winchester Model 94 rifle. I wondered how much aiming precision  was giving up, and I decided to find out. With the .191-inch XS aperture in place, I shot a 100-yard group that measured 2.24 inches. A group fired with the .230-inch aperture measured 2.73 inches.

I also shot few other rifles with iron sights to compare their accuracy with a scope’s. I was pleasantly surprised how well a CZ 452 .22 rimfire training rifle shot with a U-shaped rear notch and a front square post. At 25 yards, the CZ grouped five bullets in 1.25 inches. Most of the bullet spread was vertical, which indicated I wasn’t keep my cheek tight on the stock. While shooting a 100-yard group, I made sure my cheek and eye were in the same place for each shot. That five-shot group measured 2.17 inches.

A Remington 521-T .22 rifle with a Lyman 57 aperture and a black front blade produced a .45-inch five-shot group at 25 yards, and a .83-inch group at 50 yards.

A Springfield .30-40 Krag with a rear peep sight and a bead up front produced one .7-inch group at 100 yards, but others averaged right at 3 inches.

Subscribe Today!A Lyman sight on an old Winchester Model 94 .30-30 provided a unique comparison. The sight has a .077-inch aperture that can be folded down to reveal a .166-inch aperture. By loosening the elevation adjustment and locking lever, the sight can be raised to aim with the rifle’s original open sight mounted on the barrel.

I managed to shoot several groups averaging 2.5 inches at 100 yards. Groups aimed with the larger-diameter aperture averaged 3.5 inches. 

A Lyman 57 aperture sight works great on my Winchester Big Bore Model 94 in .375 Win. Exact click windage and elevation adjustments make the sight a breeze to sight-in. Shooting 265-grain cast bullets, the Big Bore .375 and the Lyman sight shot a 2.43-inch group at 100 yards.

Those iron-sighted rifles is certainly accurate enough to take small and big game at any reasonable distance and do so with a quick aim. You need not worry about weather or rugged conditions. And, sans scope, your rifle will weigh at least a pound less.

Reprinted from the December 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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