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Understanding Open Sights

By Richard Mann

Understanding Open Sights

There was a time when no glass came between a shooter’s eye and his quarry. As optical sights became more affordable and reliable, they were so embraced by hunters that manufacturers almost quit installing open sights on big game rifles.

However, interest in using open sights is on the rise. This is due to the growing popularity of cowboy-action shooting and a nostalgia for hunting with classic guns. Competitors in cowboy-action events have discovered that, with practice, they can shoot pretty darn well without glass.

My father hunted with an open-sighted Winchester Model 100 and never had a problem filling his deer tag. I watched him shoot groundhogs at 200 yards with that .243-chambered gun.

One day, I convinced Dad to let me put a scope on his Winchester. He gave me a good blessing out when he missed a chance at a big buck because he could not find it in the scope. Needless to say, the scope came off that rifle.

It’s likely that many hunters born after 1975 have never fired a rifle without a scope. While practicing at the range, I’ve been asked by young shooters, “How do you hit anything without a scope?” They look at the rifle, point it downrange, shake their head and hand it back to me.

Open sights have several great attributes: You almost never have to worry about them losing zero, they never fog up, snow or rain never obscures the sight picture, and they cost much less than any dependable riflescope.

Understanding Open Sights
These diagrams illustrate the proper sight picture you should see when using the above styles of open sights on a circle target. This confuses some shooters because they assume the aiming point is the center of the circle. You aim at the bottom of the circle because it is easier to line up the sights at that point. Your bullet should strike the bottom of the circle, not the center.

When adjusting open sights, always move the rear sight in the direction you want the bullet to move. For instance, if your bullet lands to the left of the aiming point, move the rear sight to the right. If the bullet lands below the aiming point, move the rear sight up. Adjustments for the front sight are the opposite; move the front sight to the left, and the bullet’s impact will shift to the right.

There are basically three types of open sights: blade and post, aperture and peep. Most hunters are familiar with the blade and post style. Some even come with fiber-optic inserts for better visibility in low light. Rear blades may have an oval or a square notch. Some front sights have a round bead; others have a square-topped post.

Blade and post sights offer the least opportunity for good accuracy. With plenty of practice, however, you can still make lethal shots on big game at normal hunting ranges. I prefer a square-notch rear sight and a square post front to any type of bead sight because they’re much easier to align.

When you look down the sights, you should see a sliver of daylight on either side of the front post as it rests in the rear notch. This allows the eye to automatically center the sight. If you prefer a bead, you should still strive for a bit of light around it. If your rifle has a front bead that’s too small or too large to suit you, you can find replacement sights for most any model. Brownells also offers a good selection of replacement and aftermarket open sights.

Unlike blade sights, an aperture sight is mounted on a rifle’s receiver, putting it much closer to your eye. These sights are very fast to get on target because your eye automatically centers the front post in the rear aperture. A properly sized rear aperture will look almost fuzzy as you focus on the front sight.

Most quality aperture sights like those manufactured by XS Sights allow you to select the hole size most suited to your eye. One of my favorite whitetail rifles, a .358 Winchester built on a Charles Daly action, is equipped with XS sights. I’ve used that gun to shoot groups under an inch at 100 yards from the bench. (Yes, I had witnesses.)

Peep sights have a limited application in hunting because their small holes are difficult to see through in low light. They are very accurate, however. A wise hunter will install a barrel-mounted blade sight that can be folded out of the way when he wants to use the peep sight. In low light, the peep sight can be folded down and the barrel sight flipped up. It is a great sighting combination and one that was popular on Winchester and Savage lever-action rifles in the early 1900s.

Subscribe Today!Becoming proficient with open sights requires practice, and you should always use a target with an easy-to-see aiming point. For most open-sight work, I use the Dead Center target from Thompson Targets. By pointing the tip of the front sight at the point of the “V,” it’s very easy to establish a repeatable sight picture. If Thompson Targets are not available where you live, you can make a similar target with a black felt-tip marker.

Make sure the target is large enough to clearly see at the distance you’ll be shooting. That’s at least 6 inches at 100 yards, but 8 or 10 inches is even better. And don’t aim at the center of the circle or square; aim at the bottom.

Open sights are fun to hunt with and are a great backup to a riflescope in quick-detach rings. Several years ago, I dropped my deer rifle on opening day and broke the scope’s objective lens. It was a perfect morning that I didn’t want to waste. The scope was mounted in Leupold QD rings, so I removed it and put it in my hunting pack. The rifle was equipped with open sights, and in less than an hour, I pointed at a white-tailed buck that ended up in my freezer.

Reprinted from the September 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine

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