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Classic Irons

Classic Irons
A Bolt Peep Sight Installation.

Mankind has sought better sighting devices since shortly after the introduction of the rifled barrel. Most primitive iron sights were various combinations of blades and notches and probably worked about as well as the accuracy of the arms of the day justified.

However, by the middle of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was very much underway in both England and the United States. Enormous leaps in machine tool technology, steel and engineering led to amazing gains in the inherent accuracy of firearms. But this accuracy was only as good as the sighting systems of the time allowed. Naturally, the private sector led the charge and, in due course, astonishingly complex aperture sights appeared, many with very precise and sophisticated vernier adjustments. Telescopic sights were still in their infancy and didn’t offer much more in precision but went off the rails with distressing regularity.

While quantum leaps in optics occurred late in the century, sportsmen were slow to trust them. Both the British and Germans tended to fit their scopes with quick-detachable mounts so iron sights could be deployed in event of scope failures or conditions where the scope wasn’t up to the job. Even on into the age of smokeless powder and improved optics, riflemen were still uneasy and took a lot of comfort in high-quality iron sights. Not until the post-World War II era did telescopic sights gain real acceptance. Only then, did exotic iron sights start to fade away.

British gun makers were notorious for fitting wondrous arrays of folding shallow V-notch rear blades used with bead front sights. Fascinating as they were, they were also about useless unless you had especially good vision. I have a .360 Henry single-shot rifle with a front sight bead that can’t be more than 1/32 inch in diameter. Only on a good day can I see it with my myopic vision, excellent prescription shooting glasses notwithstanding. Evidently, I am not the first with such difficulties. Further, only aperture sights will enable aging shooters to again see the rear sight, front sight and target in apparent simultaneous focus.

gunsmithing 1

At one time, Lyman made all manner of sights including the bolt peep for a Mauser (above), complete with dovetail adapter plate. Simple lathe/milling machine fixture and grooving tool with an unaltered Mannlicher cocking piece. Alas, this is not really a home gunsmithing project unless you keep house with a lathe and mill.

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Iron sight makers have produced all manner of aperture sights. The British used a lot of these sights and tended to favor striker-mounted sights on their magazine rifles. The foremost maker was John Rigby who produced his own version. Devised and used mostly on his famous Mauser sporters, the sights occasionally found their way onto other magazine rifles, including the Mannicher-Schoenauers. I have a seedy M1905 model undergoing periodic improvements and wanted very much to install a Rigby bolt peep sight. While not especially rare, most seemed stuck to Rigby rifles.

So, I set about looking for one or at least a nice reproduction part. Just by chance, MAGNUM Magazine, published in South Africa, reviewed one produced here in the states by Rusty’s Action Works. Without an original with which to compare it, I can’t say how authentic it is, especially as I am aware of at least two or three Rigby variations. What I do know is Rusty’s part is a first-class piece of workmanship and similar enough in appearance and function to keep even the most discriminating sort happy. The machine work and polishing are almost jewel-like, to the extent I am not sure it will even make it into the bluing tank. Once regulated, adjustments are made instantaneously by turning the knurled adjusting wheel, which, through an ingenious eccentric pin and slot arrangement, moves with the aperture to a given range’s setting. Most were regulated for two or three ranges.

While the excellent instructions were for installation on a Mauser cocking piece, the installation on the Mannlicher cocking piece wasn’t especially complicated. Unlike the Mauser cocking piece which is easy to hold in a mill vise, the Mannlicher part was round with only a small square tab which I used to index it in the small, simple but critical holding fixture which did double-duty in both lathe and milling machine.

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The sight from Rusty’s Action Works is jewel-like in finish quality and functions as well as it looks.

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This Rigby-style bolt peep is original to this Mannlicher rifle.

Like most striker-mounted peep sights out there, the Rigby utilizes a dovetail to attach it. In the case of the Mannlicher, I wasn’t going to bugger up the lovely knurling or modify an irreplaceable firing pin so I made a small adapter, similar to those supplied with the Lyman bolt peep sights of yore, which soldered to the Mannlicher cocking piece. For additional security and precision in location, I machined a small groove in the rear face of the nut into which fitted a flange on the adapter plate.

The only trick in any of these installations is getting the peep aperture slightly below or at the existing line of sight. I can tell you that cutting a dovetail off-center is tricky and, on the next one, I’ll look to modify the sight body and aperture stem slightly to accomplish this. I have not yet regulated this sight but regulation is simple and Rusty’s instructions very complete and helpful. The end user will have to mark and cut the aperture stem detents as a part of shooting for regulation which is something best done on a milling machine.

When this old Mannlicher is done, up and running in good style, I’ll have a handsome period sporting rifle with a sophisticated period-style sight both interesting and effective.

Author’s note: I am looking for a Fraser bolt peep sight either to purchase or borrow to measure for some sketches with an eye to duplicating. These are pretty obscure and have so far eluded me. Be grateful to hear from any of our GUNS readers on the matter.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

Rigby-style Bolt Peep Sights
Rusty’s Action Works
186 Rectory Rd., Montross, VA 22520
rusty42marlin@nullyahoo.com
(804) 493-9370 5:30-9 p.m. weeknights only

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  1. Read this artical in April issue and my old eyes loved it!!!
    Liked it so much i posted it on Gun Forums, would love this sight on WWII collection, can’t afford Sniper models and will not alter my milsurps…ever!!Hope to call you as soon as funds allow,

    Thank You,
    Dale
    Thank you

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