Iron Sights In The
Field Still Work!
By Sam Fadala
Sometimes a great-sounding idea is like the poet’s little mouse where “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” In other words, sputter like a match tossed into a rain puddle. Two of my friends had such a plan. They were overweight, having a tough time managing the mountains. So they decided to dump pounds. Incentive was high. Their wives promised new rifles if goals were reached by Christmas — this was June. They went on a vegetable laxative (Metamucil) diet, figuring that this stuff had no real food value, but would provide that full feeling to cope with hunger. Santa brought neither gent a new rifle. I wondered if my plan to remove the scope from a big game rifle for a “peep sight” would also “gang aft agley an’ leave naught but grief an’ pain for promis’d joy,” as the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote.
Mr. Clean Sweep, my .30-06 that accounted for numerous one-shot kills including a Cape buffalo, finally had to go. I missed only one pop with that rifle. Wait for it — a bull moose making haste through the timber. I shot an innocent pine tree instead, second bullet breaking the bull’s neck. As a possible replacement for Mr. Clean Sweep, a pre-64 Model 70 Winchester .30-06 came to the fore, a rifle of great success in Africa and the USA. I dressed the old classic with a Swarovski 2-12X lighted reticule scope and immediately tagged a buck antelope at rangefinder verified 430 yards. “This must be the rifle,” I said. Then one day I found myself working canyons at 9,500’ elevation on a tree-studded mountain. I am no fan of ultra-light rifles, but the 70 was putting a bit of strain on ye olde shoulder.
Sam prepared his Model 1895 .45-70 for black timber elk and bear
hunting with an XS Sight Systems Ghost Ring aperture rear sight
coupled with a White Stripe front sight — fast and accurate.
On another afternoon in the stratosphere, sun flirting with the western horizon, I found myself working back toward my vehicle parked below. With no more than 30 minutes of shooting time left, I caught sight of a bull elk peeking at me from a patch of black timber. There were antlers looming behind the bull. Wait to see if the other bulls would show? Or shoot? One quick turn and the bull and his pals would be gone, fading up-mountain into failing light. The range was 125 yards I learned later by rangefinder. Pow! The bull wheeled downhill — good, closer to the road — then burned right back uphill … bad. At the shot, a huge 7×7 stepped out to see what the thunder was all about.
The Model 70 was worth the packing after all. But wait a minute. That rifle was back home. I had traded it for a Kimber 84L, also .30-06, with a 180-grain E-Tip bullet handloaded to a chronographed, not guessed at, 2,950 feet per second Barnes No. 3 Manual.
I knew the bull was mine, but before I could look for him, here came two hunters I had met earlier. “Hurry!” I waved. The 7×7, antlers touching almost to its rump, had simply ambled uphill with two companions. “There he is,” I pointed. The hunter got down, began to put his bipod into action. The big bull moved slowly uphill. We followed again and again. But no shot and legal shooting time elapsed.
This Lyman tang sight folds into battery for longer-range
shooting, while the standard open iron sight serves for closer ranges.
Lightweight Big Rifle
The 84L won the job, a lightweight with “big rifle” handling characteristics. Contrary to what I had read, it printed groups at a 100 yards well under 1” center to center, most running nearer a 1/2”. The fine Model 70 was put on the backburner. I have a Swarovski 2-12X scope mounted on a McGowen custom .240 Gibbs, pitching a 95-grain bullet from the intriguing dodecagon–shaped barrel at 4,000 fps. That super accurate rifle deserved the super scope. Meanwhile, the Kimber’s Leupold 1.75-6X was replaced with a dot reticule Leupold 2.5-8X—2.5X, low power for timber and brush, 8X when buck, bull, or boar presented itself across a canyon. But what about the fine old Winchester? What role would it serve? “Hey,” I thought, “Sometimes metallics make sense. Why not turn the Model 70 into a tight timber and dark thicket rifle with peep sight?” Why not indeed.
I enjoy reading the adventures of 19th century hunters, and I’m always a little surprised at some of the long range shooting these blokes accomplished with open irons or aperture sights. For several years I have carried a rangefinder, taking a reading if not before the shot, then afterwards. The Leupold rangefinder takes the guess out of range. The old-timers did not carry rangefinders that I know of, so some of their 400-yard pokes may have been more like 250 or even less.
Lynn Grant of Elk Mountain, Wyoming, shoots an original Mauser Model
98 8mm with open iron sights. Practice makes possible some pretty good
shooting with the non-telescopic rifle sight.
On the other hand, I have watched today’s marksmen, especially the black powder cartridge boys, cluster bullets into much smaller than deer-size targets at 1,000 yards—with metallic sights. I wasn’t looking for that kind of duty. Mainly, the no-scope Model 70 .30-06 would serve for black timber mule deer and elk, whitetails and boars in heavy brush. What I had forgotten was how accurate the aperture sight could be at longer ranges. I would learn that again. A micrometer Lyman 48WJS would match the vintage of the 1950s Model 70. I attempted to win one of these out-of-production sights on-line bidding, but to no avail. On a whim, I decided to ask Frank Wells, the talented Tucson custom rifle maker, if he might have a 48WJS in his parts pile. He did. He cleaned it up and sent it. Perfect. Although the original stock on the 70 had been fitted with a new one, no wood had to be removed to fit the sight.
The higher “scope” comb of the replacement stock forced me to crunch down in order to line up the peep sight. Refinishing the stock cured that problem. I removed the target type small aperture that came on the 48WJS for a Williams Twilight Aperture Series .093” “hole,” providing plenty of pinpoint accuracy potential with a better view of the target. While there is no metallic sight that can command the superior target discernment of the modern telescope, which is the best the world has ever seen, I own several rifles fitted with open irons and peeps. One of the more remarkable is a Winchester Model 69 before the A model. This neat bolt-action repeater has a fixed rear open rear sight, entirely non-adjustable for elevation. But if you miss a squirrel with that little .22, boot yourself in the behind—it was your fault.
Sam had to remove the Monte Carlo style comb from the replacement
stock of his pre-64 Model 70 .30-06 because it placed his face too high to
gain a clean view of the Lyman receiver sight that went on the rifle. The
lines marked on the stock indicate the approximate wood to be cut away.
One of the problems that can be encountered with metallic sights is a
comb designed for a scope.
While so utterly simple, the open rear iron sight can be quite effective. This
one is non-adjustable for elevation, although it can be drifted left or right in
the dovetail notch for horizontal adjustment. It’s on one of Sam’s favorite small
game rifles, a Model 69 Winchester .22 before the bulkier A model.
The sights on this original Mauser Model 98 are open iron but
with a great latitude of adjustment with a sliding bar for
vertical bullet movement on the target.
Metallic sights dominated the shooting world for ages. Some must have been the result of midnight imagination after a snoot full of grog. But even the most radical of these odd ducks beat the little lump on original muskets, such as the Brown Bess the Redcoats fired at the “Colonials.” Greener’s 9th Edition of The Gun does not show a truly credible sight until relatively modern times. Interestingly, the author applauds Lyman’s No. 1 aperture sight by comparing the “target picture” to a Deep V and Open V rear sight. The illustration on page 660 of this book is spot-on. The peep “picture” does not blot out the target.
In Africa, my main outfitter, Johan Wolvaardt of Sand River Safaris, backs up his Cape buffalo and elephant hunters with a .460 Weatherby or .470 double rifle. Both have a very shallow V-shaped rear sight and simple post up front. Neither rifle provides pinpoint definition of the target or close bullet grouping, not even at 100 yards. However, that’s not their duty. These rifles are fired at very close range only, often on a moving target intent on turning somebody into antipasto. These basic open iron sights are right for the job, although having said this, when I am in a position to protect a client as I guide in Africa with my PH license, my rifle wears a Swarovski Z6i 1-6X scope, the lighted reticule turned on.
In keeping with the theme—metallic sights, sometimes—I find the scope on my PH rifle just as fast as an open sight, with a better “aiming point” being that glowing dot. On the other hand, I have two barrels, .50- and .54-caliber, on a Markesberry muzzleloader, the first with scope, the second outfitted with ghost ring rear sight coupled with white stripe post up front. I have not taken the scope version of this rifle into the field for years. Within what I limit myself with this rifle, up to maybe 150 yards, this sight is all I need and all I want.
The same sight resides on a Marlin .38-55 Cowboy, as well as a handsome Marlin 336-A .30-30 totally refurbished to like new. These rifles, along with a half-magazine Marlin .32 Special sporting a Lyman receiver sight, are perfect where I hunt whitetail deer.
Original steel Lyman 48 WJS aperture rear sight with micrometer
adjustment capability, now residing on Sam’s pre-64 Model 70
Winchester .30-06 for black timber and thick brush/thicket
hunting; but also capable, if the situation calls for it, of delivering
good bullet placement at longer ranges.
This is an open rear sight with considerable elevation adjustment
by moving the upper part of the sight along a “track.
Failure with metallic sights in this enlightened iPod 21st Century stems from unfamiliarity, the glass aiming instrument prevailing. In fact, I’d bet my artificial gold Obama commemorative coin there are many modern shooters who have limited, to zero experience, with open or aperture sights. An otherwise rather bright gun writer of the past warned against scopes because they “magnify shake.” I find this a positive trait of the scope, magnification revealing steady and unsteady. And so the shooter knows if the reticule in the scope is doing the jitterbug all over the target, a better “hold” is necessary. The metallic sight does not offer this advantage.
That is why shooters must train themselves to manage the metallic sight with exactly the same precision lavished on the glass sight. The same attention must be paid to every aspect of aim, a rest when possible, and careful trigger deployment. The tendency to “pot-shot” with open and peep sights must be overcome for success to prevail. The sight picture must also be specific, not random. My personal goal for the open sight is initial location of the front sight perfectly matched to the rear sight, following with concentration on front-sight-target. One of the biggest problems is commanding a proper match of front and rear open sights. Ideally, there will be a trace of light around the front sight as it “rests” in the rear “notch.” This allows for a reference point. If the front sight totally fills (optically) the rear sight, a reference point vanishes.
The aperture sight causes problems with shooters who complicate this fine aiming instrument. The proper use of the “peep” sight is to look through the “hole” and forget it once the view is obtained. Simply pay no further attention to the rear sight. The work is done the second the shooter looks through that little round vacuum. The human eye can do nothing other than maintain a central view through the aperture because that will be the greatest point of light, or so my optometrist explains. And now it is simply a matter of front-sight-target alignment, forgetting all about the rear sight.
I like to adjust the aperture sight for the 6-o’clock hold. This means the fired group will form (ideally) at the extreme top of the front sight. I use the “hunting” style for open sights, where the bead or post is optically pasted right on the target.
Finally, there is no sight, not even the finest telescope, that will overcome just plain bad shooting or an inherently inaccurate rifle. The Kimber 84L that is currently my tag-filler at the close of big game seasons, or when conditions are tough and I want the advantage of long-range power mainly for deer and elk, has far exceeded accuracy expectations with the dot reticule Leupold 2.5-8X scope. I drove the rifle to Southwest Shooting Authority in Luna, New Mexico, for fine-tuning, the trigger now breaking superbly at 2-pounds pull. While the rifle only goes about 7 pounds with scope, it “handles heavier” through superior design with gratifying tight groups.
I have not been able to achieve such groups with my Model 70 and the aperture sight. However, by observing all tenets of marksmanship, including a steady hold and proper trigger management, if I must take a poke at a standing buck, bull, or boar at 250+ long paces, it’ll be loin medallions on the campfire that night.
Sight options over time have been all but unlimited. This open rear
sight is of the buckhorn type, named for the projections on either side
of the notch. Interestingly, it is coupled with a modern front sight of the
fiber optic family. To the right is the “ladder” that goes under the sight
rib to change point of impact on the vertical line.
This beautiful flintlock rifle has a fixed rear sight. The gun maker regulated this sight
before the rifle was sold.
This is a good look at a fiber optic front sight designed to show up well.
The XS Ghost Ring rear sight is highly adjustable by the simple turning of the
aperture (peep) in the body of the sight. The threads allow for considerable
latitude in vertical adjustment while the base of the sight has horizontal