Drifting Back To Iron

The Retro Joy Of ‘Going Scopeless’

This vintage .25-35 Winchester is quick to aim, with clean, simple open sights. It has shot into 1 MOA.

The pronghorn doe slowed and cut a tight loop. The buck followed then paused at 90 yards. I crushed the trigger. At the whip-crack report he raced ahead. But his legs gave way before I closed the breech.

Five of us had met to hunt as hunters had before the Great War. Our lever rifles dated to the 19th Century. All wore iron sights. Like Nick’s and Brian’s 1894 Winchesters, the Savage 1899 I’d borrowed was a .25-35. Larry’s 1893 Marlin in .25-36 took the same ammo, in this case Hornady’s LeverEvolution load.

Mike and Dennis shared an 1886 Winchester in .38-56, firing handloaded 255-gr. Hawk jacketed flat-points. Dave carried a Uberti replica of Winchester’s 1876; the .40-60 gobbled handloads with 210-gr. Lyman lead flat-points.

By dusk, all of us would down pronghorn bucks, most between 80 and 140 yards out. Our reach was limited by our aim.

Clean, trim lines and wand-like handling are yours when you carry an early carbine with iron sights.

Old-School Evolution

These days, few hunters use iron sights. Scopes make hitting so much easier! Maybe that’s why I’m drifting back to irons. “Easy” isn’t where a hunt gets good. Long-range shooting now fuels a cottage industry in burly rifles bearing scopes heavy as rolling pins and a cult celebrating hits at multiple miles; but such has little to do with hunting. Until you’re within range of an animal’s senses, a kill only means you shot well. Nothing else.

By the time conical bullets were altering 19th-Century battlefields, V-notch rear sights had become adjustable. On Britain’s Lee-Metford of the 1870s they were calibrated to 2,800 yards. Vernier tang sights graced Sharps breechloaders on our frontier. Aperture sights on Scheutzen rifles by Stevens, Ballard, Maynard and others helped them drill tight 200-yard clusters.

Smokeless powder extended reach. The Krag-Jorgensen’s sight adjusted to 1,900, then 2,000 yards. The 1903 Springfield was marked to 2,850. Sights for hunting rifles followed suit. Spring-loaded aperture sights on lever-rifle tangs collapsed under the thrust of the bolt and flipped up when the bolt slid home.

The “bolt peep” on Winchester’s 71, like Lyman’s 1A cocking-piece sight for the Springfield, was close to the eye but didn’t clutter the grip. “Little Blue” folding peeps fit Redfield scope bases. Bolt sleeve apertures by Belding-Mull and Marble-Goss equipped G&H and Sedgely sporters.

Current iron-sight options are fewer and vintage apertures from yesteryear come dear. A Lyman 35 for my .458 set me back $100. The most expensive Lyman sight in 1956, the 48, listed for $12.50. In my youth a Williams alloy 5D cost $5. No longer!

What hasn’t changed is the superiority of a rear aperture over a barrel-mounted notch. A long sight radius affords surprising precision. You look through the aperture close to the eye — no need to focus on it. Result: greater accuracy and speedy target acquisition. A barrel-mounted open sight requires you to focus on its notch, the bead and the target at the same time, an optical impossibility even for young eyes.

A big aperture makes sense on hunting rifles. Lots of light. Big field. Fast target acquisition and adequate precision.

Skinner Sights are used on rifles from Marlin’s Custom Shop. They’re excellent irons — with brass.

Paper To Game

In rimfire competition I used a tiny aperture and it carried me through Olympic tryouts. For big game I like hole diameter to match rim thickness at roughly 0.1″ and give me eye relief to 3″. For fast shots in cover, a big hole is best. My .375 M70 Winchester has a Redfield receiver sight with no disc (I aim through the threaded hole). Still, new “ghost ring” sights can be too big for fast, accurate aim, if like me you “crawl” the stock. A thin rim can vanish in your peripheral vision.

Apertures seldom appear on dangerous-game rifles. Open sights let you point as with a shotgun at big beasts when a second’s delay matters. A shallow V is my favorite design — it’s very quick and more accurate than it looks. On some, a bright line, delta or diamond marks the center

Buckhorn and semi-buckhorn open sights obscure much of the landscape. Even flat-topped rear sights block too much of your vision if the notches are deep. Multiple-leaf open sights on quarter-ribs add cost and complexity. For me, an open-sight zero should send bullets to the top of the bead at 100 yards, and to its center between 150 and 200, depending on the load. Shots will land inside the bead as far as you can aim accurately. Multiple-leaf sights seem to present the wrong leaf every time, no matter how well you plan. And heavy recoil can pop the leaves up — and down.

Wayne used a receiver-sighted Marlin 336 in .32 Special to down this elk at 130 yards.
One shot sealed the deal.

A well-worn Model 1899 in .303 Savage shot this eye-popping group with a tang-mounted aperture.

Target Tips

In using iron sights to zero or practice, many hunters employ too small a mark. You must see part of the target around the bead! A 100-yard target 20″ across isn’t too big! Gunmaker D’Arcy Echols developed and sells an inverted “T” target, black on white. It measures 15×22 ½”, with bars 7 ½” wide. You center the intersection, or take a six-o’clock hold.

With aperture sights, I prefer a big black bullseye or my standard scope target — a big white square on brown cardboard. I avoid fluorescent targets. Reflected light blurs the edges and “floods” the front sight picture. Fluorescence can also burn the target image into your eye, so if the rifle moves, you miss the sight picture shift. For much the same reason I favor manila over white as the background to black targets because there’s less “light bounce” at the black edge.

Wayne likes the shallow V of this express sight. But multiple leaves are unnecessary —
and can pop up or down at inopportune times.

Back in the day, all manner of irons were available for all manner of rifles —
here a Remington 81 auto.

NECG’s superb receiver sights include this adjustable aperture that
clamps to Ruger scope-ring cuts.

Williams offers practical, affordable alloy sights — open and aperture, like this one on a re-stocked SMLE.

What’s Up Front?

My favorite front sight for hunting is a gold or (except in snow) ivory bead. A fluorescent blade or bead again bounces light, impairing precision. A black blade with clean edges and a reverse angle to block skylight is a good option, but for me it’s not as quick as a bead. I’m sweet on the Sourdough, with a square, colored inset angled 45 degrees, and with the blade’s full width for support

I favor a flat-faced bead slanted to catch light, or one with a concave face. Convex beads pick up light in the direction of the sun, so you see a false center. As to size, a 1/16″ bead on a 22″ barrel appears about as broad as a deer’s chest at 100 yards. Double rifles often had a fixed silver bead and a big ivory flip-up for shooting at night.
Of course, barrel length affects apparent bead size. In my view (which is getting dimmer!) a trifle big is better than a trifle small. When an angry beast is an eye-blink from putting hoofprints on your shirt, no bead is too big.

Shopping for iron sights? Look to Brownells.

For special needs, you can’t beat New England Custom Gun. Mark Cromwell there introduced me to beautifully machined sights that fit popular receivers — some without drilling. One aperture clamps to Ruger 77 and No. 1 receiver scallops, another to grooves on .22 rimfires. Another mates with Weaver’s Tip-Off scope base. Skinner Sights is young but innovative and offers excellent “Patridge” front sights. Skinner apertures grace handsome lever rifles from Marlin’s Custom Shop.

Nearly 50 autumns ago, a whitetail sped past me through Michigan aspens. I watched it tumble 90 yards off, over the Williams open sight on my surplus .303. Years later an Oregon thicket disgorged a blacktail buck which sped into the aperture of my Winchester 94 and collapsed to four fast shots. I bet my first Alaskan sheep hunt on irons, downing a ram and a bull moose with a Springfield and its Redfield receiver sight.

Iron sights are light and strong, quick to the eye and unaffected by moisture. They let you wrap your hand around your rifle like John Wayne and maintain a rifle’s lean profile. The right ones deliver all the precision you’ll need for most of the game you’ll shoot.

Ph: (800) 741-0015

D’Arcy Echols
Ph: (435) 755-6842

Lyman Products
Ph: (800) 225-9626

Marble’s Gunsights
Ph: (906) 428-3710;

Ph: (603) 287-4836

Skinner Sights
Ph: (406) 745-4570

Williams Gun Sight Co.
Ph: (800) 530-9028

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