It’s The Old-Fashioned Way
By Dave Anderson
How many rifle shooters are capable of shooting accurately with iron sights? Does it even matter any more? Like most shooters of my generation who grew up in the 1960’s, I learned to shoot using open iron sights. I shot small game and vermin with iron-sighted .22’s, and shot my first couple of deer with iron-sighted .30-30 Win and .303 British rifles.
I didn’t own a scoped rifle until I was 16, but in the 1/2-century since, I’ve used scopes almost exclusively. As a sighting device for rifles, scopes are so superior I’d just be wasting your time discussing it. It is rare indeed to see a hunting rifle without a scope. In competitive shooting, iron sights are used only when the rules require it. Even in the military, the last bastion of iron-sighted rifles, optical sights, both scopes and red dots, are rapidly taking over.
And yet … a couple of recent events got me thinking about iron sights. One occurred during an inspection/maintenance check of the gunroom. It dawned on me there were quite a few iron-sighted rifles. It kind of surprised me. Some were collectibles or family heirlooms, but there were several I actually use on a regular basis.
The other event was a series of e-mail exchanges with my editors, Jeff John and Roy Huntington. You might think discussing assignments and articles would be enough gun talk. Not so. A lot of the chat is just good ol’’ boys yakking about guns, especially about guns recently acquired. Boys do like to talk about their toys.
Maybe it was just coincidence, but both Roy and Jeff sent photos of some cool looking, iron-sighted rifles. Moreover, the target photos they sent suggested 1) the rifles were pretty darn accurate, 2) the boys know how to shoot with iron sights and 3—most importantly) here was an opportunity to let the editors do some of my work for me.
This 100-yard group was made with a CZ-527 carbine in 7.62×39, using an NECG
receiver sight and a higher front sight with gold-colored bead. First group
(right) is about 2-1/2 inches, and the second (left) is after sight adjustment
and is about 2 inches.
Iron sights are often touted as being tougher than scopes, but they aren’t always.
The Savage 1920 .250-3000 (left) has a strong base integral with the barrel, but
the sight blade looks awfully vulnerable. The Ruger Gunsite Scout (right) has
protective wings, much like many military rifles.
Most experienced riflemen know the arguments for iron sights:
• Iron sights can be used as a backup in the event of scope failure.
• Iron sights can save a pound or more of weight compared to a scope and its mounting system.
• Iron sights help keep the rifle slimmer through the receiver area, easier to fit in a scabbard or to carry with one hand in the “trail” position.
• Iron sights are less likely to lose zero due to impacts or vibration.
• Iron sights require less maintenance in extreme weather conditions, such as rain, snow or dust.
Well, those are reasons, not necessarily good reasons. I could offer rebuttals to most of them. For example, I’ve had scopes fail during testing, but in over 50 years of scope use, I have never had one fail in the field. I do take a backup sight on hunting trips, usually in the form of a spare scope (or sometimes a spare rifle).
Are iron sights really tougher and more dependable? They aren’t always, though they can be. Rear sights tend to be pretty tough, but many front sights look mighty vulnerable. I’ve seen bent front sights and gold beads or fiber optic inserts knocked off. The military figured out long ago to protect the sight with blades (“wings”) on either side.
My primary reason for using iron sights is quite simple. Some of my favorite rifles are not readily adapted to accept scopes. Some are vintage sporting rifles, such as my Savage 1920 in .250-3000 Savage or my Remington-Lee .30 US (.30-40 Krag). Others are collectible military rifles, such as my Lee-Enfield No. 5. Yes, there are ways to adapt them to scopes but I prefer to keep them original.
Aesthetics, weight, and handiness matter too. Lever-action carbines look right to me without a scope. They are more pleasant to carry with a hand wrapped around the receiver, and they fit nicely in a saddle scabbard (though admittedly, these days the scabbard is more likely to be attached to the Ranger UTV than to a saddle).
I can’t work up too much enthusiasm about barrel-mounted open sights, although I can still shoot OK with them. About the only ones I use are on a couple of vintage .22s, Dad’s old 1914 Savage, a ’50s era Winchester 61 and a neat little Browning BL-22.
Editor Jeff shot this group at 100 yards with open sights
on the .54 caliber flintlock US M1803 rifle.
American Handgunner editor Roy Huntington shot this fine group with an Uberti Low Wall
from Cimarron. He says, “Just got it not long ago. I was looking for a Rook rifle but
thought this is basically the same thing. I haven’t had time to shoot at 100 yet,
but this is at 50 yards, using Black Hills cowboy .32-20 (115-grain bullet at 1,045 fps).
It has a Marbles tang sight, and I slightly enlarged the peephole in it on my mill.
That group is a solid 3/4-inch, and I think I can do better once I slick the trigger up some.”
Receiver sights on current production rifles include (from lower left) the
Ruger Gunsite Scout, Ruger Ranch Rifle (both Rugers with factory-provided
receiver sight) and (top right) the CZ-527 carbine in 7.62×39, with a
receiver sight by New England Custom Guns (NECG).
Aperture (“peep”) sights are another matter. It amazes me how well a good rifleman experienced in using aperture sights can shoot. My friend Barrie Gwillim shot in competition with aperture sights. He often hunted using a pre-’64 Winchester 70 Featherweight .308 with a Redfield receiver sight. In one of his last hunts, he used it for a one-shot kill on a mule deer at well over 300 yards.
Assuming the rifle/ammunition was capable of it, Barrie could shoot about 1 MOA with aperture sights. I can’t, not on demand, but can generally hold 2 MOA.
A key element for me is the target. Accuracy with iron sights requires a sharp focus on the front sight. With too small a target, I find myself focusing on the target while the front sight goes fuzzy. This may sound odd, but often I shoot tighter groups by turning the target around and shooting at the back. The eye tends to naturally center the front sight on the target, and against a white background the eye tends to focus sharply on the front sight, as it should.
This is probably just a personal failing, but I have to fight a tendency to get a bit lazy and complacent about technique when using iron sights. Consistency, minimal contact with the rifle, adjusting point-of-aim with the rest rather than “steering” with the cheek and a quality trigger press are as important with iron sights as with a high-power scope.
Even in this era of the scope, quality aperture and open sights are available. As always, your best bet is to go to the Brownells catalog to see what is available for your rifle. I’ve listed contact information for several aperture sights I like and recommend.
I thought getting the editors to contribute to my column was pretty smart. When I started to shoot a few targets of my own, I realized I might have outsmarted myself. I was facing the same ethical choices as a junior executive playing golf with his boss. How do you let the boss win, without being too obvious about it?
For me it gets even more complicated. A certain amount of knowledge about rifles and reasonable skill at shooting is the only reason they keep me around. It certainly isn’t my looks or winning personality. Back off too much and the editors might start having unworthy thoughts (such as, if this is the best the guy can shoot, why are we paying him vast sums of money every month?).
The challenge was to shoot decent groups, so the guys know I’m still the right man for the job; yet not so good as to wound their fragile egos. Believe me, I’d much rather face a wounded buffalo than a wounded editor. I think I hit just the right note and hope the discerning reader understands how much skill was involved in doing so.
3006 Brownells Parkway
Grinnell, IA 50112
Lyman Products Corp.
475 Smith St., Middletown
New England Custom Gun, Ltd.
741 Main Street
Claremont, NH 03743
Williams Gun Sight, Inc.
P.O. Box 329
Davison, MI 48423
XS Sight Systems
2405 Ludelle St.
Fort Worth, TX 76105
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