Hunting Rifle Sights

The following information on hunting rifle stocks and triggers comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.

The sights have been called the eye of the rifle. Certainly the most powerful big game weapon would be but a blind giant without them. Proper sights for the work in hand contribute to the success of any rifleman, though the man with youthful and normal eyesight finds other problems, like holding, judging distance, and trigger pulling, much more difficult than actually sighting his piece.

The old pioneer long-rifleman had the simplest sights, consisting of a silver or copper bead and a straight bar, notched rear, often without any means of elevating, yet their work within the range of those rifles was hardly inferior to what we see to-day. It is a pretty well established tradition that in an early day a market shooter of Illinois killed one hundred and twenty deer in the month of October, firing but one hundred and fifty shots. His rifle shot bullets of forty to the pound and the longest kill was made at four hundred yards.

About the best deer shot that I ever happened to run across was a swamp-colored Arkansawyer carrying a Winchester .44 upon which he had fixed home-made sights, a front bead made from a bear’s tooth, the rear a straight iron bar, wedge shaped, tapered to an edge at the top, notched, and blackened. There was no provision made for elevation and neither need there be for use in the woods. The veteran assured me that at one hundred and fifty yards he would kill his buck with a single bullet oftener than he’d miss it, and this range he seemed to consider about the maximum distance for shooting in heavy timber.

A skilled rifleman can shoot well with any sort of sights; line up two pins on top of the barrel and he will get along nicely. Nevertheless there are special sights adapted to special purposes and the province of this chapter is to point them out and tell what they ·are good for and why.

Rifle sights might be classed roughly as open-sights, peep, globe, military, and telescope. We can dismiss the military sights now with the statement that if the reader is a military man he must use such sights as the Government stipulates whether he likes them or not. Military sights are well adapted to the purpose for which they were invented, and they will do very well for game shooting—fully as well as, but no better than, the ordinary open sight.

Open Front Sights

Front beads and other foresights are manufactured in great variety. We have the plain Rocky Mountain knife-blade front, and then ivory beads of various shapes and sizes, gold beads, platinum, and different combinations. Marble’s front sight in one model has a reversible bead, one end showing ivory and the other gold. King’s front sight rolls over, turning one bead down and another up,—it is called triple bead because of its three beads of various styles. Beach and Lyman also make foresights that are a combination of ivory bead and a pinhead with hood; these last do best service on a rifle that is mostly used for shooting at a mark.

Sights are much a matter of individual liking and habitual use. If I express a personal preference it need not be considered an edict of the Medes and Persians. I believe that a rifle intended for big game shooting will as a rule be subjected to considerable rough usage. It may be carried miles on horseback or in the bottom of a boat or in a wagon. Sights then should be of the strongest and plainest, without any combinations, windgauges, reversibles—nothing but the plain bead in its steel setting, no frills or hollow rims, holes beneath or hoods above. Leave all such things to the theorist, the man who does his rifle shooting on the club-house veranda.

The ivory bead can be obtained either square or round and of sizes from the big “jack-sight” to the smallest beads that should be used by a hunter. Many have a preference for the square bead, but its sharp corners sparkle in the sun and not as fine work can be accomplished with it under all conditions. The Sheard gold bead has many admirers and much merit.

I believe that the generality of sportsmen will agree with me that one or the other of these two front sights, ivory or gold, should be found on a hunting rifle, and taboo combinations, also windgauges for such weapons.

Open Rear Sights

Open rear sights are generally preferred for running shots, snap-shots, and all work where it is imperative that a quick and clear view of the game be, not obtained, but retained. Where a bounding deer tops the brush but a time or two and is gone, any description of peep sight is useless, and where dangerous game is liable to charge they would be foolish. Hence while the finest match work cannot be secured with open sights, yet they are generally chosen as the most practical for game shooting, especially big game.

No less an authority than Theodore Van Dyke preferred a straight narrow bar without a notch for a rear sight. My own experience is that this will do very well for snap work but is not accurate enough for deliberate shooting. The ordinary Winchester sporting rear is about as good as any of those with all kinds of patents attached. I like the model known as the “flat top,” the top but slightly crescent shaped. A deep crescent, like the deep notch, will reflect the light from one side or the other, and is difficult to get down into where the eye has no time to hunt for the rear sight notch.

If the bar is quite straight the shooter may not get the center in rapid aiming; his doing so would depend upon the fit of his rifle stock. The sporting rear sight has a ready means of elevation and alignment for different distances. Its one serious defect is that it cannot be used to advantage where the rifle carries a peep sight on tang or receiver, but should then be replaced by the folding leaf rear sight.

Beware of the rear sight with a platinum line marking the center. This bright line looks good in theory but in practice, in some lights, it will blend with the ivory of the front bead so that you cannot readily tell how much of the bead is being taken—in a hurried shot the bead might not be seen at all, the eye being deceived by the platinum line. Let the rear bar be plain, solid, and as black as you can get it. Any diamond shaped or circular hole through the bar beneath the notch merely adds to the blur and lets in light where it can do no good. A hood over the rear sight is detrimental to quick work, takes the sight out of its class, and makes a makeshift target sight of it.

The Folding Leaf Rear Sight

The folding leaf sight is that in common use on English express rifles, one leaf turning down and another up for different ranges. The folding leaf will accomplish everything that can be done with the sporting rear and has the further advantage of folding flat down on the barrel when not needed.

The English manner of using the folding leaf is that commonly followed in the muzzleloading days of fixed sights, taking more or less of the front bead according to the range. With this system a fine sight would be taken for short distances, a coarser bead at medium, and the full bead further out; at longer ranges even the stem of the front sight might be used to secure the elevation.

This system of aiming has its advantages and disadvantages. The trajectory of the bullet can be gauged very readily and learned thoroughly. However, it really implies holding over for the longer ranges, and if the bead is a large one it may entirely cover the game or hide the spot to be struck. Most marksmen would rather sight the piece to shoot center at its longest flat trajectory range, and then hold a trifle under for mid distances. Either system is better than trying to set the sight for every little variation in range. Open rear sights are hardly to be relied upon beyond the second point blank of the rifle. If the rifle is intended for very long ranges have a rear peep and fold the leaf down out of the way.

Rear Peep Tang and Receiver Sights

A peep sight is simply a hole in a bar of iron through which to aim. The larger the hole the quicker and clearer the sight; the smaller the orifice the greater the accuracy. The size of the peep hole might be regulated by individual eyes, also by the uses to be made of the sight. Hunters prefer a large peep and target shots a small one. Generally speaking, large apertures go with coarse beads and the reverse.

While the sighting principle is the same, rear peep sights are of different shapes and models, affixed in various positions. Peep sights have been tried upon the barrel in the position of the ordinary rear or middle sight, but they are then too far from the eye; even with large aperture the field is too small. The Marble, Lyman, and Vernier tang sights are screwed to the tang, and the upright arm is hinged so that it may be folded down out of the way. I have no space to describe these sights fully, but any catalog will do that.

The Vernier is the most accurate because of its disc-cup which cuts off the side light, but it cuts off all the field except that seen through the aperture and is not fit for a hunting rifle. The Lyman and the Marble Combination peep sights are compact and have been especially designed for hunting rifles. Both the Marble and the Lyman have two apertures, the plate of the smaller fitting inside the larger. Ordinarily the smaller aperture would be used for deliberate work and the other for quick, that is in theory. As a matter of fact the shooter in actual hunting must make up his mind to use one aperture or the other, rarely having time to make a change in the presence of game.

From my own personal experience I do not like the two aperture combination; the narrow one is too small for running shots and the larger too coarse for accuracy—one medium sized aperture would be better than the two. The claim is made by the manufacturers of these sights that the eye always instinctively takes the center of an aperture, but I have not found this true. On the other hand, the man who has been accustomed to open sights will from habit get down into the bottom of the aperture just as he has been accustomed to with the notch of the bar sight. The result is invariably a lower line of elevation for the large peep. Only where the aperture is small will the eye take the center uniformly and then there is no instinct about it, for the only clear light comes through the middle.

Many profess to be able to do better snap work with a large aperture than with any description of bar sight, but I have always found a peep slow because the first thing to be done is to fit the eye to the aperture, and meantime perhaps the game disappears. Of course tin cans might be sighted upon in the air, also rabbits or deer running in the open, but not game that must be taken instantaneously. If anyone believes that I am wrong, let him try an aperture on his shotgun for quail shooting. It might be well to note that no professional snap and trick shot uses peep sights.

The sportsman whose eyes are becoming “long-sighted” will probably learn that he can no longer do his holding skill justice with a bar sight, but must use a peep. In that case the bar should be removed, or folded down if a leaf, and the small aperture plate knocked out—narrow peeps are trying to old eyes.

Tang peep sights find their greatest utility upon lightly charged rifles, without the intermediate bar. To bring the bar into service the peep has to be folded down; there it spoils the grip to such an extent that I would rather have the gun without it. Moreover, the sight is too close to the eye and always liable to injure it where the piece has a heavy recoil. For use on a high-power arm the “receiver” sight should replace the tang peep. As its name implies this sight is fastened to the receiver of the rifle where it is quite out of the way of the hand, and, since it is in no way inferior to the other, should be given the preference for a hunting rifle.

The best all round combination of sights that I know of for game shooting is an ivory or gold front bead, a middle folding leaf bar with a U shaped notch, and a receiver peep. The receiver sight should be so fitted that when run down to the lowest point it will be under the line of vision across the bar. Have the bar aligned for short range and the peep for two hundred yards. Keep the leaf folded flat except when a snapshot is probable and then turn the peep out of the way.

Where the rear peep is to be used in match shooting, other appliances furthering fine aiming are demanded; as, globe front with pinhead or aperture, windgauge, spirit level, micrometer elevating screw, and eye-cup with adjustable apertures for difference in light. However, peep sights have about seen their day for sharp-shooting, military or civilian.

Telescope Sights

For fine work in gallery, for match shooting at two hundred yards, either off-hand or with rest, for sharpshooting with military rifles at any range, for general miscellaneous target practice about the fields and forests, for small game shooting at long range there are no other sights to compare with a telescope. For rest shooting, and I think the same could be said of military work in the prone position, there is simply no comparison between the results to be secured with good telescopic sight and any other. In off-hand work it has nearly the same superiority that it displays at rest or in the various military positions, sitting, prone, etc.

Closer holding can be done with telescope in good light than with the finest of globe and peep, or it will prove effective in light so poor that an open rear and a jack front sight can hardly be used. On the weapon of the military sharpshooter, on the Schuetzen rifle for gallery or two hundred yard range, in the humble opinion of the writer no other sight should be used. More pleasure and more game can be secured than with any other form of sight. Yet the use of telescopes in hunting or for military purposes has strict limitations.

The man who attempted to use a telescope on large and dangerous game that might take one bullet and then charge would be foolhardy. Such sight, it should be noted, practically limits the hunter to one shot, for this instrument cannot be used in snapshooting or at running game. I know that now and then some enthusiast claims the contrary, but if shots are to be taken on running game the animal would have to be moving slowly, perfectly in the open, and the time limit for firing would have to be unlimited. As to hunting, therefore, we may safely conclude that the telescope is only useful for long shots on game that we may not be able to stalk closely, like caribou, mountain goat, sheep, and African antelope which inhabit the open plain. Under such circumstances one shot directed by a ‘scope may avail more than a full magazine sent with poorer aim.

However, generally speaking, a telescope is out of place on a hunting rifle. It is at best a frail instrument which cannot withstand slamming about in a boat or being jolted by a galloping horse. It renders a repeating rifle or an automatic practically nothing but a single-shot, and any time the quarry takes a notion to move, no matter if it jumps within twenty-five yards of the gun, the telescope man has a useless tool in his hands. All of which, as can readily be conjectured, quite unfits the telescope for use in the woods.

Various schemes have come forth for using a telescope in connection with open sights. Some have tried placing the open sights on top of the scope; others beneath it, or again the glass has been fitted to one side of the rifle with the usual sights in place. None of these schemes avail much. Looking under a ‘scope for a snapshot, with most of the light cut off, is trying; aiming above the ‘scope throws both the eye and butt of gun out of position, while trying to aim away out to one side of an unbalanced rifle is the worst of the three.

If a telescope is to be used at all on a big game rifle, it should be one of the detachable variety, to be carried at the belt except when actually needed. The mounts for the ‘scope will not be found much in the way, and the glass can be put in place in a few seconds, properly aligned for some fixed distance, say three hundred yards. If the range at which the shot is to be taken doesn’t coincide with the fixed elevation of the ‘scope, it is easier to hold under or over with a telescope than with any other description of sight.

Telescopes for rest shooting or for sharpshooting in war should have a power of from twelve to twenty diameters; for off-hand and hunting a power of from two to eight will be satisfactory. The greater the magnification the smaller the field of view. A narrow field matters little in target shooting, but it matters much where a shot must be taken quickly at a mark which it may require time to “find” with the sight. Other things being equal, we should therefore have to sacrifice power to field of view in a hunting ‘scope. However, other things are not equal, since no man can hold a glass of twenty power, in the off-hand, with enough steadiness to do good shooting.

Multiply the ordinary muzzle movements of a rifle when held in the extended arm style by twenty, and there will be such a dancing about of sight and quarry that the marksman will be willing to swear the devil is in it. Many who can use an eight power glass mounted on a heavy rifle at the range, would find a power of from two to four better adapted to game.

Some ‘scopes as a means of alignment have cross-hairs, others a single hair with a ball in the middle; again they may have double cross hairs, or a pinhead after the fashion of a globe sight. Any one of these is much a matter of fancy and individual liking; the marksman, readily becoming accustomed to whichever style he prefers, will do about as good work with one as with the other.

An essential feature of the telescope is its mountings which must be strong, rigid, and precise. Where the glass is to be used on a target or military rifle, provision must also be made for micrometer elevation and windage. While a ‘scope with universal focus might do for hunting a match glass must have an adjustable focus.

The majority of American telescopes are made by the Winchester Arms Company, the Stevens Arms and Tool Company, and the Malcolm Telescope Manufacturing Company. Their instruments are made of various powers for different purposes; experts declare they are splendid glasses for match and target work, also for small game shooting, but are not so good on a big game rifle owing to restricted field.

German telescopes have the greatest prestige among big game hunters. These glasses are short, easily detached for carrying in a case, have low power and large field, splendid optical qualities, a good lateral and longitudinal eye relief, but no means of securing elevation or windage. Such glasses cannot well be used on a match rifle, but on a hunting arm of high power and flat trajectory they are the best instruments obtainable.

Comparing the American and foreign glasses, the former will do very well on a hunting rifle and nothing else equal to them is to be had for match shooting; the German is useless on the range, but superior for game. The foreign instrument costs two or three times as much as the American.

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Hunting Rifle Sights

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