Unfortunately, neither spring-leaf
nor folding-leaf rear sights are known for being particularly rugged or precise. Another
solution (and my favorite) is to buy rifles with tough all-steel express
sights with the rear sight far enough forward to see clearly. European and British rifles
often come with stout, properly positioned express sights, and Brownells carries a fine
selection that can be fitted to any rifle. (I can personally vouch for the work of custom
riflesmith DArcy Echols, who fit express sights from New England Gun Co. on my .375
You can also install a
peep sight, formally called an aperture sight. These come in two basic
variations, receiver and tang, depending on where you screw them onto the rifle. With
peeps, it doesnt matter if the rear sights fuzzy. Just look through the hole
and put the front sight on whatever you want to shoot.
The aluminum Williams 5D ($35) and
even simpler, all-steel XS Sight Systems (formerly AO Sights) sight ($60) are fine
examples of rugged, basic hunting sights. Above that are good tang sights such as the
Lyman ($75) or Marbles ($130). The fanciest iron sight I use is an Axtell tang
designed for target shooting. Made by a small company in Montana, it costs over $300 but
is a work of machining art.
You can also buy used
classic sights made by companies like Lyman and Redfield, but thanks to
baby-boomers like me, the price is going up. If you want to get into old peeps, first buy
a copy of Old Gunsights by Nick Stroebel (Krause Publications, 1998).
Regardless of the rear sight, you
must be able to clearly see the outline of the front sight. Some shooters prefer a
flat-topped post, others a bead. I use both but regard the round bead as one of the most
miserable inventions in firearms history. A shiny ball reflects light as a tiny dot that
shifts position with the sun, and even a flat-faced bead reflects light off the edges of
the face. Either can shift your aim significantly.
Beads can be fixed with an old
trick. Use a small file to tilt the face of the bead at a 45-degree angle. This also
slightly roughens the surface, and the filed surface of the bead glows instead of
reflecting a fickle pinprick of light. (Hunters who prefer flat-topped posts also tend to
use sights with a mildly reflective surface slanting away from the shooter.)
There are also fiber-optic front
sights on the market. They work great, even in bright light but especially in dim, though
most traditional hunters get rather snobby about them. My friend Keith McCafferty,
however, uses one on a .333 Jeffery double rifle built for a tiger-hunting maharajah.
Keith says the sight really stands out against elk in black timber.
Enough light around the front sight
also helps. Peep hunters normally prefer as wide an aperture as possible, but the human
eye will naturally center itself only behind holes less than .2 inch in diameter - the
reason the largest aperture for the XS sights measures .19 inch. The tiny aperture in the
Axtell sight measures .05 inch, and the bead tends to fade in twilight or heavy timber,
though its a superb sight for relatively open country.
One of my favorite open-sighted
rifles is a pre-World War II Mauser-action sporter chambered for an obsolete 6.5mm
cartridge. It has very fine express-style sights, but originally I couldnt see any
light around the rear notch. A few careful swipes with a needle file and a thin line of
light appeared around the tiny front bead. Good iron sights can shoot right alongside
low-powered scopes. This little Mauser groups under 1.5 inches with its favorite load,
while with the Axtell sight my High Wall .30-40 Krag averages an honest inch.
When sighting-in irons, you also
must use a larger target. The blue-bull targets from Rifle and Handloader work very well,
as does the Range Master Handloader from Mountain Plains. As with scoped rifles, the best
field practice is varmints. After youve plunked a prairie dog or woodchuck at 200
yards or more, deer pose no problem, even to baby-boomers with short arms.
Johns book Optics for
the Hunter is available by check for $23.50 from Deep Creek Press, PO Box 579, Townsend MT
59644, or by credit card at: www.riflesandrecipes.com.