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Rifle Magazine
July - August 2003
Volume 35, Number 4
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 208
On the cover...
Shoemaker's Model 98 Mauser .458 Winchester Magnum won't win any beauty contests, but it handles potentially dangerous game as well as any "show-room"rifle. Rifle photo by Dave Scovill. Moose photo by Ron Spomer.
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Most American hunters born after World War II have hunted big game only with telescopic sights. This is understandable, since we see better through scopes, especially in dim light, and reticle and target stay in sharp focus. Despite this, there’s been a recent upsurge in “iron” sights, partly due to cowboy action shooting, and partly as a reaction against “high” technology. Like scopes, modern synthetic-stocked hunting rifles are eminently practical but don’t have much soul.

The most iron-interested group seems to be baby-boomers like me, paradoxically switching to irons just as our arms grow too short to read a newspaper. Aside from optical challenges, irons can also present a psychological boundary. Scopes are so universal today that many hunters don’t think they can hit anything with iron sights.

I started hunting with irons as a kid and have mostly stayed with open sights on handguns. I’d shot small game and deer out to 100 yards with an open-sighted handgun, so an iron-sighted rifle surely wouldn’t be a problem. Mostly it wasn’t - but I wasn’t a kid anymore. I’d never had trouble seeing iron sights on handguns, yet some rifle sights were a blued blur.

Despite what Dave Scovill thinks, this has nothing to do with my near-sightedness. Scovill is the editor of Rifle and, thanks to the genetic crap-shoot, doesn’t need glasses to read manuscripts even though he’s a decade beyond normal bifocal age. My glasses give me 20/20 vision, just as they did when I was 12 and head-shooting squirrels with an open-sighted Marlin .22.

Problem is, like most people over 40, my eyes won’t focus close up. Eyes close-focus by elongating - like the lens of a camera - but our entire body loses flexibility as we age, including our eyes. We compensate by holding the newspaper farther away, but eventually we buy reading glasses. (This will happen to Scovill too, and hopefully soon.) Reading glasses also allow us to focus on rear sights - but blur the front sight. Dang!

So to shoot well with irons, incipient geezers must resort to low cunning. Many problems can be traced to the rear sight on many of the older American rifles favored by retro-hunters. It’s often placed too far back, and the problem’s compounded by the “traditional” leaf-spring sight, which measures about 2 to 2.5 inches long.

The simple solution is to tap the sight out of the dovetail and reverse it. Almost all sights are drifted in from the right. Tap it out - I use a nylon rod from Brownells - then tap it back in facing the other way. This instantly gains 4 to 5 inches in eye-distance, often enough for middle-aged eyes.

“Backward” sights do look a little weird, so if you desire to conform, buy a Marble’s¨ folding-leaf sight for about $18, which taps into the same .375-inch dovetail. These only gain half the distance of reversing the original sight, but that may be enough.

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 D’Arcy Echols, who fit express sights from New England Gun Co. on my .375 H&H Mauser.)

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 doesn’t matter if the rear sight’s 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 Marble’s ($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 it’s 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 couldn’t 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 you’ve plunked a prairie dog or woodchuck at 200 yards or more, deer pose no problem, even to baby-boomers with short arms.

John’s 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:

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