Famous exhibition shooter Annie Oakley rarely used them, preferring smooth-bored rifles and birdshot. Presidential sportsman Theodore Roosevelt eschewed them in spite of his abysmally poor eyesight, opting instead for customized open sights. And yet, until the advent of scopes, peep sights were the best “quick fix” to accurize a rifle.
Back in 1961, in The Complete Book of Rifles and Shotguns, Jack O’Connor wrote, “It has been my experience that a big peep is the fastest of all sights–much faster than the open sight and a bit faster than a low-power scope…” And even in today’s era of electronic reticles and lasers, peep sights retain their century-plus reputation for accuracy.
Oddly enough, all this was brought home to me again while watching the 2010 Olympics on television–specifically the men’s 15-kilometer mass-start biathlon, a grueling competition that combines cross-country skiing with rifle marksmanship.
Racing for time along a mountain course, the skiers make four scheduled shooting stops along the way–two calling for the prone position and two requiring offhand shots. At each station they must unsling their eight-pound, .22 target rifles and fire five rounds at a silver dollar-size black disk at a range of 50 meters.
As they arrive at each of the shooting stations, the skiers are huffing and puffing, but they manage to reduce their heart rate and breathing while concentrating on sight picture and trigger squeeze. The winner, Evgeny Ustyugov of Russia, won the gold medal, helped immensely by the fact that he didn’t miss a single target.
The shooting was remarkable, and I was impressed by the fact that virtually every contestant had topped off his highly specialized Anschütz or Izhmash competition rifles with peep sights. Not an open sight among them.
Of course, these weren’t the simple “click-and-shoot” affairs such as the Lyman peep I had mounted on my Remington 514 when I was shooting smallbore competition as a teenager. No, the Olympic affairs, shielded in sunshades, were ultra-sophisticated, micro-adjustable monuments to engineering. But the principle is the same as the very first L-shaped piece of iron that was drilled with a hole and affixed to a rifle barrel more than 200 years ago.
Actually, the use of sights on shoulder arms predates the wheel lock and has been recorded as early as 1475. But, of course, these were fixed sights, crude by any standard. And although rifling dates from about that same period, the use of rifled barrels on long arms did not become widespread until the late 18th century. Consequently, there was actually no need for adjustable sights much before the turn of the 19th century because up until that time most rifles simply weren’t accurate enough that the sights mattered.
But with accuracy came the quest for pinpoint accuracy, and that begat the birth of the peep sight (or aperture sight, as they used to be called). Some of the earliest 19th century pioneers building rifles with tang- or breech-mounted peep sights of their own design were once-legendary but sometimes now-forgotten gun makers such as Ed Wesson, Nelson Lewis and William Billinghurst.
After 1873, with the advent of the reloadable metallic cartridge, mass-produced peep sights by firms such as Lyman and Marble began making adjustable tang sights for the popular Winchester and Marlin lever actions of the day. William Lyman patented his first sight–the No. 1–in 1879 while Webster Marble designed his first gun sight in 1892.
Although most rifles came factory-equipped with open sights, which were less expensive to manufacture, costlier tang sights were cataloged as options. Evidence of their popularity is borne out by the fact that so many lever actions of the late 1800s are still encountered today with period tang sights.
And it is safe to say that single-shots such as the Ballard, 1874 Sharps, Remington Rolling Block and the 1885 Winchester High Wall would never have gained their level of fame for long-range accuracy without their folding Vernier sights, which were basically finely adjustable peep sights able to compensate for windage and elevation.
There were numerous variations, including sights with replaceable disks or fitted with a Hadley eyecup, which had a rotating bezel that offered a variety of light-emitting holes of varying sizes. And therein lay part of the secret to the peep sight’s well-deserved reputation for accuracy. It can be found within that relatively small speck of light seen through the aperture of the black disk of the peep.
Although there’s more than one theory, there seems to be a natural tendency for the human eye to find the center of this circle of light and automatically place the front sight directly in the middle. But why does this happen?
One of the most commonly espoused explanations for this phenomenon is the theory that the brightest light within the hole lies at the exact center, and the eye is attracted to that point. But not everybody agrees.
To explore this theory further, I contacted Dr. George Rajacich, MD FACS–one of the principals of Valley Eye Center and Amerisight Institute in Van Nuys, California. Dr. Rajacich is also a diplomat of the American Board of Ophthalmology and assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. Plus, of equal importance to readers of this magazine, he is a shooter.
“To be honest, I’ve never given it much thought,” Dr. Rajacich said. “But I think it is because we are trained to look for the exact center of things, rather than instinct. And a peep sight is more practical for shooting because looking through the aperture, you get the entire lay of the land, so to speak, and don’t lose any of the surroundings. There is nothing to block your view. You have a gross overall view, and then you can easily switch to a more precise, finite view, so you can pick up the target very quickly.”
But there is also another advantage offered by the peep sight: It dramatically increases your sighting radius. Most open sights are dovetailed or otherwise affixed onto the barrel in front of the receiver, quite a distance away from your eye and, consequentl
y, closer to the front sight than a peep sight.
Peep sights, by comparison, are typically affixed to the rear of the receiver or on the tang, placing them closer to the eye and farther from the front sight. Thus, the shooting radius is significantly increased, which offers the potential for greater accuracy.
In addition, you don’t look at a peep sight; you look through it. The problem many shooters make when using open sights is trying to focus on the rear sight in order to settle the front blade or bead within the V notch. This is not only time-consuming but incorrect.
As any target or combat shooter knows, you should focus only on the front sight. With a peep sight, this occurs naturally, as the rear sight is actually too close to your eye to focus on. In fact, that’s the reason for the effectiveness for the modern interpretation of the peep sight, the “ghost ring,” which is nothing more than an enlarged peep hole.
Original 19th century factory-made sights typically came with a .052 aperture, which is mighty small. When I ordered a Pedersoli replica 1873 Officer’s Model Trapdoor Springfield a few years ago, the first thing I did was have a gunsmith drill out the aperture hole to .064. Otherwise, the sight was impossible to use. But this isn’t a modern-day problem. Many of the 19th century Lyman tang sights had a peep within a peep, a fold-down disk that exposed a larger hole.
Sight placement is also an important consideration for peep sights. Placing the rear sight as close to the eye as possible, as accomplished by a tang sight, is optimal. It’s also practical for light-recoiling rifles such as original or replica lever actions in .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40.
But you don’t typically find tang sights on hard-recoiling rifles such as original or replica Model 1895s. The reason, of course, is that the stouter recoil of these guns, say in .405 Winchester, can drive that tang sight into your eye.
Thus, peep sights for harder-hitting rifles are typically mounted on the side of their receivers or, as in the case of some of the early Winchester Model 71s, which was chambered for .348 Winchester, directly on the bolt. This latter arrangement can be somewhat disconcerting, however, as the sight moves toward you as the lever is worked. Winchester eventually moved its factory-installed peep sight to the side of the receiver on later versions of the Winchester 71.
Today, Lyman and Marble Arms are still very much in business, and thanks in large part to the popularity of cowboy-action shooting, both companies continue to offer a wide variety of their original 19th century sights.
The legendary Lyman No. 2 tang sight (LymanProducts.com) is avail¬able for replica and original Winchester models ’73, ’86 and ’92, and the Uberti brass-framed Model 1866–as well as for the Marlin 1894, 1895 and 336 lever actions. They come with two apertures: one with a .040 hole that provides greater depth of field for more precise work and a larger disk with a .093 opening for faster target acquisition.
It should be noted that these sights, like the originals, are adjustable for elevation only; windage is achieved by tapping the dovetailed front sight in the opposite direction you wish to move your shot. And drilling and tapping of the tang is usually required for installation.
There is also a Lyman 66 receiver peep sight for the Winchester Model 94, Marlin models 39, 1894, 1895 and 336, as well as for the replica Model 1886 lever actions from Browning and Winchester.
And peep sights aren’t just for levers and single-shots, either, as evidenced by Lyman’s 57 receiver sight that’s designed to work on round receivers such as the Mauser and many bolt guns of American make.
Marble Arms (MarbleArms.com) continues to offer its 19th century tang sights–which are adjustable for both windage and elevation–for the Winchester Model 94, the Marlin 36 and the Savage Model 99, with each click equaling 0.4 inch of movement at 100 yards.
In addition, the company has developed an Improved Peep Tang Sight for long-range shooting. This variation on a classic theme features a series of replaceable posts that can be attached to the basic tang base and which raises the peep disk to various heights, thus putting you on target at anywhere from 30 to 500 yards or more.
Craig Lauerman, president of Marble Arms, has also created a unique blend of the dovetailed rear sight and a non-traditional peep–basically a circle within a circle–called the Bullseye Sight, which is specifically designed to help young or inexperienced shooters.
“Kids have a hard time with the V-style rear sight and a front sight,” said Lauerman. “They don’t get their cheek down on the stock, so they don’t know where they’re supposed to put the front bead in the V notch. So they lift their heads when they pull the trigger, and they end up shooting over the target. The Bullseye Sight makes them get their cheek down on the stock, as that’s the only way they can keep the bead in the middle of the inside circle. It’s sort of like a ghost ring with a peep in the center.”
Dixie Gun Works list four pages of replica tang and Vernier sights in its catalog, including the Mortimer Creedmoor Diopter tang sight for target work and a replica Soule tang sight that features a Hadley eye cup.
Buffalo Arms offers a range of tang sights, including a precise Baldwin Soule Vernier sight and a replica of the old Lyman No. 21 rear receiver sight originally made for the Winchester 1886 and 1895 lever actions. Buffalo Arms also has versions of this classic for the Winchester 92 and 94 and most Marlin lever actions. It should be noted, however, that unlike the lookalike No. 38, the current No. 21 is adjustable for elevation only.
And if you can’t make up your mind between a V notch and a peep, Montana Vintage Arms has a Rough And Ready folding V notch with a flip-up peep, in addition to long- and midrange Vernier sights for the 1874 Sharps.
The availability of all these peep sights is testimo
ny to the effectiveness of the design. And if you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to give this style of sight a try.