Irons In The Fire
September 23, 2010
All metallic sights are not created equal. Here's what works and what doesn't.
On an icy Colorado morning in February, we repaired to a low-lying ridge with a sagging picnic table and a sheet of plywood to sight in the rifles. The guide wore buckskins. My head was covered in coyote fur. Our quarry was a renegade bison wandering the sagebrush hills with a band of young admirers. It was not the 1880s, but we were trying to make it so with a replica Winchester High Wall made by Uberti (and very nicely made, too) in .45-90.
Its factory sights were a simple front blade and open rear sight of the buckhorn persuasion. The rear sight was adjustable for windage by sliding it right to left in its dovetail and tightening a tiny set screw. For elevation, it had the usual movable blade in a slot, with steps of varying heights, held in place by the spring pressure of the sight itself.
These should be the most foolproof of all iron sights--simple to a fault and crude to adjust but immovable and fast as lightning. Two problems: As budding mountain men, we did not have among us an optometrist's screwdriver for the minuscule set screw, and the knife blade didn't work.
As for elevation, the movable blade moved all too easily. The steps were level, rather than shallow Vs that lock in place, so every time we fired the rifle the recoil moved the blade back to its lowest setting. With a .45-90, that moved the point of impact about a foot at 100 yards. Try remembering all that when you are belly down in the snow, peeking at a bison 50 yards away through the grass, with him staring back.
This scenario highlights some of the problems and advantages of hunting-style iron sights. In an age of superb optical sights, unless one is using them purely for nostalgia, iron sights should offer some real advantages in the field. Otherwise, why bother?
What are these advantages? First, they can (and should) be simple, rugged and unobtrusive. Second, they should be easy to adjust but not eager to get out of adjustment (the biggest knock on target-type iron sights). Third, they should neither interfere with the operation of the rifle nor get in the way.
On big game out to 100 yards, no system is better than the basic blade or bead combined with an open sight on the barrel. The sight adjustments may be crude and awkward, but once they're aligned they work. At these ranges, you will likely be shooting quickly at an alert animal, and speed will be more important than pinpoint accuracy.
From 100 to 300 yards, which is stretching the practical limit for iron sights on a big game rifle, a receiver or tang sight with an aperture is more exact. At these ranges, you have time to settle in and aim.
One place you see iron sights in common use is on a double rifle or bolt action for dangerous game. Open sights are standard, often with a quarter-rib and a selection of folding blades (the "express" sight).
These arrangements are great in theory, offering settings out to several hundred yards, but in practice they may not be so good. Recoil can cause a raised blade to flip back down, and remembering to check this in the heat of the moment is a bit much to expect (much like the moving elevation blade on the High Wall mentioned above). Most hunters who buy rifles with express sights don't shoot them enough with the blade raised to see if this is a problem.
The Lyman 56S, last offered in 1959, was the Rolls-Royce of receiver sights for the Savage 1899. The eyepiece in this sight is a Merit "iris shutter" disk.
While we are on the subject of sights that fold up or down and employ spring pressure to hold them in place, some deluxe rifles have front sights with or without folding hoods or large beads that can be raised for use in low light. Severe recoil will sometimes move anything movable. When confronting a dangerous animal at close quarters, with the need for a flurry of shots, having your sights go wonky in mid-barrage is definitely undesirable.
There are various island-type rear open sights that move up, down and sideways on dovetails and are fixed in place with set screws. These are relatively easy to adjust, although severe recoil can send your sight spinning into the grass if the screws are not really battened down.
The solution is to practice enough to identify any problems. The answer may be to remove anything movable altogether and go with a simple fixed blade at the back and fixed bead in front. This may not be the ideal combination in all circumstances, but it certainly beats a system of movable parts that screws up when you want it least.
When Holland & Holland embarked on its design of a new, lower-priced ($50,000) double rifle, its "round-action," the company cut costs in exactly that way. The sights are a solid fixed blade and fixed bead, with no folding gizmos. This rifle is intended to be functionally perfect, if aesthetically austere. H&H's riflemakers felt the expensive express sights could be dispensed with without affecting function in any material way and might actually improve it. Were I building a new double rifle in a big caliber, that is exactly the sight I would order.
With the ascendancy of riflescopes in the 1950s, development of iron sights largely ended except to figure ways of making them as cheaply as possible. In the years before that, however, with intense competition among rifle builders and sight makers, some interesting designs were marketed. Some of these would be well worth bringing back. The problem is, they would be expensive and the market tiny.
One such is the Savage Model 15 Windgauge rear sight. I have one on a Model 1899, built in 1916 and configured as an offhand target rifle. The sight is essentially the standard dovetail on the barrel but has a double-step elevation system and windage adjustments by means of a small knurled knob on each side of the blade. With the double-step, it is harder to lose the piece, and that is no small advantage. Of all the adjustment systems I've seen, this would get my vote. It is sufficiently adjustable without being complicated or fragile.
Receiver or tang sights are rarely seen on dangerous-game rifles, being more the province of target rifles on the one hand and deer rifles on the other. A tang sight on any kind of hard-recoiling rifle is a peril to the shooter's thumb and eye. As for receiver sights, iron sights on a dangerous-game rifle are often used in conjunction with a quick-deta
chable scope, and a receiver sight does not lend itself to such an arrangement. Also, when you dispense with the scope you are expecting action in close, where an open sight is preferable to an aperture.
Almost all receiver sights offer a variety of screw-in apertures, and conventional wisdom has always said you should throw these away (except for long-range target work) and just use the "ghost ring" of the sight itself. This was good advice in 1960 and still is today.
The Savage Model 15 Windgauge open sight was patented in 1914. The double-step elevation adjustment works extremely well, and the shallow Vs allow precise adjustments.
A tiny aperture may allow more precise shot placement on a stationary bullseye at long range, but sometimes actually inhibits accurate sighting for a hunter. At the short ranges at which you hunt with iron sights--for example the bison mentioned above--the steel insert can block out so much of the surrounding animal you can't tell where you are about to place the bullet. The smaller the aperture, the worse the problem.
Tang sights have always been excellent for elevation adjustments (and sometimes too easy) but poor for windage. The old Lyman sight that hung off the top tang of a Savage 99 like a droopy diving board could be adjusted only for windage by loosening the screws and tilting it with a shim. Hardly an elegant arrangement.
The Lyman tang sights for the Winchesters (1894, 1886, etc.) were the best overall but sometimes presented problems. For example, the model for the 1886 (an original Lyman No. 1, second variation, graces the 1886 in the lead photo for this article) has to sit far back on the tang to allow the bolt to operate, which then forces the shooter to lay his thumb along the grip instead of around it. With the recoil of some '86 chamberings, that is dicey.
The aperture sight for hunting reached its zenith with the magnificent Lyman 48 in its many variations to fit almost any rifle. They were carefully made of good blued steel and got better looking with use. Their adjustments were almost as exact as a target sight, but the 48 itself was unobtrusive. Redfield also made some excellent sights, along with Marble, while Williams catered to the economy market.
The great Lymans and Redfields will never return because today they would cost as much as a decent riflescope. There is a lively collector market for them (especially the Lymans), and you can usually find one for a favorite rifle, but it won't be cheap.
They are not readily compatible with a scope, even a detachable one, because the bases get in the way. If you want to use a receiver sight, best just to put it on and leave it at that.
Over the years, some individual models have been outstanding. The Lyman tang sights for the Model 94, typified by the 2A, achieved near-perfection of form and function for that particular rifle. The same approach on an 1886 fell short because of recoil, length of bolt throw and thumb position.
For the Savage 99, the Rolls-Royce of Lymans was the 56S, a micrometer-adjusted receiver sight that fit on the 99's tang (pre-tang safety). The 57SA was probably equally good, but I searched long for a 56S for my 1899 target rifle in .32-40. I then found an after-market Merit aperture with an adjustable leaf diaphragm similar to a camera. For a target setup, it is fantastic, but it's no hunting sight.
Lyman's designers were truly ingenious, and some of their designs are fascinating on or off a rifle.
The Winchester Model 1894 and the Lyman No. 2 tang sight make one of the all-time great iron-sighted rifle combinations.
The Model 35, for example, was made for the original Mauser 98 and fastened to the bolt stop on the left side using the bolt stop's own screw. It's as if Lyman's engineers took every good idea they ever had and incorporated them all into one sight.
There is a vernier adjustment with movable elevation marker, a quick-release lever to allow the sight stem to be removed, and a setting pin that ensures it returns to zero when you reinstall it. Instead of screw-in apertures, it has a flip-up aperture with a smaller opening for long range.
The sight dispenses with a knurled knob for windage adjustments and uses a discreet folding key. I've tried to estimate what such a sight would cost today. If you could have it made at all, it would probably approach $500.
On my hunt, I loaded the Uberti High Wall with 500-grain lead bullets. We crawled, crept and bluffed our way to within 75 yards of the bison, holding spare rounds between the fingers and cradling the rifle in the rawhide sling of our homemade shooting sticks. A wind from the high mesa whipped the grass and swirled the snow.
The bull stood his ground and dared us to come closer. With the sticks and the open sights, I was just able to make out where I wanted the bullet to go and put it there. He staggered and dropped. Except for Cape buffalo, it was the first big game animal I had taken with open sights in many years. It probably won't be the last.