Magnifying riflescopes saw some use in the American Civil War, and were preferred by a few bison hunters, including the famous Col. William Dodge. However, it wasn’t until after WWII that scopes were truly perfected and came into general use.
Today, the centerfire rifle world is dominated by magnifying riflescopes. They simplify shooting: Larger image to shoot at, easy to adjust, and so reliable that we trust them completely I’m as guilty as anyone. I started shooting in the 1960s. My first centerfire, a surplus 1903 Springfield, wore open military sights. I didn’t hunt with it back then; my first hunting rifle was a scoped .243. Many years passed before I did any hunting with iron sights.
Folks of my generation might have taken their first bucks with grand-dad’s passed-down .30-30, but many are like me; started with scopes, stayed with scopes…or went to a scoped rifle as soon as affordable. Younger shooters may not have any exposure to iron sights at all. My daughters are good shots and keen hunters, but neither have had much exposure to iron sights. That’s my fault; I started them with scopes, bypassing important lessons. Iron sights make you appreciate the importance of precise sight alignment. Never too late but, trust me, it’s easier to go from iron sights to a scope than vice versa!
Why would you want to? Well, not all field shooting is at distance. There are many situations where the magnified image offered by a scope isn’t needed, and a few where the larger image and the scope’s tunnel-vision effect just gets in the way. Also, under all circumstances, the scope adds weight, bulk, and vegetation-snagging projections.
Sometimes, iron sights do everything that needs to be done. There are two primary types of irons: Open sights, and the aperture or “peep” sight. With both, there is a front sight near the muzzle, usually a blade or a bead. The open variety has a rear sight, typically affixed to the barrel just ahead of the action, usually a horizontal bar with an open notch, commonly shaped as a “U” or a “V.” The idea is to optically center the rear sight in that notch, then superimpose it on your aiming point. The primary problem with open sights: The eye must work in three focal planes: Rear sight, front sight, and target.
The aperture sight has a rear sight with a circular opening, mounted far back, close to the shooting eye, on the rear of the receiver. Also often called a “receiver sight,” it is far superior to the open sight because the eye naturally centers the bead or tip of the blade in that opening. The peep sight reduces the eye’s work from three focal planes to two. You don’t look at the rear sight; you look through the hole, center the front sight, and superimpose it on your aiming point. The aperture sight is more precise, and more forgiving as our eyes grow older, less flexible, and less able to rapidly focus back and forth.
The scope further reduces the eye’s work to just one focal plane: Focus on the target only, and put the scope’s reticle on the aiming point. So, and especially for older shooters (like me), a scope or reflex (red dot) sight is optically superior to an aperture. I will not tell you that open sights are necessarily sturdier or less prone to breakage than a modern scope properly set in good mounts. Not always true. Over the years, I’ve had more front sights and rear sights bend, break, or come loose than trouble with scopes. Especially today, open sights on many factory rifles are flimsy afterthoughts; put there for looks, with apparent confidence the customer is certain to mount a scope and will never actually use the irons.
However, open sights, and especially securely-mounted aperture sights, still have a place. Accuracy is not limited or reduced, but depends somewhat on visual acuity. In my day, the service rifle wore no optical sight; I qualified Marine “expert” throughout my career with aperture sights. No problem, but the 300-meter slow fire bullseye looked pretty small. So does a game animal, but such shooting is quite possible, limited only by what you can see. Twenty years ago, I could produce MOA groups with aperture sights on accurate rifles. Those days are over, followed by a period when I had increasing difficulty resolving front sights. I was almost out of business with all iron sights. Fortunately, a good ophthalmologist has me corrected and I’m again confident using iron sights for short-range hunting situations.
Before riflescopes were perfected, the aperture sight was the precision hunting sight. Jack O’Connor did his early hunting, including desert sheep and Coues deer, with apertures. Ernest Hemingway did almost all of his hunting with the aperture sight on his famous Springfield.
I love the simple, low profile of an aperture-sighted rifle, and they go well with certain platforms I like. While I don’t trust myself with apertures in open country, I use them for a lot of hog and black bear hunting, even some elk and whitetail hunting, and I’ve used them in Africa for stalking in thornbush.
Again, I won’t harp on the ruggedness versus a scope, and I also won’t make a case for their enhanced speed. Years ago, with gunwriters John Wootters and Finn Aagaard, we did “stopwatch” tests comparing apertures, open sights, and low-power scopes. Starting in down position, from “go” to aimed shot at close targets, the aperture proved faster than open sights, but the scope was consistently faster and more accurate than any iron sight.
Any iron sight is also a handicap in poor light. There is no light-enhancing advantage offered by good optics. Open sights are worse for light than apertures, but even younger shooters with perfect vision will lose shooting light more quickly than with scopes. Older hunters are at increasing disadvantage in bad light.
To a degree, we can increase speed and low-light capability by using a larger and more visible front sight; and a larger aperture. This is a trade-off. The smaller the bead or thinner the tip of the blade front sight, the more precise the aiming point. My preference has long been a bold 3/32-inch front bead, a nice combination between size and visibility. I like a traditional white front bead, but today’s tritium and fiber-optic sights are even better.
Likewise, the smaller the aperture, the more precise the aim. The target aperture sights used when I was shooting smallbore competition had an opening like a pinhead. Very precise, but also slow to acquire.
The opposite is a very large opening. Older aperture sights, such as the Lyman, often came with multiple screw-in interchangeable apertures, small for target use, larger for faster shooting. You can also unscrew the aperture altogether, and simply sight through the opening. “Papa” Hemingway left us multiple references to unscrewing his aperture…and then blowing through the hole to eliminate droplets from precipitation or dew.
The remaining opening, on older Lyman and Redfield apertures I have, measures about .200-inch diameter. This creates what is called a “ghost ring” aperture. Because the rear sight is close to the eye, no effort is made to focus on the sight fixture; it fuzzes out to almost invisible. The eye ignores the sight, concentrating on looking through the opening and focusing on the front sight.
For everyday use in dangerous-game country, I’ve never known an African PH who carried a scoped rifle. Most common is the simple “express” open sight with a shallow “V” rear. Not precise, but as fast as open sights get and, once properly affixed to the barrel, as bulletproof as an open sight can be. This is the traditional sight most PHs rely on for backup, but I’ve known several who preferred ghost-ring apertures, faster and more precise.
The ghost ring aperture was long popular among America’s big woods hunters, and it’s making a comeback, wonderfully common on the big lever-actions we now call “guide guns.” Whether for a guide for backup, or for wilderness wanderers preparing for bear problems, the concept is perfect. The shot will be close, and must be fast. I greatly admire the Skinner ghost-ring apertures, elevation adjustment accomplished by turning the aperture up and down. Recent and current Marlin .45-70 “guide guns have been factory-equipped with an adjustable XS ghost ring on a rail mount, also excellent. Big Horn Armory supplies Skinner ghost rings on their top-eject M89 lever-actions, a perfect match. These are not long-range precision sights, but the rifles they are most commonly used on are not long-range platforms.
The aperture sight isn’t just for proof against big, bad bears. Today, I consider it a sound option for shots up to roundabout 100 yards. Farther if you can see better. That does me just fine for most of hog hunting, and covers all likely shots from several of my favorite deer stands. I get great pleasure from hunting with apertures. My biggest limitation is light: I will lose the first and last ten minutes (at least). Better plan accordingly.