by B.B. Pelletier
Leslie Foran (aka Desertdweller) took this winning photo of his grandson Nicky Crocker shooting a Daisy 856.
Today, we’ll look at peep sights. Do you think a peep sight is a modern invention? Wrong! Despite what Wikipedia says, peep sights date from at least as far back as the 1840s and perhaps even a half-century earlier. There were sights enclosed in tubes during the American Revolution (1775-1783), but those had not yet reached the full development of the sights I will discuss today. By 1840, peep sights were being offered by a great many rifle makers.
The first peep sight consisted of a round, flat plate with a hole drilled through its center. It was mounted on a threaded stalk; and when turned, it could be screwed up and down for vertical adjustment. One-half turn was all that was required, because the plate was the same on both sides. It was located on the tang of a rifle and was used in conjunction with a very fine front bead sight that was mounted atop a tall thin post. This early peep sight has been called a lollipop sight for more than a century because of the resemblance to that candy.
This lollipop sight is from a later schuetzen rifle, but it’s very similar to ones made before the American Civil War.
The front sight was so thin as to be fragile, and so was enclosed in a steel tube — or what we now call a globe. The earliest type of front bead was made from pig bristles that were touched on their tips by a red-hot iron. The heat caused the bristle to melt into a tiny ball that became the bead. The other end of the bristle was stuck in a small piece of soft pine and covered with shellac to hold it in place. The piece of wood was then attached inside the front tube, completing the sight. Later front posts were filed from steel, but they could never be as thin as the ones made from pig’s bristle.
This steel front post and bead is many times thicker than the pig’s bristle front sight mentioned in this report.
Using the peep sight
To use the peep sight, the shooter looked through the hole in the plate (the peephole) and focused on the front bead. The bead was then held either in the center of the target or just under the center, depending on the type of targets being used. An early target was a wooden shingle blackened by fire and scraped white in the center. This white spot was called the mark, and early target shooting was called “Shooting at a mark.”
You’ll notice that I didn’t discuss where the front bead is supposed to be positioned relative to the peephole. That’s because it doesn’t work that way! If you look through a peephole and keep both eyes open, your brain will automatically center the bead in the center of the peephole, because that’s the source of the brightest light.
From the shooter’s perspective, all he does is look through the peephole and put the front bead on the target. His eyes do the rest. That’s why the peep sight is so much more precise than sporting types of open sights.
When the front sight is a square post, it works the same; but you have to estimate the location of the middle of the peephole. On some sights with large peepholes, that can be difficult. It’s still many times faster than a post-and-notch sight set and at least as prercise.
This is what a square-post front sight looks like through a peep. The aim point is 6 o’clock on the bull.
The front aperture
Around 1874, a new type of front sight came into widespread use. It was an aperture atop a post, and the reason it took until 1874 to come into use was because most targets weren’t round until then. Most shooters shot at targets that were squares, so a round aperture wasn’t of much use. But when the American Standard target came into accepted use (the National Rifle Association lobbied for it), it brought the front aperture with it.
To use this type of front sight with the rear peep sight, you look through the peep and focus on the front aperture. Center the black bull in the aperture, and you’re done. As long as your front aperture is very close to the same size as the black bull downrange, all you have to do is align a series of concentric circles.
This is what you see through the peep sight when the front sight is an aperture and the bull is round.
Keep both eyes open!
It isn’t just a good idea to keep both eyes open when using a peep sight — it’s absolutely essential to their proper operation. I did a blog on this back in 2009 that gave you a quick experiment to conduct. If you do so, you will discover why you must keep both eyes open to use peep sights!
In what era do you place the movie Quigley Down Under? Be careful, because the rear sight on his rifle had not been used on an American rifle before 1874. That was the year the UK champion Irish Rifle Team challenged the US team to a match to decide the world championship. The US had no team at the time of the challenge, nor did we have any standard rifles that were up to shooting the 800-, 900- and 1000-yard distances involved. Even the rifle range known as Creedmoor was specially built for this challenge match.
To help the American team, both Sharps and Remington made special Creedmoor match rifles fitted with the very first vernier rear peep sights ever used in this country. They also had wind-gauge front sights to adjust for the drift and winds on the range.
When I return with the next section of this report, I’ll show you what an advancement this really was.