Posts Tagged ‘rear sight’
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
This is a subject that is dear to a lot of experienced shooters and a turnoff to younger shooters. Peep sights are a blessing to those who have discovered how easy they are to use, but they are avoided by shooters who aren’t familiar with them. The common misconception is that a peep sight is somehow more complex than a traditional open notch rear sight, but the truth is that the peep sight is actually simpler and faster to use than the open notch.
With an open notch sight, you have to align the rear notch with the front post. There can be several different variations of how it works, such as post and bead or squared-off front post, but the process of using them is the same for all of them. The rear element and front element must be aligned, then held against the target in a certain location (i.e., 6 o’clock hold or center hold).
With a peep sight, you don’t do that. You just look through the rear hole and align the front sight element only against the target. Your eye uses the peephole to adjust your vision by forcing your pupil to adjust for the best depth of vision. It’s an unconscious and automatic response to looking through the small peephole; and, if you allow your eye to do its job instead of fighting it, your brain will help you obtain a more precise sight picture than with open sights.
There are shooters with remarkable vision who can sight with open notch sights extremely well. But if you don’t have great vision, and by that I mean if your vision is average or worse, the peep sight should work better for you. But that’s only for those who don’t fight the rear sight and just look through it.
Today, I want to address something that I’ve seen discussed a lot on the internet, and that’s the size of the peephole. I see that many people feel the hole must be large or they cannot use it. Indeed, I’ve seen several peeps that have been drilled out by their owners. The fact is that there are good reasons for both large and small peep holes.
Large holes allow more light to pass through; and, when used, they acquire the target faster. They’re used on American military arms like the M16, the Krag, the 03-A3 Springfield, the M1 Carbine, the Garand and many others. They’re also found on slug guns used for deer in brushy forest hunting situations where speed is more important than precision.
The M1 Garand peep is about average size for a battle sight.
The 03-A3 sight adjusted for windage as well as elevation. Not all of them did. I can shoot MOA with this sight.
The M1 Carbine peep was a rough and ready sight. The rifle wasn’t that accurate, so the sight didn’t need to be precision.
The battle sight in this No. 4 Enfield is huge. When the sight standard flips up there is a hole less than half this size. It adjusts only for elevation.
Can such large holes be precise? Yes, they can. I have shown you at least one one-inch five-shot group shot with my 03-A3 Springfield at 100 yards. But the norm would be a larger group. Even the Garand would shoot about a two-inch group at 100 yards on most days. Your goal with a large peep is minute-of-bad-guy.
One secret I’ve learned about using a large peep hole with greater precision is to hold the sight away from my eye. The farther back I place my sighting eye, the more precision I get from a large hole. I didn’t invent that idea; I learned it while shooting the Buffington peep sight on my Trapdoor Springfield that was made in 1875 (the rifle, only — the sight didn’t come about until 1884). The Buffington sight puts the rear peep hole about 14 inches from the sighting eye, and the hole is not that large. You would look at it and imagine that you could never use such a sight, but the truth is that when there’s enough daylight that peep gives precision that rivals the finest tang target sights found on target single-shot rifles. The reason is because of how far the hole is from your eye.
Col. Buffington designed this rear sight that combines a peep (several, actually) and a notch. It can be used for long-range precision fire. A great many buffalo fell to this sight on this rifle.
A small peephole passes less light and forces you to hold your sighting eye closer to the hole to see the sight picture. Many sights with small holes also have some kind of flexible shade to shield the sighting eye from light that’s not coming through the peep hole, thus sharpening the sight picture noticeably.
The precision FWB peep sight has a large rubber light shade to keep the sighting eye in the dark.
Crosman mounted their version of a Mossberg S331 peep sight on the 160 target rifle. This sight, alone, is worth at least $75 today. Notice how small the hole is. That’s what’s needed for precision.
Small peepholes take longer to use but provide a more precise sight picture. Use them when fractions of an inch are important, such as when target shooting or when hunting game at longer ranges such as 400 to 600 yards.
This is Ballard’s mid-range peep sight mounted on the tang of my Ballard rifle. My eye is so close to the hole that I push the sight forward when the rifle recoils.
The secret to using a small peephole is to get as close to the hole as you can. Do this even with recoiling rifles. My Ballard, for example, is in caliber .38-55 and kicks about like a 30-30, yet I put my eye less than an inch from the peephole. I have to because it’s so small that I couldn’t use it if I was much farther back. When the rifle fires, my forehead always folds the sight forward as the recoil brings the gun back. That’s how I know I’m using the sight to its best ability. Of course, if the sight doesn’t move when you hit it, you don’t want to do this!
When my FWB 300S target air rifle comes back in recoil (the action moves in the stock to cancel the feeling of recoil) the rubber eyepiece always pushes against my eye. That’s how I know I’m sighting correctly . It works okay on that rifle, but my HW55CM comes back a little too aggressively, and I’m more cautious about holding that sight close to my eye.
Use BOTH eyes!
It is of paramount importance to keep BOTH eyes open when using a peep sight. If you close the non-sighting eye, the peephole will also close up. It’ll do so variably, depending on how much you’re squinting to close the other eye, and the result is you no longer have a round hole to look through. I told you about the man who was shooting the M1 Garand a couple weeks ago and was closing his off eye. He was getting 12-inch groups at 100 yards from a rifle that was probably capable of groups one-sixth that size.
If you want to see how this works, take a piece of card stock and poke a hole in it. Look through the hole with both eyes open (one eye looking through the hole and the other eye just open). Then, as you’re looking through the hole, close your non-sighting eye and watch what happens. The hole seems to close up! That’s what you are doing when you close your non-sighting eye while using a peep sight.
Peep sights are an advancement over open sights. They don’t work for everyone, because those with severe eye problems often have trouble using them. But the majority of people can use a peep sight and obtain better accuracy with less time spent if they don’t fight the sight. They’ve been used on all American military battle rifles since 1884; and though the move is now toward optical sights, a peep will probably remain as the backup sight for some time.
If you’ve never tried a peep sight, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Use this report as a primer for learning how to use the sight and see if it doesn’t give you greater accuracy with less work.
by B.B. Pelletier
This report is in response to a comment Pyramyd Air got from a customer who doubts that fixed-barrel airguns can ever droop. His position is that they can only have droop if the barrel is heated in some way (as on a firearm that fires very fast) or if the gun is assembled in a shoddy fashion.
He said he believed barrel droop is only commonly found on breakbarrel airguns, which is why he said he would never own one. He thought that droop was mostly caused by the metallurgy of the barrel.
Today, I’d like to address the subject of barrel droop in detail. It can be caused by many things, but poor metallurgy isn’t one of them. Barrels do not bend from cocking, despite what some people may think. It is true that a barrel can be bent by human force, but the force required to do so is much greater than the heaviest cocking effort on the most powerful magnum airgun. So, poor metallurgy is not a contributor to barrel droop.
What is barrel droop?
I will explain what barrel droop is in detail later in this report. For now, I’ll just say that barrel droop is a condition in which an air rifle shoots so low that the scope cannot be adjusted to hit the target.
You must understand that most scopes cannot be adjusted all the way to their highest elevation settings and still operate correctly. This will differ from scope to scope, but generally most scopes do not work well when adjusted above three-fourths of their maximum elevation. It’s imperative that they get on target before reaching that height, and a drooping barrel can prevent that.
Throughout the first five decades of spring-piston air rifles, no one ever heard of barrel droop. It was a non-issue. That was because nobody bothered scoping their air rifles.
The sights on most breakbarrel guns are attached to the barrel, both at the front and rear, so they’re in line with the bore — as long as the bore is drilled straight through the barrel, which it seldom is. The amount of misalignment is usually measured in the thousandths of an inch — an amount the sights can easily account for.
With both the front and rear sight attached to the barrel, there’s less chance for misalignment.
In the 1960s, retailers began attaching scopes to airguns to sell more of them. Firearms had been using scopes for some time, and the general belief among shooters was that scopes extracted the maximum accuracy from any gun.
But scopes had a problem, as well. They were attached to the spring tube of the gun, which isn’t integral with the barrel on a breakbarrel airgun. For the first time, the alignment of the spring tube and barrel came into question.
It soon became known that most breakbarrel guns have a barrel that slants downward from the axis of the spring tube. In the 1960s and ’70s, breakbarrels were hand-selected for scope use when they exhibited less slant than other guns of the same model. You can read about this selection program in both the Air Rifle Headquarters and Beeman catalogs of the period.
What those catalogs didn’t address was the fact that fixed-barrel airguns can and do sometimes have the same barrel slanting problems. They didn’t address it because, at the time, scoping airguns was brand new and not that much was known about it. The people scoping the guns often installed simple fixes, such as shimming the rear ring, and didn’t even think about why they were doing it.
Why the barrel droops
The comment that prompted this blog went on to say that barrel droop was caused by poor metallurgy. Evidently, the writer thought that “droop” referred to a barrel that was curved (or bent) downward — which is not the case. The term “droop” doesn’t refer to a barrel that is somehow curved. It means a barrel that points in a direction away from the sight line, so the axis of the bore and the sight line are diverging. To correct for this droop, the scope has to be repositioned to align with the axis of the bore.
We all understand that a pellet starts falling the moment it leaves the muzzle. The farther from the muzzle it goes, the faster it falls; so the line of flight is actually an arc, rather than a straight line. To align the sight line of the scope with the axis of the bore, we have to align the scope to look downward through the line of flight. To be effective — that is to get any distance over which the pellet is on target — the sight line is made to pass through the arc of the pellet twice — once when the pellet is close to the gun and again when it’s farther away.
The scope is angled down through the pellet’s trajectory. This illustration is greatly enhanced for clarity. This alignment is done the same for firearms and airguns, alike.
But the question is, “Why does the barrel point downward?” With a breakbarrel, it’s usually because of how the breech locks up at a slight angle that causes the downward slant. Some guns, most notably target breakbarrels, overcome this with barrel locks that cam the breech tightly against the spring tube in a straight line. Most guns rely on the spring-loaded detent to both align and hold the barrel during firing. If there’s a weakness, it’s at this point. When a breakbarrel with an unlocked breech fires, the barrel tends to flex in the direction the barrel is hinged. If the barrel broke upward to cock, the problem would be reversed and we would have a barrel “climb” problem.
A breech lock like the one on this HW 55 ensures that the barrel always aligns with the sights — provided the rifle is designed that way.
Do you now understand that the barrels are perfectly straight, and it’s just the angle of the bore’s axis relative to the line of sight that creates the drooping problem? Good, because that’ll make the following easier to understand.
What about underlevers and sidelevers with fixed barrels?
How can a fixed-barrel rifle have droop? Easy — the barrel isn’t attached to the gun with the bore parallel to the line of sight. Presto! Automatic sighting problem. Or the scope base that’s attached to the spring tube may not be aligned with the axis of the bore. Or the bore may be drilled off-center; and although the outside of the barrel is parallel to the sight line, the bore’s axis isn’t. Any of these three things can happen.
Bore not drilled straight
This is very common. It’s extremely difficult to drill a deep (long) hole straight through a steel bar. The drill bit can wander off-axis as it bites its way through the steel, or it can be off-axis all the way through the bore if it isn’t correctly set into the holding fixture before the drilling begins. I’ve had barrels with bores as much as a quarter-inch off-axis with the outside. Granted that’s extreme and uncommon, but it demonstrates the possibility.
The only way a barrel-maker can ensure concentricity of the bore to the outside of the barrel is to machine the outside of the barrel after the gun is rifled.
Barrel isn’t aligned with the spring tube
This problem is also common. When the barrel is pressed into the spring tube (usually into a block that’s held in the front of the spring tube), the bore isn’t aligned with the spring tube. You might think that modern manufacturing processes make perfect things time after time, but the truth is that there’s always some variation.
Scope base on top of the spring tube is not aligned with the bore
Of all the problems with scope alignment, this one is the most common. Off-axis bores are usually held to just a few fractions of an inch for which the scope adjustments can easily compensate. The same is true for barrels that are bushed off-axis. But scope bases are both short as well as attached in such a way (by spot-welds and rivets) that precision is difficult to maintain. Because scope bases are short, any small deviation in their positioning is exaggerated when extended out to infinity by a scope’s sight line. This is the one place where firearms and certain brands of airguns have an advantage over other brands, because they machine their scope bases into the receiver (of a firearm) or scope tube, rather than riveting or spot-welding the base to the scope tube. If the tooling is set correctly, the machining process ensures alignment of the scope base.
Talking about the spot-welded and riveted scope bases brings us to a discussion of one well-known company that makes highly regarded spring-piston air rifles. This company stands head and shoulders above the others when it comes to having barrel droop — both with their breakbarrels and their fixed-barrel air rifles. That company is Diana. Historically, enough Diana air rifles have had barrel droop so severe that special corrective scope mounts have been made and successfully marketed for their models. Even RWS, who exports Diana airguns, has marketed such a corrective scope mount.
But even Diana can change. Their most recent breakbarrel is their 350 magnum model in all of its various forms, and this rifle is very noticeably immune to the drooping problem. Something has changed at Diana. I would think that, over time, we’ll see this change spread to all of their models.
Firearms also have droop
Drooping isn’t just an airgun problem. Firearms have droop, too. But because of how firearms were scoped in the early days, nobody noticed the problem.
When firearms were scoped back in the 1940s and ’50s, many of them did not have optional scope mounts available. It was very common back then for a gunsmith to drill-and-tap holes into the firearm to accept scope base screws. Naturally, when a gunsmith did the job, he would align the holes in the scope mounts so the axis of the barrel was in line with the sight line seen through the scope. If there was any barrel droop, it was corrected as the mounts were installed.
Do barrels only droop (slant down)?
Before someone asks the obvious question, I’ll address it. Yes, there are airguns with barrels that slant up, plus point to the left and to the right too much for the scope to compensate. They’re not encountered as often as droopers, but they’re not unheard of. The reasons for most of these problems are the same as for droopers except for one standout reason.
If a breakbarrel rifle has been fired with the barrel open, so the barrel was allowed to snap closed from the force of the mainspring, that rifle will have a bent barrel. The barrel will be bent upward at the point it emerges from the baseblock, which is the piece that holds the barrel in the action. It’s where the pivot bolt attaches. It’s the blocky-looking piece the barrel is coming out of in both photos of guns in this report.
For this type of problem, the solution is to bend the barrel straight again. Any qualified airgunsmith should be able to straighten a barrel that has this problem, and a number of owners have learned to straighten their own bent barrels..
Most airgun barrels don’t droop
To put this report into the proper perspective, I should mention that a drooping barrel isn’t that common. I have several air rifles whose barrels are okay for shooting with scopes as they came from the factory. And, of the hundreds of rifles I test, only a small percent have a drooping problem. So, it isn’t a given that your rifle will droop.
But you may get a drooper, and you can rest assured that there are plenty of solutions to rectify the situation should you encounter it. The things to remember are:
Not all breakbarrels droop. Only a small percentage do these days.
Rifles with fixed barrels can also have droop, for the reasons mentioned in this report. It is not as common to find a fixed barrel with droop, but any air rifle that has a separate scope base that’s either spot-welded or riveted in place is a likely candidate for droop.
Firearms have droop, just like airguns. But the amount of droop is small enough that it’s corrected by the scope or by the mounts that are supplied by the firearms manufacturers.
by B.B. Pelletier
Willliam Davis is this week’s Big Shot of the Week. Here he’s showing off his Crosman pistol with shoulder stock. He says he gets one-hole groups with it.
It’s time to advance through the 20th century and look at open sights as they evolved. We now know that by the beginning of the 20th century almost everything that could be done to increase accuracy with open sights had already been done. There were a few nice touches that were added, but most of the hard work had already been done. But that didn’t mean the gun makers were finished. There were always new embellishments that could be added. Yet, some of the sights that were most popular in the 20th century actually got their start in the 19th century.
Buckhorn rear sights
Buckhorn rear sights were actually popularized in the American West in the second half of the 19th century. But they became very trendy around the 1920s, and the trend lasted well into the late 1950s — past the time when they made any real difference to shooting and were more of an adornment that some shooters expected to see. Though they were originally mounted on single-shot muzzleloading rifles, they are perhaps best-known as the sights for Western-style lever guns.
A buckhorn sight is very distinctive.
When you see a full buckhorn rear sight, you instinctively know it was created for some specific purpose, though there’s very little literature that actually explains it. I’ll now go out on a limb and explain the sight as I understand it.
A buckhorn rear sight is a ranging sight. What that means is that it’s a sight that can quickly be “adjusted” to shoot at different ranges without touching the sight. All you do to change the distance is change the sight picture. There are three clear sighting options when you sight through a buckhorn. The sight is nearly always associated with a post-and-bead front sight; and when it isn’t, I suspect someone has changed one of the two sights — either front or rear.
The bead can be held in the small notch at the bottom of the buckhorn for close shots. I would tell you that this is the 50-yard sight picture, but that would be misleading. On some guns, it might be exactly that, while on others the distance will be different. Suffice it to say this is the closest range at which the sight can be used without any adjustment.
When the muzzle is elevated until the front bead appears in the center of the hole described by the arms of the buckhorn (sort of like using a large peep sight), you have the middle range. Again, I can’t tie this to a specific distance without referring to a specific gun. And when the muzzle is elevated so the bead is between the points of the horns at the top, you have the longest range at which the sight can be used without adjustment.
All three ranges are achieved without moving the rear sight — by simply elevating the front post in relation to the buckhorn. That’s the purpose of the buckhorn sight as I understand it. If you have one on a 44/40, the three distances will be different than if you have one on a .22 rimfire. You should bear in mind that when the buckhorn was invented, men typically had just one rifle and they learned it well. It wouldn’t take long to become accustomed to the ranges for which their own rifle was sighted.
Now for the bad news. Most riflemen dislike the buckhorn, finding it crude, obstructive and generally not useful. Townsend Whelen was very outspoken against it. And most shooters who own one simply use the lowest notch for sighting, so the extra capability goes to waste. But it looks very Western, hence my remark about it passing into the realm of a fad.
Worse than the buckhorn is the semi-buckhorn, which is neither fish nor fowl. It was even more common than the buckhornand appeared on most rimfire rifles of the 1940s and ’50s because of its supposed popularity. It’s not a ranging sight like the buckhorn — just a stylistic form that’s supposed to look cool. It was popular at the same time the semi-beavertail forearm was considered necessary. Nobody asked shooters what they preferred. Companies just attached these sights to their guns and that was what you got– not unlike the fiberoptics of today.
The semi-buckhorn rear sight is just a stylized rear notch with two long arms that add nothing to the functionality.
Fiberoptic sights have synthetic or glass tubes that collect light and transmit it to a point at the end of the tubes. The point is oriented toward the shooter’s eye so the fiberoptic tube looks like a bright pinpoint of light. The object is to align the two rear sight dots with the front sight dot so the three appear to be in line. The front dot is usually red or orange and the rear dots are usually green.
It all sounds fine but for one thing. Red is the single color that’s hardest to see for colorblind people, and approximately 14 percent of all men are colorblind in some way and to some degree. Red-green is the most common type of colorblindness. That doesn’t mean these people can’t see the colors red and green, but they have problems seeing all shades of those colors, as well as other colors that are similar. Traffic signals compensate for this by putting yellow into the red and blue into the green, but I’ve seen some fiberoptic tubes that were so dark that I couldn’t tell what color they were. They are always red when that happens, by the way.
The typical fiberoptic front sight is a single red tube like this one from TruGlo.
A common arrangement of a fiberoptic rear sight is to bend one tube so it appears to be two green dots like this one.
The other problem with fiberoptics is they’re so large that they cover a large part of the target. So, aiming precision is lost when the shooter can’t define the aim point any closer than several inches at 50 yards. Good open sights can go down much finer than that, and aperture target sights can go down to tiny fractions of an inch at the same 50 yards.
But many people seem to like fiberoptic sights, and they’re now coming standard on everything, including handguns that they have no business being on. We’ll either have to put up with them as long as the fad lasts or find alternative solutions.
There are still some sights we haven’t looked at yet. One is an optical forerunner of today’s battery-powered dot sight. And the ghost-ring sight is another more recent invention that I know very little about. If any readers are familiar with them, I would love to hear about them. I’ll research them for the report, but I’m hoping the comments will shed more light on the subject — pun intended.
by B.B. Pelletier
This series began with the earliest sights that were both primitive and simplistic. Then, we looked at the evolution of peep sights, starting back before 1840 and progressing to around 1903.
There’s a lot more to be said about both open and peep sights. It was at this point in time that they each began to develop along separate lines. I think I need to concentrate on one type of sight per report to keep things straight. In today’s report, I’ll look at open sights from around the middle of the 19th century until today.
Open sights evolved rapidly after the American Civil War, which ended in 1865. Not that all the innovation was done in the U.S., mind you, but that was a time when the world of firearms was advancing though technological stages, and the sights kept pace with everything. Other wars around the world at the same time drove the armies of many nations to push the limits of firearms; and we got smokeless gunpowder, fixed cartridges, breechloading arms and eventually repeating firearms from this era.
In 1850, a military firearm was loaded at the muzzle and carried but one shot. Repeaters at this time were novelties and even dangerous experiments because of the volatility of black powder. These single-shot martial arms were accurate to about 400 yards on man-sized targets.
In 1900, there were repeating firearms holding 10 self-contained cartridges filled with smokeless powder and spitzer (pointed) bullets that could shoot accurately to more than one mile distance. Most of the primary designs we use today had been invented.
I stopped discussing open sights when I started my look at peep sights; but even though the advances in open sights were not as great in terms of the improvements they contributed to accuracy, open sights did advance in parallel with peep sights.
The old black powder arms were accurate; but because they shot their bullets so slowly, the trajectories were huge. Bullets dropped by many feet on their way to the target. We all like watching Matthew Quigley shoot his big Sharps rifle at distant targets, but how many people appreciate that his bullets are dropping by 60-80 FEET before they impact the target?
Enough fantasy. Let’s get real for a moment. In 1874, the U.S. and Irish rifle teams shot a match at the Creedmoor range on Long Island to decide which nation had the world champion marksmen. They shot at targets at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. At 1,000 yards, the bullets from the Americans’ .45-caliber rifles dropped more than 100 feet. So, they had to set their sights to compensate for this tremendous drop. A 550-grain .45-caliber lead bullet starting out at 1,400 f.p.s. will drop 114.69 feet when it gets to 1,000 yards.
This model 1873 Springfield Trapdoor carbine rear sight (from 1878) is graduated to 500 yards on the ramp and to 1,100 yards on the upright standard. There’s another sight at the top of the standard that’s sighted even farther — perhaps 1,300 yards. Image copied from Trapdoor Springfield by M.D. (Bud) White and B.D. Ernst, copyright 1980, Beinfeld Publishing, Inc.
This 1879 Remington rolling block rear sight on an Argentine military rifle chambered for .43 Spanish (11.15 x 58R) is elevated to shoot 400 yards. By flipping the standard straight up, the rifle can shoot out to 900 yards accurately.
I mention this because airgunners everywhere are so willing to condemn the .22-caliber pellet for having a “rainbow trajectory.” Folks, they don’t know the meaning of that term! And this is the reason that I refuse to give up my fascination for firearms — because I often find remarkable parallels between them and airguns. But some shooters will watch Quigley and then opt for the fastest .177 they can buy, so their pellets don’t drop too much at long range! To heck with that! Instead, take the time to learn where the pellets will drop and shoot the more accurate, heavier pellets. That’s what Quigley did.
So, the military rear sights of the 1870s were long affairs that had inclined ramps to raise them up for long-range shots. By 1900, this had been taken to the absurd limits of 2,000-yards. Nobody could see that far on the battlefield to shoot accurately; but by this time, military leaders were espousing area fire and talked about “beaten zones” and “cones of fire.” They were thinking of rifle bullets in a way similar to artillery shells, except they didn’t explode, of course.
By the turn of the 20th century, military leaders were thinking in terms of 2,000 yards and indirect plunging fire, as this 1896 Mauser rear sight shows. Image copied from Mauser Bolt Rifle, Third Edition by Ludwig Olson, copyright 1976, E. Brownell & Son.
By the time World War I started, the theory of indirect rifle fire was at its height, though it was proven ineffective through actual battlefield experience. Soldiers were also trained to shoot at targets directly, which ended up being the direction that proved the most effective. But the theory did not die. It persisted until the start of World War II, and the weapons that were used continued to have rear sights that adjusted for 2,000-yard fire.
Countries were also experimenting with ammunition at this same time (1898-1915). As each new innovation hit the field, nations scrambled to adapt their weapons to more modern designs that shot farther and flatter. As a result of what they learned, the rear sights also changed to reflect the flatter trajectories.
This model 1898 Mauser rear sight has been updated to reflect the more streamlined 8mm ammunition used during World War II. It’s shown elevated for 2,000 yards, but looks just a little higher than the rolling block rear sight of 1879 that’s set for 400 yards.
Of course, civilian arms kept pace with the military weapons in every way. Once the wars were over, the sights on civilian arms gained the same innovations that served the military so well; because they were sold to individuals instead of governments, they had to be more practical. No shooters wanted sights that were good for 2,000 yards — no matter what their military experience had been. So, the rear sights still elevated, but this time to more reasonable yardages.
This Winchester model 94 rear sight is probably good out to 200 yards, or so (for the 30-30 round). Photo copied from Winchester Model 94 by Robert C. Renneberg, copyright 2009, Krause Publications, Inc.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the express sights that were popularized by African hunters from the 1870s through the 1920s. These are sights that flip up and are regulated for a single cartridge at a single range. The most common that I have seen are those for 100, 200 and 300 yards — but there are many other combinations.
Winchester express rear sight has three flip-up blades for distances to 400 yards. Image copied from Winchester — An American Legend by R.L. Wilson, copyright 1991 by R.L.Wilson. Published in U.S.A. by Random House.
The express sight is a special adaptation of the earlier leaf rear sight that has two distances built in. Those go back as far as the 1850s. I showed you one on my 1867 gallery dart gun.
This rear sight from a gallery dart gun of 1867 could have been the inspiration for the express sights.
Well, that’s it for this time. There’s much more to say about open sights — mainly on the civilian side. We need to look at them, because airgun sights are directly related.
We’ll also look further at peep sights because we haven’t exhausted them, either. This series has at least a couple more parts to come.
by B.B. Pelletier
In Part 2, we learned that the peep sight has been around for a very long time. But following the American Civil War, the entire world became intensely interested in shooting for about 60 years, and target shooting was at the top of the list. World-champion target shooters were regarded like NASCAR drivers are today.
Because of all this interest, the common peep sights that were already at least 50 years old, and perhaps as old as a full century, started to change. By 1870, designers were innovating again. One of the most famous innovators, and the man whose designs are still impacting battle rifles 125 years later, was Col. Buffington of the Springfield Armory. In 1884, Springfield selected his sight for the U.S. .45-caliber, single-shot military rifle — the gun we call the Trapdoor.
The Buffington rear sight is both a peep and several different open notches. It sits 10-12 inches from the eye, yet is easily used with practice. Adjustable for both windage and elevation, it increases the accuracy potential by sharpening the sight picture.
As far as I know, the Buffington sight is the first use of a peep sight on a rifle that was intended for all combat troops. It worked so well at ranges of 500 yards and beyond that the American Army used it on all versions of the Krag and the M1903 Springfield, as well. Even though the peephole is located 10-12 inches away from your eye, it still works with precision.
The U.S. Army was so satisfied with the peep sight that they put it on the O3A3 Springfield of WWII, the M1 Carbine, the Garand, the M14 and all models of the M16/M4. It’s an easier sight to learn and far more precise than an open notch. Only in recent years have our Army and Marine Corps begun to experiment with optical sights, with the declination of the peep sight.
The refinement of the peep sight
But it wasn’t the Buffington sight that brought peep sights to their highest level. It was a challenge in 1873 that came from the champion Irish rifle team to any team of riflemen the Americans could put together for the championship of the world. No one, including the Americans, thought the Irish would lose the match; but just shooting against them was such an honor that we put a team together, built a thousand-yard rifle range and two firearms companies — Sharps and Remington — each built long-range target rifles for the team members to shoot.
The Irish shot Rigby muzzleloaders that were considered the most accurate in the world. No one thought a breechloader had a chance against them. And Rigby, himself, was part of the Irish team!
Until the year of the match (1874), there were no peep sights with vernier scales in the U.S. The best anyone could do was adjust their sights by 1/200 of an inch. At close ranges out to a maximum of 300 yards, that’s good enough; but when the distance is 800, 900 and 1,000 yards, the sight has to adjust in the thousandths of an inch. The way to do that was to add a vernier scale to the sight. So, both Sharps and Remington did exactly that.
A vernier scale is a scale of numbers that aligns with an index, making it possible for the naked eye to see measurements as small as one ten-thousandth of an inch, even though our eyes cannot actually see things that small. The vernier scale magnifies the final measurement for us through an ingenious scale of lines that are 10 times or 100 times larger than the measurement it’s measuring.
This closeup shows the Ballard rear peep sight from 1876. This is a common short-range (up to 300 yards) rear sight that’s adjustable to 1/100 of an inch, with care. There’s no vernier scale on this sight, so it has to be read directly. There’s a lot of interpolation required, and I have to use a jeweler’s loupe to read it that close.
This is a vernier scale on a peep sight. The offset index marks on the small scale align with the sight index marks, but only one of them is aligned perfectly. This allows you to “see” measurements as small as 1/1000 of an inch.
This Ballard front sight from 1876 uses an aperture! It was hand-filed to the correct size for the 20-rod (220 yard) bullseye target. It also works perfectly for a smaller 100-yard bull.
The results of the first international match at Creedmoor was a win for the U.S. team; but the score was extremely close, and the Irish team had fired one shot at the wrong target — losing the score. As far as the world was concerned, the match proved nothing about the superiority of muzzleloaders or breechloaders. However, the next year the U.S. won again in England, and this time the score was more conclusive. The breechloader had finally arrived on the target scene, and peep sights were accepted, though most shooters were using scopes if the rules allowed it. And the day of the precision peep sight with a vernier scale had finally arrived.
The American shooters positioned their rear sights on the heel of the butt, giving them the maximum separation of the front and rear sight, but requiring the shooter to lay down with his feet toward the target and balance the muzzle on his shoes. This odd position was given the name Creedmoor — after the range — and has every since defined that style of prone shooting.
Not every nation adopted the peep sight, and some who were as well-regarded as the Americans (namely the Swiss), shot very well with the older post and notch. They used it right on up through the 1960s. The US, Canada and the UK stayed with the peep sight on their battle rifles because it was quicker to learn, faster to use in battle and more precise.
Notice, also, that target shooters were using front aperture sight elements in the 1870s! Until a few years ago, I thought front apertures were an invention of the 1970s, but they’re at least a full century older. They came about because of changes from square targets to round targets around the mid-1870s.
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.
by B.B. Pelletier
Edith has been after me to write this report for over a year. I’ve been researching it and believe I can do it some justice, but this is a large topic. And it’s a fundamental one — like learning to shoot a handgun one-handed.
I’m going to make the case that the scope sight has destroyed the potential of more shooters than anything else. Not that scopes don’t work, but that they work too well. It’s my opinion that every shooter who is able (and that’s a lot more people than are willing to admit it) should first learn to shoot with open sights; because in doing so, they learn the fundamentals of breathing, trigger control, follow-through and perhaps many other basic components of accuracy as well.
There are several ways to go about this, and I’m going to present it in sort of a chronological sequence. The first guns had no sights at all, but that was okay, because they also were not at all accurate. Trying to aim one of them was almost a lost cause. I’m referring to the early hand cannons.
I see these guns coming to auction on Gun Broker from time to time, and the dealers sometimes list them as “target guns.” What a joke! These guns have wide, flared cannon-type muzzles, no sights and are the antithesis of a target gun. I think people list them that way because they have no notion of how a gun works, and the words they choose are for effect, only.
The first sights were nothing but reference points on the muzzles of guns. Sometimes, it was a raised bump at the top of the muzzle, and other times it was a groove or notch — just something the shooter could refer to when aiming the piece. The bead on a shotgun barrel is very similar to this kind of sight; and for the accuracy potential of the guns that had them, they were sufficient.
The simple bead is all the sight a modern shotgun gets. In essence, a shotgun is much like a musket of old.
The Kentucky rifle ushered in a new type of sight that, while not exactly new on the Kentucky, was certainly made famous by association with it. I’m referring to the low front blade that stood one-eighth inch tall or less and the wide rear vee that was equally low. These sights are so vestigial that they always look worn out to me, yet they’re capable of remarkable accuracy.
By the way, the term “Kentucky” is back in vogue for the types of American long rifles made from 1730 and afterwards — they have long barrels of relatively small caliber. Revisionist historians have tried to shove the title “Pennsylvania” down the throats of shooters and collectors for the past 60 years because most famous of these rifles were made in that region and not in Kentucky, which is just where they were carried and used. The term Kentucky rifle was originally used in Daniel Boone’s time because he explored the Kentucky region and both he and those who went with him carried this style of rifle. It was further popularized in a song during the War of 1812; and although it referred to a group of men in that song, rather than to their firearms, the name stuck.
The fine front sight blade on an early Kentucky rifle is so low that it appears to be worn out. It gave a fine aiming reference to good eyes.
An early Kentucky rear sight is a wide and shallow vee.
The early sights on a Kentucky rifle were low and fine. They gave a very small, sharp sight picture that resulted in extreme precision when good eyes were used.
Most shooters who see these primitive sights today think they’re not capable of accuracy, but history is full of anecdotes that prove otherwise. One of the more famous stories is the shot made by Daniel Boone during an Indian attack, when Boone shot a sniper in the forehead at a measured distance of more than 200 yards. It was a first-shot kill, and was apparently not considered to be that special, given the remarks that were made at the time.
A shooter with good eyes could “draw a bead” using as much or little of the front sight as he chose. Once a person became familiar with his rifle, sighting this way became second nature.
Paper targets found in the possibles bags of shooters prove these old rifles with their simple sights could often group their shots in one inch and less at 100 yards, though 60 yards was far more often the distance for a marksmanship contest. Because wood planks were the preferred targets of the 1700s through the 1860s, not too many original paper targets survive, though the older guns were often still being shot when paper targets came into widespread use after the American Civil War.
The term Kentucky windage stems from another special way the earliest type of sight was used. While the sights were often mounted on dovetails that could be moved left and right, it was much easier for the shooter to simply use a sight picture that compensated for the necessary windage. In other words, hold the rifle so the front sight appeared at different places on the rear vee. Since the need for windage changes with both the distance to the target and the wind, this is a very flexible way of doing it. The very fact that the term is “Kentucky” windage proves, yet again, that the popular name for the rifle was Kentucky and not Pennsylvania.
By holding the front sight to one side of the vee in the rear, the shooter controlled how far to one side the bullet went. This is called Kentucky windage.
Not made today
You’re not likely to see this early style of rifle sight today. The problem is that when Kentucky rifles are made new today, the makers almost never select the early primitive sights described here. Instead, they either use sights that are appropriate to rifles made at the end of the black powder era or they use sights that are even more modern, in the belief that they’re better and more appreciated by the customer. Perhaps they are, but only because the customer has little or no experience with the early, very primitive Kentucky sights.
The sights most often seen on guns we call Kentucky rifles are not the early Kentucky style, but the later plains rifle sights that most muzzleloading rifles had from about 1820 onward. The front blade is taller than the traditional Kentucky blade described above, and the rear sight is taller with a more of a buckhorn design. Many of these later sights are adjustable, or they have features like folding express leaves of different heights.
The American Civil War did much to mature open sights, but not the sights on the military guns. However, the civilian models evolved quite a lot — starting around this time; by 1875, they were as advanced as they would get for another 75 years.
After the American Civil War, front sights grew in height and gained some form like this one from 1867.
This post-1860 rear sight has two leaves for two different distances. Notice that the shallow vee has become a notch.
They also started to branch off into sporting sights and target sights. The sporting sights became more like the style that had been called target sights before 1860, while the target sights evolved into units capable of the greatest precision.
The driving force for this rapid advancement was a worldwide interest in target shooting. It exploded onto the American scene when, in 1874, the U.S. decided to accept the challenge of the Irish National team for the championship of the world. No one expected the Americans to make more than an honorable showing; but when the smoke cleared on the Creedmore rifle range, they were the new world champions!
The target sights they used were one of the special advantages they brought to the field, having increased in precision half an order of magnitude just for this match.
In the next report, I’ll show you how the sporting open sights continued to evolve plus what happened to the target sights.