Old World fixed sights
Don’t raise the bridge, lower the river
By Dennis Adler
The big gun of the Old West was the .45 caliber Colt Buntline Single Action. With a 12-inch barrel length, as short as 10-inches and as long as 16-inches, that front sight was a ways out, and you had plenty of steel to sight along. A man with a Buntline could make the long shot.
That’s the title of a 1968 Jerry Lewis comedy that has nothing to do with handguns or air pistols, but the title makes a statement that does, because for the longest time in the history of handguns, the sights, if there were sights at all, were fixed in place. You didn’t adjust the sights, you adjusted your aim.
Long barrels were not an exception back in the 17th century, when the most powerful handgun made was the Wheelock. This model’s design dates back to the German Wheelock pistols built from around 1580 to 1620. There is a long hook on the opposite side of the frame so that it could be hung from a sword belt.
The front sights for handguns more or less evolved from the front sights on muskets, fowlers, and longrifles. The handgun, as an idea, began as the Chinese hand cannon, a small barrel one held in the hand, lit the fuse and pointed at a target. After awhile people started mounting the barrel on a short stick; it was easier to get another stick. Fast forward to the late 16th century and the hand gun was making a comeback in Europe, principally in Southern Germany, as a practical, hand held weapon with a clockwork-like firing mechanism known as a Wheel Lock (or Wheelock). To put this handgun design in some historical perspective, in the period from the mid 1500s to the early 1600s, a trained marksman armed with a Wheelock pistol could shoot a knight in armor off his horse. Of course, this worked as well the other way; a mounted soldier could carry two loaded Wheelock pistols in saddle holsters and one or two more hooked around a sword belt, and return fire from horseback. Hitting a moving target with a large caliber pistol that took almost a half second to fire from the time the trigger was pulled, was no small accomplishment.