Old World fixed sights

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.

To operate a Wheelock you used a spanner to wind the wheel and cock the mechanism. Inside, the gun was built like a clock with gears, springs and a chain to lock the tensioned wheel. It was released by the sear when the trigger was pulled. The dog’s head with the iron pyrites swiveled down over the flash pan…

Pulling the trigger released a serrated steel wheel which spun against a piece of iron pyrites held in the jaws of the Wheelock clamp, or dog’s head, creating a spark that ignited a small amount of black powder in the pan, and the flash from that powder was drawn into a touchhole in the side of the barrel, igniting the powder charge in the breech and sending the lead ball down the barrel, and with a little luck, into its appointed target. This is when patience was invented.

…when the trigger was pulled the motion of the wheel uncovered the pan and the pyrites in the jaws of the dog’s head struck the serrated edges of the wheel as it spun, causing a spark to ignite the powder. An instant later, boom!

What you did not have on a Wheelock pistol was a sight, not front or rear, one just aimed down the length of the barrel. Repeated practice instructed shooters where the ball would hit and at what specific distances. It was like training an archer, only the lead ball was traveling faster and hit harder than an arrow. By the time flintlock pistols came about in the late 1600s and early 1700s, brass or silver front sights had been added, and at the rear some form of notch to align with it, but again, one was aiming down the length of the barrel. Fixed sights gave a shooter a fixed point to aim but elevation and windage adjustments were the shooter’s job.

By 1835 Sam Colt had developed and patented the revolver. His first pistols were built from 1836 to 1842. This is a No. 5 Holster Model with 12-inch and 4-3/4 inch barrels, (easily changed by pulling the barrel wedge and removing the barrel from the cylinder arbor passing into the barrel lug. You had to do this to reload as well, or slide the spent cylinder off and replace it with a loaded one. Also shown are a powder and ball flask designed to load all five chambers (powder from one end and .36 caliber balls from the other) at one time. The cylinder arbor was cupped on the end so the pistol was used as a rammer to seat the balls in the chambers. Notice the small German silver front sight. When the hammer was cocked, the trigger dropped down from the frame, and the V-notch in the nose of the hammer served as the rear sight.

While handguns significantly improved by the early 1800s, including the patented Colt’s revolver in 1835, pistol sights honestly were not keeping pace. Samuel Colt’s early percussion revolvers relied on a notch cut into the nose of the hammer, that when cocked, aligned with a small brass or German silver sight mounted on the top of the barrel just behind the muzzle. And this was regarded as an improvement. The same old practice of learning where that lead ball would end up after the trigger was pulled remained unchanged, only with Colt’s pistols the shot was almost instantaneous, more precisely aimed, and another ready an instant later by re-cocking the hammer. Colt changed the world.

By the 1870s, self-contained metallic cartridges made cap-and-ball revolvers obsolete and the top guns of the day were the Colt Peacemaker and Smith & Wesson No. 3 American, Schofield and Frontier models. The Peacemaker and Schofield were the basis for these CO2 models, both hand engraved examples from Adams & Adams sold by Pyramyd Air.

There were further improvements in Colt pistol sights and designs with the use of a blade front sight of German silver beginning with the Model 1860 Army revolver. That front sight idea was carried forward into the early cartridge conversions and on into the Model 1873 Single Action Army. It is worth noting, beginning with the Colt Dragoon models in 1851, detachable shoulder stocks were made available for the Cavalry, and Dragoons so equipped also had an adjustable rear sight added to the back of the barrel for more precise aiming with what was essentially now a carbine pistol.

The old ways worked for a very long time. Using the channel down the top of the frame and a half moon front sight to aim, one could become deadly accurate with a Peacemaker. Practice instructed shooters where the gun shot when aimed…

…others became so proficient with a Single Action that at close range they could shoot from the hip and know exactly where the bullet was going to hit. The weathered finish John Wayne CO2 Peacemakers make this kind of practice great fun.

Easy to see half moon and blade front sights on Colt Peacemakers and other contemporary single action pistols of the day was as far as most pistols went for improved sighting. The rear sight was now a channel down the top of the frame. This was better than a notch in the top of the hammer. The one constant, (with the exception of target pistols like the Colt Single Action Army Flattop and Bisley competition pistols with adjustable rear sights), was that fixed sights were still the rule, and one either adjusted aim from practice knowing how the gun hit, or had the front sight altered! Some had them shaved down to change the gun’s point of aim; others ordered their guns from the Colt factory with different shape front sights.

Bat Masterson had the front sights on his Colt factory ordered guns built to his specifications as noted in this letter from Masterson to the Colt factory ordering a pair of new Single Actions in 1879. His guns were almost all nickel plated, most were engraved and had front sights that were squared off. This is a one-off .45 Colt reproduction of one of the known Masterson pistols ordered from the factory while he resided in Dodge City.

Bat Masterson preferred his front sight wider and squared at the top, for example, and one time lawman and stock detective Tom Horn had his filed down on an angle from rear to front. But in the end they were still all fixed sights.

Those who prefer to learn the skills of shootists like John Wesley Hardin can learn to punch holes in playing cards at 10 paces with a pellet firing CO2 model.

The simplicity of manufacturing guns with fixed sights continued in the early years of American semi-auto pistols like the Colt Model 1911. A fixed sight was what you got on a 1911 for most of the early 20th century, and what lawmen and soldiers learned to use.

Fixed sights didn’t end in the Old West; in fact they have survived to the 21st century. When Colt introduced the Model 1911 it had fixed sights. As a military sidearm that was all that the gun needed. The small front sight was hard to pick up in the small notched fixed rear. It was the one constant in handgun design that hadn’t changed much in over a century.

The now you see it, now you don’t, now you do rear sight on the Luger P.08 was a V notch built into the toggle link design of Georg Luger’s pistols. The  front sight was easy to find.

The same was mostly true of European and British-made guns like the Webley, which had a large ramped blade front and equally massive notched rear atop the latch on the break action release. The popular German Luger, again with the exception of longer barreled models with added adjustable rear sights, all used a blade front and V-notch rear in the toggle. This was an interesting disadvantage as the rear notch momentarily disappeared from the line of sight when the toggle operated. The Walther PPK and P.38 pistols had fixed sights, as did the vast majority of double action revolvers, particularly those with shorter barrels.

Almost all of today’s short barrel revolvers, even advanced designs like this Ruger LCR, still rely on the Colt Peacemaker principle of a rear sight channel down the top of the frame and a blade front sight. Don’t raise the bridge, lower the river….

So, the next time you complain that your CO2 pistol, be it revolver or semi-auto, shoots a little high, a little low or a little wide, and you have to learn to find that sweet spot to aim if you want bullseye accuracy, remember, it’s more authentic than you think, and some are better than the real guns they are based upon! Just grab a Peacemaker and clear your head.

One thought on “Old World fixed sights

  1. There are those who have theories and those who win fights. So it it is with firearms. Theoretically it is good to be able to adjust sights for different loads, for different purposes or or to adjust sights to a load you want to use. Those who won fights knew that fixed sights 38 s hit to poa with 158 gr loads , and 45 Colts did about the same, or you learned where it hit and pointed accordingly. With sa revolvers I have not had to do much to dial them in, more common to trim the front sight on 357, but the 45s were dead on and strike close enough with 200-250 gr slugs to make no difference on steel plates. My Peacemaker airguns except for one have been dead on. 1911 and P08 , dead on. The worst airgun I have , and don’t even shoot is a 6 inch Umarex Python which does not group at all . The old hogleg still does what it was designed for , putting slugs where you point it and winning gunfights.


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