Old World fixed sights
Don’t raise the bridge, lower the river
By Dennis Adler
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.