Learning to shoot with open sights: Part 1
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.