The big, old white-tailed buck moved silently through the heavy brush in the bottom of a coulee. He was using a back door to elude a push by several hunters. Naturally, he was moving out well ahead of the approaching pushers and avoiding the blockers. By sheer coincidence, a young hunter happened to be standing above the buck’s escape route. The buck slipped his way through the brush, slowly working below the first-time deer hunter. Not believing his eyes at first, the youngster quickly shouldered his shiny new Winchester Pre-’64 rifle and tried to control his buck fever. He placed the open sights on the front portion of the buck’s chest and fired his first shot at a living animal. Seven shots later, the buck was down and still. The 16-year-old had become a deer hunter, and his world would change forever.
I still own that rifle. Perhaps I should say “action” because I’ve since shot out three barrels from that rifle, and I no longer use the factory stock. For old time’s sake, I have the original Winchester factory barrel stashed in my basement rafters someplace. The folding rear sight and ramped front sight are probably still sighted in from the day I killed my first whitetail. Back in the early 1960s, open sights were installed on virtually every new rifle, and they were put to use in hunting fields all over the world. The riflescope did not dominate the hunting world as it does today.
The Good Old Days
Essentially, there are two types of aiming devices placed on deer rifles—optical (scopes) and non-optical. Those in the latter category include the traditional open-notched rear sights (also called iron sights) and peep (aperture) sights. Front sights are simple blades, with or without a bead on the top. Rear-positioned aiming devices have evolved from simple grooves filed into the top of the barrel to sophisticated target-quality aperture sights.
Through the years, I’ve enjoyed hunting and target shooting with a wide variety of open and aperture sights. Like many kids growing up in a rural setting, I began shooting with a Daisy BB gun. Countless thousands of shots enabled some “fine” shooting. My grandfather’s farm was swarming with sparrows and the little birds made a mess with their droppings if they got into buildings. My cousins and I were expected to lower their numbers, particularly around my grandfather’s equipment shop. I recall the day I shot a sparrow that had made its way into the tractor shed. The bird was sitting on a window-sill, clearly outlined by the bright sky. I bore-down and imagined how Daniel Boone would’ve taken the shot. I held extra-fine and slowly squeezed the trigger. The bird dropped cleanly for an instant kill. A miss would have broken the window and probably caused me to lose my beloved rifle for a few days or worse, but I made the shot and all was well.
I soon outgrew my lever- and pump-action BB guns and moved up to the awesome power of the mighty .22 Long Rifle. Fact is, we usually shot .22 shorts because of “financial irregularities.” The various bolt-action single-shot rifles I mooched were always equipped with very simple open sights, and once again, practice taught me where to hold at various distances to make clean kills on sundry rabbits, squirrels, gophers and other vermin.
Iron Sights For Deer
Our eyes have a much harder time dealing with open sights than they do with riflescopes because we try to see three widely spaced objects—rear sight, front sight and target—as clearly as possible. We must align the front sight in the notch of the rear sight and then place this combination on a deer’s chest, and do this before the deer escapes. Typically, this means the rear and front sights are relatively sharp, but the deer is slightly blurred in the background.
If a deer is out a distance, we naturally hold a bit high to compensate for bullet drop. We can do this by placing the rear and front sight combo higher or by simply moving the front sight upward. Changing the position of the front sight in the notch is sometimes all that is required to make slight elevation adjustments—that is where the term “holding finer” comes from.
If the wind is blowing during a long shot, we also must move the combined sights into the wind to compensate for wind-drift. With no magnification, this can become a challenge if an animal is out past 150 yards. This also goes for hitting running game. We must keep the rear and front sights aligned precisely as we position them ahead of the running buck—again a real challenge for our eyes to handle. Finally, open sights become increasingly difficult to use as we age because our eyes have greater difficulty maintaining sharp focus on objects close or far away.
Now, having said that, today’s deer hunter using open sights does get a break because of modern technological developments. In the past, manufacturers painted little white diamonds under the rear sight notch so we could locate the notch quickly. They also did a variety of tricks to the front sights, ranging from white tips to circular beads of contrasting metal. Many of today’s open sights, however, feature fiber-optics in bright red and green that greatly enhance our ability to align the front and rear sights. You simply place the bright red dot in the front sight between the two green dots on each side of the rear sight notch. I’ve used these sights since they were first introduced and have seen a steady improvement in their ruggedness and performance.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to compare some .45-70 Gov. Marlin rifles that were equipped with a variety of sights. We shot under duress, one person yelling out a time-count in seconds to encourage fast shooting. When someone is screaming, “One one-thousand, two one-thousand …,” you naturally tend to hurry things up!
What I observed from this test was that traditional open sights didn’t keep up with the more modern fiber-optic equipped open sights. I should also mention that the open-sight equipped rifles were beaten by rifles with aperture sights, which in turn were beaten by rifles sporting red-dot scopes and holographic sights.
While I have shot a lot of deer and bears with muzzleloaders and shotguns equipped with open sights, I have only shot one deer with an open-sighted rifle—the buck in the beginning of this article—and that animal got me started into a life of shooting and hunting. Soon after killing that buck, I saved up my pennies and mounted a Bushnell 3-9X scope on a Winchester Model 70 bolt action for the next deer season. Perhaps it’s time to take my factory-sighted Winchester Model 94 out for a deer hunt before I can no longer see the front and rear sights, just for old time’s sake.