Guest Post - The Case for Metallic Sights

The following is a submission from my good friend and fellow gunsmith Chris Wooldridge, of Swamp Fox Custom Rifle Works. Chris' contact information for his shop can be found at the end of the article. If you would like to submit an article for consideration, please feel free to email it to dakota.potts@gmail.com. Please enjoy Chris' insightful commentary on the benefits of metallic sights on utility rifles. 

“Why in the world do I need antiquated open sights on my rifle?” Great question, glad you asked! This musing is on a topic that quite often is treated with apathy, sometimes outright disdain, but most often just plain ignorance. I am talking about the inclusion and use of metallic sights on your hunting, ranch or truck rifle. For years now, gun manufacturers have all but forgone the inclusion of metallic sights on production models, opting instead to produce what I call “slick tops”. “Slick tops” are rifles that are solely intended to be used with optical sighting systems. I don’t know for certain, but I am quite sure that this is primarily because American shooters, unwisely, have no use for irons; having become overly dependent on optics. My purpose is to make a case for the inclusion and use of open sights; not necessarily as the primary sighting system but definitely as a backup. If you hunt long enough, if you actually USE your rifle more than a couple times a year, you will eventually have that “oh s#!t” moment when an optic goes down and your weapon is rendered useless. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I need to devote a paragraph or two to my background, so you will understand my perspective. I am a recently retired career Soldier. I served in the Untied States Army for 28 years all of them as a Combat Arms Soldier. I enlisted in 1986 and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, NC. As an enlisted Soldier I served as an Cannon Crewman (13B) and an Infantryman (11B). As an Officer I served in the Armor Branch, with 90% of my time in Cavalry units leading Scouts. I have four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving in both Cavalry and Infantry units. I carried a rifle/carbine my entire career. As all of you know, the M16 family of weapons are modular. We mounted lights, lasers, and of course, optics. We also included, on EVERY rifle, Back Up Iron Sights (BUIS). We did not go outside the wire with out a zeroed BUIS because we understood that no matter how rugged our ACOG’s and M68’s were, optics are finicky and will go down. These failures may be the result of outside kinetic forces or batteries dying at the most inopportune time. I’ve seen both happen. The Soldier(s) in question responded by falling back on their training, flipping up the aperture arm of the BUIS and continuing to engage the enemy.

I am also a hunter. I have hunted deer, turkey, and elk from Georgia to Texas, and into the High Country of Colorado. On one such excursion in pursuit of the mighty Wapiti, some friends and I were on horse back packing in our camp. We were headed to campsite 15 miles from the trail head deep in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. We got a later start than we wanted and at about mile eight, darkness was closing in quickly. This was a camp site we used regularly so our horses knew the way, and as twilight faded, we gave them their reign. My friend Eric was riding Jeb. Jeb was a Sorel colored Quarter Horse who stood 15 hands tall and weighed in at 1200 pounds. He was a good horse and he and Eric were a team. Jeb was getting on in years, but he still had stamina and drive. What we didn’t realize at the time was that Jeb was losing his sight, particularly at night. Jeb stepped wrong and rolled down a slight embankment. Luckily, both horse and rider emerged none the worse for wear, but the Ruger M77 Eric was carrying in his scabbard was not so lucky. At least the scope wasn’t. After giving both Eric and Jeb a good looking over, we checked his scabbard and there was no rifle. A quick search found the rifle about 5 feet from where Jeb stood, scope and rings crushed. The rifle had drag marks, and it looked like hell but it functioned flawlessly, feeding and ejecting rounds, and the safety still worked. To this day we don’t know if the weight of Jeb rolling on and dragging the rifle inflicted that damage, or if Jeb stepped on the scope when he got up. Either way the rifle was useless. Luckily for Eric, this trip was merely to pack in and set up the camp. The Season didn’t start for another four days giving Eric time to go back to town and remedy the situation. Our camp cook, Ms. Julia, looked at Eric and said “be glad that happened today and not Monday. If this had happened then, you would be in the kitchen with me!” This is why BUIS systems are so important and I said as much to Eric. When he arrived back in camp a few days later a top ole Jeb he was carrying his Browning Lever Action Rifle (BLR) chambered in 7mm-08. It had a scope to be sure, but it was also sporting a set of factory leaf and post metallic sights!

I realize that to some I may be giving the impression that I believe scopes are frail and the metallic sight is indestructible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Todays scopes are very robust, and they get more so as time goes on. I believe in scopes and have them mounted on several of my rifles. Scopes allow the shooter to better see far away targets. This allows the shooter to positively identify his target, decide on whether the animal even warrants shooting, and zero in on the specific spot he wants the bullet to strike. Scopes serve a great service to the marksman, but as advanced as todays optics are, in my opinion they are the most likely point of failure in harsh conditions. Scopes are big. Scopes stand tall above the action. Scopes have glass surrounded by thin aluminum tubes and scopes have delicate adjustment systems. Therefore, scopes are much more susceptible to rough handling and losing its zero than metallic sights, as anyone who has flown across country with a rifle or has dropped a scoped weapon can attest.   The bottom line is, when relied upon as the sole method for putting your rifle on target, the optic becomes a single point of failure that could ruin a weekend hunt at Uncle Joe’s, or, what’s worse, the hunt of a lifetime in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.

 Factory standard Remington Model 700 metallic sights mounted on a 1991 vintage Winchester Model 70. Windage and elevation are adjustable at the notched leaf on the rear sight. I mounted this sight far enough forward to clear my scope. 

Factory standard Remington Model 700 metallic sights mounted on a 1991 vintage Winchester Model 70. Windage and elevation are adjustable at the notched leaf on the rear sight. I mounted this sight far enough forward to clear my scope. 

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There are two basic types of metallic sights: The leaf and blade (“open sights”), and the aperture and post; aka the “Ghost Ring”. The rear leaf and front blade variety come in several types and configurations but they all fall into two types: adjustable and non-adjustable.  The adjustable sights are normally adjustable for windage and elevation at the rear leaf like the one pictured above. The front blade, or sometimes a post, is fixed on most setups. And exception would be the Winchester 94 and the Marlin 336 series. In both cases the manufacturer intended the shooter drift the front sight to adjust windage.  Another type of leaf sight is the Express Sight. The express sight is a fixed rear sight that is traditionally found on safari dangerous game rifles. They are even less precise than the standard adjustable leaf sight and are traditionally used for close range snap shots to stop charging lions and other dangerous animals.

 Ruger Guide Gun with a one-leaf express sight installed from the factory. Other variations have multiple flip-up leafs marked for various ranges. Picture from Ruger.com

Ruger Guide Gun with a one-leaf express sight installed from the factory. Other variations have multiple flip-up leafs marked for various ranges. Picture from Ruger.com

The limitations associated with the leaf and blade type sight is that is it not very precise and to be effectively use at medium to long ranges the shooter must be a marksman. He must understand and be the master of the principles of rifle marksmanship. These principles can be mastered but it takes training! The aperture, or “ghost ring” sights employ a post for the front sight and an aperture or hole through the rear sight in which the shooter centers the front sight and aligns them with the target. Most shooters like the ghost ring sights better than the standard open sight. These types of metallic sights are much more precise that their leaf and blade counterparts so even mediocre shooters report much better groupings than when using the leaf and blade. The ghost ring type sight achieves higher precision because it takes advantage of the hard-wired relationship between the shooters brain and eye that automatically centers the post in the aperture and then will virtually ignore the aperture from that point on, focusing solely on the front sight post. The shooter then ensures proper alignment on the target and, properly executing breathing and trigger control, fires the shot. Once again, I can’t stress enough the fact that, to master these sights, one must train. To master a scope, one must train. To master your weapon, you must train. Marksmanship is not like riding a bicycle, it is a perishable skill the requires constant practice.

Why have metallic sights fallen from favor with American shooters? I think the main reason is that metallic sights are much harder to master. To be good with metallic sights, you must be a Marksman, a rifleman. It takes time, patience, and a thorough understanding of how the front and rear sights work together to put the bullet on target. It also to requires the shooter to consistently employ the principles of basic rifle marksmanship (BRM) to be good when using them. Most people today run their lives at a pace not seen in generations past. While scopes don’t relieve the shooter of the requirement to employ good BRM principles to consistently put the bullet on target, the scope is much easier, and requires less time to learn to use by the average to below average shooter. I know grown men, who have been hunting for years, who refuse to use open sights on any rifle because they just can’t hit with them, and they have no desire to learn. Now, these guys are not “riflemen” by any stretch. They don’t touch their rifle from January to August, only then breaking it out to tweak the scope in preparation for Georgia’s deer season. From October to January, if these hunters kill three deer, they will shoot a total of three rounds, only to then retire the rifle again for the next nine months.

Another reason metallic sights have fallen from favor with the American shooter/hunter is that most manufacturers do not build rifles that come from the factory with open sights. There are several reasons for this, aside what is discussed above, that I will not go into here, but be it known if you want a rifle that allows for mounting a scope and has factory open sights you will have limited choices. A quick google search of the three main manufacturers in the U.S. revealed these numbers:

  • Winchester Repeating Arms currently produces 15 models of the Model 70, of which only two, the Safari Express and the Alaskan, are equipped with open sights. Their new XPR family of rifles show NO (0) models with factory standard open sights.

  • Remington currently produces 34 models of the 700 and only two, the Model 700 BDL and the Model 700 200th Anniversary Limited Edition, are equipped with open sights.

  • Ruger did much better. They produce ten different models of centerfire rifles, including Pistol Caliber Carbines, seven of which come from the factory equipped with open sights.

 The Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle sports a military-style aperture sight. All adjustments are made on the rear sight. The aperture sight is battle-tested as all modern military rifles are equipped with them. Picture from Ruger.com

The Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle sports a military-style aperture sight. All adjustments are made on the rear sight. The aperture sight is battle-tested as all modern military rifles are equipped with them. Picture from Ruger.com

Why should serious riflemen insist on rifles that have metallic sights installed? I believe in systems and I think that your sighting system is the most important. If you can’t aim your rifle it is useless. It is perfectly OK to have a good optic as your primary method for sighting your rifle, but you need a backup and that is the primary reason for insisting that your everyday rifle is equipped with open sights.  There are three reasons for including metallic sights as part of your rifle system. Metallic sights, when properly mounted and secured are much stronger and lighter than optical sighting systems. Metallic sights offer unlimited field of view, allowing shooter to focus on his target while maintaining his situational awareness.  Metallic sights, particularly the aperture or “ghost ring” type sights allow for fast target acquisition for quick shots at close to mid-range and quick follow up shots. When I am hunting the hardwood forest of the Southeast, I use open sights exclusively. I hunt in southwest Georgia, in the brush, and my longest shot so far, on this property, has only been 80 yards. A scope in this terrain, is, in my opinion just plain unnecessary. Scopes in this terrain have been known to cost hunters a shot because either the magnification was set too high, or the shooter did not know to keep both eyes open when mounting the rifle, keeping the non-shooting eye on the target, allowing the shooting eye to instinctively find the target in the scope.   I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard hunters complaining outside the hardware store about how Bullwinkle couldn’t have been more than 35 yards away, standing next to that damn Hawthorne bush and he just couldn’t find that monster in his scope. Buck Fever is a real B!t@h! No, if this hunter had been using irons, or at least had the ability to transition from his scope to his open sights, Bullwinkle just might be hanging on this dude’s living room wall today!

When afield, “Murphy” lurks around every corner, and when he chooses to strike is anybody’s guess. You can be sure though, that it will be at the most inopportune time and place. Whether that be in the middle of a fire fight in some far away country, or in the middle of an already short elk season 20 or 25 miles from the nearest road and even further from a Wal Mart and a gunsmith. When that moment comes, you will either be prepared because you had a backup system in place and ready to be employed, or you will find yourself working as the camp dishwasher, or worst-case scenario, combat ineffective. And just so you know, neither situation is good.