Brownells Brownells Brownells 75th Anniversary - A Shooting Heritage

A Sight For Old Eyes

By: Steve Ostrem

 

There was a time, not so long ago, when I could peer over the open sights of my favorite .22 and decide which side of a pop can I wanted to hit at 50 yards to make it spin or jump according to my wishes. It all seemed so effortless; raising the gun and checking the sight alignment by bringing first the front sight, then the target, and finally the rear sight into perfect focus. Once I was satisfied I would again concentrate on that crisp, beautifully-defined front sight and squeeze the trigger. More often than not the bullet would find its intended target and I would go on to the next shot without a second thought. The whole process only took a couple of seconds.

Fast-forward about twenty years.

Now the sights don’t line up automatically and when they do they are so hard to make out it takes half a minute or more to decide if they are on target. That miniscule rear V notch blurs and shifts around and never seems to look the same from shot to shot. Then there’s the front bead, the same one that used to be so clear. Am I the only one who has checked the front sight once or twice after the first couple of shots because I’m sure that it has picked up some fuzz from the gun case that makes it so hard to see? This has become a regular ritual for me at the range, and each time I do it it’s always a little disheartening to find that the front sight is indeed clean and to be once again reminded that my eyes are not as young as they used to be. If you are over forty you probably know exactly what I mean. I think Dirty Harry said it best when he stated, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Well, I know mine, and I think it’s time to do something about them.

Why can't we just mount up a scope and be done with it? Well, that’s one possible solution to this whole mess, but if you think I’m going to drill and tap an 1892 Marlin for a scope or red dot sight you’ve got another think coming. Furthermore, how am I supposed to holster my Smith and Wesson 2 nd Model .44 Special Hand Ejector with optics mounted on the top strap? (Assuming I would allow myself to be seen with such a contraption.) And when is the last time you saw a Luger with an Aimpoint on it? Some guns were meant to be used with open sights, period. That means if I want to shoot my 1911 Steyr Hahn and expect to hit anything with it something is going to have to change.

By the way, before you get the wrong idea, I do own and use scopes. I just can’t bear to see them mounted on antique firearms or any type gun that that would look incorrect with the addition of modern optics. That being said, let’s start with a .22 rifle and see what we can find in the way of sights to make it work for us. Like a lot of people my age, (past 40 if you must know), I had begun to accept the limitations of my older eyes, (OK, closer to 50) and many of my guns without scopes had begun to gather a little dust from lack of use. Then one day I had a revelation. I had just finished putting together an FAL (L1A1) and took it to the range for a function test. Armed with some cheap, surplus ammo, I locked a magazine into place and began to blast away. The sights were only a little off for windage and after the necessary adjustments were hitting right on the money. Plinking small rocks at 100 yards seemed easy and it suddenly dawned on me that I had not shot this effortlessly in years. Then I remembered: I had not shot a peep sight in years! Ah, the sheer joy of leaving both eyes open and squeezing the trigger as the well-defined front sight aligned itself upon the target! Why hadn’t I thought of this before? That day I went home determined to find a way to make my other open-sighted rifles easier to shoot.

I decided to go with a Remington 550-1 as a test vehicle. This gun is a story in itself. It is a semi-automatic that will function with shorts, longs, and long rifles interchangeably thanks to the Williams floating chamber and the intricate but reliable Remington-designed feed mechanism that does not seem to be at all finicky about what it is fed.

 

 
Remington 550-1 with sights installed.
The floating chamber amplifies the gas pressure of the .22 shorts to allow normal blowback operation of the bolt. Mine even functions with CCI CB shorts and sounds more like a pellet rifle when it is fired!

The floating chamber was the invention of “Carbine” Williams, the same guy that designed the M1 Carbine. This system was also used in the old Colt Ace pistol and allowed the full-sized weapon to cycle with .22 ammo and give enough recoil to make it a useful training tool. It also allowed much more practice for the same amount of money and was quite popular with cost-conscious shooters and well as new shooters who had trouble managing the recoil of the full-blown .45 ACP round. This conversion concept is alive and well today with the Ciener conversions that we sell for the 1911, Browning High Power, Beretta, and others. They do not utilize the floating chamber but rather operate and recoil like a conventional 22 pistol. If you would like to take a look at them click here.


Williams WGRS Sight on the Remington.

When I got home I took a good look at the rifle, got out my Brownells catalog, and began to examine the possibilities. The receiver had the usual grooves in the top, which would make mounting a rear peep sight easy. I found two sights I wanted to try, both from Williams. For a hunting sight I wanted the WGRS receiver sight (#962-100-054)because it is fairly streamlined and would be easy to carry without snagging it on brush. This one slides onto the grooves and is held fast with a setscrew. It doesn’t get much easier than that. The second sight I wanted to try was the Foolproof Receiver Sight (#962-200-810) for grooved .22s. This is a larger sight that has the advantage of fine adjustment screws. It is also available with Foolproof Receiver SightWith Target Knobs (#962-201-606) to make changing the settings even easier.


When it came time to find a front sight there was a bit of a problem. First, I did the necessary calculations for sight height by determining the distance of the sight above the bore line. Measuring the height of the peep aperture above the receiver at its lowest setting and then adding half the diameter of the receiver (if it is round as in this case) will give you the distance between the rear sight and the bore line. (The theoretical center of the barrel) With this dimension in mind you can choose a sight or sight and ramp combination that will perch the same distance over the bore line. Our Brownells.com website has an automatic sight height calculation formula that you can use by clicking here. You still have the do the measuring but it will help you do the math. The original sights on my gun were hitting correctly with the rear sight approximately .030”, (1/32 nd of an inch), higher than the front. With the higher peep sight in the rear I was going to need a much higher front sight.

 
The factory sight was dovetailed into the barrel but the inserts we carry from Marble and Williams were not quite high enough for the job. What was needed was a ramp to put under the insert. A ramp would solve my problems but I really didn’t want to drill and tap my barrel if I didn’t have to.


Williams Shorty Ramp with dovetail block. Bottom block has been ground down to fit.
I thought, “Why don’t they make a threaded insert to put into the dovetail that allows a ramp to be screwed onto the barrel without any fuss?” “Well,” I said to myself a few minutes later, “they do dummy, and they list them directly beneath the Williams Shorty Ramps (#962-010-900) in the catalog where anyone could find them by simply looking.” Humbled, but with my horizons broadened, I plunged ahead.


Some of the front inserts used in the tests. Riser at top can be used for more height.
For the front sight insert there were a bewildering number of options available. Naturally, I was going to try the traditional brass beads in 1/16” and 3/32” sizes. I also went for the white versions in the same sizes. Almost as an afterthought I decided to include a Williams Red Firesight(#962-564-450) and a Marble Green Glow Sight (#579-204-536). Finally I got a Lyman 17A target front sight to go with the Foolproof rear to give me a match-type setup.
A A 9/32” Williams Shorty ramp was chosen and screwed onto the barrel with the aid of the newly discovered dovetail block. The block was a little high so I ground it down until the ramp rested solidly on the barrel when the screw was tightened. Then the inserts were all fitted with a 3-Corner Dovetail File (#080-648-060) and installed with a Williams Front Sight Pusher (#962-050-000) Because the ramp was only held in place by one screw in the dovetail block I thought it best not to use a hammer and drift to install the sight inserts as I would normally do with a standard dovetail.

With all of the front inserts fitted and two rear sights to try it I turned my attention to the aforementioned Marlin 92 to see what could be done for it. The gun still needs work before it is ready to shoot, and when it is I want to be ready. A quick perusal of the Marble tang sight list in the catalog showed a model for the Marlins that had been drilled and tapped at the factory. The sight bolted right on but it leaned conspicuously to the right due to a bent or irregularly ground tang. The windage adjustment was enough to compensate for the listing but I wanted it to sit up as straight as possible. A thin strip of .010” steel shim under the right side of the base brought the post back to center when the screws were retightened and everything lined up nicely. I like this sight because it folds back when not in use and is always there when you need it. Plus it looks good on the older guns.

Marble Tang Sight on 92 Marlin.

With the long guns taken care of I wondered what I could do about the handgun situation short of having a special pair of glasses made to see the sights. Then I remembered the Merit Optical Attachment (#571-001-000) that uses a suction cup to stick to your glasses. It has an aperture with an adjustable iris that allows you to dial in the best setting for each sighting situation. Merit also makes receiver sight apertures with the same ability to open and close the sighting hole to suit the needs of the shooter. These can be added to most any peep type sight with 10-32 or 7/32-40 threads and are compatible with most receiver and tang sights. There is a large target version that measures 3/4” diameter, and a smaller hunting disc that is 1/2” diameter. I stuck one of the smaller hunting discs, the #4, in the range box along with the optical attachment for my glasses and headed for the range.

 

Merit Adjustable aperture on left, attachment for glasses on right. Two ways to clear up those fuzzy sights.
 

It was sunny and fairly windy that day when I arrived. I began with the Remington with the Williams WGRS on the back and a 1/16” gold bead on the front. This was the combination I thought would work best for me in most situations, especially for hunting. I decided to use regular high velocity hunting ammo, the kind that comes in a “milk carton” container and is easy to find at discount stores at a good price. I already knew what to expect from this load after years of using it in the Remington, and I wanted to see if new sights would really make much of a difference. To make things easy, I started at 25 yards.


First group fired at 25 yards. Better than usual for me.

The first three shot group off the rest was close to 1 5/16”. Not impressive but not bad for me on a windy day. With the factory sights my groups would usually hover around the 2” range. The peep sight was already showing a noticeable improvement. The 1/16” brass bead was then exchanged for the larger 3/32” version. This small change instantly tightened groups up to an inch even, mainly because at that range it was easier to center the larger bead on the black target. When shooting at a black round bullseye the larger bead was really the way to go. All I had to do was hold on the target until there was a thin, black rim all the way around the front sight and squeeze the trigger. Couldn’t be easier.

The downside of the larger bead would be for the small game hunter, who would find that it blocks out a great deal of the target, particularly past 25 yards. You can of course, set the sights up to use a six o’clock hold with the bullet hitting at the very top of the front bead. I have to say that this approach has never worked well for me, but many people find that it does help. On the whole I try to stick with the smallest front I can get away with for use in the field. That way I can see what I’m doing.
 

The white bead front sights, both 1/16” and 3/32”, did not show any significant improvement over the brass ones for me, at least at the range. Group size remained about the same. I have a feeling that out in the woods it would be a different story and that they would probably be easier to see under most conditions than the brass. I plan to test that out later this fall. With the traditional sights finished I dug out a Williams Firesight red front and the Marble green Glow Sight front, more as a formality than anything. The few times I have looked at fiber optic sights on any kind of gun have left me with the impression that they would be a little too distracting to aid good accuracy. I always figured that people were buying them in great numbers from us was because they looked cool and they were something new. Boy, was I in for a surprise.


This receiver sight from New England Custom Guns will work on any gun with a Weaver-type scope base. A high front sight is needed of course.


Williams Red Firesight mounted up. The Green Glow Sight from Marble worked just as well.
With the red Firesight mounted up I settled down and proceeded to match the smallest groups shot so far that day. (Just under an inch) That red glow really made the sight stand out against the target. I was sure there would be a small halo or fuzziness to make things difficult but the bright little dot appeared just as crisp and clear as could be. I was shooting as well or better that with the other beads but with less effort. The red ball seemed to center itself in the aperture and on the bullseye and came back into alignment almost immediately after each shot.
I shot group after group with that combination with the same results. When I tried the green Glow Sight from Marble the results were almost the same, but for me, the red works best. Then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I remembered the Merit adjustable aperture in the range box. The stock Williams peep was unscrewed and replaced with the Merit. That took about ten seconds. Then I reloaded, took aim at the target, and dialed the aperture to the size that seemed to give me the best picture.

The first group went into .560” (9/16”) for four shots with a 5 th that was a faulty load and failed to work the action and landed a good inch below the rest of the group. (In the course of the afternoon there were two more underpowered rounds that did the same thing. Like I said, this was not match grade ammo by any stretch of the imagination.) After seeing the group shown in the photo I was amazed. The view through Merit peep did not look all that different than that with the standard one that I had just been using, but subsequent groups confirmed that the adjustable iris was giving me a big advantage. Comparing the Merit and the Williams fixed aperture showed that I had adjusted the Merit eyehole a bit smaller, perhaps down to .070” as compared to .090” for that of the Williams.

Four shots with the red Firesight and the Merit aperture.
Hard to believe that such a small change had made such a big difference. Had conditions been darker or brighter I could have adjusted it differently to get the clearest view. This ability to instantly change diameter is a huge advantage in my opinion. However, if you prefer a fixed peep the standard apertures are also available from Brownells with different size openings that measure .050”, .093”, and .125”. These three sizes can easily handle most situations at the range or in the field. Furthermore, if you decide you would really shoot better with a size other than those listed, one of the small sizes can quickly be drilled out to suit your needs. Either way we’ve got you covered.


Two Firesight/Foolproof sets. Top mounts in the scope holes of Marlin lever guns. Bottom is a side mount for Marlins and Winchesters.

Giddy with success, I picked up and moved operations back to the 50-yard line. With the red Firesight still in place and the Merit unit dialed in for comfort, I proceeded to shoot a 5 shot group under 1.3” center to center. Folks, for me, with my eyesight and questionable shooting technique, anything even close to an inch at 50 yards with open sights is phenomenal! After all these years I can finally hunt squirrels with an open-sighted rifle again! I really should have done this a long time ago.


To round out the rifle portion of the tests I installed a Williams Foolproof sight (#962-200-810) and a Lyman 17A Front Aperture Sight (#539-017-360) The rear is extremely easy to dial in and I was on target in no time.

 

Lyman 17A front sight with inserts.

Williams Foolproof Rear.

As you would expect, the smallest groups of the day were shot with this combination. After all, they are target sights. If you want to set up a gun for competition these are what you should be looking at. The funny thing is that the groups were not that much smaller than those I had shot before; maybe 1/16” smaller or so. For me the improvement was not that great. I suspect that my eyes are no longer able to take full advantage of these sights. Also, as a hunter, I find that they are just a little too bulky for my purposes and better suited to range shooting and competition. Therefore I took them back off and replaced the William red Firesight and the WGRS rear. That seems to be what works best for me.

After my success with the Merit aperture I was anxious to try their optical attachment on my glasses. Installation was easy enough, just wet the suction cup and stick it on the lens where the aperture can rotate into a good shooting position in front of the eye. I flipped it back up out of the way and got out my Smith and Wesson Model 27 with standard factory sights. As usual they appeared pretty fuzzy as I aimed at the target with my right eye. Then I brought the Merit device down and dialed the opening to about the midpoint of the adjustment. This time when I brought the gun up the sights were much clearer. The light between the front sight and the rear notch was much easier to make out and decide if the blade was really centered. If I dialed the iris down too small I had trouble seeing the sights at all. If I went too far the other way the front sight would begin to grow fuzz again. The unit is easy to adjust in place and I had no trouble setting it to where it looked good to me. It actually takes less time to do it than it does to explain it.

How did it shoot? Very well thank you. It’s amazing what you can do if you can only see the sights! Normally I have to shoot a handgun with my left eye in order to see the sights clearly. That’s because my right eye is far-sighted to the point that it is unable to bring the sights into focus. With the Merit attachment I was able to more clearly see both sights with the right eye and had no trouble matching the groups that I normally shoot with the left. Now if it would only make my hand a little steadier and do away with that nasty flinch I seem to have developed…

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at what I’ve learned. Target shooters and the military have known about the advantages of aperture sights and used them forever it seems, and in the post-war years many custom rifles were not considered complete until they sported a receiver sight of some kind. All this began to change as scopes became more reliable and less expensive to the point that the average sportsman could afford one. Add to that all of the different electronic sights that have come on the scene and it’s no surprise that the lowly aperture sight is no longer as popular as it once was. In spite of all that, the fact remains that the addition of a tang sight or a receiver sight is an effective and relatively inexpensive way to improve the accuracy of almost any firearm. More importantly, they can improve the accuracy of us older shooters who enjoy shooting those old, open-sighted relics from the past. Looks like I won’t need to worry about drilling and tapping that old Marlin or the Luger after all.