What if I told you that there was a dot sight that existed and worked extremely well for 100 years before the first Aimpoint ever clicked on? True story. It was (and still is) a fast, easy-to-pick-up zero-magnification sighting system that served to annihilate herds of buffalo hundreds of yards from the shooter in the late 1800/early 1900s, and it’s been standard issue on U.S. (and other) military rifles since the 1920’s. It still can be seen in various forms on your grandfather’s old lever-action deer-gettin’ Winchester, or possibly even on your SHTF AR-15. Though the theory behind the way the sight works is many, many years old, it still soldiers on on rifles, shotguns, and hell, even some handguns to this day…it’s even found its way onto bows.
By now, I’m sure you’re figured out the fact that I’m talking about the aperture sight, also knows as a peep sight, ghost ring, tang sight, or receiver sight, depending on the application and the crowd you’re running with.
What is an aperture sight?
Put basically, an aperture sight consists of two elements: a front post-type sight (sometimes that have beads – more on that later.) and rear sight that sports an aperture, or round hole, that you look or “peep” through. It operates on the fundamental principle that your eye naturally centers items it looks at in its field of view, and when working in concert with your body’s muscles and its own focusing, the sights will be aligned very naturally…without even thinking about it, after you’re used to using it a little. It’s extremely intuitive, and is a fine choice for any primary sights or back-up sights (BUS).
How does it work?
As I said, the aperture sight works on the idea that your eyes naturally focus and center items viewed through a circle. This is something your body does intuitively; since the rear sight, which is a round hole you look through, is much closer to your eye, you automatically focus on the item viewed through the aperture, which is the front sight. The rear sight hoop goes out of focus and blurry; it is much the same effect as looking through an electronic red dot type sight. You concentrate your focus on the front sight, and let the rear sight and the target go blurry; your body subconsciously does the rest. And as a general rule, the thicker the material of the aperture you’re looking through, the more precise an aperture sight is; conversely, the thinner it is, the faster the sight is. On my hunting rifles, I generally eschew scopes and mount receiver sights with no screw-in apertures that narrow the sighting hole; I like the sights fast, down, and dirty for hitting moving targets out to 100 yards, which is really the furthest practical range where I hunt. If I see a deer at longer range, not to worry: with a little more time and concentration, the sight works just fine out to longer ranges. I plugged a West Virginia white tail at over 150 yards with a lever-action Marlin in .356 using an open aperture sight and a fine brass bead on my front sight; the same day I shot a nice four-pointer on a dead run at 40 yards with the same gun…it works very, very well for close-in fast action and longer ranges. This is the beauty and versatility of the aperture sight.
On the left, a more open, faster aperture. On the right, a tighter, more precise aperture.
History and types of aperture sights
In the olden days of yore, before the turn of the 20th century, and up through about 1925-1930 or so, the aperture sight coupled with a fine front bead reigned supreme as the long-range precision sighting system of choice. At first, the cavalry carbines started having rear ladder-type sights that had holes drilled in the sliding sight member to use for precision shots when the ranges grew long. Soon, as shooters realized that placing the aperture closer to the eye extended the sight radius and made the rifle more precise, the tang sight, which was a folding, adjustable aperture on a stalk that was mounted on the rifle’s upper tang (if you’ve ever seen “Quigley Down Under”, you’ve seen a tang sight mounted on a Sharps Rifle in action. Great flick, by the way…heartily recommended!) to bring the rear sight right up to the shooter’s eye for maximum precision.
Tang sights worked wonderfully, as millions of Western Buffalo will attest – hunter slaughtered the beasts from hundreds of yards (!) with tang-sighted big-bore buffalo rifles – Sharps rifles, Winchester 1876s and 1886s, Remington Rolling Blocks, etc. Invariably, they used tang sights to hurl giant chunks of lead at the big animals from distances so far away that the animals rarely heard the shots, and never spooked – they just fell where they stood. All without magnification – I guess that just goes to show you that it’s not the arrow, it’s the indian.
Tangs sights were great and all, but as anyone who’s used one can tell you, they suck in the ergonomics department. The sight stalk sits right where your firing hand wants to go on the rifle, and if there’s any kind of serious recoil, its gets mighty uncomfortable mighty fast. Enter the receiver sight.
The receiver sight mounts on the receiver of the rifle (hence the name), usually on the left side. However, where there are controls or other protuberances, the sight can be mounted on top or on the right side of the gun. But the receiver sight got the aperture sight out of the way of the shooting hand, and onto the rifle in a spot that didn’t beat the snot out of the shooter’s extremities, only at the cost of an inch or two of sighting radius. The receiver sight quickly came into its own, with companies such as Lyman and Redfield (amongst many others) finding ways so ingenious to mount them to almost every conceivable style of rifle imaginable that it’s staggering and damn impressive. Receiver sights can be seen on everything from lever action Winchesters and Marlins, Remington pump-guns, Mauser bolt actions, and everything in between. Before the heyday of the mass-produced, reliable scope, the receiver sight made its way onto everything – and WORKED. In rough situations, all weather, neglected or cared for – all without batteries. Kinda makes you think these are traits we as preppers are looking for, huh?
The military recognized these attributes, and started making them standard issue to 1903 Springfields around the end of WW1. Since then, every US (and most foreign) battle rifle has had aperture style sights: The M1 Garand, M1 Carbine, M1 Grease gun and Thompson SMG, the M14, and even the ubiquitous M16/M4/AR15 series of rifles has them standard, built right into the gun. Aperture sights are becoming the best way to get sights on combat shotguns as well, with “Ghost Ring” sights becoming the norm for any serious tactical shotgun’s sighting arrangements.
Aperture sights today
These days, with red dot and reflex sights becoming compact, extremely reliable, and very efficient (Aimpoint makes several red dots that have 50,000 hours of contiunuous-on run time), and reticle-style standard scopes becoming tough as nails and clear as day while offering extreme levels of magnification, the aperture style sight has fallen by the wayside. Oh, every chairborne ranger with a tactical Mr. Potato Head AR-15 throws them on his or her multi-thousand dollar catalog gun because everyone else does, but I haven’t run into many who know how to properly use them, adjust them, or god forbid, train with them. They are now jewelry, something to have just to fill up vacant rail space.
But the aperture sight is arguably the most useful tool on your modern combat rifle, and many, many manufacturers capitalize on this. Magpul makes a very fine fold-away set of sights with their MBUS (Magpul Back Up Sights) system. Troy and many others make beautifully machined steel and/or aluminum sights that fold down, but are ready at a moment’s notice if your electric sight shits the bed. The company that I do my training through recommends that introductory courses with carbines be shot with back-up or iron sights only! After all, that is what you will be using when the the S truly HTF.
Don’t have a “combat” rifle? That’s admirable too! But you can probably upgrade almost any modern rifle to use an aperture style sight. Lyman, Williams, New England Custom Guns, XS, and many others make tough, no-nonsense aperture style rear sights for most common rifles. The worst that might happen is that you’ll have to bring your rifle to a reputable gunsmith to have it drilled and tapped for sight mounting. Expect to spend in the neighborhood of $100-150 for a good rear sight. Remember, this is something that will save your butt when the cards fold. I use Lyman sights on all my hunting rifles, with a smattering of Redfields. Really, I prefer them – I only have one hunting rifle with a scope on it – but guess what? It’s set up with a Lyman receiver sight too.
What about the front sight? I really like fine brass bead style sights. Williams makes a great one that goes into standard front 3/8” dovetails. The beads come in many different styles, colors, and sizes. Brass, ivory, flourescent, fiber optic, you name it – pick one that your eye can find rapidly and discern against a target, and go with it. Make sure you replace the sight with a new front sight of the same height, or damn close – it’ll make life easier on you, trust me. But that bright front bead will show right up in your field of vision just as well as any electronic red dot sight will – line ‘er up and hit that target!
Standard factory-issued buckhorn or blade style sights are OK – but for a few bucks, you can get a back up sight that is very, very fast, extremely accurate with a fantastic field of view, and as rugged as you could hope for. And that, my friends, is exactly what we’re looking for when we set up our “oh no” firearms. Red dots and scopes are awesome – you should always tip the balance in your favor when you can, and those are perfect ways to do that – but you really need something as a backup to save your butt when the toys break.
Do any of you run receiver or aperture sights on your SHTF guns? I love this stuff – let’s hear what you got! Have you found something that works better? Tell us about it!