Iron sights were once the staple for rifle hunters and shooters alike.
The first firearm sights used were iron sights, dating way back to the mid 1400’s. Even though telescopic sights slowly started to make their way into existence in the 1700’s, the iron sight continued to be the prevalent sighting method for most firearm applications; from hunting to military well into the 1900’s.
With the improvement of technology and manufacturing over the past few decades telescopic rifle scopes have now become the go-to sighting device for rifle owners.
Sure, we all love the flash and capability of the modern rifle-scope, but the now semi-neglected iron sight still has plenty to offer in the hunting game.
In this article we take a deeper dive into this classic piece of hardware and the ways in which they can still beneficially be used in the world of hunting today.
If Only I’d Had Iron Sights…
Last fall a couple of friends and I ventured into the foothills to hike and hunt for whitetail. It was a large area, requiring many miles of boot packing to get into prime hunting area. This was more-so the terrain you would expect to be hunting for elk or mule deer, but this time we were after whitetail.
After two solid days where opportunities and sightings were limited, and we’d decide to meet up by the junction of an old dirt road to share some lunch and a well needed break in the middle of the day.
We’d bumped into each other about 200 yards up from the planned meeting point, so we threw our rifles over our shoulders and casually strolled to the lunch spot up on the corner. Suddenly, to our shock and surprise, standing only 20-30 yards away off the side of the trail was a monster whitetail buck!
In a state of shock and clear unpreparedness, having had barely seen any deer in the first two days, we scrambled to get our rifles off our shoulder and ready for a shot. Both of our rifles were mounted with 3-9x magnification scopes.
The deer still stood there, looking at us, not at all phased… We quickly chambered a round and held up the rifles, but given the close proximity and magnification we struggled to get the deer into the scope and to place the cross-hairs on where would be ideal shot placement. The deer got tired of sticking around, and after what was a solid 10-15 second up-close encounter, the buck took off into the brush.
If only we (or at least one of us) had iron sights on their rifle we would have been able to get a quick short-range aim on the deer and bask in the satisfaction of a fresh camp venison lunch and a full freezer for the winter, rather than the nagging frustration of a wasted opportunity.
Iron Sights vs Rifle Scopes
Everything in life has its pros and cons, its good sides and bad sides. Iron sights and rifle scopes are no different. Hunting is a pursuit in which there are so many variables to consider, so we’ll look at the areas in where these sighting devices excel or struggle:
Rifle (Telescopic) Scopes
Telescopic rifle scopes offer a huge amount of variability and adjustability, offering magnification of anywhere from 1x to beyond 35x. These tend to come in handy especially for consistency of shooting at further distances.
With a solid shooting rest hunters can get a clear and accurate picture view of the animal and shot placement, even on an animal that is almost too far or landscape-camouflaged to see with the naked eye.
- More effective at shooting greater distances due to magnification options.
- Quality scopes allow for higher light intake resulting in the ability to see targets even in low-light conditions.
- Only requires the shooter to focus on one focal plane in order to align an accurate shot.
- Greater ability to factor in bullet drop and windage, given different reticle options and adjustable turrets.
- Brightness and magnification tend to be much more forgiving for people without perfect eye sight.
- More susceptible to damage or misalignment from transport or bumps.
- Often larger, heavier and more expensive than iron sights.
- Harder to acquire targets at close range, especially in quickly changing scenarios.
- The scope size impedes the shooter’s ability to see what is happening outside of the scope’s field of view.
Iron sights also have their own unique set of positives; especially given the simplicity of the device. There is a common decision battle we face between keeping it simple, or taking advantage of technological improvements.
Here we look at where iron sights fall within that battle and when the classic statement of “less is more” can apply.
- Quicker target acquisition in close range and moving scenarios.
- Offers better peripheral vision to the shooter, often important for hunting with hounds.
- Less susceptible to breaking or misalignment than scopes.
- Smaller, lighter and cheaper than most other scopes or sights.
- Limited in distance shooting efficiency as they offer no magnification.
- Much less effective than most decent scopes in low light conditions.
- Often requires the shooter to have very good eyesight or vision.
- Requires the shooter to align two or three focal planes to create an accurate sight picture.
Can you use iron sights with a scope?
Short answer… Yes. Some hunters and shooters will configure their rifle with both a telescopic rifle scope and iron sights.
There are two main ways in which to do this. In order for the iron sight picture to not be impeded, the scope has to either be easily detachable, or be mounted out of the way.
Rifle scope mounts with a detachment lever can be found, but it is in the owner’s best interests to be intermittently check and hand-tighten the mounts as they can slowly loosen up with use.
The other option is to mount the rifle scope higher above the rifle, using scope mounts that have a larger gap through the mounts, allowing the shooter the ability to see through them. This allows the scope to be properly fixed to the rifle, but could also be a little too high for what would feel like a natural shooting and aiming position.
If you’re considering setting up your rifle with both iron sights and a scope, be sure that it is for a genuine purpose, and likely to be utilized. Adding both options to the one firearm will result in the addition of extra weight, extra complication, and extra sighting/zeroing time and management.
If you do a lot of hunting in a variety of situations and environments with the one rifle or have justified concerns about potential damage to the scope whilst on a hunt, then mounting both could be a reasonable consideration.
When to Hunt with Iron Sights
Iron sights can still be regularly seen these days used on shotguns, pistols and even muzzle-loaders, especially during primitive weapon hunting seasons. These other firearms less often have modern scopes mounted to them due to the expectation of quick, close-range shooting.
Rifles on the other hand are generally a different story, but here we will dive into a few different hunting situations where it may be beneficial to trade out the telescopic rifle scope for the traditional iron sight.
Hunting larger and potentially dangerous game such as buffalo or elephant is where iron sights more regularly come into play. Even with higher caliber rifles, most of these shots are taken at close range, at which point having a telescopic rifle scope loses its efficiency.
In these circumstances to be able to take quick, in-close shots and follow-up shots is valuable, especially in situations that can change very quickly, and sometimes into a life and death scenario.
Another factor is; due to the size of the animals and the shorter distances, a scoped rifle may be too zoomed-in (even at the lowest magnification) that all you see through the scope is a wall of brown, black or gray skin; which obviously makes it harder to determine ideal shot placement.
Iron sights can also effectively be used when hunting both small game and medium-large game in situations and environments when further distance shooting is less likely.
Many hunters who hunt small game (such as squirrels) will use a .22LR rifle with iron sights instead of a scope for a couple of reasons: to improve the feel of their shooting without the assistance of a zoomed scope, and that great feeling of free-handing.
There’s also a decent percentage of hunters who spend time in thicker woods or forest that lean towards sporting iron sights on their rifle. On these hunts it is more likely than not that any shot will be between 0 and 100 yards; whether from still hunting through the brush or settled up in a tree stand.
Bad Weather Conditions
Rifle hunting during poor weather conditions; such as falling rain, snow and deep cold, are times where the iron sight setup really shines. Modern rifle scopes, due to the fact they have lenses, can become difficult to see through when they get covered in rain or snow, and can have the tendency to fog up from time to time.
Iron sights however do not have this problem and run essentially unaffected by the elements, which becomes a valuable consideration especially when hunting in areas and regions with continually changing weather or persistent annual rainfall.
Hunting with Hounds
It is not uncommon for small game and bird hunters to be accompanied by a couple of terriers or hounds whilst out on their shotgun adventures. There are times though that dogs are used whilst rifle hunting, and in some of these cases it is not only beneficial, but actually safer, to have iron sights mounted to your firearm.
When tracking animals such as mountain lions, wild pigs or bears, where the hunt often culminates in an in-tight, rapidly changing situation the peripheral vision and awareness becomes important. Rifle scopes lend the shooter to a scenario where much of their vision is impeded by the scope itself, requiring a tunnel-vision-like focus in order to get on target.
The smaller and open stature of the iron sights allow the hunter to be able to see the action going on around him/her, giving the opportunity to ensure the dogs (or other hunters) are not getting in the way of the shot.
Increasing the Challenge
Hunting is generally a difficult, challenging and sometimes frustrating pursuit. Some hunters however occasionally look to increase the challenge of their hunt. Many will lean towards bow hunting or muzzle-loading, but there may be another option that is commonly overlooked… Iron-sight rifle hunting.
Similar to using bows and muzzle-loaders, with an iron-sighted rifle the hunter is also encouraged to get closer to the animal than they otherwise would with a scope-mounted rifle, whilst simultaneously ensuring a greater level of aiming and shooting proficiency.
The benefit to keeping the rifle is that the power of the firearm is retained, meaning you have a better chance of getting away that ethical and effective harvest compared to some of the other weapons of choice which may have less power.
Types of Iron Sights
Open iron sights are usually configured with a bead at the front of the rifle, and a shaped notch towards the rear. These rear notches are most often V or U-shaped, but can also be trapezoidal or cylindrical.
Regardless of the configuration, the function and method of use is primarily the same. The shooter looks through the rear notch to the front bead, attempting to line up the front bead so that it sits perfectly nestled within the gap of the rear notch.
Open sights take a little extra focus and practice to align as the shooter has three focal planes to consider and align: the front bead, the near notch and the target. A small deviation from having these aligned can result in a misaligned shot, therefore missing the target.
Aperture sights, also known as “peep” sights or “ghost ring” sights are similar to the open sights but have one primary difference: the rear notch is replaced with an O shaped ring. These are generally designed to sit closer to the shooter’s eye, giving the ability to look through the ring to the front bead and the target.
This configuration is naturally easier for the shooter to align the rifle as there is minimal conscious need to align the rear with the front, as long as they are looking through the rear peep. This cuts down the focal plane consideration from three to just two; making for a quicker, easier and hopefully more consistent shot. The “ghost ring” nick name comes from the fact that the shooter barely notices the peep ring as it fades into peripheral vision whilst focusing on the front bead.
Aftermarket Sights (or Lack of)
Aftermarket iron sights are difficult to come across for modern bolt-action rifles. Given the improvement in optics (specifically rifle scopes), most of these firearms are designed and manufactured with the intention of having a scope mounted to it, as opposed to traditional iron sights.
In most cases in order to have iron sights mounted onto a rifle it requires the work of a competent gunsmith to do a custom installation.
AR-15 rifles appear to be the exception to this rule given the nature of the attachment-style design where customization of the firearm is much easier than with the majority of hunting rifles.
Fortunately, there are many states in the US that permit hunting with AR-15 rifles, giving opportunity to hunt with a greater range of sight and accessory configurations.
Even though modern scopes have taken over the rifle landscape, there is still value to be had in the simple, traditional and resilient iron sight.
As technology continues to improve at a drastic level, the foundations of the iron sight continue to remain primarily unchanged; leaving open a window to the history of the firearm and the firearm hunter.
These classic sighting devices continue to hold a place and value in the world of hunting, especially in situations of close-range shooting and changing scenarios; where quick target acquisition, awareness and safety are of a higher importance.
That said, shooting iron sights is just so enjoyable and offers us a throwback to classic shooting skills.
Next time you look to add another piece of hunting gear to your locker why not consider picking up a iron-sighted small game rifle for hiking the woods, or take on the challenge of getting in closer to the game with this classic rifle setup.