Hunting with Open Sights

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Yeah, scopes are better, but there are times when you need iron sights. Here’s how to hit with them on the range and in the woods

In some situations, open sights are required. In others, these are just welcome advantages. Image by Stacy Konway

I don’t guess I’ve ever heard a noisier buck. He was tending does in the dark, crashing through the hardwoods and grunting the whole way, even though the calendar said it was too early for that. It was mid-October, and the second morning of the two-day early muzzleloader season. I’d planned to still-hunt my way onto a favorite white oak ridge, have a seat against a trunk, and maybe kill a doe. The grunting and carrying on changed my plans, and so I stood still in the pre-dawn, trying to will sunrise to happen a little faster.

When daylight finally broke, I could see silhouettes of deer darting through the trees 100 yards ahead. When they disappeared over a break, I hustled up and took a seat at the base of an oak, my sidelock muzzleloader across my lap. Before long I could hear him coming back, marching through the leaves, still grunting as he came. He was in a thicket and out of sight but getting closer with every footfall. Where was he? Sitting flat on the ground, I couldn’t see more than 40 yards ahead. The buck was easily in range, no doubt, but completely obscured by the tiniest of hills.

But then he was there like an apparition, 25 yards away, a wall of 11 chocolate tines and black eyes staring holes into my orange vest. I guess I’d cocked the rifle and shouldered it already, but I don’t remember it. I only recall the white bead of my front sight in full focus on the buck’s shoulder, and a blast of white smoke. He crumpled in an instant, dead in his tracks.

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Maybe I’d have killed that buck with a scope, but maybe I wouldn’t have been fast enough. That morning, open sights were an advantage. That hunt was 20 years ago, when I hunted with iron sights often, partly because I could see them a little better than I can now, but also because I never really felt at a disadvantage with them.

These days I do scope my rifles, given the choice, but there are still times when I don’t have a choice. This September, for example, I’m going mule deer hunting in Colorado on a muzzleloader tag, and scopes aren’t allowed. But those muzzleloader tags are an awesome opportunity; they’re generally easier to draw than rifle tags, and at better times of the year. In the past, I’ve hunted pronghorns and rutting elk with open-sighted muzzleloaders in Colorado, and I’ve been successful both times.

So, shooting with open sights is far from an obsolete hunting skill. But shooting them well — and moreover, shooting them well at game — does require special practice. Here’s how I do it.

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Get the Right Setup

There are many different open-sight styles, and the best one for you depends on your preferred sight picture. I have hunting buddies who really like an aperture or peep-style rear sight, and that probably is the best choice for precision shooting at longer ranges, particularly if you like a center hold, where the front sight sits directly over your target. Line it up just as you would the peep and sight pins on your bow.

But don’t discount the classic notch and post, either, particularly if you like a lower “6 o’clock” hold, where you can see more of the target above your sights. The three-dot fiber-optic sights that come factory mounted on many of today’s muzzleloaders and some rifles are pretty good in the field, especially inside 100 yards. The dots are easy to see in low light and quick to align on a critter. Personally, I like to sight in and hold somewhere between 6 o’clock and center, so that my front sight is just on target but not covering it. Notch-and-post sights have always worked well for me with that hold.

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Practice with a .22

In the weeks ahead of hunting season, I keep an open-sighted .22 handy, and an 8-inch steel plate target out back. Once a day, I step out and run a full magazine of 10 rounds through the .22 at that plate, mostly at 50 to 75 yards but also out to 100. At those distances, the sights begin to cover the plate, just like they would a buck’s shoulder in the field. The ping on the plate lets me know instantly if I’ve made a hit or not. I make it a point to shoot from a variety of field positions in a week’s time, too — from my knee, off shooting sticks, by taking a post on a tree, and offhand. As it gets closer to season, I mix in a few shots from my muzzleloader, too — but the rimfire practice works wonders for the mechanics.

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Develop a Shot Process

Just like archery requires a shooting sequence, I take a couple of extra steps when aligning open rifle sights. Unlike with a scope, open sights have three points of focus — the target, front sight, and rear sight. You can only focus on one at a time. When the shot breaks, that focus should be on the front sight.

Still, you need to pick a spot, too. So my sequence begins with intense focus on the spot I want to hit, as I’m shouldering the rifle and steadying my cheek on the stock. From there, I slowly shift my eye’s focus to the front sight, which I position just above that spot and then slowly lower into place, until it’s resting exactly where I want it. This way, I still have a full, clear view of the target. Game animals don’t wear orange bull’s-eyes, so this step helps ensure that I’m aiming at the correct elevation; not too high or low. Once the front sight is where it needs to be, I align the rear sight, return focus on the front sight, and squeeze the trigger. It’s much faster in practice than to describe.

All the mechanics of steady breathing, good trigger control, and a solid rest apply just as much for open-sighted shooting as they do for scoped-rifle shooting — but at close range, you can shoot quicker with open sights, and for most, offhand shooting is easier, too.

That’s all handy when a big buck surprises you at 25 yards, too, and you don’t have long to react.

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