The History of Rifle Sights

By Pierre van der Walt

The firearms of the early 14th century were so inaccurate that any form of sighting, apart from merely pointing the arm in the direction of the target before firing, was unnecessary. Accuracy, however, soon improved to such an extent that more efficient sighting methods became mandatory. Firearms were consequently equipped with primitive since ±1450.

 

Bead & Notch Sights

These early sights merely comprised a bead at the muzzle and a fixed standing leaf with a notch situated somewhat to the rear. The beads were initially made of iron, but during the 16th century brass made its appearance as a front sight material on cheap guns. Silver made its appearance on luxury rifles more or less at the same time. Initially, front sights were simply screwed into the barrel. Sometimes it was placed on a base which in turn slid into a transverse dovetail on the top of the barrel. Windage adjustments were made by driving the front sight sideways in the desired direction. Initially the sight arrangement was situated on the very tip of the barrel, right at the muzzle, but it was soon found to be too vulnerable and was moved slightly rearwards. The rear sight, sometimes on a base as well, was normally placed at a point about 320mm (12,5") in front of the eyes of the shot when in the aiming stance. This worked quite well and gave a well-focused image. Reference marks soon appeared on either the barrel or the base to improve ease of adjustment. It did not take long before the appearance of rear sight blades of varying heights which could be flicked into position for use over increasing distances.

 

Peep Sights & Ghost Rings

An interesting variation on the theme originated in Turkey. Instead of the bead-and-blade set-up the Turks introduced the peep sight. A series of peep-holes were drilled vertically in the rear sight blade, the one on top of the other. Each different peep-hole was used over a different distance. This rugged system became extremely popular in the Middle East and North Africa, and was even used on European military rifles well into the nineteenth century. The only difference was that the European system used only one peep hole, and elevation adjustments were effected by moving the rear sight to a specified higher position on a ramp. The European system is still in use on virtually every military available today in the large hole (ghost ring) configuration.

 

Rear Sight Development

By 1500 the rear sight sometimes consisted of two parallel panels placed lengthwise on the barrel about 5mm (1/5") apart. A lead slab with a V-shaped notch lay between the panels. Somewhere between 1525 and 1550 the panels became a tube and the whole set-up acquired the appearance of a short, glassless telescope equipped with a notched leaf sight rather than a reticule. During the seventeenth century the tube was replaced by a solid block through which a peephole had been drilled. The sight was, in some instances, even equipped with a screw to accomplish windage adjustments. German and Scandinavian rifles dating from the latter part of the sixteenth and the early seventeenth century used a system that consisted of a slot cut into the top of the barrel. This slot stretched backwards from the front sight right up to the breach.  The slot’s function was to focus the attention of the eye on the bead. A variation on the theme made its debut in Germany where they fitted a flat or triangular rib on top of the barrel. This system became very popular in Denmark, disappeared and re-emerged for a short period in Germany during the eighteenth century, after which it never appeared again. Wingshooting became very popular during the seventeenth century.  This necessitated the re-introduction of the V-notch, but this time the French introduced it in a wide V configuration. The wide V degenerated in some areas into the buckhorn sight. Despite the fact that this blade shape became popular in America, it is totally impractical. A new trend in sight fitting made its appearance during about 1660. Instead of affixing the sight to the barrel itself, sights were fitted to a barrel band which was then in turn sweated to the barrel at the desired spot.  This system remained quite popular until the mid-18th century.

 

Fully Adjustable Sights

The quest for better sights continued during the nineteenth century, especially after the appearance of the Minié rifle. Rifles were soon equipped with finely adjustable sights. Until the mid-nineteenth century all rear sights were either of the V-notch or the peep type. About that time the famous singer and shooter, Ira Albert Paine (1837 – 1898) replaced the V-notch with a U-notch. During 1898 another American pistol shot, E.E. Patridge developed yet another sight and notch shape. His system consisted of a flat-topped pillar acting as front sight combined with a rectangular notch in the rear sight blade.  The notch was made wide enough to allow light to pass another side of the pillar when viewed through the notch, making it very simple to allow for windage. The Patridge system to this day remains the most popular on handguns and firearms intended for target shooting.

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