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How to Select New Sights for Old Rifles

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It’s called presbyopia, and if you are past 40 you probably have it. It’s the loss of the eye’s ability to focus on close objects. Most of us deal with its progression until our arms grow too short, and then we get glasses.

It’s left me with an inability to see open-style rear rifle sights very well. This became very evident with a rifle I bought a while ago. It was a pre-World War II Mauser sporter in 9×57. It’s a sleek, slick rifle made to carry while stalking. The barrel is half octagon and has a full rib and a ramp for the front sight, all integral. It features a set trigger, a butter-knife bolt handle and a buffalo horn buttplate. It excites lovers of classic rifles.

The trouble is it came with fixed open sights. The gun was designed to use with heavy bullets and those sights didn’t play well with American-style 200-grain bullets. Besides, the workmanship was not up to the rest of the rifle and the rear sight was all fuzzy.

I sent the gun off to Lee LaBas who is likely the top Mauser guy in the world. I asked for a claw mount for a scope. He talked me out of it. “Doing that will suck the soul out of the rifle,” he said. “It was never intended to wear a scope.”

I thought about using a peep sight, as they tend to focus your eye and often will work where open sights will not, except I didn’t want to drill any holes or modify the gun in any way. The rear sight was in an odd-size dovetail not common to anything we use today. I modified a mount to install a red-dot sight using that odd dovetail from the rear sight. It worked fine, but it looked like a malignant tumor on this rifle.

So I turned to Andy Larson, who owns Skinner Sights. They offer a mid-barrel peep sight designed to be used on the rear sight dovetail. He custom made one for me for that rifle. It took a little tweaking and a taller front sight that was both expensive and a lot of work to fit, but now I can use my rifle without cursing the gods of old age.

Peep sight installed on rifle.

That process got me thinking about all the other rifles I have that I don’t use much anymore. I have several old Winchester rifles, some are family heirlooms, and many are pristine enough I don’t want to drill holes or modify them. For example, I have a pre-’64 Model 94 in .32 Special. I rarely shoot it because I can’t see the back sight well enough to bother. So, my next move was to order a mid-barrel rear peep sight and a fiber-optic front sight from Skinner Sights.

Installing them is not difficult, but they do come slightly oversize and require filing to fit. If you don’t feel confident, any gunsmith can do it for a small fee, or you can send your gun to Andy.

I have always believed that a peep sight must be mounted close to your eye on the very rear of the gun, but that’s not necessarily true. These mid-barrel sights are some distance from my eye yet I can look through them and see the fiber-optic front sight very well. There is a short learning curve, but once you figure it out these mid-barrel peep sights are far superior to open rear sights. I have plans to mount them on several more old Winchester lever action rifles.

Lever action rifle with Burris FastFire 4 red dot optic to be mounted on barrel.

There are a lot of us who have older rifles sitting around and neglected. Often they are family heirlooms that we really would like to hunt with. But, we don’t want to make permanent changes to the rifles like drilling holes to mount a scope or receiver sight. Doing that destroys the value of these guns and detracts from their appeal.

It’s not just the infirmities of age–today’s hunters likely didn’t grow up with open sights and are not familiar with them—which led me to think about taking this up one more modern level. There has been a preponderance of tiny, red-dot reflex sights hitting the market in recent years. Some are so small they are designed to be installed on a carry pistol for self-defense. They don’t have any eye relief issues, so putting them mid-barrel where the rear sight currently resides makes a lot of sense. It’s easy to remove them at any time and reinstall the original sight, so the gun stays true to its roots with no harm to the value.

Skinner Sights makes a mount for the rear dovetail that has a 1-inch section of Picatinny rail on top.  It’s easy and fast to install and fits a wide range of optics, like the Aimpoint Micro sight I had in my shop. This an inexpensive and easy way to get your old gun back in the fight.

Skinner Sights dovetail sight mounted on rifle.

I have a Model 94 Winchester in .30-30 that belonged to my father-in-law. I wanted to hunt with it, but didn’t cozy up to the idea of drilling holes. Turnbull Restoration is famous for their outstanding restoration work on old guns, particularly older Winchesters. I learned that they also make a bunch of mounts to fit red-dot sights to Winchesters and other lever actions. The receiver-mounted models required I drill and tap holes, which was already off the table. However, they have a mid-barrel mount using the dovetail cut for the rear sight. They offer a couple of models to fit most popular red-dot sights. This mount curves around the barrel. It’s simple to install and sits low on the gun so that the sight is closer to the bore. I mounted a Burris FastFire 4 reflex sight on what will be my deer rifle this year.

These old guns deserve another chance and should be in the woods hunting deer, not gathering dust in a closet.


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