The peep sight was something else altogether… all you had to do was set the target on top of the front sight post and gently pull the trigger. Plink – the tin can went rolling, and you were convinced you were ready to pack for that East African safari.
Just take a peep
Overcome by a wave of nostalgia for the days when small game hunting was better (or at least when I was a better small game hunter) I ordered a Williams Foolproof peep sight this morning from the Midway USA company. If all goes well, it will soon be mounted on the Marlin Model 39A lever-action that was once my father’s beloved squirrel rifle.
If you are a rifle shooter born in the 40s or 50s, you probably have a special place in your heart for the peep sight, technically known as the aperture receiver sight. Those oft-misunderstood sighting devices were a hot item when we were youngsters looking at photos of Ernest Hemingway and Jack O’Connor posed stoically with trophy big game animals they had bowled over on the African plains, using bolt-action rifles with those curious, micrometer-looking peep sights.
If that was what it took to become a bwana on that East African safari, respected as a dead-accurate shooter out to 400 yards on running game, well then by golly we were going to get one of those magical peep sights and learn how to use it. They looked so sleek and mechanically marvelous.
Virtually every hunting rifle is equipped with a telescopic sight these days; it is an aberration to see a rifle, or even a slug-shooting shotgun, that does not have one attached prominently to the top of the receiver. The scope, usually a variable power model the size of a beer bottle, has become the standard rifle sight.
Fifty years ago, a scope was quite the racy sighting accessory to a rifle, and most of the hunters we knew went afield with a rifle topped with the crudest of open sights, the various notch-and-post styles of iron sights. I have often wondered why the hunters of that era were satisfied to use those abysmal “factory sights,” especially since many of them were World War II and Korean War veterans who trained with M1 Garand military rifles that had adjustable receiver sights.
I understand why firearm manufacturers sold their rifles with iron sights: they are cheap to produce and easy to install. But the notch-and-post sight, with a shallow V rear sight at the aft end of the barrel and a bulky blade front sight on top of the muzzle, is a sorry device for accurate shooting.
Those sights require the eye to focus simultaneously on objects on three different planes (rear sight, front sight, target), which is an optical impossibility, and the lineal relationship of the notch to the post to the target is different for each shooter – and changes with the slightest movement of the shooter’s face on the gunstock. As kids, we all learned to shoot with an inexpensive .22 rifle that had iron sights, and it is amazing that we suffered through that experience and still held onto our fantasies of becoming dead-eye riflemen. It was difficult to hit anything smaller that a garbage can lid at ranges beyond 50 yards, and a kid is easily discouraged when he doesn’t hear the bullet go “plink” on an imaginary elk or kudu.
The peep sight was something else altogether. You did not have to line up cumbersome iron sights at all. Your eye automatically peered though the “peep,” the hole in the receiver sight, and all you had to do was set the target on top of the front sight post and gently pull the trigger. Plink – the tin can went rolling, and you were convinced you were ready to pack the gear for a hunting trip to Kenya.
The grizzled old shooting coaches considered these receiver sights to be a form of cheating, and they disdained any success you had on the rifle range when you were using a “peep.” Next thing, you’d be getting one of them new-fangled scopes that practically guided the bullet to the target and were for sissies who were not man enough to shoot with “real” sights. John Wayne didn’t shoot a Winchester 94 with some damned peep sight or scope bolted onto it.
Then John Wayne became an advertising spokesman for Winchester rifles and was pictured shooting Model 70s with receiver sights and scopes – extolling their virtues, in fact – and the crusty old rifle range instructors had to fold their tents and ride off into the sunset.
That’s when receiver sights had their brief moment of fame. There must have been 20 or more companies producing models that ranged from simple and basic to elaborate and complicated. The former were known as “hunting sights” and were sturdy as any post-and-notch sight; the latter were known as “target sights” and some of them were real Rube Goldberg contraptions.
But the peep did not become the standard for rifle sights because it was quickly supplanted by the telescopic sight. Scopes were finicky and sometimes fragile in their early configurations, but they were the logical progression from the peep: what the receiver sight could do well, the scope could do even better, and with magnification. Even at longer ranges, you could clearly see what you were shooting, holding the reticle (crosshairs) on the target was easier and more precise, and sighting in low-light conditions was somewhat better – more so with the much higher optic quality scopes of today than the rudimentary scopes of 40 years ago.
The apparent benefits of the scope were fatal to the peep sight. The shooters who wanted the best possible sighting devices chose the scope over the receiver sight, and the shooters who were not sophisticated enough to care about utmost accuracy were content to use the traditional, and less expensive, notch-and-post iron sights.
Still, the peep sight has it place and is an excellent choice for certain hunting situations. I won’t argue if you choose a low-powered scope for your woods rifle in .30-30 Winchester or .35 Remington; I did that myself. But at ranges less than 100 yards, I would probably shoot that lever gun just as accurately with a peep sight.
Last fall, I bought a Savage Arms company ‘Rascal’ single-shot youth model rifle that is light enough for my grandchildren to handle on their own while I give them shooting instruction. It has a simple but functional receiver sight, and when I sighted in that rifle I rediscovered the fun of shooting with a peep.
So the motivation to buy a receiver sight for my old Marlin Model 39 is based more on nostalgia than practicality. It’s unlikely I will ever hunt squirrels again, so the peep will be purely for the enjoyment of plinking on my rifle range – memories of days when I learned how to shoot a rifle on the back 40 of an Ohio farm.