Handgun Sights for Hunting and Field Use

By Chuck Hawks

Let me start with this bit of advice: fixed sights are a poor economy on almost any handgun above the level of a derringer or pocket pistol. They almost never shoot to point of aim in your hand or with the load you choose to use. Avoid fixed sights like the plague. Even on self-defense guns that you hope will never be used, fixed sights are a headache. You need to practice to develop a useful skill level, and it is much more fun to hit than to miss. Certainly, a life or death situation is not the time you want to be trying to remember that you need to hold your self-defense gun 4" low and 2" to the right to put a bullet where it needs to go.

On a field pistol of any sort (trail gun, plinking pistol, hunting pistol, informal target pistol, etc.) fixed sights are basically worthless, so I am not going to address them further. Get a pistol with decent adjustable sights, or have them installed.

One problem with all iron sights, even the best adjustable models, is that the shooter must focus on the front sight, letting the target be out of focus, to consistently hit the target. This is absolutely necessary for accurate shooting, and one of the hardest things to remember when excited. It is contrary to basic human instinct, which is to focus on the prey (or the threat). Since hunting is by definition exciting, and the target is often small, far away, and hard to see, focusing on the front sight can be a real challenge in the field.

The excellent target type iron sights, adjustable for windage and elevation, that come on most top quality target and hunting pistols are durable, reasonably low profile for holster carry, and can be surprisingly accurate. Rain or inclement weather that may blur optical sights does not usually bother them. Obviously, there are no batteries to go dead at an inopportune time. Because they are compact, durable, and easy to holster, adjustable iron sights are probably the best sights for trail and back-up guns. They are also adequate for plinking and informal target shooting out to at least 25 yards. A good shot can do almost as well at ordinary handgun ranges with decent iron sights as with an optical sight, if there is plenty of time and the target is clearly visible.

Unfortunately, the favorable conditions mentioned in the paragraph above seldom pertain when hunting. An optical sight is faster to aim at typical hunting ranges and much easier to shoot accurately than iron sights, because it puts the aiming mark and the target in the same optical plane. Both should be sharp and clear in a properly focused optical sight. Red dot sights and extended eye relief telescopic sights are the two kinds of optical sights usually available for handguns.

I have a Weaver "red dot" sight on my Colt Ultimate Python .357 Magnum revolver, and a Tasco red dot sight on my Mitchell/High Standard Victor II .22 target pistol. My Ruger Super Blackhawk Hunter wears a Nikon 1.5-4x scope. Optical sights are a boon for middle-aged eyes.

I like red dot sights very much, better than conventional pistol scopes for most purposes. I actually purchased a third red dot sight and mount for my 8" Royal Blue Python. But that 8" Royal Blue gun is so beautiful, and its long sight radius makes it so accurate even with iron sights, that in the end I left it alone. Never the less, my advice to handgun hunters is to use an optical sight.

Even on a gun used mainly for plinking red dot sights are an asset. They are also excellent for introducing a new shooter to handgun shooting, since he or she can concentrate on trigger pull and a consistent grip without having to worry about focusing on the front sight--one of the hardest things for new handgun shooters to learn. Since red dot sights lack magnification, they do not amplify the visual effect of the shooter's movement as does a regular telescopic sight. (This can be very disconcerting to many shooters, especially beginners.) Red dot sights run on batteries, but a set of batteries usually lasts me for 2 years or longer (if I remember to turn the sight off before I put the gun away). Extreme temperatures (especially cold) are not good for batteries, but fortunately I live in a moderate climate and have never had a temperature related battery problem with my red dot sights.

A conventional scope does offer magnification for better target definition at long ranges and the finest potential accuracy of all pistol sights. It is not dependent on battery power, and you don't have to remember to turn it off after use. It can be affected by inclement weather, such as heavy rain, but usually isn't. I live in Western Oregon, a place famous for its rainy weather and where we almost always do our deer hunting in the rain. I am reasonably careful with my guns and scopes, and I can truthfully say that I have never missed a shot because my scope's lenses got so wet I couldn't aim through them.

I first mounted a scope on a handgun when Bushnell introduced their original 1.3x Phantom pistol scope. I believe this was the first long eye relief scope specifically intended for handgun use ever produced. This was sometime back in the middle 1960's. I special ordered a Phantom as soon as I found out it was available, and mounted it on my Ruger Blackhawk .357 Magnum revolver. No one I knew had ever seen a scoped pistol before. When I did my part that was a deadly combination, far easier to shoot accurately than iron sights beyond about 25 yards, as long as the game stayed in one place. It wasn't so hot on running game, as the field of view through that scope was very small. Unfortunately, those early pistol scopes were not rugged enough to handle the sustained recoil of a magnum revolver, and the reticule shot loose in mine after about a year of use.

I have subsequently owned several other scoped handguns, including a Contender single shot pistol and various hunting revolvers. Current handgun scopes are far better than that original 1.3x Bushnell, both optically and mechanically. But it still pays to buy a top quality optical sight (scope or red dot). Don't skimp on quality to save a few dollars. The recoil velocity of magnum handguns is much higher than that of ordinary hunting rifles, and this subjects the internal parts of an optical sight to great stress every time the gun is fired. On a .22 rimfire or a standard centerfire caliber like the .38 Special a lower priced optical sight may be satisfactory (I have had mixed results with Tasco red dot sights, for example), but on a magnum revolver it simply makes sense to buy the very best you can afford.

I have had good luck with optical sights made by Weaver, Leupold, and Nikon. Modern Bushnell pistol scopes have also been entirely satisfactory. I am sure there are other good optical sights out there, but those are the brands with which I have personally been satisfied. Remember that you can't hit what you can't see.

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Copyright 2001, 2007 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.