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Sights and Scopes for Your Muzzleloader

By Randy D. Smith

Sightron SII 4x32
Illustration courtesy of Sightron.

If someone were to ask me what the single most important improvement to a modern rifle should be, I would advise that they should improve the sights first, no matter what their age or the condition of their eyesight. In my state, regulations declare that scopes may not be used during special muzzleloader hunting seasons so many of my first-choice muzzleloaders are not equipped with scopes. However, I do have a few muzzleloaders equipped with scopes and have tested a number of scopes over the years. As I think about this topic, a few scopes stand out in my mind as being exceptional for muzzle loading and a couple as being miserable failures.

I am not an expert on scopes and am certainly not a "scope snob." I can sum up my preferences regarding muzzleloader scopes in a few crisp statements.

You can always shoot tighter groups and do a better job of hunting with a scope mounted rifle over any mechanical sight especially in the low light conditions of dawn and dusk. Less experienced shooters do better with scopes but a scope does not replace pre-season shooting practice.

I like plenty of eye relief on muzzleloader scopes; at least three inches to keep from getting cuts and eyebrow knocks from heavy loads. My most unhappy experiences with scopes have occurred when the eye relief or the stock was too short.

I prefer scopes of fixed or low power with 4X - 6X being my favorite magnification levels. However, a good field grade rifle 32 or 40mm variable with 3-9X is an excellent choice for all-purpose hunting. I have one 6-12X scope mounted on a Ruger #1 .30-06 designated for long-range shooting. I rarely use 10-12X magnification without a solid rest.

I don't like cheap scopes and I have no taste for expensive scopes on a muzzleloader. A cheap scope will often fail when you least expect it and an expensive scope is not necessary unless you do a lot of hunting. In all honesty, I can't tell enough difference in optical quality to justify a Kahles, Leupold, or Shepherd scope over good mid-level rifle scopes, but that may be because I don't know what to look for.

In my opinion if you want to spend high prices for good hunting optics, invest your money in a superior pair of binoculars. You will notice the difference in quality there much more easily than with a comparison of mid-level to high-level riflescopes. There are many scopes on the market in the $150 to $250 price range that are more than adequate for any muzzleloader situation.

With that said, however, my favorite scope is a Bushnell 4200 Elite that retails around the $400 mark on today's market. However, my second favorite scope is a straight 6X32mm Simmons Pro Hunter that probably retailed for around $120. Is there a difference in quality? Yes, but scopes such as the Aetec line from Simmons, the Elite 3200 line from Bushnell, the Buckmaster Line from Nikon, the SI line from Sightron and the Fullfield line from Burris are highly practical scopes that should provide years of dependable service at a reasonable price.

Some of the outstanding scopes that I have tested also include a 3-9X40mm Thompson/Center Hawken Hunter that I used on a number of different rifles, a 4X Burris compact that I've mounted on everything from a Ruger 77/50 to a Ruger .458 Win. Mag. "Alaskan" with equally good results, a 1-4X Pentax Lightseeker compact (presently residing on my Ruger Ranch Rifle and responsible for dozens of coyotes), and the 4200 Elite that I have used on so many rifles that I've lost count. I have a relatively inexpensive 3-9X Bushnell Banner mounted on an Austin & Halleck 320 that is in its fourth season with no problems. I have never felt that the Banner scope lacked in optical quality or sturdiness.

I use Buffalo scope guards and/or black electrical tape to protect the underside of all my in-line scopes. Contamination from percussion caps and 209 primers are hard on scopes and they need to be protected.

I have recently returned from a plains game safari in South Africa for which I was supplied with a Weaver Grand Slam 1.5-5X32mm scope. I dialed the scope up to the 5X setting and left it there throughout the safari, taking any number of successful shots from 80 to 145 yards. I was very happy with it and will continue to use it on various test rifles in the future.

Iron Sights

Now, let's talk about mechanical sights. I really have more experience and stronger opinions on this subject. Probably 85% of my muzzleloader hunting involves mechanical sights because of special state muzzleloader regulations in Kansas and nearby Colorado.

A good set of black iron open sights will work well if they are properly designed and the shooter understands their limitations. I was raised with open sights and did not have a scoped rifle until I was in my late 30's, so I think I have a pretty fair idea of how to use them. I have a 40 year-old Savage 110 30-06 with open sights that has never worn a scope. This is an early 110 with the original high-quality walnut stock, steel butt plate, and old time open sights similar to what was on Model 94 Winchesters of the era. I use the rifle as a truck, camp, and saddle rifle and appreciate the stability and rugged design of those sights.

With a very narrow notch and white center line in the semi-buckhorn rear and a Lyman #6 front blade, I can still shoot 3" and 4" offhand 100 yard groups with this rifle; about as well as I can do with many scoped in-lines. I hasten to add here that I have carried this rifle for at least 30 years and know it better than any rifle I have ever owned. I use only 150-grain rounds in it because I know what that weight bullet will do from that rifle. I normally limit my shots to 150 yards with the Savage and work the rear elevation sight on the first and second notches depending on the estimated range. If I knew I would be stuck in the wilderness for an extended length of time and had to depend upon one rifle to survive, I'd choose the open sight 110. It is amazing what open sights are capable of with a low trajectory round like the .30-06 Springfield. For running shots at medium distance coyotes it is the rifle to beat and it is a great snap shooting 100 to 120 yard whitetail rifle.

I believe that the best black open sight available for muzzleloaders is the Williams WGOS with the "V" option. This sight must be mated with the proper font blade to be effective. In most cases you will be able to shoot tighter hundred yard groups with this sight than with any fiber optic but you must match front and rear sight on the rifle to do it.

I also have a new CZ 550 American Safari Magnum in .458 Lott that I am just learning and plan to take for dangerous game when I return to Africa in a few years. It has three-leaf express sights marked 100, 200, and 300 yards.

I have read a number of writers who speak with disdain of a rifle with such a sight set up claiming it as being impractical. So, far I've found that this rifle will shoot 510-grain .458 Win Mag rounds dead on at 50 yards and about two inches low at 100 yards using the first leaf. It shoots about four inches low at 200 yards with the second leaf up. I haven't tried the 300 yard setting but intend to do some 200 yard shooting with the third leaf. Since the rifle will be used for shots ranging from 50 to 150 yards, I am very happy with the sights and will probably not mount a scope on it.

The actual 200 and 300 yard markings have little value to me but the leaf selection may make a big difference on where I want the bullet to impact in certain hunting situations at the ranges I plan to shoot. If it is the markings on the sights that are upsetting the writers, then black them out. This is a very fast sighting rifle with the bulk and the sight construction to absorb heavy loads over years of use. I like the rifle and its sights. The sights are vastly superior to my old Ruger "Alaskan" .458.

Express sights are superior for dangerous game. The secret to shooting a rifle like this well is the same as the old 110 Savage. You have to burn a bunch of ammunition and learn the rifle thoroughly to be successful. Most shooters don't take the time or have the opportunity to do this, however, and they are better off with a scope mounted rifle of smaller caliber.

I have two other rifles, a Traditions Evolution .54 caliber muzzleloader and a Ruger #1Sporter in .45-70, that I hunt with using the original open sights. I use both as short-range, heavy load, knock-down rifles for whitetail, elk, bears, and feral hog hunting. Ruger's standard open sights are really pathetic offerings but on the short barreled #1 they work well enough and this rifle fits in my saddle scabbard as equipped. I am toying with the idea of using Ghost Ring sights on the Evolution but have not gotten around to finding out whether they are available. Since most of my shots with the Evolution are less than 70 yards I get along fine with the standard fiber optic sights.

What are your alternatives when a scope sight is not an option and conventional post and V sights are not providing good enough performance? The alternatives not only allowed me to shoot more effectively with mechanical sights but also are preferable to scopes under certain conditions; so much so that almost every hunting muzzleloader I have that is not wearing a scope is either equipped with peep or Ghost Ring sights. I feel that I am shooting better than I ever have and these sights are the reason.

In a state where hunting regulations mandate the use of mechanical sights during special muzzleloader seasons or in conditions where a scope would have to take unusual abuse there are very effective alternatives to open V and post sights. As our hunting population is aging and regulations for several special seasons seem to be fairly rigid, alternative sights become an important consideration. Two of these choices are aperture or "peep" sights and Ghost Ring sights.

Those who want a simple explanation of why aperture or Ghost Ring sights are superior need to understand the concept of a focal plane. When you sight a rifle equipped with typical open sights on a target your eyes are required to align a rear sight with a front post and then place that alignment on your target. If you do it right, and most good marksmen do so without much concentration, something has to go fuzzy and your eyes make quick adjustments to balance the effect. The old saying "aim small, miss small" comes into play here and the better your vision is the smaller the definition that can be drawn with this sighting system.

But, as eyes age, it becomes increasingly difficult to make either of those two points stay in focus. Not only is the target fuzzy but the front sight is as well. It isn't the gun; it's the shooter. "Aim small, miss small" is no longer a credible option because you are no longer able to maintain the same focal plane definition that you once did.

Fiber optic sights offer some improvement over black iron sights in low light situations. In spite of the increased brightness of the sight dots I find the dots fuzzy and the green dots of the back sights tend to blend into the red dot in the center on many models. The exception has been a set of Williams steel sights on a Traditions Pursuit Pro which use smaller fiber optic points than many models. Many tend to "shimmer" in bright sunlight and snowy conditions causing some target perception distortion and slowing the aiming process. For still hunting whitetails in heavy brush and timber the extra time it takes to find the target and align the sights can be the difference in having a shot or not.

A scope is a grand improvement. Instead of having to maintain a focal plane of three points the shooter only has to worry about one. The shooter simply puts the crosshairs on the magnified target--both are in the same optical plane. Electronic red dot sights perform a similar function without magnification.

Either of these alternatives is vastly superior to plain iron or fiber optic sights. But in my state and neighboring Colorado these options are prohibited for muzzleloader only seasons and neither is as rugged as I'd like for certain harsh conditions such as back country horseback elk hunts. Scopes do not provide the broad field of view that I need at short ranges when hunting thick timber. I need something fast as my whitetail shot opportunities are often less than two seconds.

I've found that two types of sights offer significant improvement over plain iron sights and fiber optic sights. They also challenge the electronic red dot sight in most situations and even the telescopic sight in some. A properly configured aperture sight and the ghost ring sight are excellent alternatives, so much so that one or the other is mounted on almost every hunting rifle I have that is not equipped with a scope. I have found that either will tighten my 100 yard groups by several inches over conventional sights on most rifles. In certain hunting conditions I find them to be faster and more dependable than a scope.

I enjoyed exceptional performance from a ghost ring sight on a Marlin Guide Gun and found it superior any scope system for brush country whitetails. I have never experienced any long gun that got on target so quickly with such sure fire accuracy in short range brush hunting situations as the ghost ring equipped .45-70 carbine.

Muzzle-loading in-line rifles that I once converted to scope use for the regular Kansas firearms deer season are now left "as is" because of the effectiveness of the Lyman peep sight. I tested an Austin & Halleck inline equipped with XS (formerly Ashley or AO Sight System) Ghost Ring sights. It challenged my scoped inlines by shooting nearly identical groups on the 100 yard target range and surpassed the scopes for fast target acquisition in the woods. Anyone who is struggling with standard V and post open sights should seriously consider either of these sighting systems.

Aperture (Peep) Sights

Peep sights have been around for some time. Lyman and Williams make popular models. Each brand features a small "peep" hole in the rear that is aligned with a front blade sight, usually equipped with some kind of bead to act as a point of reference.

I have a Model 57 SME Lyman rear peep sight mounted on a .45 caliber White Thunder Bolt with a fiber optic front bead. I also enjoyed excellent performance from a Model 57 SML Lyman rear peep sight mounted on a .54 Lyman Deerstalker side hammer rifle with a Lyman ivory bead.

Features on these sights include 1/4 minute audible click micrometer adjustments for elevation and windage, quick-release slide, coin-slotted "stay set" knobs and two interchangeable aperture discs (large hunting aperture and small target aperture) for different shooting conditions. I use the small target apertures for long range hunting and the large hunting aperture for short range still hunting. If I am in low light situations in the field I'll remove the small aperture and use the aperture ring as my rear peep hole. This is effectively a "ghost ring."

The only disadvantages I have experienced with Lyman receiver sights are that many guns must be drilled and tapped to accommodate mounting the sights, although the Thunder Bolt and the Deerstalker are pre-drilled for receiver sight mounting.

Receiver sights can snag in extremely brushy conditions and can be bent out of alignment more easily than standard open sights. Both of these things can happen with scopes, however, and are not significant concerns anymore than scope damage would be. At least it is easy to see if a receiver sight has been bent and it is virtually impossible to tell if a scope has shifted its zero after being dropped.

An alternative peep sight is the Williams WGRS that mounts at the back of the breech in the drilled and tapped scope base holes. Remember all peep and ghost ring sights are to be mounted as near the eye as the rifle will allow. They should not be placed where the original rear sight was located. The WGRS is compact and not prone to snagging in brush, although it does not have the adjustment flexibility of a peep mounted on a cross arm. I have a Traditions Pursuit Pro mounted with a WGRS (cataloged for CVA) that is working very well for long distance accuracy.

The advantage of target adjustment knob sights is that minute adjustments for windage and elevation can be made in the field without special tools. I do not usually do this, choosing rather to use "Kentucky" estimates of windage and elevation when hunting situations demand it. It takes some practice to know how little it is necessary to alter the sight alignment for long-range shooting, but no more so than with most scopes.

A hunter equipped with binoculars for game evaluation is at little disadvantage with receiver sights, especially within the ranges commonly associated with black powder projectiles. I am especially fond of receiver sights for pronghorn antelope and mule deer muzzleloader hunting seasons. Receiver sights with target apertures allow for quite precise shooting out to 150 yards with sufficient practice. I can maintain a ten inch spread at that distance from a bench rest, or using a Harris bipod in combination with receiver sights in the field.

XS Ghost Ring Sights

I had virtually no experience with Ghost Ring sights before my Marlin Guide Gun. These fast acquisition hunting sights feature a contrasting white on black front post for low light conditions. The white stripe draws immediate focus to the front sight post for faster reference on target. The large Ghost-Ring™ aperture is fully adjustable for windage/elevation, and affords great field of view for faster target and front sight acquisition. Sets include both .230" and .191" apertures. They install easily, usually in existing predrilled holes for scope bases or factory sights. The rifle is sighted so that point of impact is at the top of the post, just as with an aperture sight.

The theory is that the eye of the shooter naturally and unconsciously centers the post in the Ghost Ring during normal sighting on the target. Subsequently, the shooter puts the top of the post on the target and shoots without conscious effort to align the sights. Does it work? From my experience it works beautifully.

It is the only sighting system other than my double barrel shotgun where I take my shots with both eyes open. This is especially notable since I am left eye dominant and shoot right handed. After only a couple of hunting situations where I had to make instant shots at running game I became thoroughly convinced of the excellence of this sighting system in close range, fast action hunting conditions. I mentioned them to some other muzzleloading enthusiasts and the standard response was that although they accepted the idea that Ghost Ring sights were excellent for jump shooting, they wanted more precise sighting for long range encounters. This was a trait that they did not feel Ghost Ring sights could deliver. It looked too easy.

I felt that my Guide Gun shot better at 80 to 100 yards for me with Ghost Ring sights than with standard Marlin sights but I wasn't going to argue the point until I had more experience with them on a muzzleloading rifle. I decided to experiment with a Ghost Ring sight on a new Austin & Halleck rifle. On both of these rifles the Ghost Ring is mounted on the rear holes designed for standard scope bases.

This Austin & Halleck in-line muzzleloader is known for shooting tight groups but it is not configured to be a brush rifle. Its action and 36" barrel length makes for an in-line more commonly used for long-range shooting conditions than for still hunting or whitetail brush shooting. A scope is usually mounted to gain the most potential of an inline muzzleloader like the Austin & Halleck. I did not want to mount a scope because I wanted to use this rifle for muzzleloader season. Using the standard fiber optic sights I managed several four-inch 100-yard groups from the bench, which in and of itself is not bad and normal for most of the better open sight inline muzzleloaders I have tested. It took a long time, however, to obtain my sight picture as the dots often blurred on me when sighting on a small orange target 100 yards away.

The Ghost Ring was much easier to sight on the same target and shots could be taken much more quickly. Windage is adjusted by loosening and tightening side screws on the Ghost Ring. Each 180� turn of the threaded aperture will move the bullet impact up or down approximately one inch at 100 yards. The XS Ghost-Ring™ Aperture Sight provides approximately 14 inches of total elevation adjustment based on a 24 inch sight radius. After some practice I was able to improve my groups by an inch and take my shots in a quarter of the time.

The orange dot of the target was clearly visible. In spite of the small size of the target my concentration did not compete against the sight and it was much easier to place the white line of the post with the orange target dot resting on it. I felt that the whole affair was vastly superior on the range to standard fiber optic sights.

The other trait that I liked about the Ghost Ring is that it is a trim design and much less prone to accidental damage. At 150 yards the receiver sight will perform better but as distances close from that point the Ghost Ring consistently closes the performance gap. Below 80 yards the Ghost Ring is much faster and equally as accurate. Again, at no distance do I feel that fiber optic sights are the equal of either the Ghost Ring or the receiver sight.

I prefer the Ghost Ring to the receiver sight in snowy conditions. Whether the day is bright sunshine over snow or heavy overcast over snow the white line of the front sight on the Ghost Ring sight was clearly defined by the surrounding black outline. In bright snowy conditions I have experienced the poorest performance with fiber optic sights with my eyesight. The shimmering effect is quite strong.

The scope sight is superior in snow with Ghost Rings a distant second and receiver sights are slightly less agile because it is a bit more difficult to locate the front sight dot in the receiver ring. I filled two doe tags in snow using the Ghost Ring sight configuration on the Austin & Halleck in thick stands of cedars. Both shots were less than forty yards and had to be taken instantly. Later in the year I hunted the same area with a low-powered scope mounted lever action .30-30 and thought the scope was not as effective for those hunting circumstances. Target acquisition was much slower.

Eyesight varies from individual to individual and your experiences may be different. Any hunter that is dissatisfied with open mechanical or fiber optic sights should consider upgrading to peep or Ghost Ring sights. They will certainly tighten groups and improve the time required for target acquisition no matter how good your eyesight. And, if you are drifting into middle age they will certainly extend your ability to take advantage of special seasons where scopes or electronic sights are not allowed. In special circumstances, such as close range whitetail hunting, I don't believe any sight can match the effectiveness of the XS Ghost Ring or large aperture peep sights.

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