If you’re hunting on an open plane with the potential for long-range shooting, a good scope is of course in order. If you’re hunting in moderately dense forests and want to maximize your hunting time in low light conditions, you should probably use a scope as well. Scopes or even inline rifles were not allowed. If you’ve ever hunted in a thick brush where your range is already limited, a scope on a hunting rifle can actually be an obstacle.
Ken Elliott and I had a dispute over iron sights that lasted for years. Ken, my long-time boss, was firmly convinced that a centerfire hunting rifle should carry iron sights in addition to a scope, preferably with removable mounts. Only once in my hunting career have I removed a scope in favor of iron sights (more on that later). If I ever hunt prongs, elk or deer in places like Wyoming or Montana, where long shots are the norm, you’ll know perfectly well that my rifle will be equipped with a scope.
When hunting in heavy cover or when the target is likely to move quickly, a scope can be more of an obstacle than a help. In reality, the maximum hunting range for hunting with iron sights is around 300 yards, and often much closer. If this rifle proves what can be done without a scope at a reasonable distance, you can do it with so many of the millions of purpose-built hunting rifles that have been manufactured in the last 100 years. Scopes were for rich people, snipers, and big game hunters (such as elk and mountain goats) in places like Montana and Wyoming, where long range shooting is common.
The disadvantages of iron sights are most apparent when hunting in low light conditions and long distances, as an aperture sight does not collect as much light as a scope and offers no magnification. For most “general” hunts, a scope is superior, but it’s amazing what you can do with iron when you practice. If you’re hunting on an open plane with the potential for long-range shooting, a good scope is of course in order. With the type of hunt I do and for self-defense situations, I don’t think there is a need for leeway and could actually become a hindrance.
It’s fun to hunt buffalo with an open rifle, but over time you’ll see more buffaloes and bigger buffaloes with a low-power scope. Hunting without a scope is still very possible. This white-tailed deer was recorded at about 100 yards with this reproduction of Enfield Musketoon. Additionally, especially with higher magnification scopes, it generally takes longer to capture the target with a scope than iron sights. Second, while scopes are generally more durable today than they were 20 years ago, they are generally not nearly as robust as iron sights, and more handling care is required when transporting a scope, especially when flying.
But I hope to discuss the pros and cons of hunting with iron sights over a scope and hopefully provide some good advice for potential hunters.