By John Taffin
Why can’t they just sight these guns in at the factory?” is a refrain I hear often. Let’s say, someone has saved up the money to buy a traditional fixed-sighted single action sixgun. It could be a Colt, Cimarron/Uberti, Ruger, USFA or any one of several other sixguns and the shooter finds the gun he has been waiting for does not shoot to point of aim. So why can’t fixed-sighted sixguns shoot where they point? Why can’t the factory sight them in properly?
The answer is they do — and they don’t. The problem is everyone does not use the same ammunition, nor the same hold, nor has the same eyes, nor shoots under the same lighting conditions. All of these have a bearing on how connected point-of-aim is to point-of-impact. The sixgun you hold in your hands which won’t shoot for you to point-of-aim may have been perfectly sighted in by someone in the factory, but only for them, and we’re all different. One of my shooting friends and I can take the same sixgun with the same loads and my shots will be around 3″ higher than his at 25 yards. We hold differently — we see differently.
Quite often single actions need to have their barrels turned to adjust the windage, and/or front sights filed down to address elevation. Once in a while we come across a front sight which is too short, and requires metal to be added to the sight top or to shoot lighter bullets (which strike lower). However, usually it is just a matter of filing a too-tall front sight.
Caution is necessary here. The barrel around the front sight should be wrapped with some kind of protective tape just in case the file slips, and as Murphy has so adequately stated it, if it can — it will. Also it’s necessary to go slowly, and after a few file strokes check the elevation. It’s also necessary to pick a particular load before starting this process, and realize the point of impact from sandbags may be different than when shooting offhand. Strange as it may seem sometimes just changing powder or bullets or both will also change the windage. It’s just a matter of experimenting.
This Ruger .357 New Vaquero has been fitted with a Bowen front sight while the
Freedom Arms .357 Model 97 has a Freedom Arms adjustable front sight.
A shop-made barrel vise which fits into the trailer hitch of Taffin’s Chevy
4×4 allows turning of barrels in the field.
Turning barrels to move the front sight is not difficult, however it does require proper equipment. My friend Denis came up with a portable barrel vise so we could work in the field. The supporting section is an L-shaped affair about 20″ tall which fits into the trailer hitch on my Silverado 4×4. The top of this holds the vise and he made aluminum blocks to precisely fit the barrel of Colt Single Actions and replicas. We also use a frame wrench instead of the traditional axe handle, minimizing damaging the frame in any way.
Denis, being a retired engineer and hobby machinist, worked out a chart for each barrel length as to how much we’d have to twist the barrel. He didn’t stop there, and also came up with a gauge to fit on the frame wrench handle, and it works perfectly. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of turning your own barrels or only have one needing attention, most gunsmiths can perform this task. I have had three local gunsmiths over the past several decades who were real experts at this. All I’ve had to do is shoot a target, take it in to them and most often they would adjust the barrel perfectly the first try. Experience counts.
Over several months Denis and I checked out more than 100 single-action sixguns and had to turn the barrels on approximately one-third of them to adjust for windage. The most extreme example was a 1903 Colt SAA .44-40 which required enough barrel turning to compensate for shooting 6″ to the left. To do this requires about 6 degrees of left barrel rotation, which means tightening the barrel considerably. It worked perfectly.
Then we came to a Texican which also needed the barrel turned 2-3 degrees left; however, it was found to be so tight it would require taking metal off the barrel to allow it to be turned. Now what?
I just happened to have a Smith & Wesson N-frame rear sight assembly in my parts box. Actually it was one of those things I picked up when I saw it at a good price and put away expecting to use it on some future project. Now was the time. The Texican is not your ordinary replica Colt. It was built to high quality standards by Hartford Armory for STI but only for a very short time. It was/is a beautifully fitted and finished Single Action and it shoots extremely well.
I took the rear sight and the .45 Colt Texican to my local gun shop, Buckhorn Gun & Pawn, and turned it over to Mike Rainey and Tom Cripe asking them if they could fit the Smith & Wesson rear sight to the Texican — which I knew they could. But I also asked them if they could come up with a rifle style barrel band front sight? They didn’t just find one, they made it. Actually Mike designed it, gave Tom the drawing and he proceeded to machine the barrel band from a solid block of steel. I was definitely impressed with the design and quality of the work. There are many well-known national gunsmiths building excellent sixguns; however, there are also many local gunsmiths who are extremely talented. Mike and Tom are two of them.
This Colt Single Action has been fitted with a new cylinder and 81/2″ barrel chambered for
.32-20 by Hamilton Bowen. Note the adjustable rear sight and ramp front sight.
Taffin’s Buckhorn gunsmith, Tom Cripe, fitted this .45 Texican with an
adjustable S&W rear sight and a barrel band front sight. Beautifully done.
Adjustable Sight Options
Many years ago, in fact more than four decades, I had a Smith & Wesson 1950 Military .44 Special, which at the time had not yet become a collector’s item. I wanted more versatility than I had so I took it to George Hoenig who did exactly what Tom had done with my Colt Single Action. He fitted a Smith & Wesson fully adjustable rear sight, cut a 1950 Target .44 Special barrel to 5″ and I wound up with another very versatile and good shooting sixgun.
Several years ago I traded into a 41/2″ Colt New Service .44 Special on which someone had installed a ramp front sight without changing the rear sight and it shot 12″ low. Qualite Pistol & Revolver was still in business at the time and I sent it off to Milt Morrison along with another Smith & Wesson adjustable rear sight which he installed. He tuned the action, refinished the entire gun in bright blue, once again turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. My parts box is now empty of Smith & Wesson rear sight assemblies so it’s time to start looking for more as who knows what project lies ahead.
While not as versatile as adjustable rear sights it’s possible to install a semi-adjustable front sight. These are installed in a dovetail and can be adjusted for windage and locked into place. However the elevation can only be controlled by filing the blade to the proper height for one particular load. This type of front sight is available from both Hamilton Bowen and Freedom Arms.
One of Bowen’s front sights has been installed on a Ruger .357 Magnum New Vaquero, while the Freedom Arms version is now on a pair of 51/2″ Model 97’s and a 71/2″ version as well, all in .357 Magnum. All of these require precise cutting of a dovetail which is normally a job for a properly equipped gunsmith.
Freedom Arms now offers an aftermarket front sight adjustable for
windage. It’s handy and precludes
Traditional single action sixguns are beautiful works of art, however they may require twisting the barrel, or even adding adjustable sights to get them to shoot to point of aim. A much easier solution is to buy an adjustable-sighted sixgun to start with. Unless the traditionally styled sixgun is a must, instead of looking at a Colt Single Action take a good look at their New Frontier. Yes it’s more expensive but costs a lot less than adding new sights.
When it comes to Ruger, an adjustable sighted Blackhawk is much more versatile than a New Vaquero. It’s just another example of paying one’s money and making one’s choice.
For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/index