CHAPTER 6, Part 12: Sights
We started chapter 6 with a section on Scout Rifle weight, which is undeniably the most argued and contested aspect of the concept. Therefore, it is only fitting we end this chapter with another elemental aspect of the Scout Rifle that’s almost as controversial: sights. Remember, the Scout Rifle was Cooper’s concept and his to define and it’s true that at Cooper’s passing we forever lost the ability for the Guru to anoint any future examples as true Scout Rifles. But Cooper was also clear that the concept was ever evolving. This notion and his sometimes-ambiguous statements are why we argue about the “definition” and elements to this day.
One of the oddities of the Scout Rifle Concept was the specified optical sight. An oddity with Cooper was his extreme distrust of riflescopes. Understandably, when Cooper formed the concept, the riflescope was no where near as robust as it is today. It should also be understood that while most shooters and hunters might only fire a few hundred rounds through their rifle during a lifetime, Cooper would put equal to or more than that through a rifle in one day. More importantly, Cooper was a gun guy back in the day when riflescopes were even more fragile than they were in the 80s. It’s clear through his writing that they routinely gave him and his students problems.
As late as 1987 Cooper wrote, “We may be the only outfit that has basic trouble with the telescopic sight. Apparently these devices never break down except here at Gunsite. The fact remains that one of the big problems of our rifle classes is the unreliability of the telescope, and it was most enlightening that of the four telescope sighted rifles we had on the African hunt, three failed.”59 Cooper was a proponent of a riflescope with no internal adjustments. He felt the ideal arrangement was a scope that could be adjusted externally, via the mounts, like some of the earliest riflescopes every manufactured.
Just as interesting was what seemed a generally disdain for the optical sight in general. “Glass sights have many outstanding advantages but we must remember they also have certain disadvantages, and except for varminting, they are not absolutely necessary.”60 And, in 1985 he also wrote, “The ghost-ring is incomparably superior to the open express sight, and basically more satisfactory on dangerous game than a telescope. This is dogma—no longer subject to discussion or debate.”61
It is interesting to note that Cooper had a tremendous amount of respect for former professional hunter and gun scribe Finn Aagaard. Finn, who had vastly more hunting experience and countless more encounters with dangerous game – of the four and two-legged variety – than Cooper, saw things a bit differently, “I wanted my hunters to have scopes on all their rifles, including (or perhaps especially) those they were going to use for dangerous game…What’s wrong with irons? Only this: for almost every practical shooting application they are the second best choice.”62
It was quite presumptuous of Cooper to claim the superiority of the ghost ring sight to a scope, and given the facts, it was more ideology than dogma. At any rate, this open sight/scope conundrum has forever haunted the Scout Rifle concept. There was and always has been a debate about whether a scout rifle must have a scope or must have iron sights, or if it most definitely must have both. In reviewing some of Cooper’s personal papers an article draft entitled, The Principle of the “Scout” Rifle, dated January 1988 was unearthed. Here Cooper unequivocally states, “The scout rifle however, is always equipped with reliable ghost-ring metallic sights for either primary [emphasis mine] or backup employment.”63 It’s important to note Cooper’s use of the word “primary” when describing the ghost-ring sights because many feel this without question proves that a scout rifle need not be fitted with an optical sight. Even later than that, in 2001, Cooper again asserted this fact when he wrote, “A long eye relief telescope doth not a scout make.”64
It’s possible that Cooper bounced around with regard to the ideal makeup of his scout rifle. On the contrary, if you read much Cooper at all, except with the weight and sighting instruments of the Scout Rifle, there was very little bouncing; on most every subject he commented on he either indicated further testing was necessary or was quite clear in his point. Still, in 1987, while describing the “definition” of the scout rifle he unambiguously wrote, “It is sighted with a “Scoutscope, mounted forward of the magazine and right down on the barrel, and also with reserve aperture sights, preferably retractable.”65
In 1987 the Scout Rifle had “reserve aperture sights” but a year later the reliable ghost-ring sights could be the “primary” sight on the rifle. Could Cooper not make up his mind, was he just being ambiguous, or are people trying to read to much into this? With the exception of the Scout Rife weight limit, it was clearly not his nature to be ambiguous. The most logical conclusion is that when Cooper wrote of the Scout Rifle – in general terms – he described it as having its only real, easily identifiable, trademark feature – the forward mounted riflescope.
But, if we look at the definitions in chapter 5 we will see that it seems clear in almost every case that both a forward mounted, long eye relief scope, and ghost ring sights were mandatory. In fact, in The Gargantuan Gunsite Gossip Cooper states, “We have worked out a way to make the sight line the same for both the primary glass sights and the reserve iron sights.”66
I think there is a sensible way to sort this out. First lets consider that a Scout Rifle outfitted with a forward mounted riflescope makes the ghost ring sights unusable. In other words, with the scope in place you cannot use the sights. If you remove the scope to use the sights on an otherwise qualifying Scout Rifle, would that make the rifle a non-scout? Of course not! I think we can unequivocally state that Cooper preferred both on the rifle, and that he considered at any time, either could be the primary sight, depending on the circumstance.
While we’re at it, lets also address this notion and his comment that a scope was not necessary for a rifle to be a Scout Rifle. I think the best way to examine this position is to offer the point that mounting a forward mounted scope on a rifle does not make it a Scout Rifle. A rifle must have all of the other elements of the definition to be considered a Scout Rifle, and at any time that rifle may or may not have its scout scope attached. Regardless, we have shown Cooper’s preference for the ghost ring sight and that he thought it superior to the optical sight. However, why was it that Cooper liked the extended eye relief or scout scope?
As explanation I would refer you to Cooper’s 1984 article reprinted in Chapter 3 where he states:
The virtues of this sight system are three:
- First it obscures very little of the shooter’s vision as the piece is cheeked. This enables him to keep both eyes open while mounting the rifle, with a full view of his entire target area, and to place the cross wires instantly with his shooting eye while keeping track of the target with his non-shooting eye. The closer the glass is to the eye, the more of the shooter’s field of view is obscured.
- Second, the forward-mounted scope allows instantaneous eyes-off loading from the top, without obstruction by the scope tube.
- Third, the forward-mounted glass allows the rifle to be grasped at the balance during running, jumping, and violent exercise much more conveniently than any weapon with the glass mounted rearward.
If in fact a forward mounted scope is not required for a rifle to be considered a Scout Rifle, we find ourselves once again arguing weight. Take the forward mounted scope off a Scout Rifle and it loses about 10 ounces. To me, this would seem to suggest a scope-less, otherwise qualifying Scout Rifle should weigh about 10 ounces less than one outfitted with an optical sight.
Undeniably, the three kilo – 6.61 pound – limit Cooper often referenced is much easier to meet without a scope. And, if you believe a scope is not necessary for a rifle to qualify as a Scout Rifle, the almost unobtainable becomes not so hard to find. Additionally, if 3.5 kilos is also qualifying for a Scout Rifle, and a forward mounted optic is not necessary, then almost any rifle could become a Scout Rifle.
We can argue the point endlessly but as far as I’m concerned, a true Scout Rifle must have a forward mounted optic – or at least the provisions for easily attaching one – and It must also have a ghost ring aperture rear sight and post front. While a rifle without both might be a damn fine rifle, I would not consider it a Scout. Also, I’m of the opinion that any Scout Rifle weight requirement must be met with an optical sight in place.
Today there are a variety of variable powered scout scopes on the market. True Scout Rifle aficionados will often scoff at their use, primarily because Cooper despised them. “Do not tell any of our friends in the industry this, but you can take all the variable telescopes ever made and use them for fish bait. You may not catch many fish, but you keep needless affectation off your rifle.”67 Make what you will of this comment but today variable powered riflescopes are very reliable. Not only that, they can increase the versatility of a Scout Rifle. And, as a general-purpose rifle, would that not be a good thing? We’ll discuss this in depth in a later chapter.
Finally, lets touch on the notion that a Scout Rifle cannot be outfitted with a traditional riflescope. Though the forward mounted, long eye relief riflescope has become emblematic of Cooper’s concept rifle, he also wrote, “It is not, however, absolutely necessary to mount the glass forward. The conventionally mounted telescope is not as good but it will do. We do feel strongly that it should be of low fixed power, not to exceed 4X.”68 What? Your kidding me! Cooper said a Scout Rifle can have a traditional mounted scope? If that’s the case, then why all the fuss. And, if that’s the case, how is it supposed to also have a ghost ring sight?
Hmmm. Maybe Jeff was just wrong. Or maybe considering this was early in his conceptualization of the Scout Rifle, his position changed. Yes, Cooper could change his mind. About the same time he wrote the above statement, he also opined that, “We would like to prevail upon Family Member John Milius to produce a film version of the ancient Anglo-Ssxon epic Beowulf. We have the cast already in mind. We want Bruce Jenner for Beowulf. Mike Tyson for Grendel, and Bella Abzug for Grendel’s mother.”70 Now, while I might be a bit presumptuous here, I suspect while Cooper might still agree with the last two cast members, today he would not stand by his nomination for the first. Things – times – change, and so do minds.
From a modern perspective some will contend that, because it can be done so on the Steyr Scout Rifle, that a true modern Scout must be able to readily accept the mounting of a scout scope, a traditional scope, a red dot, and also have back up ghost ring sights. I think this is a grand idea but I also think the notion, while it is wrapped in a cloak of versatility, also adds an unnecessary element of complication and gadgetry to Cooper’s concept. If a Scout Rifle is to be anything, it is to be simple, rugged, and practical. By all means, rig yours they way you like, but remember the Scout Rifle is still the weapon as conceived by Jeff Cooper. Modern times and needs might bring us another, different, and possibly better rifle. However, if that rifle does not conform to the Scout Rifle definition/s put forth by Jeff Cooper, it is something else.
If we have not learned anything else thus far, we should by now know that the term Scout Rifle – whether you agree with it or not – truly belongs to Jeff Cooper.