Iron Sights Aren't Dead

The mid-morning sun beat down on us hard. Sammy, head tracker, walked in the front. My PH, Uncle Fanie, brought up the rear of the hunting party. We stalked slowly in pursuit of a huge waterbuck. Exhausted from virtually no sleep the night before, I put one foot in front of the other mindful of each foot placement. Walking closer to the river, the bush thickened when Sammy froze. Uncle Fanie crouching to his knees, peered through the branches and turned, signaling to me that the waterbuck was close, real close. Just then, a faint wind shifted, raising the hair on the back of the neck. The waterbuck blew and broke cover. Without hesitation, Uncle Fanie got the sticks out and I sprung to the forefront. The Waterbuck stopped, offering a 100-yard, forward-facing shot. Putting the bead in the center of his chest, I pressed the trigger and the shot broke. The waterbuck folded.

As I approached, an overwhelming mix of emotions took over. A silent hush fell over the African plains as I reflected on how a man from Louisiana came to a continent where greats like Hemingway, Capstick and Kerasote cut their teeth. I had travelled to South Africa and taken my first big-game animal with iron sights from my absolute favorite rifle. For that moment, all the saving, hours of driving to the range and hard work came together under a white thorn tree.

Growing up in south Louisiana, every kid grew up shooting iron sights of some sort on a .22 long rifle. With these rifles, we learned to take our time and get close to small game animals to make a clean, precise shot. Ian LookingThe natural next progression was to move away from iron sights and equip your big-game rifle with a finely-polished optic. Most deer hunting here takes place from a box stand, hovering over a pile of corn. I never took to this type of hunting. I enjoy the thrill of stalking game and testing the limits of close. Along with my traditional way of pursuit, I utilize guns of a forgotten time. I’ve also come to rely upon skills with iron sights of my youth to take to the dark continent. The discipline of iron sights requires lots of practice from field positions and dedication to stalk close to game animals. Plus, the open aperture receiver sights of the model 70 make shooting with both eyes open fast and simple.

Last year, I began my search for an iron-sighted rifle to hunt big game. One day while perusing the webs, I found a pre-war Winchester model 70 chambered in 30-06. The gun, being fitted with a period-correct Lyman receiver sight and factory front sight, would make an excellent choice for big-game hunting. These rifles originally came fitted with a steel buttplate. The buttplate on the rifle was gone and had been replaced with a poorly fitted rubber recoil pad that was practically rotting away. Due to this recoil pad situation, the price was just right. A quick trip to my gunsmith and the recoil pad problem was resolved with a pad from New England Custom Gun.

Outfitted with a Trader Keith leather and canvas classic safari sling the rifle was ready for action. Next step, finding the right load, which was aided by Mr. Perry, good friend, mentor and one helluva ballistician. The old Winchester loved eating the 150 gr. Barnes TTSX bullets. I spent hours on the range, practicing with a .22lr off sticks and then transitioned to the 30-06. I found practicing with the .22lr allowed for more trigger time and less strain on the shoulder.

Fanie Steyn, or Uncle Fanie, as most guests know him, runs a top-notch operation in South Africa’s Limpopo region, Thaba Mmoyo. Hunting the Dark continent captures my soul and imagination in a way that I cannot describe. I saw no better place to start hunting with iron sights than the rugged terrain of Thaba Mmoyo Safaris. If mountain hunting is your pursuit than a quick trip to the Soutpansberg Mountains provide the challenge you crave. If lower-elevation hunting is more suited to your taste then venture here to stalk along the river that cuts through the property. Never in my life have I seen such an abundance in game animals. Every day a new adventure presented itself and after 10 full days of hunting I still haven’t begun to scratch the surface of this property.

After striking out on an elusive eland on my first trip to Africa, I broke out the Model 70 to begin my quest for a trophy eland. Each morning and afternoon for the next six days were filled stalking countless miles. A heart-Elandsinking moment comes when you stalk twelve miles, following fresh sign and tracks to a mere 30 yards only to find out nothing in the herd was trophy class. One morning, I was hunting with a young guide named Wian, who follows a good track like a trophy pointing dog. Walking slowly, we found where a small group of bulls had separated themselves from a larger herd. Within hours, we closed the gap and found ourselves sitting down in gravel watching three young bulls feed yards away. African wildlife grow up completely aware of their surroundings. Eland bulls are no different. Bulls place themselves between the hunter and the harem  as a defense to protect the herd. This also gives the bull the first opportunity to catch the scent of any predator, including our small hunting party. Just like that, a brief shift in wind and the thunderous sound of hooves clacked on the rocks and dirt filled the air. Moments like these feed the adrenaline junkie in me. For me, eland had become the White Whale. It was time to shift the focus. Days wasted in Africa aren’t cheap.

We switched our attention to the river bed region of the property in pursuit of new game, which sprouted around every corner. That next morning I took that waterbuck and my chest felt as if a weight had been lifted. All my hard work in shooting, tracking, and stalking had suddenly all come together on my first big game animal taken with iron sights. But, I couldn’t escape the feeling that my eland was slipping through my hands.

That following afternoon we were just about to leave for the hunt when I jokingly mentioned to Liandra, Uncle Fanies wife, that we shouldn’t be long and would return soon with a massive eland bull. It didn’t take long. As soon as we got to the area while still on the main road I heard Uncle Fanie whisper, “there he is! Can you see him? Just his shoulder is showing through the bush.” Without hesitation, I threw the Model 70 up, acquired the iron sights and broke the ninety-yard shot. The big bull leaped, like a marlin fighting in the water, and bolted toward cover. He left a blood trail a blind man could follow and piled up within 20-yards from where he stood. The 150 gr. Barnes TTSX bullet once again performed well in the Winchester. I’d captured my white whale and accomplished my mission to prove that iron sights weren’t dead.

With one day left to hunt we focused attention in a different location for nyala. Uncle Fanie brought me to onefanie of the biggest citrus farms in the southern hemisphere, which is located just south of Zimbabwe. We literally saw hundreds of game animals with an alarming amount of young nyala. We spent the morning stalking the hills above the massive farm. That following afternoon, we spotted many nyala bulls but all too young. That is, until we came upon two, mature bulls fighting. The stalk was short and I readied for the shot. A front leg of the more mature bull was obscured by a tree branch, but I felt confident given the amount of practice I’d had. This was the last afternoon of the last day so this was my chance. I aimed tight against his shoulder, but hesitated and pulled the shot. However, it was negligible because he was down within 70 yards. A final reflection came over me as I knelt over another beautiful animal. Thankful.

Africa is an indescribable experience. I’ll go back every year until I die. Iron sights hunting requires patience and practice. Entrusting a hunt to iron sights rather than an optic takes a little crazy, especially if shots are longer. We dedicate ourselves to practice with optics. Why not do the same with iron sights? The reward of hunting with iron sights establishes confidence across the board. ~ Ian Bradley

If anyone is interested in hunting Africa with Thaba Mmoyo safaris contact me at [email protected] or contact me via Instagram @ianbradleyjohnson . Enjoy the great gift we have of the outdoors and good luck on your next adventure.

Ian Bradley Johnson
Ian Bradley Johnson is a passionate firearms enthusiast. His gun hobbies include historical military and sporting firearms, hunting and collecting. Johnson is an avid hunter who enjoys travel and experiencing different hunting cultures abroad.