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Thread: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

  1. #1
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    Default How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Am embarking on the ABC (formerly USS&PS) Junior Navigator course which involves the basics for how to use a sextant. Having one's own sextant is not a prerequisite, but it helps. I see on the internet that prices start at $22 for a shiny brass one from Harbor Freight to a couple of thousand for something that would the bridge of a real ship at sea, were their GPS not working. Lot of the sextants I see priced from $30 to $75 are labeled as "reproductions" suitable for display in a den or office along with a nice wooden or leather box. Having spent 40 years involved with the manufacture of building products, I wonder just how they can assemble all those components, including a telescope, and make a profit selling for $40, including the nicely oiled box. with brass hinges. I most likely won't ever use a sextant following this course, but it might be nice to have one that actually works instead of merely being an ornament. The white plastic Davis instrument priced at $30 plus tax and shipping is labeled "for beginners", however, there is not a lot of satisfaction to be had compared to a metal model exhibiting a sculptured frame.

    I suspect many, if not all, of y'awl reading this have a worthy sextant gathering dust in your den, though I suspect Ian has his tucked in a drawer aboard his sailing vessel.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Who knows where this course may lead? Completion of the USS&PS Advanced Piloting course (missing only one question on the final exam) actually led to my installing a chart plotter in the vessel appearing at left which helped a great deal navigating Lake Superior's fog on our last cruise. The Garmin was no $20 deal from Harbor Freight.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    I learned celestial navigation with a Davis plastic sextant. They actually work, even if probably a bit less accurate than the metal sextants. I later graduated to an Astra IIIB metal sextant, made in China. It is a precision instrument and well-made. It cost substantially less than the Tamaya, Weems & Plath and similar models. I would not expect to do any actual navigation with a "reproduction" sextant, which I assume are for display purposes only.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Regardless of how “pretty” they might be I would stay away from the $20 - $75 “Harbor Freight” & decorator ones (easily identified especially by the “free shipping”, …. From India). They are intended only for interior decorator use. I suppose they will give you an angle to a body, but that is not what they are intended for.
    They are not as nice looking, but I agree any of the plastic Davis sextants would be a good starting spot and are intended for use (event the simple Mark III, of which I have one).

    If you can bide you time and understand what you are looking for good deals for real sextants can be found on eBay, however it does take understanding of what you are looking for and patience. Me,….. I would pick up a Davis.
    I enjoy collecting old navigation instruments (sextants, octants, chronometers, patent logs, compasses etc.) and have picked up some nice finds on eBay, but you need to know what you looking at. And my budget?,….. I generally won’t spend more than $100 on a sextant or octant.
    Here are a few of mine.



    The make of this one was Joseph Stebbing (London ~1855). The interesting thing is Stebbing’s brother was the navigation instrument repairman aboard HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin




    This octant was made by Janet Taylor (London ~1855). Janet Taylor was a real standout. Victorian era London, she had a navigation school, developed her own navigation tables and had her own line of navigation instruments. (I have had this one for about 45 years.)


    This is a cir. 1960's Tamaya, ..... an industry standard at the time.



    And the Davis Mark III (this was my first sextant, ..... about 1974)
    Last edited by nedL; 09-27-2022 at 08:48 AM.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    davis plastic is all i ever had, my bride had the tamaya
    i still have mine aboard, with my custom instructions/reminder of how to do a piver noon sight taped to the inside cover
    jans tamaya is long gone the way of buggy whips and hand planes
    it is just a angle measurerer....celestial nav is really doing numbers /charts/tables/books/puking

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?



    This Freiberger (cir later 1970's) is about the epitome of modern sextants.



    Then there are period educational sextants for teaching.



    This ~ 1915 is by Keuffel and Esser (the makers of mechanical drafting instruments).

    So they are out there.
    Last edited by nedL; 09-27-2022 at 07:15 PM.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    As a career design-draftsman with a case full of K&E and Dietzgen tools I'd be partial to that K&E above. I'm thinking maybe I should check out a couple of local pawn shops.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    I would definitely stay away form the ones you can buy for $100 or less. They made to sit on a desk or coffee table and not to be used. Either get the Davis Plastic sextant, or buy a used brand name (Like and Astra IIIB) which can usually be bought for $300 - $500 if you shop around. The used ones have often not been used that much and have the precision you will need. The poorer optics and imprecision on the dial will make for very poor ability to get a true fix rather than a broad area.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    One more thing. You may want to purchase an artificial horizon to go with it unless you will be far enough off shore that you can't see land. To practice you will almost always need the artificial horizon.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Is this the course you're taking? https://www.abcrockville.org/index.p...gation-summary
    "Be curious, not judgmental." - (Misattributed to Walt Whitman as recalled by) Ted Lasso

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    Thumbs up Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Much good advice here but I’ll add two penny worth:

    1. Start with a Davis Mark III; we all did. However the actual drawback isn’t the one you expect; it’s that if there is any wind at all it is hard to hold it steady because it is so light and the wind catches it.

    2. Buy a decent second hand metal frame one with a micrometer and with big mirrors and a light.

    3. It should have its box, and the box should be intact and may contain a tiny Allen key or wrench for adjusting the mirrors and perhaps a spare telescope and a brush.

    4. You can navigate a boat with an antique sextant with a vernier and with tiny mirrors and no light. Eric Hiscock and others did so, but you don’t need to, because second hand micrometer sextants are common now, and they tend to have bigger mirrors which are a great help. So you are really looking for a post- WW2 sextant.

    5. You need a little book about sextants, as opposed to about celestial navigation. I still have one called “The Sextant Simplified”, which comes in Ancient and Modern editions. This is the Ancient edition: I have just noticed that I loaned the Modern one to #1 Son and have never got it back:




    You can, in Britain anyway, buy perfectly good sextants on eBay, for quite reasonable prices.

    Plaths, either Cassens and Plath or C.Plath, seem to have changed hands at around US$600 for ever, but they are the Big Name. You will notice that they look very similar to Tamayas - this is not coincidence - but Tamayas often have a huge 7x 50 telescope. This was originally for use on submarines which navigated largely by star sights, for obvious reasons.

    Exhibit A: my everyday one: C. Plath, alloy frame, ex Bundesmarine surplus stock, 6x30 fitted by me - it was cheap as it had no telescope. I had to wipe the Cosmoline off… Alloy frame is significantly lighter and less tiring to use but there is a strong prejudice in favour of bronze frame sextants.



    Exhibit B, C. Plath, bronze frame, artificial horizon, bought second hand in 1982 in JD Potter’s famous shop on The Minories; still love it to death but it’s the spare now, as it’s damned heavy.



    Be warned that the electric light attachment on Plaths is notoriously rubbish and you will have to repair it sooner or later.

    For that, and for any sextant repairs, you need this;



    Other perfectly good makes go for much less. Zeiss Freiburger, Tamaya, Hughes, Cooke, etc. are all fine. Astra are I think the only ones still being made and they are excellent. Astras have alloy frames and clever full view mirrors which are lovely except in very low light. Get one if you can run to one.

    I picked up a nice WW2 Tamaya that had started on a WW2 sub changed sides after the War and had navigated a P&O liner through the Fifties and Sixties, for $80; it was fine but I decided that I liked my Plath even better so I gave it to a Master Mariner friend and it’s navigating a Swire Shipping bulk carrier now.

    I idly spotted a Sestrel three circle mate’s sextant and meant to put a bid on it but forgot and it sold yesterday for $80.
    Last edited by Andrew Craig-Bennett; 09-28-2022 at 09:29 AM.
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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    A plastic Davis sextant will do just fine for getting the hang of using one.

    I have two, well, perhaps three sextants

    Favourite of them all is the Astra IIIB. It's excellent.

    Astra IIIB b.jpg

    I also have a C Plath Navistar Professional which I'm not as fond of. It's a bit heavier and, in a rather Germanic fashion, lacks a certain charm. It's on the boat at the moment but it's similar to the one below:

    Plath.jpg

    The third one is one of those $80 India ones. I was given it years ago as a leaving gift when I moved from Hong Kong with the rather sweet thought that I might use it to find my way back there. It sort of works in that you can look through the scope and, assuming you can get the mirrors at the correct plane, you can wiggle the index arm backwards and forwards and perhaps shoot a sight of your living room ceiling light using the back of the sofa as a horizon.

    It is entirely useless from a nav perspective, Hong Kong has remained a distant memory...

    sextant.jpg

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Ahhhh,…. However the India one may well mean the most to you!

    I agree, if you are going for a nice one to use the large mirrors on the new ones make them so much easier to use. That Freiberger one (white one) is so much easier to use, there is no comparison.

    They come in different sizes and patterns. Kind of interesting to see what different makers came up with over the years.

    The lower one is my earliest, an octant by Spencer Browning & Rust, probably late 18th-early19th century.
    Attached Images Attached Images

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    This is what I have aboard. It is cheap enough to learn on, but a proper instrument capable of navigating with.

    Link: https://www.celestaire.com/product/d...rk-25-sextant/



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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    That’s nice.
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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    I agree with Andante Ed; the Astra IIIB is the best you can get, and the Plath Navistar Professional was a wrong turning by C. Plath as their world shrivelled away in the 1970s. There’s one on eBay at the moment for less than half the price of the older models, yet it’s a high quality sextant. (As usual with C. Plath sextants, the electrics have given up - the challenge of incorporating a 3 volt bulb, a bulb holder, a switch and a dry battery was utterly beyond the pool of talent in Hamburg, but they were well able to rebadge Carl Zeiss Jena 6x30 monoculars as supplied to the East German Army as their own product. See above for how I know this!)
    Last edited by Andrew Craig-Bennett; 09-28-2022 at 08:19 AM.
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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    I appreciate all of the input. Decided to go with the Davis Mark 3 for now, but it is on backorder so ordered a Mark 15.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Quote Originally Posted by Nicholas Scheuer View Post
    I appreciate all of the input. Decided to go with the Davis Mark 3 for now, but it is on backorder so ordered a Mark 15.
    As far as I can see, the difference between the 15 and the 25 is that the 25 has a full horizon mirror. That’s a “nice to have” but certainly not an essential. I’ve used sextants that have it without ever feeling “Wow! I must buy a sextant that has this!” So good choice, because the 15 is much more capable and nicer to use than the 3.
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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Thanks, Andrew, I now feel more at ease for having spent more. The background from all above concerning various brands from the past will be good to know going forward.

    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew Craig-Bennett View Post
    As far as I can see, the difference between the 15 and the 25 is that the 25 has a full horizon mirror. That’s a “nice to have” but certainly not an essential. I’ve used sextants that have it without ever feeling “Wow! I must buy a sextant that has this!” So good choice, because the 15 is much more capable and nicer to use than the 3.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Very good! That will give you good service.

    (I hope you didn’t mind my side tracks into the old ones).

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    ^^^ Not at all.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    I found this on Gumtree a couple of years back. Haven’t used it as yet, (i dont understand the maths
    Can someone let me know what i have please? Its quite small so may cause troubles?
    7593D803-82B6-4564-8791-7E86117FEA04.jpg
    00C3931E-5DE5-43BD-B770-AF271F83F078.jpgEFC2840E-ED5F-4FA9-952F-54292C848E0B.jpg

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Right… it’s quite genuine and the date on the Certificate tells us that it was made during WW2.

    It’s a “Husun”, a well known brand, made by Henry Hughes and Son, who became Kelvin Hughes. (*)

    Why is it so tiny? Well, half the answer is that it is not a navigational sextant; it’s an artillery sextant, and for reasons I don’t know they are always this sort of size. No idea why. This is a particularly nice one.

    Any artillerymen here?

    * https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelvin_Hughes
    Last edited by Andrew Craig-Bennett; 09-28-2022 at 05:35 PM.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    That is a nice one.

    Thank you Andrew, I would not have guessed it was for artillery use (that is a new one for me).

    Here is a full size Henry Hughes and son cir 1928
    Last edited by nedL; 09-28-2022 at 06:25 PM.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew Craig-Bennett View Post
    Right… it’s quite genuine and the date on the Certificate tells us that it was made during WW2.

    It’s a “Husun”, a well known brand, made by Henry Hughes and Son, who became Kelvin Hughes. (*)

    Why is it so tiny? Well, half the answer is that it is not a navigational sextant; it’s an artillery sextant, and for reasons I don’t know they are always this sort of size. No idea why. This is a particularly nice one.

    Any artillerymen here?

    * https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelvin_Hughes
    I'm not a collector but I have seen that one before in auctions, it's a flying boat sextant. They are also commonly found with an Air Ministry stamp instead of a Broad Arrow above the same Ref. No.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Thank you Andrew and thank you Rumars, (how do you know so much: )
    i found this description.

    Second World War WWII HUSUN Sextant by Henry Hughes & Son in Fitted Box 1943. No. 6B/177' below.The AM on the sextant stands for Air Ministry and Sextants of this type were used on Seaplanes (we understand that this model was specifically designed, by Huson, for the four engine Sunderland flyingboats when they used to patrol the oceans looking for U boats in WW2.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/sunder...stored/zf9tjhv

    8DB9A912-3555-410E-AEFB-B2E2A7CF3993.jpg
    a close up of the arrow and Ref. No. Haven’t been able to find why it has the arrow and not the AM stamp?
    Last edited by Geftb; 09-28-2022 at 11:52 PM.

  27. #27
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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Something isn’t adding up.

    An aircraft navigator needs an artificial horizon because very obviously he/she doesn’t have a regular one when airborne, so aircraft sextants have artificial horizons.

    This isn’t an aircraft sextant. It doesn’t have an artificial horizon.
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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    ^^^ Ah, yes, but still useful for identifying one's position following a forced landing somewhere in the Pacific.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    The Vickers VC10, a rather unsuccessful rival to the Boeing 707 and the DC8, a plane that I flew in very often as a boy, came with its own sextant:



    Like some early nuclear submarines, the sextant was built into a periscope.
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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    It is indeed not clear why an airplane was issued with a normal nautical sextant. This gentleman has a theory, but I suspect a definitive answer could only be found in official documents from the time. https://sextantbook.com/2011/09/29/a...ughes-and-son/

    I can only speculate why some have the broad arrow and some the AM stamp, but it probably has to do with the original customer beeing either the RAF or the Fleet Air Arm.

    What I can tell you for sure is that artillerymen don't use sextants, they use theodolites, usually modified into "artillery directors". These are tripod mounted in use (field artillery) and transport is not an issue.

    I rather suspect that "artillery sextant" is a derogatory term for miniaturized instruments. Naval artillery officers bought them either because they wanted or needed to own one, but never had to actually use them.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Those were the days; Pan American Clippers with sextants on board instead of electronics aids. I mentioned what I thought to be hat well-known photo of Adm Perry, head and shoulders out in the airstream above his Polar-seeking aircraft taking a sight with his sextant (can anyone here resurrect that for posting?) last week at our Jr Navigation course and nobody among the dozen there knew what I was talking about.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Quote Originally Posted by Rumars View Post
    It is indeed not clear why an airplane was issued with a normal nautical sextant. This gentleman has a theory, but I suspect a definitive answer could only be found in official documents from the time. https://sextantbook.com/2011/09/29/a...ughes-and-son/

    I can only speculate why some have the broad arrow and some the AM stamp, but it probably has to do with the original customer beeing either the RAF or the Fleet Air Arm.

    What I can tell you for sure is that artillerymen don't use sextants, they use theodolites, usually modified into "artillery directors". These are tripod mounted in use (field artillery) and transport is not an issue.

    I rather suspect that "artillery sextant" is a derogatory term for miniaturized instruments. Naval artillery officers bought them either because they wanted or needed to own one, but never had to actually use them.
    Thanks, Rumars. Most helpful. I’m kicking myself, because I have that book, which means I am subscribed to his online update service, and I missed this!
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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Thank you gentleman!

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    Just for fun I looked at evay classifieds to see what's out there:
    1. Husun admirality pattern, no box, no paint remaining, call for price.
    2. Ebbco plastic lifeboat in red box, 25€ negotiable.
    3. Davies Mk25 with artificial horizont, 250€.
    4. Astra IIIB, looks new, 290€.
    5. Admirality pattern marked Patt 491 (Husun), no paint, box without accessories, 290€.
    6. Kelvin&Hughes three circle, black antireflecting textured paint, broken button, 300€.
    7. Cooke Hull Mk.2, 350€.
    8. Freiberger Trommelsextant, one black, one grey, one green, each 400€.
    9 Weems & Plath, 400€.
    10. Cassens&Plath, one 500€, one 600€, one C. Plath also 600.
    11. Soviet SNO-T, full kit, 640€.
    The rest are various Plaths with the prices increasing in ~100€ steps, up to 1250€ then a Horizon Ultra with waterproof box and 2020 certificate for 2250€.

    I admit I have to control my inner hoarder and don't think about he Ebbco and the Astra.

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    Default Re: How much sextant ($$$) is needed to learn the basics?

    I’d advise against any sextant that has had the paint stripped; it’s been used as a decoration. The chances are very high that someone has committed the ultimate crime according to STS Lecky and polished the arc!

    The SNO-M is afaik an identical copy of a WW2 Plath, made on Plath’s original machinery which was taken back to Russia as “reparations”. The SNO-T is a copy of a Zeiss Freiburger drum sextant.

    B. Cooke of Hull are still in business and can re-certify one of their own sextants if asked. But a Plath doesn’t fit their collimator. DAMHIKT.
    Last edited by Andrew Craig-Bennett; 09-30-2022 at 04:07 PM.
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