Recently, I was reading a piece about elite snake-eating specwar soldiers, and the author mentioned in passing how the EOTech or Aimpoint red dot sights on their rifles were actually backup sighting systems.
Since our elite operators do as much of their work at night as they can, wearing night vision goggles (NVGs) which usually don’t allow a proper cheek weld, most of the time the primary aiming tool on their rifles is an IR laser.
While not visible to the naked eye, these glow bright as a Bond villain laser through NVGs and rifles so equipped work very well inside the limits of night vision.
A thought occurred to me—so if the IR laser is the soldier’s night sight, and his red dot is his day sight, when does he use iron sights? Now forget Tier 1 operators operating operationally, when was the last time any of you saw anyone shooting an AR using iron sights?
Dozens of companies manufacture back-up iron sights (BUIS), but who uses them? Everybody slaps a red dot or traditional scope on their AR these days. Heck, even the Marine Corps, the last bastion of iron sights, is issuing Trijcon ACOG scopes.
So the question is, are iron sights for ARs in the modern era obsolete?
Let’s look at what iron sights actually are, and what they actually do, before we start getting judgmental about their utility in this new modern golden era of firearms in apple pie America.
The ubiquitous term “iron sights” refers to mechanical aiming devices, traditionally made of steel, affixed to a firearm to help the shooter aim it. Just looking down the barrel and pointing a rifle works, but only at short distances. There have been sights on rifles since before they got accurate enough to be worth aiming.
Handgun sights tend to be simpler—a post front sight combined with rear sight sporting a notch. To use, center the front sight in the rear notch while aiming at the target and pressing the trigger.
Most handgun sights are not adjustable other than drifting the rear in the dovetail, but that’s okay, handguns are used at close range where sights are often superfluous. Rifles, on the other hand, are valuable because they don’t require closing with the enemy.
With handguns, it’s all about the front sight—where that front sight is, that’s where the bullet is going to go. With rifles, it’s all about the rear sight.
Over the centuries people have been shooting rifles we’ve learned that gravity makes bullets drop over time and distance, and wind blows them off course. So rifle sights tend to be more complicated and adjustable for up-and-down (elevation) and side-to-side (windage). Usually, most if not all of that adjustment occurs at the rear sight.
The original fixed sights on the M16/AR-15 are relatively simple, but they work—and modern flip-up/back-up sights tend to mimic the original fixed sights in setup and adjustment.
The front sight is a post protected by wings on either side. The post front sight is usually click adjustable for elevation by screwing it in and out of its base. Moving it down shifts bullet impact up, and vice versa.
Rear sights are a little more complicated. Rear sights on handguns and even some rifles (like the AK-47) are simple notches. Look through the notch and adjust your sight picture until you see equal height (of front and rear sight) and equal light (to either side of the front sight inside the notch) and you’re good to go.
The rear sight on the M16/AR-15 is not a notch but rather an aperture—which in simple terms is a hole you look through. Center the top of the front sight post in the aperture, aim at the target, and pull the trigger.
The smaller the aperture, the more precision it allows when shooting, which is why the standard AR sight features a large aperture for shooting at closer range (point blank to 200 meters) and a second smaller aperture that flips up for shooting beyond 200 meters. The GI-style rear sight of the current M16/M4/AR-15 is click adjustable for both windage and elevation.
It is possible to shoot iron-sighted rifles out to incredible distances, provided you’ve got eyes good enough to get that front sight into focus…and of course a good grasp of the basics of sight alignment and breath and trigger control.
While even he admitted it was a lucky shot, Billy Dixon dropped a Comanche at (a later measured) 1538 yards during the Second Battle of Adobe Walls in 1874 using an iron-sighted “Big Fifty” Sharps.
Tom Selleck used a 34-inch .45-110 Shiloh Sharps rifle with a Vernier tang sight to great effect—at distances far less than Dixon’s famed shot—in Quigley Down Under, and Shiloh Sharps to this day has trouble keeping up with the demand for their rifles because of that movie. Sometimes people like the extra challenge of shooting using iron sights. That extra challenge is the main reason reproduction muzzleloading rifles are so popular today.
The accuracy of a rifle does not change if you replace iron sights with a red dot or a scope. However, the ease at which someone can shoot that rifle accurately can be affected drastically.
Replace a magnified rifle scope with iron sights and it is much harder for the average person to achieve the same accuracy, or shoot as fast. And red dot scopes (non-
magnified optical scopes which feature an illuminated reticle, usually a dot, for aiming) are much faster to use than iron sights.
With iron sights, you have to align the front sight with the rear sight with the target, keep the front sight in focus while letting the rear blur out a little bit, then keep all of them lined up while you pull the trigger.
As the red dots inside red dot optics are on the same focal plane as the target, all you have to do to aim is put the dot on the target and pull the trigger. When it comes to aiming a red dot, there is absolutely no learning curve, something that can’t be said about iron sights.
Iron sights have a storied history, because until very recently optical sights were not reliable or durable enough to use in combat. But that has changed.
I mentioned the Trijicon ACOG above—this magnified sight was specifically designed for use on the M16/AR-15 platform, and is so durable that it has been adopted across all our military branches. It has seen combat all over the world.
The ACOG isn’t the only scope to benefit from modern manufacturing processes, scopes have improved across the board. Glass is better, tubes are stronger, reticles are better designed and more robust, windage and elevation adjustments are more repeatable—and illuminated reticles are commonplace.
I’ve said previously that most of today’s “bargain” $400 scopes are better made and more durable than anything anybody made anywhere in the world 50 years ago. One of my favorite scopes is the Burris 1-4X MTAC; in fact, I’ve got one mounted on the rifle in my bedroom.
It features a 30mm tube, great reticle, battery-powered illumination, and built-in sunshade…all for about $400. Thirty years ago, the features on it would be considered cutting-edge tactical…and in today’s marketplace it is nothing special, that’s how good scopes are getting.
It was only a few years ago manufacturers were stating that producing 1-8X scopes was mechanically impossible…and now they’re everywhere. IOR Valdada was one of the first companies to offer a 1-8X scope, and now they’re offering a 1-10X optic…what is “possible” keeps changing.
What about red dots? Of ARs wearing optics, I would wager that perhaps half are not mounting traditional magnified scopes but rather non-magnified (1X) “red dot” sights. Red dot sights are just as inherently accurate as iron sights, and much faster to use. They are intended to be used with both eyes open, unlike iron sights.
Thirty years ago, these were just expensive fragile toys being played with by competition shooters, but technological advancement being what it is, soon these optics were durable and reliable enough to be put into service by our military.
The Aimpoint Comp M2 was adopted by the U.S. Military in 2000 as the M68 CCO (close combat optic). Not only was this unit durable enough for field use by the military, battery life is an incredible 50,000 hours.
Let’s forget traditional daytime optics, rifle-mounted night vision and thermal scopes are getting close to being affordable to the average Joe—reality is catching up to science fiction.
Currently my favorite variable-power riflescope is the Trijicon TR25 1-6X AccuPower, which features a reticle illuminated by both fiber optics and tritium. I am eagerly looking forward to the new Hi-Lux 1-8X scope which features a great reticle usable at both ends of the magnification range and a retail price far under $1,000.
Scopes with illumination, amazing magnification, battery life measured in years, toughness enough for the U.S. Marine Corps. With all of that, many people think it’s stupid to spend the better part of $100 or more on back-up iron sights they’ll never use. So why bother with iron sights at all?
Let’s hit the big bad main point first—but it is far from the only one. The main point being this: you don’t need a back-up when your primary never goes down. But there hasn’t been an optic made that hasn’t broken for one reason or another.
Very few of us are elite ninja deathstalkers cutting trail on the Hindu Kush, but whether you’re out hunting whitetail or just punching paper at the range, if your scope was damaged in transit or your battery dies, having iron sights on your rifle allows you to use it immediately without needing to wait on parts or repair. Batteries die. Scopes suddenly develop wandering zeros or fog up. Excrement happens.
Some of you may have never had a riflescope catastrophically break or develop a wandering zero. Chances are that means you don’t shoot or travel with guns very much.
I learned this lesson the hard way—the very first rifle scope I ever owned was a Swarovski 6×42. It came mounted on a Steyr SSG P1, being sold by Steyr as a package. These were military contract overruns for the Indian Government (and yes, I found out about them through an ad in Shotgun News circa 1991).
That Swarovski was an expensive scope and worked fine for me. Mounted atop a rifle that shot .75 moa, it made me look better than I was, punching paper through a Michigan summer out to 200 yards shooting the ubiquitous Federal 168-grain BTHPs.
But then I loaned that rifle/scope to my buddy Dan who took it hunting in Colorado in the fall. And that scope fogged up on him, badly. At first I didn’t believe him, thought maybe he’d only breathed on the outside of the scope, because this wasn’t a Tasco or a Bushnell, it was a freaking Swarovski.
Expensive European scopes don’t just fog up. But no—my fancy European uber-mankilling scope had fogged internally. And Dan had spent enough time hunting to know that even expensive scopes fail.
Not too long after that, I read something by Jeff Cooper saying much the same thing, that he had yet to see a brand or type of scope immune to breakage. He thought perhaps scopes with the windage and elevation adjustments external to the tube (such as found on the ELCAN Specter DR) might be more robust.
Just because the scopes of today are better or more modern does not mean they won’t break, they are just likely to break less frequently. Oh, and that Steyr rifle I mentioned above? Military contract gun, sporting a high-grade scope…but that rifle came with iron sights.
Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, as they say.
No, iron sights are not invulnerable to breakage, but I bet if you took a hammer to a set of iron sights and a scope at the same time, the scope would lose zero before the irons.
Now let’s talk about iron sights as a piece of cultural history.
I remember turning 18. Turning 18 to me meant I could finally buy an AR-15. And every day thousands of people turn 18, every day somebody decides they want to buy their first gun. However, the new gun owners of modern America do not have the same background as they did 50 years ago.
First, many AR owners these days are coming into the gun world as virgins (to guns)—they didn’t grow up with guns, or hunting, they might not have even had a gun in the house growing up.
They bought an AR after a terrorist attack or Democrat calls to ban them, for simple self-defense, or because they thought owning and shooting a real one would be cool after years of playing Call of Duty.
But they have no background in shooting, they didn’t start with iron-sighted .22s or even BB guns, were never taught sight alignment or trigger control, and might have even bought a rifle with a red dot already mounted on it.
So they have nothing invested in the “traditional” way of doing things, and iron sights are the epitome of traditional. And if it’s already got a “sight”, why would they need to put a second set of sights on their rifle?
As a result, these days a lot of people aren’t even putting back-up iron sights on their ARs. And I think this is wrong. I think everyone should know how to use iron sights. Learning how to use them is a valuable skill that you might need some day, like knowing how to drive a stick (that’s a car with a manual transmission for you damn millenials).
And learning how to shoot a rifle with iron sights will make you a better shooter when you do go and slap an optic on that rifle. My children learned how to shoot rifles using iron sights.
Here’s an analogy—when I’m asked about what kind of pistol someone should buy, I say this: if you just want to buy a gun for self-defense, that with little to no training you can pick up, point, pull the trigger, and probably hit your target, get a striker-fired pistol like a Glock or Smith & Wesson M&P.
But if you want to learn how to shoot a pistol, want to learn sight alignment and proper grip and trigger control, buy a double-action revolver, as it is much harder to shoot and every little mistake you make will be magnified. If you can learn to shoot a double-action revolver well, you can shoot any kind of handgun well. I believe the same thing about iron sights on a rifle.
Dave Fortier and I often engage in friendly arguments about all things gun related, and when I asked him about his favorite iron sights it provided another educational opportunity. Dave prefers a front sight with rounded ears that are open at the top.
The rounded ears are a near circle within the circle of the rear aperture, but he doesn’t want a true circle around the front sight (like HK sights) because if the front sight is not centered inside the front ring it can mess with your brain.
Dave is a former high power shooter, and as such he prefers the Knight’s Armament 600-meter flip-up rear sight. This is a very nice, feature-rich sight, but on a good day they sell for $150.
Which I think is a stupid amount of money to spend on a back-up sight, you’re not going to be shooting Camp Perry with a flip-up, and I told Fortier the same…only less politely. Dave’s response? “It’s a great sight, my favorite. Go be poor somewhere else.”
But Dave’s response, especially about why he likes a certain type of front sight, is a great example of “you don’t know what you don’t know”. If you never shoot iron sights, you’ll never learn what works best for you.
People smarter and with more experience shooting than the rest of us have developed all sorts of tricks for using iron sights at maximum efficiency, because often their lives depended on it. Here’s one—ever heard of the upside-down lollipop?
I was first exposed to this technique when my friend came back from the DEA academy with his new Colt 9mm subgun. This SMG was equipped with iron sights, and he was taught a very quick way to use the sights at CQB distances. Instead of looking through the sights, which is slower and can tend to limit your peripheral vision, look over them.
Looking over the rear aperture, put the top of the aperture at the base of the front sight pin (the result resembling an upside-down lollipop) and frame the target with the wings of the front sight.
The gun will hit a little high, but at indoor distances. this works just as fast and accurately as a red dot.
For features and performance, I like the LWRCI Skirmish sights. The rear sight has a rotating cube—rotate the cube to switch from a small to large aperture.
And the front sight post is protected by curved wings. These things are made to withstand salt water and zombie attacks—and they’d better, considering a set will run you over $225.
For the best balance of performance per dollar spent, I think the best iron sights on the market are the UTG Low Profile Flip-Up sights (see sidebar). They provide everything you need, nothing you don’t, and a set will run $50 or less.
I know I’m not alone in thinking ARs should have back-up iron sights, the proof being how many optics mounts are listed as providing “co-witness” or “lower 1/3” height.
A co-witness mount places the optic (usually a red dot) at a level off the rail where the dot is at the same height as the iron sights. “Lower 1/3” mounts position the dot just above the iron sights, so the sights are visible in the lower one-third of the optic.
And why is this? Because excrement happens. Scopes break, batteries fail, but unless your red dot optic has nearly blown up on you, you’ll be able to use your iron sights through the optic tube.
The same can’t be said for magnified optics, however, even if they dial all the way down to 1X. Even at 1X, your front sight will be a blur through a variable magnification scope. Which is why all of the optics on my personal rifles are in QD mounts. QD mounts provide quick tool-less access to iron sights.
I believe every rifle should have iron sights on it, whether or not it is mounting an optic. They are an integral part of the gun, no different than a stock or a trigger. I mounted iron sights on my dedicated competition rifle, where they’ll probably never ever be needed. But probably isn’t good enough for me.