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After attending an Appleseed shoot in 2014, I was all hopped up on learning and preaching iron sights. I treated them like some kind of magic voodoo that I had learned, and that magic made me a real rifleman. 

I didn’t think I was acting that way, of course. But I was. It was dumb.

What follows is a quick breakdown of the considerations you make when comparing iron sights and optics for your rifle. When I say optics, I’m referring to anything that isn’t an iron sight. Of course red dot sights have different quirks than fixed power magnification or low power variable scopes. We can talk about those separately.

But for now, I need to get something off my chest.

Iron Sights are Not Fundamentals

BCM carry handle iron sight on a pile of optics

Let’s say you’re browsing the marksmanship board of your favorite gun-related forum. While looking for discussions about teaching new shooters, you find someone telling everyone else that you need to start new shooters off on iron sights.

“Start them with the fundamentals, and then work them up to red dots and other optics.”

– Said by someone who is wrong

Have you come across that? Maybe you’ve even said it. I probably did at some point. 

Iron sights are merely a sighting device used to estimate the point of impact based on point of aim. That is their sole purpose in life, the same as any other sighting device. So why have they obtained magical status?

The Fundamentals of Marksmanship

The fundamentals of marksmanship are simple.

  • Steady Position
  • Aiming
  • Controlled Breathing
  • Trigger Control

Notice that you didn’t see iron sights listed there. You can further break down aiming into two elements: sight alignment and sight picture. 

Sight Alignment is a correct image seen through your sighting device. For your iron sights, that means properly aligning the rear aperture and the front sight post. But it’s equally true for optics, where you need to center the reticle and get to the correct head position for minimizing parallax and scope shadow.

Sight Picture means putting the reticle, or front sight post, on the correct point of aim on the target. This also means accounting for windage and elevation. Again, this remains true for either iron sights or optics.

Neither of these elements requires you to master the iron sights of your rifle first. In fact, it makes the learning process more difficult.

Using Optics to Learn the Fundamentals

The simple truth is that using optics makes learning marksmanship much easier. Optics removes a difficult variable from the sight picture problem: focus.

With irons, you have to correctly align the rear aperture and front sight post. The small peep sight actually does an okay job of suppressing parallax, due to its small aperture, but the problem is the front sight. After you go through the effort of aligning the iron sights, you need to pick your focus point.

When using iron sights, you need to focus on the front sight. Unlike what you see in video games, focusing on the front sight will make your target blurry. The shorter the sight radius, the worse this effect becomes. In other words, rifle length iron sights are better about this than carbine sights, but neither is as quick or intuitive as an optic.

With optics, that problem is taken off the table. You only need to look through the sight, get a correct sight picture, align the sight to the target, and squeeze. Even better, red dots and fixed magnification optics like ACOGs work better when you focus on the target.

Iron Sights vs Optics

Trijicon TA110 Optic with pile of optics including BCM Carry Handle iron sight, EOTech, and Trijicon TR24G

Don’t take any of this as me saying that iron sights are terrible and you shouldn’t bother learning them. In fact, I think they have a lot of uses.

Compared to optics, iron sights 

  • Are cheaper
  • Do not require batteries
  • Are usually lighter
  • Do not fog up in inclement weather
  • Are less likely to get bumped off their settings
  • Do not care about water intrusion
  • Are easier to clean
  • Offer a decent point shooting reference

When you look at that list, irons seem like a pretty good option for austere environments. In fact, they work pretty well in jungle environments. I’ve read several reports from military units starting to train in jungle environments as we pivot towards the Pacific theater again. A lot of the lessons learned include the difficulties with magnified or battery powered optics.

Irons worked very well for that.

But, they still have all the same downsides. Compared to iron sights, optics are

  • Faster to acquire 
  • Red dot sights are more forgiving of parallax error
  • Offer better range and wind estimation
  • Magnified optics provide dramatically improved capability to locate targets, which is a huge
  • Provide better target identification since you focus on the target and not the sight itself

Which Do You Choose

If you’ve read my article on selecting your first AR-15, then you might recall my suggestion on sighting devices:

If you have the funds to buy a quality optic right now, either red dot sight or magnified scope, then go that route. However, if you don’t have the funds available, then I say stick to a decent set of iron sights until you can save up for the optic.

A quality set of irons aren’t very expensive, and they will serve you well for a long time. 

I hate the idea of people buying something cheap now and then something nicer later. Inevitably, they end up buying two or three of the cheap optics as they break. Had they stuck with the irons for a while, they would still gain the skill and experience and not wasted their money.

Iron sights are not magic voodoo. They are useful, but more difficult to master. The people who preach that everyone should learn irons first as “fundamentals” are stuck in the last century. I say focus on the actual fundamentals first, regardless of your sighting system. 

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Matt

Matt

Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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Ammo461
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Ammo461

“Focus on fundamentals first” is on point!!!

John Buol
Guest

Good points. Iron sights are not fundamental, they’re just a device to visually confirm alignment. The shot process demands learning to consistently align the barrel sufficiently well enough to land a hit and does not care how you obtained and confirmed that alignment.

Working with Army personnel taking the Squad Designated Marksman course as prescribed in the old FM 3-22.9 from 2008, it was common for shooters to post a higher score on their first Table using irons than the second Table using an ACOG. Not because of “magic” by using iron sights but because these shooters happened to be more familiar with them compared to the new-to-them optic.

Colorado Pete
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Colorado Pete

Hello John!

Keith
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Keith
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Matt I wanted to come back and clarify something. I don’t own any optics as a matter of fact every time I have tried to use one I am just terrible with them probably a lack of understanding and practice I am not a competitive shooter nor was I a great shooter in the Marines just learned to be proficient with the irons I have no beef with optics they just confuse me so I have just stuck with what works for me
Semper Fi

John W McCray
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John W McCray

Always enjoy an article. I have been thinking a lot about this conundrum lately. I have previously scored 227 Appleseed but using a magnified optic last April. I have been doing my best to master Iron Sights since then and I have become better than I ever thought I would be with them (almost 40 years of age now) but some rounds are better than others. Just differentiating the front sight from the target becomes difficult and shooting into a blur is just odd. Should I just accept the optics and that I am as good as I will ever be with Iron Sights?

Colorado Pete
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Colorado Pete

Allow me a couple of quibbles.

You put the process of aligning the front and rear sights with each other under the heading of “sight picture” and not “sight alignment”. In approximately 46 years of reading about shooting, you are only the second person I’ve seen put things that way (the other was Ken Hackathorn, one of Jeff Cooper’s comrades in the early days of modern practical pistol shooting). Everyone else calls aligning the sights with each other “sight alignment” and then calls moving the set of aligned sights onto the target in proper aiming position “sight picture”. Just an observation.

The other quibble is that irons really aren’t “so last century”. Heck we had red dots back in the ancient days of the 1980’s along with simple but quality rifle scopes, big hair, the Cold War, Ronald Reagan, and horses and buggies.

I think it is highly advisable for every rifle shooter to learn irons well, including the nearly useless semi-buckhorn-and-bead types that come with most bolt and lever action hunting rifles. The reason is that one never knows what one will wind up having to shoot, whether at a casual trip to a range or having a totally unexpected situation beyond your control forced on you.

I notice that Marlin has put squared Partridge-type (like a handgun) sights on some of their .22 rimfire rifles. Much better than the foregoing, but still not up to good GI-type aperture and post. The latter I love using but have been needing glasses for them for the last few years (I turn 60 on Thanksgiving….yuck).

I see you have the estimable SSGT Buol reading your site. You have definitely made the “big time”! Give that man a rusty old Mauser 98 and watch him shoot rings around so many Molle-bedecked studs with tricked out AR’s!

Keith
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Keith
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I agree with some of your points. However as a retired Marine I feel you should become proficient with irons first. I can hit what I am shooting at with decent accuracy at 500 yards yes with time your eye sight fades and optics are very important just my two cents

Ivan
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Ivan

I feel that iron sights require more patience along with fundamentals more than red dots or else you wont get a hit. Its soo much easier with red dots that you can sacrifice fundamentals.

Michael Holt
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Michael Holt
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I was trained by my uncles who were old school military guys in marksmanship. The iron sights first ideology was strong in their teachings and that is how I have thought as well. But to think about it after reading your article, that does leave the argument that usually when teaching (anything) you start with the easy and work towards the hard. Which kind of leans toward starting with optics.

I guess in my opinion the most important fact is you should learn and try to master both.

Pete
Member

I still see iron sights like a manual transmission on a car. Can you learn how to drive on an automatic? Absolutely. It’s much more difficult to learn how to drive a manual transmission after learning on an automatic. Learning on a manual first isn’t easy. Learning how to drive an automatic afterwards is much easier.

I think that it is generally the same with sights. Plus, how many rifles (especially surplus rifles) do not have optics? Or even the ready capability to take optics? If a new shooter only knows how to shoot with optics and wants to shoot my sweet SMLE, they probably won;t be able to hit anything. And that would just be sad.

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