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
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
- 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
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.
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.