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.
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… Read more »
Hey John! I always think iron sights are worth mastering. I used them for my Appleseed event as well, and I missed the Rifleman badge by one point. I know I would have made it, and then some, had I used optics. Eyesight definitely plays a role, but I think it’s more about practice than anything. There’s nothing wrong with relying on optics. They absolutely have benefits and should be the primary way of sighting your rifle. I just get frustrated when I see others talking like learning to shoot with irons is a foundational skill these days. It’s useful,… Read more »
“Focus on fundamentals first” is on point!!!
Hey Jeff! Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you approve of that idea, it’s huge! So many people try to circumvent fundamentals by spending more money on gadgets.
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… Read more »
Practice is number one. Like I mentioned with Jeff, too many people think expensive gadgets are the solution to shooting better. But they will never be able to outshoot someone like you who has out in the time and practice, even if they’ve got the fanciest gear and you’ve got something bare bones.
That’s an interesting note about the ACOG performance. Like you said, it came down to familiarity and practice. I’m sure they adapted quickly and then further increased their performance because they already had solid foundations.
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… Read more »
Hey Pete! You ain’t wrong. I didn’t know I was going against the grain like that, much less that Ken Hackathorn was my only company, lol. Looking back over my notes, though, I think it was an honest mixup. Consider it corrected 🙂 I do love me some iron sights, though. I agree with you, every shooter should learn to use irons well. My main quibble is with those that insist someone MUST learn irons first as part of their fundamentals. Of course, I’m always up for a spirited and friendly debate! Also, I’m glad to have John commenting! Both… Read more »
I like having one of those space tarps handy. Fortunately I’ve never had to put one to the test on a cold night out in the woods!
On another side note, thanks for that article on knots. Still trying to puzzle my way through it, but that subject is a major weak point for me.
You’re very welcome. I want to do some more of the outdoors skills posts, but I just have so many more marksmanship oriented stuff already planned.
High on my list right now is knife selection and tarp shelter configurations.
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
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
Keith, thanks for coming by and commenting! Irons are absolutely a great tool to master. You’re not the first Marine to tell me that you need to become proficient with irons before learning optics, either. Given your experience, I’m not surprised at your ability with irons, either. But that’s also your experience, and you were taught irons from the very beginning. If you put yourself in the boots of a brand new recruit today, who learns on an ACOG from the beginning, then the experience is totally different. I still think everyone really should learn and get proficient with irons,… Read more »
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.
Hey Ivan, I definitely agree that optics make the whole sighting process much easier. I still wouldn’t say that the fundamentals apply “less,” though. But I do see your point that optics speed things up sufficiently enough that you might not need to hold for as steady or as long to get the shot off.
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.
Hey Michael, thanks for reading and commenting! I really do think the “irons first” mentality is heavily influenced by those who served in the military before optics were widely available. But, as I found while researching and writing this post, irons aren’t really part of the marksmanship fundamentals. So, by my thinking, if I can give the student one less thing to worry about then they are going to have a better time and learn quicker.
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… Read more »
Hey Pete! I think that’s a good analogy. is learning to drive a manual absolutely necessary these days? Probably not. But knowing how to do it does help you be a more well-rounded driver who can handle unexpected situations.
You can learn the fundamentals of marksmanship with an optic, but learning irons along the way better prepares you to handle rifles not equipped with them, or if situations arise where optics aren’t going to cut it.
The scope on my AR broke and I took it off last week. I installed Magpul sights on it. The next morning I zeroed it before participating in a 2-gun match. The match was heavily weighted for pistols and I sucked. I’m not being overly humble, I need to work on my pistol shooting a lot. Anyways, the last stage had 3 “long range” rifle targets. I put that in quotes because the farthest one was about 150 yards away. However it was six-inch diameter popper. Every other competitor had a scope on their rifle and most of them took… Read more »
I have started to forego scopes more and more just because they never seem to be able to hold zero. Almost every rifle, every scope I have ever owned always shoots well; I am an experienced shooter than can make the most of any ammo/gun combination such that if the platform as being shot is capable of say 1MOA or better, I can shoot that. Unfortunately, it seems like I have to sight in the scope almost every range session as if the temperature had a big change on point of impact. Steady temps don’t see changes in zero but… Read more »
Oddly enough, you’re not the first person to leave a comment about that around here. I’ve never had an issue with an optic keeping its zero so long as I’m running the same ammunition from trip to trip. I wonder if there’s something else going on.
Scopes are cheating at anything less than 400 yards unless the target is smaller than an inch wide. That’s how I was taught. I also shot pistol at dangling pieces of thread from 50 feet. Iron sights taught me far more precision that optics every could. I feel it’s more of a learn to drive a stick shift vs learn to drive a self driving car situation. Put the time and effort into shooting with irons, optics come easy after that with just a little practice. The very best shots I’ve been around have all started shooting with irons, they… Read more »
Thanks very much for great information.
I thought the main reason that iron sights were considered “fundamental” is their pure reliability. Optics are more susceptible to breakage, battery or electronics failure, etc. Is that not the case?
In this case, I’m referring to the fundamentals of marksmanship. There’s a lot of people who say that you must learn irons before you move to optics, that they are “fundamental” to shooting. To that, I disagree. It’s an important skill, for sure, and irons are certainly going to be a solid backup if a primary optic fails, but I don’t think they are strictly required.
HAve you ever heard of Palma? Those guys shoot itty bitty groups at 1000 using…..that’s rite a peep sight.
I’ve got a simple reason for starting with iron sights: that’s what comes on a BB/pellet gun. I started my shooting career with a Red Ryder BB gun at the ripe old age of 8, and it was a fantastic introduction to shooting. You can buy a jar of 6000 BBs for less than 10 bucks and throw rounds around to your hearts content, and nothing teaches the fundamentals of marksmanship like practice. I shot everything from tin cans to carpenter bees with that crummy little gun, and loved every minute of it. I remember whittling a wedge for the… Read more »
I think the idea is similar to learning to play guitar on a steel string acoustic, so when you pick up an electric with its easy, light action, you find it easy.
There is a certain type of value in starting with the more difficult thing before showing the easier way. But on the other hand, I also think there’s more value in making the experience fun and immediately rewarding. To use your guitar example, is it a better approach to take someone interested in learning guitar and forcing them to practice scales over and over on day 1, or would be a quicker win to show them power chords and have them play a few well known riffs? Either way, they are now playing the guitar- but the second avenue gave… Read more »
With good instruction, learning iron sights is no hurdle at all. I took a Rifle Immersion: Midrange Rifle class at Valor Ridge, and I was able to keep up with the guys running LPVOs and red dots. Irons force you to be consistent with fundamentals to achieve hits. This can be a great training tool to kill bad habits before they become big problems. If a new shooter came to me asking for a roadmap to great marksmanship, I would tell them to use the money they would have spent on a quality, non-CCP optic system on a Valor Ridge… Read more »
Let me kindly, but firmly disagree with you :). It starts with the way you are referring to the “Fundamentals of Marksmanship” as sort of a quasi-religious testament that supposedly has all the answers to all the questions within itself. It does not. So, you are basing the whole argument on the wrong premise, a simple logical fallacy. But let’s try to go your way and see what else you got wrong. So, you say that Iron Sights are not fundamental just because they are not mentioned in the list of the fundamentals? You know what else is not mentioned… Read more »