A couple days ago Tyler posted an article lauding my shooing abilities in practical situations. That got me thinking about the differences between Tyler’s firearms education and my own. Tyler has merely adopted the iron sights since Appleseed shooting; I was born with them, moulded by them. I didn’t see the light of an exit pupil until I was already a man, by then it was nothing to me but blinding. Shooting with scoped rifles may be more accurate at long distance, but sometimes its that inaccuracy that makes you a better shooter.

When I first seriously started shooting, it was in a dark and dingy basement on campus at Penn State. I spent countless hours down there with nothing but a set of globe and diopter sights and a target at the end of the room, loading one round at a time and shooting for accuracy. Lining up every single shot perfectly every time was the goal, and anything less was unacceptable. We didn’t tally a score — we tallied “drops.” As in, “I dropped a point on that bull” when I hit the 9 ring instead of the 10. Anything less than perfection was your fault, and you knew it.

With a scope, the shots would have been easy. Just put the crosshairs where you want the bullet to go, then drop the hammer and let it fly. But with iron sights, you need to make sure that the sights are aligned as precisely as possible. There’s always some error — some wobble, if you will — in the precision of your sight alignment. Simply the pulsing of your own blood pressure can be enough to throw the gun out of alignment, and even if your front sight is precisely on target the shot might not hit. Understanding how your body works when trying to squeeze off the perfect shot is essential for target shooting with iron sights, and the most important skill a new shooter learns.

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When I graduated from college, I also graduated to NRA High Power matches. I could have gone with a scoped rifle, but I chose to stick with iron sights here as well. Shooting in the M16 As-Issued Service Rifle division, the iron sights actually got worse — gone were the globe and diopter sights I had come to know and love, replaced by a rear aperture and a front post. This made shooting accurately even more challenging, and the increased distances as we moved back throughout the day only compounded the problem. How do you figure out a wind correction hold when there are no hash marks on a reticle to use, for example? It forced me to figure things out and sharpen skills that otherwise wouldn’t really be needed. When your margin of error is the width of a front sight post, you need to make sure that you do your job as precisely as possible and crack the shot off only when everything is perfect.

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The thing is, while those skills might seem less important with the added benefit of a scoped optic, they are actually the primary building blocks of good marksmanship. Squeezing the trigger exactly when everything is aligned — your body, your gun, and your target all in harmony — is the basis of good marksmanship. Funnily enough, all those skills are required for even a mediocre performance with iron sights in a precision rifle match. And if you’re deficient in one of those areas, you’ll figure it out soon enough when the scores start coming in.

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Which brings me back to my main point. I’ve spent about a year “off” from competition shooting. Throughout all of 2013 I was glued to the hip of the FNH USA shooting team, and while that was an amazing experience I’ve basically needed a year to slog through the backlog of articles I accumulated. My goal for this year is to find that balance between writing and competing, and as a result I’ve needed to knock the rust off my shooting skills and get back out where the buzzers buzz. I’ve traded in the SCAR 16S for a great PWS rifle that is perfect for 3-gun competitions, but I don’t plan to use it. Instead I plan to use this FN-15 rifle that Tyler is modeling, with nothing but a set of iron sights. There are no fancy gimmicks and no expensive optics, just my eyes, a small hole, and a little sprout of metal. The rifle forces me to use skills that have been atrophying while I’ve been on the sidelines, and shows me where my weaknesses are. And that’s exactly what I need.

Plus, when you run a stage in half the time of the other competitors, it adds just that little bit of salt in their wound to know that the 300 yard target they needed half a magazine to hit with their 9x optic you smacked in two rounds with iron sights.

Iron sights are hard to use, and that’s exactly what makes them the perfect training tool. I used them Friday in a rifle competition (where I came away with the top score, video at the top of the article), and I will continue to use them until I’m back up to speed. And I think y’all should use them too as part of your regular training.

48 Responses to Shooting Tip: Practice with Iron Sights

  1. +1

    I also grew up shooting without any optics, and ditto through the years of military and police work. I just got a S&W M&P AR-15 Sport for a real good price locally and will be working out with the supplied iron sights accordingly, no optics planned yet.

  2. “Iron sights are hard to use, and that’s exactly what makes them the perfect training tool.”

    Errr… whaaa…?

    Maybe to the younger generations who grew up with graphic alphanumeric calculators to do their math homework, automatic transmissions in everything from clown cars to Class-8 trucks and hand-holding & spell checking on everything they type. Damn kids, always making a mess of my lawn.

    On the whole, iron sights aren’t that difficult to use, especially the post-n-peeps on US military rifles. Get a USMC training manual on “Rifle Marksmanship” and they cover how to use the iron sights. It should be out there on the ‘net for nothing – our tax dollars paid for it.

    • I’ve been an NRA instructor for a number of years and every once in a while I get a student who for whatever reason simply cannot understand how to line up sights.
      I’ve tried diagrams, lasers, two giant pieces of cardboard representing the the front and rear and a number of other gimmicks to help but whether it’s a missing chromosome or TBI some people just can’t get it.

      My wife is one. For years she couldnt understand how to line up sights then one day out plinking she shouted “I get it! I can see them!”
      She shoots fine now. Why she never got it until that day and what it was that helped her to get it we’ll never know.

      • I just thought of this.
        If a hand gun, tape a straw to the front and rear sight’s to aim look though the straw.
        Might work.

      • This got me thinking. I had a friend with the same issue once, and I don’t think he ever got it. Not for the life of me, can I remember EVER being show how to use iron sights. I distinctly remember my grandfather giving me an antique looking Benjamin air rifle and I just went out back and started shooting – how irons work has just always been instinctive.

        When I was in Army basic training, I can remember being astounded that people had to be taught, over and over again, how their sights worked. On that last note, my basic class’s marksmanship scores fell almost exactly across northern/southern origin lines – that can’t be a coincidence, can it?

      • You know, I was having difficulty picking up sights on my brand new, out of the box, still has that new gun smell, 100 year old Swedish Mauser M38 short rifle. (and it looks like someone used it as a rung in a ladder for 100 years) Of course it has those “young eyes” blade sights that made my brothers ask how the heck anyone was supposed to see them when my dad and I brought it home. I was looking through the sights one day trying to focus on the front sight, when I stopped trying to focus on the front sight and instead tried to focus on the target past the front sight. Sure enough the front sight came in view, and when that happened it was simple to line the post up. The same thing happens to me with scopes and their crosshairs. I wear glasses and am near sighted which might effect my sight picture. Ask your students what is in focus when they try to focus on the front sight, if they are like me it will be the rear sight.

    • There are iron sights and there are iron sights. I don’t think anyone will argue that ultimate accuracy lies with excellent magnified optics.

      When I was in the USMC, I wasn’t able to make 10/10 at the 500 yard line with the M16A2 and M855 during in ’94. I did 9/10 on pre-Qual and 8/10 on Qual day during boot camp, which made me miss company high shooter. I was doing the KD (known distance) range in the morning, max full value wind of about 10 mph. With a scope those shots would have been pretty easy to hit a ~20″ wide target.

      I did hit 10/10 later, after lots of practice shooting peep sights at the rifle range of Boy Scout camp Castle Rock with Anschutz and Remington .22 LR bolt guns. I was the shooting sports director for two ridiculously fun summers. But that precision is a perishable skill, and I’ve definitely lost some of it.

      My favorite thing about iron sights: they never run out of batteries. Also, it can’t get too cold to use ’em. My dad learned that lesson the hard way with a red dot powered by AA batteries that wouldn’t work in a 10 below zero deer hunt in WI.

      So I’ve got some guns set ups with iron just like my work guns and some with optics (and some both). YMMV.

      • You’re going to be my exemplar for today, being a Marine and all.

        The Marines are the last reserve of mass-produced shooting talent in the world today. No one else in the world takes in as many people as the USMC and teaches them how to shoot as well as the USMC. They stand alone in the “mass produced rifleman” market in the entire world.

        The USMC teaches rifle marksmanship because they make it a requirement of being a Marine. I’ve never met someone who could honestly call themselves a Marine (ie, they finished booth camp at one of those lovely garden spots the USMC calls home) because to be a Marine and get out of boot camp, you have to be able to hit what you’re aiming at the large majority of the time. “What you’re aiming at” is a man-sized target, from my understanding, meaning the USMC hasn’t forgotten their mission is to kill people and break things. That’s what I’m paying taxes for: To have a military that kills people and breaks stuff, not conducts meals-on-wheels humanitarian twaddle. There’s large numbers of liberal arts graduates without jobs who can pass out rice, beans and bottled water to savages in the third world – there’s no need to waste actual talent doing these menial jobs.

        Now, to the topic: I maintain that there is nothing wrong with the peep-n-post sights on US military rifles since the ’03a3 Springfield, The open sights on the original 03 and previous rifles were like all of their kind – not as accurate. Faster for snap-shooting at close range maybe, but not as accurate at long range. With the .30-06, we had a cartridge that was a no-kidding-for-realz “kill a man at 600 yards 75% of the time in the hands of a rifleman” cartridge. While it could have been done with the .45-70 (and it’s rainbow trajectory) or the .30-40 Krag, they both had very low Bc pills that drifted like leaves in the wind. In the ’06, a killer was now unleashed in the hands of the US Marines.

        From that point (the 03 Springfield, 1907 sling) and onwards, the USMC rifle training became exemplary in the world. What’s more, the USMC could take young men who never handled a rifle before in their lives and make of them reliable medium range (500 to 700 yard) killers – to a point where the enemy was often left wondering “WTF? It can’t be those guys way the hell over there… can it?” Ja, stimmt Fritz… die Marinen dort drueben sind sehr richtig.

        I was taught how to shoot a rifle by Marines who had survived the Pacific campaigns of WWII. Their lessons were short, blunt, to the point… and they worked. I never quite understood their obsession with cramming my heels flat onto the ground until I was older and read first-hand accounts of the Pacific campaign, but then it became clear. Marines have good reasons for nearly everything they do.

        If the USMC can teach people with widely varying levels of experience how to lay 80% of their shots onto a target at 500+ meters/yards with iron sights, there’s proof that iron sights work, and the USMC method of instruction bears some notice by shooters.

        When I’ve been on ranges with young people, I often get questions about my rifles. Want to know who are the only people who pick up my rifles and are able to put rounds on target without a lot of (or ANY) coaching? Young Marines. I’ve handed my 03A3 to youngsters in their 20’s who have never, ever seen a 1903A3 before in their lives – and I can tell immediately who has served in the Marines from how they handle the sling on the rifle and how they get into position. Army vets? They seem to regard the 1907 sling with indifference today. USAF and Navy vets? They have no idea that there’s a difference between a sling and a carrying strap. Marines still know what to do with a 1907 sling.

        If I could wave a magic wand, I’d have every inactive Marine who has the time to teach at least three other American citizens how to shoot to Marine standards. They made me appreciate marksmanship when I was a pre-teen, and I have a hard-as-rocks head. If it worked for me, it can work for anyone. Until that time, people who would learn how to shoot well with iron sights should pick up the USMC TM’s and read them, put them into practice and learn what they can.

        • Edit: I’ve never met someone who could call themselves a Marine who flat-out sucked at shooting a rifle…

        • That’s some excellent stuff, sir. It would be a privilege to shoot with you some day.

        • >> The Marines are the last reserve of mass-produced shooting talent in the world today. No one else in the world takes in as many people as the USMC and teaches them how to shoot as well as the USMC. They stand alone in the “mass produced rifleman” market in the entire world.

          I would disagree with that. Swiss recruits are also taught how to shoot very well indeed, and they have a weapon and ammo to do so: arguably, SIG 550 is the most accurate standard-issue assault rifle in the world, and GP90 is the most accurate standard-issue infantry ammo (it’s sub-MOA, so basically match grade).

        • “Want to know who are the only people who pick up my rifles and are able to put rounds on target without a lot of (or ANY) coaching? Young Marines.”

          For those of us who have never had the honor (and some may say sanity 🙂 ) of attending Corps Basic at Parris Island or Recruit Depot San Diego, can you (or anyone else here credible) recommend a text and DVD or BluRay training course?

          I knew I was way out of my league when one day plinking with friends and trying to make some 500 yard shots with someone’s scoped .223 varmint rifle and watching the crosshairs bounce in time to my heartbeat…

        • Now you got me all curious…what IS the reason for digging the heels into the ground, and what was in the first-hand accounts that made it make sense?

    • Im one of those nasty millennials with our newfangled technology, and when I was first learning how to shoot rifles I did so first with iron sights to get a good base, and then moved on to magnified optics when I wanted to shoot at longer ranges with more precision.

    • I am of the younger generation and none of my 20+ guns have a single optic on them plus I learned to shoot using German/Russian open sights which I prefer to peep sights.

    • Amen Brother.
      These titty twisting momma’s kids don’t have a clue. Sorry but I’m feed up with all the gime, gime, crap. A bunch of idiots, not trained at home, won’t help mom & dad by mowing the yard, can’t get off a bus without almost getting hit, don’t clean their room, – pansy ass drone operating, never look a man in the eye. texting and emailing, time out instead of a butt whippen (not aboused) kids. America is in trouble and Hillary isn’t the answer.

  3. I used to be pretty good with iron sights until my late 50s. Since then the only long gun that I can simultaneously see the front and rear sights is on the rifled barrel of my Remington 1100. At some point most of us are going to need to use a scope.

        • I don’t really have my protractor on me and I wasn’t trying to argue angles with you. The point is that person does not look to be forward of the firing line or as you stated “down range from live fire”.

        • If the cameraman for the main video was not forward of the firing line, then it seems like the front of the magazine, muzzle and front sight post would not be clearly visible during firing.

          Maybe I am wrong, I’ve never been at one of these events. It just looks a little iffy to me.

      • I disagree. You can clearly see the cable spools in both views. That guy is at the plane making up the back of the back of the course. That target way to close to the back plane of the course with the firing line being parallel to it. Its a BAD place for a target, or a bad place to stand. Also Nick appears to be elevated, so assuming that’s some kind wide angle lens, I’d say a misstep of a fall would that brought the rifle 45 degrees off-line would put that guy right in front of a muzzle.

      • Its not about being disqualified, Nick. Whoever set that course up shouldn’t put a target that close to the back of the course, and certainly not when asking someone to climb up on an elevated shooting platform while engaging a target on your right side. One wrong step and you would be off that 180 plane, and then disqualification would be the best case scenario.

  4. There are some solid cognitive skills involved with iron-sight shooting that aren’t really well compensated for by optical enhancements. One of these is spatial awareness, i.e., the ability to locate oneself in relationship to objects both near and far. People with enhanced spatial awareness make good shooters and, not surprisingly, good hunters and good soldiers. While not everyone has the same innate spatial discrimination skills, practice with iron sights—especially if you start at a young age—is a great way to develop what you have. All the great American shooters from Billy Dixon of Adobe Walls fame, to Sgt. York, to Chris Kyle started shooting as children and developed the advanced cognitive skills in adulthood that made them scarily accurate shooters. Last night I watched a Hickok45 video where he was hitting a gong at 80 yards . . . with a Baretta Pico. You can’t learn to do that looking through a scope or at a computer screen. That guy can give Zen masters a run for their money.

  5. Didn’t we just hash this out the other day in an article? 😉

    That is the way I’ve been teaching my boys. Learn and master irons, maintain the skill, then train hard on RDS/Magnified optics.

    The lessons learned from mastering irons at long distances translate very well into RDS/magnified optics (IMHO).

    Maybe in the ‘modern’ world irons have become the ‘manual transmission’ of the shooting world…but I’m still teaching them how to drive a stick as well

  6. Open sights can be difficult for new shooters to master. Peep sights work intuitively and newbies seem to take to them rapidly. Scopes are great, but a lot of shooters are distressed by the “wobble.”

    That wobble is a great teaching tool. Once noobs understand that they are moving the muzzle, they learn how to be still and how to control their breathing to get a solid hold on the target. The scope can be a helpful training device, just as a laser sight can be helpful for training.

    • I’ve found that putting up pictures on the wall of “what your sight picture should look like” helps. Then I have students line up the front post low in their picture and bring it up into proper position on the rear sight. YMMV.

      The other thing that helps is to determine the students dominant eye early on. I’ve noticed that there seems to be lot more cross-dominate shooters out there (I suspect the cross-dominant people never used to pick up a gun before, and with the expanding base of shooting sports, we’re seeing more and more), and they present issues in rifle shooting, never mind shotgun shooting.

      • In this day and age, just let them play a first person shooter video game. Most of them have iron sights that you have to bring up, and they show the resulting sight picture. Some are better at it than others, but if you take something like ArmA, it’s basically as good as it gets. And because the transition to the sights is animated, it helps to grok the process in its entirety.

  7. Nick, great job on the weight loss. Your svelteness has added to your mobility greatly. Though I prefer a diet of half zone half paleo, your bacon diet has done you well.

  8. Seeing the price of some of the higher end optics makes me want to stick to shooting only w/ irons sights.

    Another plug for irons is weight. Rails, mounts, and the optic itself can get heavy.

  9. As a side note to using iron sights, had a guy come in asking to have to have us bore sight his iron sighted AK-47. I was kind of in shock.

  10. I suppose I’m a contrarian. I don’t see a ‘lesson’ when using iron sights that one doesn’t receive with the other common sight types. I grew up (ages 12-18) shooting nothing but shotguns, and at nothing but quail, pheasant, grouse, and clays. At 18 the Army handed me my first rifle, and I qualified Expert, which was not so difficult if you followed the directions and had clear eyes and steady hands. I found the Army sights on the M16A1 very pleasant. Then, at 21, it was back to shotguns, skeet, and upland birds. At 31 I began deer and moose shooting. It was simple: My brother-in-law would just hand me one of his scoped 6.5 x 55 rifles and tell me what sort of animal he wanted (doe, antlered, moose-only, etc.) During the day’s hunt I’d shoot one when it appeared. The terrain was mixed forest and wheat/raps fields, at ranges from 80-200 meters. Shooting one thing helps in the shooting of another, no? But each type of sight has its own unique challenges and virtues.

    Give metal/scope/red-dot sights that are zeroed at a known range, using a cartridge whose ballistics you have bothered to learn, and doping the wind with some ash or other, the most important factor to know and have a brain alert to…is the near-exact range of the animal/person/target. It seems to me that unless you are shooting withing MPBR, it is range that is the key knowledge.

    I don’t think going back to irons helps my HWS or scoped gun speed or accuracy: There is one exception. If I want to get to know one particular rifle very well (say an 8lb 18-inch barrel, rifle gas system, X-furniture AR….then I want to shoot it with each type of sight. It seems to help me get a feel for the particular rifle apart from the sight peculiarities. I like express sights on a medium-bore rifle, but that is for close-range shooting, admittedly, in which rifle handling and footwork is more on point than micro-precision sighting.

    I have to say that 5.56 weapons are very easy to shoot. I’d be more impressed seeing the course in the video above shot with an ’06 M1 Garand or an ’06 Model 70. Even I can shoot a 5.56 AR well and fast, relative to the little practice I give it these days. But then the M16 is the only rifle I had to actually sleep with in my sleeping bag for three months (long ago). “What you learn as a youth you will likely keep to old age.”

  11. I started competition target shooting with 10m UIT air rifle. This is the best training for sight-picture and follow-through. The 9-ring is only a fraction bigger than the diameter of the .177″ pellet and the 10 dot is 1.5mm. I still think this is the hardest shooting discipline I’ve ever competed in. By PB is 324/400.

    I’ve competed in service rifle for about 22 years. Iron-sights, off the elbows, in standing, sitting, kneeling, and prone positions. The courses involve single, double, and triple taps on timed snap targets, rapids, deliberates, and application. Every weekend there is a different distance and course. Learn to shoot the hard way and you appreciate the easy way.

    I started with a SKS, used a AR-15 SP1 for a few years until the Port Arthur incident, Lee-Enfield No4 in .303, and then a No4 in .223. The latter is not only very accurate and pleasant to shoot, but also has low running costs with reloads.

    And I am a great fan of the 1907 sling with one on most of my service rifles. I use it in single-point for sitting and prone, and two-point in standing and kneeling.

    And the service match courses are the best practice for shooting in the field. You learn to shoot under stress. The friends I used to hunt with reckoned this was my edge.

    Many times I’ve outshot someone with a tricked-up tacticooled Remchesterby with my relic No4. Don’t dis the old war-horses, especially in the hands of an experienced competitor.

  12. Today I had planned to finish sighting in an AK 47. It is a WASR that I bought cheap and I had difficulty getting it set up in the fall before the days got short and the weather got bad. I was told it might have a poorly aligned barrel (Century build with a 1964 serial number) and was concerned that it might be a lemon. I finally figured out from a video I found on the internet that I was holding it incorrectly and messing up the sight picture. So after reading today’s post on iron sights I was determined to either get the old rifle shooting correctly or resolve to trade it off. I only started with the shooting hobby 3 years ago, am 62 years old, and need prescription shooting glasses. I am no expert. Barely better than a novice. But with a correct sight picture and a bit more tweaking of the front sight, I was able to get 7 inch groups at 100 yards. Minute of terrorist for sure. Groups at 25 and 50 yards were as small as 1 and 2 inches if I concentrated and rested my elbows on the bench. This was a cheapie WASR using Tula ammo from WalMart. So come on you 25 and 35 year olds out there — if I can do this well with an AK and leaf sights, you just have to be able to do better with an AR and peep sights!

    • +1

      Congrats, Paul! I’m almost 62 myself, but can still see the sights A-OK and focus on-target; not sure how much longer that will last but so far, so good. I’m not a noob but I’ve gotten pretty rusty on a few things over the years. My frailty is doing tactical jumping and rolling around with creaky joints, which was not the case, oddly, when I was 18.

    • I am in that age group and shoot only irons.

      Also, your WASR was built in Romania by Romanians from the same factory that makes AK’s for the Romanian Army. All Century does is make it 922r compliant once it arrives in the states.

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