There is literally no end to the number of items that can be mounted on an AR-15 rifle in some fashion, be it a high-end $4,000 scope designed for extreme range shooting or a rail-mounted bottle opener for extreme range drinking. Of all the things that you’re able to stick on an AR, though, the most common and seemingly least understood are iron sights.
Most people have a basic working knowledge of what iron sights are supposed to do, but often have very little understanding of what makes them work or what they are really good for. I hear it said over and over again these days that red dot sights and scopes are in all ways superior to iron sights, which, for many shooters, are nothing but close-range afterthoughts, but this is far from the truth.
The first thing we’ll cover is the idea that AR-15 iron sights are cheap and outdated. The folks who think that are usually the same people who buy a budget set of low profile Picatinny-mounted iron sights that folds down, think of them strictly as backups, and only zero them by making them line up with their red dot in order to co-witness.
If you’re thinking that iron sights are the gun equivalent of that near-useless donut tire in your trunk, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t buy a cheap set of folding flip-up sights and expect them to perform with any degree of repeatability or precision. You can sometimes get away with just a rear sight if your gun already has a front sight integral to the barrel.
The “battle sights” I’m referencing here are usually found on the budget/junk tables at gun shows, right next to those $50 ‘tactical’ scopes and ‘military’ grade lasers. If you’re paying only $20 for a set of irons, you aren’t spending enough. And you’re getting even less.
I don’t want to be a snob about it, but it turns out I kinda am. I consider iron sight sets that are in the $125-300 range to be of the best quality. You can even get good set of BUIS with a 45 degree offset in this price range to use in tandem with a magnified optic.
I talked to a guy at the range when I was working on another article who had a $2,500 AR. His nice rifle was sporting a set of knockoff Magpul MBUS flip-ups mounted ‘just in case the SHTF’. It was obvious to me that he lacked the experience to prioritize some of the most important aspects of his gear.
Most $1,500 rifles are easily as good has the one he bought and with the $1000 he’d have saved, he then could have afforded a better, well, everything he had attached to it. A great rifle is nothing special when you’re aiming it with junk.
A high quality set of AR-15 iron sights will give you greater precision than any red dot and many scopes. If you have cash to burn on a cheap scope in the $200 range, realize that the USA-made, world-class set of sights pictured in this article, the Scalarworks PEAK sights, are $130 for the set. You can either buy a cheap, easily broken gun show junk, or you can buy something that works and will last. Your choice.
This brings us to the next problem associated with AR-15 iron sights: zeroing. There are many, philosophies surrounding this and lots of ways to zero a rifle. Some can be hard to grasp, especially for newer shooters.
I’m a National Match competitor and have won all my CMP medals with iron sights, but they are never zeroed at point of aim. How is that possible?
Well, I zero for what is called a six-o-clock hold, which means that my front post is aimed at the bottom of the black target center. My bullets impact about 7” high at 200 yards, which puts them in the center of the black.
The actual point the bullet intersects the tip of my front sight is somewhere around 275 yards depending on the caliber/bullet used. That means I can hold just a touch high to hit deer-sized game out to 325 yards, but would need to hold a bit low at 100 yards to be sure to hit the vitals, as I’d be hitting too high at that closer distance.
Having a ‘floating’ zero may seem like a foreign concept, but you’d be surprised at how accessible it is after a range session or two.
The idea of a zero at a fixed distance is a myth. All that iron sights do is give you a reference to a specific point along a bullet’s trajectory, but it is very flexible.
If I were to take the gun in the photos, which is a 7.5” barreled 300 Blackout, and zero it at 100 yards for point of impact (bullets hit right on the tip of the front sight) I can hold center mass on anything out to about 200 yards using most supersonic 110-125gr ammo. Past that, I can hold just high on the target, about head level, and hit center mass again.
If I wanted to be more precise at longer ranges, I can adjust my front sight just like on a scope. The PEAK sights are great in that they allow toolless, repeatable adjustment.
Advantages to having iron sight include their ruggedness and ability to hold their zero even with bumps getting in and out of the stand. It’s much harder to lose zero with irons as the sights are attached in a much more integrated way than a scope.
Scopes, being more delicate, are more prone to damage. Everyone has at least one story of smacking their scope on something before a key shot. You can idiot-proof your gun to a degree by removing glass from the equation, especially since most hunting occurs inside 200 yards anyway. That’s well within the effective range of most iron sights.
The zero you want for an ‘emergency’ is one that accounts for the flattest part of your round’s trajectory. This idea includes both ‘close’ and ‘far’ zeroes. Many AR shooters zero their sights at 50 yards, which is the ‘close’ zero. The bullet will rise above point of aim in the meantime and again cross the point of aim somewhere around 200 yards.
This isn’t a precise means of zeroing, but it works for many people. If you do this, understand that there is no “magic” zero. You will certainly have to test it at all ranges you plan on shooting at.
An easy way to zero is to do it at 100 yards, as most iron sight usage will take place inside that distance. Many shooters find it hard to see or aim at longer ranges, but it just takes time to learn and you will be able to adjust your sights as you gain skill and learn how to best apply them.
The last part I will address here is the size of the physical sights. Most front sights I see out there are far too thick and a wide post won’t allow for precision shooting. This is made worse by sloppy rear sights that have apertures with random dimensions.
The PEAK sights I recommend have a fine front post and a flip-style rear sight with both fine and wide same-plane apertures. Elevation settings don’t change by switching between apertures, unlike many other sights out there. I like the wide one for close work and the fine one for precision shooting at longer ranges.
I recommend that you give iron sights a chance. If you haven’t tried them before you may be pleasantly surprised by their affordability, accuracy, and durability. Although it takes a little getting used to, if you try out various styles and techniques, you’ll find a zeroing style that works for you. You may even find yourself converting others at the range and sharing your success story with the skeptics.
Iron sights? Aren’t you just supposed to throw the selector to Hose and let the unstoppable stream of bullets mow down whole cities?
Hmm…I took my iron sights off as I couldn’t see through them. My eyesight was pronounced very good today in my left eye. After my right is fixed I plan on learning to shoot my rifle. Pistol shooting is OK. No plans on $300 iron sights!
$300 for iron sights?
$300 will also get you a Primary Arms 1-6 scope with the ACSS reticle. That is a pretty darn solid scope (though I went with the $400 1-8x Primary ACSS).
Most people will shoot the Primary 1-6 better than they will the irons.
I do like irons, especially the AR peep sights. I need to mount some on one of my Marlin 22s.
Can you say a few words on apertures? Also, any recommendations for a carry handle setup? I want to do a Dorito and fixed rear.
TFB runs an article called POTD. Often it is pictures of professional soldiers from around the world in training. Now look and see how many guns don’t have a complete sets of iron sights.
It’s not $130 for the set. It’s double that. At least according to their website.
My SP1 had the “Mars Bar” front sight which was wider than a Figure 11 target at 200m. You centered the target in the front sight and not the other way round.
I set the rifle up for 200m zero on the close range back sight. 100m was 2″ high. Flipped over to the L sight for POA @ 300m. At 400m I used the L sight and aimed about 15″ high.
With the No4 .223 conversions. I zero at 100. Up 4 clicks to 200m (half minute clicks), and up 8 to 300m. I use Central and Rawson target sights on those rifles.
Writes article on ar15 rifle, shows braced pistol in the photo. ATF is that you?
Um… Isn’t that a pistol brace on the lead image?
The Marines don’t even teach new recruits to shoot with iron sights in basic anymore. This, I believe, is a mistake.
They take a little getting used to, but anyone can learn to do it, they are virtually indestructible, and they are likely more accurate than you are.
I can use them, but I am rusty. Need some range time, and ammo.
My son says he WANTS to learn to shoot with iron sights.
I’m not surprised, but absolutely disgusted to hear that.
The army is the same way. Apparently it takes too long for they to teach a new recruit to shoot irons than it is for them to shoot with red dots. If they are lucky, their first unit might teach them how to shoot irons at a later point, just not in basic training.
The bayonet training isn’t even implemented anymore.
With Aim-Down-Sights view in video games quite common, how hard can it be?
I’ve taught complete beginners to use iron sights in a few minutes. In our annual target markets rimfire match my iron sighted No8 trainer is the preferred gun because whoever uses it wins the match.
Bayonet training being lost is another tragedy. This kinder and gentler military trend will be a downfall. The Chinese, the Russians and all others will not be kind or gentle. The spirit of the bayonet is to kill. The military is supposed to in times of war to break things and kill the enemy with the most efficient means available. When the most efficient means are not available, they use whatever is at hand.
Iron sights as an option.
My oh my, how times change.
Most cars come with an auto transmission these days. Times do change. Not always for the best.
BUIS sights on a freefloat have major issues with accuracy issued do to rail flex. Putting 300 dollar BUIS sights on a rail that can experience drastic shifts when loaded doesn’t really seem prudent.
I learned on iron sights. Then my issued M16A1 and A2 later were used with iron sights. I used iron sights in combat, except for time spent with a reach out and touch someone weapon system.
The idea we are not teaching iron sights to Marines is scary. I don’t know if the Army is doing the same as I have been out many years now. Hopefully not. Combat is not a controlled range, things break. If a Soldiers or Marines optics breaks how do you remedy that in a firefight? How do you accurately engage the enemy when all you know is optics?
My opinion is that the fundamentals of marksmanship is using iron sights. Optics have a place, once you master the basics. You can do more than just point at a target with iron sights. You can estimate range pretty accurately using your front sight post with many types of weapons. The AR/M16 platforms are the easiest to learn how, and many other older platforms do well too.
I’ll do me, you do you as far as optics go. I can use both and still prefer iron sights for 90% of my shooting and hunting.
Learn the hard way and enjoy the easy way.
Once upon a time 4X was considered adequate for most all hunting situations .
Got a pretty compact 3-9 (cheep) scope on my marlin 60 squirrel gun. Lets me see the smirk on their little face. Right before I wipe it off.😀
The fourpower RCO the Marine Corps married itself to is great at range and absolute dogshit at the distances that matter in combat. Who the hell wants to clear rooms with a magnified optic. I did it. It doesn’t work, which is why I also ran irons offset 45 degrees. I’m sure that’s not allowed now.
Range Estimation: When they get close enough to shoot, shoot them.
If you want quicker target acquisition for targets in home defense (and inside buildings) ranges go with diopter type sights, for example, https://ultradyneusa.com/product/c4-folding-front-and-rear-sight-combo/
I’ve been shooting for four years now, I’ve never shot an AR with iron sights and I’ve never seen an AR with iron sights.
My AK came with iron sights.
The US Military Command is more concerned with socializing than fighting.
Combat sights and rifles are way down the list.
For civilian use on a defensive weapon I’ll take iron sights on a rifle stripped of all the bells and whistles.
I always end up thinking myself in circles with 6 o’clock hold. It makes sense because you don’t obscure the target, but you’re basically choosing a specific holdover at a specific distance. I’m going to try it at my second Appleseed this fall, but I guess my question is how it works for unknown distances. It’s kind of like gap shooting in archery, I guess. I imagine that’s the kind of question you just have to answer by sending a few rounds downrange and seeing what happens.
That’s it in a nut-shell…..
I’m a Diamondhead Sights man. The steel variety.
Where the hell these at for $130 for set cuz its $130 for each but i agree great sight but wish i could find a set for that lmao
I shot National Match Course type competition, and long range (1000 yards) with a Garand and later on with bolt action rifles mostly Model 70 Winchester Target Rifles with Iron Sights (Redfield International) for years. Had no problem shooting 1000 yards with Iron Sights.
As for the M-16/AR-15 type rifles, elevation adjustment on the front sight never made the least sense to me. Been some time since I shot competition, but I will stand by the above comment. The Redfield sights I mentioned were nowhere near the prices mentioned in above comments, which seemingly address optical sights.