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Iron Sights vs Red Dot

Iron Sights vs Red Dot

Jan 27th 2023

While some debates are nearly dead in shooting circles (9mm vs. .45, anyone?), some are just getting started. One of the latest debates stirring a lot of interest is the merits of the venerable, reliable iron sights in one corner, and young, upstart red dot sights in the other. Which is best, and more importantly which is best for you?

What are Iron Sights?

Iron sights are the mainstay sighting system of rifles, handguns, and even shotguns. Iron sights refer to the protrusions, typically on the top of the firearm, that allow you to align the gun’s bore with the intended target. Though called “iron” sights these can be made of iron, steel, brass, or even polymer. Let’s take a look at how iron sights work, and some of the uses for them.

How do Iron Sights work?

Iron sights generally consist of a front and a rear sight. On a handgun the front sight is typically a metal blade attached to the top of the slide (for semi-autos) or barrel (for revolvers). The rear sight is mounted at the back of the slide or top strap (again, for semis and revolvers, respectively). The rear sight typically has a square- or U-shaped notch.

Using iron sights involves aligning the front and rear sight with each other, then aligning these with the target. The user focuses on the front sight. The front sight is then centered in the rear sight with “equal height and equal light.” This means that the top of the front sight is the same height as the rear sight, and that the front sight is centered left-to-right within the rear sight. This process is known as “sight alignment.”

The aligned sights are then superimposed over the target. Placing the aligned sights over the target is called “sight picture.” Since the human eye only has one focal plane, it can only truly focus on one of these objects at a time. That focus is typically on the front sight. The rear sight is probably somewhat blurry, and the target is probably fairly blurry, too, depending on its distance away from you.

Iron Sights Use Cases

Iron sights are used for just about every conceivable purpose. They are used on military rifles, and were the exclusive sighting system of general-issue military rifles until very recent history. It took the military a long time to adopt optical sights due to the perceived reliability and durability advantages of irons. For this reason backup iron sights (BUIS) are ubiquitous on AR15 rifles.

Iron sights are also extremely popular on pistols of every shape and size. In fact, iron sights dominate the pistol market, and it’s nearly impossible to find a pistol that doesn’t ship with a set of irons installed, though some are rudimentary at best. Iron sights will be around for a long time to come.

Pros & Cons of Iron Sights

Iron sights aren’t perfect. They have some tremendous advantages, but also some disadvantages. We’ll dive into them below.

Pros

The biggest advantage is that a good set of iron sights will almost never fail you. They are simple, mechanical objects and there isn’t a whole lot that could go wrong with them. Sights that are correctly installed would literally have to be beaten off of the gun to stop working. This is a huge advantage for sights that you bet your life on.

Iron sights can be a challenge to learn, but once learned the knowledge of how to use them is universal. There are many generations of shooters who came up on irons sights and we have a tremendous body of knowledge on using them. Again, they can be fast and incredibly accurate.

Cons

Non-illuminated irons are difficult to see in low- or no-light situations. This can be corrected with illuminated tritium sights or the like, but it can be problematic if you haven’t installed illuminated irons. Iron sights can also be more difficult to use than red-dot sights. There are three objects to keep in near-perfect alignment. Meanwhile your eye only has one focal plane. As distance increases and time decreases, irons can be more difficult to use.

What are Red Dot Sights?

Red Dot Sights (RDS) are small, optical sights that project a red dot into the shooter’s field of view, on the same focal plane as the target. Rather than having to line up a front sight, rear sight, and the target, the shooter simply places the dot on the target. That’s it. For new shooters red dots have been found to be easier to learn because of this simplification over iron sights.

Red Dot Sights: Use Cases:

Red dot sights (also called Red Dot Optics or RDO – the terms are interchangeable) are used for a lot of purposes. Let’s divide the two big categories: rifles and handguns. Since the Global War On Terror began, RDSs have become accepted on rifles. In fact, they have become nearly ubiquitous in some circles. They have some huge advantage over iron sights, including being incredibly fast in close quarters, good in low light, and compatible with night vision equipment. They have also proven themselves robust and reliable.

Red dots on pistols is a different story. While some competitors and elite special operations units have been using pistol red dots for a couple decades now, they have only recently been scaled down to a form factor appropriate for concealed or duty carry. They have reached that point, though, and red dots are beginning to be seen in LE holsters, in the hands of concealed carriers, and even on some hunting handguns.

Pros & Cons of Red Dot Sights 

Pros

The pros of red dot optics (also sometimes called a “reflex sight”) are easy to see. On handguns and rifles they are generally easier to learn than iron sights: put dot on target, press trigger.

Red dot sights are also fast to acquire, especially under extreme stress, making them ideal for close-quarters or other fast-paced environments, like self-defense. They are also outstanding in low-light environments, where a lot of self-defense situations occur.

Though generally considered close range tools, red dot sights are excellent for longer handgun shots. This is paradoxical with the previously stated advantages of being close quarters tools, a red dot makes pistols shots at 25 yards and beyond a breeze.

Cons

First, they are more fragile than irons sights. To be clear, we didn’t say they are fragile, just more fragile. They are battery powered, electronic objects, with a glass lens, held on by screws. There is just a lot that can go wrong in a complex system like that. Red dot optics may be affected by cold weather (battery drain), hot, humid weather (fogging lenses), water/sweat infiltration, and drops, falls, and other abuse in ways that irons are impervious to.

Second, if your red dot does not adjust to different light conditions – or does not adjust well, you may have difficulty acquiring your dot. In bright light your dot may be complete invisible. In low light or darkness your dot may be so bright that it complete washes out your sight picture. This is an important thing to understand before you begin relying on a red dot optic.

Next, red dot optics are expensive. There are certainly some budget red dots, but generally you get what you pay for and if you’re going to bet your life on it… Not only are the optics themselves expensive, but pistols aren’t universally set up for them. Some guns have an optic cut, and some do not. If yours does not you will have to purchase a new slide or have your slide milled to accept an optic.

Pistol red dot optics also require a big training curve for guys transitioning over from iron sights. In our experience this curve is steeper than expected. There is both the challenge of learning to “find” the dot, as well as the modified sight picture required to use it well. Another disadvantage in our experience is that red dot optics collect dust, dirt, and dead skin cells on their lens when carried on a concealed handgun. This reduces light that can pass through the optic, reducing situational awareness and accuracy.

Iron Sights or Red Dot: Which are Right for You?

So, which is better for you: iron sights or red dot sights? The answer is, it depends!

If you are setting up a rifle for self-defense or other fast-paced, close range work, I would unequivocally say “yes!” to a red dot. If you are setting up a handgun for self-defense I would carefully weigh the pros and cons.

If you do go with a pistol red dot you can also have the best of both worlds: suppressor-height sights are usually tall enough to be co-witnessed through the red dot. If the dot dies, you can instantly revert to your iron sights without changing anything other than a slight shift in focal plane.

XS Sights: The Fastest Sights in Any Light

If you’re in the market for new sights, check out XS Sights. We took our 20+ years of sight manufacturing expertise and created premium tritium night sights with outstanding visibility and durability. Our U.S.A made sights are ideal for personal defense, military, and hunting applications.

XS Sights’ tritium night sights glow in low-light and use high-contrast glow dots to provide high visibility in bright light, making sight acquisition easier than ever before. Our sights glow for over 10-years, have a 25K+ round service life, and more. To get all the details on how our Glow Dot Technology works, click here.

For the fastest sight in any light, upgrade with XS Sights today! Our night sights are manufactured for a variety of gun types and fit all your favorite brands. So if you need help finding the right sights for your handgun, revolver, hunting rifle, shotgun, or tactical rifle, XS Sights is here to help. Do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions!