If you want to get hits, the two most critical elements of shooting, any kind of shooting, are aiming and trigger control. All of the other fundamentals support the task of executing the former correctly.
While both are unquestionably techniques in that they can be improved upon by nothing but practice and dedication alone, we must not overlook the fact that, as with all shooting, we are interfacing with our hardware, with a weapon, to do both.
And if we can improve the hardware, we can improve our results. When it comes to a trigger, you can do things like change the trigger bow itself, tune and smooth the action and do other things to make the trigger easier to manipulate.But we don’t touch our sights, at least not physically: if we pull a trigger with our finger we touch our sights with our sight, with our eyes.
And here we can change what our eyes “touch.” With a handgun, shotgun or rifle, changing our sights allow us to visually confirm alignment of the gun with our target with greater or lesser precision.
But there is more to choosing a set of sights than simply whether or not they fit the gun. Sights must be chosen for their suitability to a specific task; just as you would not trust a precision bullseye match to coarse, large combat sights, you would not trust the outcome of your next fight to fragile, hard to see target sights.
In this article, I will be giving you a few pointers on choosing the right sights for your defensive guns, and offering several choices for all types of firearms that will serve you well.
The Right Sights for the Job
Focusing now on sights for defense (that is the mission statement of gun related content on this site, after all) choosing sights for the task is partially preference, but also a question of biology and suitability.
Sure, you might really like funky, trapezoid sights with three colors of insert on your pistol, but that does not mean you could not do better, probably, with a set of irons that are less “busy” and hard for the eye to process at speed.
Similarly some sights are only suitable for certain applications; we use peep aperture sights, aka ghost rings on long guns, especially rifle, but they suck on handguns, where front and rear sight are much closer together.
Likewise, a front bead only may be just fine on a shotgun intended only for very close range fighting, but will start to cause much grief and consternation at even medium range. Such a sight on a rifle or handgun? Forget it!
Also the task at hand will if not mandate then strenuously bias sight elements toward a few indispensable features: defensive shooting in our case always biases a highly visible front sight that can be picked up quickly in any light, and generally prefers sights that have a more open sight picture, i.e. more space around the front sight when within the borders of the rear sight.
This provides quicker feedback as to alignment and also somewhat better view of the target itself.
On long guns, full function irons are often omitted for simpler, lighter and stowable folding sights that will stay completely out of the way of the sighting plane until needed. Sights of this nature are often called BUIS, for BackUp Iron Sights.
When considering sights of this nature, you’ll encounter some that have more or less adjustment compared to fixed sights. Some are made to be as strong as possible for use in a primary role or when employed, while others give up both function and a little durability to be as light and as low profile as possible. Other characteristics are locking in the up position or not, being offset, etc.
Why Irons at All?
Why have iron sights at all, in this era of the ultra-reliable and ultra-long runtime red dot sight, and the terrific multi-purpose LPVO? That’s actually a good question.
Just 20 to 30 years ago the answer would have been overwhelmingly easy: “Because electronics fail and batteries die, duh!” With top quality optics, that isn’t really a fair answer today. Most top-tier makers sights are damn near literally bomb-proof, with battery lives measured in years of constant on daylight-visible runtime.
About the only thing that stops them is literally getting shot off the gun, and if you are going to level that as a bonafide complaint against optics, then the same could happen to irons. Face it, we are seeing cops, even some military users omit iron sights entirely as vestigial, relying on their optics as their primary and only sighting system.
Hard to argue with success: optics of all kinds greatly reduce shooter workload, improve speed and allow better accuracy than most types of irons.
In contrast, irons are harder to shoot as well and as fast, and as always we are fighting human physiology: we can only focus on one depth band at a time, meaning that, unlike a red dot sight, the focus must be on the front sight, not the target to enable us to shoot our best with irons.
That seems like a pretty cut and dry raw deal. And it is, compared to an optic. But irons will, in my opinion, have a place on virtually all guns for the foreseeable future for one simple reason:
They are very cheap, very lightweight insurance. Redundancy is smart in any life-or-death endeavor, from parachuting to surgery. Having an alternate or backup close at hand, literally on hand, when one fails will save precious time, even just a moment, and that may mean the difference between life and death.
For iron sights, for the cost of a few ounces you can have an entirely redundant backup sighting system on any gun, ready to employ should your primary sight, your optic of any kind, fail, break, get knocked off, lose zero or otherwise be rendered non-useable.
And, honestly there is a certain cultural hang-up among shooters to leaving irons behind entirely; since shortly after guns came into existence, we have been utilizing iron sights to aim and employ them.
So even when we know the math, and we know that, between our optics and onboard irons on a gun, the chances of ever needing to employ those backup irons is almost nil, even in a battlefield combat situation, why have them at all?
Simply put, most shooters just do not feel comfortable without them. No one wants to be the guy or gal who, after having an optic die, is trying to wing it to get rounds on target. There is simply something almost elemental and comforting in nature about a chunk of iron with some paint on it and your eye, and that’s it as your sighting system; no batteries, no bad circuit boards, no gremlins. Just the sights, your eye and the space between.
Quick Note on Installation
Really fast, before we get to the sights.
Before committing to replacing your sights, you need to know what you are facing on installation or replacement. For ARs and other modern (or modernized) firearms with plenty of receiver top rail space you can painlessly bolt on a new set of irons much of the time.
For other rifles, and shotguns, you’ll usually need to drift out, unscrew or solder on the new units. For some guns drilling, tapping and other machining may be necessary. If you don’t know, ask a professional.
For the overwhelming majority of handguns that have their sights drifted into corresponding dovetails machined into the frame/slide, you may, may be able to get them out yourself if you are careful.
You can do this with a specialty and expensive sight pushing tool, or by immobilizing the gun in an armorer’s fixture with a vise and then carefully tapping them out with a mallet and punch.
Take great care here! With many pistols, sights only go in one way, so you’ll need to know which way you are going to get them out, lest you break either your old or new sights or, worse, completely bugger their mounting interface, which will definitely necessitate a trip to the gunsmith, even possible replacement.
Once again: if you don’t know what you are doing, leave it to a pro! Sights are too important a feature to risk botching the install.
The Best Iron Sights for Handguns
Trijicon HD XR Night Sights
Trijicon makes damned tough sights and optics. From the legendary ACOG that has adorned hundreds of thousands of our military’s rifles to such new and rugged innovations as the SRO and MRO red dot sights.
Continuing their history of innovation and making bomb-proof sighting solutions, their HD XR sights are some of the best they have ever produced.
A thin front post with a tritium insert, surrounded by an eye-jabbing ultra-fluorescent ring for maximum pickup in any light paired with a generously wide u-shaped rear notch, that notch being flanked by two subdued tritium dots.
This is a unique combination, and a departure from our traditional 3-dot pattern that has served for decades now. Generally, you do not want your eye to struggle with multiple high-vis objects at speed and under duress.
This is the equivalent of running too many apps on your computer at once; the whole thing slows down. Instead, the single high-vis front will draw the eye (correctly) like a magnet, and the subdued rear dots are only noticeable, and at a lower intensity, in low-light conditions. The sights are also shelved, or squared off, to allow their use in racking the slide off a fixed point.
Like all Trijicon products, super tough and backed by a great warranty.
Ameriglo Hackathorn Sights
Ameriglo is another maker of quality sights, and their signature Hackathorn sights deserve attention if you are looking for a minimalist solution. Based on the same theory as our Trijicon HDs above, the Hackathorn sights aim to speed up acquisition by eliminating the superfluous: a night sight equipped front is surrounded by a super-high contrast ring, this being backed up by a generous rear notch, with no additional features of any kind.
Also like the HDs above, these sights are squared-off to permit their use in racking the slide.
The Best Iron Sights for Rifles (rail compatible)
The without question standard by which all other folding sights are measured, the Troy folding Battlesights are rugged enough for full time use, and have served around the globe in every kind of conflict zone. Troy’s famous battle sights consist primarily of folding front and rear sights that lock in the up position with all the certainty of a security vault at the Pentagon.
Each sight, front and rear, is available with options like different apertures or hood styles, but the base functionality is the same: rear sights are adjustable for windage using a very rugged, low-profile and hard-to-accidentally-activate knob. Front sights are a traditional post and adjustable with any normal A2 AR front sight tool.
These are expensive, but it really cannot be overstated how durable these sights are.
Magpul MBUS Classic
Sometimes you just need a set of backup sights, but you don’t want to spend a fortune. Magpul to the rescue, with their ever-popular MBUS sights. Made of their famous polymer and utilizing a spring-loaded deployment mechanism, the MBUS sights don’t cost a fortune, and pack plenty of good features into an affordable set of “irons”.
The rear sight features to apertures, large and small, accomplished by way of an attached, folding, nesting insert and is complete with windage adjustment. The front sight features a metal A2 post, and is adjustable for elevation via twisting it. It is then locked in place by insertion of a pin that contacts the sight where the front sight detent would normally be on traditional AR sights.
Both sights spring up when released by their ambidextrous latches and do so with authority, but neither locks upright; while quite stiff, they are held in place only by spring tension and the camming effect of the latch. If impacted solidly they will give way, automatically locking down if flattened, or immediately rebounding if not quite.
All around, very good sights, though by nature not the most precise. Still, for intermediate to short range use these are entirely adequate and will help you save money for more essential equipment.
Knight’s Armament Company Folding Micro Sights
Knight’s Armament is in many ways the pinnacle of AR manufacturers. At their sprawling Florida facility they manufacture nearly every single component of all of their products to their exact specification.
It is this holistic, integrated approach to design, manufacturing and testing that lets them turn out guns and gear of such impressive quality. It is also largely responsible for their punch-in-the-head pricing.
But if you have the coin, KAC has the solution, and likely one of world-beating efficiency. Take their iron sights. The iconic folding 200-600M sights offer excellent durability, extreme precision, feathery weight and a tiny footprint all in one package. But it will cost you.
The front sight is a thin, I-beam looking affair with a finger adjustable knob handling elevation changes. The rear looks like it was ripped right of the WWII era German FG42, it being a post with a drum that you can set to dial in your range, with graduations from 200 to 600 meters and impressively precise and positive clicks,
The set will set you back over $300 dollars most places, but for those who absolutely have to have it all, once again KAC delivers.
The Best Iron Sights for Shotguns
Scattergun Technologies Trak-Lock II Sights
The standard bearers in shotgun ghost ring sights, Scattergun Tech’s Trak-Locks are renowned for their crisp sight picture and tank-like durability. Once installed and set, you can forget about anything short of catastrophic damage unseating these sights.
Available with or without tritium night sight inserts front and rear, the Trak-Locks are otherwise quite simple; a single set screw locks the rear sight down, and when loosened allows adjustment of both windage and elevation.
Coming to these off of a plain bead is a huge improvement, allowing better accuracy for starters and also, vitally, allowing the shooter to zero the gun to their selected loads, slugs in particular.
These will likely require gunsmith installation, at least for the front, but possible for both depending on the age and variant of your Remington shotgun, so inspect accordingly before purchase.
XS Sights Big Dot Orange Bead
If all you have or desire is a simple bead on your trusty gauge, ditch the tiny, dull hard to see bead for the giant, can’t miss it orange fireball of the XS Big Dot. An elegant and simple DIY upgrade for a modest cost, the XS bead sights simply epoxy in place over the existing, crappier bead you have.
So long as you pay attention to prepping your surfaces and the new sight and you use the right kind of epoxy you’ll be assured of having a rock-solid and visible front bead for the duration.
The improvement in usability over the standard and tiny beads that normally adorn the lonely business end of a shotgun barrel cannot be overstated. If you have a bead sight-only defensive shotgun, consider it your duty to replace that nasty thing with something you’ll be able to pick up at speed when the stress is high.
As good as our modern optics are, iron sights aren’t going anywhere, and with good reason. Iron sights have been getting lead on target for centuries and will likely be doing so for centuries more. Make sure your irons are working for you, not against you, by investing in a quality set of combat sights.