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Beyond Iron: Gun Sights 101



To get the most accuracy out of any firearm, you need a system to aim that gun. The device points on the firearm used to aim at a target are generally referred to as “sights.” Sights can come in a myriad of forms and formats. They are often overlooked by most gun purchasers as something boring and utilitarian. Over half the 2A community will make do and live with whatever sighting system was on the firearm when they bought it. What the uninformed fail to realize is that most firearms come with bare-bones sights. Aftermarkets sight are an added cost that one would have to consider while purchasing a firearm. Since every shooter will have different preferences and use cases, it really does not make sense to stick with “what came with the gun.”

On the flip side of the spectrum, you have the shooter who sees the value of a good sighting system. For these customers, sights are usually one of the first upgrades that is performed to a firearm to make it more capable and a better fit to their shooting style. A good set of sights allows the shooter to shoot faster, more easily, and more accurately. There is an old saying among shooters that “you can’t miss fast enough.” Meaning that it does not mean squat how fast you can get a shot off, if you do not hit your target.

The term “iron sights” goes back hundreds of years back to the first firearms. But today we generically use it to describe sights used with a firearm … even if they are not made from steel. On rifles, iron sights are the back up sights used just in case an optic fails. On pistols the most common version of a sight would be a three dot aiming system. The front sight has one plain white dot on a black housing. The rear will have a square notch cut in it to align with the front sight. The rear will have two white dots that are lined up with the front dot. This is a simple and bare bones aiming system.

Some more advanced systems use modified ways of aiming that are more intuitive, like U-shaped notches with large front aiming dots that look like they rest in the rear sight. The front sight will be large and highly visible being faster to use. When it comes to sights it would be impossible to talk about every variation available, but there are a few of the more popular options that we can discuss. That way you will at least get a taste of what options are available.

How sights attach to the firearm really depends on the firearm. The most common method is the dovetail method. The sights are friction-fit inside a dovetail that is cut into the slide. Usually both the front and rear dovetails are different sizes, so you can’t put the sights on backwards. The con with a dovetail sight is that since they are friction fit, specialized tools are required to adjust and or install/remove dovetail sights. Depending on how tight the friction fit is, moving the sight will require the talents of a gunsmith.

To make sight installation easier, some companies have gotten rid of dovetails and instead use screws to hold the sights in place. While tools are still required for the fasteners, the skill level and tool cost are significantly lower versus a dovetail.

Optics-sighted pistols are all the rage these days. While optics on pistols are great and allow users to shoot even better than before, they do have their drawbacks. What makes mounting optics so damn confusing is that there is NO standard mounting footprint pattern! It seems like every optics company has to reinvent the wheel. Whether or not the gun you bought will fit a certain optic can be hit or miss. The somewhat good news is that there are plenty of adapter plates available for the most popular gun and optics brands.

When it comes to modern sporting rifles, the good news is that the “Picatinny Rail” aka MIL-1913 rail developed in the 1990s by the military has been adopted as a standard mounting system worldwide. This means for the AR platform especially it is easy as pie to mount things like back up sights to your firearm. The frustrating news is that while the Picatinny Rail is a standard, the optics still use a footprint pattern. If you want to use some of the most cutting-edge mounts for optics, they may not support the optic footprint you may need. Like everything else, if you give it time, eventually someone will make the necessary adapter.

Fiber optics are sights that use a colored plastic insert that gathers ambient light in a tube and redirects it towards the shooter’s eye. The dots of the sights seem to glow brightly. The benefit is that fiber optics are some of the brightest sights you can use and it is near impossible not to see them unless you have medical issues like color blindness.

The con is that to be able to gather light to redirect, the light pipe has to be exposed to the world. Because the fiber optic is a plastic, it will be the weakest part of the sight since the housing is metal. Another con is that the plastic can be susceptible to chemicals like gun cleaners. The good news is that replacement pieces of fiber optics are cheap. Where fiber optics excel is during the day, at night not as much.

Night sights are sights that use a radioactive tube of Tritium that glows. Ever see a cartoon of radioactive waste that glows bright green…yeah, that’s a night sight. I can see your face now as you read the last sentence. RELAX! The amount of Tritium used in a night sight is negligible and even if you ate the vials of tritium you would have to eat thousands of them to even get to the same level as say an X-Ray.

Night sights excel at night, since the Tritium glows all the time, even in pitch black. The biggest drawback is daytime use. During the day the glass faced tritium vials look like dull grey dots. Some companies have overcome this by adding large, fluorescent, colored rings that encircle the vials, making them easier to see during the day. The next drawback is that Tritium has a half life of around a decade. As the tritium ages it gets dimmer over time and in about 10 years will be about half as bright as they were new.

Optic electronic sights are fantastic and will change your world forever. That said we already talked about the fitment issues and having to rely on companies to manufacture mounting plates and adapters. If you can find a combination of optic and firearms that works, optics are intuitive and fast to use. Most “red dots” use a lighted dot that’s displayed to the user. Once the optic is sighted-in, all you have to do is point the firearm at the target and put the aiming dot on the bullseye.

As for other drawbacks, well, as you know, anything that is electronic can fail. This is where spending your money counts—the optics with the best reliability always cost the most. No matter how durable an optic is, they still use a battery, batteries mean maintenance and need to be replaced. Since a battery can always die, I recommend always having back up iron sights installed. If your optic fails you can then revert back to using the irons.

When it comes to sights, you can literally go on and on practically forever and not cover every sighting option available. Hopefully the one thing that I can get you to think about is that the factory is not always right. You as a responsible shooter need to find a sighting system that works for you and your needs. The other thing to take away is that there is no one right answer as to what’s the “best” sight for your needs. Every sighting system will have pros and cons, but going into the search with a goal and knowing what your specific needs are will help you find the perfect sight for you. Also remember that even if you buy a gun today…you can change the sights tomorrow or any other time as the budget allows or need arises.

—James the”XDMAN” Mr UnPewfessional


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