View Full Version : Does "master iron sights first" make sense?

Bartholomew Roberts
May 29, 2007, 08:46 PM
We've all seen the hoary advice to "first master iron sights" before playing with optics. The main problem I can see with introducing optics too early is with the red dot/reflex style optics that are parallax-free. Because these are so forgiving of sloppy or inconsistent cheek weld, a new shooter can develop some bad habits if they get used to these before they learn a consistent cheek weld. However, after thinking about it awhile, I don't know that "master irons first" is good advice.

For one "mastery" of any subject takes a long time; but learning to use irons effectively out to 500yds can be taught in a relatively short time with a comparatively small round count. I think too many people confuse "mastery" with knowing how to use irons effectively at realistic ranges.

Second, when I run a timer on people with optics and then run the timer again on the same course with irons, the group that always has the biggest improvement in their times is the novice shooters. They almost always see the biggest gains from optics. As shooters get more trigger time and get better, that time gap shrinks, even if the shooters are using optics much more than irons in practice (because even with optics many of the same concepts apply). However, even among very good shooters, optics are usually faster.

So why handicap yourself precisely when you would get the most benefit from optics?

After considering this today, my thinking is that a shooter should learn irons well enough to engage a target as far out as he can acquire and identify one (which for most people is considerably less than 500yds). They should learn to develop a consistent cheek weld. Once they have those two things down, get optics if that is what you want.

Mike U.
May 29, 2007, 10:03 PM
Your last paragraph was an excellent summary and it sums up my feelings on the matter perfectly.

May 29, 2007, 10:21 PM
I'm an NRA rifle instructor, but my most pressing instructional focus right now is my 3 kids. My oldest just turned 10 and received his first .22 rifle (a Savage Cub). Although we bought a scope for it, I want him to learn to consistently use the excellent sights on this little rifle first, then he can move on to the optics.

Sorta like learning to drive on a stick (former farm kid talking here). A manual transmission forces you to understand the dynamics of the vehicle...engine RPMs, torque, meshing gears, etc. After that, an automatic is fine, but the knowledge gained with the stick makes you appreciate what is going on under the car and tunes you into, by sound and feeling, what is going right and wrong with the car.

May 29, 2007, 11:47 PM
I'm annoyed by the continued nonsense that seems to revolve around pedagogy and guns. Seriously the unproven notion that learning to use two different sighting systems should happen in one particular order is played out. Seeing a magnified image of the target is a huge asset. That property does nothing to reduce a shooters ability with iron sights. The "crutch" argument implies that the more advanced system is somehow crippling. Personally I think lots of folks simply teach the way they were taught regardless of whether or not it's the best way. Whats worse is that they attack methods that differ from theirs claiming "wisdom"!

It's your gun, get what you want. Lots of folks learn with scopes with no setbacks. Seriously question any train of thought that concludes that learning can be obstructed through something so subjective. Attitude makes the greatest difference of all.

May 30, 2007, 06:27 AM
"Sorta like learning to drive on a stick (former farm kid talking here)."

I agree, but a lot of folks don't agree with us. And I think kids should learn to shoot on a bolt action .22 with iron sights. Adults too, mostly because the ammo is cheap, but to each their own.

Reminds me of a story. :eek:

A friend sold his successful retail wine business when his son went to an expensive college. A bit later he decided he needed something to do, so he applied for a sales job at Carmax - he enjoys sales a lot. There were 50-some applicants that made it past the first interview and eventually 4 or 5 were hired. Later on he asked the sales manager why they hired him when the majority of appliants were much younger and had experience selling cars. "You were one of three that could drive a stick."

May 30, 2007, 07:46 AM
then scope.

Look at Williams Gunsight website, they have number of reciever sights that IMPROVE sighting radius.

May 30, 2007, 08:03 AM
It is each to their own when it comes to sights. Personally I am disgusted when ever I go to the local range and only see people bench banging with their rifles and scopes. Then they proceed to tell me how I should put a scope on my rifle to make it more accurate. A scope does not make a rifle more accurate, it helps correct for problems with the shooter ie sight alignment or eyesight. A scope will give you an advantage when shooting at small objects far away that you could not see thru iron sights. On objects that can be seen it is no advantage. Just look at the service rifle scores and the any sight scores for long range shooting, they are about the same.

Now with that being said I think the biggest crutch in shooting is not the sighting system, but the bench. People should learn to shoot sitting, prone, and standing. Get off of the bench and try a nice prone position, you just might like it.

May 30, 2007, 11:18 AM
Seems like nowadays "so-so" or "good enough for guvmint work" is fine. Not for me. I look at shooting as a craft, something to take pride in. What may be acceptable as "craft" to me, may not be to someone else.

A person should practice and be good with iron sights. A scope can break, fairly easily. Was out bear hunting with some friends a few years ago. The one guy had his boy was with us. Of all things, the boys sling broke at the top and bam, the rifle lands right on the scope. Bent the whole front section of the scope rendering it useless. (It was a good Leuopold) The boys hunt wasn't ruined because #1 His rifle had iron sights and #2 He could use them. Ended up not seeing anything to shoot, but that's the way hunting goes.

May 30, 2007, 11:22 AM
so i was thinking about it.

I think what the real question is you can think of in terms of Math.

If you only learn to do addition/subtraction with a calculator then part of your brain that does logic will not develop as effectively if you did not use a calculator.

Where as with sighting systems I don't think there is such an effect. I don't think the manual transmision analogy holds. the mechanics of shooting are the same for both optics and irons. Breath controll, trigger pull etc... Some have mentioned cheek weld. Perhapse with red dot type optics this maybe more forgiving, but with a traditional scope you still need good check weld. Also I don't think the above gentleman was talking about percision shooting but rather it seemed more like practical shooting. which potentially could be done with out sights at all. (i'm thinking of the guys that will shoot cans with pistols all day long from the waist with no sight picture).

In fact the difference between sighting systems is more of a technological change. Iron sights are old and relatively cheap technology compared to optics. I would think that everyone would agree that optic sights are far better than irons for most bench shooting applications. Taking into consideration, fog, low light, rain or snow, iron sights are less impacted by those factors but also have their limitations.

when looking at which is the correct one to learn to shoot first i would ask the following questions?

Will one or the other lead to bad shooting habits?
Will learning one or the other first handicap you when learning the second?

If the answer to each is no then I would think that it wouldn't matter which was learned first.

All that being said it sure is fun to be able to shoot iron sights better than people with optics at range.

May 30, 2007, 11:36 AM
As a kid my first . 22 Was a Remington 41P single shot. The P was for Peep sight. It was amazing how proficent someone with young eyes can become. It was four or five years late before I got to look through a scope. No regrets at all. Essex

May 30, 2007, 02:52 PM
When I teach someone to shoot a rifle I teach them the use of a sling, iron sights and field positions.

If they master the above then they are a rifleman and they can go on to other things if they wish.

Starting a new shooter out on a bench using a scope teaches them bad habits they will have to break before they can learn to shoot in the real world.

May 30, 2007, 06:11 PM
I find that poking holes in paper or animals with scoped rifles and a good rest does not require much talent.Even I am pretty good at it.I had a neighbor who killed 16 deer with sixteen shots using a pre war model 70 and Lyman sights.I would be proud of that.

May 30, 2007, 06:20 PM
I prefer iron sights. I use my scope for testing my ammo at 100 yds and then take it off and try to do the same thing with irons.

The reason one should use irons (mostly) first is so if your scope gets broke you can still shoot with some accuracy. Most guys have a hard enough time making adjustments with a scope, will they even be able to know where to begin when the scope breaks? If you plan on using a scope, dial in your irons first so you wont be left in the cold should something happen to the scope.

May 30, 2007, 08:59 PM
Why deny yourself the opportunity. Depending on the type or style that you hunt or target shoot, you may find it to be quite sufficent and enjoyable. I hunt in thick brush and find the need to "snap shoot". There is no place for a scope in snap shooting. If you don't master your sights for that purpose, you may as well use the rifle for a walking stick.......;) JMO

May 30, 2007, 10:36 PM
"Most guys have a hard enough time making adjustments with a scope, will they even be able to know where to begin when the scope breaks?"

Dude are you serious? The turrets have labels indicating which direction to turn to effect the change desired. The turrets are also labeled by how much adjustment each click/division makes at 100yds/MOA. Even the absolute cheapest scopes are clearly labeled.

There are absolutely no guarantees that a set of iron sights will have marks let alone that they equate to anything approaching a definable and consistent measurement. It bears mentioning that scopes fail, as do iron sights, as do slings, ammo, bipods and just about everything else folks drag out into the field when hunting. Broken means broken, you don't adjust it away. Something rarely mentioned is that a spare scope can be mounted in QD rings. Sure the zero isn't going to be perfect but with a decent setup it'll place the shot with sufficient accuracy for most ethical hunting scenarios.

I figure that a rifles stock has tons more to do with whether or not I scope it. High comb stocks get scoped rifles, low comb stocks get iron sights. Dual setups pretty much always put the scope too high and block too much of the sights to make them useful.

The comment about snap shooting with iron sights alone shows how the scout scope concept is still not getting out there. There is absolutely no perceptible delay in using a scout scoped rifle compared to an aperture setup. I would contend that the post and notch system sucks pretty bad for a quick handing rifle.

To hear some of the traditionalists on this board, I'd have figured that the consensus would be to start with a shotgun bead first before you "qualify" as skilled enough to handle the advancement that is the post and notch system!

May 31, 2007, 01:19 AM
"Most guys have a hard enough time making adjustments with a scope, will they even be able to know where to begin (with the iron sights) when the scope breaks?"

I think you misunderstood me. I fixed it to be more clear. Iron sights are not labled as you say and thats kind of the point. You never seen anyone have problems dialing in a scope? I think it's easy and you might too, but...:D

May 31, 2007, 01:55 PM
It's alway good to master the basics before moving on to other things. That said, you can also master the basics using a scope. Range estimation before the shot is easier with irons, accurate placement is easier with a scope. Yes, you are limiting yourself a bit by using irons, but you are also limiting yourself with a scope, in other ways. Any system you choose is a compromise, just decide which compromise you want.

May 31, 2007, 02:00 PM
If you can't hit your target shooting from a field position, with iron sights, you aren't a rifleman!:(

Scopes are a wonderful thing indeed, but they are best utilized by riflemen. Those who never learned to shoot can't utilize their full potential.

Benches are for testing loads only.

May 31, 2007, 02:17 PM
I think another point that should be made is that when hunting in heavy brush, most shots are within 75 yards and less. With iron sights, especially peep or otherwise, you can master the art of leaving both eyes open while taking aim, this gives you a field of view that no scope can offer you. Remember, snap shooting is instantanious. While your still hunting in heavy canopy and jump a buck or doe, you need every advantage of your eyes light gathering ability and field of view. Subsequently, this leaves no time to try and find your game in a scope....JMO and personal experience.........;)

May 31, 2007, 02:29 PM
Absolutely, iron sights then optics.

May 31, 2007, 02:34 PM
I'm happy with my little BSA 4x32 on my Ruger 10/22 but then again its my whistle pig gun .... for when the zombies bite the whistle pigs and send in the hundreds of legions of whistle pigs in a precursor move to a zombie invasion. But I digress .....

If I had a rifle used primarily for hunting deer, elk, etc., then I would use both irons and optics and be proficient with both. However, I learned on iron sights using a small lever action .22 LR when I was a pre-teen, and then moved on to the M16-A2 irons after graduating high school and joining the Corps. 5th award expert after 5 trips to the range during my active duty time isn't that bad really.

IMHO, I think the irons do help with learning the fundamentals like "BRASS" even before I learned it in boot camp.

I might not ever get an optic for my Bushy A2, and if I get the chance to buy or put together an A3 HBAR then I might just get an EOTech 512 for it, but nothing more.

While shot placement on a 1000 pound elk is critical at 100 yards, hitting a 180 pound human male at the same range can be done more easily and the desired effect is almost an absolute given.


May 31, 2007, 03:02 PM
Yes and no.

Yes, because scopes are much easier to break than iron sights that knowing how to use them proficiently is a huge advantage. Also because all those cheap milsurps have only iron sights. :)

No, because it's much easier to shoot well with a scope and so many new hunting rifles don't have them. Even if they do the iron sights are cheap afterthoughts.

44 AMP
May 31, 2007, 05:44 PM
For a couple of reasons. One, it gives a beginner something to work for (the later scope use), and two, lots of guns (including most handguns) don't have scopes.

Scopes magnify everything, including shooter errors. By starting with iron sights, the shooter developes a degree of skill that makes the transition to a scope virtually flawless.

While some of our video game raised youth may find iron sights to be an out moded technology, the fact is that they work, and work well for those who understand them.

Scopes have come a long way in the past century, to the point of dominating the shooting sports, but they are not the be all end all of sighting systems. Closer today than ever in the past, but still not the right thing for everything. Red dots, lasers, scopes, and iron sights, your choice. But remember, everything can and does fail. Even iron sights can fail, but odds are they will fail after everything else does.

June 6, 2007, 02:48 PM
This is a pretty interesting question. I personally think that while learing how to shoot, the novice should be introduced to gradually more difficult concepts. Dot sights are simpler and more forgiving to aim. The new shooter only has to line up a dot and a target, instead of rear and front sights along with the target. It is easier to focus on position and trigger control when you don't have to concentrate as hard on the sights.

I totally agree that knowledge of the proper use of iron sights is important. I learned to shoot with irons first, and then was allowed to purchase an optic. I don't think that there's anything wrong with that way of learning, but it's easier for a novice to get hits with an optic, and I prefer the building block approach.

June 6, 2007, 02:59 PM
I agree with the OP - this day and age, no reason to *master* irons. Learn a rudimentary knowledge of them, and then learn to master whichever sight system you're going to use the most, be it 1x ESD, magnfied optic, or an old-timer sight (i.e. iron sight). Anything else wastes valuable time in our brief little blip here on earth.

June 6, 2007, 03:23 PM
I don't care what you're shooting, you're not wasting time. How could you say such a thing? ;)


June 6, 2007, 03:50 PM
I don't really have an opinion one way or the other but my compliments to the OP for a good post.

June 6, 2007, 09:21 PM
I think there is certainly merit to learning how to use iron sights first. Whether or not there is a need to master is another story, but know how to use it should the need arise, as they say.

Part of the popularity of scopes and other optics, IMO, is due to effeciency and ease of use. It is much simpler to learn how to use and employ most optical sights systems. My experience is also that it is simpler to maintain a given level of proficiency with optics versus irons. This is good if you are restrained by time, money, range availability, etc. in practice time/quantity. It is also quicker and easier to get people shooting to an acceptable level with optics.

That said, all of my personal rifles wear irons. At least William's aperture sights, though my Service Rifle AR has GI-type post and peeps, albeit with finer adjustments. Until my eyes give up or I become a seriously dedicated big game hunter (neither likely to happen any time too soon), I am unlikely to change.

June 7, 2007, 06:17 AM
If you can't hit your target shooting from a field position, with iron sights, you aren't a rifleman!

Gee, thanks.....I for one have never been able to "master" irons, and I've been shooting a long time. I can do OK with peep sights. But if I really wanna hit where I aim (with a high degree of accuracy) I have to use a scope.

More power to people (like my best shootin' buddy) that can effectively use iron sights, but for me I'll "cheat" witha a scope any time.

June 7, 2007, 06:49 AM
I hope that learning to shoot a rifle with iron sights is not considered a "waste of time", especially by whoever is supposed to be teaching the shooter.
Shooting does have a long history.Over the centuries most shooting was done with iron sights. It's part of the tradition of shooting and hunting to be able to use open sights.
You don't have to take someone from novice to expert...500 yards is a bit unrealistic, IMO, but if you can teach a new shooter to RELIABLY hit a target at 100-200 yards with an iron sighted rifle, you have given that person the BASIC SKILL that they might build on if they wish.

I have been shooting for over 50 years, and I love to shoot both...I shoot several mil-surplus rifles with iron sights, and several scoped hunting rifles.


June 7, 2007, 06:54 AM
In my unit snipers were chosen for their consistent shooting skills with the iron sighted G3 with above average results.

Just as it was posted before in this thread, I want to achieve a high skill and proficiency level in shooting. If I can hit a water jug at 375 yards standing off hand with an M96, I am much more proud than hitting it prone with a bipod and a Zeiss scope.

Old Time Hunter
June 7, 2007, 07:16 AM
Iron sights first, especially if you are primarily a hunter. Quicker acquistition (whomever said a scope is quicker, must be shooting fixed objects with a clear path), but also forces one to learn the basics of handling the rifle irrevelant of crutches such as utilizing a bench.

Then again, if you can not load your own cartridges you shouldn't be out shooting either.

June 7, 2007, 07:27 AM
"Iron sights first"

Of course, because when you get old you won't be able to see them.


June 7, 2007, 07:46 AM
Yes, it makes absolute sense - and, of course this is the rifle area - but if it doesn't make sense why doesn't everybody scope their CCW? ;)

June 7, 2007, 07:48 AM
I for one have never been able to "master" irons, and I've been shooting a long time. I can do OK with peep sights.

D'oh - peep sights ARE iron sights.

June 7, 2007, 11:03 AM
I think there's no question that skill with iron sights is eminently valuable.

I think the question of what to start a newbie shooter with isn't so clear cut.

Some people who are completely new to guns encounter a bit of "information overload" early on, and insisting that a newbie use exclusively irons can make it worse.

I went to the range once as part of a group that included a thirtysomething woman who had never shot a gun before. She was obviously wishing she were somewhere else the whole time, UNTIL somebody let her shoot a .22 rifle with a low-power scope. Then she was hooked, because she could actually hit with that combination right off the bat.

Someone like that NEEDS to start with optics, IMHO; insisting she shoot only irons "because that's the way it's done" would have meant she would have NEVER learned to shoot, because she wasn't enjoying it. Once she develops basic gunhandling skills, irons can be introduced; there is no penalty whatsoever for learning irons second, as long as they're learned.

Now, with handguns, you'll probably have to start with irons anyway (not many pistols have optics). But if you are starting a newbie on rifles, learning to shoot a .22 with a low-power scope can be a good thing, depending on the individual.

June 7, 2007, 08:39 PM
benEzra, good point on that. I forgot how I've introduced a couple of young ladies to shooting with a scoped rifle. One was with a Ruger 96/44 with cast-lead .44 Special reloads, the other was a Ruger 10/22T. Both were hooked immediately, the second can now take my peep sighted 10/22 and perforate things at will.

One other note, I may have to discard my level-of-proficiency hypothesis. Tonight, after not shooting my match AR at 300 yards (or more) in about 2 seasons, I went to practice. My first 22 shots showed that it had been a long time. Somehow, after a sight picture change and a regaining of composure, I was back to shooting the way I "used to." That's 18 of 20 rounds into a <2 MOA circle from 300 yards, prone slowfire. (The 2 out were strictly shooter induced.)

Or maybe it means there really is something to learning how to master something and being able to come back and pick it up all over again.

June 7, 2007, 09:37 PM
Iron sights (notch & post or peep) do one very valuable thing for someone who's trying to learn to shoot well.

They magnify errors.

This is also why a low-power scoped rifle with little recoil is a good choice for the brand-new shooter. Because they're going to be making lots of mistakes, and minimizing the effects of those mistakes will keep them interested, and allow them to get the biggest new-shooter errors over with, while being able to see some results, and some improvement, right away. Especially if they're coming with an "I'd like to try this" attitude rather than a "I want to master this" one.

For the beginner who's ready to move up to intermediate levels of skill, irons (assuming that they can see them, of course) are probably the right choice, because they are then able to use the feedback that the smaller margin of error provides. They are ready to learn from the rifle, rather than simply learning the rifle.

A brand new shooter may not be able to profit from the additional degree of difficulty that an iron-sighted rifle brings to the shooting line. After they've got the basics, they will clearly benefit from it.