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Overrated & Unneeded: Back-Up Iron Sights

You Don't Need Iron Sights — You Need an Alternative Sighting Method

At their core, iron sights are just simple mechanical alignment tools to bring the bore of your gun in-line with your target. We’ve seen an endless variety of sights in the past — some with special coatings and components to catch the eye, with and without the ability to make adjustments, others which rely on scientific or quasi-scientific principles, or some combination thereof. Some are faster, others more precise, all with various levels of utility for a given shooting problem. Gizmos and features aside, they’re essentially the same when you strip them down to the soft center.

The rise of the miniature red-dot sight (MRDS) has displaced the use of iron sights as the primary sighting mechanism on many a pistol; though if you ask the internet, irons are still very much mandatory. As the oft misinterpreted and tired saying goes, “two is one and one is none.”

The fact of the matter is that iron sights are suboptimal backups because they’re only viable for an exceedingly rare set of situations: if the battery dies on your dot, your emitter becomes blocked by debris, or if the optic dies itself.

More than 10 years ago, when the MRDS-equipped pistol started gaining some mainstream traction, these were practical concerns. It’s no longer 2008; even the cheap optics now are more durable than the best back then. Battery life is no longer measured in terms of weeks or months, but often in years (see CONCEALMENT Issue 21 for our budget MRDS buyer’s guide).

We haven’t yet reached the point where these failures are outside the realm of possibility, but not only are they a diminishing concern, they’re also far from the only potential failures. If your optic’s window fogs (the most common CCW issue) because you exited an air-conditioned building on a muggy day, your iron sights won’t be usable either. If your optical window spiderwebs from impact or becomes otherwise obscured, your irons also won’t be usable.

There are also folks who use iron sights as training wheels for red dots. They were taught to acquire the iron sights in order to find the dot itself. While that technique may have some utility when teaching beginner-level pistol presentations (even that’s arguable), it’s also a crutch. And slow. Furthermore, standard irons are snag hazards and prone to failure and physical damage themselves, and taller suppressor-height sights only exacerbate this. To top it all off, they also can eat up a not-insignificant portion of your optical window and cost you quite a bit of money to boot.

You don’t need iron sights — you need an alternative sighting method.


The very first step can also be the highest hurdle to overcome, and that’s recognizing there’s a problem in the first place. We’ve all seen this one before. Someone extends their dot-equipped pistol to engage a target, and right when you’d normally hear a shot break — nothing. They’re jiggling and wiggling the pistol around because they couldn’t find the dot, or they lost it somewhere along the way. That may cause a shrug or grimace on the range, a couple seconds during a shooting match, or a sucking chest wound on the street.

No alternative sighting method will be more useful than shoes for a snake if you can’t first recognize when there’s a problem, vaunted irons included.

Remember, we’re talking carry pistols and worst-case scenarios: In a fight! Optic down! Need to shoot!


With a modicum of practice, all of these methods will allow you to put rounds on a man-sized target within 20 yards.

Undoubtedly, you’ll find some more useful than others for your particular pistol in a given situation, so give them all a try.

Guillotine/Shoulder Squaring

First popularized with the Trijicon RMR due to the convex top glass, the guillotine is simply placing the top edge of your MRDS at the base of the target’s neck, like you’re chopping the head off a French noble. Similarly, you can align the edges of the optical body with the shoulders and press.

Owl Horns/Crowning

This method simply lines up the top of the optical window with the top of the target’s head. With an RMR this may look like horns on the head, and with a rounded window you’ll give them some new headgear — right before you turn their face inside out.


Sealed sights work exceptionally well with this method because they have both front and rear windows to line up (sound familiar?). Look for misalignment between your pistol and target by observing shadows in the window itself. The longer the optical body, the more accurate this method will be.

Simple Reference / Backplating

Some MRDS have reference points baked right into their housings. Though these were often placed as dot-finding aids, they can also be used as a rudimentary, short-range sight. You can even add your own with a paint pen. Continuing in the same vein of gross reference points, you can use the backplate of a striker-fired pistol (or the hammer of a hammer-fired one) as a close-range overlay on target. Simply cover center mass with the striker backplate or line up the center of your hammer between the shoulders. This method could be favorable if the glass in your optic is completely obscured due to damage or blockage, and/or the body of the optic itself is damaged.

Getting Gangster

For much of the history of firearms, and to this day on many shotguns, sights simply consisted of a flat plane with a bead at the end. The bead on a shotgun rib may catch your eye, but it primarily serves as an indicator that the sight plane is flat; angled up too much and you’ll see steel below the bead, too low and part of the bead itself disappears. While the bead makes it easier to use, any sufficiently flat surface can act as an alternative sight.

Have a look at your carry gun and identify a flat surface; the longer the better. On many OEM guns, the slide or corner of your slide will suffice. If your CCW has extensive machining and lightening cuts, this may not be the best method for you.

If using the side of a slide, rotate your pistol inboard to bring the edge or flat of the slide into your sightline. Unlike a 1990s movie, this can be performed with two hands.


When you’re running a pistol with an MRDS, that red dot is your primary sighting mechanism. Along with the advantages of a dot, such as increased speed, accuracy, low-light performance, engagement of moving targets, and the general ease of target-focused shooting, you’re also committing to an additional layer of required care and consideration.

Batteries Topped Off

Even if you’re running an optic with a 5-plus year battery life, it won’t cost more than a buck or two and a couple minutes of your time to swap your batteries once a year. With some of the legacy MRDS designs, this still requires removing the optic and at least confirming zero (if not re-zeroing entirely); many modern dots have toolless designs. A trick we learned from Matt Jacques of VictoryFirst is to write the install date on the battery with a Sharpie for easy reference.

Pick a date to replace the battery — daylight saving, your birthday, or any convenient day. Mark it in your calendar and push on.

Antifog Treatments

Fog is nothing more than water condensation forming on small cracks and crevices on your lens during temperature or humidity shifts. Sealed and nitrogen-purged optics such as the Holosun 509T and Aimpoint Acro are resistant to internal fogging because nitrogen can’t hold moisture. The atmosphere inside a sealed optic also acts as a thermal barrier, requiring a larger temperature shift to fog externally. Still, sealed optics are no panacea to external condensation.

You can prevent fog by reducing environmental humidity and ensuring everything is the same temperature, both of which are incredibly impractical for your carry gun, or by reducing the small imperfections on the lens where the water collects. From spit to furniture polish to purpose-driven products, all antifog surface treatments operate on this principle.

Cat Crap (the product’s real name; you can buy it at the optical shop at Walmart) works exceptionally well because as a paste it keeps crevices filled longer. In fact, it’s so thick that it can cause optical errors when used with especially deep scratches.

The quality of your lens counts here too. Smoother from the start is best. The harder the lens, the harder to scratch. Plastic lenses are soft and more prone to surface scratches.

Keep It Clean

Exactly how much hair and detritus collects in your window will directly correspond to how much accumulates in your belly button. There’s no hard rule for the required interval of giving your window a wipe; it’ll vary based on your carry position, clothing, and body chemistry. The best practice is to regularly inspect the window as part of a routine.

Remember, scratches equal fogging, so a lighter touch from some compressed air is preferable. A manual air blaster commonly used for camera lenses costs under $20; even some dollar stores sell canned air. Toss it atop whatever safe or container you use to hold your CCW when it’s not on your body. Give your window a glance when you don or remove your pistol. It’s a basic routine, not rocket science.


Even though irons aren’t the magical remedy the internet expects them to be, it doesn’t mean they’re useless. They’re just not as useful as you may think. If you like your iron sights, keep them.

Remember that any backup sighting method you intend to use in the field requires a lot of practice to become second nature. Give each of these methods a try at the range and see what works best for you. Then, integrate some downed-optic drills into your routine so you can recognize, acknowledge, and fix the problem under pressure. Don’t be the one wiggling your pistol instead of pulling a trigger


Measuring MOA of Optical Windows

Many of these methods use the optical window or body as a reference point. While each optic is a little different in terms of size and construction, and every body is a little different, it just takes some simple math to determine how much meat a window or body covers.

A 16mm optical window at full extension held by an average human male covers just over 98 MOA (~1.64°) at 100 yards. Now, that’s a lot — until you realize we’re talking 100 yards. At just below 20 yards, the shoulders of an average American male will fill the window .

You can use this rough guideline, or you can calculate the figures for your individual setup. Here’s how you can do it yourself. Be sure to perform these computations with the same units; we used millimeters, but inches or wombats per furlong will work just as well provided you’re consistent.

1) Measure the distance from your dominant eye to the center of your optical window at extension. That’s your radius, r.

2) Calculate the circumference of your circle, C, which equals 2πr.

3) Divide the width of your window, w, by the circumference and multiple the sum by 360. This is your FOV through the optic at extension in degrees.

4) 1° at 100 yards is 60 MOA. Multiple your FOV by 60 to determine the MOA of your window.

The simplified equation is: (w/2πr)*21,600

[This article originally appeared in CONCEALMENT #23]

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5 responses to “Overrated & Unneeded: Back-Up Iron Sights”

  1. JLA says:

    Simply adding a quality laser, such as those from Crimson Trace, to your firearm is also a good option, and it gives you options that an MRDS alone does not such as the ability to shoot accurately even from positions in which you can’t use the optic or the iron sights. Newer green lasers are even useable in direct sunlight, something that’s not really practical with the more common red lasers.

  2. Billy says:

    This. Never understood why you’re cluttering up your optic’s sight picture with iron sights.
    Pick one (iron or optics) be the best you can with it.
    Not applicable to long guns, if the optic fails detach it and fight with irons.

  3. Jeff in MS says:

    “You can prevent fog by reducing environmental humidity…”

    Apparently you’ve never been to the deep South.

  4. Sully says:

    irons are a snag hazard , prone to damage, and cost a lot of money. yeah let me break this down.
    1: irons do not stick out Nearly as much as a red dot. is the large optic that sticks high off the gun or the small bits of metal that barely stick out from the slide more likely to snag?
    2: unless you are talking about the cheap plastic glock irons they are going to be WAY more durable than a fragile red dot. it’s glass in a thin plastic, aluminum, or stainless at best cage. irons are usually metal built into the slide and backups are still going to be full metal and are going to have way less of them to break and will usually be able to handle way more abuse than a red dot.
    3: there are inexpensive iron sights out there. there is no need to break the bank on irons.
    if i’m going to have a red dot on a pistol, i’d want it to be able to be removed fast so if it does get damaged or otherwise unusable i can make sure the irons will be able to be used as fast as possible. i’m of the belief of better to have and not need than to need and not have.

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