Like the AR-15, iron sights have been the gold standard for marksmanship.
However, precision shooting has come a long way. The days of front and rear sights seem to be over.
Despite red dot sights, holographics, and scopes drastically reducing iron sight usage, backup iron sights still have their uses and advantages over battery-operated sights.
Let’s go through the basics of using AR-15 iron sights, getting the proper sight picture and alignment, and landing your shots with the one sight that has stood the test of time.
- Things You’ll Need Before Target Shooting With Iron Sights
- How to Use AR-15 Iron Sights in 5 Easy Steps
- Using AR-15 Iron Sights: Fundamentals & Important Concepts
- Using Iron Sights for Low-Light Shooting Situations
- Why Use AR-15 Iron Sights in the First Place?
- Final Words
Things You’ll Need Before Target Shooting With Iron Sights
Before you head down to the range and start shooting your rifle, you’ll need a few essential pieces of kit to make your practice shooting go smoothly.
After all, it’s BETTER TO BE SAFE when you shoot, especially if you want to enjoy shooting for longer.
You’ll need more than your rear sight, front sight, and focus to hit your target.
#1 Ear Protection
No soldier leaves the service unscathed, but most of them leave with tinnitus or hearing loss because of all the times they’ve fired weapons without hearing protection.
As a civilian, you can learn from their mistakes. This means packing a good quality pair of earplugs or earmuffs to protect your ears when you go to the range.
Plenty of ear protectors nowadays are even noise-canceling, allowing you to amplify speech and drown out other sounds.
#2 Eye Protection
Shooting rifles or any other gun or firearm means dealing with smoke, gunpowder, and flying bullet casings, especially when firing left-handed using an ejection port for right-handers.
In cases like these, you will need a good pair of shatter-proof glasses to protect your eyes and face.
They should be fog-proof to allow you to see in the chaos while keeping you safe from debris.
A good pair of eye-protecting glasses will help you see clearly through the smoke, dirt, and debris and will help you take the best shot every time you point your barrel downrange.
#3 Adjusting Tools
You may need a screwdriver, Allen wrench, or another tool to turn the windage and elevation knobs and choose the right peep sight when you adjust your rifle front and rear sight.
However, AR-15 iron sights are tough as nails, and part of them being easy to adjust is that you can use a 5.56 bullet to adjust your sights as you zero.
You can adjust them with almost any improvised tool.
#4 Target Paper, Cardboard, or Plate
You will never improve your rifle skills if you don’t have a target. You will need to mount them all at the same height and make sure they’re stable and won’t fly off.
Your targets need to be observable when shooting — having a human silhouette or a specific aiming point will give you something to aim at.
You need to see where your targets land and tape off the holes to reuse your target sheets or boards again. If you’re using steel plates, you’ll need to lift them back up every time you reset.
#5 Your AR-15 Rifle With Iron Sights
Last but certainly not least, you will need your AR-15 rifle with front and rear sights. You can use peep sights or a U-shape, notch sight rear aperture in your rear sights.
When combined with a front sight post, they will give you your sight picture, sight alignment, and line of fire to the target.
You can even practice adjusting your left-right direction and switching between open sights or a small aperture when adjusting the zero on your rear peep sight.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Your shot placement and even hitting your target will depend on your understanding of iron sight marksmanship. You will need to practice, reset and practice again until you can develop your shooting ability.
AR-15s are bulwarks of armed self-defense. The only problem will be what gun laws you may have in your area and your ability to land your shot and hit your target at any given distance.
How to Use AR-15 Iron Sights in 5 Easy Steps
Your life may not be on the line when you cannot hit your target at the range, but having the proper alignment of your rear sight and front sight will make you a better shooter.
Fortunately, understanding how to properly utilize your rear sight and front sight is easy (once you understand this basic concept).
Let’s go through the most important things to remember to hit your target.
Step 1: Prepare Your Target and Find Your Range
Before you align your rear sight and front sight down a centerline to take out your target, you will need to set up your aforementioned target.
Practice makes perfect, and it starts with setting up!
You will first need to choose whether to fire at a paper, cardboard, or steel target. At a 25m distance from the prone position, you will best be able to focus using a paper target.
After taking a few practice shots to zero your rear sight and front sight, you can then switch to a cardboard target, which will allow you to fire from prone, kneeling, and even standing.
It will even allow you to fire your gun from multiple directions and even while moving.
TAKE NOTE: A steel target is best saved for distances of 200 yards, elevated positions, or from 15m away (if using small targets).
What’s important is that you staple your targets to a steady wooden base or frame and make sure it doesn’t fall. Make sure that it won’t topple over by adding some weight under it.
Step 2: Position Yourself and Prepare Your Weapon
Whether aiming with iron sights, a scope, or holographic and reflex sights, the way you position yourself, hold your weapon, and even breathe can all affect where your shot will go.
With your target now in place, it’s time for you to set up your firing position.
If you’re firing from prone (on your belly), it’s best to mount your rifle on a sandbag for the most stability.
- Lay down a thick foam mat that you can spend some time on. Lay down flat and angle your dominant leg with a 90-degree bend to give your stomach some room.
- Lay your heels flat on the floor with toes pointed out to get the most stability. Plant the soft areas around your elbows as contact points on the ground.
- Once you find the most comfortable position, you can pick up your weapon.
- Hold the grip properly and place the stock on the soft part of your shoulder. Rest your cheek on the buttstock.
- Make sure that you have some eye relief between your eye and the front sight. Place your non-firing hand between the magazine well and the sandbag.
- Open your bolt, load your magazine, and close your bolt.
Step 3: Align Your Sights With Your Target
Now that you’re loaded and locked, it is time to sight your target.
Your goal is to align four dots to achieve proper alignment: Your eye, rear sight, front sight, and the target.
You should have your target and front sight visible within your peep sight. This cordoned-off area is your sight picture.
Your rifle’s peep sight will block out all non-essential views and will draw your focus to the area immediately around your target.
When aiming, place the ENTIRE TARGET inside your rear sight.
If you aim for the target’s center mass, you will need to line up the entire target silhouette within the rear sight, placing it in the center of your rear sight.
At this point, you can now focus your front sight, which will be a blurry black line somewhere in front of your target.
Step 4: Align Your Front and Rear Sights
Next up is to align your front sight post with your rear sighting aperture.
You will need to ensure that they are level and at the same height to give you the correct left-right direction.
Now is the time to align your front sight to the middle of your rear sight. It is much easier if you align your front sight with a diamond-shaped rear sight instead of a notch or circular peep sight.
At this point, you should have your front sight and target firmly within your rearview. It is now time to align your front sight with your target.
Unlike digital optics, iron sights rely on the lenses in your eyes to draw the target focus.
This means that you will need to make the rear sight a bit blurry to place focus on your front sight post. Your target should also be blurry.
Your vision should go: Rear sight – blurred → Front sight – clear → Target – blurred
Once you have a clear bead on your front sight, you need to align the top of the post to your point of aim. If you’re aiming for the “heart,” your post should hover right in the middle of it.
With your target now sighted, we can now go over how to fire your rifle.
Step 5: Aim and Fire
With your shooting position stable and your sight aligned in a straight line going from your rear sight to your target, you can now prepare to fire.
With your front sight line at the middle of your scope-like rear sight and hovering right around your target’s center, you can now focus your aim on your center post.
Once the top of your rear sight is in position, you can now take the shot.
- Steady your breathing. Your sights will bob up and down slightly. You will need to breathe deliberately and slowly.
- Before shooting your rifle, make sure that you have the target in your sights. Gently switch the safety to semi-automatic, and when you’re sure of the shot, exhale, emptying your lungs.
- This flattens you out in a line hugging the ground and preventing you from shaking, which can affect the direction of your shot. Once you have emptied your lungs, you can now get your target.
- Gently pull your trigger straight back and overcome the slack with 80% of your pull. The last 20% will start the actual firing process. Follow through as the shot travels and gently release the trigger.
- After firing your first shot, re-orient your aim, steady your breathing, gently pull the trigger, and REPEAT THE PROCESS.
Do this until you are done. Put your weapon on safe, remove your magazine, and open your bolt.
Using AR-15 Iron Sights: Fundamentals & Important Concepts
Having gone through the process of aiming and firing an AR equipped with iron sights, let’s go through some of the important concepts that affect your marksmanship with your rifle.
Sight Alignment (Between Front and Rear Sights)
On a standard AR-15, your front sight is typically mounted on your gas block at the front of your barrel, while the peep sights are mounted on the carry handle of an M16 or the back of an M4 rifle rail.
Your sight alignment is based on how aligned your rear sight and front sight are in a straight line.
They should be PERFECTLY LEVEL, and your front iron should be in the middle of your peep.
Sight Picture (Rear Sight, Front Sight, Target)
Your sight picture is your sight alignment plus the surrounding area visible inside your rear sight.
To get the right shot, your peep needs to be a bit blurry, and your brain should focus on the front post.
It is the image you should see once you find the correct alignment between front and rear.
Kinds of Iron Sights
These sights are divided into open and aperture:
- Open sights use notches (U-shaped bars) to draw your focus
- Aperture or peep sights use rings to draw your focus to the middle.
Open notches are useful when the back end is far from the front. It allows you to get a clear view of your post but makes aiming less precise.
Meanwhile, the peep sight is designed to draw your eye to the target and render the peep practically invisible. It is further divided into those with a large aperture and a small aperture:
- The smaller your aperture is, the more precise you can get. The downside is that it narrows your view, leaving you unaware of what happens around your target.
- The larger aperture is better for rapidly acquiring targets, making it more useful in close-quarters and firing at multiple targets in quick succession.
As explained earlier, the trigger squeeze affects how far your bullet will go left or right since yanking the trigger too far drastically affects your shot.
Pull it back slowly and place your trigger in the middle of the first segment of your pointing finger.
Breathing affects how far up or down your shot will go. Control your breathing and fire after exhaling and emptying your lungs to have the most stable firing position possible.
When pulling the trigger, it’s vital to not yank or jerk it suddenly and then release, as this will make it impossible for you to land your projectile.
Pull it gently to overcome the slack, then continue until it fires.
Gently release the trigger once the action’s been completed and reset it to fire again.
Using Iron Sights for Low-Light Shooting Situations
Good shooters need to aim, shoot their rifle, and hit their target center-mass or make head-shots even in less-than-ideal conditions. These include low-light conditions or at night.
Because the average AR-15 rifle iron sight will not have any illumination, it will be difficult to see them in the dark.
The solution is rather simple: It involves mounting a bright white light that allows you to shoot a target as if it was daytime in front of you.
This hot light allows for shooting because it lets you see your post and aperture. You could also use a tritium front sight to get illumination, though it won’t light up enough.
The best policy for using an iron sight with your AR-15 in low light conditions is to match it with a strong light to make sighting and gathering focus possible.
If you have your rear sight, front sight, and weapon light mounted on your rifle, you should be good to go!
Why Use AR-15 Iron Sights in the First Place?
Iron sights are the most basic and widely-available sights for a reason.
They require no batteries, meaning they can be used ANYWHERE, even in low-light shooting.
Despite being made of metal, they do not add weight, with even flip-up sights from companies like Magpul making hard polymers!
They are also legal wherever guns are, making them useful for self-defense situations.
Zeroing, getting the right sight picture and alignment, and adjusting your settings are also easily done on iron sights. You can adjust your rear sights and front sight independently.
When looking at how to use AR-15 iron sights, they are the easiest to understand, teach, and train with. You can teach a novice how to use a rifle with iron sights in a matter of minutes.
With how widely-available iron sights are and how easy they are to use, adjust, and maintain, you should be asking yourself, “Why am I not using iron sights in the first place?”
Are Iron Sights Better Than Red Dot Sights?
The answer to this question is, “It depends.”
While older shooters may default to their front and rear sight favorite, many shooters prefer a dot sight. They each have their strengths.
Red dots were designed for close-quarter combat and rapid target acquisition. They allow shooters to engage at close range and shoot quicker than most front sights.
Having minimal distractions inside your sight picture saves time and gives you an aiming point that corresponds with your dot, making it more intuitive to use than iron sights.
On the other hand, iron sights allow shooters to hit at long range, and they work forever as long as you can see your front post and peep sight. They give you a better estimate at different distances.
The sight will depend on your distance from the target, your mission, or even whether your gun has a carry handle or Picatinny rails.
As scope and sight technology advance, it’s hard to accurately predict how gun and sight design may change, as these often depend on the military’s future doctrines and needs.
However, what never changes are the needs of shooters to aim, hit their target at their point of impact, and the importance of marksmanship.
They make all the difference when it comes to shot placement!
There will always be a need for front and rear sights, and it will ALWAYS benefit shooters to learn how to use iron sights before switching to other sights.
CHANGELOG: June 9, 2022 - Made major updates to content May 6, 2022 - Made minor updates to content and formatting September 16, 2021 - Reviewed and updated article links, updated article title