In the not-too-distant past, hunting and shooting with a rifle scope were considered to be a luxury. Many hunters longed for the day to afford a rifle scope such as the classic early Weaver 4 x 32mm scope shown below. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t “scope up” used the iron sights that came with their gun.
Modern optics are not the fussy, miserable affairs of yesteryear. However, despite the multitude of affordable, easy-to-use optics, many shooters still prefer to bring it old school with their favorite model of iron sights. My boyhood shooting days began with a 1949 Remington Sportmaster .22 with iron sights and continued into my college days on the competition rifle team. I still shoot with iron sights on a variety of classic and modern firearms.
If you are interested in accurate, precise shooting with nothing but air between you and your target, you have come to the right place. Read ahead to get the straight dope on how to aim with iron sights.
Why Iron Sights?
Learning how to aim with iron sights is something that every shooter should do. Most handguns demand it. Iron sight shooting with long guns is a valuable and rewarding skill. In an emergency or backup situation, it may be your only option. Learning to shoot with iron sights instills good shooting habits.
There Are Advantages To Shooting With Iron Sights.
- Weight - Iron sights add very little weight to the gun. This preserves the original balance of the gun. Lightweight field rifles and stalking guns benefit from the reduced carry weight.
- Durability - Iron sights can survive through any condition. They are sturdy and reliable.
- Low Maintenance - No batteries to replace, no lenses to clean, Unlimited field of view, and the ability to acquire moving targets in a hurry.
- Cost - Iron sights often come with the gun. Replacement iron sights cost a fraction of what a reasonable scope costs.
Disadvantages To Using Iron Sights:
- Magnification – Iron sights have none. Magnified optics allow shooters to see objects as if they were much closer. Lack of magnification limits the practical range of target acquisition to that of the shooter’s eye.
- Adjustability - Many optics can compensate for less than perfect vision. Optical glass is a great equalizer for all shooters, regardless of their sight.
- Lighting - Scopes gather and concentrate light through their lenses. Red dots and illuminated scopes provide the shooter with a visual reference they can see. If you can’t see your iron sights in low light, you can’t shoot on target. (Some iron night sights have tritium or other glow-in-the-dark features).
Types Of Iron Sights
Iron sights are not made of iron. “Iron” sights are made of many materials, including steel, brass, aluminum, and plastic. In general, iron sights consist of two reference points mounted on the gun that allows the line of sight and bullet path to be aligned.
There are two main types of iron sights, open and peep or aperture sights. An open sight is any type of rear sight that features a notch or mark for reference. An aperture or peep sight has a circular hole as a rear sight. The front sight may be a blade, bead, or aperture.
Iron Sight Aiming Fundamentals
Iron sights come in many shapes. Regardless of the sight type, the fundamentals are the same.
Proper sight alignment is essential for accurate shooting. For this to be accomplished, several things must be in place.
Sight picture is what your mind sees at the moment of the shot. When lining up a shot, always focus on the front sight. Once you have identified your target and what is beyond it, shift your focus to the front sight and keep it there. Everything else should be blurry. This is the “solid front focus” needed for proper shot placement.
Move your sights into proper sight alignment. With good body position and breath control, you’ll be ready to make the shot.
Proper body position is the foundation for accurate shooting. Watch the “Texas Parks and Wildlife video on Basic Shooting Positions”
Once you establish the form for a shooting position, do the “blind aiming” drill, also known as the “blind wiggle” for handguns. With a target posted, close your eyes with your gun in hand at the shooting line. Lower the muzzle of the gun and slowly move your upper body back and forth to relieve tension. Raise the gun with your eyes closed into a relaxed, tension-free shooting position, then open your eyes. The target should be directly in line with the sighting line of the gun. If it’s not, shuffle your position slightly to correct and repeat until you can open your eyes and find the gun pointed naturally at the target.
Breath control is an essential element in aiming with any firearm and especially if it has iron sights. The temptation is to take aim and hold your breath while trying to get a perfect sight picture, then take the shot. That method seldom works out well. Holding your breath causes muscle tremors which destroy shot accuracy.
I tell shooters to keep “moving air.” Breath normally while acquiring the target. Settle in on your sight picture. Let out enough air to relax your body into minimum movement and squeeze off the shot.
Good trigger control is applying pressure to the trigger to fire the shot without disturbing the sight picture. Trigger control may be the most difficult of all elements when firing a gun, especially with iron sights. The proper method is to contact the trigger with the pad of the trigger finger between the tip of the finger and the first knuckle. Apply slow but steadily increasing pressure rearward until the trigger releases the sear to fire. The exact moment of the shot should be a surprise. Don’t jerk the trigger when you think the target is aligned. Steady pressure and a lot of practice are vital.
Follow Through, Call The Shot
Follow-through is the completion of the shooting process after the shot is fired. After the shot is fired, maintain solid front sight focus, sight alignment, shooting form, grip, and position. Freeze the sight picture in your mind at the time of the shot, and be prepared to call the shot. Take your time, and don’t skip this step. Remember that speed is fine, but accuracy is final.
Aiming With An Open Sight
Rear open sights come in many shapes such as notch, “U”, ‘V’, wedge, buckhorn, and others. The principles remain the same for all of them. The front sight is always centered in the middle and level with the top of the rear sight. Centering is critical. The front sight is centered on the middle of the target.
Some shooters prefer a six o’clock hold whereby the target rests on top of the front sight. Generally, target shooters use this method on targets of a particular size and range.
Aiming With A Rear Peep Or Aperture Sight
The peep sight has a round hole through which you will view the front sight and the target.
Center the top of the post or center of the bead on the target and in the center of the rear opening. Once again, maintain a hard focus on the front sight.
Aiming With A Rear Peep And Front Aperture Sight
Some rear peep sights are fitted with with a front aperture instead of a post or bead. These are generally used by target shooters with targets of a known size and distance. In this case, the target, front aperture, and rear peep are all held centered. Hard focus is on the front sight.
Iron Sight Adjustment
There are scores of iron sight models, each with it’s own method adjustment, or lack thereof. This is a case where R.T.F.B. (read the full book) is essential. Know the specifics of your particular sighting system.
There is one basic principle that applies. After shooting a group, if an adjustment is needed:
- Move the rear sight the in the direction that you want the bullet holes to go.
- Move the front sight in the opposite direction that you want the bullet holes to go.
Iron Sight Accuracy
When properly sighted in, iron sights are accurate for as far as you can see. Top competition shooters routinely shoot at 1000 yards or more. For the casual hunter, shots on mid-sized game under 200 yards is a reasonable expectation. Serious hunters with a lot of practice can make ethical shots much further.
Study the fundamentals of good shooting. Know your sighting system and practice, practice, practice.
Aiming with Glasses
Prescription glasses can correct a multitude of vision problems. Without going into a deep dive on corrective lenses, just remember that focus on the front sight is essential to accurate iron sight shooting. I wear prescription glasses with bi-focal reading lenses.
When I shoot handguns, I use a made-for-purpose single vision set of glasses that allow me to focus on the front pistol sight at arm’s length. When I shoot rifles with iron sights, I have a different pair of single vision glasses that allow me to focus on the rifle front sight without straining.
Your optometrist will be glad to vary the focal distance of your prescription for extra glasses that match your shooting needs. Some folks may balk at the prospect of buying special glasses for shooting, but why buy an expensive gun and ammo then skimp on vision.