How to Zero Iron Sights

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Iron sights on rifles or shotguns are just about the most basic and, at times,efficient sights you can find. With the advent of glass sights, many shooters have little or no training in this basic sight setup. 

It is with that in mind that I now go over, for some readers, a refresher and, for others, a first-time introduction to the tough, indestructible linear iron system of putting bullets on a target down range.

adjusting iron sights

Author with Russian WWI and WWII Russian Mosin-nagant simple iron sight

Iron system sights come in many types and are simple as dirt to use and maintain. Examples include the old standard Winchester buckhorn and post found on western-style lever-action rifles, ladder or tang sights used on Sharps rifles that sent heavy 45 caliber ammo as far as 1000 yards with accuracy, and solid fixed sights found on muzzle-loaders of that period.


Blade front sight (muzzle-loader)

Shooting greater distances

Military sights, such as US Army receiver sights or the very simple and effective Russian bolt-action rifle sights (Mosin-nagant, WWI through WWII), return outstanding results to ranges as great as 1000 yards by using the elevator system built into the rear V-notched sight blade.

adjusting rifle sights

Modern glow bar front sight on deer rifle.

In terms of referencing front sight systems in general, the finer the blade or post on the sight the better it is for longer-range applications. Why? Because you can see the target a very long way away even with the blade or front sight post directly sitting on the target's surface. 

Tricks my grandfather taught me

When I was being taught to shoot by my WWI US Navy battleship gunning grandfather, I learned to always hold at the 6 o'clock position with the target sitting right at the top of the front sight blade. That was my zero point, and I never lost sight of what I was shooting at due to the sight blade covering up a deer, rabbit, or whatever, at longer ranges.

Another trick he taught me was to rotate the muzzle, sending the sight blade in a circle around the edges of the target. When the rotation reached the sixth position, I sent the bullet. This eliminated the need to hold the rifle steady as stone off-hand. 

The system worked well, and I still use it today, even with scope sights, if I am caught in the open and don’t have any rest but must shoot off-hand standing.

how to sight in a rifle with iron sights

Receiver sight modern rifle

Zeroing the sights

When it is time for zeroing and aiming with iron sights system, there are two areas of concern. The rear sight in most cases has a screw-style right or left adjustment, but in other cases it only retains a drift-pin system. That means you have to use a rubber brass composition hammer and tap the rear sight right or left, as it sits in a dovetail notched housing over the receiver. 

Windage and elevation adjustments are made using a sliding rail that moves the rear of the sight notch up or down.

Sight adjustments

Let's start with how to adjust iron sight, Front sights can also require adjustment, and in this case most of the time the drifting system is employed with these elements of the iron system. For example, I had a Russian Mosin-nagant that came with a Russian-style long bayonet. When I removed the bayonet, the rifle shot to the left. 

On the range a young man who knew far more than I did about the rifle informed me that the front sight needed to be drifted to the right. He indicated that the Russian military set the sight for firing with the bayonet attached, and taking it off changed the harmonics (barrel vibration during the bullet's trip down the bore) of the barrel. 

I did as he indicated and the rifle shot a dead bullseye in short order.

Moving the ladder sight

I have found that the ladder sight installed on my Sharps 45-70 is an outstanding system. It is zeroed in the folded down position to 200 yards, and with a low hold of 100 yards. Moving the ladder into the up position, and thereby extending the rear notch toward my range, can exceed 1000 yards, depending on the cartridge load being used.

rear sight adjustments

Author and his Sharps 45-70 with ladder sights

The same thing also goes for 15-10 scopes. And there are many good 45 70 scope recommendations available in the market.

The tang receiver sight

As a second sight system we turn to the tang receiver sight. This sight is mounted on the rear receiver tang. This is the metal extension that rides out over the pistol grip, or the straight stock of the rifle. The tang sight can cost upwards of $500.00, as it is a very detailed sight used for 1000-yard target competition and, in the day, buffalo hunting at long-range. 

This sight uses a very small hole in a much larger face ring and, when sighting over a sharp front blade and elevating the receiver hole to a high position on the post, will push bullets with accuracy to almost unbelievable ranges. 

The movie Quigley Down Under made use of this sight on the 45-100 Sharps rifle. If you want to see the full effects of a tang sight, watch the film, as it appears on TV several times a year or you can buy it online. (I never miss it.) 

Learn more about iron sights

Another source for researching these advanced iron system sights is to Google "Shiloh Sharps rifles". Today, long-range 1000-yard matches are held that involve only these rifles. Shooters in this case are very knowledgeable, and I have spent hours discussing these 1874 style rifles that can stay with modern rifles today, even when lacking glass sight systems.

best iron sight picture

Detail receiver sight. Note white dots to aid in fast sight alignment to the receiver peep hole

If your rifle retains a Weaver-style rail, there are several companies that offer quick-attach iron system sights that can be offset to the side when used with a scope as the main sighting system, or as a direct primary sight. For example, Ozark Armament offer just such a sight at a price under $30.00 through Amazon.

Ozark Armament

Ozark Armament quick detach sight

Want to know how to use ar 15 iron sights? Check out our guide.

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