Iron Sights vs. Red Dot: All You Need to Know

Iron Sights VS Red Dot

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In the continuing discussion of iron sights vs. red dot sights, people still wonder which is best. Here is all you need to know about both and which one is best.

The differences between iron sights and red dots are longevity, installation, availability, durability, getting a sight picture, ease of use and cost. We break each one of these down so you can make an informed decision about which sights you need.

We take a look at the key features of both and discuss some points you may not have considered.

Features of Red Dots and Iron Sights

1. Longevity 

Longevity

Guns made more than 200 years ago have iron sights that work as well today as they did when the gunsmith handed over the gun.

I have a Springfield trapdoor .45-70 made in 1878 in my gun safe. The iron sights are a marvel even by today’s standards. They are in pristine shape. They are also marked to 1,000 yards, which the old .45-70 Government is certainly capable of.

Red dots have lights and need batteries. Batteries wear out. Lights die.

Winner: Iron sights is a runaway winner here. A gun with iron sights can be 150 years old and work. No red dot is going to last anywhere near that long.

2. Installation 

Installation of Red Dot

Most guns you can buy have some sort of iron sights when you buy them. Some rifles are sold with bare barrels as you are expected to mount an optic.

Nearly all pistols, except some single-shot target models, have at least rudimentary sights. My .38 snub nose carry gun has a blade on the front and a groove down the top strap. Crude, but since I shoot this gun at distances under 20 yards, that is all I need.

In contrast, most guns are sold without a red dot. Some guns will not even accept this type of optic.

Winner: A slight edge goes to the red dot. Red dots win by a mile if you need to change them out. Iron sights win if you want to shoot right out of the box. 

3. Gunsmith

Gunsmith

If the top of the gun is not tapped for a rail or some other mounting system, you cannot mount a red dot. Get a gunsmith to tap holes for a rail, then mount the optic.

The same goes for installing iron sights on gun without the barrel cuts.

On semi-auto handguns, if the top of the slide is not milled out for a red dot, a gunsmith has to mill out the space. Ditto for iron sights

Millwork of this sort will easily set you back $100. Premilled from the factory should only cost a few dollars more.

Winner: A tie. The gunsmith work to prep a gun for either sight is the same.

4. Changing sights

Where red dots excel is changing them. With a set of allen wrenches, you can replace a red dot in a few minutes.

Changing iron sights, if it is even possible, requires a vise or brass punches and a hammer. You have to be careful replacing the sights so you do not damage the gun. I invested in the best sight vise available for my gunsmithing work.

Sometimes, the iron sights cannot be replaced. My pocket revolver’s front blade was machined from the barrel steel. The groove is machined from the same block as the frame. 

Iron sights just last, while red dots wear out.

Winner: Red dot gets the nod on installation if the gun is prepped for an optic. Red dots are also easier to change than iron sights. If the gun has no mounting system for optics, iron sights are easier.

5. Availability

Availability

By availability, I mean how easy you can get a replacement sight.

Say you do not like your gun’s sight and want to change it. It sounds easy enough, but it is not.

Red dots have just a few mounting systems. Red dot manufacturers share every mounting system, and red dots can often be used with different mounting systems.

In that respect, a red dot can be considered universal. Buy one. It will fit on any gun that allows optics. You may have to buy a different plate, but that is cheap.

Iron sights are often proprietary. Every gun maker makes the sights a bit different. Different guns from the same make can have different iron sights.

If you replace iron sights, you must buy a gun-specific set of sights. For instance, the rear buckhorn on a .30-30 will not attach to a Glock 23 without serious Frankenstein gunsmithing.

If you put a .30-30 on a Glock, expect to appear in a future version of Brandon Herrera’s Curse Gun Images video series.

Winner: This is a slam dunk for the red dot. If you already have the mount, you can swap a red dot in a minute or two. Replacing iron sights will take a while or require a gunsmith.

6. Durability 

How do they compare in durability? Which one is tougher? Which one holds up best?

Iron sights are waterproof no matter how far underwater they go. If the ocean would not rust the metal, you could drop iron sights to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, haul them up and they will work.

On the other hand, if you drop a red dot in water that deep, you will haul up a crushed mess.

Winner: Iron sights are a clear winner here. 

7. Can You Drop It?

Have you ever dropped a gun? Of course, you have. Did it affect the iron sights? Probably not. 

If the gun has fiber optics in the iron sights, that is a different matter. Those are fragile and break unless well-protected.

Drop a red dot, and you run the risk of damaging the internal parts and breaking the glass.

You mount iron sights with a vise to squeeze them into place or a brass punch and hammer to knock them into place. Either will destroy a red dot.

Winner: Iron sights take the runaway win here. Gun metals are magnitudes tougher than glass and electronics. Even polymer iron sights take an edge over a red dot for the impact resistance alone.

8. Adjustments

All red dots can be adjusted. A lot of iron sights cannot be adjusted.

Going back to my pocket pistol, short of getting out a file or grinder, that front blade is there to stay. The groove in the top strap cannot be changed at all without harming the integrity of the gun.

Some iron sights are adjustable in the back only. Some are adjustable front and back.

Rear iron sights with adjustments for windage and elevation are still limited in the amount of shift you can do. On the easy ones, it is a matter of turning a small screw on the side for windage and one on the top for elevation.

If the iron sight on the rear is in a dovetail but has no adjustment settings, you must get a brass punch, hammer, or sight vise. Either way, it is not a simple task.

If the front iron sight can be adjusted, it is often for windage only. Moving this sight definitely requires a vise or hammer and punch.

Some rifles, like a mil-spec AR 15, will also let you raise and lower the front sight pin.

Winner: To adjust a red dot, hit the adjustment button and move the dot where it needs to be, and you’re done. Red dots take the finish line a long way on this one.

9. Zeroed

zero iron sight

How well do the sights stay zeroed?

It takes a LOT to knock adjustable iron sights out of zero. Short of physically damaging fixed iron sights, they never move.

If the sights never move, you cannot zero them either. You have to make the adjustments.

Red dots can get knocked off zero and still function. You do not know about this until you miss the target.

Winner: Iron sights stand firm here and sit on the top block at the winner’s podium.

10. Sight Picture

Sight picture is the most complicated of the differences between irons and red dots. It has several factors, as listed below:

Finding the Target 

Finding the Target

Finding the target is something you do before you ever raise your weapon. With the target sighted, then you start leveling the gun to shoot. The process is exactly the same for both aiming devices.

Shooting Solution

A shooting solution means you found the target. You aim with a reasonable expectation of hitting the target when you pull the trigger.

Part of the shooting solution is seeing your sights and the target. How your eyes focus is the issue.

With a red dot, you can see through the frame and find the dot. You can see the target. You can focus on the red dot AND the target at the same time.

Iron sights mean you have to focus on the rear sight, the front sight or the target. I rapidly switch back and forth, if I have the time. I line up and focus on the front sight as I pull the trigger.

If I do not have time to focus like that, I use the front sight and the barrel to triangulate on the target and pull the trigger. 

A red dot has a triple advantage, then.

  1. Everything stays in focus if you have time to properly line up your shot.
  2. If you are shooting in a hurry, like in self-defense, get that dot on target and fire.
  3. The lens frame provides a literal window of shot opportunity. This is similar to my barrel-front sight-target triangulation

Parallax

Red dots do not adjust for parallax error. At self-defense ranges, this does not matter. If you see the dot, put it on the target and you should get within an inch or two of where you want to hit.

At 50 yards or more, that inch or two could be a clean miss.

Iron sights, because they require a 3-point plane, are harder to get out of alignment. You have to find the rear sight. You place the front sight in the proper position relative to the rear sight. Then, you line both up on the target.

You will see if the iron sights have a parallax error.

Winner: Red dots get the edge here. When professionals use a red dot on their handguns for tournaments, pay attention. If you are just trying to rip a string of bullets as fast as possible, sights are irrelevant.

11. Use

Use is not as simple as you might first think. Let’s tackle the less obvious first.

Pocket carry

Pocket carry

Going back to my pocket pistol, if I could mount a red dot on that little .38 snubbie, it would cease to be a pocket carry immediately. For that matter, a red dot on any handgun means it is no longer suited for pocket carry.

Red dots add bulk to any gun. They also stick up and ruin the straight lines of the gun. In other words, the optic is something to snag vines, limbs, clothes, holster straps or anything else that can get in the way.

Red dots also add weight, not a lot, but it can matter.

Hunting

Both sights work equally well for hunting. However, some states have a primitive weapons season or primitive weapon regulations and electronic sights are not permitted.

In low light conditions, that red dot is easier to see than the front pin or blade.

For me, hunting is the big tell here. I’d rather use a red dot than iron sights for nearly all my hunting if I had to choose. My Canadian bear fell to a .45-70 with a red dot on top.

Winner: Call it a slight edge for the iron sights. If you can use a red dot legally, the advantage goes to the dot. If you hunt primitive weapons with restrictions legally, the iron sights win. Iron sights can also be used any time, primitive weapons or  not.


12. Power

Power

Iron sights do not need any power or light. You do need some light to see them, but that is true with a red dot, too.

Red dots need power for the little light. All use batteries and some have solar panels. Batteries die.

To me, this is the really big one. If the battery in the red dot dies, you have a piece of glass stuck on the gun. If you cannot co-witness through the red dot, then it is in the way.

A caveat: Red dots with a “shake awake” function have a HUGE advantage over red dots that you manually turn on. Still, iron sights work all the time, every time.

Winner: Iron sights were used before the advent of electricity and are still in use today. This is a no-brainer.

13. Cost

Red dots run from around $30 for cheap junk that will let you down to hundreds of dollars for the most dependable models.

The best iron sights will set you back about as much as a steak dinner for two. A cheap set that will last for decades is less than $10.

Winner: Clearly, iron sights walk away with this award snickering at the red dot’s expensive tastes.

Final Verdict: Which is Better, Red Dots or Iron Sights?

Back me into a corner and make me choose, and I’m taking the red dot, a good red dot with battery life in the 10,000-plus hour range.

The sole exception is for pocket pistols. Red dots simply get in the way and make life much more complicated there.

If you concealed or open carry with a holster and can also carry a red dot in that setup, I recommend it. Just change the battery every year.

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