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Iron Sights VS Red Dot Comparisons (Uses, Accuracy, Reliability, Durability & More)


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When red dots came along, there was skepticism that turned into fear that somehow iron sights were now obsolete.

Are those fears justified?

Iron Sights, Red Dot Sight and AR-15

Iron sights have worked and have worked well for a long time. While there were problems with earlier red dots and continue to be legitimate concerns, electro-optic sights have earned their role as a necessity in the professional, defense, and sporting shooting world.

Complete with feature and usability comparisons and pros and cons, this guide weighs up iron sights vs red dots to determine which sighting system shines is various scenarios.

Iron Sights VS Red Dot Sights

An assortment of sights and rifles

This is not a definitive argument for one sighting system or another as it is more of a comparison analysis to determine which is more affordable, which is easier to use, what is more appropriate for the application, and more.

1. Cost

EOTech red dot sight and MBUS
Extreme differences: ~$700 EOTech (high-end) & ~$100 MBUS sights (best entry-level)

The most expensive iron sights compete in price with the best budget red dot sights. In cost alone, iron sights are the more affordable sighting system. Akin to red dots, irons are not made equal in design, performance, and materials. Higher quality sights will demand a higher price point.

Though some iron sights are purchased in pairs, i.e., front and rear sight, they’re available as separate purchases to mix and match according to your needs.

Iron SightsTypePrice RangeRed Dot SightsPrice Range
Ultralight Flip-up 45°Front & rearUnder $25CVLife RDSUnder $50
Feyachi Flip-up SightsFront & rearUnder $40Sig Sauer MSRUnder $100
Tacticon Flip-up SightsFront & rearUnder $50Vortex Crossfire IIUnder $150
Magpul MBUS Flip-upFront onlyUnder $40

Magpul MBUS Flip-upRear onlyUnder $60Sig Sauer MSR & Juliet 3Under $300
Magpul MBUS PRO LRRear onlyUnder $140Holosun HS510CUnder $350
Daniel DefenseFront & RearUnder $160Leupold DeltaPoint ProUnder $400
Magpul MBUS Pro OffsetFront & RearUnder $180EOTech EXPS3Under $700
Recommended iron sights and field-tested red dot sights

Winner: Iron Sights

2. Accuracy

Groupings with pistol and red dot sight vs with 22 rifle and red dot sight
Left: Groups with pistol RDS. Right: Group with .22 rifle RDS

Norwich University published a comparative study on traditional 3-dot iron sights versus red dot optics, namely the Triijicon RMR. They summarized that there is a significant difference in accuracy when hitting “near the center mass of the target” leaning in favor towards the RDS.

Additionally, an on-going national survey conducted by NLEFIA (National Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association) gathers data on OIS (Officer Involved Shootings) with mounted red dot sights. Though more data is needed, the hit ratio trend is showing improvement with use of an RDS.

Combined with training and implementation of proper shooting fundamentals, accuracy can be achieved on targets further than 25 yards with duty-grade pistol red dots.

However, an academic study funded and conducted by KR Training and Texas A&M Huffines Institute compared shooter handgun performance between irons, red dots, and lasers. The differences between irons and red dots aren’t huge due to the varying factors mentioned in the study. But evident key points show that with practice and training, finding the dot in the FOV becomes easier and faster helping to take advantage of the benefits presented by red dot sights. This proved especially true for those with greater experience and skill with firearms.

Winner: Red Dot Sight

3. Ability to Zero

BUIS rear sight and EOTech EXPS3
BUIS rear sight & EOTech EXPS3

Overall, part of acquiring accuracy has to do with the ability to zero the sighting system and expect that sighting system to hold that zero. Iron sights are well-known for their near-indestructible durability and reliability, but red dots can be easier to sight-in.

Sighting-in irons involves numerous factors from its design to the MOA values used for adjustments - if they can be adjusted. Adjustment values are not universal because the sight radii between firearms will vary.

The sight radius is measured from the back of the rear sight to the rear (forward facing part you see) of the front sight. The longer the firearm, the longer the sight radius.

Pistol slide and AR-15 rifle sight radii examples
Pistol slide (top) and AR-15 rifle (bottom) sight radii examples (Not to scale. Illustrative only.)

Iron sight adjustment values will vary with barrel length and sight radii. It can be tough to do the math and adjustments may prove to be coarse while trial and error may end up doing a lot of the work.

Shorter sight radii allows for what seems to be a stable perception of alignment between the dots, though it’s much more difficult to spot user-contributed errors when sighting in. With longer sight radii, it might be harder to hold those sights in perfect alignment, but errors in POI (Point of Impact) are much more noticeable, and adjustments can be calculated.

You can expect irons to hold their zero given that they’re extremely durable, usually require tools, and can be tough to make adjustments to in the first place. It’s also easy to memorize what reference markings the irons are set to for zero if an unintentional adjustment is made.

Red dot sights are simple to sight in. They have adjustment turrets generally in 0.5 or 1 MOA values and are adjusted to those values regardless of the firearm they are mounted on.

How to sight in a red dot sight

Unlike irons, only one dot is required for alignment and accuracy – the dot on the target. RDS dots are also measured in minutes of angle, and though 2 MOA is the smallest, standard size for red dots, some are sporting 1 MOA dots intended for precision accuracy and have minimal subtension.

It must be mentioned that although red dot sights are easier to sight in, they don’t always hold their zero. Zero retention reliability is a big part of choosing the right red dot sight for the job.

Winner: Red Dot Sight

4. Focusing

Viewing target through iron sights versus red dot sight
Left: Seeing target through AR-15 sights. Right: Seeing target through EOTech EXPS3

Focusing with a red dot sight is fast and simple thanks to the superimposed dot on the target. The correct way to use the RDS is to look “through” the dot to the target. It sharpens up the red dot and allows the shooter to maintain uninterrupted visuals on the target.

This is far easier to use due to only lining up two focal planes, the RDS and the target. However, it essentially ends up being one focal plane by focusing only the target as the dot appears to be “on” the target.

Focal plane examples with use of RDS
Focal plane examples with use of a red dot sight. (Not to Scale. Illustrative only.)

When using iron sights, you’re shifting between focal dimensions multiple times to acquire alignment between the focal planes of the rear sight, front sight, and the target to finally rest on the front sight. This takes time, even if only deciseconds, as it forces you to break visual contact with the target in order to align sights.

Focal plane examples with use of iron sights
Focal plane examples with use of iron sights. (Not to scale. Illustrative only.)

According to this study, the human eye is able to track and identify multiple objects at once. But asking the eyes to bring into focus multiple objects, or at least three, at various distances simultaneously is another thing altogether.

With a red dot, put the dot on the target and shoot.

Winner: Red Dot Sight

5. Target Acquisition Speed

EOTech EXPS3-0 Reticle on Target
EOTech EXPS3-0 reticle on target

The concern – training the brain to recognize what is an acceptable sight picture. Though many will boast speed times in proving red dots are faster than irons to engage targets, few will admit that in closer distances, inside 10 yards, that they may be slower.

Many familiar with iron sights demonstrate how fast they are by indexing some part of their pistol in the draw process with the target, consequently aligning the sights, and can best their own personal times.

Looking at target through pistol iron sights vs AR-15 irons sights
Pistol sights (left) and AR-15 sights (right)

However, time can suffer even if only by a second or two when using a RDS inside 10 yards. When red dots are faster to use, what’s the problem?

Assuming that shooting fundamentals are followed, and the red dot is in fact mounted and zeroed correctly, it very well could be red dot sight frame presentation.

The process should be very similar to shooting with irons.

  • Index a point along the slide
  • Frame the viewing window on the target
  • The dot appears

It will take practice and training, and good advice says to do this with the dot off to recognize and become accustomed to the sight picture. Dry-fire practice may very well help to improve the transition to using a red dot. Trying to “find” the dot inside the window will add more time to your score or could cost you in a defense engagement.

Both red dots and iron sights will excel in distance, say beyond the 7-10-yard line. Red dots provide more precision accuracy and certain red dot reticles can allow for long-range – in this case, long-range meaning anything beyond 100 yards.

Large viewing window of Leupold DeltaPoint Pro
Large viewing window of Leupold DeltaPoint Pro

There is anecdotal evidence showing that the larger viewing windows of EOTech HWS sights are ideal for rapid-dot-on-target acquisition. Ultimately, though red dots do allow for faster target acquisition due to less focal plane alignment and shifts, speed will be determined by your level of distance training and skill.

Winner: Tie

6. Visibility

NV EOTech EXPS3 reticle in low light and dark
Dot visibility in lowlight and dark conditions with EOTech EXPS3

In general, red dot sights and iron sights incorporate dots or some sort of aiming point that requires intention to see against the FOV. Both can be considered comparable at face value. However, features like illumination, adjustable intensity, and dot size lend the red dot an edge over irons.

A rear aperture allows an organic visual experience as looking through it naturally allows for immediate alignment of the front post. However, the aperture is much smaller and does not “gather” as much light as a red dot can, so it’s not as convenient to use in lowlight conditions.

Night Sights
Fiber optic dots on top (left) and glowing tritium dots on bottom (right)

Pistol iron sights can also have tritium dots to allow for high visibility in the dark and lowlight conditions, but they’re not adjustable in intensity. Fiber optic sights can be colored. They help to focus the eye on the front sight between the rear dots and makes for better seeing in daylight conditions – though red dot sights are also prone to low visibility in the same daylight bright conditions.

2 MOA dot vs 1 MOA dot with 68 MOA ring
2 MOA dot (left) and 1 MOA dot with 68 MOA ring (right)

Even with the modern features of iron sights to improve visibility, it’s still not as convenient as a red dot’s adjustable features. This includes its adjustable illumination for various light conditions, ultra-dim settings for use with night vision devices, and various dot sizes for specific applications such as 2 MOA for hunting or long range versus 6 MOA for close-range CQB.

Winner: Red Dot Sight

7. Durability

Leupold DeltaPoint Pro mounted on P320 slide
Leupold DeltaPoint Pro mounted on P320 slide

There is a lot that a RDS must hold up to. There’s the kinetic energy of recoil repeated several thousand times over during its lifetime. Since it relies on battery power to function, the battery and circuitry must be protected from dust and water. Closed optics can also suffer from internal fogging.

Fortunately, today’s red dots are manufactured with high-quality materials and with expert craftsmanship to handle and withstand the onslaught of inevitable wear-and-tear and abuse.

YouTube video
Holographic reticle still working with broken EOTech lens

From the Trijicon RMR to the Aimpoint M68 CCO (CompM4) and the EOTech SU-231/PEQ (M553) and SU231A/PEQ (EXPS3-0), red dot sights have been used and continue to be used in the military and law enforcement agencies. Though that level of ruggedness is not necessarily deemed a must-have for civilian use, it’s peace of mind to know that if it’s good enough for the front lines and first responders, it’ll certainly hold up in hunting and defense conditions.

Iron sights on the other hand are extremely durable. They are ready for use regardless of rain or shine and they don’t require power.

Orange front fiber optics sight
Orange front fiber optic sight on muzzleloader

I have had a front sight screw come loose on a muzzleloader, so it goes to show that it’s only as secure as your mounting hardware and setup. When mounted and torqued down correctly, they can be impervious to recoil and abuse.

Dovetail sights on pistols
Dovetail sights on pistols

Many sights are so difficult to move that the dovetail plate can only be shifted by using a hammer or sight pusher on a pistol slide in an effort to accurately zero the sights or replace them.

Winner: Iron Sights

8. Reliability

Group pic of red dot sight battery compartments
Red dot sights require battery power

The advancement in optics technology, better materials, and expert construction is testament to the fact that red dots of today are not of the same ilk as the red dots of yore. Today’s lot are more reliable, have longer lasting batteries, and are durable and operational in even the harshest climates.

AR-15 Iron Sights
MBUS flip-up irons sights ready for use 24/7 rain or shine

However, the simplicity and fully contained optical and mechanical system of iron sights make them operationally ready regardless of the conditions or “settings” as that on a RDS. As such, though many are forgoing irons on their firearms, these types of sights continue to be a contemporary necessity.

Absolute co-witness with Sig Sauer Romeo 5
Absolute co-witness with BUIS & RDS

For many reasons, iron sights are customarily employed as a backup sighting system on both pistols and rifles. With a co-witness in case of red dot failure, the irons serve as the primary sighting system so that a shooter is never without.

Winner: Iron Sights

9. Size

Pistol iron sights (left) and pistol micro RDS (right)
Pistol iron sights (left) and pistol micro RDS (right)

Iron sights are smaller and weigh close to nothing against red dot sights that can be viewed as bulky and heavy in comparison. Irons are certainly the choice for minimalists especially when sitting on a handgun.

Leupold DeltaPoint Pro Micro red dot sight
Field-tested Leupold DeltaPoint Pro 1.8 x 1.3 x 0.5” & 2 oz

Pistol red dot sights can be very small at generally around 2” (L) x 1” (W). They weigh next to nothing at only a couple ounces. However, it’s the frame and optical viewing window that tends to be the major concern when it comes to size and bulk.

Though a larger viewing window is better for rapid-dot-on-target acquisition for applications like defense and competition, the concern of size is in regard to the imprint. The imprint is how the firearm is seen through clothing when carrying concealed. Finding the right holster with the red dot cut that will fit are not necessarily cheap.

Build quality of the EOTech EXPS3
Field-tested EOTech EXPS3 Holographic Sight 3.8 x 2.3 x 2.9” & 11.2 oz

Red dots intended for use on rifles and shotguns are larger. The mount will have a lot to do with the overall height of the RDS setup, and they are generally under 10 oz. Some red dots are larger, can have sunshades and flip-up caps attached, and holographic sights are certainly on the bigger end of the spectrum with their almost 4” height and 13 oz weight.

Winner: Iron Sights

10. Aging Eyes & Astigmatism

Pistol iron sights with blurry front sight
Pistol iron sights with blurry front sight (illustrative only)

Overall, aging eyes or having astigmatism is going to affect the visual experience of using any gun sighting system. Having the visual acuity to align the sights, see the front post, or to acquire an articulate aiming point can diminish with age.

The most common problem that is experienced is being unable to clearly see the front post on a handgun. This is likely to be relatable among those with aging eyes that have lost elasticity in the lens, i.e. presbyopia.

Fiber optic rifle open sights with orange front sight
Fiber optic rifle open sights with orange front sight

A solution would be to transition to single-vision aspheric lenses with one specified for the distance to the front sight and the other specified for single-vision distance correction to the target, i.e., shooting glasses. You should also switch out the front sight to green fiber optic to help the brain easily see and focus clearly on it.

However, if getting special shooting glasses is not a reality, red dot sights may help. Prismatic red dots have a diopter that can compensate to some degree for certain refractive error conditions, like being near or farsighted. This allows for a sharp view of both the aiming dot and the FOV.

Sig Sauer Juliet 3 magnifier and viewing example
Sig Sauer Juliet 3 magnifier and viewing example

However, all types of red dots are unable to compensate for astigmatism. With reflex sights, putting a magnifier behind it can help as it has a diopter and dimming the illumination may tame dot distortion. Short of wearing your corrective lenses, it may take some experimenting with prismatic red dots or holographic sights that seem to produce less distortion with astigmatic eyes.

Since there are various red dot optics and setups that can help to mitigate the effects of visual impairment, they’re the choice over iron sights when aging eyes get the better of you.

Winner: Red Dot Sight

11. Hunting

Mule Deer in Wooded Area
Of course, mule deer show up when I have a tag for elk that are nowhere in sight!

Overall, the conditions and target type would determine which sighting system is best for use when hunting. However, when it’s iron sights and red dots, the circumstances would be similar – close-range (inside 100 yards), a lightweight setup is desired, and speed is critical.

With practiced and expert marksmen as the exception, not many of us are shooting farther than 150-300 yards off irons, let alone that far with a RDS.

EOTech EXPS3 with 1x magnification (left) & with 3x magnification through Sig Sauer Juliet 3
EOTech EXPS3 with 1x magnification (left) & with 3x magnification through Sig Sauer Juliet 3 (right)

The primary pros for the RDS in this situation are that it has a larger aperture than a peep sight allowing for better visibility in lowlight conditions where irons would suffer. An RDS can also be paired with a magnifier to allow greater target identification. When moments are critical, fast target acquisition and unbroken contact with that target are invaluable benefits of a hunting red dot sight.

Bushnell TRS-25 with internal fogging due to excessive water exposure
Field-tested Bushnell TRS-25 with internal fogging due to excessive water exposure

But its downsides to consider are durability (build quality) and zero retention. Red dots can fog up and they can lose zero along the way. Any issues with illumination and battery life should be addressed beforehand – change out battery for a new one and set the illumination appropriate for the conditions as you head out.

Rear BUIS sight mounted on AR-15
Rear BUIS sight mounted on AR-15

Irons are inherently more durable and reliable. They don’t care about rain, fog, battery power, or bumpy rides off-grid. Though they can be co-witnessed with the RDS, if the red dot is working, they will only serve as the back-up sighting system.

Viewing through the Romeo 5 LEFT Cow RIGHT Rabbit
Field-tested Sig Sauer Romeo 5 on cow (left) and rabbit (right)

Though both will work, a red dot makes it faster and easier to hunt especially in those golden hours of dawn and dusk. But the peace of mind of an iron sight’s durability and reliability makes it a legitimate sighting system for the hunt.

Winner: Tie

12. Competition/Target Shooting

Red dot sight mounted to a pistol

Whether it’s iron speed sights or a red dot, it comes down to personal preference and training as to which type is better for competition use. While iron shooters are extremely fast, and can outshoot a novice with an RDS, successful training with red dots are proving to churn out fierce competitors.

The struggle is in the transition from irons to red dots and presentation to ensure that you don’t lose the dot. With practice and for those losing visual acuity, red dot shooters are demonstrating game-changing scores in accuracy and time - exactly what is needed in IDPA and USPSA Carry Optic matches.

Shooting with a red dot sight and magnifier

3-gunners like their LPVO or red dot and magnifier combo while PRS runners like their high-powered scopes. In recent years, thanks to their popularity and ease of use, red dots are officially allowed as they are proving to be a sighting system that’s here to stay.

Winner: Red Dot Sight

13. Defense

AR15 EOTech EXPS3 on AR15 and Holosun HS403B on AR15
Duty-grade RDS brands Holosun & EOTech

The red dot sight is becoming the sighting system of choice for self-defense, concealed carry, and duty-use for all the benefits a RDS offers. Typically, if the firearm is optic-ready or easily adapted for RDS mounting, efforts are taken to train with a RDS for close ranges in defense engagements.

A paper conducted by Sage Dynamics shows the advantages of red dots and encourages red dot adoption in LEA’s for duty use handguns. EOTech won the contract to outfit Kansas State Highway Patrol with EXPS2-0 holographic sights. It’s also common knowledge that the military has and continues to employ red dot sights.

Though further studies are yet to emerge, practical experience shows varying results in close-quarter, defense live-fire situations in terms of irons vs red dots. Inside 0-10 yards in a high-stress engagement, there’s a lot more happening that will affect your ability to shoot accurately. Even with that said, your body and brain will fall back on your training.

Winner: Red Dot Sight

Iron Sights Pros & Cons

Iron Sights - AR-15 sights (left) and pistol sights (right)
Iron Sights for AR-15 (left) and pistol (right)

Pros:

  • Cheaper
  • Lighter and smaller
  • Extremely durable
  • Extremely reliable
  • Operationally ready 24/7
  • CQB/close-range
  • Long-time trusted sighting system
  • Many different types for all firearms

Cons:

  • Not great for lowlight conditions
  • Not for long-range for the average shooter

Red Dot Sight Pros & Cons

Assorted red dot sights lined up at shooting range

Pros:

  • Various dot sizes
  • Long-lasting battery life
  • Durable and reliable
  • Adjustable dot illumination
  • Reduces focal planes and focal shift
  • Rapid target acquisition
  • Can improve accuracy
  • Easier to sight-in
  • CQB to mid-range distances
  • Can be combined with magnification
  • May help to compensate for poor visual acuity

Cons:

  • More expensive than iron sights
  • Requires battery power/prone to failure
  • Build quality not equal between models
  • Not for long range for the average shooter

Iron Sights VS Red Dots: Which is Best for You?

Iron sights vs red dot sights

There are always exceptions to the rule, and the best sighting system is the one you’re the most comfortable with. Though red dots are looked at with skepticism as the new thing that pushes trend and obsession, there is legitimate merit behind them. It doesn’t mean that iron sights are obsolete.

Absolute co-witness with Sig Sauer Romeo 5 & BUIS sights (left). Lower one third co-witness with EOTech EXPS3 & BUIS sights (right)
Absolute co-witness with Sig Sauer Romeo 5 & BUIS sights (left). Lower one third co-witness with EOTech EXPS3 & BUIS sights (right)

The real answer is to have both. If you’re already a dedicated red dot runner, having a pair of BUIS or suppressor irons serve as insurance against RDS failure. If you prefer the uncluttered look, fold down the irons. For those moving to red dots from irons, practice, practice, practice.

Though studies continue to emerge on the benefits of red dots versus irons, training, practical experience, and skill will determine what sighting system works best for you. With the new and improved red dot sights of today, it’s clear they’re here to stay alongside iron sights.

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