How to Adjust Iron Sights for Elevation – Complete Guide

Iron sights are the basic style for rifles and can be found on most handguns, too. As recently as the 1950s, most guns used iron sights, and even after modern sight types came into fashion after the Korean conflict, manufacturers have continued to use these iron sights as a backup. After all, if your holographic or red dot sights stop functioning for any reason, you may need an immediate backup. If you know how to adjust iron sights for elevation and horizontal movement, you’ll never be at a loss.

Your first step is to gather a few key elements. You’ll need:

  • Screwdriver or Allen wrench
  • Target
  • Ammunition

The screwdriver is for adjusting some types of sights. The Allen wrench is for adjusting other types of sights, depending on what type of sight you have. Make sure you know which you need before you go out to sight in your gun; or take both just in case.  

You also need plenty of ammo and a target so you can test your adjustments. We recommend sourcing some cheap ammo for target practice. The last thing you want to do is waste good ammunition on sighting out your gun. And, as a bonus, if you can hit the target dead-on with inferior ammo, you’ll have confidence that you’ll do even better with high-grade ammo in the field.

Understanding Iron Sights

Iron sights are the most basic style you’ll find on any gun. There are two parts to this sight: the notch in the front, and the notch in the rear. On most iron sight guns, only the rear sights are adjustable. The front sights move with the rear without any need to adjust them.

This type of sight has persisted despite the amazing innovations in scopes and sights because they are easy to use, durable, and very inexpensive. If your holographic sight fails, you can immediately go on using your iron sight, and you can do so absolutely indefinitely if you know how to how to adjust iron sights for elevation and horizontal movement. This is not a commentary on modern sight types: they’re great. But why not know how to use your backup system?

Establish a Trend

Most modern guns perform well horizontally right out of the box. The question is how they work vertically, and some of that can be due to your shooting style. There’s nothing wrong with that: you just want your gun to fit your style. Therefore, the first thing you need to do is fire off at least three shots at your target. This is enough to show you any trends in your shooting.

If your shots are high or low, your next step is to loosen the rear sight using your Allen wrench or screwdriver. When you’re making horizontal adjustments, you usually want to adjust in the opposite direction of where you want the bullet to go. That’s not the case with vertical adjustments. Here, you need to adjust your rear sight in the same direction as your shots need to be going. If your shots are lining up low, raise your sight. If they are lining up high, then you need to lower it.

Tighten and Test

Once you’ve made your adjustments, you need to tighten your sight before you make any test shots. It’s tempting to ignore this. Your first instinct might be to fire off a few test rounds and then see if you need to make new adjustments. Don’t do this! If you don’t tighten your sight, it might move around while you’re firing your test shots. If that happens, you’ll have no idea if any shots you make after the test are accurate or not. Adjust, tighten things up, and then make your test shots to find out if your adjustments are true.

Remember: guns are for careful, competent, responsible people. Properly sighting and testing your gun is a key step in responsible gun ownership. Only a fool buys a gun and leaves it untested until the moment of truth. The wise gun owner knows exactly how his or her gun will perform and can trust it to back them up when they need it. Whether you use your weapon to feed your family or protect them, you’ll be more confident if you know exactly what it’s going to do when you pull that trigger.

What Type of Gun Do You Have?

The vast majority of iron sights can only be adjusted at the rear, so unless you have some kind of unusual heirloom gun, you won’t need to worry about changing your front sights. However, rear sights can vary by style and year of manufacturing. Some rear sights are spring-loaded. These sights tend to loosen naturally every time you fire. The spring is decompressed, and the sight tends to rise. If you have this type of gun, make sure you sight things in every few months or so (or more often, depending on how often you fire it) so you can be sure of your accuracy.

Other types of iron sights come with settings that are notched. If you have one of these, you won’t need any tools to make adjustments. All you have to do is raise or lower your sight using the notches. These are somewhat rare, however, as sights are more reliable when they can only be moved with screws. If yours are lacking screws, you might want to check the accuracy of your gun more often, to be sure that you’re firing hasn’t adjusted the angle in ways you don’t expect.

The Upshot

A weapon is only useful if it performs in an expected way. The onus is on you to be sure your gun is sighted in correctly and that bullets go where you intend for them to go. While modern sights and scopes are a great step forward, there’s no substitute for the steady reliability of a correctly sighted iron sight. If you have a gun with iron sights, the time to sight it in is NOW. Book some time at the range to get it done, so you can be sure your rifle or handgun will perform as you expect when you need it most.

Joseph Fox

Joseph Fox

Joseph Fox writes on a variety of topics ranging from reloading ammunition to gun cleaning. He has been featured on various publications like thetruthaboutguns, Sofrep & many more. Joseph is also the founder of Gunloading, where he reviews different types of reloading & firearm products available on the market.