How to Use Iron Sights – The Ultimate Guide

While fancier options such as ACOG and red dot scopes get most of the attention, don’t overlook basic iron sights. They’re the most common type of sight used on firearms. You’ll find them on a wide variety of pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

When used correctly, iron sights deliver accurate, reliable aiming. However, despite their simple design, learning proper sighting techniques can feel complicated, especially to a beginner. Here’s a closer look at how to use iron sights effectively.

How Iron Sights Work

These days, the term “iron sights” isn’t literal. Today, iron sights are typically made from lightweight but durable plastic or aluminum.

Although available in different types, all iron sights work in essentially the same way. They consist of a front sight blade and rear sight (either a notch or something else). You aim the firearm by centering the front sight in the rear sight.

The distance between the front and rear sights is called the sight radius. The longer the sight radius, the greater the precision.

Shooting with Iron Sights

  1. The two most important concepts for successful shooting with iron sights are:
  • Proper eye focus
  • Correct sight alignment

If you understand each, you should have no problem shooting competently (at the very least) on any specific type of iron sight.

How to Focus When Using Iron Sights

The human eye can only focus on one image at a time. However, three elements require attention when aiming with iron sights: the front sight, rear sight, and target. Which one should you focus on at the moment you pull the trigger?

Naturally, many people assume you should focus on the target, but that’s incorrect. Instead, you want to line up the front sight with the rear sight. Then, once those two sights are correctly aligned, you want to aim the front sight on the target, but keep your focus on the front sight.

Your view of the target itself doesn’t – and shouldn’t – be sharply in focus. Once your front sight is on the target, shift your vision to your front sight, and then fire.   

How to Correctly Align the Sights

You’ll need to adjust the sights for your height and size.

The front sight is always immobile, so you’ll only adjust the rear. Some rear sights can be manually adjusted, while others require tools. You’ll adjust two elements:

  • Height: how high the bullet hits the target, also called elevation
  • Windage: the horizontal, right-to-left distance of the round 

Properly adjusting your iron sights typically involves lots of test-firing along with a fair amount of trial and error. You’ll need to gauge where the round ends up compared to where your sight indicates.

Successfully Using Iron Sights on Different Types of Firearms

The popularity of iron sights is due in no small part to the design’s versatility. You’ll find them on practically any type of firearm, including:

  • Rifles
  • Pistols
  • Shotguns

However, they’re not used on each type in the same way. Here’s a closer look:


Most hunting rifles have what’s called an open sight. It’s the basic iron sight described above, with a blade in front and an open notch in the rear. They’re commonly found on hunting rifles for a few reasons:

  • They’re affordable.
  • They provide a wide field of vision.
  • They allow you to hold your aim on a target.  

However, they have limited accuracy due to their relatively short sight radius. Also, they’re not ideal for shooting at fast-moving targets.

Military and Target Rifles

Another common type of iron sight is the aperture rear sight. Instead of an open notch, the rear of the rifle has a ring or peephole. The front sight is also a ring. To aim, you center each one.

An aperture sight increases the sight radius significantly. You gain increased accuracy without requiring a longer barrel on the rifle. As long as you put your front sight on or below your target, you should have no problem making contact.  


Adjusting iron sights on a rifle is usually straightforward. If you have any difficulty keeping the rifle aligned, it’s often a sign that it’s not the correct fit for your body. It’s likely too long, or the stock is either too high or low.


Almost all iron sights on pistols are open sights. Some aperture sights exist, but they’re not common. Open sights on a pistol operate similar to a rifle’s open sights, only here the sights are much closer to the shooter’s eye. Plus, the sight radius is shorter.

Iron sights allow you to draw and aim your pistol quickly. Plus, they don’t impair your field of vision, which is useful in a self-defense situation.  


The shooter’s grip on the gun is what mainly determines sight alignment. You’ll want to maintain a firm, consistent hold between each trigger pull.


Shotguns typically use a bead sight. Instead of a blade, the front of the barrel has a bead. The rear sights are usually short posts.

Bead sights typically aren’t as accurate as either open or aperture sights. However, they don’t necessarily have to be, considering the wide shot spread of a shotgun, especially for home defense purposes.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Iron Sights

It’s easy to see why iron sights have remained consistently popular since the days of the muzzleloading musket. Some of their most significant benefits include:

  • They’re inexpensive. You won’t find a more affordable type of sight.
  • They’re more durable than optics and other accessories.
  • They work well as a backup for more sophisticated optics.
  • They allow for a full peripheral view while aiming.

Although disadvantages are fairly minimal, some do exist:

  • Most people struggle with maintaining the correct focus at first. You’ll likely need to practice.
  • They don’t magnify your target, which does limit their accuracy at long distances.
  • They don’t have any light amplification abilities, making them best for use in clear daylight.

Final Thoughts

Iron sights have a simple design, but they can still deliver astounding accuracy at an affordable price. Learning how to use them correctly may feel frustrating at first, but once you understand how to adjust the sights and narrow your focus correctly, you’ll be able to shoot like a pro.

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.