Does practice with iron sights pay off in the long run?
By Nick Leghorn via The Truth About Guns
A couple days ago Tyler posted an article lauding my shooting abilities in practical situations. That got me thinking about the differences between Tyler’s firearms education and my own. Tyler has merely adopted the iron sights since Appleseed shooting; I was born with them, moulded by them. I didn’t see the light of an exit pupil until I was already a man, by then it was nothing to me but blinding. Shooting with scoped rifles may be more accurate at long distance, but sometimes its that inaccuracy that makes you a better shooter.
When I first seriously started shooting, it was in a dark and dingy basement on campus at Penn State. I spent countless hours down there with nothing but a set of globe and diopter sights and a target at the end of the room, loading one round at a time and shooting for accuracy. Lining up every single shot perfectly every time was the goal, and anything less was unacceptable. We didn’t tally a score — we tallied “drops.” As in, “I dropped a point on that bull” when I hit the 9 ring instead of the 10. Anything less than perfection was your fault, and you knew it.
With a scope, the shots would have been easy. Just put the crosshairs where you want the bullet to go, then drop the hammer and let it fly. But with iron sights, you need to make sure that the sights are aligned as precisely as possible. There’s always some error — some wobble, if you will — in the precision of your sight alignment. Simply the pulsing of your own blood pressure can be enough to throw the gun out of alignment, and even if your front sight is precisely on target the shot might not hit. Understanding how your body works when trying to squeeze off the perfect shot is essential for target shooting with iron sights, and the most important skill a new shooter learns.
When I graduated from college, I also graduated to NRA High Power matches. I could have gone with a scoped rifle, but I chose to stick with iron sights here as well. Shooting in the M16 As-Issued Service Rifle division, the iron sights actually got worse — gone were the globe and diopter sights I had come to know and love, replaced by a rear aperture and a front post. This made shooting accurately even more challenging, and the increased distances as we moved back throughout the day only compounded the problem. How do you figure out a wind correction hold when there are no hash marks on a reticle to use, for example? It forced me to figure things out and sharpen skills that otherwise wouldn’t really be needed. When your margin of error is the width of a front sight post, you need to make sure that you do your job as precisely as possible and crack the shot off only when everything is perfect.
The thing is, while those skills might seem less important with the added benefit of a scoped optic, they are actually the primary building blocks of good marksmanship. Squeezing the trigger exactly when everything is aligned — your body, your gun, and your target all in harmony — is the basis of good marksmanship. Funnily enough, all those skills are required for even a mediocre performance with iron sights in a precision rifle match. And if you’re deficient in one of those areas, you’ll figure it out soon enough when the scores start coming in.
Which brings me back to my main point. I’ve spent about a year “off” from competition shooting. Throughout all of 2013 I was glued to the hip of the FNH USA shooting team, and while that was an amazing experience I’ve basically needed a year to slog through the backlog of articles I accumulated. My goal for this year is to find that balance between writing and competing, and as a result I’ve needed to knock the rust off my shooting skills and get back out where the buzzers buzz. I’ve traded in the SCAR 16S for a great PWS rifle that is perfect for 3-gun competitions, but I don’t plan to use it. Instead I plan to use this FN-15 rifle that Tyler is modeling, with nothing but a set of iron sights. There are no fancy gimmicks and no expensive optics, just my eyes, a small hole, and a little sprout of metal. The rifle forces me to use skills that have been atrophying while I’ve been on the sidelines, and shows me where my weaknesses are. And that’s exactly what I need.
Plus, when you run a stage in half the time of the other competitors, it adds just that little bit of salt in their wound to know that the 300 yard target they needed half a magazine to hit with their 9x optic you smacked in two rounds with iron sights.
Iron sights are hard to use, and that’s exactly what makes them the perfect training tool. I used them Friday in a rifle competition (where I came away with the top score, video at the top of the article), and I will continue to use them until I’m back up to speed. And I think y’all should use them too as part of your regular training.