I often hear shooters say that backup iron sights are a waste of money or unnecessary when running an optic such as a red dot, low-power variable optic (LPVO), or scope. While I can see where they are coming from, I firmly believe it’s better to have it and not need it, than the opposite. 

Whenever I build a new rifle or modify a current setup, I almost always ensure I have a set of iron sights mounted in addition to my main optic. Why? That’s a good question that we’ll discuss today. 

There are pros and cons to iron sights and optics, so our goal is to help you understand them and to be able to make an informed decision on how to set up your own rifle.

AR-15 with LPVO

Notice the flip-up sight nestled under the LPVO. If the LPVO ever breaks, I can still shoot accurately within certain distances.

Time and Place

Have you ever heard the saying “the right place at the right time”? Well, that applies wonderfully to our debate of iron sights vs. optics. 

Depending on your rifle’s intended purpose, you’ll want to consider different optics or sights. 

For example, if you plan on having a dedicated home defense rifle, a red dot or holographic sight is where you’ll want to start your search. These will allow you to get on target quicker and use your peripheral vision to see what may be coming around the corner.

long-range scope

Clearing rooms would not be very easy with a long-range scope. Source: reddit

Is long-distance shooting and hunting on your mind? Then you may want to look at LPVOs and scopes. These will allow you to shoot at further distances with great accuracy in situations where you don’t need to worry about something or someone popping out to attack you from a car length away. 

And, of course, we can’t forget about some of my favorite optics…prism scopes. If you have astigmatism, these are for you, as they feature etched reticles. They also come in varying magnifications.

You see, you must first understand what you plan to use your rifle for and then go from there. 

Pros and Cons

Many AR-15s don’t come with iron sights anymore, so many people focus on their optic first and forget about iron sights. But let me ask you: What happens if your optic fails? What if the battery dies? What if you crack the glass? 

The short answer: you’re screwed. 

With iron sights, you don’t have those worries. They don’t require batteries, the weather doesn’t affect their performance, and they are oftentimes very lightweight. 

On the other hand, they have limited range (distance) capabilities and are slower to get on target compared to your red dots and holographic sights of the world. It’s a trade-off you’ll have to weigh.

Some people, myself included, grew up shooting with only iron sights, so running them exclusively without any optics has also been an avenue I’ve explored before.

Whether you have iron sights on your rifle or not, adding the appropriate optic can drastically enhance your performance. You can lock on and transition between targets faster, increase the effective range of your rifle, and, with the most advanced optics, even see better in the dark thanks to night vision and thermal technology.

AR-15 with flip-up backup sights

Notice that despite all of the fancy attachments, there is still a set of flip-up backup sights! Source: reddit

However, a high-quality optic can cost a substantial amount, into the several thousand dollar range. They do say it’s good to “buy once, cry once.” 

Luckily, you don’t have to pick one or the other; you can always run both! 

Which is Right For You?

At the end of the day, you can only answer what is right for you, but I will always recommend running both. 

A quality set of flip-up backup sights is inexpensive and durable, and they ensure you will never be without a way to aim your rifle. I recommend the Magpul MBUS sights or the Springfield Armory flip-up sights, with the former being lightweight polymer and the ladder being robust steel.

Magpul MBUS Gen 2 sight
Magpul MBUS Gen 2 Flip-Up Sights
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flip-up sights

Even a simple pair of flip-up sights can be accurate out to a couple of hundred yards, depending on the target size. Source: magpul

When it comes to choosing your optic, think long and hard, as they can be expensive. You’ll often save money in the long run by purchasing a quality unit first, then going cheap and having to upgrade down the road. 

Recommending optics is an article or two in itself, but remember to buy what fits YOUR needs, not just what is listed as “best” online. No optic has a true dedicated use, but many will serve you best by tailoring your build accordingly.

Parting Shots

Outfitting your AR-15 should be fun, so don’t let it stress you out. You can always swap out accessories if you change your mind or your shooting style. 

If you take one thing away from this article, it’s better to have something and not need it than the opposite. I can’t recommend running a set of backup iron sights enough, preferably flip-up to stay out of the way. 

As always, stay safe, train hard, and have fun.