Does Every Gun Need an Optic?

Optics for firearms now come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. When I was young, most bolt-action rifles had a scope and some of the high-end AR-15s had optics. Iron sights were the most commonly used on rifles and nearly all handguns. Since then, just as cell phones phased out landline phones, optics have become the norm and not the exception.

More and more handguns have optic cut-outs on the slide and holsters are being made to work with optics for most of the popular guns on the market. They make the shooter more accurate and able to shoot faster while staying on target.

There are different types of built-in sights on guns. Most of the time these are called open-sights, or iron sights. For now, I’ll just refer to them as iron sights.

Shooting AR-15 with an optic
Shooting with an optic helps acquire the target faster. It also helps with accuracy, but iron sights should still be available as a backup in case the optic fails.

I realized a while back that I have an optic on nearly every weapon I own. Without any thought, I will set a new rifle aside because I don’t have an optic for it yet. I would treat a rifle without a scope, red dot, or some type of assisted aiming device like a non-functioning gun because it was optic-free.  

Over time, most of my training on the range involved a weapon with an optic. This is especially true for rifles and sub-guns. The reason for this is that optics make the shooter more accurate. Scopes help you see further away and red dots help you acquire the target faster. All that said, (don’t get me wrong, having a good optic on a weapon is a great idea), do we need one on every gun?

Red Dots Became the Norm

In 1975, Aimpoint AB introduced red dot sights to the world. People saw the benefits of a red dot to help acquire the target, so they grew in popularity. Today, there are so many companies making optics, it would be hard to count them all. Some of the most popular include Aimpoint, Eotech, Trijicon, Vortex, Sig Sauer, and Holosun.

The price of a reliable red dot ranges anywhere from $100 to $800. Scopes can be even more expensive than that. Optics are made for rifles, shotguns, sub-guns, and handguns. In a nutshell, you can find an optic that will work for nearly any gun on the planet.

Shooting a handgun with an optic
Optics started out on rifles and then moved to handguns. They are becoming common and for good reason. An optic mounted on a handgun improves accuracy for almost any shooter.

Most older guns were intended to be fired with the iron sights that were affixed to the weapon. As optics became more popular, this changed. A lot of guns do not come with any sights today. Picatinny rails are standard on most guns so the shooter can place the optic or scope of choice on the weapon. Iron sights are mostly referred to as “backup” sights and fold down out of the way when not in use.

Iron Sights Became the Afterthought

Using iron sights can be more complicated than a red dot or some other type of optic. The shooter must be aware of the rear sights in relation to the front sight while lining it up with the target. This process does not seem hard until you are shooting under stress and moving quickly. A red dot makes the process of acquiring the target and staying on target faster and easier. Shooters with less practice and skill can make fairly accurate shots when using a good-quality optic.

Shooting the B&T with open sights - need an optic?
Iron sights may not be more accurate than an optic, but they are important as a backup. Because of this, training should be done regularly with iron/open sights.

During a training event recently, I noticed multiple people on the range with weapons that did not have any iron sights. They were shooting with mostly small, compact red dots. There is nothing wrong with only having a red dot on a weapon if it has a specific purpose that wouldn’t require iron sights. Hunting, competitive shooting, or some fun on the range are a few of those reasons. After speaking to some of those people at the range, I found they did not have iron sights because they didn’t think they were relevant in today’s world.

The Importance of Iron Sights

It’s great to have a gun with all the works. The high-end optic, light, infrared laser, magnifier, and pistol grip are cool, but if you don’t need all that stuff, it adds a lot of weight and makes the gun bulkier. Sometimes keeping it simple is the best way to go. Simple does not mean removing an optic. But it does mean being prepared to rely on a set of basic iron sights if needed.

Iron sights are not better than red dots, and that’s why everyone is moving to optics. But iron sights have the advantage of not going dead or having a cover on them.

Optics are great for handguns
If an optic fails—and they can fail—you need to be able to continue without stopping to fix it. Having backup or co-witnessing sights is important for any firearm utilizing an optic.

Even the best optic can fail. If you only have a split second to defend yourself and the optic is not working, you will have problems. There is no pause button to push while you fix the problem. This is why co-witnessing is important. A red dot helps you get on target quickly. It also helps you get on target better in the dark. When using both at the same time, you have the benefits of a red dot and the peace of mind that some type of sight will always be there when you bring the weapon up to eye level.

Summary

I am a big advocate of optics. But I have been in situations before where my optic has failed during critical moments. Those moments remind us that we need to train with iron sights, even if we use optics most of the time.

It’s ok to have a gun with iron sights only. It’s also ok to have a gun with an optic. After going back to some simple range drills using just optics, I have chosen to keep a few of my weapons without any attachments. I use this method on weapons I keep in places for self-defense that I may not use regularly. This way I don’t have to worry about the battery or turning them on. With a weapon I carry or use more frequently, I use a good optic with co-witness sights.

If you have the money to buy an optic for every gun, then go for it. Just remember, they need to be checked regularly for battery life and proper function. Waiting until you need it is too late. There is nothing wrong with a mixture of both. Decide what purpose each firearm performs and set it up for that purpose. Just remember to train with the equipment used. And that includes backup equipment like iron sights.

Sheriff Jason Mosher is a law enforcement generalist instructor as well as a firearms and tactical weapons trainer. Jason graduated from the FBI-LEEDA (Law Enforcement Executive Development Association) and serves as a Sheriff for his day job. When he’s not working, he’s on the range, eating steak, or watching Yellowstone.

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