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How to Sight in a Shotgun – Red Dots and Irons

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A common misconception surrounding shotguns is that aiming isn’t necessary when using one. Shotguns, like all other firearms, require precise aiming to hit your target. While the spread of shot pellets can increase the probability of hitting a target, shot patterning is often less forgiving than people expect—especially within home-defense distances. If you plan on building a serious proficiency with shotguns, you’ll need to know how to acquire your sights to land the best shot. 

Shotguns have many sight options, ranging from iron sight variants to reflex sights. No matter which one you end up going with, they each serve as a solid point of reference for your aim. Of course, if your sights aren’t zeroed, your shots will not be landing where you need them to.  

In this article, we’ll be looking at the different sights available to shotguns—plus some best practices for zeroing that will give you the best performance. 

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Types of Shotgun Sights 

Whether you’re looking at a 12-gauge or a 20-gauge shotgun, they most often come with either a bead sight or some form of open iron sights. Both sight options are incredibly easy to use, but they have some distinct characteristics that lend themselves to different scenarios. 

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Bead Sights 

One of the simplest and oldest styles of sights for shotguns is the bead sight. Sights like these have been used on shotguns for hundreds of years and, to this day, are still some of the most common sights you can expect to see on most shotgun models. They’re found on traditional models like break action shotguns and even on some tactical shotguns for home defense.  

Bead sights are usually made of brass, but the term ‘bead sight’ encompasses all shotgun sights that feature a single front sight above the muzzle of the gun, regardless of the material used. Manufacturers sometimes use bead sights with bright colors such as white and orange, while others use fiber optics for enhanced visibility. 

Unlike conventional open iron sights, there isn’t a rear sight to line the bead up with. While it doesn’t seem advantageous, they work remarkably well across different applications. While they aren’t the greatest option for anything that requires precision at distance, they’re agile and intuitive for getting a quick point of aim on target. 

There isn’t anything you need to do to sight these in either. Shotguns with bead sights are ready for use out of the box, as you only need to line the bead up with your target to use them effectively. For applications where quick aim is needed, like hunting, trapshooting, and defense, bead sights are a simple, yet effective sight choice. 

Traditional Iron Sights 

Iron sights are familiar to most enthusiasts since they’re featured on most firearms. Instead of using a single sight post like bead sights, they have both a front and rear sight post. They can also come in many distinct forms like open iron sights and ghost ring sights. 

Open iron sights on shotguns are identical to how they are on other platforms, featuring a front sight post and a rear sight that’s notched for sight alignment. Rear sight notches come in different shapes, with the most common being Square-notch and U-notch sights. Regardless of which one you use; the front sight post must be aligned within the rear sight to make an accurate shot. 

This aiming principle is the same across all two post iron sight variants, including ghost rings. Ghost ring sights are quite like open iron sights, but instead of having a notched rear sight, they use a large open circle known as a ghost ring. Ghost rings are great for shotguns; the larger rear sight window makes it easy to pick up the front sight, and the ring also approximates the spread of shot patterns like 00 Buckshot for example. 

To sight in your shotgun’s iron sights, there isn’t much to be done. Most iron sight variants aren’t adjustable, so if they’ve been installed properly, you’re good to go. Bead sights and traditional iron sights offer optimal alignment when installed correctly, so there isn’t anything you need to do to zero them.  

Something to note is that some shotgun iron sights are adjustable. If yours are, you’ll need to know how to zero them, and we’ll go over this process later in this article.  

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Reflex Sights 

While almost all shotguns come with some form of iron sights, they aren’t always the best option. Iron sights often have limitations, especially in terms of sight picture quality and target acquisition speed. These limitations are why many enthusiasts opt to use modern sight options like reflex and red dot sights.  

Reflex sights are some of the most effective upgrades you can make to any of your firearms, significantly outperforming iron sights. Red dot sights, unlike iron sights, provide you with an unobstructed view of the target and offer a much wider field of view, while iron sights often make it difficult to focus solely on the target due to the necessity of sight alignment.  

Additionally, red dot sights are much quicker to use and offer better situational awareness. In scenarios where speed is crucial, like competitions for example, it’s hard to beat the agility of red dot sights, especially when aiming with both eyes open. This not only gives you a clearer target image, but it also allows you to fully see what’s around you. Though this isn’t impossible to do with iron sights, running a reflex sight is much more intuitive. 

Many reflex sights have multiple reticle options too. While the standard dot reticle is a solid pick, it doesn’t provide any additional targeting benefits like other reticle options do. For instance, open-circle and circle dot reticles can be used as a reference for spread pattern at a certain distance. One example is the Primary Arms Optics SLx® MD-25 Rotary Knob 25mm Microdot. It can come with the ACSS-CQB reticle, which has a center chevron and outer horseshoe. 

Now, when you’re shooting something like buckshot, you won’t need to worry about bullet drop. When shooting slugs, however, BDC holds will help you support your accuracy for as far as possible.  

There is A LOT to cover when discussing red dot sights. Our guide on how red dots work fills in the gaps and goes in-depth on what makes these optics worth considering.  


Factors to Consider before buying a Reflex Sight 

Choosing a reflex sight for your shotgun requires a lot of careful consideration, especially since there are so many options available. Brands like Primary Arms Optics, Holosun, Vortex Optics, and Trijicon are just a few examples of the high-quality optic manufacturers around. 

Even though there are a lot of solid picks for shotgun red dots, not all shotguns are created the same. Though some models, like most tactical semi-auto shotguns, come optic-ready from the factory with a picatinny rail or other mount, traditional options like pump-action and lever action shotguns aren’t always made this way.  

Most pump-action, lever action shotguns, and other shotgun types can have the capability to run optics, even if they don’t come readily configured as such. Each model can have specialized adapters and optic mounts that make them capable of running optics.  

Still, this simply isn’t the case for all models. Some shotguns simply can’t run optics. If you own a pump-action shotgun, our pump-action shotgun guide is a beneficial read. It breaks down all the parts that make up the firearm, as well as some accessories that you can use with them.  

Also, while red dots and other reflex sights can make for an excellent addition on your shotgun, they may not be the best option for all applications. If you plan to use your shotgun in competitions, it’s worth noting that some competitive leagues don’t allow the use of red dots. This depends on the league you’re competing in, so it’s up to you to read and abide by the rules they have set in place.  

If you’re looking into running a red dot or other reflex sight on your shotgun, check out our guide on choosing the best red dot for your shotgun. It breaks down everything you’ll need to know before adding one to your setup. 

How to Sight in a Shotgun 

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Sighting in Iron Sights 

Zeroing your shotgun’s sights isn’t as difficult a task as most assume it to be. Like for other firearm platforms, it’s crucial to have a solid shooting rest so that you’ll have repeatable results. Make sure that your rest is set up at the zero distance of your choice (25 yards is a good distance for most shot types). Begin by setting up your shotgun within the shooting rest so it’s secure. Next, take aim at the target, ensuring the sights are aligned properly on the center, and fire the shotgun. This process is easiest with slugs, since you won’t have to deal with deviation from a spread pattern, but if you’re using shot, you’ll want to use the center of the pattern as your point of impact. 

Based on your shot pattern’s location in relation to your sights, you’ll have to adjust to the windage and elevation of the rear sight. Adjustable sights usually have two adjustment screws, one for the windage and one for the elevation of your sight. The windage adjustment controls the side-to-side movement of the sight, while the elevation is for the up-and-down movement. (NOTE: the directional labels on these adjustments are for the point of impact, so if you adjust in the ‘up’ direction, you’ll be moving the point of impact up—NOT the aiming point, which will appear to move down.) 

Adjust as necessary, and fire another shot to see where it impacts the target. Repeat the process until your shots align with the sights of your shotgun.  

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Sighting in a Reflex Sight 

The process of zeroing a reflex sight is nearly identical to zeroing iron sights. Like with iron sights, start with the same setup as before (having a stable position at the proper zero distance), take aim, fire, and note where the projectiles land. Using the adjustment knobs on the optic, adjust the reticle in relation to how your shot impacted the target. Repeat this process until your reticle approximates where your shot lands on target.  

As mentioned, red dots can project multiple reticles. For dot and chevron reticles, the reticle should sit in the middle of your shot pattern, or they should project where a slug will impact the target. However, open circle and circle dot reticles are a bit different. The outer circle, so long as it’s a ~65 MOA circle, approximates the spread of 00 buckshot at roughly 25 yards with an open choke. Assuming you’re zeroing for this distance, you’ll want the pattern to sit inside the circle. 

It’s crucial to know that a zero for one shot type will not always translate to other shot types. Buckshot, for example, has many different weights and shot pellet counts, so it’s unlikely that they will align perfectly when using a zeroed dot. Though you won’t need to re-zero your sights, you will have to take the different shot patterns into consideration before shooting.  

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Shotguns are effective tools that fit into nearly every shooting application, whether it be recreation, hunting, defense, or duty. Still, many enthusiasts are often unaware of the sight options available for these firearms.  

While standard sights like the bead sight are time-tested and proven to be more than effective, upgraded options like open iron sights, ghost ring sights, and reflex sights can greatly enhance your accuracy and overall shooting experience. No matter which one you use, it’s important to ensure that your sight setup is zeroed properly.  

If you’re on the fence about adding a shotgun to your personal collection, we recommend checking out some other shotgun-centric articles. Our guide on affordable and reliable shotguns is a great place to start, offering solid insights and recommendations for starter shotgun models.