Iron sights have been in use since the introduction of firearms technology. They function effectively, providing a point of reference for shot placement and are commonly included on most rifles sold today. Despite their reliability, it is increasingly common for enthusiasts to opt for various optics, with red dots being among the most popular.
Red dot sights have rapidly become a staple in the modern shooting scene, offering an affordable alternative to traditional variable power scopes and presenting numerous advantages over iron sights.
Still, many new firearm enthusiasts don’t know what red dot sights do better than iron sights. Below, we’re breaking down red dot sights and going over all the benefits you can expect to find after making the switch from iron sights.
How do Red Dot Sights Work?
A red dot sight is a type of optic that projects a red dot onto the objective lens as a point of reference for your aim. In most cases, light is projected from the rear point of the optic. This light is reflected at the user by the front lens, creating the reticle pattern or just a single dot, depending on the optic.
Older red dots were only capable of producing a single dot reticle, but now, some are capable of having multiple reticle elements like the popular ACSS reticles.
These sights provide a bright, adjustable center dot, offering a significant advantage over iron sights, which may lack illumination or only feature tritium night illumination. Red dots, in contrast, facilitate rapid target acquisition and smooth transitions between targets in any light condition.
One of the main concerns newcomers have when switching over to red dot optics is battery life. The last thing you’d want to have happen is for your red dot to power off when you need it most. Fortunately, their battery lives are incredibly long. Most modern red dots have a battery life of around or more than 30,000 hours. Pair this with the fact that some optics will automatically shift to low-power mode when stored, it’s common to hear experiences from enthusiasts who haven’t had to change their batteries in their optics for years.
Common Types of Reflex Sights
There are a lot of reflex sight variants available, with some having different mounting footprints, sizes, and lens shapes. Fortunately, a diverse array of red dots is available, so it’s not impossible to find one that fits your needs and specs. The following are some of the most prevalent types:
Red Dot Sights
These are by far the most common to see in the market today. Red dot sights are one of the simplest in construction and are often built with durable materials and tough cases to keep them resistant to obstruction debris, shock, and water. While there are larger, full-size options available, smaller micro red dots are common as well. Optics like our SLx Advanced Rotary Knob Microdot and SLx Advanced Series sights, Holosun AEMS, SIG Sauer Romeo 4T, and the Trijicon MRO are just a few examples of popular red dots available.
Commonly seen on pistols, mini reflex sights are a relatively new type of reflex that have surged in popularity. These sights are much smaller, and as such, they can be used on handguns, or on rifles as an offset or backup sight. A few notable examples are our Classic Series Micro Reflex Sight, SLx RS-10, the Trijicon SRO and RMR, Holosun’s HS507C, and the Leupold Delta Point Pro. Our article on what to consider with a pistol red dot goes breaks down this optic type even further.
Holographic sights are the most complex in terms of construction. Instead of bouncing light off one point to project a reticle on the glass, holographic sights bounce a light off prisms and mirrors to project a reticle within the optic. There aren’t as many holographic sights available when compared to standard red dots, but some of the most notable sights are the EOTech sights, and Vortex AMG UH-1 Gen II.
Regardless of which sight type you choose, they all function in similar ways, though their construction is different. To get a better idea of which might work better for you, our guide on holographic sights vs. red dots is worth checking out.
If you’re interested in using a red dot as a main sight for your rifle, it’s better to opt for a full size reflex sight or holographic. If you’re planning on using a red dot as an offset sight or to mount on your handgun, a mini reflex sight is going to be the better option for you.
Benefits of Red Dot Sights
We touched on a few of the benefits offered by red dot sights, but we’re going to go more in-depth on the core advantages they bring to the table. When comparing red dots with iron sights, there really isn’t too much to compare, since red dots provide more benefits overall.
Improved Target Acquisition
One of the standout advantages of red dots is their superior performance in target acquisition. With iron sights, you have to align the front and rear sights with your target in order to properly aim your rifle. You don’t have to do this with a red dot.
Instead, the larger objective lenses found in red dots provide a much wider field of view, and the dot is all that needs to be on target, when properly zeroed, of course. Because of this, there’s considerably less time to acquire your target when using a red dot, making them much quicker than iron sights. Though iron sights can be used to great effect after proper training, sight acquisition is much quicker and easier with a zeroed red dot.
They also provide an unobstructed view of the target. When using iron sights, it’s possible to make out the target, but quite a bit of the sight picture is taken up by the sights themselves. This isn’t an issue in most red dot sights, as they allow enthusiasts to shoot with both eyes open, giving a much wider peripheral view.
Red dots typically offer enhanced accuracy and repeatable shot placement. We touched on this previously, but depending on the optic, your red dot can project more than just a dot sight.
Newer red dots have the capability of projecting other reticle types. As we said before, there are numerous red dot models in production that project a multitude of reticles, including the standard dot reticle, a circle dot reticle, and an open circle reticle. For instance, the Holosun 530G-RD can switch between having a single dot or a circle dot reticle.
These give you much more versatility compared to iron sights. By using a modern red dot sight, you have more options for holds and a better overall sight picture. With basic iron sights, there isn’t much you can do for distance holds, but with a complex reticle, it can be done much easier.
Enhanced Situational Awareness
The improved peripheral vision afforded by red dot sights contributes to heightened situational awareness. Shooting with both eyes open allows users to focus on the target and its surroundings, making it easier to notice movements. Also, this allows you to focus on your target instead of on your front sight. This gives you greater control over the situation, as you can fully see your target, what it’s doing, and what is all around it. In scenarios with multiple moving targets, such as personal defense, this is incredibly useful.
Another great aspect of the red dot sights is how efficient they are in low-light environments. Since red dot sights are illuminated, it’s much easier to get on target in both low-light and bright environments. Like we mentioned before, iron sights can crowd your overall sight picture, and in darker environments where it’s crucial for you to clearly and accurately your target, the sight picture on a reflex sight is much more conducive for low-light shooting.
Versatility and Adaptability
One of the greatest advantages to behold with a red dot is their incredible versatility. They can be mounted to virtually any rifle, so long as there is a picatinny rail or another mount with the right footprint present. One of the common setups you can expect to see is people running a mini reflex sight on top of or offset from their main rifle scope or prism scope.
Setups like these give you the versatility of two different sight variants. Your main optic provides magnification and is better suited for shots at distance, while your offset/backup sight gives you all the benefits mentioned above for close quarters. If you’re interested in running an offset red dot, our article breaks down everything you’ll need to know before buying.
Let’s say that you don’t plan on running an LPVO or other variable power optic on your rifle setup. You’re in luck. Red dot sights are often run in tandem with a magnifier. A magnifier is a type of scope that mounts behind your red dot sight.
Essentially, it’s a prism sight without any type of aiming reticle. Instead of acting as a standalone optic apparatus, it magnifies your sight picture and broadens the overall ability of your optic package. Magnifiers most often come with hinging mounts, allowing them to quickly be flipped in and out of position when needed. Pair this with the fact that most modern red dots have multiple reticle patterns, a red dot and magnifier combo is a truly versatile optic package, capable of exceeding in numerous scenarios.
Remember, when magnified, your red dot is going to maintain its current zero. If it isn’t zeroed properly, it isn’t going to translate well when magnified. Our guide on zeroing your rifle scope at 100 yards can help you greatly when zeroing your optic.
Night Vision Compatibility
Iron sights can’t really be used in conjunction with night vision goggles or NODs. However, most red dots can. Most of the modern red dot sights available today come with multiple brightness settings, and usually they can have 1-to-2-night vision settings, though this depends on the optic. If you plan on running NODs, a red dot is the best option for you since it will give you the best sight picture and aiming capabilities when using night vision devices.
Utilizing Iron Sights as a Backup
Despite the numerous benefits of red dot sights, it’s generally a good idea to have a backup for your primary sight.
It’s common to see operators and enthusiasts alike using iron sights as a backup to a red dot sight or other type of optic. In fact, one of the most popular aftermarket iron sights available are the Magpul MBUS sights, which stands for, “Magpul Back-Up Sight”. Iron sights are often used on either the same top rail as the optic if, or as an offset back up.
It’s possible to use iron sights on the top rail of a rifle so long as the sights can co-witness. Co-witnessing is when you can see your iron sights through the objective lenses. There are two main types of co-witnesses, absolute and lower 1/3 co-witness. Absolute co-witness centers the iron sights when looking through the optic, while a lower 1/3 co-witness has the iron sights picture in the lower portion of the objective lens.
As to which one you choose, it’s up to personal preference. If you want to see more of the iron sights or have a lower optic height, absolute co-witness will be better for you. That said, if you want to see more of the red dot, a lower 1/3 co-witness could work better for you. Depending on your type of back up irons, either could work better for your build.
Something to take into consideration is how large your red dot’s objective lens is and if your iron sights are fixed or folding. With fixed irons, a lower 1/3 mount is going to give you a less crowded aiming window, making it easier to aim with your red dot. If you have folding iron sights, either option can be used to great effect.
Iron Sight Options
There’s a wide variety of sights to choose from, though. For instance, Magpul has both the standard MBUS and MBUS pro available. The MBUS Pro is like the standard model, but they are smaller and made of aluminum instead of polymer. Both fold when not use, allowing you to keep them in mounted in line with your main optic.
Other companies like Daniel Defense, Troy Industries, Mission First Tactical, Midwest Industries and Scalarworks all make great iron sights. Each manufacturer listed produces a variety of iron sights, ranging from fixed iron sights, to folding ones, and even 45-degree offset irons. Regardless of which one you choose, you can’t go wrong with any of them.
Iron sights will always have a place on their respective firearms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the end-all be-all of optics technology. Red dot sights have become much more advanced than they used to be and have many benefits that traditional irons don’t.
Still, iron sights are a more-than-effective back up sight to modern red dots and aren’t going away anytime soon. There’s still a lot to consider when looking for a red dot sight, and continuing your research is the best way to gain insight on what’s available. We even make it easy for you, our guide on the 5 things to look for when buying a red dot can get you up to speed on just that.
Whether you’re starting a new rifle build, or updating an older one, a red dot sight is a great option, as their versatility and adaptability make them an incredible light-weight alternative to variable power optics and iron sights.