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Optics vs. Iron Sights

Advanced combat sighting systems make precision shots easier, but you can still be very effective without them.

January 31, 2010  |  by Nick Jacobellis - Also by this author


Last April when a gunman opened fire on officers of the Pittsburgh Police Department it wasn't a fair fight. The shooter was reportedly armed with an AK-47. The first responders had pistols. Three of Pittsburgh's finest were killed in the incident, and it has led the Pittsburgh PD to buy Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifles for its patrol units.

Pittsburgh is not alone. All across the nation, police agencies have bought or are planning to buy rifles for their patrol officers. Others are allowing individual officers to buy their own rifles and carry them on patrol. This trend has been gathering steam since the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout. So the question for many chiefs, sheriffs, and individual patrol officers is no longer: "Do we really need these rifles?" It has become: "Do we really need optics for these rifles?"

While the U.S. military has largely transitioned en masse to using optics on issued M4 carbines and other weapons, many American law enforcement agencies continue to use patrol rifles and carbines with iron sights and no optics. So the question is valid: Do you really need combat optics on your patrol rifle?

Making the Transition

When I served in the 1980's "Miami Vice" era of the Drug War, I carried a variety of semi-automatic and select-fire rifles, carbines, and submachine guns. High-quality compact tactical optics had not been invented yet. As a result, I had to become proficient with iron sights because this was the only sighting system that was available.

So for much of my life, I didn't see a need for optics on long guns that were not being used to make precision shots. But recently I have modified my position.

Trust me when I tell you that I did not make the transition from using iron sights to optics without plenty of second thoughts and hesitation. It took time and the patience of a few highly trained instructors like Richard Batory and Larry Kotz (two experts who have trained various armed professionals) to help me learn the pros and cons about various optics and scopes.

After Batory's and Kotz's instruction, I had to agree that in certain law enforcement situations there are certain advantages to using a patrol rifle, a tactical rifle, or a sub gun equipped with a high-quality optic. This does not mean that I stopped training with or using rifles with iron sights. It merely means that I realized the benefits of using modern technology to make it easier for me to engage certain targets under certain conditions.

The Case for Optics

Probably the key factor in determining whether an officer needs an optic or just iron sights on his or her rifle is the range of the engagement. Another concern is the need for pinpoint accuracy even at a relatively short distance.

Whether with iron sights or optics, the average law enforcement officer is usually trained to engage targets out to 100 yards with his or her patrol rifle. And yes, trained officers can shoot very accurately at that range with iron sights. But certain situations can arise that may require a patrol rifle operator to deliver precision shot placement. In such incidents, an optic will significantly improve the chance of success.

When you use a rifle with iron sights, you must take the time to line up the rear and front sight on the target before you pull the trigger. This process does not take long, but it cannot be rushed if you intend to hit your target with any precision. When you use a properly dialed in optic, all you have to do to ensure accuracy is cover your target with the illuminated reticle and use good trigger control. 

A high-quality combat optic is also more effective in low-light conditions than iron sights. An illuminated reticle is much easier to see than ever tritium night sights.

With the proper training, it is also possible to make faster follow-up shots when you are armed with a patrol rifle that is equipped with high-quality optics.

Finally, acquiring targets is easier on your eyes when you use an illuminated reticle sight. The controls allow you to raise or lower the level of illumination of the reticle to suit your comfort level and the lighting conditions. This cannot be done with iron sights.

The biggest problems that I see with optics on a combat long gun are weight and balance. Yes, there are concerns about batteries and other easily overcome issues, but weight and balance are the most prevalent concerns.

The bottom line is that the more accessories that you mount on your rifle the heavier it will become. Also, some accessories are heavier and larger than other products. Remember, the lighter your base platform, the lighter your rifle will be once you add an optic, a tactical light, a sling, and a loaded 20- or 30-round magazine.

I would argue that law enforcement administrators in jurisdictions that refuse to properly train and equip regular law enforcement officers to carry a rifle that is equipped with a high-quality combat optic, especially a magnified optic are endangering the public they serve. This is true even if these agencies have full-time tactical teams. Remember, some situations-active shooters and bank robberies that go bad are just two examples-require an immediate response and the first responders can't just wait for SWAT. In such incidents, the citizens you serve will be safer if you can take action with precision fire.

Think about what will happen in an active shooter incident. All hell will break lose. Innocent bystanders will be running hysterically back and forth in front of and behind the target that you need to engage. You may also have to contain or engage the shooter while you drag wounded citizens or wounded first responders to safety. A quality optic and a magnifier will give you better options in this scenario.

Selecting a Sight

The first thing you need to know when outfitting your patrol rifle with optics is that optics can break. You need iron sights for backup. I recommend the following combination: a fixed or flip-up front sight, a flip-up backup iron sight, and a high-quality illuminated reticle optic such as an Aimpoint Micro T1, a Trijicon ACOG (Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight), an EOTech holographic sighting system, or a Leupold CQ/T.

We each have our own comfort level when it comes to looking at targets through different optics that have different fields of view. So I can't tell you what sight is best for you. But I can discuss what I like and dislike about certain makes and models of optics.

Aimpoint red dots are tubular in design. I found them a little difficult to adjust to but, with practice, I came to really appreciate them. Aimpoint optics also have an incredibly long battery life, even when they are accidentally left on for long periods of time.

EOTech's holographic sights are noted for having a large field of view but a shorter battery life than some other popular systems. Many shooters who wear glasses find that EOTech is their best option for close combat. Another cool feature of the EOTech is that you can shatter the glass of the scope and still use it.

I also tested and enjoyed using the Leupold Prismatic and the Mark 4 CQ/T. The Leupold Prismatic features an etched glass reticle that's visible with or without its removable battery-powered illumination module. Leupold's Mark 4 CQ/T was designed for medium range and close-combat operations. It offers 11 reticle illumination settings and the reticle is visible without batteries. Eye relief is optimized for AR-style rifles.

Trijicon ACOG sights do not require batteries and are more like a regular magnified rifle scope, only in a more compact version. They use fiber optics to light their internal reticles. The reticles are available in a variety of patterns and colors.

Personally, I liked training with an EOTech, but I ended up transitioning to an Aimpoint Comp M3, an Aimpoint Comp 4, and an Aimpoint 3X Magnifier.

I purchased a Trijicon ACOG 4x32 TAO1NSN optic as a Christmas gift for my youngest son because he likes to have the capability of engaging targets at CQB distances and beyond, and he also likes using rifles with iron sights. The TAO1NSN fits my son's needs perfectly. It even has a set of iron sights attached to the top of the magnified scope body.

Writing this article also gave me a chance to spend some range time with the new ACOG 4x32 ECOS Model. If the position of the Docter Red Dot Sight on top of this scope does not bother you, then you may like this system. The ECOS gives you an easy to acquire red dot sight fixed to the top portion of the scope body for CQB situations, backup iron sights and a magnified scope for more precise shooting at extreme distances.

Some shooters don't like the ECOS system. Their objection is the height of the incorporated Docter Red Dot Sight. To use the ECOS system's red dot, the shooter has to raise up from the shooting position and lose his or her face or cheek weld. But I found that I can shoot very well with this system.

When available, I recommend that you combine a combat sight with a magnifier. You can also use a one-piece magnified optic like a Trijicon ACOG that is fairly compact and lightweight. Optics can also be used with other caliber rifles.

Train with Both Sights

If you do transition to using optics, it is imperative that you continue to train with a patrol rifle that is equipped with iron sights. I say this because you may be forced to revert back to using a "Plain Jane" patrol rifle with iron sights if your optic ever goes out of service because of dead batteries or damage.

Likewise, if you are able to use an optic of your choosing, it is in your best interest to take the time to field test as many optics as possible before you make your final selection. If your agency makes this decision for you and issues you a particular optic, know that all well made red dot optics or magnified combat optics have their fan bases and are generally easy to use, even though you may prefer one model over another.

If you are prohibited by agency policy from using optics I strongly suggest that you consider carrying a M4A2 Carbine with a fixed carry handle. I guarantee that you will roll your eyes in sheer amazement when you realize how lightweight and well balanced a standard M4A2 Carbine is to carry and use in the field, providing you do not add any accessories to this platform, except maybe a tactical light.

While I fully admit that I have no problem using iron sights on a patrol rifle, I also have no problem putting modern technology to work for me so I can become a better shot.

I think the time has come for law enforcement administrators to properly train and equip qualified "regular" street cops to serve as tactical officers in an emergency when SWAT personnel are unable to respond in time to save lives. If using optics, magnified or not, helps you to deliver more accurate shot placement then use the available technology to your benefit.

When no advanced optics are available or they are prohibited by your agency's policies, train to use the iron sights on your patrol rifle with as much precision as humanly possible. If you practice enough, you can still be very effective and accurate aiming with iron sights.

Nick Jacobellis is a medically retired U.S. Customs Agent and a former police officer who was physically disabled in the line of duty while working undercover as a federal agent.

For More Information

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EOTech

Leupold

Trijicon

XS Sight Systems

Tags: Leupold, Trijicon, Sights, XS Sight Systems, Aimpoint, EOtech, Rifle Optics, Red-Dot Sights, Co-Witness, Iron Sights

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Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Aaron @ 7/29/2014 8:43 PM

I feel like everyone should learn the basic principles of marksmanship with iron sights. With that being said, an optic (especially the Trijicon ACOG) can significantly improve a shooters acuracy and has been proven to save American lives on the field of battle in both long range and CQB situations. Truly on of the best sights ever made: http://www.heroestactical.com/optics/sights/acog-sights.html

Carl @ 9/15/2014 11:11 PM

"An illuminated reticle is much easier to see than ever tritium night sights."

Can you fix this sentence... not sure what it's trying to say.

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