Depending on who one talks to, one will hear different opinions and recommendations regarding the use of back up iron sights in combination with a pistol mounted optic. The opinions themselves are influenced by experience and sometimes with a specific application context. I’m no exception to that. My opinions are heavily influenced by my experience and training and can vary depending on the application context. In fact, this very post was inspired by recent conversations on the topic and my own opinion. An opinion that has evolved quite a bit over the past two years. So what’s my position? Am I for or against back up irons with pistol mounted optics?
Unfortunately, my position isn’t binary nor absolute and the short answer is that it very much depends on application context. Let me backup a bit to provide a bit more context before really getting into it.
One thing that is very common among opinions on this topic is that more often than not they seem to focus on potential optic failures. My early opinions on this subject were entirely based on that concern. So much so that when I first got started using red dot sights on pistols, I very quickly arrived at the conclusion that back up irons simply didn’t matter. This resulted from the optic failure remediation techniques I learned while attending the first course I took that focused on red dot pistol shooting techniques. The basis for this opinion was a combination of the remediation techniques themselves and the realization that most of the common optic malfunctions generally render backup irons useless since they are also visibly obstructed.
That initial opinion was emboldened to become a hard position against back up sights in all applications as they could potentially shift a person’s visual focus from the target to the front sight especially with a high visibility front sight. It turned out the potential is virtually nonexistent once a person has become proficient in shooting pistols with optics and therefore much less of an issue than I believed it to be. Nevertheless, I was under the impression the potential of visual focus shifts was present and could negatively impact accuracy and potentially reduce rate of fire.
As time went on and I became more experienced with pistol mounted optics, my position shifted again to a neutral position.
Later at some point, early this year, I realized that optic hardware failure was not the only problem where back up iron sights might be the solution. The other problem that exists is a software problem, i.e. me. Even though I’ve invested a vast amount of time practicing and training to develop my proficiency with pistol mounted optics I still sometimes can’t find (or lose) the dot. It’s rare, but it happens. Most often it occurs under high levels of pressure. When this happens, the most efficient and effective method I’ve found to combat that software failure is to “shoot the sights” which also brings the dot back into play (assuming there was no hardware failure). This realization heavily swayed my opinion to being a backup ironsight proponent and almost absolutist. Seriously, I started putting backup irons on all the pistols with optics and even got frustrated with some optic-ready pistol designs and adapter plate options that limited or eliminated backup sight options.
As of writing this post, I find myself holding a handful of opinions on the topic that depend on the application context. I also suspect anyone still reading this post is curious as to what those opinions are. So let’s get to it.
For recreational shooting, I believe backup irons don’t matter whatsoever. We have all the time in the world to find the dot. Personally, I avoid backup irons on recreational pistols to force me to make an attempt at a good presentation that puts the dot in the window. The last thing I want to do is inadvertently establish a habit of using the irons to find the dot out of sheer laziness or lackadaisicalness. Recreational shooting is an opportunity to shoot the dot and I want to get the most out of it. That said, I’m not going to bust anyone’s chops for having or not having irons on recreational pistols.
In the context of competitive shooting, I can go either with or without irons. The reality is a dot failure in this setting, regardless if it is hardware or software induced, is going to negatively affect one’s performance. Having the ability to “shoot the sights” gets us back into the game faster than “fishing for the dot”, but it’s going to come at the expense of time to one degree or another. Not having the dot makes software based dot failures more noticeable since they tend to be more costly which can be helpful as input to diagnose causes for software based dot failures and develop a plan to remedy them. I will add that I am currently only competing in local entry tier matches. As such, I use a lot of these as practice and to measure proficiency development progress. I expect those who compete at higher levels to have a difference of opinion. Again, I’m not going to lose my cool over other folks opting to use or not use backup irons in this context.
When it comes to handgun hunting, I have no opinion. I’ve never done it. I suspect I would be ambivalent to the use of backup irons here as well as I would not take a shot at a game animal if I had any sort of dot failure. However, I can see the use of a secondary sighting system for confirming “it’s all systems go” before pressing the trigger. However, this is pure speculation on my part.
Defensive carry is an entirely different case and one in which I am an extreme proponent of backup irons. The stakes are too high to not have a redundant sighting system. When the flag flies, it’s about staying in the fight until it’s over and having multiple mechanisms to remain in the fight is a no brainer.
The only context remaining I can think of is skill development. In this context, I want both options available to me depending on what skill I am working on or what habit I am working on forming (or eliminating). If we want to be able to “shoot the sights” when there is no dot, then we have to practice that. If we want to stop using the irons to find the dot during a presentation or a transition, then we have to practice that. This doesn’t mean we have to have multiple guns or have to change/remove iron sights between practice sessions. We can use techniques like occluding the dot to practice what needs practicing and train what needs training. The main point is that we must be deliberate about what we are trying to improve in each practice session and do the things that move us towards that goal.
Back to the question at hand. Backup irons with pistol mounted optics, yea or nay? I’m mostly a yea, but sometimes a nay.