If you can’t do it with irons, you need to get better

An article I faith I’ve accepted since I was a little kid was that when you’re teaching someone to shoot, it’s irons first, then optics. The old school logic behind that was that if you can master shooting with iron sights, moving up to a scope is going to be easy mode for you. While I appreciate the John Wayne sentiment that drives such a thought process, we’re also in a golden age of affordable optics. Is it time for that thought process to change?

I know that suggesting teaching people with dots first then irons is tantamount to blasphemy, but bear with me here. Let’s assume for the moment that shooting, especially for newbies, is supposed to be fun. I know, I know, that’s crazy talk! Shooting is serious business, we’re training to win matches or gunfights here, there’s no room for fun! True, true, but let’s pretend this is fun. Anyway, if it’s supposed to be fun, it follows that we shouldn’t do things that frustrate new shooters. For that first range trip, you want them to walk off the range feeling like they accomplished something. So instead of teaching them all this “line up this post in between these two posts, then make sure the front one is sharp in focus and the target is blurry” – why not just say “put the dot where you want the bullet to go, then press the trigger without disturbing it.”

With the prevalence of video games, it’s also a fair bet that almost anyone you’re taking to the range for the first time is intimately familiar with concept of how a red dot works, because they’ve probably smoked countless digital fools with an aimpoint equipped AR in Call of BattleStrike or whatever.

I don’t really take newbies shooting that often, so I’m not exactly an SME on what they like and don’t like. But I’d be interested to get feedback from people who do that sort of thing, and whether or not you’ve taken this approach.


  1. I took someone out last summer who had been to a range once or twice before. After about 30, 40 rounds on the AR with an Aimpoint he declared it “boring” and that it wasn’t terribly difficult so I have him the irons. To be fair, the range left a lot to be desired in terms of fun (no steel, slow fire only, not very long) and I know that I was quickly at the point where I was pulling the trigger to pass the time too.


  2. You iconoclast you…

    I am a big fan of technology, red dot sights (RDS) are great, especially for older shooters who are having a harder time seeing their sights, and they do make shooting more accurately and faster easier to achieve; It’s one of the reasons the military has encouraged their use.

    I see no harm in teaching someone how to hit hard and fast with RDS, as long as you are also teaching them how to use the iron sights for those time the RDS goes down.

  3. Ironically my wife and I went shooting this past weekend. It was her second time shooting her AR and in the end she preferred shooting mine with the dot vs. hers with irons. She could make solid hits with both, but she was much more accurate and quicker with the dot. Quicker and more accurate = fun.

    As with so much in life, what are we looking for, the journey or the destination? For a rifleman, irons are a journey worth taking. For someone looking to have fun with friends, or gain basic rifle knowledge for home defense, a quality dot gets the job done with less required skill. Not everyone wants to spend hours at the range learning irons.

  4. Ultimate goal is a hole where you want it, when you want it. Why not teach both. I’m old, so iron sights are second-nature because I learned when you still had to tune up a car every 10,000 miles or it wouldn’t run. I can still work on those cars, but I really like fuel injection and solid-state ignition systems. Same goes for anything that improves the down-range performance on a firearm. Dots for when you got ’em, iron if you need ’em. Keep up the good work.

  5. I agree Caleb. I learned irons first and it was great, but I think dots are perfect for beginners. It cuts down on frustration and lets shooters have fun and instructors to focus on safety. My son is 5 and has a Chiappa Lil Badger with a Burris Fast Fire and can plink cans for days with it. Teaching him the dot isn’t going to make it impossible to teach him irons.

  6. Iron sights come in variants. When I was teaching my kids to shoot, they had a really hard time understanding dot and post but a peep sight was totally instinctive.

    1. I second this!!!

      On my high school Rifle Team we all shot with aperture sights. When the season was over and I would take some of my teammates out to the club to shoot handguns or MSR they had a lot of difficulty switching over. The peep sight definitely is more instinctive!

  7. IMHO I’ve been on the range enough times with newer (or just really bad) shooters) who seem to think “oh if I buy this dot/laser/scope I’ll suddenly be really good” when what they really need is practice and somebody to show them how to not put rounds in the dirt. So I have to say get to the point where you can reliably hit the target with the basics first.

  8. Learned on IRONS, LONG, LONG AGO. Love IRONS, But shoot lots of Aimpoint, RDS’S & Scopes to. GUESS I just love to shoot. LOL

  9. Caleb, I think that you’re onto something. When I learned to shoot, a very long time ago, it was a humbling experience. The first lessons involved irons, NRA competition targets, and NRA competition distances. For many, the result was missed shots and low scores. Back then, most Boy Scouts did not enjoy their first range trip and didn’t return to shooting. Since then I have wondered if the use of tin cans as targets and informal plinking as a range visit would have helped more to have a good time and take up the activity. And, I wondered if strict range officers (“iron sights!,” “no trash on my range!”) were doing more to help participation or hurt it.

    Your post raises the same issues. Namely does an old and somewhat valid teaching dogma really help or hurt. There are certainly both pros and cons to be considered.

  10. I have two boys, 11 and 8 years old. When my oldest was 8 I taught him to shoot with irons, it was difficult and I could sense his interest and attention waning. Then I introduce a 4x scope and suddenly he was very excited because he was hitting what he aimed at. Now that my youngest is 8 I started him with the 4x scope and he is thrilled as well. If figure better to instill the joy and interest first, that will provide the sustainability needed when I get to the more difficult task of teaching iron sights and maintenance.

  11. Are you training one person at a time or multiple people? It comes down to an equipment issue. Do you have red dots on all the guns you are using to train people with? If you are teaching a classroom full of students, and they have their own guns with them, you will probably have to stick with teaching iron sights because that is the lowest common denominator. While there are lots of low cost red dots out there, the vast majority of them won’t stand up to the rigors of hard or long use such as are encountered in a typical firearms training school. The ones that will add a significant cost to the overall price of the gun.

  12. I am of two minds. For modern carbines, that are more or less ubiquitously equipped with RDS these days (for good reason), go with the dot to start. Or the scope if it’s a hunting rifle (do modern bolt rifles even come with irons anymore?? Seems like most don’t.) Learn the irons later for sure. But I’m still not sold on the dot/optic for pistol. I haven’t tried many of the mini-dots, just the Fastfire, but for me, it takes much longer to pick up the dot than it does to pick up the front sight from the draw. I can see the front sight with my peripheral vision as it comes up, even when the muzzle is still slightly out of alignment, be it up, down, or to the side. But not so for the red dot, it doesn’t come into view unless the barrel is pretty much right in line with the target. Maybe good practice to get you to present the gun “on target” and for point shooting, but does not “make it easy” when first learning. Also, and again maybe this is just me, the dot seems to move around a LOT more than the irons do on a pistol. Something to do with having the front and rear reference points maybe? I feel like my hold is steady with irons, but put the RMR on there and it looks like I’m shaking like palsey.

  13. I have had to go overseas and train foreign forces. And it is far simpler and efficient to give them a red dot equipped rifle than just irons. With the red dot, as a instructor you don’t have to worry about their sight alignment, and can work on everything else. Once they get everything down, pull the optic then teach them the irons.

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