Posted on 3 Comments

The Best AR-15 Iron Sights

Author: Ryan J.

The world of optics has come a long way over the years. Thumbing through an old gun magazine during the War on Terror, you’ll see that optical sights were much less refined and the “Red Dot Scope” was an expensive specialty item, and far from common. Even the best red dots and scopes from that era’s spec sheets can be bested by the least expensive and excellent optics of today. Modern optical sights are incredibly reliable, robust, and feature-laden.

Thanks to modern red dot sights and low-powered variable optics, the concerns about reliability, battery life, zero retention, and zero adjustments are pretty much non-existent, leaving many shooters looking at a set of backup iron sights (BUIS) as unnecessary. If modern optics such as those offered by AT3 can be dunked in mud, thrown across the concrete, and left on for literally years before battery replacement, why even bother with the BUIS? It would seem that the need for one is simply gone, as optics rarely go down these days.

But the BUIS is still widely available and can be found on rifles that see serious use around the world. Modern military rifles such as the IWI Tavor and Croatian HS Produkt VHS have BUIS integrated into the design, even though they are set up for the most modern optics available. Many professionals have chosen to back up the optic on a hard use rifle with a set of BUIS; they can be found attached to rifles slung across the chests of professional users from Syria to Ohio. So if professionals going into harm’s way use them, the question for the average hunter, recreational, defensive, or competitive shooter is if they are worth their time as well.

Don’t miss it... Sign up to get US Army Service Manual for AR-15!

The three “R”s – Reasons to put a BUIS set on your rifle.

  1. Reliability– The BUIS sights that I will go into below are even more reliable than any optic. Most of them have been in production for years now and have a little issue. It is pretty easy to find cases of optics failing, but rarely a set of BUIS. Because these things have a small fraction of the parts of even the simplest optic, there is just not much that can go wrong with them. Further, most use the same sight setup that was used on the standard rifle for generations. Your grandpappy used the same sight setup to good effect on his M1 Garand as he marched across the world fighting evil. A set of “Peep” sights was the standard for putting deer in the freezer on the old lever action for generations. The aperture sight was considered the best option on a rifle for many generations because it WORKED. Times changed, but the aperture sight is still as effective today as it was for the generations of shooters prior.
  2. Redundancy– No matter how good the tires are on that lifted off-road vehicle that you see running an over landing adventure, you will never catch the driver without a spare one on the back or roof. When you are miles away from civilization, running over nothing that looks like a paved road, having a useless vehicle can be deadly. The same thing applies to the sighting system on your rifle. Backpacking to your hunting spot, driving to the match, or even reaching for the rifle when rounds are incoming is not the time to have a useless firearm. If the rifle is reduced to nothing but a fancy noise-producing device because you cannot hit anything with it, that makes it pretty useless. A rifle that cannot be aimed, will at BEST ruin your day and waste your time, and at WORST transform you into a decaying meat sack that has a broken computer attached to it. The BUIS instantly (either by flipping them up or rotating the rifle slightly off-center) gives you the ability to carry on and put rounds down range as needed when heading to the Wal-Mart to grab batteries or calling the optics company for return authorization is not an option.
  3. Return on minimal investment– Even the most expensive BUIS is much less expensive than even some mid-tier optics. Picking up a set to add to your latest AR upper is going to get you on the range or in the field for much less money as you pore over what optic to choose as time and budget allow. They also weigh much less than one loaded magazine of ammo, or a GI cleaning kit in most cases. A BUIS set is a low-cost and lightweight accessory that provides the redundancy and reliability that few other accessories can, at a minimum investment of money and weight. You can spend a fortune on the latest whiz-bang accessories for your rifle, but the BUIS will give you the best bang for your buck of any of them.

So if I have at this point convinced you that this minimal cost, lightweight and reliable accessory is worth your time, the next question is which one to choose. All of the models listed below are excellent options that range in price and features. While this is nothing as complicated as a deep dive into the dizzying array of optics on the market, there are still some different considerations that affect your choice.

ONE NOTE:

The sights that we will be looking at below are the SAME height. This means if you are running them on a true “Flat Top” design with a free-float handguard such as the AT3 SPEAR, you will be good to go. If you are trying to use them on some other designs that use a rail cast into the gas block that is a different height from the receiver, they are not going to work out for you.

Also, all of the “flip-up” types on this list are best suited for the use of a red dot sight as they can be flipped up and run right through the red dot sight in less than a second. If you have decided to go with a conventional scope and still want to use these, your best bet is the inclusion of a quick detachable mount to remove the optic for Iron sight use. The cost of such a mounting device should be considered in this.

So let’s dive into what’s out there.

Magpul MBUS Front And Rear Back-Up Sight Kit – Gen 2 

In many ways, the word “Magpul” has become so popular that it is beginning to sound like “Kleenex” or “Xerox” for the AR world. These sights have become the long-running standard in the industry and much like the PMAG, made by the container full by Magpul, they are often included as OEM parts on some rifles.

These sights are extremely lightweight and can be almost instantaneously deployed with the flip of a switch. The sights are low profile, stay out of the way, and are useful for any application where a set of irons are needed. You don’t become the industry standard because you suck.

Some may be concerned about the use of polymer in their design and that is far from a concern. This is not your “GI Joe thumb” level of plastic by any means (I dunno anybody in my generation that didn’t have GI Joes with busted off thumbs on them). The use of modern polymers has reason to be embraced by you, everything from frames to magazines to receivers is made of polymer because it is lightweight, durable as hell and never wears out. These particular sights have been literally blown up and run over with vehicles to show how durable they are over the years, and the “flex” of the polymer construction has proven it to be more impact resistant than a comparable aluminum set.

If you are looking for the best lightweight, all-around most universally accepted, “just buy them and never worry about it” set of BUIS, these set the standard and are highly recommended.

Magpul MBUS PRO Front and Rear Back-Up Sight Kit 

So what do you do when you have created the industry standard in a product? History is full of companies that will rest on their laurels and ride the wave of their success until a competitor comes along and builds the better mousetrap to throw you off the throne.

Not Magpul. They will continue to innovate.

After the huge success of the standard set as described above, they decided to roll out a “Pro” version of the BUIS while still keeping it lightweight and tough as nails. Actually, nails are not as tough as these, to be honest.

Some folks just want metal of some type when it comes to their sighting system. In the pistol world, upgrading a set of factory-installed polymer sights on the Glock is considered the only upgrade worth bothering with. The polymer may be fine when it comes to BUIS systems and is usually totally adequate these days, but metal is considered better by some shooters.

So the Magpul MBUS PRO is in fact a metal BUIS system. However, compared to others on this list, this is a set made of case hardened steel that has a Melonite coating over it for corrosion resistance. What does all that mean?

The melonite QPQ coating is the same one that is being put on barrels in place of chrome lining for corrosion and abrasion resistance and is being put on pistol slides for the same reason. This isn’t some spray-on finish with fancy ingredients, it’s an industrial-based surface treatment that basically makes the part as impervious to rust, corrosion, and abrasion as anything can be.

Case Hardening has been used for centuries to make small parts harder on the outside than they are on the inside. Think of a case hardened part like an M&M, it is hard on the outside and less so on the inside. This was originally done so that small, hard-use tools and parts would be machined and then made harder for the application that they were intended for.

Put case hardening and Melonite together, and you have an incredibly tough sight that can be smaller and lighter weight. These sights are known for their low profile and lightweight at under 2 ounces. Further, unlike the standard Magpul MBUS above, you could mount these on a gas block as heat is no longer a concern (you could probably mount them on a stove burner if it had a 1913 rail on it). In addition to all of this, they also moved to have the PRO version use tool-free adjustment. Needing to make corrections of sights in the field or on the range is no fun if you don’t have the tool with you to accomplish this, so if this is a concern, this set is already good to go.

Troy HK Style Folding Front Sight with Troy Di-Optic Folding Rear Sight

I will say this right up front just so we get it out of the way: this set is the most expensive on this list. Being expensive is, in and of itself, not the only consideration in making a purchase, so long as the expense justifies the quality of what you are getting. My dad always told us growing up, “Only the rich can afford poor quality.” And like most things my dad told us, he spoke the truth.

If you are going into harm’s way, are paying out big money for a hunt far away from home, or are at a level of professional who makes his living relying on your firearms, this is the set you may want to consider.

 

The Troy sights have been included as OEM equipment on many high-end rifles. My Colt LE901-16S (now unfortunately out of production and the most high-end rifle I ever bought) included a Colt re-branded Troy sight on the back of the rail. Being that I traded 9 guns away to make that purchase, I had to wait on optics as a civil servant’s salary would not let me make a purchase of anything else for quite some time. The irons would have to do. I was skeptical if the sights would be as good as a set of standard open sights that came on a rifle purpose-built for open sight use, and my skepticism was unfounded. I was ringing steel at 300 yards as long as I did my part, and they never gave me a lick of a problem. They are absolutely as good as any other open sights and can serve full time if one has mastered them, or is just learning to truly work with an aperture open sight.

The other reason to consider these would be the option of having tritium included in the setup. Lots of shooters consider tritium as mandatory on pistol sights. The reason is that bad things tend to happen in low light. Most optics are equipped to deal with this, but if your optic goes down in low light and your backup is about as useless as having nothing at all, then what was the point of having it in the first place? Troy also managed to innovate here, aperture rear sights are designed to look through, not at, so the diamond-shaped rear sight allows the shooter to get a frame of reference for where the rear sight is so that it may be looked through properly in low light situations. If one were to look at the night sights on the first generation of the Israeli Galil, they would find a similar system.

UTG Low Profile Flip-Up Backup Iron Sight Set – Front and Rear

There are many shooters who want or even need a professional grade set of BUIS for their rifles, and then there are the rest of us. If one is on a budget, then this sight set may be the way to go. This set, while not costing the same as a professional-grade setup, is also packed with features and is well-designed and engineered. For the vast majority of rifle owners, this set may actually be the perfect solution for a low-cost way to have cheap insurance for a backup.

UTG has been around for decades making low-cost and innovative products for the firearms accessory market. If you have been around in the firearms realm for any length of time, you have likely used or run into their products. They have been the manufacturer of many other brands’ products and in this business, one’s reputation is always on the line with the end-user. You don’t stay in business for long if you ship crap and UTG has been in the game a long time.

UTG also prides itself on its engineers. If you ever see the coverage on their products from SHOT Show, you will see that their company representatives will happily deep dive into what goes into each product they make to show you the considerations between durability, quality, and price that makes them stand out.

These sights are made of aluminum with positive locking tabs for both the up and down positions. This is important as that means that they won’t accidentally flip down or up when you don’t want them to. Using properly anodized aluminum means that you get lightweight with good durability, if you are concerned with them being aluminum instead of steel, I should remind you that the receiver on your AR15 is made of the same stuff and puts up with way more stress than the sights ever will.

One perceived downside to these is that they are not a “quick” flip-up design. Other sights are able to be deployed faster as they are spring-loaded and flip-up instantly at the press of a switch or button. If this is a concern to you, be advised that you do not get this feature and they will be slower to deploy. That being said, what you gain is a positive stop to LOCK the sights into position, this verifies that you have them fully deployed or fully locked down. If you’re looking for a good set of true flip-up sights from UTG, check out the ACCU-SYNC Flip-Up Sight Set.

Another nice feature of these sights is the setup on adjustment and dual aperture. The adjustment markings are clearly marked, with the windage having marks clearly denoted. This allows for user adjustability that can be tracked easily and reset when changing loads or conditions. The dual aperture also means that the user can instantly decide on aperture size either for close-in rapid acquisition or a more precise smaller aperture for smaller targets.

AT3™ Pro Series Flip-Up Backup Iron Sights (BUIS) – Front & Rear Set – Same Plane – IS-09

The least expensive set of flip-up sights on our list comes from AT3 Tactical themselves. However, as I have been using and selling AT3 stuff for a few years now, I can only use one word to describe their products, “impressive.”

AT3 is a relative newcomer to the firearms world, and like UTG, they have managed to build their business on product offerings that have no business performing as they do for the price you pay. These sights are no exception and while they will likely not have the literal bomb-proof durability of other sights you may find on this list, the chances of you being happy with the performance you get with the little amount of money that came out of your wallet is extraordinarily high. In addition to this, AT3 is well known for excellent customer service and stands behind their warranty fully. Before AT3 ever heard of me, I did have to warranty one of their products and this was a totally impressive experience as they offered a fast turnaround time and were sending me the new product before the broken one ever got shipped back to them. It is hard to argue with that.

These sights have the positive flip up and down detents and dual apertures that the UTG offers but are at a lower price due to being simpler in design. Looking at the two side by side you can see that the machining is less intricate on the AT3, but the specification sheet is essentially the same. This means that you are getting a sort of “everything you need and nothing you don’t” type of product for a price that is below everybody else.

If the budget is extra tight, but you need a set of sights to put on your rifle and still want something that is going to work well with a lifetime warranty if anything breaks, these are your best bet. Everything else that would be in this price range will either be airsoft quality or the customer service and warranty will be laughable.

AT3™ 45 Degree AR-15 Offset Iron Sights – Rapid Transition BUIS

If you are a shooter with a conventional scope for your shooting, still want a good set of BUIS for your rifle, this is your solution. No quick-detach mounts or extra accessories are required.

The 45-degree offset sight can find its origins in the competition world, as some of the more dynamic action shooting sports such as USPSA Multi-gun have targets that can go from less than ten to over 300 yards in distance on a single stage. Shooters at this level needed a solid and precise way to hit these targets as fast as possible. The solution they cooked up was a 45 degree set of sights set up for the close-range work, allowing them to simply cant the rifle over to the side, while still maintaining cheek weld and stance and leaving the scope conventionally mounted for longer range use.

Before this, most dual sighting systems stacked the optic ether over or under the scope. While this worked, truly good shooters knew that cheek weld of the stock is a key to the fundamentals of marksmanship, and not having it in the same place every time led to misses.

These sight sets usually come in two categories, ridiculously expensive and overbuilt or incredibly cheap airsoft-level quality. The set offered by AT3 is a pleasant surprise by defying both of these categories and making its own. It is a well-made unit, but at an incredible bargain, with a great warranty and customer support. This is a recurring theme with the company.

These sights, unlike the other sights mentioned, mimic the M16A2 service rifle sight setup. This means it has all of the capability of the sights that were considered the state of the art a few decades ago, but in a 45 degree offset package. If you were trained in rifle shooting by Uncle Sam prior to the widespread adoption of the ACOG sight, you will be familiar with how this setup works. The A2 sights capabilities are still used to this day to hit targets at 800 yards in service rifle matches throughout the country.

The other true advantage to this sight setup is it can go from a “Backup” iron sight to a “Short Range” iron sight for competition or field use. If you sight this in at 50 yards for instance, but your scope is set for 200, you have a close-in sight and a long-range sight at your disposal, instantly.

Conclusion

The old adage exists: “two is one and one is none.” When it comes to BUIS this adage proves true. Having the reliability, redundancy, and return on investment that these sights offer means that you are more prepared for any situation that you may need to call on your rifle for.

Before we close out, I feel compelled to mention this… you do not want to be “That Guy.” That Guy is the shooter who has all the “stuff” but lacks the knowledge on how to use it. Having “stuff” isn’t an indicator of skill or capability. I know many shooters who have a BUIS set on their rifle but never bothered to actually sight it in or practice with it. If that is the case, any BUIS, including one designed for a nerf gun, will be just fine for them. If you’re not familiar with your irons, go put some rounds down range and start training with them. You’ll be glad that you did.

As for the sights listed above, these are some of the best options out there. Whatever your preference on features or budget, any of these will do well to provide you either cheap insurance for an optical sight or a low-cost alternative to one.

One Last Tip

If there’s anyone that knows the AR-15 platform, it’s the US military. As a special offer for our readers, you can get the Official US Army Manual for AR-15/M4/M16 right now – for free. Click here to snag a copy.

Read More

3 thoughts on “The Best AR-15 Iron Sights

  1. This is an informative and well written article.

  2. Cool. Clearly Ryan knows his stuff!

  3. Excellent read awesome insight. More like this please.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.