Thursday, December 18, 2014

AR-15 follow-up #4: Sights

This is the fourth update on my request for information w.r.t. refurbishing AR-15 rifles for disabled and handicapped shooters.  The original post is here;  the first update is here;  the second update is here;  and the third update is here.  In separate articles I've also covered the importance of magazines and the selection of an AR-15 and accessories to meet your needs.

I've been very surprised to learn (while reading and researching sights and options) that some writers now suggest that it's no longer necessary to put conventional 'iron sights' on your rifle.  They believe that red dot and telescopic sights have become so reliable that they're trustworthy on their own.  I'm afraid I can't agree with them.  I accept that Aimpoint stands alone at the pinnacle of red dot sight development, and has established a soaring reputation for being as reliable as a sight can get.  However, anything not wearing an Aimpoint label - even Eotech, rated as second only to Aimpoint - can't make that claim.  Furthermore, even Aimpoints aren't immune to natural perversity.

  • If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage is the one that will go wrong.
  • Everything will go wrong sooner or later - usually when you least expect it.
  • If nothing can go wrong, something will.
  • Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.

Batteries can fail;  sights can be damaged when a rifle is dropped;  I've even known three cases where incoming enemy fire hit a sight.  (In one of them it didn't do the person behind the sight much good, either.)  You need a backup sighting system, just in case.  Iron sights provide that backup.

There are two types of iron sights on AR-15's:  fixed and folding.  The fixed sights are tougher and stronger, in my experience.  However, the fixed rear sight has the disadvantage of making it difficult to use red dot or telescopic sights, because it's usually either mounted on a carry handle or sticking up from the rear of the rifle and getting in the way.  I therefore prefer a flat-top rifle with a Picatinny rail above the receiver, coupled with a fixed M16A2-style front sight tower.  My 'social use' rifle uses this upper receiver configuration:

A folding rear sight and/or the optical sight of one's choice can be mounted on the Picatinny rail above the receiver, while the middle portion between the receiver and the front sight is covered by the handguard of one's choice.  I have a Magpul MOE handguard on mine.  Two other carbines in my gun safe use railed handguards instead, to extend the Picatinny rail on the receiver.  One wears a Daniel Defense EZ CAR unit that fits behind the standard front sight (like that shown above);  the other is fitted with a free-floating Troy Industries Bravo rail unit (discussed and illustrated here) that makes it impossible to use a fixed front sight.  On that carbine I've gone to a folding front sight mounted on the handguard.

There are almost innumerable options available for folding iron sights.  A quick search will reveal a bewildering variety of options.  A relatively low-cost solution (that I've used on the rifles I'm currently repairing and updating for my disabled students) is Magpul's MBUS sights.  The standard units are made of polymer and represent good value for money, while the newer Pro series are made of steel and should prove harder-wearing, albeit at a higher price.  On my own rifles I use the MBUS PRO steel folding front sight where necessary, coupled with the MaTech folding rear sight (shown below) that's been standard US military issue for several years.

As a former serviceman, I appreciate the concept of something being 'soldier-proof'.  If that sight's proved tough enough to take whatever US troops can do to it in combat zones, I'll trust it to be tough enough for my needs too!  It helps that it doesn't cost much more than Magpul's MBUS PRO rear sight, which would be my unhesitating second choice.  Either sight will serve you well.  (Hint:  if you find the rear sight aperture shown above to be a bit small - as I do, with my aging eyes - it can be drilled out to a wider diameter with no difficulty.  Just do it slowly and carefully, because if you remove too much, you can't put it back!  Remember the old saying about 'Measure twice, cut once', and apply it religiously to drilling as well.  Blacken the edges of the enlarged hole - a flat black paint marker pen is a handy thing to keep in your gun tool kit - and you're good to go.)

For serious combat use there's not much that can touch a good red dot sight.  The US armed forces have standardized on Aimpoint units, issuing over a million M68 CCO sights (that designation first referred to the CompM2 model, and more recently to its successor, the CompM4).  That speaks volumes for Aimpoint's quality and explains their dominant position in the field.  Their ultra-light construction, toughness, incredible battery life and proven reliability put them in a class of their own.  Unfortunately, this is reflected in their price, which is very high indeed;  typically $400-$800 depending on the model.  If your budget can support those numbers, I urge you to buy the Aimpoint sight of your choice without a second thought.  In particular, the Patrol Rifle Optic (shown below) appears to offer the best 'bang for the buck' in the company's range at present.

(In my experience, the best prices and customer service for Aimpoint sights and other high-end equipment were encountered at Strohman Enterprise, Inc, where retired Marine LtCol Joe Strohman was extremely helpful and very informative.  If you need a high-end sight, GPS unit, combat light, etc., I highly recommend his company's services - and no, he's not compensating me in any way for this endorsement.  He earned it the hard way.  Tell him you read about his company here, and see whether you can persuade a few friends to work together for a group purchase.  It helps with the pricing.)

There are some good lower-cost options out there.  Matt at The Bang Switch produced a three-part survey of the field earlier this year.  I won't reinvent the wheel;  instead I'll refer you to his articles at the links below.

There were two clear 'winners' in Matt's evaluation:

On sheer numbers totaled from the evaluation forms, the Bushnell TRS-25 is the winner, but the winner as chosen by 4 of the 8 evaluators was the Primary Arms MD-06L, with the other 4 votes being the singular vote for 4 of the other optics.  That said, on pure numbers alone, they were very close in scores as can be seen in the attached final scores table, with only 1.6 points separating the top two optics.

I was delighted to read that, because those are the two red dot sights I use on my own rifles and am currently installing on my students' weapons.  They're virtually identical in size and performance - in fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they're made in the same factory in China.  The Bushnell TRS-25 is shown in the top photograph below, with the Primary Arms unit in the lower image.

They're very affordable - in fact, right now the Bushnell unit is available below $50, which is the lowest price I've seen for it for a long time.  The Primary Arms unit is somewhat more expensive, but not unduly so, and that's compensated for by absolutely outstanding customer service.  This week I contacted the company (their Web site is here) to confess that I'd screwed up and inadvertently damaged the quick-detach riser mount for one of their sights.  I asked what it would cost to fix it or buy a replacement.  Not only did they supply a new mount free of charge, they shipped it overnight at their expense!  It must have cost them a lot more than the profit they'd made on the sight in the first place, but they did it without a second thought.  For customer service like that, I'll gladly pay a little more for their sights.

Both sights are very similar in size, weight and operation to the much more expensive Aimpoint Micro T-1, which isn't surprising - China copies everything!  Like the Aimpoint, they can be mounted on riser units to co-witness with AR-15 iron sights.  The risers can be bought already fitted to the sights (see here for the Bushnell and here for the Primary Arms versions), but I find that 'generic' risers (available from dozens of manufacturers) work just as well and are often a lower-cost option.  I particularly like this Hammers quick-detach unit because it has full-length mounting rails on both sides of the base, giving greater strength and stability.  It's also priced right.  I've bought five of them so far for the rifles on which I'm currently working, to mount both Bushnell and Primary Arms sights.  The riser allows the iron sights to be seen in the lower one-third of the field of vision of either red dot sight.  That means one can use the iron sights without removing the optical sight (although, since the Hammers unit is quick-detach, dismounting it takes only a few seconds if necessary.)

For law enforcement or military use, where conditions may be harsh and unforgiving for extended periods, low-cost red dot sights probably won't stand up to the demands of the environment.  Something tougher like an Aimpoint would be the way to go.  However, for 'average' civilian use on the range or hunting or for home defense, where the rifle won't have to to endure desert heat, Arctic cold or equatorial humidity for weeks on end, lower-cost sights can be very useful.  I wouldn't hesitate to use either Bushnell or Primary Arms red dot sights to defend myself if that was all I could afford.  I'd just make sure I checked their battery regularly (swapping it for a new one every six months, or every three months in colder climes), made sure they were in good working order, and satisfied myself at least once per quarter that they were still zeroed to my defensive load.  (Of course, I'd also want reliable, dependable iron sights available as a backup.)  They can be used on any gun that has a rail on which they can be mounted, including shotguns or even handguns.

Some vision problems, such as severe astigmatism, make it difficult to use a red dot sight.  Those with such problems are left with the choice between a prismatic sight and a telescopic sight, both of which tend to be more expensive than low-end red dot sights.  I don't propose to go into detail about either option.  I'll just say that for those who need an affordable alternative, my standard recommendation is to install a Weaver V3 1-3x20 riflescope (shown below).

They're not too expensive, offer good optical quality, and are compact and lightweight enough to work well on an AR-15.  At shorter ranges I use them at 1x with both eyes open as if they were a red dot sight, and find that works just fine.  For shooting at longer ranges I dial the power up to 3x and use them as a normal telescopic sight.  I find they offer more than adequate performance out to 300 yards range or more.  I currently have four of them on various rifles, and will be putting one on Miss D.'s new AR-15.  (I'll install it atop a UTG 1" riser mount so it'll work with her iron sights, yet she can take it off using the two thumbscrews at a moment's notice if necessary.)

I hope this short article has helped to clarify sight choices for those needing to make them.



Inconsiderate Bastard said...

"Two is one, one is none, and why don't you have three?"

I've become fond of EOTechs over the years, and the primary rifle wears one; one advantage to the EOTech is the BUIS co-witness with the dot, and can be left up with no penalty - they can be used right through the window if need be, or stay focused on the dot and ring and you don't even know thy're there. The front blade has a tritium insert, just in case.

Pro tip: If you use an electronic sight (or, actually, electronic anything), establish - and follow - a battery replacement schedule. And have spare batteries.

The 3-Gun AR carries 3 sights: I recently replaced a Burris 2-7 with an extended eye relief Nikon 2-8 (usually left on 5X) on a higher Warne QD mount so the BUIS will co-witness on that rifle as well, so cheek weld is the same for both. Left folded down, it takes about 10-15 (very long) seconds to remove the scope and flip up the sights. Both the scope and BUIS are zeroed for 265 yards with SS109 ammo (for why the odd number, check out the point blank range numbers on SS109 from an 18-inch barrel). There's also a Burris FastFire red dot on a RH 45 degree offset mount between the rear BUIS and scope, zeroed at 55 yards. This combination works quite well for 3-Gun, but I consider it too "gizmo heavy" for social work.

Now, I want one more AR, in flattop Plain Jane configuration, with fixed (not flip-up) rail-mounted front and rear sights, front with a tritium insert. Minimum number of moving parts, and no batteries to worry about.

Pro tip: whatever your sight configuration, have a backup solution, even if it's just another pair of sights to put on the rail, because stuff breaks, and don't forget whatever tool you need to swap sights. No, they won't be zeroed, but it's not hard to bore sight an AR to at least get holes on a 12X12 piece of paper at 100, and without sights of some kind it's just a club.

Second Pro tip: If you use an adjustable stock, have a spare, or at least some way of securing it at a suitable length in case the adjustment mechanism breaks.

John said...

Great post.

Yes on the iron sights, I have put Yankee Hill Machine folding front sights (YHM-9394) on both of our rifles. The sight is all metal, and even if you using a barrel with a welded and pinned flash hider you can change to this front sight. That is after a little careful surgery to remove the existing front sight base.

Two times so far the front sight base needed surgery to remove. The first time was to get it off the rifle as I could not slip it past the welded and pinned flash hider, and the second time one taper pin would not come out. A little hacksaw work in line with the pin, a slight chisel tap to relieve the pressure and the pin came out. All in all a straight forward job with basic hand tools.

Inconsiderate Bastard, "Now, I want one more AR,....." Yes! And you can keep going with that one more AR for a long time. And thank you for your tips.

John in Philly

Rev. Paul said...

Excellent post. My Weatherby .270Win only has a scope, and isn't inlet for iron sights - and I'm on the second scope because the one which shipped with the rifle self-destructed. But my Garand has its original iron sights, and those work just fine. So yeah, there's backup for the scope. :)

CarlS said...

Just out of curiousity, what makes you say "However, for 'average' civilian use on the range or hunting or for home defense, where the rifle won't have to to endure desert heat, Arctic cold or equatorial humidity for weeks on end ..."

Other than Sheriffs in A ask a or Texas, Colorado and other rural States, or countries, when does law enforcement ever spend more than a normal shift fighting crime?

Peter said...

@CarlS: The LE officer may not spend more than one shift at a time on the job, but the weapon may - you'll often find patrol rifles and shotguns issued to the vehicle, rather than the officer, so they may spend weeks out of the armory at a time. Not necessarily good practice, you understand, just the way it is.

Old NFO said...

Great post, and another option is Troy sights. They are also metal and are a reasonable price.

Anonymous said...

Good timing on the Bushnell info. Really nice price. I've been looking for a 2 or 3mm red dot since shooting an AR with an Aimpoint but not having that deep a wallet.. :)

Rich S. said...

I like irons. If SHTF, the batteries never run out. They're less expensive also, if your budget is an issue.

I'll take someone with irons who practices over a person with a red dot who doesn't have money for ammo.

Also, I just came across this yesterday. It's a military study of small arms reliability in combat. They go over the effects of maintenance, lubrication, and rebuilding in combat conditions. It's worth reading (I don't know if blogger is going to mangle this link).

Jester said...

As a former Army Armorer and Direct Support Repairman I can tell you that Aimpoints are very good but not as great as they are made out to be. The later generations are much better than the early ones but they are all seen as nearly disposable and very difficult to tell when something is wrong with them. Far to often they will drift, something can or will break. I myself never trusted them having seen every thing that can go wrong with them. Always have back up iron sights if this rifle is something you think you need to depend on for life and property. Now I'm not saying that the Aimpoints are not very good but I've seen enough go wrong with them to say I will never solely depend on them.