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.
“Budget” Red Dot Sight Comparison – Part 2
“Budget” Red Dot Sight Comparison – Part 3
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.