How to select the correct sight for a firearm
By Paul Claxton


I’ve been shooting pistols and rifles for over 25 years now and have hung just about every kind of scope off of every kind of firearm made – pistol, revolver, shotgun, semi-automatic, and bolt action. I haven’t mounted a scope to my black powder percussion revolver but give me time. I often see people buying a scope without knowing why one scope or the other would be better for their application. And there in lies the problem. Sight buyers need to clearly focus on what the intent of the sight will be. What makes a good sight for a pistol makes a bad one for a rifle. What makes a good target scope makes a bad close quarter’s combat sight. I will try to explain, as I see them, the different types of scopes on the market and where they might best fit a firearm owner’s needs. This isn’t meant to be a highly detailed look into every scope made but more of an overview to assist the buyer on focusing in on a type of sight.

Iron Sights

The most basic type of sight is one made of metal, often called iron sights though they are more than likely made of space age aluminum and steel. Most firearms come with iron sights but not all do. There are third party iron sights that can be used to replace factory provided ones and highly specialize and very accurate models for target rifle shooting.

Factory iron sights can come in fixed non-adjustable and adjustable types. Fixed sights are often very crude and simple – which also means that they are also very robust and often no-snag. These fixed sights are good for concealed carry or a duty weapon, which doesn’t require the extra accuracy and expense that adjustable sights offer. Factory furnished adjustable sights are normally adjustable for elevation and windage and can be rather fancy with tritium glow-in-the-dark sights.

Some rifles are offered with National Match sights that feature smaller apertures, tighter manufacturing tolerances and finer pitch adjustments. The smaller apertures are harder to acquire and see though and the better quality parts used are more costly than normal adjustable sights.

A step-up from factory sights are third party iron sights. They are made for all types and most popular models of firearms. Some use radioactive tritium to provide glow-in-the dark abilities that would be good for a firearm that may be called on in the dark. Fiber optic inserts can gather available light and cause a point to glow as if light by a light bulb. These are great on shotguns where the target is often a flying bird or clay pigeon. There are also expensive and rather exotic target sights designed to wring the most out of rifles competing in competition classes calling just for iron sights. Iron sights typically are attached directly to the firearm receiver.

Red Dot Sights

Red dot sights are among the newest and most technically advanced. They project a marker, often a dot, using fiber optics, LEDs or tritium elements. They allow the shooter to keep both eyes open giving the best awareness of the situation. The dot marker is the most common but there is also a model with a triangle made by Trijicon. The target markers come in different sizes measured in minutes of angle. A minute of angle is 1/60th of a degree of arc, which is approximately one inch at one hundred yards. Red dots range from 3 moa to 12 moa, smaller dots are harder to acquire but allow for better vision of the target. I also consider the high-tech holographic sights to be types of red dots as they require LED illumination, project a light against a screen and have zero magnification like the red dots. The holographic sights come with a dazzling array of reticle patterns with everything from dots to tombstone shapes to match the intended target. Red dot sights typically require some sort of mount or adapter to attach to the firearm receiver.

Telescopic Sights

The typical telescopic sight is a tube full of optics that magnifies the target and super imposes an aiming pattern over it. They run from just $20 up to several thousands of dollars. Across this span there is a glass sight for every budget and purpose. The normal rifle sight has an eye relief or sweet spot of about one inch to three inches away. There are also long eye relief sights designed to be mounted a pistol. The long eye relief allows the target to be visible at a normal arms length. Intermediate eye relief scopes are for mounting in the “scout” position on a rifle or on the receiver of a shotgun.

Most reticules are some fashion of crosshair pattern but special range finding and bullet drop compensator ones are made too. Range finders work on the principle that if you know approximately how large your target is it will cover a certain amount of the reticle at a given magnification. The optical engineers do all the hard math; in use they are fairly easy to master. Matched to the range finder is a bullet drop compensator, which eliminates holdover or Kentucky windage. Find the range, adjust the bullet drop compensator to that range and shoot straight on.

Mil-dot reticules have a small pattern of dots, which perform the functions of range finding and bullet drop compensation. They are both more flexible and more difficult to master and are often found on top-of-the-line sniper scopes.

Telescopic sights cover magnifications from 1x to 40x. Sights at one end of this range are not suitable for functions that ones at the other end are. Lower power scopes are usually used for hunting where ones on the higher power end are used for dedicated target shooting. Zoom scopes allow some flexibility but often a shooter will find him or herself at one end or the other of the scopes range. Scopes much higher powered than about 5x are not suitable for free standing shots, they must be rested on a bench or other steady object.


Lasers use a very bright light source to illuminate the point of impact. They have become small and lightweight and all require a battery to function. Some are almost daylight visible but not quite so the laser is best used indoors or under dim lighting. Because of the limits in the eye’s abilities of the eye to see a small projected red dot they are limited in range too. These limits make the lasers use very specialized.

Night Vision Riflescopes

Using military image enhancers and costing several hundreds of dollars, the night vision riflescope (NVR) can allow a rifleman to see in the dark what is invisible to the unaided eye. They are relatively heavy and fragile and require batteries to operate. There are several ranges of qualities of NVR’s available normally classified as first, second and third generation. First generation NVR devices often use reconditioned Russian military tubes. Second and third generation devices use American or Israeli tubes, cost a factor more than the first generation devices and offer much clearer images.

Typical Uses

Iron sights are best used in applications where dependability is more important that accuracy – concealed carry, police or security duty pistols and military combat rifles. Red dot sights are best for fast reaction shots to moving targets as in military close quarters combat. Telescopic sights are best when accuracy is most important and speed and dependability are second – police and military snipers, hunting and target shooting. Lasers are good for indoor shooting where the shooter needs to focus on the target/threat rather than the gun – home defense. Night vision riflescopes are high-end extremely limited use devices normally used for military use at night.


The primary function of a sight is to enhance the shooters probability of hitting the intended target. The shooter needs to focus on the target but literally and figuratively. Know what you want to shoot with what firearm and then match the sight to that target. Often a shooter will mount two or more sights on their weapon - a telescopic or red dot sight with iron sight back up on a miliatary rifle or hang a laser on a self defense pistol that has stock iron sights. There is no ideal sight for all purposes.

Type of Sight



Typical Use

Fixed Iron

Cheap, rugged, dependable, no-snag

Lowest accuracy, no elevation or windage adjustments

Personal defense handguns, police duty pistols, hunting

Adjustable Iron

More expensive than fixed, rugged, dependable

Low accuracy

Target pistols, hunting rifles

Red Dot

Quick to acquire, allows shooting with both eyes open

Expensive, require mounting

Close quarters combat, target pistols


Most accurate

Fragile, require mounting

Target shooting (pistol and rifle), hunting


Weapon doesn’t need to be focused on

Indoor or low light use

Self defense

Night Vision

See in the dark capability

Very expensive and fragile

Military use at night

M1A Scope small
Choosing the Correct Sight