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Published Dec. 29, 2020

So, you’ve managed to track down one of the last ARs still for sale, or maybe you’re looking to improve a rifle you’ve had for a while. The AR platform became the most popular rifle in the United States in large part because of its limitless customization potential, and that means you can find aftermarket support in every way, shape, and form. It’s easy to overdo it with slings, grips, lights, lasers, charging handles, buttstocks, pistol braces that are totally not buttstocks – the list goes on and on. But one of the first things people add, and rightly so, is their preferred sights. Whether you go with a simple red dot, variable power optic, or precision scope for long-distance target practice, real-world scenarios like home defense often make powerful optics and battery-powered technology more of a liability than an asset.

If you’re running any kind of modern optic, having a rock-solid set of backup iron sights is extremely important. Sure, they add a few ounces and take some time getting used to, but their reliability makes them one of the best modifications money can buy.

Magpul is one of the first names in AR modification. Surely, you’ve heard of their furniture; there’s a good chance you own some. They also make a damn fine set of backup sights. You can choose between metal and polymer, which is what you see here. These flip-up iron sights cost less than the metal version, perform fabulously, and add minimal weight. Springs are activated with the press of a button, and each sight snaps into a secure upright position. The front sight post is adjustable for elevation using the standard tool or spent brass. The rear sight is adjustable for windage. Both are protected from damage and glare by vertical wings on each side. This system is designed for use with standard rails. To depress, simply push these sights until horizontal, where the locking mechanism will hold them in the retracted position.

If you want more than a traditional black aperture and post to work with, take a look at these Awotac fiber optic backup sights. A pair of green fiber optics on the rear aperture and one red fiber optic on the front sight post speed up acquisition and help obtain a correct sight picture by lining them up horizontally. The rear sight features day and night apertures, with fiber optics on both. The polymer is durable and finished in matte black to prevent glare. Mount these sights to any standard rail. The front sight is adjustable for elevation, and the rear sight is adjustable for windage. When not needed, fold these spring-loaded sights out of the way and use your primary optic. The concept of flip-up iron sights is basic enough, but we like having fiber optics available to us even as a backup.

The UTG Super Slim fixed A2 rear sight is perfect for shooters who want a co-witness backup sight that can knock down targets with match-day accuracy. Since this rear sight is stationary, you’ll need to align it with your primary red dot or holographic sight. That makes setting zero as easy as it gets. In the event that your main optic fails, you’ll be able to adjust this sight for windage and elevation as far as 600 yards, just like the old-school carrying-handle sights. In addition to being reliable as a hammer and incredibly accurate, this sight will score you major credibility with the “I qualified on iron sights” crowd. As with all individually sold sights, make sure the height of this sight is compatible with any front sight or co-witness optic you plan on using.

If you prefer all-metal construction, these backup iron sights from Dagger Defense are just what you need. Aluminum alloy is lightweight, incredibly strong, and does a great job of resisting moisture. A coat of coyote brown paint adds a layer of protection and looks great on matching rifles. All-black sights are available from Dagger Defense, too. The spring-actuated release is easy to use and flips the sights into position with authority. The front sight post is adjustable for elevation, and the rear sight is adjustable for windage. The rear sight includes day and night apertures. As with all flip-up sights, leave enough room between your rear sight and any optic you’re using for it to flip into position. At this price, these sights deserve a serious look.

This MaTech backup rear sight is the perfect solution for people who want their backup sights to retain accuracy as far out as their primary sights. Unlike most backup rear sights, this lets you adjust for both windage and elevation. That means you can accurately engage targets out to 600 yards with steps at 200, 300, 400, 450, 500, 550, and 600 yards. All-metal construction is tough enough for life in the field, and easy-to-use adjustments make dialing in your shots fast and easy. This rear sight is designed to work with standard A2 front sights or removable front sights of the same height. If you don’t have a fixed front sight, you’ll need to buy a flip-up front sight separately. For this kind of long-distance potential, that’s an extra step we’re willing to take.

It’s getting difficult to stand out in the backup iron sights game, but Ozark Armament is doing just that with these offset irons. Offset sights sit 45 degrees to the right of vertical on the weapon. Rather than flipping up retracted backup sights, simply cant the rifle counter-clockwise and be on target with your secondary system. That’s nothing new–what we love about these sights is the adjustable rear sight in an offset option. This rear sight features day and night apertures and can be adjusted for windage and elevation out to 600 yards. The rear elevation dial will be familiar to anyone who has used A2-style rear sights. The front sight provides the usual elevation adjustment. We’re not sure how often you’ll actually dial in 600-yard shots with the weapon on its side, but it’s one hell of a trick to show off at range day.

Related: Grab one of these 6 range bags before your next trip to the firing line

Types of backup iron sights

The first decision you’ll need to make when purchasing backup iron sights is how you plan on using them. If your primary sight is a simple red dot, a lot of shooters would recommend a co-witness setup in which your iron sights stay up all the time. This lets your eyes focus on the red dot and switch to irons effortlessly if it goes down. This arrangement is also an easy way to make sure both systems are zeroed correctly. Flip-up sights stay out of the way until you need them. In the event that your primary optic goes down, it can be removed and your backup sights can be flipped up in seconds. Finally, offset sights let you switch between magnification and old-school irons by rotating your rifle 45 degrees. All methods are effective, depending on your goals. As always, none of them work if you don’t practice with them.

Key features of backup iron sights

  • Placement: Backup sights can stay out of the way by folding horizontal or standing alongside your primary optic. Co-witnessing is possible with iron sights that align with your red dot or holographic sight for simultaneous use.
  • Materials: Traditional sights use metal construction, with aluminum alloys being the most popular. Polymer sights are becoming increasingly popular for their affordability, toughness, and reduced weight.
  • Adjustability: Almost all front sights built for the AR platform, backup or otherwise, will be adjustable for elevation. Most backup rear sights will be adjustable for windage. To reach beyond close quarters, look for rear sights that can also be adjusted for elevation.
  • Intended use: Are your backup iron sights a fail-safe in the event of an optic failure, or do you plan on switching between the two depending on the situation? The answer to that question will help you decide which system is best for you. 

Benefits of backup iron sights

As great as modern optics are, every piece of technology you add to your rifle creates another potential point of failure. Batteries die, glass breaks, and magnification at close range can impede your ability to quickly acquire and engage targets. By adding a set of backup iron sights, you can take advantage of advanced optics right up until the moment they’re no longer optimal. In the event of failure, or should you need something fast for close-quarters work, simple iron sights are still tough to beat. Adjustable sights that hold their zero no matter what are also extremely accurate in the right hands.

Backup iron sight pricing

Compared to more advanced optics, backup iron sights are very affordable. If your AR has a fixed front sight, you can save even more money by just buying a rear sight. We found quality options for less than $25. At this price, you can choose between a basic pair of flip-up sights or an adjustable rear sight. For $30-45, you can get a pair of metal offset or flip-up sights. At around $100, you can get a premium pair of flip-up sights or a mil-spec adjustable rear sight. Sure, this money is being spent on sights you’ll hopefully never need but, compared to letting your weapon turn into a noise-maker, we’d say it’s pretty cheap insurance. 

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