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[How-To] Zero Iron Sights With Ease: Pistol & Rifle

In a world where optics rule, some of us still like our iron sights.

To be clear, I love optics, and my serious guns all have optics. But, I have way more fun shooting with iron sights.

akp irons
They are so fun!

Heck, even in video games, I tend to prefer guns with iron sights.

They aren’t as effective, but there is a bizarre sense of satisfaction in being able to shoot well with iron sights. 

Viewthrough of Ade 45 Degree BUIS
Even if you’re an optic user, a set of BUIS is a great idea!

There is a good debate on how new shooters should learn to shoot.

One crowd says iron sights all the way while another growing division says that’s silly. Red dots are easier to get into than irons, after all.

Regardless of where you fall on this argument, I think most of us agree at some point — everyone should learn the basics of iron sights.

The best way to learn to use iron sights is to zero them. 

Escape form Tarkov down sight view

Zeroing your irons will teach you everything you need to know about your sights.

You’ll know how to use them and how they function. That will, ultimately, make you a better shooter. 

At this point, especially if you’re newer to shooting, you may be asking how do I zero my iron sights?

How

Lucky for you, we’re here to help. We’re going to dive into the basics of zeroing irons and help you get your sights set-up.

By the end, you’ll be a zeroing pro!

If you prefer to get some tips through video, make sure to check out Brownells’ Daily Defense below!

Table of Contents

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Adjustments Only Go in Four Directions 

Basically, you are only making adjustments either up and down or left to right to zero your iron sights. 

Elevation is the fancy word for your up and down adjustments. When you are hitting high or low, you adjust your elevation to correct the issue. 

Elevation vs. Windage
Elevation vs. Windage

Windage is the fancy term for left and right. When your shots are landing left or right of the bullseye, you adjust the windage

What happens when you are hitting both right and high? Well, that’s easy.

You adjust both elevation and windage to dial in and get on target. 

The Difference Between Point of Aim and Point of Impact

Point of aim and point of impact are two terms we’ll be tossing around a lot here, and I want to make sure we all understand what these terms mean. 

Point of Aim (POA) is what you are looking at when you align your sights.

Point of Impact (POI) is where the bullet is actually striking the target. 

Point of Aim vs. Point of Impact
Ideally, once zeroed, your POI will match your POA

Your point of aim might be dead on the bullseye, but your point of impact can be high and left.

When zeroing iron sights, your overall goal should be to make your point of aim and point of impact align and be the same thing. 

The next step in zeroing is…

Understand Your Sights 

If you ask me how to zero your iron sights, the first question I’m going to ask is what kind are they?

Iron sights do not adjust universally and can vary greatly depending on the weapon and the sights it’s using. 

Keep in mind that sights only adjust up and down and left to right. You need to determine which part of your sights manipulates elevation and which part manipulates windage. 

Zeroing Iron Sights
Zeroing Iron Sights

Sights are not only different between rifles, handguns, and shotguns, but rifle A’s sights can be different than rifle B’s sights. Take, for example, the AK series and the AR series of rifles. 

The AK uses the rear sight to dial in elevation, and the AR uses the front sight to do so.

Adjusting M16 Sights
Adjusting M16 Sights

Well, kind of, because with classic A2 style AR-15, the rear sight adjustments can be used for elevation.

You are supposed to use the front sight for zeroing corrections and the rear sight for elevation compensation at long ranges. 

Adjustable leaf sight diagram
How adjustable leaf sights work

The same goes for handguns. Some handguns have fully adjustable sights, and others require you to drift the rear sight and swap the front sight for a taller or shorter model. 

The direction you adjust will depend on if your front or rear sight makes the windage and elevation adjustments. 

As you can see, iron sights are nowhere near as simple as you’d think they’d be.

Adjusting Elevation

If your front sight makes elevation adjustments, then you’ll need to move the front sight in the opposite direction of where you want your POI to move.

Up Down Elevation
Remember, elevation is up and down.

Say I want to move my POI down, then I adjust up.

If you fire and strike the target higher than desired, the front sight should be adjusted upwards to shift the POI downwards. 

If your elevation adjustments are made with the rear sight, then the rear sight should move in the same direction as your intended POI.

If you fire a shot high, then the rear sight should be lowered. 

Adjusting Windage

If your front sight makes your windage adjustments, then the same rule applies.

Shot lands left? You need to move your front sight left to shift the POI right. 

pendulum
And windage is side to side!

If your rear sight makes your windage adjustments, then your sight moves in the same direction you want your POI to shift.

If you are hitting to the left of your bullseye, then you shift your rear sight to the right. 

Cobray M11 ready to protect the boats
OMW to go zero now that I know how my sights adjust!

Before you ever load a magazine to hit the range, you need to understand how your sights work and how to make these adjustments.

Check YouTube, the manual that comes with your gun, Army manuals, and the big ole Google machine. 

Make Sure You Can Align Your Sights

I’m not trying to insult anyone here, but adjustments won’t make a difference if you cannot properly align your sights. 

With open sights, you place the front sight between the two posts of your rear sights.

You want the front sight sitting as perfectly and as evenly between the two rear posts.

You want the front sight and rear posts to align perfectly and flush across the top. 

With peep sights, you place the front sight in the middle of the peep sight as best as possible. The smaller the peep sight, the easier it is to be precise.

Some peep sights

This is why the AR, Scorpion, and HK long guns have multiple peep sight options. 

How to Zero Iron Sights 

Ok so now that we have the basic understanding of irons and how to properly shoot with them, let’s get into the basics of zeroing.

The best way to zero your gun is to find a nice clear day where you can comfortably shoot at your desired range.

Crye Precision AirLite Chest Rig Range
Blue skies and no wind…perfect day to do some zeroing.

The distance, otherwise known as the range, at which you zero will depend on a wide variety of different factors. 

What kind of gun? What caliber? What is the intended purpose? 

M16 Carry handle and rear sight
M16 carry handle and rear sight

A handgun and a rifle are most certainly zeroed at different ranges, and the same goes for different calibers.

With a rifle, I’d suggest learning the ballistics of your round from your gun. Some popular platforms have something called battle sight zeroes

These BZOs, like the 50/200 with an AR-15, allow you to easily hit targets from 25-yards to 200-yards.

The Marines use a 36/300, which does the same, and the AK has the Rob Ski 25/200 yard zero. 

Irons sight zeroing trajectory diagram
Here’s how zeroing works!

You may just want to zero the old school way from a set distance that you’ll know you’ll be shooting at.

Handguns, especially defensive handguns, can be zeroed at 15- to 25-yards for reasonable shooting. 

The range is most certainly dependent on your weapon and your aim to use it. 

The Target 

There are zero-specific targets, especially for those shooting AR-style rifles.

They can be handy but are not necessary. I do suggest a nice big target, at least — just in case your sights are so badly off that you need a big target to be on paper. 

20
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

I prefer a traditional bullseye or grid-type target.

My all-time favorite is a target with a multitude of bullseyes—one in each corner to compliment the one in the middle. 

10
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

These targets allow you to zero and confirm your zero.

If your sights are badly off, you can use the other bullseyes to dial it in. You can just shift to the next square bullseye without having to swap targets. 

Your Shooting Position 

When zeroing sights or optics, you want the most stable shooting position possible.

With a rifle, this can be done in the prone position with a bipod, or sandbag, or backpack, or whatever you can do to improve stability.

A bench and chair can be used as well. 

Prone position, unsupported. Not as stable as it could be.

For handguns, the same rules apply; however, a prone pistol position isn’t going to help much.

Instead, a good bench of some kind with a chair allows you to have a good stable position with your handgun. 

But I mean…you could?

Throwing Lead 

Finally, your range is established, your target is set up, and you have a good stable shooting position. Now we get to the fun part! 

Load your mags, pop on your ear and eye pro, and get tucked in nice and stable. 

Righty Shooting Bench
A shooting bench will be your best friend during this process.

My rule of thumb is to take your time and slowly fire three rounds with the best degree of sight alignment, trigger control, and grip you can summon up.

After you’ve fired these three rounds, trot your butt down range (when safe, if it’s a public range) and observe your shot group. 

Lancaster Arms Rough Rider AK-74 Shooting
After firing three shots, head downrange (if it’s safe) to check out the results.

From here you can do two things.

You can do the efficient and fancy thing and measure how far your group is from the bullseye. If you know your sight adjustments in MOA, you can do the math depending on your range and dial it in precisely. 

Hangover Math Gif
I mean, I can’t do this but if you can…

This is easy with A2/A4 style sights on AR15s, but with other guns, it’s a little tougher to do so.

If that’s not your cut of jib, you can do things a little less efficiently but more straightforward. 

Observe your group and see where your POI stands in relation to your POA.

How far above/below or left/right is it? Note it mentally, or even snap a pic with your phone. 

Targets
A quick phone pic can help you remember.

Go back to your gun and make conservative adjustments to try and push the POI to your POA.

Fire another three rounds and observe and adjust. 

Repeat until your POI is aligned with your POA.

Boom! Done. 

Ta Da
Ta Da

Conclusion

Zeroing is not a race so take your time, get comfortable, and make it count. Learn your sights and how they function. Then take that knowledge to the range and get to sighting!

The rear sight rocks two tritium vials and besides that are blacked out. The rear sight is serrated to reduce glare in bright environments.
Sighting doesn’t have to be a pain!

Remember, don’t be afraid to write elevation and windage instructions down, if necessary. 

I’ve zeroed lots of weapons, and honestly, I still forget which way to adjust sometimes.

wrong way
Been there, done that.

With the cost and availability of ammo, you can’t be wasting bullets adjusting in the wrong direction. 

Most importantly take your time. Make sure you are exercising the proper fundamentals. Throwing shots because of a flinch or crappy positioning will make zeroing awfully tough.

Knowledge is half the battle, and zeroing your weapon is the other half.

Hakim shooting
Shooting an Egyptian Hakim with iron sights.

Please share your tips, tricks, and methods to zeroing iron sights in the comments below! Need sights? You’re in luck! Check out our round-up of the best Back Up Iron Sights for your AR!

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1 Leave a Reply

  • Aldi

    Great article and good advice on writing things down. My first zeroing took me a good 30 minutes or so due to just winging it. Too many waisted bullets too. Defined no shame in taking your time and writing things down. Carpentry term comes to mind measure twice cut once. Stop waistline bullets shooting with minimal adjustments, do the math, make the adjustment then shoot. No short cuts.

    August 16, 2021 5:37 pm