While I’m slaying sacred cows, let’s talk about iron sights on rifles. Pistols are a topic for another time.
Should you “master” iron sights on rifles before moving to optics?
Hell no. Next question.
Iron sights are outmoded. Obsolescent. There are better choices right now, namely optics. For any given purpose, there is an optical sight that will perform better than iron sights on long guns.
Close range shooting? Red dot or low-power variable. Boom. Faster than irons.
Long range shooting? Get you some magnification. Make the targets bigger. Done. Better than irons.
Now, optics don’t magically make you a better shooter. They do take out one component of shooting: sight focus. Iron sights give you three focal planes at three different distances from your eye: the rear sight, the front sight, and the target. Your eye is physically capable of focusing on one plane at a time. So you acquire the target, then focus on your front sight. It’s not intuitive. It’s not easy, especially when your target isn’t easy to see. Then you have to align the front sight with the rear sight and the target. And then you have all of the other trigger control issues, steadying the rifle, dealing with recoil, etc.
With optics, the sights are in the same plane as the target. So you look at your target. That’s intuitive: you want to shoot that. Then you align the sights with the target. Which is a lot easier, because they’re in focus too. Same plane and all. You can see your sight (where the bullet is going, more or less) at the same time as you can see the thing you want to shoot. Then, trigger control time. Recoil management.
I’m always in favor of making my life easier. As is just about every other serious user. Choose a special forces unit, they use optics on their rifles. Most militaries of repute and with some ambition issue optics for all of their rifles. If rules allow optics, competitive shooters put optics on their rifles.
And they’re one I like to pick on, because they’ll do anything (at least, anything not prohibited by the rules) for an edge.
Optics are better. There basically isn’t a downside. Hell, most new rifles don’t even come with iron sights these days, whether they’re flat-top ARs or slick new hunting rifles. And do you know how hard it is to actually kill good optics?
Okay, now that I’ve said all that, let me preempt a few comments.
I’m not saying iron sights won’t work. They’ll do the job if you can and do. Optics will make your life easier.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t know how to use iron sights at all. They are on most pistols, after all. Plus they’re on all manner of old rifles, like an M1 Garand or the Lee-Enfield. And shooting old rifles is plenty of fun. But you’re probably not going to use those as your primary longarm. So focus on your primary. Which has an optic.
What about using iron sights as a way to “get better at shooting”? Well, if you can use iron sights, you can certainly use optics. True. And irons are way harder. Also true. My turn for a question: what is the goal?
If your goal is to get better with iron-sights, perhaps for an iron-sight competition like the National Matches, rock on. Mission is driving the gear train.
If your goal is to get better with your optic-equipped hunting/defensive/competition rifle, you should probably be training with that. You know, the gun you’re actually going to use. Familiarize yourself with the quirks of your optic. Familiarity brings comfort. Remember, all of the other things you do when shooting are there. You still have to work on those. Optics are one of the few ways to reduce the complexity of the shooting problem.
Iron sights aren’t a thing you can work in isolation. You make the sight alignment problem more complicated, but you still have all of the other issues. For most of us, misses occur because of a combination of factors. We didn’t do just one thing wrong, we did a bunch of things wrong. Put them together, you get the (bad) result. If you’re very good, you can figure out all of the problems. More likely, you can figure out some of them, but not all of them.
You can get great at shooting with optics. You can probably even do it faster than with irons, because you have fewer difficulties.
What about durability?
Modern optics are extremely durable. And most shooters don’t abuse their weapons. The vast majority of optics will happily survive moving from gun safe to bag to car to range to car to safe with no issues at all. And if you abuse your optics, buy accordingly. My Aimpoint Comp M4, for example, is stupidly durable. Go google some “test videos” where people do dumb things like hit it with a hammer or set of explosives nearby. You can probably find a way to kill it, but your gun (and you) will be similarly out of action. So don’t worry about it.