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The Basics of Laser Sights

From science fiction to firearm fact, lasers have become an integral part of defensive handgun shooting.

9/19/2011

Lasers have long been a part of the science fiction movie scene, but in 1984, Ed Reynolds of SureFire—the company was called Laser Products Corp. at the time—gave the idea of a functional laser sight a big push forward into shooting accessory fact. Reynolds was asked to build a laser sight to be mounted on an AMT Hardballer Long-Slide .45 ACP pistol as a movie prop. With the long sight attached to the even longer pistol, a body-builder-turned-actor used an external power supply in his coat pocket to activate the laser and make movie history. In fact, this pistol and sight combination became so iconic in the course of filming “The Terminator,” it was included in the final movie poster.

In the years since, laser sights have continued to appear in film after film, and they continue to grow in popularity with users of defensive handguns. As the technology has improved, the sights themselves have become smaller, lighter and more reliable. Battery life has been extended from just minutes to hours, and manufacturers have been clever in designing a variety of affordable configurations to allow laser sights to move from military inventory and movie prop rooms to gun dealers' shelves. But, is a laser sight a practical investment for your shooting needs?

The Beam
Without getting overly technical, all the gadgetry of a laser sight is devoted to creating a visible dot of colored light on the intended target surface. Two colors of lasers dominate the market—red and green—each with its advantages and disadvantages. Red lasers are the most common. They require a relatively low level of energy to run, and they are comparatively simple to build. As a result, they are less expensive and compact in size. The drawback of red lasers is that they are difficult to see in bright sun light, only being visible out to 20-30 feet. Some models offer a pulsing beam, one that flashes on and off, to make the target point easier to spot.

Green lasers offer a brighter, easier-to-see target point. Because the human eye is more receptive to this color, some green lasers can be seen in bright sunlight out to 100 yards, as well as in dim and dark situations. However, green lasers are more complicated to construct and they drain battery power more quickly. As a result, they tend to be bulkier and more expensive.

The color of beam you choose, therefore, will be driven by a cost/ benefit comparison. Red is at its best at relatively close ranges in moderate and low light situations. Since these are the likely to be the conditions when the average person will probably need to use self-defense, the more affordable red laser is still sufficient for most defensive applications. Green lasers, due to their greater range and flexibility, have been readily adopted and adapted for military and law enforcement applications despite the added expense. This means the market will benefit from a trickledown effect. Since everyone wants the best laser possible, developers are striving to build green beams in more compact and affordable formats, but it will take some time for them to arrive.

Before moving on, it's important to mention that lasers are dangerous in and of themselves. The bright, focused beam of the laser can cause permanent eye damage. Never look directly into the laser when it's activated, and do not point it at people’s eyes or faces. Just like the gun and ammunition it will be used with, a laser sight should be stored securely to prevent unauthorized access.

The Housing
The laser sight housing serves two purposes. First, it acts as the structure to hold all of the laser's components together. The second function of the housing is to allow the laser to be mounted to the firearm it's designed for. Since guns come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so do the housings.

A few years ago, the trend of adding accessory rails, or tactical rails, to handguns became all the rage. Part of this movement was to enable buyers to easily install rail-mounted laser sights to their guns without any permanent alterations to the pistol. The downside of rail-mounted lasers is they add bulk and weight to a gun. Depending on your rig, you may need to buy a holster designed to accommodate the laser.

Guide rod systems, as the name implies, replace the guide rod of a semi-auto pistol. The downside of this system is that if the laser housing breaks, so does the whole pistol. Another popular system is laser grips, which replace the factory grips on semi-autos or revolvers. The switch to activate the laser is set in such a way that the laser is activated when the handgun is held in the shooting hand. If there is a downside to this arrangement, it's that the position of the shooting or support hand may obscure the path of the laser beam if the shooter is not paying attention. 

The Pros & Cons of Laser Sights
The positives of the laser sights are obvious. They allow the shooter to get the gun on target quickly, even in low light, without having to spend much time lining up the iron sights. The laser can help to get the gun back on target for accurate follow-up shots. Outside of defensive situations, lasers are useful training aids. They help the shooter to see how the gun is moving during target practice. They are useful for dry-fire exercise as well, since you can see if you are slapping the trigger and pulling your shots.

But the laser's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The focused beam produces a perfectly straight line from Point A to Point B. Unfortunately, the world is not made of straight lines. Bullets do not always fly in a straight path from the muzzle to the target, lasers do not always stay sighted in properly and a flinch of the wrist or trigger finger will wave that straight beam around like a conductor’s baton, with the shot landing off-target, even though the laser indicated you were on-target just a moment before. Also, just like a tactical light, the laser can give away the location of the shooter in low-light conditions. 

Modern laser sights built by reputable companies are rugged and reliable. They should give the user reliable results during regular use. But, they are still electronic devices. It's easy to forget to change the batteries. Whereas the mechanisms that fire your handgun may survive and function after a drop onto concrete or a dip in a puddle of water, be prepared for the laser's possible demise.

Final Thoughts
Lasers are a useful addition to the modern handgun accessory set. They can give shooters distinct advantages under the right circumstances. However, just as a seat belt in a vehicle is not intended to replace good driving habits, a laser is meant to assist the shooter, not to replace proper shooting technique and mindset. Train with and take good care of your equipment and it will take care of you. But always be ready for things to not go as you planned. If you add a laser sight to your defensive equipment, be prepared to fall back on your iron sights in case it doesn't work.

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10 Responses to The Basics of Laser Sights

J Williams wrote:
November 02, 2013

Green lasers also do a much better job of tracing the path to/from shooter to target. (That is why they are used by astronomers to point out celestial objects..it looks like a straight green line right up into infinity. Red lasers are not as prone to this, except of course in smokey/foggy air)

Arilus wrote:
April 30, 2013

Bullets do not travel in a straight line, that is basic projectile physics. Gravity will accelerate a round downward and any crosswind component will accelerate a round on a horizontal plane. These forces may not matter at close ranges, but are crucial to compensate for at longer ranges.

jim klink wrote:
April 06, 2013

Agree a lazer has its purpose but practice sight picture with iron sights. Use a flashlight sparingly

dumbfounded wrote:
March 26, 2013

he states " Bullets do not always fly in a straight path from the muzzle to the target"...??? Maybe in the movie 'Wanted' they can shot around objects, but in real life me thinks bullets do travel in a straight line??? No?

Tom Wittlief wrote:
December 01, 2011

I have CTC grips on my "middle of the night" pistol. Just this year I decided to extend my seasonal tradition of changing my smoke detector battery to include my laser. Hope I never have to use it, but . . .

Pete wrote:
September 22, 2011

I agree completely. Get a laser but also be prepared to use your basic techniques if the laser doesn't work.

ED MONTAIGNE wrote:
September 21, 2011

My wife and I have crimson trace on all of our carry firearms. While teaching an 86 yr old lady how to safely shoot her S&W snub nose .38 that was crimson trace equipped, I found that she was safe, but not a very good shot( actually she was terrible). I had the laser disabled during the initial training, but when I activated it,she became dead accurate. what a great testimony for the Crimson Trace or any other laser

Rich Carpenter wrote:
September 20, 2011

Tritium night sights are less expensive and always on once daylight becomes scarce! Obviously, in total darkness target acquisition can be a problem but there is always the hand held flashlight to illuminate suspected danger. And, let's not forget muzzle flash as a good target itself. CYA!

Jeff Lundholm wrote:
September 19, 2011

This article does a decent job of pointing out some of the pros and cons of laser sights. However, one important downside to laser sights that Mr Horman didn't clarify is that with most products on the market today, it is another thing to turn on before it actually works. The only product that automatically turns itself on when the handgun is gripped is the Crimson Trace, leaving one less thing to think about in the heat of a defensive situation. All other products that I am aware of must be activated by a switch... as well as thumbing off the safety. In my humble opinion, this renders all other laser sights ineffective for defensive use. As for giving up your position because of the bright laser, this is a valid concern... it is easy to turn the laser on and off by simply relaxing your grip slightly. I do not work for or sell Crimson Trace products, I am however an owner of three of their products for two XD subcompacts and a Ruger LCP.

Sid Hochman wrote:
September 19, 2011

Mr. Horman misses a very important advantage to those who require corrective eye wear. When things go bump in the night and you reach into your nightstand for a defensive weapon, there may not be time to fumble for eyeglesses as well. The red dot of the laser is readily visible with or without them.