Ever since the film Terminator brought the pistol lasers out into the public eye, the debate has raged about their utility. With the miniaturization of the actual lasers and development of relatively efficient batteries with long shelf life, laser sighting became available for almost every modern pistol. The opinions on laser sighting range from “unnecessary,” “gives away your position,” “just learn to use iron sights to “wonderful,” “liberating” and “indispensable.” Let’s look at lasers in detail. (Viridian X5L | CTC for P32)
Red or Green? While the power of consumer lasers is limited by law to 5mW, green lasers are by far better visible than red, especially in daylight. Why doesn’t everyone use green? They are bulkier and require larger batteries for the same runtime, though that also allows the integration of a weapon light into the same unit.. A green laser is very practical as a rail-mounted unit for quite a bit harder to fit into a grip panel or make fit seamlessly with a subcompact pistol. Some pistols, such as Keltec PF9 accept both types. Others, like Keltec P32 or Ruger LCP, are much too small for anything but a red laser. While 5mW is the limit for eye safe weapon lasers, some are available in colors ranging from red to blue and in power from 300mW to 2W, hundreds of times stronger than the standard consumer models. They come as parts kits provided with assembly instructions and used manly for emergency signaling. While some people have improvised gun mounts for them, those lasers lack windage or elevation adjustments and may be less recoil-proof. These lasers are not eye safe when tightly focused. Their beams may be defocused to provide coherent light illumination matching shotgun pattern spread.
Doesn’t the laser give away my position? In a fog or a smoked-up room, it can. However, there’s a reason why almost all advertising photos of lasers have the beam drawn in. For the photo on the left, in order to get any visible trace at all, I had to put a smoke grenade behind the shooter. Normally, the laser is invisible except for a small red or green dot at the emitter. At an indoor range, where the light level is low and the air is full of particles, lasers look like colorful wires stretching to the target, especially after you fire a few shots. At which point the muzzle flash and the report of the gun already made you a good deal more conspicuous than the laser beam ever could.
Can a laser be zeroed the same as iron sights? Yes, but with a difference. If a laser is mounted below the boreline, the near zero can be made the same as with the irons, but the far zero will be different (closer). For this reason, some people zero their lasers further, for example at 50 yards. The pistol will shoot slightly high up close but be closer to the aiming point further out. With a side-mounted laser, the parallax is usually not worth correcting. With the laser parallel to the bore but off to the side, the offset remains small and predictable. With pistol, a difference of an inch is seldom critical.
So what kind of problems do lasers actually solve? Poor eyesight is one. Using iron sights becomes more difficult with age. It becomes impossible if the defender’s eyeglasses are knocked off early in a fight. Firing on the move is another: careful lining up of iron sights is very difficult when trying to move away from a moving attacker or his line of fire. In all those cases, keeping the aiming point on the actual target can be very helpful. Aiming from awkward or compromised positions, such as from behind a ballistic shield or from supine.
Precision shooting is another. The effect is most pronounced with pocket pistols, at least my groups shrink to half or third of the original size when fired using a laser rather than iron sights. The same effect is evident with larger handguns as the range increases. I would be hard-pressed to hit a paper plate past 50 yards with any pistols mainly because the sight alignment error magnifies with range. With a properly zeroed laser, sighting errors are taken out of the equation and the accuracy depends more on the trigger control and on the inherent accuracy of the pistol and ammunition. Much the same accuracy improvements can be obtained by using optical sights.
Lasers are also extremely helpful for training. Keeping a laser on during procedural gun handling helps reinforce muzzle awareness. Instructors can watch the laser dots from their trainees’ pistols to evaluate sight alignment consistency and trigger control. Finally, Laserlyte makes a laser training “cartridge” that makes dry-fire a great deal more useful by flashing a brief light-burst onto the target. The Walther P22 in the photo is my standard tool for training new shooters: it is sound-suppressed and equipped with a Viridian Green Laser to aid in learning trigger control. The light weight and small grip mean that even small kids can operate it without difficulty.
What are the down sides to laser use? The cost is the most immediate. Recoil proof adjustable lasers run from about $75 to $400. Well worth the money, in my opinion, but upgrading a safe full of pistols can get expensive. Maintenance is another: batteries should be changed regularly when laser is in storage and also after heavy training use. Laser emitter lens has to be kept clean and free of powder residue.
You may also have to get a new holster for your carry gun. Grip and slide mounted lasers can usually use the same holster, but rail mounted designs usually do not. Fortunately, most holster makers offer models designed around specific gun/laser combinations. Popular combinations have many carry options available. Since the rail-mounted lasers fit in the recess between the dust cover and the trigger guard, the concealability of the pistol doesn’t change much. (Viridian TacLoc | Sideguard)
In actual use, lasers require training, same as any other sighting system. The small laser dot, especially with red lasers, may require some practice to pick up quickly. In highly reflective environments, such as around car windows or glass doors, reflected and refracted light can be confusing. Most shooters use a combination of iron sights and lasers, knowing from experience which works in what situation. A laser may be just another tool for rapid and accurate sighting — but it is a very versatile and useful tool.
What do you think about lasers on handguns? Have you found them useful in a way I have not mentioned? Has training turned up some unforeseen consideration worth mentioning?
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