Mention pistol lasers to three different shooters, and you’re sure to get three differing opinions. Some traditionalists insist that laser sights have no place on a pistol. Others swear by them, insisting that every pistol have a laser system. Some find them an interesting tool for training or use only in low-light situations, but maintain that their overall usefulness is limited.
Laser sighting systems for guns have long been a staple in Hollywood movies. Scenes where a bad guy suddenly looks down to see a red dot on his chest, or a phalanx of lasers from a Special Operations team shine in through the windows of a building are standard fare in your typical action movie. However, how useful are they in real life? The first thing many people new to laser systems notice is the fact you can’t actually see the laser beam itself, only the red dot. In the movies, digitally added beams or atmospheric contaminants such as smoke and dust illuminate the laser beam.
Still, anyone looking towards the user of a pistol laser sight will quickly see the bright red light of a laser aimed at them. Lasers allow you to illuminate your target and quickly see where the point of impact is. However, one of the primary drawbacks of a laser sighting system is it can quickly give your position away to a possible bad guy. Of course, some will point out that muzzle flash will also give your position away in a low-light situation.
Many people believe that a flashlight held in your non-shooting hand is a better tool for low-light shooting, since the intense beam can blind an attacker. Also, it can be held off-line of your body so anyone shooting at the light source has a minimal chance of landing a critical hit. While this is true, a flashlight still doesn’t help you when you need a low-light aiming solution.
Laser Aiming Systems
Many different types of lasers for pistols are available on the market today. Crimson Trace manufactures laser grips for a wide variety of semiautomatic pistols and revolvers. Originally designed as replacement grips with a built-in laser system, Crimson Trace’s lineup has expanded to include piggyback models, such as the one pictured to the right, for polymer pistols without replaceable grips. Most of these laser grip systems use a master switch to turn the system on and off, as well as a pressure switch positioned for quick and easy momentary laser activation. I have installed a Crimson Trace system on my Sig Sauer P220 and found it very easy and intuitive to use.
The primary advantage of the laser grip is that it does not require a specialized holster. Many of the aftermarket pistol lasers attach to the rail found just forward of the trigger guard on most modern semiautomatics. The problem with these rail-mounted lasers is that you must use a custom holster in order to accommodate the laser. Custom-molded Kydex holsters are available for some rail-mounted lasers and these are the best choice for many due to the enhanced retention they have. Nevertheless, the holster usually must match the exact model of laser and pistol you have, so finding the exact size can be difficult. Universal nylon holsters are available to fit your pistol and laser combo, but while they can fit almost any setup, they fit none of them well.
Another alternative to the rail mounted pistol laser that does not change the shape of your pistol is the aiming system manufactured by LaserMax. They produce an innovative system for autoloaders that replaces the stock guide rod with one designed by LaserMax with an integral laser aiming system. On most of these models, the takedown lever is usually refitted to function as an on and off switch.
The LaserMax system is not without its drawbacks. It is not adjustable for windage and elevation. Since it replaces the guide rod of the pistol, the mechanical lock-up of the pistol should naturally align it. The thought that an optic system has to play a structural role in the operation of the pistol makes some shooters nervous, but there have been very few instances where the pistol has failed or jammed from the failure of a LaserMax guide rod laser aiming system. I cannot fit my Para 14.45 double-stack 1911 pistol with the Crimson Trace laser grip, so I’ve installed a LaserMax guide rod. While it does not provide pinpoint accuracy like the windage and elevation adjustable Crimson Trace, it is definitely “minute of bad guy” accurate. I was able to shoot groups that are nice and tight out all the way out to 25 yards.
Installation of the LaserMax is straightforward, requiring only that the pistol be field stripped and the guide rod and takedown pin and slide lock replaced. No fitting required; it simply drops right in as a replacement for the original parts. With the unit installed the takedown pin and slide lock lever function as an on and off switch, allowing system activation without disturbing your grip on the firearm.
A unique system by LaserLyte replaces the rear sight of the pistol with one that includes a laser. This little aiming system is nothing short of an engineering marvel. The unit itself is quite small, one of the smallest on the market, and it endures enormous G-forces as it reciprocates with the slide. In addition to being able to fit in any standard holster, another advantage of the LaserLyte system is that it keeps the beam very close to the bore axis, ensuring that there is little or no offset error at varying distances.
The LaserLyte unit actually replaces the factory rear sight on your pistol, integrating a notch style sight with the laser unit in a small tube on one side and the battery system on the other. It may require some gunsmithing to install the unit, although it’s a simple process on most pistols with a dovetail or Novak sight cut. Using a drift, simply tap out the original factory sight and tap in the LaserLyte unit. That’s it! A small button on the rear of the slide activates the unit, and a tiny LED light lets the shooter know the unit is active—assuming the red laser dot on their target does not clue them in.
Regardless as to how you may feel about lasers in use on pistols as sighting devices, there is one role in which they can be incredibly valuable. Laser systems are enormously effective as a training aid.
For dry fire practice, the LaserLyte Pistol Trainer laser is a great training tool. Activated by the hammer or striker, the Pistol Trainer unit projects a beam for 100 milliseconds, giving you a clear indication of where your point of impact would have been. This gives you instant positive feedback during dry fire practice enabling to adjust your technique as necessary.
When giving demonstrations on pistol handling to an advanced group of students, it’s sometimes difficult for them to see what is happening during complex and rapid drills. Using the Pistol Trainer unit from LaserLyte, the students instantly see each shot as it pulls off. This, combined with an “always on” laser such the ones mentioned previously, allows students to follow each movement clearly and helps them see the movement and position of the pistol.
For an instructor training a new shooter, using a laser sighting system is incredibly helpful when diagnosing sighting or trigger problems. Almost any of the laser systems described above will work for training purposes. They can help a trainer quickly determine if a new shooter is having problems with sighting or trigger pull. It is easy to see typical problems such as anticipating recoil and milking the trigger by observing the laser dot from a laser aiming system as it moves on the target.
Using a laser aiming system can also diagnose proper sight alignment. Teaching students how to acquire a good sight picture is much easier with a laser aiming system. By turning the system on (if necessary) but not activating it, you can have new shooters draw and push the pistol out to the target and acquire their sight picture, then turn activate the laser to get a visual confirmation. This gives instant feedback to both the student as well as the instructor, allowing for quick and easy diagnosis and correction.
Do you need a laser?
The answer to that question will vary from shooter to shooter. Some people are perfectly happy with a pistol as it comes from the factory floor. Others like to be prepared for every possible contingency and have their firearms outfitted appropriately. For low light situations, or any scenario where you are unable to get behind the rear sight such as firing from retention, a laser is a valuable tool that allows you to see that you are on target. If you’re a new shooter, an instructor, or even an advanced shooter looking to improve your shooting skills, it’s useful to have a laser equipped pistol for diagnosing and correcting basic shooting errors, or just to verify that you’re on target. Whatever your experience is, adding a laser to your pistol is a thought worth some consideration.