Friday, July 2, 2010

Pistol Lasers

Mention pistol lasers to three different shooters, and you’re sure to get three differing opinions. Some traditionalists insist that lasers have no place on a pistol. Others swear by them, insisting that every pistol be outfitted with 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 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. But how useful are they in real life? The first thing many people new to laser systems notice is the fact that you can’t actually see the laser beam itself, only the red dot. In the movies, beams are digitally added, or atmospheric contaminants such as smoke and dust are used to illuminate the laser beam.

Still, anyone looking towards the user of a laser system will be able to quickly see the bright red light of a laser being aimed at them. While they allow you to illuminate your target and quickly see where the point of impact is going to be, one of the primary drawbacks of a laser sighting system is that they 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, and it can be held off line of your body so that 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:
Crimson Trace

Many different types of laser systems 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 piggy-back 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 that is positioned for quick and easy momentary laser activation. I’ve 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 doesn’t 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 a custom holster must be used 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. But 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/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 doesn’t 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 Laser Max with an integral laser aiming system. On most of these models, the takedown lever is usually refitted to function as an on/off switch.

The LaserMax system is not without its drawbacks. It is not adjustable for windage and elevation, but since it replaces the guide rod of the pistol it should be naturally aligned by the mechanical lock-up of the pistol. 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. My Para 14.45 double-stack 1911 pistol can’t be fitted with the Crimson Trace laser grip, so I’ve installed a LaserMax guide rod. While it does not provide pin point 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 fairly straightforward, requiring only that the pistol be field stripped and the guide rod and takedown pin/slide lock replaced. No fitting was required, it simply dropped right in as a replacement for the original parts. With the unit installed, the takedown pin/slide lock lever function as an on/off switch, allowing the system to be activated 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 are 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. Some gunsmithing may be required to install the unit, although it’s a fairly 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! The unit is activated with a small button on the rear of the slide, and a tiny LED light lets the shooter know the unit is activated (assuming the red laser dot on their target doesn’t clue them in).

The laser systems from ArmaLaser serve a another purpose in addition to providing a convenient aiming device for your pocket pistol: they also break up the outline of the gun, helping to eliminate issues with the shape of the gun “printing” through a pocket. While the original Armalaser systems were designed solely for pocket pistols such as the Kel-Tec P3AT and the Kahr PM9, their new “Reactive Sighting System” or “RSS” is a slim rail mounted system that should avoid most holster fitment issues.

Activating the trigger guard mounted ArmaLaser is easy: simply placing your finger inside the trigger guard causes the device to come to life. No buttons, no switches, it automatically detects your finger being inserted through the trigger guard and turns itself on. The other way to activate the device is by touching a small metal ribbon with your supporting hand. Again, the unit senses the contact and activates. There is also a kill switch on the bottom of the laser aiming system to allow you to turn off the laser to keep from giving your position away.

Pistol Training
Regardless of whether or not you feel that lasers belong on pistols as a sighting device, 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 is pulled off. This, combined with an “always on” laser such as one of the ones mentioned above, allows each movement to be followed clearly and helps the students to 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. Typical problems such as anticipating recoil and milking the trigger can be easily seen by observing the laser dot from a laser aiming system as it moves on the target.

Proper sight alignment can also be diagnosed using a laser aiming system. 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 visually 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.


  1. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

    Red Lasers

    1. Your Valuable Firearms are NOT Smart Choices for Laser Trainers
      Many popular laser handgun trainers don't have the recoil. They are either toy trainers or laser adapters in valuable firearms that can wear on firing mechanisms. Laser adapted firearms are not the same as CO2 enhanced trainers. You are putting unnecessary wear and tear on a fully functional precision firearm. You may have to modify firing mechanisms for either the laser insert or when you return to live ammunition. You need to consider a full featured laser trainer like the BFR Laser Handgun Trainers that are specifically engineered to provide the full training experience as close to live ammo training as you can get.
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