Let me confess my biases right up front: I love lasers, for a bunch of different reasons. Though I’ve handled and fired several other brands, most of my experience has been with the Crimson Trace brand so if there’s anything brand-specific below, assume I’m talking about Crimson Trace brand Lasergrips.
What is a laser?
The technical answer is that a laser is an optical source that uses “Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” That’s the official acronym for the thing. There’s a pretty good article over on Wikipedia if you want to learn more technical details about how lasers emit light and about all the different gadgets in which lasers are used.
In the firearms world, when someone refers to a laser, they are talking about an alternative sighting device, similar to a laser pointer, which lets the user know when the gun is lined up properly by putting a brightly-colored dot right where the bullet will land if the trigger is pulled at that moment.
There are many different types of laser aiming devices available for different types of firearms, and the lasers can be mounted on your firearm in different ways. Each of the various types has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Rifle- and shotgun-mounted lasers are beyond the scope of this article, and I am frankly not qualified to discuss them intelligently.
For pistol-mounted lasers, there are three basic configurations:
Why do I love lasers? Let me count the ways …
- They are light-years faster in the dark than any other sighting system. People who say “just get night sights” instead of a laser simply haven’t compared the two sighting systems side by side when shooting under stress and on a timer. If they had, they’d prefer lasers, hands down.
- They are far easier on multiple targets in the dark. Transitioning from one target to another to another is very simple and very fluid. There’s no added time to settle down on each target — just bang and go.
- On moving targets, especially on moving targets in the dark, they are faster and easier than any other system. Singles or multiples, if the target is moving, it’s just flat out easier with a laser. Again, no comparison is possible. Very few people have had opportunity to shoot movers in the dark, but take my word on this one: if you want to hit something that is moving, and if lighting conditions are less than optimal, the laser is absolutely the way to go.
- Under stress, lasers let you do what you instinctively want to do: keep your eyes on the threat.
- You can stay nearly 100% behind cover while using a laser and be assured of getting your hits.
- You can shoot from all kinds of contorted, awkward positions using irregularly-shaped cover (like real life objects rather than range equipment) and still hit what you want to hit.
- In all but brightest daylight, lasers are faster and easier on moving targets. They’re also incredibly fast and intuitive when you and the target are both moving.
- Laser grips work very well for instructional demonstrations. When you demonstrate a technique, the laser makes it very easy for students to see exactly what you are doing — for instance, in showing people the proper follow through on multiple targets, they can simply watch how the laser moves from target to target while you explain the technique. Explaining trigger squeeze, students can see how an improper yank jerks the dot off center and they can see how a smooth trigger pull keeps the sights on target. You can also use the laser to demonstrate what a “wobble zone” is and how accepting that “wobble zone” can actually improve their performance.
- Instructors can use also use lasers to assist with student diagnostics. It is very easy to see what the student is doing with a laser-equipped gun. You can watch the dot to see if they’re jerking it off-center at the last second. You can see how much muzzle movement the student is getting during move-and-shoot drills.
- A laser is also a good range safety tool because you can use it to help teach muzzle awareness. For instance, when demonstrating a proper low ready position, you can use a laser-equipped dummy gun to show where the bullet would strike when the gun is held incorrectly. You can show the “circle of safety” when the gun is held correctly, and most students will immediately grasp the point. If you have someone reholstering incorrectly, you can use a laser-equipped dummy gun to show why the technique they were using was dangerous and to illustrate which body part was at risk.
Criticisms and Myths
Of course, there are standard criticisms and myths about the laser that we’ve all heard. Here are my answers to those.
“Lasers give away your position.” Not if you have properly trained to use them. With CT grips, for instance, it is very simple to train yourself to relax your grip when the gun isn’t on target, thus shutting off the light. Other brands have levers or buttons that must be flicked on; in either case, the proper moment to activate the laser is not until you are sure of your target and are raising the gun to fire.
“You can’t always see that dot in all lighting conditions.” That’s true — the laser will not always be visible to you in all circumstances. This is one reason why it is so important to practice with a laser rather than simply hanging it on your gun and expecting it to do all the work. You will need to learn what you can expect from your laser in order to use it to best advantage, and you absolutely, positively must also continue to practice shooting with your regular sights. Lasers are an addition to regular sights, not a replacement for them.
“Batteries die.” Yeah, so what? Dead batteries don’t destroy your normal sighting system and it’ll still be there. You’ll be no worse off if your batteries die than you would be without having the laser in the first place, and considerably better off if your batteries don’t die. Furthermore, most people who rely on this equipment to save their lives also manage to maintain it — keeping the carry ammo fresh, keeping the gun clean and properly lubricated, keeping the holster in good repair. The laser batteries simply become one more minor item on your firearms maintenance checklist.
Some tips for managing battery life:
“The bad guy will see the red dot on his chest and surrender immediately.” The problem with this myth is that it’s a little bit true, which means that if you rely upon it, you could end up a little bit dead. The truth is that you have absolutely no way of knowing whether your attacker will even notice that red dot. If he does notice it, his response is not within your power to control. He might surrender meekly. Then again, he might just lunge for you in a rage. In either case, you should never point your firearm at anyone whom you are not emotionally and legally prepared to shoot (see the AOJ article). The thing to remember is that the laser is really an aiming device, not an intimidation tool. That little red dot should only appear on his chest during the split second it will take you to aim and pull the trigger.
“Lasers blind people.” It is true that some laser devices can blind people. It is most emphatically not true that firearm lasers can do so. The lasers designed for use with a firearm fall into the same classification as standard laser pointers used at board meetings for over 20 years, devices which have never been implicated in any eye injuries. Of course, it is a very bad idea to point your firearm-mounted laser at your eyeball, but that is because in order to you do so, you would be violating one of the Four Rules of Gun Safety.
“You don’t have to train to use the laser.” Absolutely false. It takes time to learn to intuit when the laser will work best and when the iron sights will work best, and to train yourself to automatically try the better option first in all lighting conditions. Let me add here that some lighting conditions aren’t great for the laser. That’s not a big deal; transitioning back to iron sights or to point-shoot takes very, very little time once you’ve trained on such transitions. But these transitions will be slow until you have trained to use them, so don’t fool yourself. You cannot use lasers to their best advantage until you have trained yourself to use them.
“Someone with a laser will always outshoot someone without one.” Moderately false. If you have two equally-trained shooters, one with a laser and one without, and they are both equally familiar with their own equipment, the one with the laser will usually perform better and faster, depending upon the situation. But the existence of the laser does not turn a marginal shooter into a good one. It doesn’t replace trigger control and it doesn’t teach you how to run the gun quickly and smoothly. It doesn’t do anything except enable you to line up the gun faster than you yourself would otherwise be able to do — after you’ve trained yourself to use the laser.
Bottom line? I love lasers and think they are excellent equipment for shooters who are willing to take the time to learn how to use them to best advantage. They don’t replace regular sights and they don’t solve every problem. But the things they do, they do better than any other sighting option out there.