One of the newest technological advances applied to firearms is also the most misunderstood. More often than not, it is used incorrectly. The technology is, of course, the laser. Laser sights are mainly seen being used on handguns and rifles. So, what exactly is a laser, and how and why would we or should we use them on handguns and rifles?
What is a laser?
To start with, the word “laser” is an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” The simplest description of a laser is that it is a light source which has the property that the light emitted is coherent. That spatial coherence allows a laser to be a highly collimated (focused). A narrow beam that is diffraction-limited with very little divergence.
Lasers are very different from regular light bulbs or LEDs that are also used on firearms to illuminate targets, but in a different way. Bulbs and LEDs that are used in flashlights emit light in many directions and in a variety of frequencies. Lasers, on the other hand, because of the low divergence property of the beam can be used to indicate an aiming point on a target.
The first generation of laser devices were large and bulky, but at the time, we thought they were very cool. I was even part of an early evaluation to determine their suitability for law enforcement and military use which exposed limitations and established doctrine. The early versions exhibited limitations because of size, fragility, and the dispersion of the beam at distance.
Today, due to the advancement of semiconductor technology, they can be made much smaller and are capable of withstanding much more rugged handling. Additionally, the typical laser sight today is small enough to be mounted to a handgun. In most cases, it can be mounted to a handgun without negatively affecting its handling properties.
Today’s laser devices are small enough to be attached to rails on the dust covers and trigger guards of pistols. I personally find that type awkward and counter intuitive to use. My preferred type is the Laser Grips manufactured by Crimson Trace. In addition to the great ergonomic advantage of the grip style, is its mode of activation. Activation is initiated by tightening one’s grip or loosening the grip to deactivate — both of which are very intuitive.
Another plus of the Laser Grip is that the handguns normal holster will accommodate it without modification. All lasers (to be effective) must be attached so that it is parallel to the barrel. Because the laser beam projects in a straight line, the user moves the firearm until the spot of light from the laser is placed on the desired target.
The spot indicates the place where the firearm barrel is being pointing. It must keep in mind that although the laser light travels in a straight line, bullets traveling through the air follow a parabola due to forces of gravity, etc. The bullet starts falling as soon as it leaves the barrel and to compensate for the effects of gravity the barrel is elevated to the line of sight. (Please see the accompanying illustration.)
That means the bullet crosses the line of sight twice — once as it rises above the line of sight and again when it drops through it. The points of divergence, where line of sight and the bullet path cross are referred to as “point blank.” Most people think the definition of point blank is really close. It is not. With long arms, the first intersection can be as far as 20 to 50 yards depending on the zero of the sights.
Once a laser is mounted on a firearm, it must be sighted in for the users intended use and conditions. Allowances for both windage and elevation need to be made depending on the intended distance between the weapon and the target. Once zeroed, that is possible because a laser beam does not diverge much, and the user only needs to move the barrel until the spot of light from the laser hits the desired target.
Red vs. Green
Until recently, most lasers being used as weapons sights utilize red laser diodes. In the late 1990s, green laser diodes were invented, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the first commercially-produced green laser sight was introduced to the market. Because of the technology involved, green laser sights are more expensive to manufacture than red laser sights. Green lasers also consume more battery power. The increased cost is, however, offset by the fact that green laser light is much more visible to the human eye than red laser light, this is especially true during bright daylight conditions.
As a form of comparison, look at a red laser and a green laser during daytime and then again at nighttime. In the sunlight of a bright day, the red laser dot is very difficult to see. By contrast, during the same daylight conditions, the green laser dot is visible.
Additionally, because of its increased brightness and frequency range, the green dot is also seen much more clearly during evening and night hours. It will also be noticed that the entire green beam is clearly visible, not just the dot. With the red lasers one finds that most often, only the red dot is visible during normal nighttime conditions and the beam is usually only discernible when the surroundings have mist, smoke, or dust in the air to refract the laser.
That gives a clear advantage to weapons using green lasers. They are much easier to aim than red laser sights. That addresses the most important aspect and the raison d’être (most important reason) for laser sights. They are very useful and efficient when it comes to acquiring targets quickly at short range. The operator can look at where he or she wants the weapon to be pointing, without peering through the weapon’s iron sights, and most especially in low light conditions. These are the reasons that I do not recommend lasers on weapons intended to be used at longer ranges.
Pros and Cons
One of the tactical disadvantages of red and green laser systems is that the target (and other people surrounding the target) can also see the dot and become aware of who or what is being targeted. Additionally, the visibility of the beam gives away the position of the person pointing the weapon.
To counteract that, additional technology allowed for the development of systems where an infrared laser is only visible to those wearing specially designed night vision devices. Unless the intended target is also wearing such a night vision device, he or she is not aware that they are being targeted, nor does it expose the position where the person doing the targeting is either.
One of the greatest advantages of laser sights is that they allow the user to quickly acquire a target. With other types of sights, the user needs to concentrate on acquiring, aligning, and positioning the sights on to the target. During that process it is easy to lose ones focus of things that are surrounding the target, diminishing situational awareness. Laser sights allow the user to maintain a larger field of view without losing the details of the target’s surroundings. It also allows aiming of the weapon without the need to physically align ones self with the barrel, which can allow for greater concealment.
One of the down sides to using this technology is that laser sights need batteries. There is always the chance of the batteries giving up at the most inopportune time. Remember Mr. Murphy? As previously mentioned, red laser beams are difficult to impossible to see in bright daylight or clean surroundings. Green lasers are much more visible in bright or clear conditions, but they drain batteries much more quickly than red lasers. Green lasers are also more expensive than red lasers.
Laser sights that are mounted on rails or trigger guards on the forward portion of a handgun will alter the balance of the weapon. Rough usage can cause the laser to lose its zero, which means it is no longer aligned to the point of impact. These are two of the major reasons I prefer the grip mounted design mentioned earlier.
Most shooters use the laser incorrectly by bring the firearm up to eye level as if to use the traditional type of sights. In doing so, the shooter destroys the laser’s advantage. As soon as a threat exposes itself, the presentation is made. With your focus on the precise spot you want the bullet to strike, as your hand is moving into a firing position, you bring the dot to where your eye is focused and squeeze. It can be almost as fast as point shooting and more precise without the years of training.
Do you prefer to run a laser on a CCW or home defense gun? Why or why not? Continue the discussion in the comment section.