Tech Beat: Laser Sights

It's nautical twilight, and the brightness of the sky cast against the deepening shadows on the street make it pretty hard to see details. As you walk toward the driver's door of the car you just stopped, a figure jumps out of the passenger side and fires a quick shot at you across the vehicle s roof. You throw yourself down, and see the shooter run away from the vehicle toward a clump of dark trees. You roll to the rear corner of the suspect s vehicle, drawing your weapon as you move. As you reach the vehicle's bumper, you see the running figure stop in front of the trees and turn toward you. The dim light and the darkness of the trees, along with the shooter s dark clothing, make it almost impossible to get a good sight picture. Your finger hits the activation switch on your pistol s laser sight, and a red dot appears at center mass on the suspect as his gun comes up. Your three shots hit him an instant later, and he goes down.

Not that many years ago, this outcome would have been much more difficult. While we spend a lot of time at the range (hopefully), plugging away at targets with the lights on, we're out there less often with the lights turned down low. Some of us have night sights on our pistols, while others just rely on plain old iron sights. Having spent a lot of time in that sort of training environment both as a shooter and as a trainer, I know it can be very difficult to pick up your sights in dim lighting conditions.

We spend a lot of time working with new shooters and those who struggle with their shooting skills, trying to instill the whole idea of sight alignment and trigger control. Explicit in those lessons is the idea that, in order for a shot to be accurately placed, the sight picture gained by the shooter must meet certain guidelines.

All of this is based on the shooter s ability to actually see the sights. Obviously, if you can't see them, you can t align them. In dim light against a dark background, seeing the sights often proves very difficult. Consider also the mental state of an officer facing a violent attack. Exactly how likely is it that while under the suddenness of an assault, in the moment of reaction that sometimes nears something akin to a managed-panic situation, an officer will be able to carefully align the sights? Not very. Getting just the front sight on the target is a little more workable, but still involves some pretty amazing visual dexterity under pressure. It s surprising we do as well as we do.

If, however, you could put a bright red dot on the target and then just pull the trigger, that would probably make the situation more manageable. That s where laser sighting devices come in. Shooters have been hanging laser sighting systems on firearms for years, with varying degrees of success. Tactical teams have made good use of the technology for their specialized missions. However, routine use for patrol officers has been a little slower in coming.

Two Issues for Patrol Lasers

Many of the early laser systems necessitated specialized holsters to accommodate the larger form factor of a laser equipped handgun. Hanging that big (relatively speaking) laser package under the barrel of your handgun meant there was no way the weapon would fit into your holster. And, the idea that you would carry the laser sighting device separate and attach it when it was needed just wasn't going to work.

The second problem is something called parallax. That s the effect you get when the laser s sighting plane isn t the same as the bore axis of your weapon. You can simulate this effect with your firearm. Bring it up to eye level and sight with your dominant eye. Once your sights are properly aligned on a target, close your dominant eye and open your non-dominant eye. See how the target is no longer aligned in the sights? That's parallax.

When you hang a laser sight below the barrel of a weapon or off to the side, the beam of the laser reaches straight out in front of the weapon, usually parallel to the bore. You then need to adjust the laser beam so that the beam crosses the bore axis downrange.

The problem is that if you set the two axes to intersect at, say, 10 yards, they will not intersect at other ranges, such as 10 feet. The only way to totally do away with this effect would be to project the laser beam straight down the center of the bore of the weapon, which you obviously can t do. Fortunately, within combat range with most handguns it s not that critical anyway, but the closer the laser beam axis is to the bore axis, the better off you ll be.

Two Products

Two companies have addressed these issues in slightly different ways: Crimson Trace and LaserMax. I recently had the opportunity to try out sights from both companies, and I ve concluded both have innovative products on the market that are useful for the patrol officer. I looked at two LaserMax products: the J-Max laser grips for a J-frame Smith and Wesson revolver, and a recoil spring guide insert laser (model LMS-2261), which I mounted in my Sig-Sauer P226 9mm pistol. I also looked at two Crimson Trace Lasergrip products: a newer set mounted on a Sig-Sauer P228 (model LG-329), and an older set mounted on a Sig P226.

Installation of all these products was simple and straightforward. All are sighted in at the factory, and most required little, if any, adjustment. In fact, the LaserMax recoil spring guide laser is not user adjustable.

Crimson Trace

Crimson Trace's Lasergrips, available for both pistols and revolvers, place the laser sight into the upper portion of one grip panel of your handgun s grips. This makes the sight small, allowing you to use your regulation holster.

You activate the laser sight by pressing in on ambidextrous switches that resemble a magazine-release button. The switches are momentary contact, meaning they activate when you press them in and turn off when you release them. There is an actual master on-off switch as well for those times when you don t want the sight to activate at all.

The Crimson Trace products use a 5-mW laser, which is very bright, throwing a red dot that measures roughly a 1/2" in diameter at 50 feet. The units I have use standard, off-the-shelf batteries available at almost any office supply or electronics store, as well as many drug stores. Batteries have long shelf lives and good duty cycles.

I ve used Lasergrips at the police academy as a marksmanship training tool with good results. They make a solid, reliable product.

I did notice a few issues with my units. The first regards the placement of the activation switches. The company s Web site says that taking a normal shooting grip on your weapon will activate the laser, and that s true (they call it instinctive activation ). For this to work for my large hand, however, my finger must go into the trigger guard. If I try to take a grip with my finger outside the guard (as many of us teach our officers), the size of my hand prevents me from depressing either activation button. The only way I can make it work is by squeezing with my support hand in a two-handed grip. If I do put my finger on the trigger, my grip configuration is modified just enough that the laser comes on. This may be OK if I actually want to shoot, but if I just want to turn the laser on without firing, I do not want my trigger finger inside the trigger guard. This may be a problem with my particular hand size, my particular pistols or the combination of both.

Also, the Crimson Trace grips locate the laser module at the top of the right-side grip panel so that the laser beam runs along the side of the frame, just above the trigger guard. Many trainers encourage their students to place their trigger finger in this area when holding the weapon, and when I did this, my trigger finger blocked the laser beam. Again, this may be a problem with my particular hand size, my particular pistols or the combination of both.

Finally, although it s not a major problem, the placement of the Crimson Trace laser beam is such that it is to the side and below the bore axis of the weapon. This will introduce a slight parallax issue.

Because Glock pistols do not have removable grip panels, Crimson Trace has developed an ingenious wraparound style for their unit to mount onto the grip of a Glock. The unit is very comfortable to hold, actually adding to the ergonomic feel of the pistol.


LaserMax has addressed the holster issue by placing its laser sight into a rod that replaces the recoil spring guide in most pistols. This arrangement also comes closest to negating the parallax issue by placing the laser beam very close to the bore axis on a direct vertical plane with the path of the bullet.

The LaserMax unit is very sturdy, but because it s a replacement part, there does exist at least the potential for a problem: If the unit breaks inside the pistol, the weapon probably won t function. While I haven t personally seen this happen, and while the company reports an excellent record in this regard, it's worth mentioning.

The switch for activation of the LaserMax unit is located in the middle of the take-down lever on my Sig-Sauer pistol, and this is the arrangement on most of their products. Pushing the switch from either side activates it, while the center position is off.

LaserMax also uses a 5-mW laser, and gives you the option for a pulsing dot or a steady dot. The pulsing dot is very easy to see, even in bright light.

Due to the design of LaserMax products, they have not really been available for revolvers until just recently. The company has released the J-Max model, which is designed for a J-frame Smith & Wesson revolver. The fundamental difference with the J-Max is the placement of the laser emitter. It s located on a plate that projects from the top of the right-side replacement grip. This places the laser emitter up high, where it projects the laser beam along the right side of the revolver s frame, parallel to the weapon s top strap, above the cylinder. Again, this places the beam very near the weapon's bore axis, and keeps the beam above the area where a shooter would place their trigger finger.

Another difference between the J-Max (and the recoil-spring guide replacement models as well) is that the switches aren t momentary contact. Once you turn them on, they stay on until you turn them off.

On Target

Both Crimson Trace and LaserMax make great products, and there are several other vendors out there making laser sights I haven t had a chance to evaluate. Check out Laser-Sight Vendors on this page, and if you want a lot more information about products and training, visit each company s Web site. I ve only scratched the surface here.

One thing is for sure: Laser sights for patrol-duty handguns no longer present the difficulties they once did.

Before deciding whether you want to equip your pistols with laser sights, test some. But I can tell you this: Both my handguns are now equipped with them.

Stay safe, and wear your vest (and buckle up).


Laser-Sight Vendors:


340 Dewpoint Lane

Alpharetta, GA 30022 USA

Tel: 888/448-3247


4538 Centerview, Suite 206

San Antonio, TX 78228-1319

Tel: 800/520-8435

Crimson Trace Corporation

8089 SW Cirrus Dr.

Beaverton, OR 97008

Tel: 800/442-2406

Insight Technology, Inc.

9 Akira Way

Londonderry, NH 03053

Tel: 877/744-4802

Laser Devices, Inc.

2 Harris Court, Suite A-4

Monterey, CA 93940

Tel: 800/235-2162


3495 Winton Place, Bldg. B

Rochester, NY 14623

Tel: 800/527-3703

SureFire, LLC

18300 Mount Baldy Circle

Fountain Valley, CA 92708

Tel: 800/828-8809

Note: This list is not necessarily all-inclusive.

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