Once the stuff of science fiction, laser sights have become such a common gun accessory that you can pick one up for the cost of a box of ammunition.
But it goes without saying that you get what you pay for, so the best laser sights still cost a significant fraction of the firearm itself!
Despite the wide range of prices and varieties of laser sights, mounting lasers on guns is a concept shrouded in myths and mistruths.
Should you add a laser to your gun? Or should you leave your firearms free of such an accessory? What are laser sights, anyway?
What Is a Laser Sight?
A laser is a coherent beam of light on a single wavelength. This means that a laser focuses the light in a way so you get a single pinpoint dot rather than the wide swath of light from a flashlight.
This makes lasers an excellent aiming tool. When attached to a rifle, shotgun, pistol, or revolver, they are called laser sights. A well-zeroed laser sight shows you precisely where the muzzle is pointing, which will help you aim more quickly than you can with iron sights.
There are FDA Safety Regulations for laser pointers which laser sights also follow. Most laser sights are class II or class IIIa lasers with a maximum power of 1 milliwatt or 5 milliwatts, respectively.
The more powerful the laser, the easier it will be to see, so class IIIa laser sights are universally better than class II laser sights.
Types of Laser Sights
There are two main types of laser sights. The first type mounts to the gun as an external, separate device. Typically, these laser sights are attached to Picatinny or Weaver rails.
Normally, you have to move your hand to activate this type of laser sight, though some (especially models designed for rifles) are compatible with remote switches.
The second type of laser sight is built into the gun itself. Typically this comes as an aftermarket modification. Examples of these are grip-mounted Crimson Trace Lasergrips and LaserMax Guide Rod Laser Sights, which replace a semi-auto pistol’s recoil spring guide rod.
Commercial lasers sights are available with either red or green lasers. Military lasers sights tend to be larger, more rugged, have a longer battery, and can use infrared lasers compatible with night vision systems so they aren’t visible by the enemy.
Laser Sight Advantages
The biggest advantage of a laser sight is indicating where your gun’s muzzle is pointing. Normal sights are supposed to do that as well, but they require you to hold the gun so your eyes can look down the sights.
Laser sights, however, function no matter the location of your firearm. This allows you to get on target more quickly when you are caught unaware or cannot get into a proper shooting stance in time.
Laser Sight Disadvantages
The main disadvantage of laser sights is that they are dependent upon battery power. The only gun accessory more power-hungry than a laser is a powerful flashlight.
Also, lasers travel in perfectly straight lines. Bullets, however, are subject to gravity and follow a curved, ballistic trajectory. Laser sights are difficult to adjust for windage and elevation (unlike most rifle sights), and they tend to be zeroed only for short range.
Lastly, laser dots are small and can be difficult to see at longer ranges or under direct sunlight, but this can be partially mitigated by using the most powerful green laser you have access to.
Laser Sight Uses
So what can you use a laser sight for, anyway?
For civilians, laser sights are perfect when you need to engage in self-defense.
If you’re defending yourself with a gun, you are in a high-stress situation where half a second can mean the difference between life and death. Iron sights are slow and can be difficult to use (especially if you’re caught in the dark without good night sights).
Laser sights will give you the speed advantage you need to get on target first, regardless of your ability to get into a proper shooting stance.
Everyone who plans to use their gun for self-defense should have a laser on it. The advantage may be small, but every bit of edge helps.
Unlike self-defense, not everyone should or even can use a laser for hunting.
First of all, many areas prohibit the use of lasers while hunting. Check your local hunting regulations. This may not even be an option!
Even where you can hunt with a laser, it’s not always the best choice. Lasers are hard to see in the day, especially at long distances. Against deer or other large animals, chances are you won’t get close enough to see the dot.
And even if you can see the dot, you better have it zeroed to the correct range!
On the other hand, a laser can be good against smaller, fast varmints up close, such as squirrels.
Also, the dot itself may be an advantage or a disadvantage. Some animals will be intrigued with the dot, while many others will be spooked and flee if they see it.
Generally, I would not recommend laser sights for hunting applications.
Laser Sights as a Training Tool
Even shooters who never intend to use their guns for self-defense should consider purchasing a laser sight to use as a training tool.
A large part of being a marksman is the ability to hold the firearm as steady as possible, with no movement as you squeeze the trigger.
One trick to see if your trigger pull jerks the gun is to put a dime on the barrel. If it falls off when you pull the trigger, work on your trigger pull.
However, a laser is even better.
Even minute movements of the gun show up as the laser dot bounces around. Therefore, you can easily use a laser while dry firing to not only see if you’re jerking the trigger but also to see which direction you’re moving the gun.
Sometimes it’s just plain fun to shoot at paper or metal targets using a laser sight!
Red vs Green Sights
The vast majority of laser sights are available in one of two colors: red and green.
Red lasers are the most common. The first laser sights were red, and they’re also the easiest to manufacture (which means they are the cheapest to purchase).
However, the human eye is not sensitive to all colors equally. Your eye contains both rods and cones. Rods are most sensitive to colors of about 500 nanometers in wavelength, while cones are most sensitive to around 555 nm.
What color matches 500-555 nm?
Red, on the other hand, starts at 625 nm and goes higher from there. This means that, all else being equal, a green laser will be more visible than a red laser.
If you intend to use your gun inside, at short ranges, red lasers are fine. Save the money.
However, if you want to use the laser during the day, especially at ranges further than 50 feet, you basically need a green laser. A red laser will be too hard to see in bright light and at long range.
Laser Sight Myths
Though laser sights have been in use for over a decade, there are still some persistent myths about them. Like most myths, they are false with a hint of truth. Let’s look at a couple.
Laser sights will give away your position!
Contrary to the depictions in movies and advertisements, laser beams aren’t visible in the air unless there’s some kind of particulate matter in the air, such as smoke or fog, to diffuse the light.
So, unless you get into a gunfight while the building is burning down around you, the laser won’t give your position away. And even if it does, laser beams trick the eyes and aren’t easy to follow back to the source.
Laser sights will harm your other shooting skills!
Laser sights are actually an excellent way to increase your shooting skills, as explained above. They also let you aim when you can’t use your gun’s normal sights.
Some people may become fixated on the laser dot, which can be distracting, but this issue is easily solved by training. Overall, lasers help your shooting, not hurt it.
Laser sights have come a long way from their early models and are now small enough for a class IIIa 5mW green laser to hide inside a pistol’s guide rod.
Though they may not be perfect for every situation, laser sights make a good addition to every shooter’s collection. Whether it’s for self-defense, hunting, or as a training tool, a laser can help you become a faster, more accurate shooter!