Got a laser in your sights?

     Despite their longtime market presence, lasers are more likely to have been seen in the movies by cops rather than in the hands of fellow officers on the job. However, given the advances in laser sight technology and the United States military's use of laser devices in the War on Terror, law enforcement has started to take a new look at the systems.

     Real-world experience has shown examples of laser sight effectiveness and also taught lessons, resulting in improved designs and features. Compared to older versions, today's lasers are designed smaller and more user-friendly, and have added feature options such as color, pulsation and laser-light combinations.

     How can officers select one that fits their specific needs? Is the green laser better than the red one? What is the advantage of a pulsating beam over a steady beam? These are some of the questions that must be answered before purchasing a laser, and weighing these options can help officers filter through the laser market to find a product that best fits the job at hand.

     Prior to equipping a weapon with a laser, officers must take a realistic look at how they intend to use it. The laser must be compatible with the manner in which it will be used. Some questions to ask include:

  • Will the handgun fit in its holster with the laser attached?
  • Will the laser interfere with other accessories on the weapon?
  • If placing it on a long gun, does the preferred laser have sufficient range to match the weapon's capabilities?
  • Does the weapon have a back-up sighting system?
  • Are there concerns about giving away an officer's position prior to firing?

     Another key inquiry concerns asking oneself what drives the desire to purchase a laser in the first place. For example, if an officer is a poor shot and thinks the laser will make him or her a better shot, a laser should not be added. Trying to compensate for poor marksmanship with equipment will only make matters worse. The officer is likely to abandon marksmanship fundamentals, such as sight alignment and trigger control, and instead, stare at the target to watch the laser.

     While the laser is a good tool for instructors to use in analyzing firearms students, it will not solve a flinching problem or correct any other issue caused by the shooter. If an officer falls into this category, he should seek training from a qualified firearms instructor before adding a laser to his firearm.

Laser types

     There are three basic types of lasers: rail-mounted lasers, guide rod lasers and laser grips.

     Laser grips: Laser grips, such as those made by Crimson Trace Corp. of Wilsonville, Oregon, are the most popular. These lasers are built into grips placed on the weapon to replace factory-installed grips. (Some major handgun manufacturers now offer models that come standard with Crimson Trace grips.) The grips have a small power switch on the bottom and an activation button on the front. The laser only works when the switch is in the "on" position.

     The activation button is pressed with the primary side fingers while assuming a firing grip on the weapon. They are very comfortable rubberized grips that will not significantly change the pistol's grip size. The drawback is that the laser mounts on top of the right grip panel. This means it is significantly off-set from the bore of the weapon. Also, this placement means that a right-handed officer will cover the laser with his trigger finger when indexed on the frame of the weapon.

     LaserMax of Rochester, New York, now offers a laser grip for J-Frame Smith & Wesson revolvers that has its beam located along the top of the frame. The laser goes over the cylinder and along the top outside edge of the barrel. This frame-mounted design keeps the beam as close to the bore as possible and avoids the problem of covering the laser when the shooter's trigger finger is properly indexed on the weapon frame.

     Guide rod lasers: Guide rod lasers are also available from several manufacturers, including Laser Aiming Systems of Burnsville, Minnesota, a manufacturer of green laser sights. These units have a laser mounted inside a guide rod that shooters use in place of the factory-installed one. They also have an on/off switch that is normally mounted on the outside of the weapon. As this type of system does not change the outside dimensions of the weapon, it allows officers to mount the laser without purchasing a new holster. It also mounts the laser directly under the bore, which helps ensure a better zero of the weapon.

     Rail-mounted lasers: The third type of laser sight is the rail-mounted laser, which comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. These sights mount on a weapon's Picatinny-style accessory rail. If users are putting one on a long gun, this is most likely the type of laser they will use. This rail-mounted system is also available for handguns. Streamlight Inc. of Eagleville, Pennsylvania, makes a nice rail-mounted laser, which includes a built-in flashlight.

     Some manufacturers, such as LaserMax, have a rail-mounted laser with an additional rail built into the bottom of the unit. This allows officers to have a rail-mounted laser and add a rail-mounted flashlight underneath it. I placed one of these lasers on my AR-15 patrol rifle. I already had a SureFire G2 mounted on an off-set bracket that I use with a vertical forgrip. The Lasermax unit installed under the light mount. This set-up allowed me to add a laser sight without changing the set-up for my light.

     The drawback to using rail-mounted lasers and lights on handguns is that officers may not be able to find holsters that fit them. Prior to purchase, shooters should look into holster compatibility. This type of laser also adds weight to the weapon that could be a deterrent. Additionally, people with smaller hands may have difficulty reaching the controls for these units.

Laser variations

     As mentioned earlier, many variations in the laser beam are now available. Red has been the staple color for laser sighting. Red lasers work well for most applications but are hard to see in some lighting conditions, particularly in bright sunlight, which tends to wash red lasers out. Studies indicate that the human eye sees the color green better than red. For that reason, companies such as Laser Aiming Systems and LaserMax have developed the green laser, which is more visible under a variety of lighting conditions and can be seen at much greater ranges.

     To test this theory, I tried out two lasers, both made by LaserMax. One had a green pulsating beam and the other a red pulsating beam. In the bright California sunlight, I could see the red laser easily out to 15 yards. Beyond that I could find it out to 50 yards, if I looked closely. This was largely due to it pulsating.

     In contrast, I could see the green laser clearly out to 75 yards. If I looked closely, I could see it out to 100 yards. Again, this was due to the pulsating beam. I doubt I would have seen either laser at the longer ranges had they not been pulsating. This unscientific experiment proved to me that the green laser is in fact much more visible, and that the pulsating feature is valuable.

     The technology used in the green laser is different than that used for the red laser. Without going into a complicated scientific discussion, what this means is that the green laser has a considerably shorter battery life. This must be weighed against the conditions under which the laser will be deployed.

     When it comes to choosing between a steady or a pulsating laser beam, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from the blinking lights of the Las Vegas strip and the flashing lights on law enforcement's patrol cars. The natural tendency of the human eye to be drawn toward movement is an advantage of the pulsating beam. This allows an officer to scan for additional threats using his peripheral vision without losing focus on his aiming point.

Laser advantages

     Laser sights have a significant psychological advantage. The sight of red or green dot on a suspect's chest lets him know an officer means business. It provides the suspect with a visual reference about shot placement that is hard to ignore.

     A friend who works narcotics uses a laser on his handgun. He told me about a search he and his team were conducting for a violent and reportedly armed suspect. The suspect had fled into an alley and was hidden behind a metal sign. Officers could see his shadow moving behind the sign but no one had a direct visual on the suspect. The officer with the laser put the beam on the edge of the metal sign, bouncing it off the sign squarely onto the suspect's chest.

     The suspect tried to escape by sneaking away from the beam and unknowingly backed out from behind his concealed position into the arms of waiting officers. He was taken into custody and the incident ended without injury. The suspect later told officers he thought he had been flanked and was afraid because he could not figure out where the officer with the laser was positioned.

     The Web sites of manufacturers, such as LaserMax, Crimson Trace or Beamshot, a San Antonio, Texas-based manufacturer of green laser sights, offer more testimonials supporting the effectiveness of this equipment. The testimonials are from law enforcement, military and civilian personnel, who have used lasers effectively in real-world encounters.

     Laser sights also allow officers to shoot much faster in low-light conditions. Sometimes finding and aligning iron sights can be difficult in such situations. Additionally, with a laser in place, officers can focus on the threat rather than trying to focus on their sights.

Safety issues

     There are safety issues to be considered when using laser sights. The laser can be harmful to the human eye. Most reputable manufacturers have filters installed that alleviate this concern. It's best to inquire whether a laser is filtered.

     In team environments, the various colors and pulsating versus steady beams can be an advantage. However, if several officers are using lasers, it can be difficult to determine which one belongs to whom. Having team members use different colors or pulsating and steady beams helps avoid confusion and ensures that each officer is confident in his point of aim.

     Advances in technology and design have not only produced lightweight and durable lasers, they have allowed for a wide choice of mounting options for any weapon officers' carry. With proper training and application, laser sights can greatly enhance officers' effectiveness on the street or at the range.

     John Marrs has been a deputy with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department in California since 1988. He serves as a firearms instructor for his agency and the Allan Hancock C.C. Regional Training Site Basic Academy. He can be reached at