July 14, 2011

The Joy of Lasers: Part 1

Technology provides us with entertainment and innovations that have become, in many ways, necessities. I am old enough to have learned to type on a manual typewriter, physically flinging the carriage back into battery at the end of each line. In high school, back in the 1400’s, I witnessed and embraced the invention of such wonders as the cassette tape, the touch-tone phone and all-transistor guitar amplifiers. I bought my first home computer, an Apple, in 1986 and have ridden the wave of innovation that flowed from what was then considered the enormous 20 megabyte hard drive of that first machine. So I often take a moment to appreciate the wonder of the technology that drives my iPhone4, which in very real ways puts the world in my pocket.

One innovation that is a boon to shooters, casual and professional, is the laser. Contemporary lasers are small, weigh little, and are relatively inexpensive and very effective. One of the best things about lasers is that they are actually a highly effective solution to real world problems rather than the many ingenious solutions to non-existent problems so common in the firearms world.


Note in this first photograph my pre-ban Colt with a few modern enhancements, the most noteworthy of which is the LaserMax Uni-Max Value Pack for Rifles (go here), which retails for about $189.00 these days. All of the goodies in this post are available direct from the factory. Disclaimer: I am not being paid by LaserMax, nor did they supply this unit to me.

Laser 001

The package consists of four elements: The Uni-Max ES laser itself, which is essentially an off-the-shelf 5mW unit (the most powerful the law allows) which works equally well with handguns and rifles and comes with a crossbolt-type activation switch which works quite well by itself. It also has a built in rail that allows the mounting of any rail compatible accessory—such as a flashlight—directly to the laser. The package also comes with a momentary-type activation switch, which neatly replaces the crossbolt switch and has only a 6” straight cord which is far better than the lengthy coiled cords that come with some switches.

Laser 002

The really neat part of the package is the MantaRail system which is a neat polymer/silicone sheath for the momentary switch which easily clamps onto a standard rifle rail and is as easily removed. This eliminates adhesives and Velcro, neither of which work well in this application, and it comes with two end caps and three polymer cord routing clamps called, amazingly enough, “MantaClamps.”

Laser 004

As you can see, I prefer the simple expedient of two small cable ties that are cheap and easy to remove--via wire cutters--and replace. The sheath also solves another common momentary switch problem: they tend to become quite hot—electrical resistance--if left on very long. The silicon sheath effectively insulates the fingers from any such discomfort. I chose to mount my switch and laser on the right hand side of the handguard, but they can easily be mounted on adjacent rails.

But wait a minute, aren’t lasers really difficult to see at long range and in bright sunlight? Indeed they are, particularly red lasers. Green lasers are generally more visible, but are substantially more expensive ($170.00 more for the same package). So what’s the point? Close Quarters Battle or CQB. Or for the civilian, using a carbine in the home defense role. If you need to take 100 yard shots indoors, you’re probably Al Gore or John Edwards and you don’t like guns, at least not when the little people own them.

One of the primary difficulties with any rifle with a high sight line relative to the bore is that at closer ranges, say 25 yards and less, rounds will impact below the point of aim. With the AR-15 family, this means that with iron sights or with an optical red dot sight zeroed for 100 yards, bullets will strike at point of aim at 100 yards. But move to 25 yards or closer and bullets will strike 3” or more below the point of aim.

So what? Just remember that and adjust your aim upward three inches. Unfortunately that’s not a good idea in CQB. Raising the muzzle to compensate obscures the shooter’s view of what they intend to shoot, and in the heat of battle, remembering the necessity for Kentucky windage is easier discussed than accomplished. When it’s necessary to deliver a precise shot at close range, it’s best to know exactly where that shot is going without additional computation and adjustment, and even better, to be able to have your head up and your eyes on your potential target. That’s where lasers come in.

With an optical sight zeroed for 100 yards and the laser zeroed for 25, it is easy to instantly transition from sight to sight while moving closer to the target. The same mounting and target acquisition motions (presentation) are used for either sight, but with the laser sight at close range, it’s great to be able to simply look directly at the target rather than through a scope. It does take some practice to condition the brain to see and respond to the laser dot rather than an illuminated reticle, and some practice to work out the slightly different muscle memory required, but it’s not difficult.

One of the other advantages of this particular laser is that it can be set for pulse mode, which even with a red laser, produces a much easier to see dot, even in bright sunlight. Indoors, even with bright artificial lighting, the dot is brilliant and easy to see. Many manufacturers market green lasers with the claim that they can be seen at 100 yards, which may be true, but not necessarily for everyone. Perhaps young people with fighter pilot-like vision can instantly pick out a laser dot on any target at 100 yards, but it’s not always an easy or quick task for me. On the other hand, it’s a piece of cake to immediately align a properly sighted in optical sight at that, and greater, ranges.

With the laser, bullet impact is right on, and for most people, accuracy, and particularly speed, are enhanced. The eye is naturally drawn to the pulsing dot, which can substantially decrease the time required to place accurate fire on any target. This does not eliminate the need for proper stance, trigger control, grip and presentation, for if one becomes lazy, they’ll lose time looking for a laser dot that is anywhere other than the target. In other words, you still have to present the weapon as though you were using iron or optical sights. Leave shooting from the hip for the movies.

Using a rifle in the proper ready position with the laser activated provides several advantages. A bad guy noticing—because you have told him—a pulsing laser dot dancing around just below his belt line might be readily encouraged to cease hostilities. With the dot visible and already aligned with the centerline of the target, it is simplicity itself to point in from ready and fire the instant the dot reaches center mass, all the while keeping your attention and both eyes on what is happening in front of you.

The laser with this package is easily adjusted for windage and elevation with the supplied allen wrench, but know that the wrench is very small and easy to lose. Once aligned, the sight tends to stay in alignment. The laser unit weighs very little, is low profile (unlikely to hang up on anything) and quite rugged and is available individually for $149.00. The MantaRail system with the sheath, end caps and three MantaClamps retails for $34.95 and is a great solution for any momentary switch/laser combination from any manufacturer. Once mounted—it’s easy to position and remove—it stays put.

I’m pleased with the quality and utility of this LaserMax sytem and use it on several of my AR systems. I suspect you’ll be equally pleased.

Next Friday: Part 2 of this short series on lasers for handguns.

Posted by MikeM at July 14, 2011 10:42 PM

Back when I was a SWAT cop, our tests showed that lasers were slower, and they certainly are not conducive to accuracy. The time spent trying to find the dot was more than was required to bring the front sight somewhere onto the target. That really is enough at CQB distances.

Lasers also encourage extremely poor trigger control as the loud switch is yanked back as soon as the dot seems right.

I've used IR lasers with NVG's to good effect overseas, and think that visible lasers are valuable if you really need to shoot around a shield or with a restrictive gas mask. Other than that, you are trying to replace skill and practice with technology, and it doesn't work. The $200 spent on this is better spent on a 2 day rifle class.

And sight offset being a real problem for CQB? No. Aim high in the chest and be generous with ammo. Bullets are cheap: Life is dear.

Posted by: KarlJ at July 15, 2011 06:34 PM

Dear KarlJ:

Thanks for your comments! As I'm sure you may have noticed, I was careful to note that having a laser does not relieve one of the necessity of proper stance, grip and presentation, just as though one was using iron or optical sights. I also made the point that it takes practice to be truly proficient with a laser sight, not only in terms of muscle memory issues, but in terms of training the brain. Correctly positioning the dot does not relieve one of the necessity of proper trigger control and in fact, lasers are a wonderful aid in trigger control training as they provide an immediate visual indication of jerking or anticipation.
No longer does one have to balance a coin on the front sight.

I have little doubt that a laser may be marginally slower if you're talking about testing people with little or no laser experience but who are quite proficient with iron or optical (red dot-type) sights. However, once they do the required practice, my experience has been that they can be a bit faster.

Again, Kentucky windage isn't a bright idea in CQB. I'm sure you know that the necessity for speed and accuracy increase as the distance diminishes. If you opponent is wearing body armor, for example, a head shot may be your only chance. Trying to remember hold over is far less effective than being able to place the dot precisely where the bullet will strike.

While I agree that a competent class is generally money well spent, We're comparing apples and oranges. I was playing SWAT in the days before even red dot sights were common, so I've worked with iron sights and everything that followed. Lasers are a worthwhile and viable addition, but as with any piece of sighting equipment, require proper practice.

Thanks for reading, and again, for your comments.

Posted by: Mike Mc at July 15, 2011 07:58 PM

Fair enough, Mike. I started with irons only too, and our first laser was the size of a 3 cell maglight and had a battery life measured in minutes! We eventually had a few of the HK/Surefire(?) dedicated laser forends for our MP5's. I'm still not convinced, but I admit to having been wrong in the past!

I would like to take a moment to remind folk that should they decide that this sort of product is something they actually intend to depend on, then buy a good one like this one. Don't think the $50 catalog special is just as good. Just like with red dots sights, good ones cost what they do for a reason.

Posted by: KarlJ at July 16, 2011 06:08 PM