July 21, 2011

The Joy of Lasers: Part 2

In the first article of this two-part series, we explored the rationale for lasers for rifles, particularly those with a high sight line relative to the axis of the bore. With handguns, and at handgun ranges, the rationale for a laser to eliminate the sighting problem inherent in the nature of such rifles doesn't apply, but there are still compelling reasons why lasers make substantial sense for handguns.

Glock 26 RS

The handgun in the first two photographs is a Glock 26 in 9mm, commonly known as a "Baby Glock." It owes its existence to the Clinton Gun Ban and its limitation of magazine capacity to 10 rounds.

Glock 26 LS

Glock—and eventually other manufacturers—decided that if they were limited to 10 rounds for a decade (but only on newly manufactured magazines—there were always plenty of standard capacity magazines available) they might as well design much smaller handguns with that capacity and the Baby Glock was the first of the breed. Glock makes the baby in a variety of calibers, but the 9mm was the firstborn.

Sight 001

This photograph shows the front of the LaserLyte RL-1 Glock rear sight laser unit. Notice the laser on the right and the battery compartment on the left.

RS 003

Here is the rear view of the sight, with the white outline virtually identical to the standard Glock rear sight, and the activation and feature selection button on the rear of the battery compartment.
As you can see, the entire unit is quite compact and rugged. But before getting too deeply into this particular unit and my reasons for choosing it, let's review what's available on the market.

Manufacturer Websites:

LaserLyte: This URL will take you directly to the Glock version of the sight.

LaserMax: Go here for LaserMax's line of effective and reasonably priced sights.

Crimson Trace: Go here for Crimson Trace's innovative sights.

Viridian: Go here for Viridian's line of exclusively green lasers. They tend to be quite large and expensive.

Insight: Go here for Insight's line of tactical weapon lights and lasers. They tend to focus on the military and police markets with more specialized and expensive designs.

TYPES OF HANDGUN LASERS: Laser sights for handguns come in three primary types:

(1) Rail-mounted sights which commonly clamp onto rails machined or molded into the frame forward of the trigger guard. Some come as a unit with an integral flashlight. Many of these types of sights work equally well with any rail-equipped rifle, such as the package featured in the first of this two part series. Some of these sights can be quite small, while others are large enough—though still small—to allow other rail-mountable accessories such as flashlights to clamp onto them.

(2) Grip-mounted sights such as those pioneered by Crimson Trace. These sights are built into grips that completely replace the grips—revolver or semi-automatic—designed for the weapon. Most position their small laser units on the right side of the frame, just above the first finger as the hand grips the weapon. Batteries and activation switches are built into the grips.

(3) Guide Rod lasers which entirely replace the guide rod/recoil spring assemblies of semi-automatic pistols. These sights leave the exterior of the pistol (they obviously do not work for revolvers) unaltered. The primary disadvantage of these units is that they are not finely adjustable for accuracy. Once installed, if your laser dot ends up 1.5" to the left of the center of your bore at 15 yards, you'll have to remember to adjust that distance with Kentucky windage when using the laser. Unless your guide rod assembly is indexed so as to fit into your weapon in only one way, the next time you install the unit, you could be 1.5" off in another direction.

There are a number of slight variations within these primary categories, and there are also some lasers designed to exploit the specific design features of individual handguns such as Ruger's LCP 380 pocket pistol. A number of manufacturers are even beginning to offer handguns with integral lasers directly from the factory, such as the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .380. The advantage of this approach is that Smith can market a very smoothly designed, non-snag pocket pistol for only $399.00. I've not had the chance to test one, but it appears to be a genuinely ingenious design and a smart idea.

RATIONALE: Effective handgun range, for all but specialized hunting or target weapons and/or expert shooters, is usually considered to be 25 yards and less. That may not sound like much, but it's 75 feet, a quarter of the length of a football field, a considerable distance. Particularly with handguns, as distance increases, shooting with consistent accuracy becomes more difficult and takes longer.

As I mentioned in the first installment, lasers—with proper practice—can help to make the essential tasks of fast and accurate shooting easier. Lasers, with any type of firearm, do not for a moment relieve the shooter of the necessity of employing proper stance, grip, presentation and trigger squeeze. Failing in the application of any of these essentials, particularly trigger squeeze, will throw off shots regardless of the type of sight used. However laser sights do offer two enormous advantages: They help compensate for vision deficiencies when we no longer have perfect, 20-year-old fighter pilot vision, and particularly with handguns, can allow on-target shots when it's not possible to properly align, indeed, even to see, standard sights.

It’s relatively well known that most gunfights with handguns take place at very close, reach-out-and-touch each other ranges. In such circumstances, people virtually never remember seeing their sights, and often empty their weapons at each other and entirely miss. This is true for the police as well as civilians. One way that lasers can help is that from a proper ready position, the shooter need not bring the weapon up entirely to the plane of vision. The weapon—still being properly gripped and presented—can be below the sight line as the shooter need only see the laser dot on the target which will be aligned with the bore of the handgun. This allows the shooter, even when transitioning from ready to bringing the weapon on line, to see more of the target, providing greater tactical awareness.

Should you find yourself off balance, perhaps even on the ground for whatever reason, if you can place the laser dot on the target and properly squeeze the trigger, you need not see the "normal" sights at all. Of course, one should always employ all of the fundamentals, unless it's impossible but you still desperately need to shoot. As distance increases, this becomes more difficult, but at normal handgun ranges, it is a viable possibility for desperate situations.

As I mentioned in the first installment, green lasers are generally more visible under the entire range of environmental conditions than red lasers, but they are also considerably more expensive, often costing twice as much or more than their red brethren. At normal handgun ranges, this difference is greatly lessened, and in dim light conditions, and particularly at night, it's essentially a non-issue.

Do keep in mind that while lasers are particularly visible at night, we always have an absolute obligation to be certain of our targets. Simply because you can place a laser dot on a target doesn't mean you can legally shoot it. A high quality "tactical" flashlight is a necessity for night shooting with or without a laser sight. Positive target identification is never optional.

The final advantage of lasers I'll mention is in training. Handguns are simply more difficult to shoot accurately at just about any range than rifles, whose much longer sight radius, solid contact with more of the body, and shorter and lighter triggers make the fundamentals of shooting easier to accomplish. To teach proper trigger control, an old revolver shooter's trick (taught to me by an old revolver shooter) was to balance a coin on the front sight (on its flat side, not the edge; that would be a real Zen trick!) while practicing dry firing. When you could drop the hammer on as many empty chambers as you pleased without dislodging the coin, you were able to smoothly and consistently pull the trigger without disturbing the sights, which is not a simple matter with revolvers. A laser dot provides a real-time image of exactly what the shooter is doing wrong and right in terms of the trigger. It can also diagnose faulty stance, grip and presentations.

LASERS AND ME: I bought my first Glock 26 when the first one arrived in my local gun store shortly after the Clinton Gun Ban took effect. I carried it with its original sights for many years, and always found it to be a very concealable, accurate and utterly reliable handgun. But as I grew older and my close range vision began to weaken, the front sight grew more blurry. Glasses helped, but they have their own difficulties. All of the skills I worked so hard to attain and maintain served me well, but why work so hard unnecessarily?

My first laser was the Crimson Trace model for Glocks. It's an ingenious design that wraps around the backstrap of the G26 and is secured to the weapon by replacing the pin at the backstrap, which runs completely through the frame, with a slightly longer pin. It does make the grip more bulky with swells on each side to contain the two batteries, and the laser itself sitting above the hand on the right side of the weapon.

The laser dot was relatively large and quite clear, and I found the unit to be completely reliable. However, I did experience some difficulties. When I first turned it on, I noticed that the dot seemed to be at about half strength. I returned it to the factory and they had it back, in perfect working order, within a bit more than a week. Once sighted in, it remained rock steady—for several years—but more about that shortly.

For me, the best feature of the unit was its rear activation button on the center-back of the backstrap. Gripping the G26 correctly would activate the laser, and I could, by simply slightly relaxing my grip, turn the laser off. Squeeze, and it was back on. That's tactically handy. The problem is that some people's hands simply don't work with this type of switch and its placement in much the same way that some people have a hard time with the grip safety of the Colt 1911.

But there is no free lunch, and I noticed several problems with the sight. When putting my trigger finger in register (extended straight, in contact with the frame and out of the trigger guard), I tend to prefer to elevate it slightly and place its tip in contact with the slide. Doing this obscured the laser, forcing me to readjust my grip. The position of the laser also interfered with some holsters, particularly inside-the-waistband types which a weapon like the G26 might often inhabit.

The most annoying issue was that when racking the slide with a proper grip—left hand cupping the top of the slide, thumb toward the shooter's face—the laser unit got in the way of the tips of my fingers, forcing me to slightly rotate my wrist to avoid hitting the sight. It wasn't enough to convince me that it would be a potentially dangerous issue, but it was annoying and required some adaptation. Still, I could and did adapt to these comparatively minor issues.

When LaserLyte came out with rear sight lasers, I was intrigued. The design seemed to potentially address everything I found unsatisfactory with my Crimson Trace sight. My mind was made up when after somewhat more than two years, I noticed that the mounting system of my CT sight no longer held the unit rigidly to the polymer frame of the weapon. Enough play had worked into the unit so that when I gripped it firmly—and correctly—the point of impact would shift laterally. I suspect that this was a design issue as the unit and the Glock's frame are polymer. The frame of the Glock didn't change, but the laser unit was retained by a thin pin with relatively little purchase on each side of the frame, and I suspect time and daily use simply enlarged the pin holes enough to cause the effect I experienced. A tiny variation in a sight at the weapon is more than enough to cause a substantial variation at the target, which only gets worse as distance increases.

So when my wife and I recently decided to upgrade our Generation I Glocks for Generation III G26s, we got the LaserLyte sights too. Each sight comes with everything necessary to remove the standard sights and install the laser sight, but we had our local dealer do it with his more expensive sight tools.

The sight is really quite small, and is solidly made of steel rather than plastic or aluminum. Like all lasers of its size, the adjustment wrench is very small and easily lost (plan ahead), but the adjustment mechanism is precise and once set, doesn't drift, or at least not in the 500 or so rounds I've fired through the gun since getting the sights installed.

It is a 5 milliwatt laser-the most powerful the law allows—and the dot is of comparable size and brightness to every other red laser sight I've seen or tested. It retails for $199.95 (Hey! it costs less then $200, honey!) and is powered by four small 37 watch batteries which slip into the battery compartment on the left by means of a knurled screwcap. According to LaserLyte, the batteries are good for five+ hours in constant-on mode and 10 hours in pulse mode. My Crimson Trace sight was rated for three hours (it only had constant-on mode) and was still going strong despite daily use after 2.5 years when I traded it in.

The sight has several neat features, which include what is essentially a electrically powered rear night sight with the appropriate green Tritium-like glow. With a Tritium (the radioactive element common in analog watch faces) front sight (available separately from various manufacturers, you have a complete night sight set as well as a laser. Hit the activation button on the back of the battery compartment, which activates positively and is easy to do with either thumb, once and the green night sight comes on. It can be adjusted to constant-on or pulsing configuration. However, it is really only usable in near-dark or dark conditions, precisely like a night sight relying on radioactive elements. However, unlike such sights, there is no half-life and full function can always be restored with a battery change.

Press the button twice and the laser is activated, again with a choice of constant-on or pulsing function. I recommend the pulsing configuration as it not only doubles battery life but is substantially easier to see under the full range of conditions. Pressing the button a third time shuts the unit off. There is also an automatic shut off feature that engages after five minutes regardless of whether you are in night sight or laser mode. After five minutes a tiny red LED in the back of the laser unit will pulse for one minute to let you know that you're on borrowed time. Pressing the button again within that minute will reset the countdown.

While I've had the unit a relatively short time, it does address all of the issues to which I had to adapt with the Crimson Trace unit. There is no alteration of the grip, I can place my trigger finger in register as I please, the sight does not interfere with any holster I own or might consider owning, and I can manipulate the slide with the proper grip.
The only issue I've noticed is that using the built in "iron" sights is taking me a bit of time to adapt as my eyes tend to be drawn to the two Mickey Mouse-like ears at the upper edges of the rear sight if I don't focus as well as I should. I've no doubt I'll be able to rewire my brain to deal with this, which is an issue of some importance. Some people ask: "Well lasers are nice, but what happens when you run out of battery power." You simply revert to the iron sights. You need to practice with both.

I should clear up any misconception about Crimson Trace sights. They make quality products and I was generally pleased with my sight. With any consumer product, there is no such thing as absolute perfection applicable to all. My wife's sight—identical to mine—did not show the same wear problem, but she does not carry as often as do I nor is her grip as strong. I suspect that the CT sights that are more solidly mounted, such as their Colt 1911 models and others, would never suffer from the problem I observed.

If you're considering the LaserLyte sight—and they have models for many popular semi-automatic handguns—you need to be aware that the newest model of the sight—which I have—is different in function from the initial production runs. In fact, circa mid-July, 2011, even the specifications on LaserLyte's web-site reflect the old system which had no night-site and was constant-on with the first button push, pulse with the second, and off with the third. I spoke with LaserLyte before writing the article and they assured me that they are going to update things in the near future.

One additional compelling reason for laser sights is that smaller, pocket pistol-type handguns such as the Ruger LCP generally have very small and mediocre sights. Virtually none are adjustable because most are little more than molded or machined slots and grooves in the top of the slide. Granted, such weapons are not designed for great accuracy at long range, but a laser can bring a degree of precision not otherwise possible with such weapons.

Laser sights are certainly worthy of your consideration, and I've found the LaserLyte sight to be an excellent choice.

Posted by MikeM at July 21, 2011 10:47 PM

Like Mike, I'm a big fan of lasers on defensive pistols, and have the LaserLyte RSL mounted on my Springfield Armory XD Service Model.

I'll eventually be transitioning that over to my XD Subcompact (which I CCH more often) while putting TFOs (tritium fiber optics) or Dawson Precision FOs on my Service model, which are lower profile and tend to work well as shooting class guns, which is what my Service model typically is.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at July 22, 2011 08:32 AM

Thanks for both of your insightful pieces on lasers. I'll share them with like-minded friends. While I have a laser (Glock's own) on my G21, you've inspired me to copy your installation on my G26. Of everything dwelling in the safe, the little 26 is hands-down our most frequent carry companion. Never thought that I'd be thanking Slick Willy for anything.

Posted by: John at July 23, 2011 10:47 AM