If Hollywood action movies were to be believed, by now we should all be busy fitting laser sights onto our guns. These would allow us to carefully place the laser’s red dot on the bad guy’s forehead. Don’t ask me how, but he would instantly know that if he moves, he’s crow bait. For some reason, these same screen writers also seem to have the idea that a laser sight acts like some sort of paralyzing ray, which will instantly freeze the subject as soon as the red dot lights on his body.
That’s all very entertaining, but unfortunately, facts don’t bear out this premise. Laser sights for handguns have been around now for a few years, and have proven themselves reliable. However, as one who always looks upon the world with a skeptical eye, I have to question whether or not I would want to have one mounted on any of my handguns.
Now here’s a little challenge for you. Set the target at ten yards, and then put the red dot right on the center. Hold it right in the middle of the X-ring and see if you can hold it there for a count of ten without the red dot starting to wander.
I have always been against any “magic” solutions to shooting problems, and I still believe that the basic principles of shooting (sight picture, grip, stance, and trigger control) are still valid, and that electronic gadgets and gizmos are unnecessary. Another downside of having an externally mounted laser sight on your gun is that it makes it impossible for the gun to fit into its holster.
Laser sights are now available in a wide variety of configurations. These include the well known laser grips (rubber handgun grips with built-in lasers), internal lasers that are built inside of the recoil spring guide rods, and lasers that can be mounted on the rails under semi-auto pistols. All of them work very well, but the question remains: Are they really any good for self-defense purposes?
Let’s look at the downside of laser sights first. You went to your local gun store and bought a laser sight for your pistol. The gunsmith in the store installed it for you, and you took the gun to the range to try it out. You loaded up a couple of magazines, loaded one into the gun, and got ready to shoot. You switched the laser on and could see the little red dot right in the center of the target.
However, there was a problem. The red dot was bouncing all over the place. You gripped the gun tighter, but this made it worse, and the dot shook like a seismograph in an earthquake. It wasn’t your fault! All that happened was that the gun, and consequently the laser sight, was reacting to the fact that you were living and breathing. The minute muscle tremors in your hands caused by the blood circulating through your body were being magnified on the target by the red dot. It wasn’t like the Hollywood versions, where the red dots were always perfectly still, was it?
Now here’s a little challenge for you. Set the target at ten yards, and then put the red dot right on the center. Hold it right in the middle of the X-ring and see if you can hold it there for a count of ten without the red dot starting to wander. Difficult, isn’t it?
A laser sight is also useful for training in engaging multiple targets.
We’ll look next at using your laser sight in a real life confrontation. You’re in bed, fast asleep, when you hear a noise downstairs. You are alone in the house and you’re not expecting any visitors, so you grab your laser-sighted gun and set off downstairs to investigate. As you reach the top of the stairs, you see by the light of a street light outside of the house that someone is stuffing your family heirlooms and Picasso lithographs into a large sack. Naturally enough, you are outraged at this, and being totally untrained in tactical firearms use, you decide to switch on your laser sight because you’ve read somewhere that it’s a great psychological weapon.
Now, what’s the first thing your burglar is going to see? Yes, you’re right. He’s going to see the red dot of your laser merrily bobbing along. He won’t need a super brain for him to realize that you have a gun, and that the gun has a laser sight. So what’s the bad guy’s next move? Well, if he’s armed and desperate, he’s going to locate the source of the red dot and shoot. Alternatively, he’s going to grab his loot and head for the hills. At least that way you will not have to shoot, but you will still lose some valuables from your home.
We’re told that having a laser sight on your gun will help you in low-light situations. Really? If you can’t properly identify your target, why on earth would you shoot? Are you sure that it’s the bad guy with the red dot on his center of mass, or could it be an innocent passer-by? Remember one of the cardinal rules for self-defense shooting: know your target. If all you can see is a dark mass, how can you be sure that it’s okay to shoot?
Let us imagine that your laser sight goes to the right spot, which is the center of mass on your opponent’s body. Will it freeze the bad guy? Probably not, especially if he isn’t looking at his chest. So you now have to challenge him and tell him that you’re armed. Great, but what if he decides to make a run for it? You can’t shoot, as your life isn’t in danger. Though there are urban legends to the contrary, it’s still illegal to shoot a fleeing suspect in the back. Relative to the above scenario, your laser sight really isn’t much use to you, is it?
Now we’ll look at the positive aspects of having a laser sight on your handgun. A laser sight is a wonderful training tool, and it’s especially useful if you are practicing point shooting at reasonably close distances of up to around 20 feet.
Here’s a useful exercise. Holster your gun, then draw and fire a single shot at your target using one or two hands. Activate the laser, draw and shoot. Then freeze in position after the shot is fired. There on the target is your little red dot, hopefully in the center. Repeat this exercise a few times and you’ll see that the laser sight has helped you build muscle memory that will allow you to put your shots right on target every time.
A laser sight is also useful for training in engaging multiple targets. If you set out three or four targets, you’ll be able to see the red dot clearly as your traverse the targets, and with practice, your speeds will rapidly build.
Just be aware that it isn’t a magic wand that will turn you into a master shot overnight, and I’m sure that the laser manufacturers will agree.
The laser sight is also an extremely useful tool for firearms instructors. Giving an unloaded, laser-sighted gun to a student and watching the red dot will help the instructor correct any mistakes the student may make when taking a sight picture. Likewise, with a loaded gun the instructor can instantly see any “twitching” or anticipating the gun’s recoil. In my mind, this is the only truly valid use for a laser sight by civilian shooters.
In conclusion, I have to say that I realize that I’m probably in a minority on this subject. I’m one of those people who prefer to have a handgun with little or no modifications, except for perhaps a trigger job and adding a set of decent sights if necessary. I stopped shooting IPSC matches back in the early 1990s when “race guns” first became popular, and guns were decked out like Christmas trees.
On the other hand, if you are a person who likes gadgets and electronic devices, go ahead and install a laser sight on your gun. Just be aware that it isn’t a magic wand that will turn you into a master shot overnight, and I’m sure that the laser manufacturers will agree. You still have to practice!
[ Tony Walker is President of SAS Training, Inc., in Scottsdale, Arizona. He teaches regular defensive handgun classes with his wife, Vannessa, and he is the author of numerous magazine articles, which have been published in the US, Australia, South Africa, and the UK.
Tony is also the author of the action thriller, Snides. He has recently completed a sequel, Pilgrim’s Banner, which will be published later this year. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his website at www.johnpilgrimbooks.com to learn about his novels, which feature the hard-hitting John Pilgrim and his swift-shooting wife Sally. In addition to his novels, Tony has also recently completed How to Win a Gunfight, which will be available soon. ]