The use of laser sights on handguns has come a long way since the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) walked into a 1980s Los Angeles gun shop. In the 1984 film, Schwarzenegger’s cyborg character ordered up a load of guns, including an AMT Longslide Hardballer .45 ACP with a 6-inch barrel. Mounted atop the Hardballer was an early laser sight made by the company that was to later become SureFire. The laser sight had to be mounted on a 6-inch pistol because it was huge. It ran the full length of the slide and looked like a telescopic sight. But it was the best laser sight available in 1984.

So, what are the best sights available now?

Let’s start by eliminating all “unknown-brand” and otherwise bargain-priced units. Since you will be staking your life on this valuable addition to your defensive handgun, my first recommendation is that you select a laser sight from one of the quality U.S. manufacturers below.

Crimson Trace

Laser-Grip Sights

Laser sights for handguns can be divided into two basic types. The first is typified by Crimson Trace’s Lasergrips, which was the first police-duty-capable handgun laser-sighting system. Utilizing strategically placed pressure switches embedded in the grip panels, Crimson Trace Lasergrips provide the user with the advantage of instinctive momentary on and off switching. For most pistol models, the Lasergrips replace the factory original grip scales. Operation is accomplished simply by adjusting your finger pressure on the activation pads.

Hogue produces the similar Laser Enhanced series of laser-mounted grips with red or green lasers. Its Rosewood grips are the best-looking laser replacement grips currently available, and the price is excellent. And Viridian manufactures a red grip laser for two Taurus revolver models and magnum-frame North American Arms mini-revolvers.

Laser-grip systems offer one other big advantage over other laser-sighting systems: They’re compatible with 99 percent of standard pistol holsters. The only holster I ever had to gently modify was a Safariland 6274 duty holster so that it would fit the laser module located on the right side of the frame of my gun. I used this holster with my Crimson Trace Lasergrips-equipped Glock 31 while I served at Ohio’s Union County Sheriff’s Office. Laser-grip systems are my personal favorite, and Crimson Trace Lasergrips are mounted on my bedside Beretta 92.

Rail-Mounted Lasers

The second type of handgun laser-sighting system appeared after the introduction of the Picatinny rail mounting system in 1995. Picatinny railing systems were soon added to the lower receivers of handguns for mounting pistol-sized weapon lights and laser sights. Early models were operated by a corded switch mounted to a pistol grip, which was less than ideal.

Today, most rail-mounted laser sights or combination sights and weapon lights utilize self-contained momentary- or constant-on switching systems activated by a user’s index finger. The user must switch between momentary- and constant-on modes while conducting room-clearing, which can complicate matters. Viridian’s E Series rail-mounted Green Laser Sight has a push-button constant-on switch system, which is very simple to operate.

A disadvantage of a rail-mounted laser sight is that a specialized holster is needed to accommodate it. Depending on the brand of sight, the search for a holster to accommodate a particular unit can be daunting.

Over time, the Picatinny rail system greatly expanded the laser-sighting options available to pistol shooters since guns such as the Glock and Smith & Wesson M&P featured polymer grip frames without removable grip panels. It took several years for Crimson Trace to come up with a Lasergrips variant that could easily be mounted on a Glock without permanently modifying the pistol, but the manufacturer’s technological skill and determination eventually triumphed.

Rail-module systems — with or without weapon lights — are available from Crimson Trace (Rail Master series), Streamlight (the extensive TLR series), Viridian (E Series) and LaserMax (Spartan, Micro II and Lightning series).

Rail/Grip Laser Hybrids

Known as the Laserguard by Crimson Trace and the Contour Remote by Streamlight, a rail-grip laser hybrid combines the easy mounting of a laser-light module on the front rail with a solid remote plastic extension pressure switch mounted against the frontstrap of the pistol frame. This setup gives the user the same instinctive, momentary switching system found on a laser-grip system. However, because this hybrid-style sight utilizes a rail-mounted laser module, you will need to find a holster designed to accommodate it properly if you choose to carry it.

Making the Right Call

There are two factors to consider in determining which laser-sight system is best for you. The first factor is determining what you intend to use the pistol for. Is the laser sight for your everyday carry gun or a home-defense pistol?

The second factor is potentially simpler: Which type of system can your handgun accommodate? For instance, at this time, none of my most-often-carried defensive handguns have a speck of Picatinny railing on them. That narrows down my choices a bit.

Home Defense

A home-defense handgun is the easiest handgun for which to select a laser sight, especially if it is equipped with a rail. A full-sized handgun gives you better balance for any sighting system you might wish to mount on it. And in a home-defense context, concealment is not a concern.

For all defensive handguns — home defense or concealed carry — use a green laser sight. All of the early deficiencies of green lasers are no longer pain points: the need for specialized batteries, much greater expense, bulkiness — none of it. I can heartily recommend a green laser as the starting point in the selection process.

A green laser is visibly brighter than a red laser, and the more attention you can get from the threatening target when you apply your laser, the better chance you have of changing his or her mind about harming you. Secondary to targeting advantages is the deterrence effect. The criminal you painted with a laser dot knows exactly where the bullet will go if you pull the trigger, and all of the guesswork is taken out of the equation. And if you win the day without firing a shot, the victory is glorious. For a brief time, many years ago, Crimson Trace had a T-shirt that appropriately read, “Helping Criminals Make Wise Decisions.”

The laser sight you select for home defense should also include a weapon light. A micro-sized unit’s weapon-light components tend to be much lower-powered than what we have come to expect, usually in the 100-lumen range, which is pretty low. I like a weapon light that is powerful enough to take out a threat’s night vision.

One of my favorites is the Streamlight TLR-2 HL G, which features a green laser and a 1,000-lumen light (lower-power versions are available). Streamlight has what is likely the largest selection of weapon-light models available.

A home-defense handgun needn’t be secured in a holster. But if a holster is necessary, the Blackhawk Omnivore will accommodate the Streamlight TLR-1 and TLR-2 series as well as the SureFire X300 (there is a specific model for both types). The weapon light is what secures the gun in the holster, which has a thumb-operated push-button release. The Omnivore can accommodate more than 250 handguns without modification.

PRESTO CHANGE-O: These Beretta Pico chassis allow the end user to opt for both laser-equipped and non-laser-equipped carry.

Concealed Carry

As far as EDC sight systems go, simplicity of operation is a must. Deadly encounters on the street involving private citizens are likely to occur with greater speed than law enforcement encounters, which usually begin with an investigatory contact. It is for this reason that I recommend that you use a laser sight only, and not a combo tool. While a home encounter will likely be in near-total darkness, there tends to be some level of illumination involved in most nighttime street encounters. (That said, criminals operate with impunity in broad daylight too.)

Instinctive activation is vital in a laser sight. I know this from personal experience during an off-duty encounter. I have two recommendations: the Crimson Trace Lasergrips or Hogue Laser Enhanced Grips. Crimson Trace has the greatest number of pistol options for its Lasergrips, while Hogue is currently limited to 1911s; Smith & Wesson J-, K- and L-frame round-butt revolvers (currently available only with red lasers); green-laser Ruger LCR revolvers; and green-laser Kimber Micro 9 grips. The Crimson Trace Laserguard system is an alternative, and for some pistols, that may be your only choice. For example, Crimson Trace does not make Lasergrips for my Smith & Wesson M2.0 Compact pistol, but it does offer a Laserguard for it.

If you don’t have or don’t want a pistol that can be used with a laser-grip option and prefer a Picatinny-rail-mounted light, get one that puts the switch closest to the “safe” trigger-finger position. I have been working with the Viridian E Series laser sight mounted on a Springfield Armory Hellcat for a couple of months now. Its constant-on switch is close to my fingertip and performs only one function. It would make a decent choice as well, and Viridian offers a number of holsters for the Hellcat pistol series.

Incalculable Benefits

My street policing experience with laser-sighting systems dating back to the late ‘90s proved to me that a laser-sighting system is a valuable component of a defensive handgun system. Such a system has prevented shots from being fired by causing threatening persons to stop what they were doing. It allows a user to focus on a threat and what is in that threat’s hand, which can keep the user from firing a wrongful shot since the laser dot allows him or her to focus on the target and not sight alignment. While a laser sight may mean spending extra money above the cost of your handgun, what it may save you is beyond measure.


Crimson Trace:

The Terminator’s Laser


In 1983, Ed Reynolds, who worked for SureFire (then Laser Products), received a call from Hemdale Film Corporation about producing a futuristic-looking laser to mount on the Terminator’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s) .45 AMT Hardballer.

“Our Colt Trooper .357 had the same laser configuration, so I took one of those and created a housing for it,” he recalled during an interview published on SureFire’s website. “I took a standard, off-the-shelf gun mount for a scope, modified that, and we had a product.”

Reynolds produced two props for the film: one mounted to the Terminator’s pistol that wasn’t functional and another that had an operational laser. On the functional unit, a long cable connected the laser to a power supply. A second cable connected it to a 10,000-volt battery pack, which continued to a switch. To activate the laser, Schwarzenegger had to reach into his jacket and flip the switch with his finger. He does this in the scene when the Terminator ambushes Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) at the Tech Noir nightclub. Reynolds still has both of the lasers used in the iconic film.

“The prop house owned the gun, and when it was all through, they kept the gun but brought the lasers back to me,” Reynolds stated. “So, I went out and bought an identical AMT Hardballer to mount one of them. It’s all locked in a vault today.”

— Frank Jastrzembski, Contributing Editor