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How to Zero a Handgun Laser

by Brad Fitzpatrick   |  August 25th, 2014 3

Twenty-five years ago, the idea of mounting a laser optic on a handgun seemed radical, and laser sights were largely dismissed as unnecessary gadgets. Since that time, perception has changed dramatically, and today more shooters are adding laser optics to their firearms.

Lasers are relatively simple to install, especially with rail systems on modern pistols. However, correctly zeroing a handgun laser differs slightly from zeroing iron sights. While it is not difficult to mount and sight in a laser, it can cause problems if done incorrectly.

For a laser to function properly, you need to understand the sight-in process and avoid pitfalls that can cost you time and ammunition. Here is a simple five-step method to ensure that the laser you mount is ready to perform.

Step 1: Install the Laser
sighting_in_handgun_laser_8This may sound very basic, but these are the most common problems I’ve seen with firearms-mounted lasers. Many lasers fit on your gun’s accessory rail using an adapter plate that provides a stable mounting platform. Oftentimes, shooters who hastily mount the laser on the gun fail to ensure a solid fit, and that can lead to horrible accuracy.

While mounting a Crimson Trace laser, I noticed that all but one of the plates provided would fit in the gun’s accessory rail, though only one plate (the one prescribed for use on my gun by the factory) allowed for a stable mount. In addition, the side screws need to be secure, tight enough to hold the laser firmly in place on the accessory rail without allowing any movement. I’ve fixed two “malfunctioning” lasers for others, and in both cases it was operator error that resulted in poor accuracy.

Step 2: Get On-Target From A Rest
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You can save yourself a lot of headache and ammunition by zeroing your laser from a fixed rest rather than banging away at the board while intermittently adjusting the laser’s point-of-impact. In fact, you should be able to quickly adjust the laser and be pretty close to on-target without firing a single shot.

Before you begin fine-tuning the laser, have the owner’s manual on hand to tell you which direction you turn the sighting screws for left/right, up/down windage and elevation adjustments. You don’t want to start playing the “wrong way” game at the range.

I also make sure to bring a portable Tipton gun vise in case I need to make any adjustments, and it’s perfect for getting a laser close to center after mounting. The vise allows me to hold the handgun secure while I align the laser and iron sights with the laser tools provided.

This is a much easier way to get on target than shooting, adjusting, shooting and readjusting. It takes a little extra time, but when you fire your first shot, you should only have to fine-tune the point of impact, nothing more.

Step 3: Sight In At Longer Range
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The temptation when mounting a laser on a defensive handgun is to sight in at the range you expect to shoot. It makes sense, but that’s a mistake.

Let’s say that the popular belief that most gunfights occur at about 10 feet is true, and you align your laser so that it is dead-on at that range. It will work well at that distance, but keep in mind that the laser itself is mounted well under the barrel (or, in the case of hand grips, to the side of your barrel), so the angle required to get on target is pretty steep.

That also means that at 15, 20 and 25 feet, the path of the laser continues to rise. As the distance increases, you will be farther off target. Suddenly, you’ll be missing the target and won’t understand why. Instead, sight in at 25 feet. The laser’s point of impact shift will be more gradual, and even at close range you won’t be more than an inch or so off target.

Step 4: Make Minor Adjustments
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Most lasers don’t have ¼ MOA adjustments, meaning you’re often adjusting the laser by feel. When adjusting your laser, think small. Because lasers allow for a wide range of POI adjustments utilizing a limited amount of space for fine tuning, it’s easy to overcompensate and find yourself seesawing between left of center and right of center or high and low.

Step 5: Shoot Plenty of Rounds
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When your laser is mounted and sighted, don’t simply shove the gun in a safe or stick it into your holster and head out.

You need plenty of range time with a laser for two primary reasons:
1. Ensure the laser is firmly planted on your gun and won’t shake loose with recoil or daily handling.
2. Feel completely comfortable with the laser system. It’s important to know that your laser is properly sighted, but it’s equally important to be sure the laser works on your gun.

After a period of a hundred rounds or more, it’s also time to check the screws and ensure the laser is still properly secured. If you installed it properly there shouldn’t be a problem, but the screws may back out just a bit and this is the time to know about it. If your laser stands up to a few hundred rounds and passes the inspection, there’s a very good chance the laser will be there when you need it. If you’ve fired enough rounds to verify the unit is secure, you’ve already started developing the muscle memory needed to shoot accurately in a stressful situation.

Final Tip: Use the ammo you intend to carry while sighting in the laser.

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  • transvaluation

    A friend once showed how to sight in a laser.

    Using a vice/benchrest and setting the target at the appropriate distance i.e. the 25 feet mentioned. He fired one shot from the rest at a new paper target, then adjusted the laser to the hole in the target.

  • BJC

    In the article it says to sight the laser in at 25 ft but in the 9 Misconceptions About Handgun Lasers under accuracy section it says to sight it in at 50 ft. So witch one is it? Your editor seems to need some help here. Contradicting statements in the same article.

  • BJC

    No one has ever bothered to explain why sighting a laser for a longer distance tends to make it closer on target at shorter distances than sighting it in at the shorter distance and being way off at a longer distance. Basically most add on lasers are mounted below the barrel and as stated at the point where the two lines cross is the optimum point of impact but the margin of error beyond the intersection is greater because of the bullets trajectory, beyond the intersection the laser is still projected at the same angle but the bullet is dropping at a non consistent rate. When my life depends on it I would rather have open sights, (preferably night sights in case it is dark), than to have to try to estimate distance to my target and than compensate for error before being able to take a shot. I have tried lasers and I do not like them…

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