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
This 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
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.
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
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.
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.
For years shooters have spread the notion that lasers are only effective at a very specific range, usually a few yards, and that beyond that range accuracy begins to deteriorate. This myth is largely due to the fact that many shooters sight their laser in too close, say seven to ten feet.
The laws of geometry state that two non-parallel lines intersect at only one point, and if the laser is sighted in at close range, the steep angle of the beam ensures that the projectile won’t strike where it was intended to at longer ranges. To remedy this, sight your laser in at fifty feet or so, and the bullet will strike very close to the point of aim at close range as well.
This is a common misconception and one that Crimson Trace specifically addresses on their website. This notion is largely perpetuated by television and film, and many shooters believe that having a laser mounted on your firearm will make you a target. In the realm of self-defense, when you draw your firearm, you are in imminent danger and must be prepared to shoot quickly. The Hollywood idea of being entrenched in some long-lasting shootout with multiple assailants rarely applies to personal defense. When you pull your firearm and activate your laser, the threat is close and imminent, and giving away your position is a moot point because you are already engaged in a life-or-death situation.
Today’s lasers are extremely compact, and they add very little bulk to your firearm. The lightest accessory lasers weigh 4-ounces or less, and the latest designs are very compact and durable. This is impressive considering the durability of modern lasers; the constant pounding generated by the recoil of handguns chambered in powerful cartridges like .40 S&W and .45 ACP requires laser mounts and housings to be rugged and durable, and yet many of these lasers weigh only a few ounces.
Mounting a grip-mounted laser on your firearm may actually reduce the overall weight of the gun depending upon what types of grips were previously mounted on the weapon. Even a laser that weighs a few ounces offers considerable peace-of-mind at the cost of a few ounces of added weight.
The use of lasers doesn’t automatically impact your grip, stance or eye alignment. The principles of good shooting apply no matter what type of optic you are using, and learning to shoot with a laser doesn’t require a radical change in your technique. Lasers do offer some serious advantages, though.
Many shooters have only ever practiced with the gun extended at full range from a standing position. Laser sights are much easier to use in awkward positions, whereas traditional sights require raising the firearm to align with the eye for accuracy. Lasers don’t require you to change the way you shoot, but they offer a life-saving alternative when you can’t properly align more traditional sights.
Lasers require batteries, and batteries die. But today’s lasers offer much longer battery life than previous models, and you can expect between two and five hours of continuous run time between battery changes. In addition, most lasers have an automatic shut-off that will help preserve battery life when not in use.
If you are carrying a firearm for self-defense, be mindful of how long the battery has been in use, and if you have spent long sessions at the range, consider changing your batteries.
Companies that develop lasers for defensive shooting have gone to great lengths to engineer products that are intuitive and easy-to-use. Most modern lasers have an activation pad on the rear or front of the grip, and some require the shooter to extend the trigger finger and activate the laser. By and large, most lasers are intuitive, and a firm grip on the gun results in automatic activation.
Lasers have become more compact and streamlined over the past decade. Very few lasers are bulky or have sharp edges, and the notion that drawing a laser-mounted firearm from a holster isn’t an issue. You’re far more likely to get hung up on excess clothing or have your draw delayed because of improper carry technique than you are to have a laser slow your draw.
There are a number of holsters specially designed for firearms with lasers, and, as with any defensive handgun, you should practice frequently with your firearm to ensure that you are ready to stop an attacker. Modern lasers are sleek and small, so the notion that firearms with laser optics will slow you down simply doesn’t hold water.
Law enforcement and military groups use lasers, and there are a growing number of target and defensive shooters who employ lasers on their own firearms. Properly mounted lasers offer a number of advantages; they allow for rapid target acquisition and are great training aids for shooters of all levels.
Lasers also offer the advantage of dual sighting systems; iron sights are a mainstay and are virtually bulletproof, but lasers offer an additional measure of confidence when shooting. In addition, lasers project the sighting system onto the target. The human eye is only capable of focusing on one plane at a time, and lasers offer a sighting system that allows the shooter to focus on the target and the sight simultaneously.
In a life-or-death situation when nerves are prone to fail, having your aiming point on the same plane as the target is a major advantage.
Lasers make perfect sense for self-defense applications, and there is a growing tide of instructors and organizations that have included laser training in their curriculum. Lasers aren’t designed as a substitute for proper training and practice, but are instead a valuable tool and a method by which to place accurate shots rapidly in any lighting conditions.
The cost of a laser is a small price to pay for the added benefits that they offer, and those who train and familiarize themselves with these twenty-first century optics find that there are many benefits to their use.