How to choose the right laser gunsight for rifles and pistols. Power, range, visibility, brands, features.
Laser sights are used for accurately aiming handguns, rifles and shotguns. This means “real” guns as well as paintball, Airsoft and BB. They are like laser pointers. Putting the laser’s dot on the target, aims the gun.
Some argue that for personal or home defense, a laser sight acts as a deterrent, reducing the chances of having to shoot an intruder. However due to reliability issues, a laser sight is no substitute for skill in using conventional sights.
This article is not about:
- Laser bore sights. These are inserted into the gun barrel, to give a rough idea of where the gun is pointing. A laser dot is projected out of the barrel. They are used to help zero a gun’s sights. They are not used when actually shooting the gun. Some are the same size and shape as a bullet, for easy insertion into the barrel.
- Red or green dot laser sights. These are conventional optical gun sights with an illuminated targeting dot in the middle of the aiming reticle. They are also called reflex or holographic sights.
A laser gunsight can cost as little as $20 and as much as a few hundred dollars, with $50 to $100 lasers being common. Brands include LaserLyte, Walther, Smith and Wesson, LaserMax, Crimson Trace, Sightmark, NcStar, BSA, Viridian, Beamshot (Predator), Barska, UTG, Fire Field, Crosman and AimSHOT.
Some laser sights are combined with a tactical flashlight.
Laser Sight Basics
The power of laser sights is limited by FDA regulations to 5 milliwatts. High quality laser sights will therefore have the same power and range: about 50 yards in sunlight, a few hundred yards at night.
More advanced laser can strobe or pulse, to make it easier to pick out the dot in the distance. A variable frequency strobe allows tactical teams to identify each other by looking at the laser pulse rates.
A laser sight needs to be mounted securely on the gun. Cheaper sights have weak mounts. They might work on Airsoft and paintball guns, but can’t withstand the recoil of 9mm or .45 ACP.
All will have windage and elevation adjustments, with a few exceptions, such as guide rod laser sights, that don’t need calibration. Lower quality sights often have inferior, unreliable, adjustments that don’t hold their zero; which is a good reason to pay more for a reputable brand.
The adjustments are for zeroing the sights at a fixed distance (25, 50 or 100 yards are popular). This is done with a screwdriver or hex key. Unlike a sniper rifle, laser sights are usually not adjusted for wind conditions or target distance using click-stop thumbwheels.
Some laser sights can be used on either pistols or rifles. However it’s best to use a sight that is optimized for one or the other. A rifle laser can use a larger CR123A battery for a longer operating time. However it can be too big for a small pistol. Pistol lasers use small button cell batteries. They run for about one to two hours on a set of batteries.
Even if a larger laser can be mounted on a pistol, it might not fit in the holster. It might also stick out past the gun barrel, making the lens susceptible to fouling from powder residue.
Red Versus Green Laser Sights
Laser sights were originally red. Green lasers are now available. They have the following advantages:
- Bright, easier to see in sunlight.
- Bright, can light up a room at night, making accidental shootings less likely.
- Full path of beam can be seen at night, adding to deterrent effect.
However their disadvantages are significant:
- Full path of beam can be seen at night, betraying your position.
- High minimum operating temperature, typically 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Warm-up time can reach 30 seconds at low temperatures. Not suitable for cold climates.
- High power consumption. Runs down batteries more quickly.
- Higher cost.
- Larger overall size. Not suitable for small handguns.
If only night, short-range or indoor operation is required, a red laser is a good choice; especially for pistols. Some laser sights are dual red/green models, switchable between either type.
There’s more information on the Defense Review website
Laser Sight Mounts
One of the most important aspects of a laser sight is how it is mounted on to the firearm. Most mounts are made out of plastic or aluminum. Unfortunately this means that if the screws are over-tightened, the threads are easily stripped, especially if the screws are small.
The simplest method is to use a standard “tactical” rail mount:
- 3/8″ dovetail (airgun)
- UTG 11mm
Adapters are available to convert from one type of rail to another, though for size and reliability reasons it’s best to get a laser with the same mount as the gun’s rail.
For maximum strength against recoil, an optional crossbar should be available for Picatinny and Weaver mounts. The crossbar slots into a slot in the rail. Unfortunately many laser sights don’t have a crossbar, they just have mounting screws for a friction lock to the rail.
A quick-detach (QD) or quick-release mount is convenient but is another point of failure. Lower quality QD mounts can be thrown off the rail by the gun’s recoil. Some laser sights can only be slotted in from the front of the rail. They need an open-ended rail. They don’t open up far enough to fitted in at the middle of the rail.
Larger automatic pistols come with Picatinny rails, or can be fitted with them using barrel mounts or other adapters. The same goes for shotguns and rifles (AR15 carrying handle, barrel hand grip). Laser sights that latch onto a rifle’s telescopic sight are also available.
For pistols, alternative mounts are:
- Trigger guard. There are different types. The simplest screws on to the front of the trigger guard. It is a “universal” mount and should fit most pistols. Model-specific mounts either replace the trigger guard or mount around the trigger guard. These are larger and more stable.
- Rear sight mount. This is a model-specific mount. The laser sight replaces the pistols rear sight. The advantage is that it takes up very little space and doesn’t cause problems with holsters.
- Wraparound grip mount. The laser sight wraps over the pistol grip. Like a rear sight mount, it takes up little space and is compatible with most holsters.
- Guide rod mount. The laser replaces the pistol’s guide rod, taking up no external space, which makes it holster-compatible. No alignment of the laser is required.
Laser Sight Switches
The laser’s switch is important because it affects usability and reliability of the laser.
An ambidextrous switch is useful for left-handed shooters. The switch should be easy to switch on and off, but difficult to accidentally trigger when the gun is placed on a table or inserted into a holster.
A remote pressure switch (or pad) is useful for rifles and shotguns. It allows the laser to be controlled from further back. A coiled cable connects the switch to the laser. The pressure switch is usually momentary-on. Once pressure is released, the laser is switched off.
The pressure switch is stuck on using double-sided tape or velcro (the velcro is stuck on with sticky tape). A nylon zip tie can be used if the provided tape isn’t sticky enough. The switch is placed anywhere convenient, including on the foregrip.
How to Choose the Right Laser Sight
While basically a laser pointer, choosing the right laser sight is a bit involved. The sight needs to:
- Have a secure mount.
- Hold the zero adjustment.
- Fit into the gun holster.
- Be easy to switch on.
- Be reliable, especially if used for self-defense.
Information like this is best obtained from reading user reviews. Some of the information in this article is based on user reviews of laser sights on the Amazon.com website.