Take a Second Look at Laser Sights

Mike Boyle

One constant in any discussion among law enforcement firearms trainers is controversy.   Back when the Earth was flat, we engaged in heated debate as to whether pistols offered advantages over revolvers or the stopping potential of the 9mm versus the .45ACP. Some of these issues have played out, but others will persist until we can put our phasers on stun.

One area where both practitioners and instructors would probably agree is that only hits count. The ability to prevail in a gunfight is predicated on putting decisive hits on your adversary before he can seriously hurt you. That, of course, is easier said than done, particularly since the bad guy typically initiates the action,

But, if I could offer something which might just give you a tangible advantage and tip the odds in your favor, would you consider it? Quite frankly, I’ll sign on for just about anything which gives me the upper hand, even if it involves cheating.

In the Beginning

Laser sights were first developed in the late l970s, but were not ready for prime time until some years later. The credit for their development goes to Dr. John Matthews who created a helium-neon laser and adapted it to a Colt® revolver. It was a big, awkward and hardly cop-proof piece of equipment, but it paved the way for better things to come. Over time, laser sights evolved for the better and manufacturers were turning out units which could be fit to police service pistols and be carried in a standard duty holster.

Like many trainers, I have a somewhat conservative view of equipment and viewed laser sights with suspicion. Then, as now, there is no free lunch and success is rooted in the application of foundational skills. I’ll confess that laser sights did not win me over right away, but, after taking a more critical look, I feel they can fill a useful niche. Make no mistake about it, you still have to apply those fundamentals, but, in many instances, a laser will make this so much easier.

I don’t feel mounting a set of laser sights will solve all of your problems or turn a poor shooter into Dirty Harry, but they do bring something to the table. Let’s take a look and see what they have to offer.


The term LASER is actually an acronym which stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Unlike other light sources, lasers emit light coherently and spatial coherence allows light to be projected in a beam. Laser sights can cast a red or green visible beam or an InfraRed (IR) beam which can only be seen with special equipment. For law enforcement applications, red and green lasers are, by far, the most common with IR lasers pretty much limited to the military and SWAT. For ages, the endless debate of point shooting versus aimed fire has raged. From my prospective, there isn’t much of an issue and I’ve come to the conclusion that we should use as much of the sights as we can. Obviously, at arm’s length, we point and shoot, but, as distance increases, in order to hit, we need to get a reliable index on the threat. With traditional pistol sights, poor light, movement and body alarm reaction can muddy up the waters.

Laser sights neatly split the difference between traditional sighted fire and point shooting. A spontaneous, life-threatening attack in close quarters may cause you to focus on your attacker rather than the sights. However, since the laser projects a highly visible beam and superimposes an aiming spot on the threat, we now have a single plane focus. In short, you now have a reliable sight picture without using the conventional sights.

True, this is only a partial solution as laser sights are not visible in bright light. Green lasers can be seen under a wider range of light conditions than red lasers, but I, for one, am not convinced you will pick up on your aiming point in bright sunlight when subjected to extreme stress. But, indoors or outdoors in low light conditions, laser sights are highly visible and quick to pick up a target. To put things in perspective, consider that most police action shooting takes place under less than optimum light conditions.

Another consideration is that, in many shootings, either the officer or the threat is moving. In some circumstances, both will be moving simultaneously. How comfortable would you be engaging a moving threat in poor light? In my experience, a laser sight increases the likelihood of getting hits on the target. This is especially true when engaging targets which are moving laterally or on an oblique angle. Sure, that dot is going to bounce a bit, but a laser will, in fact, increase the probability of a hit.

One of my pet peeves as a trainer is that many law enforcement officers do not use cover properly and needlessly overexpose themselves to danger. A laser can be a useful tool by helping officers maximize the use of cover while minimizing their exposure to a threat. This same concept can be applied when using ballistic shields.

As indicated earlier, law enforcement officers are reactive by nature and there is no guarantee that you’ll be striking the first blow or firing the first shot. What if you’re struck in the arm or shoulder or have fallen to the ground and cannot take a traditional sight picture? A laser sight can get you on target, even if you can’t drive the gun to eye level or assume a normal shooting posture.

Many of us carry a small pocket pistol or snub revolver for backup or off duty carry. One common quality of many of these little blasters is that their sights stink. They are tough to define under optimum low stress day conditions and next to impossible to see at night. Bolting a set of laser sights on your pocket rocket can change all that and give you a fighting chance. Despite their many advantages, laser sights have not been especially popular with the police.  Maybe, it’s time to reconsider.

Some Considerations

Currently, there are dozens of different laser sight systems which have something to offer to the law enforcement professional. But, like many other tools, one is cautioned to only consider reputable manufacturers with a proven track record. By all means, avoid “hobbyist” grade gear – buy cheap, buy twice.

To help narrow down your choices, here are some criteria you may want to consider when making a choice.

Service Pistols

Since the late 1990s, all of the major handgun manufacturers have been building pistols with integral accessory rails. It’s taken a little bit of time, but Weapon Mounted Lights (WMLs) have become very popular for patrol officers. Why not take it one step further and add an illuminator with an integral laser?

Excellent white light/laser combinations such as the proven Streamlight® TLR-2® and SureFire® X400 families are readily available and come highly recommended. These units feature an intense white light mated to a laser aimer and have much to offer. Stand-alone rail mounted lasers are available, but I would make a strong case for the combo units which will help in both threat discrimination and give you a reliable index. A major stumbling block to the widespread adoption of laser light units has been the availability of a suitable duty holster. Duty holsters for popular pistols and weapon mounted lights are out there for the taking, but  compatibility with combo units can be a challenge. Safariland® offers their 6360 ALS® duty holster for both the Streamlight TLR-2 and SureFire X400 families. This is probably the most popular duty holster in use today and remains a top choice. BLACKHAWK!® produces the Epoch duty holster for the TLR-2 and that is another alternative.

Small Guns

Firms such as Crimson Trace®, LaserMax and Viridian Weapon Technologies turn out small laser aimers which can be affixed to the front of the trigger guard. Some even combine a small illuminator along with the laser. I have also grown very fond of Crimson Trace Lasergrips® on my small frame revolvers. Lasergrips replace the factory stocks and contain a small laser diode. “Interactive Activation” is achieved by taking a firm shooting grip on the revolver.

As far as pocket poppers, my Ruger® LCP® is equipped with a LaserMax CenterFire aimer which is affixed to the front of the trigger guard. Retrofitting this accessory to the pistol enhances the potential of the LCP and this combination is discreetly carried in the pocket with a Sticky Holster.

A short while ago, LaserMax upped the ante and came out with the GripSense system which mates a red or green laser with a 100 lumen light. A laser only GripSense unit is available for the Ruger LCP II. Truth be told, I’m not especially fond of little pistols for primary carry, but they do make great backups.

Duty Holsters

If you’re locked into a standard duty holster, but desire laser capability, consider a guide rod unit from LaserMax or Lasergrips from Crimson Trace. The internal laser from LaserMax replaces the factory spring and guide rod assembly and casts a pulsating laser beam. Point of impact is within two inches at 20 yards and LaserMax guide rod units are well made.

Lasergrips are available in a number of popular service sizes and compact pistols and will work in many styles of standard duty holsters. I’ve even got a set for one of my polymer frame GLOCK®s which snaps over the grip and is held in place by pins.

Green vs. Red

Red lasers tend to be less expensive than green and are less sensitive to temperature extremes. Green lasers are visible in brighter light conditions than red, but, from a practical standpoint, I’m not sure how important that is. I have found that cold temperatures can play havoc with green lasers more so than red. Green lasers are significantly more expensive and tend to go through batteries faster than red.


For a tool I might have to use under stress, I like simple, intuitive switching. If I have to hunt and peck to make it work, that will not fit into my plan. When I need the laser, I need it now. Grip activation and rocker switches work best for me.

New and Notable

My preference for service pistols runs toward the combination units with an illuminator and a laser aimer. The fact that they perform two tasks with a single device makes them an attractive proposition. Recently, two products along this line were introduced which are indeed game changers.

First up is the Streamlight TLR-8® Weapon Light with Aiming Laser. The TLR-8 is a small and powerful unit designed to fit a wide range of popular pistols. Its size is roughly half that of Streamlight’s TLR-2.  Despite its downsizing, the TLR-8 boosts a 500 lumen LED illuminator and a 640-660 nm red laser. Considering what was available just a few short years ago, the capabilities of the TLR-8 are amazing.

The low-profile TLR-8 is snag-free and features ambidextrous on/off switching complete with a strobe function. A unique quality to the TLR-8 is a “safe off” feature on the bezel to prevent accidental activation and preserve battery life. The TLR-8 is crafted from machined aluminum and wears a durable anodized finish.

I recently affixed a TLR-8 to my GLOCK 19 pistol and have been very pleased with the results. Safariland is already tooling up to make duty holsters to accommodate this new Streamlight laser/illuminator which epitomizes the shape of things to come.

Another hot ticket which recently hit the market is the X5L Gen 3 from Viridian Weapon Technologies. The X5L Gen 3 is the next evolution of the original green light/laser combination and features a brighter tactical light with a rechargeable battery. The 5mW green laser is rated at 510-520nm and is designed to be visible in the widest range of light conditions. The green laser is paired off with a 500 lumen Cree® LED which has the potential to turn night into day.

One of the cooler features of the X5L Gen 3 is the rechargeable battery. Not only is the battery rechargeable, but onboard capability means that you don’t have to remove the unit from the gun and remove the battery to get it back to full potential.

A toolless quick detach system makes the X5L Gen 3 easy to affix or remove. Multiple operation modes include a solid beam, pulsating laser, strobe or solid laser. With their proprietary holster, Viridian also offers instant-on activation, but I feel this would have greater appeal to the civilian market rather than law enforcement. Sometimes, we just have to be stealthy.

A really nice touch is that the Veridian X5L Gen 3 has the same external dimensions as the Streamlight TLR-1. That means duty and plainclothes holsters cut for the TLR-1 will also work with the X5L which will no doubt broaden its appeal.

Final Thoughts

Although laser sights can afford some tangible advantages, they are not the solution to every problem. A great many police action shootings take place inside of conversational distance and a laser affords little, if any, advantage. In bright sunlight, they are no more useful than a hood ornament. But, when you factor in moving threats, poor light and extreme stress, you begin to get a better appreciation of their value.

To gain a better understanding of laser capabilities, your training needs to include those more challenging elements, such as poor light and movement. Compare the results achieved with laser sighted weapons versus those with conventional pistol sights, including tritium variants. With what system are you able to get more center hits? How about speed of engagement? It’s been my observation that both hits and speed favor the laser, especially when you bring on the heat.

Of late, there has been quite a bit of interest in optically enhanced red dot sights for pistols. Time will tell if they are the better choice. Both red dots and lasers require training, but it’s not a particularly steep hill to climb. Under daylight conditions, red dots are the way to go, but lasers have an advantage in the dark. Lasers can also have a pacifying effect and avert the need to apply deadly force. In one situation with which I’m familiar, the bad guy tried to wipe the red dot of death off his chest and quickly decided it was best to give up rather than resist.

To my thinking, it’s all about gaining an advantage. Many of us have come to terms with a weapon mounted light on our duty pistol and a laser/light combo which is no bigger might have special appeal.

Laser sights are an option worth exploring. If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.  Is that an unfair advantage? Perhaps, but I’ll take all the help I can get.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been an active firearms instructor for more than 30 years. He has been an assistant police academy director and remains active as an academy rangemaster and instructor. Mike has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) since 1996. He is the architect and coordinator of IALEFI’s Master Instructor Development Program.