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Of Lights and Lasers

Picking the right weapons lighting and laser sighting systems requires a thorough inventory of what you really need.

August 19, 2013  |  by A.J. George - Also by this author

Photo courtesy of A.J. George.
Photo courtesy of A.J. George.
It's long been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and it is just this necessity that has added a lighting system or laser sighting system to almost every duty weapon officers carry today. It wasn't so long ago when only the "high speed" guys had a light on their pistols and only the military had laser illuminators on their rifles. But as their utility became known, these illuminators soon became standard issue on every line officer's weapon, too.

Laser sighting systems help officers with target identification, and as we well know when deploying any weapon system, target identification is key. We are not always going to have the luxury of getting into a gunfight under "ideal" conditions. The more realistic scenario is one involving low light or darkness, dust or rainy conditions, and a host of other obstacles. We need every tool in the book to tip the scales in our favor and ensure we are the ones who go home safely at the end of the shift. Sights and optics are not the only tools that can greatly assist or may be necessary for this task. Lasers and lighting systems play an important role too!

Avoid the Cool Factor

When it comes to lights, my philosophy is simple: Use what you need for your mission and avoid the "cool factor." There are endless options out there and not all of them will fit the bill for your application.

There are a few things to consider. First, how bright do you need the light to be? If you're mostly working in close quarters you'll want a clean, wide beam that isn't too bright. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much light. Several hundred lumens are great outdoors but can blind you when trying to clear a house. If you're more likely to cover distance, choose a light with high lumens and also high candela. The higher the candela, the farther the light will project the beam. Some of the best will illuminate a target well over 100 yards away.

Now that we've covered the identification portion of this equation, let's move on to target acquisition, or more commonly called "getting sights on the target." Iron sights and optics are the most common and have very few drawbacks. I'd never recommend going away from either, but if you're looking to add "point and shoot" capability to your weapon system, lasers can be very useful.

However, just like almost everything else out there, the options are almost endless. Have a small pocket pistol? Adding a simple red laser pointer to the grip can be an easy and cost-effective solution. Or maybe your tactical team wants to add night vision capabilities to their operators. In this case a military-grade infrared target identifier, better known as a PEQ-15, might be the answer. Let's take a look at some of what you might run into out there and what you'll want to consider before choosing one of your own.

We'll start small and simple. Everyone has a pistol, right? Light systems for duty pistols have become the standard for almost all agencies. I don't know of one (and I work in a large metro area of dozens of agencies) that doesn't either issue or authorize pistol-mounted lights for duty use. It just makes sense. Mounting the light on the pistol frees up the support hand to do whatever it is we need it to do. Opening doors, retrieving a new magazine or keying up your radio, all of these things once meant losing your light, at least momentarily; definitely not something we want while performing any of the before mentioned tasks.

The limitations on these lighting systems are few but worth noting. First, they add weight and can affect the function of your pistol. Training is crucial. Next, you need to find a duty holster that will accommodate your new rig. Duty gear manufacturers, particularly those authorized by your agency, don't account for all pistol and light combinations. Finally, don't forget this is one more piece of gear in your arsenal. This means you need to check it routinely and have a spare set of batteries handy; they'll go out when you least expect them to.

There are many models out there but a few seem to have found their way to the majority of duty pistols. Streamlight and SureFire have just about cornered the market on pistol-mounted weapon lights. Streamlight's TLR Series are all I carry and offer an array of options designed to fit almost every intended application. The last time I checked they offered 13 different models ranging from 110 to 630 lumens, available with or without a red or green laser. With a very compact design, simple operation and a choice of beam intensities, they are tough to beat. Not as varied but of equal quality are the X-Series Weapons Lights by SureFire. They've evolved to the X300 and X400 for their current line-up; the former with 500 lumens for those needing high intensity light, and the latter with 170 and incorporating a laser. All of these lights are made by top-notch manufacturers and will likely outlast your pistol. Most importantly, all of these lights are designed exclusively for pistols so their ergonomics are superb.

Look at Lasers

How about a laser sight? Simple, visible red lasers have become very popular, especially with the personal defense crowd. The ability to get hits on a target without having to look through your iron sights is appealing to many people. Most can be incorporated into the framework of the pistol, usually in the form of a replacement grip or addition to the trigger guard.

The laser is zeroed to that particular firearm and activated when the shooter applies pressure to the grip or pressure pad. The only thing left at that point is to put the red dot on the target and squeeze off a round. These handy little red dots can be very effective at close range but are limited by the shooter's eyesight. If the target is too far away to see the little red dot, the laser is no longer usable as a sighting system.

As popular as these systems are for civilians, they have yet to see widespread acceptance in law enforcement. I have a feeling this may be due to the inability of some of the first-generation models to reliably hold a zero or their limitations at distance. Or it could just be that cops are resistant to change and prefer to stick with what works.

Among the industry leaders in laser sights are Crimson Trace and LaserMax. They've been perfecting this technology for years and offer an array of lasers for most pistols. Adding a light to your pistol but also want a laser? A few of the Streamlight and SureFire models named above offer integrated lasers as well.

Long Gun Lighting Options

Moving right along we get to the long guns. The theory remains the same, but the application changes quite a bit. Rifles and shotguns are, by design, superior weapon systems to the pistol due to their extended range and ability to penetrate body armor. The important factor to note here is the extended range. Lights and lasers that work well inside 25 yards may not be the best choice for a weapon designed to shoot out to 100 yards or more.

Again, your mission will dictate the light that is best for you. However for the most police rifle applications, I think it is safe to say you'd want a light that will be effective to 100 yards or so. Here lumens are great but candela rules the night.

Most weapon lights these days are LEDs. Although clean and bright, LEDs have historically been very poor at projecting the beam at distance. The technology has caught up over the last few years and the current crop of LED weapon lights is truly impressive. Several hundred lumens will provide ample light for clearing a building and high candela (some at 60,000 or more) will throw that beam well over 100 yards.

There are a handful of lights I've had experience with and would recommend, and plenty more I've tested and won't bother to mention. Once again SureFire comes to mind immediately. SureFire was the first player in the weapon light game and is still one of the most popular professional lights out there. I'd be lying if I told you there wasn't a SureFire M600 Scout light on my duty rifle. The latest models are brighter and lighter than their predecessors.

A few of the "newer" names to the professional-grade light category are ATN, Elzetta, Inforce and Powertac. All are of top-notch quality, have great warranties and offer a variety of lighting systems to fit your needs. Give them a good look before you make your decision.

Narrow Your Choices

At the end of the day, I am a firm believer that every weapon system should have a light mounted to it. But there are many options available, more than I could even begin to cover in a single article. Here is my advice on how to narrow your choices:

  • Try to stick to a light that is designed for weapon use. Shock-isolated bezels, activation switches designed around a shooting grip and purpose built mounting systems should be on your list of "must haves."
  • After that, evaluate the lumen and candela ratings and ensure these coincide with your intended application.
  • Be sure to balance price with quality. Some of the most expensive lights on the market are very good lights but there are much cheaper models that are just as good. Word of mouth is huge as well; ask around and see what your fellow officers have been impressed with.
  • Check warranties. Any good light manufacturer will back its product with a solid warranty.

Keep the above tips in mind and you're likely to land on a solid weapon light that will serve you well for many years to come.

A.J. George is an officer with the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department currently assigned to the advanced training unit as a firearms and tactics instructor.

Related:

PHOTOS: Weapon Lights, Laser Sights

PHOTOS: Lights and Lasers

Tags: Weapon-Mounted Lights, Laser Sights, Streamlight, SureFire, Low-Light Tactics

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Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Tim @ 8/23/2013 5:06 PM

Lasers are, in my humble opinion, the worse thing for a cop! It is much quicker to find your front sight then a small dot on someone. Furthermore, when your partners have a red dot as well, which one is yours? What's the right distance away before you don't use the laser? I don't have time to consider this. In dust the laser works both ways. Must I go on? Train how to use a firearm's sights and the distance, weather, etc, won't matter! If you want to look cool, be a fireman. Police work is for sheepdogs!

Dan @ 9/3/2013 5:39 AM

No weapon lights for my agency! The command staff argues that if it put a light on our pistols, then

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