Laser technology has advanced rapidly in recent years. When laser sights first became available in the 1970s, they were bulky and expensive, limiting both their applications and use. Since then, advancements in technology, especially in semiconductor laser diodes, have brought down both size and price considerably. Today's laser sights are more user-friendly, reliable and relatively maintenance free.

Why use a Laser?

While many in law enforcement continue to view laser sights as little more than expensive toys, laser sights can provide tactical edge in many situations. In potential deadly force encounters, the employment of a laser sight can reduce the likelihood that an officer will have to shoot. It if becomes necessary to shoot, the officer will often be able to do so with much greater accuracy if a laser sight is utilized.

One of the most important benefits of a laser sight is the intimidation of deterrence that it can provide. Several studies that were conducted by law enforcement agencies have shown that the use of a laser sight will often de-escalate potential deadly force encounters.

The mere sight of the laser dot is often what convinces a suspect to surrender or otherwise comply with commands in situations where he or she otherwise might not. The activation of a laser sight thus provides an additional less-than-lethal force alternative when deadly force is about to be employed or in encounters where deadly force needs to be considered but the threat level posed by a suspect is ambiguous.

The use of a laser sight will allow an officer to accurately air his or her firearm without need to align an eye with the firearm's sights. The ability can be important in reduced light scenarios or in situations where something interferes with the ability to use the firearms standard sights, such as when utilizing a ballistic shield or when wearing a gas mask.

A laser sight also allows an officer to fire accurately from unconventional firing stances and often provides improved accuracy when firing while moving- situations in which a standard sighting index is difficult or impossible to acquire or maintain.

It also provides an effective alternate sighting method when firing around or over cover. The use of a laser can reduce the exposure of an officer's vital parts by as much as 25 percent in there situations.

With a laser sight, both eyes can be kept directly on the target and the officer can maintain a full field of vision during aiming. This capability makes a laser sight a laser sight a valuable tool in handling multiple suspects and in making a threat assessment of an area. By using a laser sight, the officer can keep his or her firearm trained on a suspect while still maintaining a clear view of the suspect's hands and the immediate surroundings.

Another arena in which laser sights shine is for training. A laser can greatly enhance training at the range. It is a helpful visual training tool for both dry-fire and life-fire training. The laser dot provides immediate feedback, showing the shooter or firearms instructor how the shooter is shooting. In this respect, it can be a great help in diagnosing problems that need to be corrected. The laser provides immediate feedback and, in so doing, helps improve shooting skills.

Laser sights are great confidence builders. As every firearms instructor is aware, a shooter's confidence in his or her shooting skills is a major determinant of his or her shooting ability.

Contrary to what many may believe, the utilization of a laser sight does not result in a dependence on the laser to the exclusion of conventional sighting methods or result in an erosion of basic shooting skills. In fact, laser sights have been shown to improve basic shooting skills at a much higher rate than is the case without lasers.

Training with a laser sight seems to produce increased muscle memory. According to a study conducted by a major law enforcement agency, point-and-shoot shooting skills without the utilization of the laser showed marked improvement after laser assisted training.

The use of a laser sight can enhance safe firearms handling skills. When activated, the later provides a very visible indicator of muzzle orientation during drawing, holstering and presentation training, during tactical training and during high stress situations, such as high risk entries.

Limitations

Laser sights are certainly not without their limitations. The effectiveness of a laser sight in a given situation is dependent on many variables. These include the ambient lighting, reflectivity of the target, the dark adaptation of the eyes, as well as the wavelength, power output, energy density of the aiming dot, and mode of operation (i.e. pulsed or continuous operation) of the laser.

Laser sights are most effective in low or dim light situations, such as at night, indoors or in the shade. The use of a laser sight is at it's optimum under low-light combat conditions at distances of less than 30 feet. While some laser sights may be employed in daylight, including bright sunlight at short ranges, standard sights should be relied upon for daytime target acquisition in bright sunlight.

Although a few companies are advertising their 630 nm or 635 nm laser sights as "daylight" lasers, from a practical standpoint, laser sights are not that effective in bright sunlight. Although it is technologically feasible to manufacture a true daylight laser sight, FDA safety restrictions on permissible output power prevent it.

Equipping a firearm with a laser sight doesn't eliminate the need to acquire the necessary skills to effectively use the firearm's existing sights. It is essential to continue training with the standard sights as well as with the laser sight. A laser sight is not a replacement for the existing sights. It's an adjunct to them.[PAGEBREAK]

A laser sight is obviously only an aiming tool. It will only show where a firearm is aimed with a laser will not eliminate the importance of fundamental marksmanship skills. If a shooter has a tendency to "pull" shots due to an improper trigger press without a laser, he or she can be expected to do so with a laser.

A frequently voiced concern is that the visibility of the laser beam could put an officer at a tactical disadvantage in some situations by giving away his or her position. This potential liability can be remedied to a great extent by not activating the laser until the firearm is being brought on target.

Despite the claims of some gun writers to contrary, having a laser sight doesn't eliminate the need for a flashlight or firearm mounted tactical light in situations in which it is too dark to reliably identify targets.

It's obviously absolutely essential for an officer to be able to positively identify and evaluate targets before making a decision to use deadly force. The beam of a laser sight is too narrow to illuminate or identify targets. A laser does, however, provide a degree of illumination that may sometimes be utilized to tactically sweet dark areas to observe movement that cannot be seen with the unaided eye.

A hand-held flashlight or a firearm- mounted tactical light can be used simultaneously with a laser sight. The laser's aiming dot will still be visible. If the aiming dot can be seen without a light, it will still be able to be seen when a light is used.

The combination of a laser and light can give a officer a critical tactical advantage during low-light encounters, providing unobstructed target identification, better peripheral vision, and, if necessary, quicker and more accurate shot placement.

Although no laser should ever be intentionally aimed directly into someone's eyes, it would be difficult to cause permanent eye damage with a commercial (Class IIIa) laser. The beam on a class IIIa visible laser sight is so bright that the eye's involuntary blink reflex would normally prevent permanent eye damage from occurring.

This is not the case with Class IIIb infrared lasers. Infrared lasers are sometimes utilized by tactical teams for covert operations utilizing night vision devices. Because the infrared beam is invisible to the naked eye, permanent eye damage is possible if a Class IIIb infrared laser is aimed into the eyes. For this reason, sales of Class IIIb infrared lasers are restricted to law enforcement agencies and the military.

Training Tips

Adjustable laser sights will need to be sighted in. If the firearm's standard sights are accurate, the easiest way to align a laser sight is to adjust the aiming dot to align with the standard sights are the desired distance. If necessary, further adjustments can be done at the range.

The point of aim of a laser sight should always be compared before going on duty or use to that of the standard sights of the firearm on which it is mounted. The laser sight should always be checked for damage and loss of zero if the firearm is ever dropped on a hard surface.

Firing should be done at variety of combat distances to learn how to compensate for differing ranges. Although a laser beam travels in a straight line and a bullet has an arc-like trajectory, the bullet's trajectory will not be a major problem at the close-in distances typical of more defensive shootings. The closer the laser is mounted to the firearm's bore-line, the less distance sensitive the laser sight will be.

If a laser sight is installed on a carry handgun, it is important to practice unsnapping the holster, presenting the firearm from the holster and activating the laser sight as it is brought on target.

Presentation, activation of the laser, and aiming should be practiced with an unloaded firearm until it can be done in one fluid motion with both speed and safety. The laser switch should be activated by feel, without looking for it and the beam placed on the center mass of the target.

After becoming proficient in holster presentation and laser activation, the shooter should transition to live-fire drills. During live-fire drills, instinctive point and shoot shooting techniques should be practiced, using the standard sights to verify the point of aim. Live- fire drills with a laser- equipped handgun should start with the firearm in the holster.

Although a laser sight can significantly improve low-light shooting skills, laser sights are generally slower for skilled shooters to use than iron sights in all but the most ideal ambient lighting conditions. The reason for this is that it often takes longer to find the laser dot than it does to live up standard sights.

The speed of acquisition can be significantly enhanced by bringing the firearm up to eye level and using a flash sight picture to acquire the laser's aiming dot. With this technique the laser can provide a very rapid, accurate target index acquisition for the first shot.

The use of a flash sight picture to acquire the laser aiming dot can also be employed in situations where multiple firearms equipped with laser sights are being employed and one is unsure whether or not his or her aiming dot is actually from another firearm.

Always keep in mind that, although a laser sight can provide many advantages, it isn't a substitute for the development of traditional marksmanship skills. Having a laser- equipped firearm doesn't reduce the need for training.

Eugene Nielsen, a former police officer with more than 20 years experience, currently provides investigative, consulting and training services. He is a member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers (ASLET), the author of numerous articles and an occasional contributor to POLICE.

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