Things You Learn Shooting Laser Gun Sights in the Dark

By Tom McHale
Tom Mchale has fun busting the myths behind shooting laser gun sights in the dark.

Here's what you mostly likely WON'T see when using laser gun sights - unless the air is filled with smoke or dust.
Here's what you most likely WON'T see when using laser gun sights , ‘laser line' – unless like in this photo the air is filled with smoke or dust.
Tom McHale headshot low-res square
Tom McHale

USA –-(Ammoland.com)- We gun people have a terrible habit of arguing to the death over trivial theoretical debates like the whether using the wrong stance will cause painful bunions, adopting anything other than appendix carry will disqualify you from the cool kids club, or choosing the wrong caliber will result in your immediate, spontaneous combustion.

One of my favorite topics of endless theoretical debate by us gun nuts involves the use of laser gun sights on defensive guns in the dark.

In the interest of full disclosure, I like them. While they seemed like a good idea before I ever tried them, what cemented my support of the idea was using them to do a lot of shooting in dark conditions over the past several years. That’s when the light bulb really went off, and I saw, through trial and error, the value. Over the years, I’ve heard all the theoretical arguments against them, so I thought it might be fun to talk about some of my learnings from actually using them in low light conditions. After all, The best way to deal with theoretical “gun arguments” is just go out and try stuff yourself.

1. Don't Forego Use of Laser Gun Sights Because it Might ‘Give Away Your Position.'

When you use a laser gun sights in the dark, two things are visible: a small bright spot on the front of your gun and a dot on whatever surface it impacts. What’s NOT visible is a glowing beam [laser line] that can be seen from the International Space Station. Unless your environment is filled with smoke or other airborne dust, there’s no visible beam. For that to happen, the laser needs to reflect on material in the air. Without that, the beam is invisible except at its origin and destination.

If you’re worried about your attacker “finding you” by seeing the red or green glowing spot on your gun, then you probably shouldn’t be pulling the trigger anyway. If it’s so dark that you can only be seen by that pinpoint of colored light, then how on earth can you possibly see what you’re shooting at?

Here's what you WILL see when using a laser - just a dot on the target.
Here's what you WILL see when using a laser – just a dot on the target.

Oh, and if you’re aiming a gun and laser at something or someone, you’re already in a gunfight so you’re better off improving your odds of hitting whatever you're aiming at quickly, like with a laser.

Unless you're in the business of offensive Ninja games and late night snatches of evil dudes from their beds, you don't want to be playing a cat and mouse game where victors are determined by spotting laser beams anyway.

2. In the Dark, Laser Gun Sights Are Faster, Not Slower.

At the very first Crimson Trace Midnight 3 Gun Invitational, most of the super-fast competitors used jury-rigged setups of lights with standard sights. Guess what virtually everyone switched to by the second event? That’s right, laser gun sights . Why? Because in dark conditions, they’re quicker than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition. If you’re transitioning from target to target, the dot is on your new target well before you realign the standard sights. You don’t need to wait to shoot until the gun is aligned in a traditional shooting position in front of your eyes. You also eliminate the delay stemming from the need to transition your focus from the newly found target back to the sights.

3. The Ability to Shoot From Non-Traditional Positions is a Big Deal.

On a related note to the previous point, the ability to shoot without bringing the gun up to a perfect eye-level shooting position is a big deal. Not only does it allow for faster shooting in general, but it also helps you get off a shot faster when you find a new target. Oh, and if you’re searching the dark for a target, it’s difficult and distracting to have the gun, with a perfect iron sight picture, right in front of your face, directly blocking your field of view.

4. Iron Sights Still Rock.

People hate on laser gun sights because they think it’s some sort of crutch for iron sights. I completely disagree. Lasers add capability, not replace it. In daylight conditions, a laser doesn’t help you much. In fact, it may very well slow you down as the dot is NOT nearly as visible as it is in low-light conditions. I have laser gun sights on all my carry guns, yet never even try to find the laser dot when shooting in daylight conditions. In low light, you can’t help but see that dot on the target. I’ve found that there is very little if any, conscious thought required to choose between the best iron sights and lasers in light and dark conditions. It's just a natural transition.

5. You Can See Regular Iron Sights Perfectly Well When Using a Weapon-Mounted Light.

If you stick a light on the end of your handgun, say something like a Streamlight TLR whatever, Surefire X-some hundred, or Crimson Trace Lightguard, you’ll be able to see your iron sights pretty darn well in pitch black conditions. Even though the lamp lens is in front of both front and rear sight, the ambient light splash from whatever is in front of you will make your regular iron sights stand out like a pro-Donald Trump editorial over at Salon.com.

6. Muzzle Flash at Night is a Big Deal… NOT.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard or read that the muzzle flash from a .357 Magnum or any other kiloton caliber hand cannon will blind you if you shoot in the dark. Well, I’ve seen plenty of muzzle flash in dark outdoor conditions, dark indoor conditions, and even in the bowels of a Kentucky cave where dark is measured on a whole new spectrum on anti-light, and I’m still waiting on my first temporary blindness as a result of muzzle flash. I’ve shot AR-15s, all major calibers, pistols and rifles using night vision goggles, and even ported pistols. Sure, if you concentrate, you can see the muzzle flash, but never has it overwhelmed my vision to the point of causing ill effect.

Black Rifle Muzzle Flash and Lasers
Black Rifle Muzzle Flash and Lasers : Muzzle flash is always there, but it's never yet interfered with my ability to see the target on a follow up shot.

Perhaps if you are in the pitch dark, with no ambient light, and you allow your eyes a half-hour or so to adjust before firing a shot, then maybe you’ll see some spots and have visual disorientation. Or maybe not. Either way, however, I have to ask, in what circumstance are you shooting a gun at something you can’t even see? The second there’s enough light to identify a target, you’ve got light, and light from muzzle flash isn’t going to be the thing that ruins your party.

7. It’s Hard To Lumen Yourself to Death.

Laser Gun Sights Light Warning
It’s Hard To Lumen Yourself to Death with Laser Gun Sights

A lot of folks argue about the dangers of having too much light, so much so that the reflection will bounce back off walls and blind you rather than the dude breaking into your house.

OK, if your day job is sneaking into Hindu Kush mud huts occupied by bad guys with well-used Russian rifles, you may have some very specific requirements for weapon lights, visible or not so visible. Other than that, more light rather than less has always been a good thing in my book. I guess there’s a light out there with enough lumens to blind you from the reflection off walls or whatever, but I haven’t found it yet. Besides, it would probably melt the paint first anyway. 50, 100, 150, 300, or 500 lumens – they’re all fine inside of my home when lights are completely out. Perhaps if you lined it up directly with your bathroom mirror to bounce right back into your eye…

So those are a few things that I’ve learned shooting in the dark. Let the comments begin flying, I dare you.

One more thing, if you haven't yet taken the plunge into the light and laser world, here are a few proven ones to check out first:

  • Crimson Trace Lasergrips: Laser only, these either replace or ride on top of the grips on your handgun or revolver. The big benefit is that you won't need a special holster to use them.
  • Crimson Trace LinQ: Want to gear up your AR-15? Check out this wireless setup. The pistol grip controls a light and laser module up front.
  • LaserMax Manta-Ray: This is a light only solution perfect for AR-15s or anything with a rail. The rubber mount just “snaps on” the the rail wherever you like. Light, low-profile, and plenty bright.
  • Crimson Trace Laserguard Pro: Brand new on the market, this light and laser combo is made specifically for compact guns like the Glock 42/43, Springfield Armory XD-S, and Smith & Wesson M&P Shield.

There are far too many laser gun sights & light variants to list them all here, but these cool choices will get one started.

About

Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon. You can also find him on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • 18 thoughts on “Things You Learn Shooting Laser Gun Sights in the Dark

    1. Old article, but a few points:

      1) In the Pacific NorthWet, 6+ months out of the year, there is often a lot of moisture in the air outside, whether raining or not. This moisture in the air will most certainly show the laser beam just as readily as smoke or dust, even more so as it is even more reflective. Just saying.

      2) Many buildings, especially houses, have windows in the exterior walls, those windows very readily act as partial mirrors to a laser. While the laser will shine thru them, it will also quite readily bounce off them and shine the laser back towards the person holding the laser. Give it a try sometime in a real building – not a made up shooting room that doesn’t have glass in it.

    2. I’d like to see an article about how to align a laser sight with the bore on an ar rifle and a handgun instead of sighting at a specific distance where you end up shooting low before said distance and high beyond that distance as three laser crosses the bore line. More interested in the ar platform for hog and coyote hunting. If laser is aligned with the bore you’ll be more accurate at any viable distance as long as you know the offset from the bore.

      Thank you
      Howard

    3. There is much here I disagree with.

      On your points:

      1. I agree. It’s not a big deal.

      2. I disagree. I personally am (objectively, on a timer) faster with nightsights and/or weapon-mounted light than a laser. And a red dot is faster still. No one should be relying on just a laser for target engagement in the dark. A weapon-mounted light takes the place of the laser, and since you advocate “all the lumens” later, may even wash it out. The laser is not faster, and is not superior in my experience. A quality weapon mounted light and a red-dot or highly visible irons get the job done for me (and most everyone I know) quicker. Caveat: There is no shortcutting practice and instruction, which seems to me the point of a laser. Articles like this one, in my opinion mislead people into thinking they can buy proficiency.

      3. The ability to shoot from non-traditional positions has little to do with a laser. What, the laser matters in that one instance where you’re looking through a car window you don’t want to blast through, and you’re reaching around the bumper or something with your handgun? If you can’t it it with sights/optics, what makes you think you can hit it with a laser? All the requisites (alignment / trigger press, etc..) apply. The laser has nothing to do with it.

      4. Yes, Irons… sorta rock. On rifles, that’s becoming less true. On handguns, at least for me, the jury is still out.

      5. Definitely agree. A good WML (or even properly deployed handheld) and your sights stand out well.

      6. Yes. Muzzle flash will blind you. I’ve had it happen. However, there are factors involved that many may or may not encounter. Firstly, ammo in use. Practice ammo has a big flash. Defensive ammo has chemical flash retardants. As does military ammo (surplus 5.56 for example). I promise you, that absent a WML, in very dark conditions, you fire some Winchester White Box from a .45ACP, you’re going to have severely affected vision from 3-7 seconds or so. I know because I’ve done it.

      7. I actually agree. All the lumens.

    4. I have yet to find a decent laser that will hold it’s zero over time. If you want one, fine. I’ll stick with tridium night sights.

    5. did training scenarios with police and military officers. set up indoor ‘night stop’, ‘felony’ stops, investigative disturbance calls and such with a small town and small industrial areas built in large building to control light, we did industrial/home/auto stops and attempted arrests. good guys used lights/lasers.

      in most cases the air quality was less than perfect and when bad guys noticed good guys calling they hid themselves, not always cover. good guys almost always came roaring and lit up. easy targets if bad guys have even a little bit of a plan. woke up a lot of guys. we used 300 fps paintball to leave a wollop and improve memory. many a guy ‘died’ in that building. made it fun playing bad guy. these lights and lasers are situation-useful, but sure can get you killed, too.

    6. … the ambient light splash from whatever is in front of you will make your regular iron sights stand out like a pro-Donald Trump editorial over at Salon.com.

      Best line of any shooting article I have read in the last year!! Great article and all really great points.

    7. Very informative material! Getting older the lasers are a great help for tired eyes!! Any progress that enhances my ability to hit the 10 ring is welcomed news to me. Have 3 currenly, trying to work # 4 in my budget!! Spot on here sirButch Hill

    8. You neglected to mention that only the red laser beam is invisible in a dark room with no particulates in the air. Red is also usless in daylight beyond just a few feet. Green lasers are visible in daylight or darkness from the source to the target and are not a good choice if you are concerned about giving your location away. If you’re looking for the source of the bump in the night with a green laser and he waits for you to move, you’re toast. Green lasers also cause permanent eye damage if you shine it directly into the eyes of someone. There were several instances a few years ago of some green lasers being aimed at the cockpit windows of aircraft in flight. There was an airline pilot whose cockpit was hit by a green laser at 35,000′ and he suffered permanent eye damage and it ended his career. There was another incident where a guy was illuminating aircraft on final approach to landing in Chicago I believe it was. That guy went to prison for reckless endangerment.

      1. Mike
        The issue of being “discovered” as Tom suggested and demonstrated quite well in the top photo interestingly enough is true but in reality it is a “so what” moment
        In a CIVILIAN self defense situation unlike a military offensive one where people sit in bunkers and shoot at each others for hours on end I know of no instance in either LEO enforcement or civilian weapon use that anyone was “discovered” by the use of their laser and was therefore injured or killed.
        SURE I guess in a theoretical scenario one could be accosted by 3 thugs while another is lying in wait with their weapons trained that once the 3 thugs fled the last one waited to follow the laser trail back to you in order to shoot you BUT it is pretty remote to the point of Hollywood-like.
        The ease of target acquisition by the use of a laser is SO much more easily accomplished that it cowers in comparison to the iron sight method enough to take the risk that you might be “discovered” by the trail.

        The issue of the pilot suggesting he was “blinded” by a laser directed at his plane is at best a myth and most likely an aberration. The “report” was a Delta pilot and I think he was coming in at Salt Lake City. Doing some simple math one would realize that at 10K feet away and a plane at minimum 3K feet on final approach a 100W laser (which is HUGE and requires a license to have) would throw a dot onto the cockpit approximately 1000 FEET in diameter (yes even lasers do diverge). Furthermore the wattage would be less then 500 BILLIONTH of a watt so surely not enough energy to cause any physical damage. I get it that someone might be distracted by said laser and MAYBE for an instant if not prepared might have some “flash blindness” (the type you see after the old days of flash photos went off) but lets be realistic a green laser the types of which we see every day on EBay and Amazon are not enough to cause any defect and surely not enough to prevent a pilot from his duties. YES at close up distance they “can” cause defects but if the other person is a BG and about to be killed by your 9mm does it really matter if he dies blind in one eye or not? As far as the plane again trying to focus said laser beam on an object moving at over 200 miles an hour and as far away as I suggested above would be all but impossible unless a fixed device was used to mount the laser surely not a pistol or even AR-type rifle..
        The reality is lasers short of their dependability issue are the current and future of gun use and are here to stay. I fully expect them to be part of the OEM in many manufacturers once the endurance and longevity of the power is resolved.
        Dr D

      2. That’s incorrect, both red and green lasers are invisible unless there is particulate matter in the air. Just see the second picture in this article for an example. All lasers can cause eye damage, which is why the power levels are limited by federal law. The whole myth about “giving position away” is mostly a crock whether you have a red or green laser – it doesn’t matter.

        1. Have to disagree with you on green lasers. I use them in Astronomy to point out objects to newbies, even at 11,500′ in “clear” mountain air, a green laser shows a beam. I have an early Crimson Trace laser on my 1911, the red beam is not visible until after you fire and before “the smoke” clears. 🙂

      3. Sorry Mike, but you are soooo incorrect in your statement. Not trying to be an ass, but this article was written to combat assumptions of people just like you. If you had ever used a green laser on a firearm in a low light situation, where there were NO particulates in the air, you would know that your statement is bogus.

    9. Tom
      Well done sir! I agree. The hypothetical nonsense is a bit overpowering. I have lasers on all my EDC’s and my AR’s as well. Although I have yet to commit to mounting a light on the bow end of my pistols since the added weight and discomfort on the withdraw are just too much for right now, we know that smaller is obvious so down the road the lights will replace the rod as the current lasers do and will solve that one. I use the LaserLyte replacement rear sight unit for a red laser on my Glocks. they are excellent have plenty of battery life from the tiny TINY batteries they use and are plenty bright enough to see in anything but as you suggested day light conditions. Plus no “auto-on” I simply flick them on when needed as simple as dropping the safety on a 1911 had I still used one. I see NO reason not to use one short of getting too hooked on them and having one fail
      Assuming all else being equal the lasers have upped the game dramatically in self defense weaponry.
      Nice article sir!
      Dr D

    10. My biggest gripe with lasers is marketing. I see shooters (newbie and seasoned) who are relying on the tech to make up for not putting in the hours practicing. Seeing their performance on the range, I have to wonder in a serious situation would they be looking for the dot when they should be shooting?

      I have a good bit of expereince with lasers, and I choose not to carry one.

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