G&A Basics: How to Choose Lights and Lasers for Your CCW
December 06, 2016
Technology is progressing at a rate most people find hard to grasp. Cars these days are basically computers with wheels. LPs were replaced by eight-tracks, which were replaced by cassette tapes, which were replaced by CDs, which have been all but replaced by digital music carried around in iPods a quarter the size of a deck of cards.
Technology pertinent to gun owners — i.e., flashlights and lasers — has advanced as well. Remember the laser unit on Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1911 in "The Terminator"? It was mounted on top of a seven-inch model because the unit itself was the size of two toilet-paper tubes (and I'll let you in on a little secret — the battery pack was hidden on Arnold, connected to the gun by wires running down his arm). That movie came out in 1984, which means that in less than 30 years we've been able to make brighter, more powerful, longer-lasting lasers that are not one-tenth that size, but one one-hundredth! Flashlight technology has advanced apace, and modern handheld offerings are so bright that I'm surprised they don't come with warnings that say "Accidental exposure may cause temporary blindness." Let's look at modern lasers first.
These days you have your choice of red and green lasers from most manufacturers. If you're not quite sure what the big difference is between red and green lasers (other than the color) and don't feel like paying the extra money required for most green lasers, let me explain.
It takes more power/technology to generate green laser light, which is why they cost more. So why choose green? Well, green lasers appear brighter to the naked eye. Red laser dots are great for indoor or low-light use, but they're almost impossible to see on a bright, sunny day and tough to see outdoors even on a cloudy day. If you think you might have need for your laser in well-lit conditions, you'd be well served to buy something in a nice emerald green.
Lasers are getting so small that manufacturers are finding ways to mount them just about anywhere on a gun you can think of — triggerguard, forward accessory rail, some even replace the recoil-spring guide rod. One new product that caught my attention is the Master Series of laser grips for 1911s from Crimson Trace. Most laser modules are ugly, but the Master Series grips combine attractive cocobolo-style wood with only the smallest bits of black plastic and rubber for the best of both worlds.
To be honest, I am not a proponent of handgun lasers as sighting systems. Personally, I feel that if you're trying to aim your gun using the little red or green laser dot, you're not using your sights. This is a bad habit to get into.
However, I do feel that handgun lasers have huge deterrent value. My feelings on that are directly echoed by an experience Blackhawk's Chuck Buis had in a dark parking garage one day. Chuck spent a number of years as a plainclothes cop. He's a large man with a loud voice, but that didn't stop two men in that parking garage from approaching him and then splitting up to flank him. At the time, Chuck's thought was, I've seen this movie before.
Chuck, never one to play the victim, pulled out his pocket pistol and activated the laser attached to it. When both of the individuals, intent on misbehaving, saw the laser, they decided to pursue their activities elsewhere and Chuck never had to fire a shot. Crimson Trace's slogan of "Helping Bad Guys Make More Informed Decisions" never seemed more appropriate. In this deterrent vein, this is also why Chuck advocates stainless and/or hard-chromed finishes for smaller pocket guns, just so bad guys can see they are guns as opposed to cell phones, car keys, etc. I can't say I disagree. In fact, running the laser dot up the sidewalk to the threat, so he can see what's coming, might be a very persuasive technique.
There are exceptions to every rule (or opinion), and the exception to my "don't use the laser to aim your gun" is the Center Mass laser from LaserLyte. Designed for use on a shotgun, this unit doesn't project a single aiming dot but rather an entire circle pattern of bright-green dots. The pattern is designed to expand one inch for every yard — pretty much the rate most buckshot patterns expand from shotguns. You no longer have to guess how large a pattern your shotgun is going to make at whatever distance, something that is especially hard when events become, as they say, fluid. When it comes to improving the utility of the shotgun for home defense, I don't think there's been any product in the last 50 years that has done more than the Center Mass laser.
Weaponlights, Flashlights'¨and lumens
When it comes to flashlights, I remember when their brightness was measured in "candlepower" rather than the modern lumens. What's the difference? To put it very simply, candlepower is a measure of light emitted by one candle in a given direction. It is a measure of radiance taken at the source. The lumen is a measurement of light that illuminates a certain area. Lumens are based on the illumination of a one-square-foot area one foot away from the light source. Lumens are a lot easier to measure, which is why most manufacturers give their flashlight ratings in lumens.
For those of you who remember the uniqueness and versatility of the original Mini Maglite (they're still available), the original incandescent bulb provided a mere 15 lumens of light. Incandescent bulbs could only provide so much light, however, and burned out, so companies went to ever-brighter halogen and xenon bulbs. Modern LED technology has enabled flashlight manufacturers to make flashlights — a fraction the size of the Mini Maglite — which have triple-digit lumen output, for less money in adjusted dollars than what the Maglite originally cost. This size reduction is great because not only can shooters hold the equivalent of a spotlight in their hand, they can mount one on their handgun.
Weaponlights are nothing new, but weaponlights so small that they can fit on guns carried concealed by private citizens are. For example, the Crimson Trace Lightguard is barely larger than some of the company's lasers, yet it provides 100 lumens. The light is activated by Crimson Trace's standard pressure switch. Considering that the majority of self-defense situations occur at night or in low light, having a flashlight mounted directly to your carry gun is a huge advantage.
What's the problem with a light on your carry pistol? Well, unless it's an instinctive "squeeze the grip, and it turns on" design, you have to manipulate the light for it to work. If you're wrestling with someone or restraining a loved one with your other hand, that might not work out so well. One solution is the TacLoc locking holsters with ECR (Enhanced Combat Readiness) from Viridian, designed for concealed carry. This rig has really changed the playing field. Mount your Viridian flashlight/laser/combo on your pistol, turn it on whatever setting you like, then holster your pistol. The light/laser will shut off. Draw your gun and the light/laser will automatically turn on, without you having to do anything.
Everybody seems to be making "tactical" handheld flashlights now. My most recent acquisition is a 560-lumen unit sold by Walther. Once you get past the big names in the industry (SureFire, Streamlight, etc.), there are dozens of flashlight manufacturers out there. And most of them seem to be making good products.
My main complaint with most handheld flashlights is their controls. I want them simple. I don't want to have to hit the button four times and make the sign of the cross to get it to turn on at full brightness. That is why my current favorite handheld flashlights are the ones put out by Terra Lux. Each Terra Lux flashlight has two rubber-covered buttons on the tail; a larger, longer tail switch; and a smaller, almost crescent-shaped Mode switch. The flashlight is turned on by the tail switch. It can just be held down for intermittent use, or it can be clicked on. If you want to get fancy with strobes or brightness settings, that's when you move to the small switch. My favorite part about these controls is that no matter what the flashlight is doing when you turn it off, when you turn it on it comes back at maximum brightness.
Considering that some of the flashlights available on the market are bright enough to start brush fires on the moon, you have to ask yourself one question: How bright is bright enough? This is especially relevant since the closer these lights get to being an ersatz light saber, the more expensive they become. Well, what are you using it for? To identify a potential threat, right? So the light needs to be bright enough to accomplish that goal.
A "white light" app on your smartphone might be bright enough to find your keys under your desk, but try using it to illuminate something on the far side of a bedroom. It's useless. To my way of thinking, whatever flashlight you're using for self-defense, whether it's handheld or mounted on your pistol, needs to be bright enough to illuminate not just the person but to properly identify whatever he might be holding in his hands at typical self-defense distances. To put it more simply, the light needs to be bright enough to see whether that thing in his hand is a gun, knife or iPhone at a minimum of 21 feet.
Over the years, I have accumulated flashlights from a variety of manufacturers in a wide range of brightness levels (lumens). The brightness range I had available to me was a low of 10 lumens (secondary setting on a Browning flashlight) and a high of 650 lumens on a new Terra Lux handheld, almost all of them using LEDs.
Using my teenage son as a hand model, I had him stand holding an object in his hand, down along his leg, in a dark bedroom at night, so there was no ambient light coming through the window. At a distance of seven yards I tried flashlights of differing brightness levels in an attempt to identify whether the object in his hand was a gun, knife, flashlight or cell phone. My first observation? No matter how bright your flashlight, unless the other guy is carrying something the size of a Desert Eagle, it is his body language and behavior that will inform you of his intentions more quickly than anything. Small, dark objects are, well, small, dark and hard to identify. A smartphone in a black plastic case, held straight down, looks a heck of a lot like the top of a handgun's slide.
At seven yards I discovered that a 100-lumen light was bright enough to not just illuminate a stationary person in a dark room, but to reveal what he was holding. However, you'd be surprised just how fast the brightness falls off as you increase distance. Double the distance and you're going to want double the lumens. More lumens are always a good thing, and the way technology is moving, 250-lumen flashlights today cost less than 100-lumen lights did just a few years ago.
If you're in a buying mood, always test the light/laser if possible. You want a flashlight that throws a consistent circle of light with no shadows or dark spots and a laser that gives you the dot size you're happy with at shooting distance.