“High tech!” “Tacti-Cool!” “High speed, low drag!”

We hear these terms in discussions about guns that are so modern and deadly looking they’ve found their way into blood-n’-guts video games. However, for every actor who wears a humongous Desert Eagle in a thigh holster, there are many more real-life citizens with concealed carry permits who carry something much more mundane, a snub-nose .38 revolver, perhaps, or a compact semiautomatic pistol.

The fact is some of those tacti-cool and techni-cool items can be of particular value with smaller handguns.

Some pistols come with no sights at all, like the neat little Seecamp, and one variation of the splendidly manufactured Rohrbaugh. Some have just a little groove down the top of the slide, including one recent variation of subcompact Colt .45 auto. Many others have sights that are little more than rudimentary.

Let’s look at where “high tech” can help—especially after dark!

Laser Sights

The first laser sight I ever saw came from SureFire, circa 1979-1980 if memory serves. It was an ungainly thing, mounted on a 6-inch barrel Colt Trooper Mark III in .357 Magnum. Its grip was doubled in length to house its batteries, which died 17 minutes into my first test on an ultra-cold winter night in New Hampshire.

We’ve come a long way since, and SureFire and other makers now offer us state of the art laser sights. At reasonable distances indoors, at short ranges outside in bright sunlight, and anyplace in the dark, they can be a dramatic help in aiming. There is the occasional person whose vision is such that they can identify their target just fine, but can’t focus at the distance where conventional gunsights are. For them, the red (or green) dot projected on the target by a laser beam is a Godsend.

A laser sight lets you direct your gunfire without your eyes directly in line with the gun. They work particularly well for SWAT cops who have to reach around raid shields to fire, for example. Contrary to widespread belief, laser beams won’t usually draw a line to your position unless there is mist, smoke, or something similar in the air.

There are those who’ll tell you the laser sight creates awesome intimidation when the red dot lands on the opponent’s body. I’m not quite sold on that. I have no doubt that it has happened, but it’s not something I’m prepared to count on. And, because batteries can always fail, the laser sight must be seen as a secondary system for most. Of course, they’re very limited in bright light, too.

One of the most popular laser sights for compact handguns today is the Crimson Trace brand. The single bestseller in their line is the Lasergrip. For small 1911 autos such as Colt Defender or Officers subcompacts, it’s in the form of a grip panel. There’s a version for striker-fired subcompact autos such as the “baby” Glock and the Smith & Wesson Military & Police Compact, which straddles the back of the grip frame like a saddle. The “baby” Glock, Ruger SR9C, Ruger LCP and Kel-Tec P3AT can be fitted with Crimson Trace’s Laserguard, which attaches to the trigger guard and rides directly under the dust cover of the frame. In all cases, the bright, solid red dot is activated by pressure of the hand normally grasping the pistols.

For revolvers, Crimson Trace provides for Ruger, Taurus, and Smith & Wesson. The Lasergrip for the J-frame S&W is so popular that it comes in three sizes. Their least expensive, the LG-109, is cut to match the grip frame for zero increase in bulk, but also does not cushion recoil. The LG-305 is extended to allow all fingers to encompass the grip, and also cushions the web of the hand nicely, but its greater size slightly compromises concealment. The “middle ground” design, and my personal favorite, is the LG-405. It’s still a short, two-finger grip, but cushioned in the rear where the added dimension doesn’t really impact concealability.

LaserMax makes a unit that goes on small-frame revolvers, mounted on the side of the frame. The shooter has to deliberately press a button to turn it on and off, which some folks prefer. The autoloader version of the LaserMax replaces the recoil spring guide and projects its beam from directly under the muzzle.

The most recent design is from LaserLyte. This mounts alongside the rear sight on a wide variety of compact auto pistols.

In January 2010, S&W introduced its new line of polymer-framed pocket guns, a .38 Special revolver and a .380 auto, with integral laser sight systems developed by InSight. These too require separate movements of the shooter’s hand to turn on and off, and these InSight units start at solid red and go to a pulsing red dot with a second push of the activation button.

Let There Be Light

“White light units” that attach to the service pistol, and detach even more quickly when the shooter wishes, go back to around 1993 with the HK USP. (Dedicated white light, semi-permanently mounted to the handgun, goes back even further to SureFire’s Weaponlight series.) SureFire, Streamlight, and InSight are all proven, trustworthy brands. It was inevitable that miniature attachable lights and combination light/laser units would be made for subcompact pistols. The ones used for this article were the InSight X2 units, one just white light, and the other slightly larger to combine a laser beneath the flashlight portion.

While a laser is great for hitting the target in poor light, it has no ability to identify the target. A shot on the wrong target in a match means some temporary embarrassment and a slight drop in where you finish in the match standings. On the street, it means untold tragedy, and can lead to imprisonment and/or bankruptcy for the person who launched the shot. We even have holster makers now (Galco, Raven Concealment, and Blade-Tech for starters) who manufacture concealable holsters that can carry an auto pistol with a light or light/laser unit already attached.

Real-World Results

On a recent winter night, I took three handguns to the range. Each was tested with the “five in five at five” drill attributed to instructor Gila Hayes. That’s five shots in five seconds from a distance of five yards.

With a little Ruger LCP, I let go five rounds with my middle finger slightly relaxed so it wouldn’t activate the Crimson Trace LaserGuard. In the moonlight, I couldn’t see its vestigial sights, so I just put the outline of the little pistol where I wanted to hit—my late friend Jim Cirillo’s concept of “gun silhouette” indexing. The five Winchester 95-grain FMJ .380 rounds went into a 4.55-inch group centered 2 to 3 inches below where I was trying to point them.

Then I tried it again with the laser sight turned on. Crimson Trace’s red dot drove the bullets right to the tiny black aiming square, blowing it off the target, and putting a much tighter 1.75-inch group exactly where I was aiming it.

The next gun up was the S&W Bodyguard 38, and I left its integral laser turned off. Again using the gun silhouette to aim since the small black sights were so hard to see, the muzzle blast flash silhouetted the sight picture with each shot and showed me I was going a bit right. And I was: later measurement revealed that the 158-grain Black Hills .38 Special semi-wadcutters had grouped the five hits 5.65 inches apart, centered almost 2.5 inches right of where I was trying to place them.

Then I clicked the integral laser sight on to solid red (works better for me than the pulsing dot, but your mileage may vary). Once again, the shots were spot on, yielding a five-shot cluster that measured 1.30 inches.

The third gun up was Springfield Armory’s new XD(M) 3.8 subcompact, named for the length of its barrel in inches. On the first run, using just the big, bold sights as best as I could see them, the five hits centered at point of aim for a 2.45-inch group.

Turning on only the white light, I tried again. The group shrank to 1.30 inches. The sights looked like an illustration in a marksmanship manual, perfectly silhouetted on the small aiming square where the shots centered, blowing away the aiming sticker as on the first run with the XD(M) short barrel pistol.

Finally, I tried it again with both light and laser activated. Since I knew the laser beam emitted from a point about two and three quarter inches below the centerline of the bore, I held that much low with the red dot and didn’t try to use the sights. I may have overcompensated, because the gun put five rounds into a 1.25-inch group barely above the point of aim.

Good people got by with small guns and no high-tech gear for generations. But, while the new innovations aren’t indispensible, they do offer us enhanced performance. Some of the advances that allow better shooting under adverse circumstances are particularly beneficial with the smaller handgun platforms.

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“High tech!” “Tacti-Cool!” “High speed, low drag!” We hear these terms in discussions about…