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The Laser Sight vs. The Flashlight—Which One Is Best?

The first thing most new gun owners do after purchasing their weapon is immediately start buying accessories. Let’s face it – buying gadgets is half the fun. Sure, your AR-pattern rifle weighs double what it used to because you have every catalog gizmo available, but hey, it’s your money. Knock yourself out! There are, however, two relatively good gadgets to have on a defensive firearm – the laser sight, and the flashlight. There are cases where you might want both. But which one is better, if you can only afford one? Let’s have a look.

The Laser Sight

Anyone who has ever watched a Hollywood action movie knows what this is. It’s essentially a laser encased in an aluminum housing. Unlike the movies, however, the beam of the laser is invisible; the only thing visible is the red (or green, depending on the make) dot on the target. In theory, if the laser is properly zeroed, the dot reflects exactly where the bullet will go. Lasers have a definite usefulness and are even used by the military, though not for what you think they might be used for. In the military, lasers are used for spotting purposes. A soldier will “paint” the target with his laser so that others can fire upon it. Often this laser is an infrared laser and is invisible unless you are looking through night vision scopes.

The civilian handgun-mounted laser has some pros and cons:

Pros:

  • Excellent for novice shooters in high stress situations. A laser on a small revolver screams “excellent gun for the wife.” All she has to do is put the red dot where she wants the bullet to go and keep firing until the threat is gone. You really could not find an easier method of aiming.
  • Inexpensive. Lasers are among the cheapest accessories you could add to a handgun – far cheaper than a good flashlight.
  • Rugged. No moving parts, long battery life, and aluminum housing contribute to the “mount once and forget” mentality.

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Cons:

  • While initially lasers are great for novices in high stress situations, they essentially are a crutch to proper shooting. If you teach yourself to aim on a pistol that has a laser, then you go to one that does not, you won’t really know how to shoot effectively. All handguns have iron sights; few have lasers. Use lasers judiciously, and practice without them often.
  • The assailant can see where the laser is coming from in a low-light situation. The laser housing will leak light out the front, putting a red dot on your pistol as well (depending on the model). He will know where you are – admittedly, a red dot is tough to spot, but the potential exists nevertheless.

The Gun-Mounted Flashlight

Essentially, these are nothing more than regular flashlights with custom housings that mount on the handgun. Most are high-powered and ultra-bright LED lights, some putting out almost 200 lumens or more. It’s important to have a sensitive and easily activated switch, since there are times when you do not want the flashlight on, or want to shut it off super quick.

Pros:

  • Flashlights light up more than just the target; they light up the area around the target, giving you good situational awareness. It’s one thing to put a laser dot on a target in a dark room – it’s quite another to shine a light on that target and discover that the target was actually a friendly.
  • When the beam is narrowed, these lights act as a crude aiming device. You will generally place bullets where the beam of the light is brightest.

Cons:

  • A good tactical flashlight could cost half as much as the gun—far more expensive than a laser.
  • As soon as you turn on your flashlight, you broadcast exactly where you are. It’s important that your tactics reflect this disadvantage and you compensate for it.
  • Many times, tactical flashlights are used as general illumination – bad choice. You are pointing a firearm, after all.

Which One is Best?

They’re both very useful for different reasons, as stated above, but if you can only afford one, pick a good tactical flashlight. A laser is a bit of a “one note Charlie.” All it does is make a dot. A flashlight makes illumination, acts as a crude aiming device, and could be used for signaling. Remember, you don’t just need a flashlight for night use. Enter a darkened room on a sunny day – you’ll be blind for a few moments, and a laser won’t help you.

There are combination units that have both lasers and flashlights in the same housing, and if you have money to burn, go for one of these. Just make sure you know how to turn each one on as well as off – the last thing you need in a high stress situation is more buttons to push!

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