AR-15s are almost infinitely modular. With a near-limitless quantity and diversity of compatible attachments, it’s tempting to install everything that sounds useful to have on your rifle or carbine.
One of the most popular attachments for AR-15s today is the laser sight. What are the purposes of a laser sight? What are the pros and cons of installing one on your AR-15?
What Laser Sights Do
A laser sight is traditionally an external attachment mounted to the firearm via a mounting point, such as a Picatinny rail. Laser sights are battery-powered devices projecting a colored laser beam (usually red) onto the target. With a laser sight pointing downrange, the shooter can see a visible dot directly on the target. This dot provides an aiming point and helps the shooter determine roughly where the bullet may hit.
Laser sight pros
Although traditional sights and optics can also help you determine where your bullet will hit, the advantage of a laser sight is that you do not need to line your eyes up with sights or a reticle. Because the laser dot is projected directly on the target, you can get a good idea of where you’ll hit no matter how you hold your weapon.
You can purchase dual units functioning as both a light and a laser, allowing you to benefit from both. Most dual units allow multiple modes, letting you switch between light-only, laser-only, or both at once.
Laser sight cons
As battery-powered items, laser sights are among the most power-hungry devices you can install on a firearm, second only to tactical lights.
Unlike bullets, laser beams are unaffected by gravity and always project a perfectly straight beam, requiring the shooter to zero the laser sight to a specific distance.
However, your laser sight’s actual practical range varies depending on its color and brightness (green lasers are brighter than red) and on the ambient light (bright daylight makes lasers harder to see).
Realistically, laser sights are impractical beyond 50 yards and are typically factory-sighted at an even shorter distance than the industry standard, usually 50 feet. You can potentially extend it to 100 yards under perfect shooting conditions, like a powerful green laser in a low-light environment, but this is not a realistic expectation.
What about infrared lasers?
Infrared (IR) laser sights project a laser dot that is invisible to the naked eye. The only way to see an IR laser dot is to wear a night-vision device.
Typical IR laser sights are restricted to law enforcement and military only, as they usually contain Class 3B laser projectors. This level is considered industrial-grade and therefore controlled by the FDA.
Although you can find less powerful, civilian-legal IR laser sights, their practicality for civilians remains debatable, as you still need to buy a night-vision device to see the laser dot.
Laser Sights on Home Defense AR-15s
When taking the limited practical range of a laser sight into consideration, the main application of lasers for AR-15s is home defense.
Unless you live in a dream mansion, all home defense situations, by their nature, take place indoors and in close quarters, and most of them take place at night or in low-light conditions. Therefore, having an aiming device functioning best at close ranges and in low light makes sense. You will have no trouble seeing the laser dot, no matter the color you choose.
Like a set of adjustable sights, quality laser sights are typically adjustable for both windage and elevation, allowing you to recalibrate and re-sight them in if you’re not satisfied with the factory sighting distance.
Ideally, both your primary sights (irons or optics) and your laser sight should have the same sighting distance. A good example is a 50-yard zero for both your red dot and your laser sight. Additionally, the 50-yard zero on a typical 5.56mm AR-15 is also dead-on at 200 yards; this is called the 50/200 zero.
Provided you have enough rail space, one of the advantages of selecting a laser sight for an AR-15 is the ability to choose from more units and options. You can easily fit larger, more powerful, and longer-lasting laser sighting devices on your AR-15, especially compared to the units compatible with a pistol.
A potential drawback of a traditional laser sight for a home defense AR-15 is that you must turn the device on when needed. If you suspect an intruder is inside your house, you likely won’t have the time or the muscle memory to reach for the laser and turn it on. However, you can quickly remediate this issue by installing a pressure switch (a power button that you can fit on your pistol grip) or a laser foregrip (a combination foregrip and laser sight with a dedicated “trigger” to turn it on).
As with any accessory, attaching a laser sight on your AR-15, especially one of the larger models intended for rifles, will add weight and bulk to your firearm. Be careful not to attach too many accessories to your home defense rifle, lest you cancel out the AR-15’s design advantage of being a practical, lightweight rifle.
Although not strictly a drawback, some shooters feel that lasers for AR-15s teach shooters to forget or ignore their aiming fundamentals by relying on the laser dot instead of using their sights. This issue is contentious and part of the broader debate of whether you should use your sights in a self-defense situation. It depends on your personal experience and preferences on the matter.
Using a laser sight may take some getting used to and requires training to operate effectively. If you are already comfortable and proficient with your existing home defense AR-15 setup, you might not need the laser sight.
Laser Sights For Other Applications
There are limited practical uses for a laser sight on an AR-15 outside of home defense. Many local and state laws ban laser sights for hunting, except in specific circumstances, such as varmint hunting.
A low number of competition shooters use laser sights. The potential aiming advantages are not worth the additional weight or the relatively short battery life, especially compared to the many optics an AR-15 can accept. However, they can be plenty of fun for plinking, practice, and general recreation. There’s nothing wrong with using a laser sight on your AR-15 just for fun!
The Take-home Message
Gun ownership is challenging to reconcile with having an online presence. The convenience afforded to us by social media platforms makes it too easy to overshare.
Adopting sensible online privacy habits and being mindful of what you post on the internet is not just a matter of not being seen by the wrong people; it’s also one way to defend your rights: the right to keep and bear arms and the right to privacy.
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