Wheelgun Lasers — LaserMax And Crimson Trace Face Off
In our tests, we found Crimson Trace units smoothly integrate a laser sight into a revolver, while LaserMax units looked bolted on. But does that matter when it comes to performance?
Manufacturers like S&W, Ruger, Charter Arms, and Taurus all think combining a late 19th century design — a revolver — with a relatively modern laser sight is a great idea. We think it can be a good pairing, too. Last year we tested the S&W Bodyguard, which comes from the factory with an Insight laser sight installed, and gave the combo a high grade. For those of us who already carry 38 Special revolvers, we wanted to compare options to retrofit our snubnose five-shooters with a laser sight. Knowing many CCW permit holders drop their J-frames in a pants or coat pocket unholstered or carry them in a holster, we wanted to see how the Crimson Trace (CTC) and LaserMax (LM) would perform in a variety of day-to-day carry scenarios as well as at the range.
The CTC and LM laser sights, like all laser sights, are regulated by the FDA as Class IIIa devices. They are not toys. Laser-sight manufacturers instruct buyers to attach a tiny warning label on their firearm after installing the laser sight unit, since laser light can damage the retina of the eyes. You will note that ordinary laser pointers also carry a tiny warning label, too.
Our retrofit candidate was a Model 637 Chief’s Special Airweight, which has been in production off and on since 1991. It has an exposed hammer and is chambered in .38 Special +P. The 637 is light weight and has a soft rubber grip.
Our testing consisted of five phases: ease of installation, a drop test from a height of 36 inches onto a piece of plywood on a concrete floor, freezing the lasers to -4°F, fitting with different holster types, and finally live-fire testing. We dispensed with our usual water-immersion test since the lasers are labeled only to be water resistant. Drop the laser sight in water or get caught in a rain shower, and you will need to resort to Plan B and use the revolver’s iron sights.
Suffice to say all three laser sights passed the drop test without losing zero. The cold has a way of negatively impacting mechanisms, but buttons on all three laser units functioned even after being placed in freezer. We also tested the lasers with an unloaded revolver in dark and brightly lit environments. Users should also be aware that we are surrounded by reflective surfaces outside and inside our homes — glass, vehicle bodies, TV and computer screens, mirrors — that will reflect a laser back and could disorient you. There is also no visible beam per se, unless the beam has something to reflect off, such as smoke or fog. Across a bedroom in the darkness, all three lasers projected a red spot on a potential target. In the dark, the aiming spot is easy to see unless aimed on a reflective surface when one dot can look like many dots. In bright sunlight the aiming dots were much harder to see, and at times our shooters needed to resort to using iron sights to find the dot. Holding the 637 in a two-handed grip at belt buckle height, we were able to easily hit the center circle of an IDPA-style target at 12 yards with all three laser sights. Here’s what else our retrofit test determined.
Crimson Trace Model LG-105, $209
The CTC LG-105 laser sight grip is a two-piece grip of textured polymer (See image LG-105A). Included are two batteries, hex wrenches, cleaning swabs and instructions. The two batteries easily snapped into the right grip panel. Two screws of separate sizes then sandwiched the 637’s frame between the panels. The grips were reminiscent of more traditional J-frame grips — minimal. The grip’s palm swell helped fill our hand similar to the 637’s original rubber boot. It had a slick feel to it, and we found it slipped easily into a pants or coat pocket with no resistance or friction. Activation was via a button located under the trigger guard and on the front grip strap. Our index finger fell naturally on top of the button when we gripped the 637. The LG-105, like the LG-405, required the button to be pressed to activate the laser. Releasing the button turned the laser off. Right-handed or left-handed shooters had the same experience activating the laser. Some shooters, depending on the size of their hand, needed to hold the LG-105 in a death grip to activate the laser; turning the laser on and off required grasping and re-grasping the button. Under duress, we don’t think this would be an issue as our knuckles would be white from surging adrenaline. The LG-405 was easier to operate. We did not need to try and crush the grip and button to make the dot appear.
The CTC sights had the laser located just above a right-handed shooter’s trigger finger (image LG-105B). You can also see the hole (arrow) for the sight-adjustment hex wrenches. They are small, and we suspected that was why CTC and LM provided two sight adjustment wrenches. If you dropped one, good luck trying to find it even with 20/20 vision. All three lasers were very easy to adjust point of impact. We aimed the 637 with iron sights, activated the laser and walked the dot over to point of impact.
We do think the activation button could accidentally be turned on, especially if there are other items in your pocket like car keys. Wearing loose-fitting khakis, we were able to make the sight come on by grasping the grip through the cloth. A telltale red dot appeared through the canvas. Holstering either CTC laser sight required a bit more attention as the laser aperture hung up on the mouth or opening of the holster. With a DeSantis Cozy Partner inside-the-waistband holster, the CTC sights hung up on the holster (image LG-105C). We adjusted the retention screw and left the 637 in the holster for a week. Problem solved. With a Blackhawk 3 Slot Pancake holster with a thumbreak, we also left the 637 in the holster with the thumbbreak snapped (image LG-105D). The leather formed to the sight and we were good to go.
At the range the dot forms for both the CTCs and LM were the same in steady mode. The LM’s ability to change to pulsating mode was an advantage to some testers. The flashing dot was easier to identify. In the dark in either mode, they were dead even. With 130-grain FMJ Federal American Eagle and Winchester 158-grain Lead-Round Nose ammo, we never used the iron sights and were able to cluster tight shot groups, though our testers’ double-action skills are not those of Jerry Miculek.
Our Team Said: The CTC LG-105 produced similar felt recoil to the 637’s original grip, and with some testers needing a death-grip hold, the recoil at belt buckle height was significantly different compared to a modified Weaver or isosceles stance. They liked the fact they could use their existing holsters, albeit with a bit of break-in. The slippery grip slid easily into a pocket, and that feature was seen as an advantage. We gave it a B+.
Crimson Trace Model LG-405, $299
The CTC LG-405 was a one-piece unit that attached the two grip panels with a soft rubber saddle covering the top portion of the 637’s backstrap. Spreading apart the grip panels allowed easy insertion of the two batteries (image LG-405A). Two screws were then cranked down to hold the grip/sight to the frame. These two screws also differed in size. The LG-405 was noticeably bulkier looking than the LG-105. The area under the trigger was filled in more, and it had rubber padding on the backstrap, but it was thinner than the LG-105. As mentioned the LG-405 did not require a death grip to activate for some shooters. Shooters’ middle fingers (image LG-405B, arrow) naturally landed on the activation button. Most testers felt the LG-405 was easier to turn on and off while holding the same grip. They also liked the thinness of the grip and the padded backstrap, saying they felt recoil less with this grip compared to the other two. A slight drawback was the rubber in the grip tended to slightly snag on pocket material. This is minor, and if you were to draw the firearm, your hand would be completely surrounding the rubber, so snagging would not be an issue, our team said.
A feature exclusive to the LG-405 was a master switch located in the butt (image LG-405C, arrow). Fingernails or a fleshy finger pad could easily slide the switch back and forth. Testers liked the master switch, as the laser could be deactivated, so turning the laser on accidentally was moot. The switch is recessed in the butt of the right grip, and we think only an obstruction in your pocket could turn it on. Rule of thumb: Carry only your weapon in a pocket. The LG-405 had similar holstering issues as the LG-105.
Our Team Said: The CTC LG-405 was very easy to install and adjust. Those testers not familiar with laser sights had to concentrate on using their index finger to activate the laser, but the LG-405 was the easiest of all three laser sights to use. The LG-405’s slightly extra bulk compared with the padded backstrap and master switch feature swayed testers even though it was nearly $100 more than either the LM or CTC LG-105. We gave it an A-.
LaserMax Model LMS-JMX-H, $219
The LM laser sight came in three pieces, two grip panels and a side plate (image LM-A). The left grip panel held spare batteries and a sight alignment hex wrench, which testers liked. It took slightly more time is assemble the LM but it was super easy. Remove the original grip and two sideplate screws, then position the LM sideplate, button it up with two hew screws, add the grip panels, and tighten one screw (image LM-B). Done. The sideplate holds the two batteries. A battery-cover plate must be removed to replace batteries. Also located on the sideplate just above the battery compartment is a beam selection switch that allows users to switch from steady beam to pulsating beam (image LM-C, arrow). This switch needs to be moved with a screwdriver or the edge or one of the provided hex wrenches. Testers liked the fact they could change the laser’s beam mode. Some felt the pulsating mode helped a user find the dot when it was lost in bright sunlight. The LM laser aperture was integrated into the sideplate and located closer to the bore (image LM-D). Testers felt that since the lasers would be used at very close range, the location of the laser aperture made little difference as long as the bullet went where the dot was placed.
The LM had dual activation switches in recessed areas, one on each grip panel. Like the LG-105 it was easy to turn on through canvas pant pockets. We felt the LG-105 and LM are equal in this respect and a user should be aware the laser could accidentally turn on. When gripping the 637, it was awkward to activate the laser with the gripping hand. It could be activated, but the user’s grip needed to be adjusted to switch it on and then re-adjusted to fire the 637. Using a two-hand grip, it was easier to activate the laser with the supporting hand thumb (image LM-E). Testers liked the grip, in part because it felt similar to LG-405 with the space behind the trigger guard filled. But the bare backstrap transferred as much perceived recoil as the LG-105, they said.
We saw no issues with the LM sight if we used our ad-hoc pocket-holster carry method. In leather, the LM was similar to the CTC sights, especially in the DeSantis rig (image LM-F). The Blackhawk rig with its thumbbreak revealed a possible issue with the LM sight. Upon re-holstering the 637 fitted with LM, we found the thumb strap could get caught between the LM sideplate and the 637’s frame and potentially knock the sight out of alignment (image LM-G). The LM’s sideplate is made of polymer and it flexes, so we don’t know how much of an issue this may be. In any case, fitting your leather would be mandatory with a thumbbreak rig (image LM-H).
Our Team Said: Testers felt that their carry method would decide what laser sight to purchase. To all, the LG-105 and LM sight were nearly tied in performance. They like the storage capacity of the LM and the ability to change beam modes. The fact that the side of the LM could be pushed out of alignment was an issue with testers who holstered their J-frames in thumbreak leather. The LM rated a B+.