April 2012

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.

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