A History of Laser Sights
Laser sights, when compared to other modern battlefield innovations like night vision and thermal, have a much more recent service history, both with the military and the public. The very first visible lasers attached to firearms came in 1979, developed by a small company called Laser Products Corporation. The company developed lasers as aiming aids primarily for the law enforcement market, and one of its first designs was an enormous laser sight built for the Colt Trooper .357 Magnum.
This laser required special machining for the Colt’s iron sights to be removed, forcing the user to rely solely on the laser. Its 12v power supply, the size of a small candy bar, had to be stored in the weapon’s grip. Although the device was rather impractical, there was no denying that a red dot on a person’s chest looked very intimidating.
Ed Reynolds was later hired to design a similar laser system for an AMT Hardballer, a long barreled Colt M1911. Since the 1911’s grip already housed the magazine, this model had its bulky external battery taped to the user’s wrist. Who would ever commission such an impractical device?
The laser sight in the hands of the T-101 truly made Arnold Schwarzenegger look like a machine. He didn’t aim down his sights like a mere man, and the sight of the red laser on a victim’s body was undeniably intimidating. In 1984, the Terminator franchise brought laser sights into the mainstream, and forever ingrained them into the pop culture consciousness of the American public as “scary death rays for guns.”
Back in the real world, 7,000 miles away in the Middle East, Iran and Iraq were at war. Besides the obligatory exchange of 7.62mm rounds between sides, Iranian troops were also in danger of being blinded by Iraqi lasers. Some Iraqi tanks like the T-72s and T-69s were equipped with laser rangefinders which were supposedly used by Iraqis in an anti-personnel role. 4,000 Iranian personnel reported eye injuries described as retinal burns and hemorrhages. These powerful, invisible IR lasers had an effective range of up to 1 mile, much more accurate than a tank’s coaxial machine guns.
Incidentally, when the United States got involved in Iraq in the early 90s, there were reports of friendly fire laser casualties from the M1 Abram’s laser rangefinding system. Anyone within five miles downrange of the Abram’s rangefinder was required to wear eye protection or risk blindness.
The shot-callers in the armed forces decided it would be practical to develop a rifle-mounted laser system specifically for blinding the enemy. The LCMS (Laser Countermeasure System) and Saber 203 laser systems were a few of the controversial laser-based systems which were slated for mass production circa 1995. These laser systems had a range of about 1.25 miles, and their stated purpose was to act as countermeasures against enemy surveillance and electro-optical devices. However, it was obvious to anyone who used them that they were meant to blind enemy personnel, rendering them unable to return fire. The technology was considered inhumane and banned by International Humanitarian Law, although the Saber 203 did see limited service with the Marines in Somalia.
Forced to change direction, the military developed IR lasers to help troops aim at night. The clunky night vision goggles of the mid-90s made using iron sights impossible, but IR lasers provided a solution. Soldiers could now use their IR beams – invisible to the naked eye – as aiming points for their rifles. The first AR lasers had been born. Some of the early models included the AN/PAQ-4B and AN/PAQ-4C. They were designated as “eye safe” lasers but could still blind personnel through prolonged exposure. These early devices were designed to be mounted on the holes in an M16’s handguard rather than a picatinny rail. Unfortunately, they took up a lot of space on the weapon and guzzled battery power.
By the time of the Iraq War in 2003, the AN/PAQ-4 had been superseded by the AN/PEQ-2, which, while still an invisible AR laser, was capable of using both an aiming module and an IR illuminator. This model was more compact and lighter than its predecessor but was still only usable at nighttime. They also tended to lose zero or break completely if they were knocked around hard enough.
In response to the limited utility of the AN/PEQ-2, the AN/PEQ-15 was developed. This system was both cheaper to produce than the AN/PEQ-2 and provided a visible laser as well as an IR beam. The visible laser had an effective range of 1,000 yards and proved to be important in both daytime and nighttime engagements.
For example, when Sergeant Major Karl Erickson led his special forces team on a nighttime raid in Afghanistan, a hapless Afghan civilian happened to run into his team. Oblivious to their presence, the man approached their position, unaware he had about 20 IR lasers pointed at him. It was only when an operator pointed a visible red laser at him that he understood that if he kept on walking, he would be shot. Fully aware of the danger he was in, he turned around and took another route to his destination, proving the viability of visible lasers as nonlethal deterrents in the right situations.
Unfortunately, the military version of the AN/PEQ-15 is a Class IIIb laser, and as such is illegal for civilian use due to its ability to blind. L3, the company which produced the AN/PEQ-15, offers a Class I version of the weapon system for civilians. Produced in the same factory with the same parts as its military version, the only difference between the true AN/PEQ-15 and its civilian AR laser counterpart is the latter’s reduced laser strength. The commercially available AN/PEQ-15C has a reduced range of only 150 yards and a non-adjustable beam and sells for about $1,700.
In contrast, Firefield’s Charge AR lasers, available in both red and green varieties, are rated as Class IIIa lasers, only slightly less powerful than their military counterparts but much more powerful than the AN/PEQ-15Cs offered by L3. The Firefield Charge AR lasers have a range of 600 yards and retail for $49.97. These lasers are perfect for fast target acquisition as well as shooting with obstructions like gas masks, which don’t allow proper cheek weld, or from awkward positions like from under vehicles or firing from the hip. While the beam of an AR laser sight is invisible through a night vision device, the aiming point still registers as a bright dot, making these visible lights somewhat viable for nighttime shooting.