Thursday, May 17, 2007

Crimson Trace Lasergrips

In watching the handgun market over the last 20 years, it's been interesting to see the transition from revolvers coexisting with semiautomatics to being completely eclipsed by them. I figured there would be a window where revolvers were cheap for a while due to overproduction, but it seems I misjudged the ability of firearms makers to anticipate (or even direct) the market. Revolvers that should be cheap because of a lack of demand are now more expensive because they're practically a specialty item, apparently revolver production was scaled down in close parallel to market demand. Other than "cowboy" models for the Single-Action Shooting Society and monster handcannons like the S&W 500 that would blow most semiautomatic pistol actions into shrapnel, there isn't a wide supply of revolvers to be had without some serious looking.

The one apparent exception to this is the small-frame revolver market. The J-Frame S&W and its various competitors from Ruger, Rossi, Taurus and Charter Arms is still an icon and is still in production 57 years after its introduction in 1950 as the "Chief's Special". It's visible on the hip of every overweight detective on most any cop show you may have watched. It's popular for several very good reasons: it's small, it's reliable and it shoots a decent round, usually a .38 Special or for the truly masochistic, a .357 Magnum.

These are commonly referred to as "Ladies' Guns", because they're small and fit well into a purse, but J-Frame S&Ws are not nearly so much fun to shoot as they are to carry. The recoil is stout, and is not mitigated by much in the way of mass of the gun itself. The sights are poor, limiting accuracy. Detractors put it in the "get off me" category, guns that are useful for extremely short-range encounters. While there are revolver aficionados that can hit targets at 25-50 yards with a snub-nose revolver that kind of accuracy takes practice, and practice with a J-Frame just isn't that much fun. I'm probably middle-of-the-road in recoil tolerance, I don't really notice a 9mm, I know I've fired a .40 S&W or .45 ACP, and .44 Magnums I don't consider enjoyable in the least. Shooting a .38 Special +P like Cor-Bon's 110-grain load is on par with shooting 240-grain bullets out of a full-size Dirty Harry-style .44 Magnum in terms of felt recoil. I can only hope it hurts as much to be hit by those bullets as it does to launch them in the first place. In my opinion, it's a "Ladies' Gun" only for ladies who don't flinch at recoil and practice regularly.

I got my J-Frame almost 10 years ago, it's a Smith & Wesson 639-2, with a shrouded hammer to allow single-action or double action shooting. It's very easy to carry, I have a Galco PH158 pocket holster I got a few years ago to replace an Uncle Mike's Pocket Professional that finally wore out from being carried around. The Galco breaks up the outline of the gun well, and it stays in your pocket well when drawing.

My main complaint with the J-Frame is the uncomfortable shooting of the thing, this is due in part to the small grips of a J-Frame and my giant meathook hands. The other issue is the sights, they're a channel-and-front-blade affair that can be very hard to see. Fortunately for me, there's a solution to both of those problems.

A company called Crimson Trace has been making laser sighting devices for years, and I finally bought one of their grip sets for my 638. The first time I saw a laser-aiming device it was on an .22LR submachinegun called the American-180 on (hold onto your hats, this is old) the TV show That's Incredible! back around 1980. Since then, the cost of laser diodes has come down to the point where you can buy lasers alongside the gum and nail clippers in the checkout aisle. Crimson Trace's lasers aren't that cheap, but they are fairly precision devices that have to withstand the force of recoil without losing alignment.

The only major drawback or lasers is that they don't tell you what you're shooting, you still have to identify a target, and it's usually better to use the sights. In a high-stress situation where you know what you want to hit, the red dot of a laser will tell you about where your shot will land, and for a firearm with such miserable sights to begin with, the laser is an upgrade from the channel-and-blade.

Normally, I'm not an overly mechanical person, and disassembling a firearm other than for routine cleaning isn't something I choose to do often. But installing the Lasergrips was about as simple as it comes. Besides the grips, the package includes instructions, a couple of screws, a pair of lithium coin batteries, a pair of teeny Allen wrenches (I guess the second one is in case you lose the first, they're really small) and warning stickers to go on the side of your gun to tell folks it's got a dangerous laser in it. In the picture below, the original grip is already off the gun, there is a single screw in the grip that comes out easily.

The Naked Gun, the grips and parts kit

The first thing to do is to snap in the batteries. They fit easily into the grip panels, and I got them right side up on the first try (the instructions tell you how to do this). The diode is at the upper left part of the grip, the activation panel is visible just below at the level of the battery.

I would say 'activation stud', but those are my fingers in the picture, so the last word would be redundant. Ha.

After that comes the not-complex process of putting in two screws. One is short, one is long. One is front, one is back. Again, the instructions help.

Activation pad is just below the trigger. The grips fill in behind the trigger guard, eliminating a pinch-spot during firing

There is a tiny switch in the base of the grip to turn off the sight should you need to do so. The instructions say this won't extend battery life. There is a serial number on the butt of the gun, but I blurred it out with GIMP. Don't get nosy, that number is between me and the BATFE.

And that's it. The laser is on the right side of the gun and projects forward and slightly upward. According to the manual the sight is indexed for 30 feet, and as this picture shows, it's pretty close. Should you feel smarter than the factory, there are two tiny adjustment ports that the Allen wrenches are used to manipulate. Don't ask me which does which, I didn't mess with it. The activation pad falls right under your ring finger, and it's easy and natural to use with a normal firing grip.

Stands out a bit, don't it?

The laser aperture is the little ridge at the top of the grip. It seems like it might be blocked by some part of your hand, but it doesn't work out that way. The five rounds beside it are the nasty Cor-Bon 110gr +P .38 Special rounds that normally live in the chamber. We hates them, me precious. I guess they do what I bought them to do, but goodness they hurt. I have some 135-grain Gold Dots that I will probably replace them with on the next trip to the range.

I generally carry a Bianchi Speed Strip with six Federal Nyclad rounds for a reload, speedloaders work but they're kind of bulky. The advantage of the Nyclads is that a) they perform well IRL and b) they don't get lead all over the inside of your pocket. The lead is sealed behind plastic, making it neater. There is no easy way to reload a J-Frame with a 2" barrel, the extractor rod is too short to fully eject the fired rounds, so you have to claw them out of the way to reload. If you have to reload a J-Frame, you're probably in over your head already, but always carry spare ammo.

And finally, back in the Galco where the 638 lives.

Crimson Trace Lasergrips are an easy install on J-Frame S&W revolvers, and increase the usability and controllability of these easy to carry and conceal pistols. I'll let you know how they work at the range, in my hands a J-Frame generally is wildly inaccurate beyond conversational distances, but we'll see if a good aiming point helps.


Troy M. Stirman said...


I've found that lasers do one thing really well- they improve the shooter's grip and control when dry firing at a predetermined target. Replace your ammo w/"dummy" rounds and try dry firing while keeping your laser on the will see how your hold does in relation to the hammer/sear engagement. It will improve your grip as well as your aiming. One other advantage during an active engagement- if the other fellow happens to see that bright red dot dancing on his sternum, he will likely not advance his cause. He most likely will issue a quick apology and get out of dodge!

As for lasers in general, I put my trust in tritium night sights soon after trying to use a laser sight on Taurus' copy of the Beretta 92F. The sights don't drift after each clip of ammo and they work in both day and night-time use!!

Good luck and good shooting,


Troy M. Stirman said...

One more thing,

It was truly AMAZING how far out you could light up an object with a much larger laser like the ones we had access to in the Foster Science Bldg!!!

(Especially at Midnight)


Darren Duvall said...

You should try it with a green laser. They're limited in mW output to the same level as red lasers, but the human eye is so much more sensitive to green than red that the difference is astonishing. Astronomers use them to point out stars, they look like a thin little lightsaber at night.