Why a laser? I’ve needed glasses for reading for the last decade or so, but can see perfectly well at distance without them. However, even with glasses, iron sights are no longer as sharp as they once were. I can use them successfully, but not as quickly as I once did. I’ve found that lasers work beautifully with my not-as-young-as-it-once-was vision. They even help encourage me to keep both eyes open. But what if the battery fails? I revert to the iron sights.
Why a flashlight? While I have a 500 lumen flashlight or two, I’ve found it’s more convenient to have a light on my primary home defense handgun. Pick up the handgun, and I have everything I need when seconds may matter.
In firearm circles, there is much argument over weapon lights. I refer to small flashlights, particularly those designed to be attached to handguns. Ideally, such flashlights are small–they don’t significantly increase the size of the weapon, powerful, and rugged.
Arguments fall into two general categories: those believing that attached flashlights are useful only for giving away one’s position in the dark, and those that see the use of light as more a matter of tactics rather than general purpose illumination. The former position more or less assumes a shooter will walk about with his flashlight constantly illuminated, thus continually revealing his movement and position. While such a thing is possible, anyone with a basic understanding of low light tactics would tend to avoid this. The proper general method is to activate the light only momentarily, and only as necessary.
Arguably the most well-known method of handgun/flashlight use is the Harries method, developed by Michael Harries in the early 70’s. Properly done, it allows the flashlight beam to index with the bore of the handgun, and is slightly better at recoil attenuation than a one-handed hold. A great deal, pro and con, has been written on the Harries method, so I’ll not go into it here. By all means, Google it if you wish. It was originally developed for large, multi cell flashlights like the Maglites available in the early 70s, but it works with smaller lights too. This, and most other methods of flashlight employment also rely on momentary activation.
Part of the fun of gun ownership is the inevitability of trying out different guns, accessories, holsters and other gear. It can become a pricey endeavor, but it’s interesting and hopefully, instructive. One way to avoid spending quite so much money is to read reviews of products one might be interested in buying. Reviews don’t work quite so well for holsters as their suitability is very much dependent on body type, biomechanics, and similar factors, but they can be useful, if well written and focused, for weapons and related accessories.
My first foray into weapon lights–until that point I relied on the Harries method for decades, and in some circumstances still will–began in 2013 when I bought a Glock 17 and a Streamlight TLR-4. My article on that weapon and light/laser combination is available here.
The TLR-4 might be considered a second-generation unit, and as such is relatively large and relies on a conventionally styled and sized reflector and lens.
Notice that the unit is wider than the slide of the Glock, and extends lower than the bottom of the trigger guard and past the muzzle of the handgun. Its LED produces 100 lumens in the unit depicted (current Streamlight literature specifies 125 lumens) and it has an integral 5mW red laser, which is the maximum power allowed. Even 125 lumens is relatively low power these days with many flashlights available in the 500-1000 lumen range.
These lights are brighter, but not nearly as much as the numbers might indicate. The greater the distance the light has to travel, a much greater degree of power is required. Appropriate beam focus is also a factor, but a 1000 lumen light will not appear to be ten times brighter than a 100 lumen light. Still, for handgun ranges, 100 lumens is adequate. Keep in mind that most handgun engagements occur at reach out and touch distance, or less than seven feet. At seven yards–21 feet–a 100 lumen light can be disorienting or blinding.
I consider the TLR-4 an analog unit in that its controls are mechanical: a simple mini-switch for mode selection–light only, laser only, laser/light–and a larger rocker-style switch for activation with two modes: momentary on and locked on/of. Pressing down on the switch on either side of the unit activates the light. Releasing the pressure allows the switch to move, under spring tension, back to the “off” position. Pushing the switch fully downward engages a detent and the light remains on until the switch is pushed upward and the detent overcome.
The flashlight beam is much more diffuse than one might imagine. It’s a wide-angle beam–in every direction–rather than a tightly focused beam, but considering it’s designed primarily for handgun engagement ranges, that makes sense. The laser dot is relatively small, and when compared to Crimson Trace lasers, relatively weak. However, its windage and elevation adjustments are positive and solid. Once set, they do not shift. In bright daylight, the laser dot can be seen at 15 yards, but it’s not bright and obvious, and on some colors of clothing, even less so. At night, of course, it is more obvious and clear.
The main activation switch is large enough, but does require quite a bit of movement and finger pressure. I have long fingers and can easily use my first/trigger finger to activate it, but people with shorter fingers and smaller hands will likely find themselves using their off/weak hand.
Other than its size and long switch throw, I was reasonably satisfied with the TLR-4. One additional annoyance, however, was that the lens, which extends slightly before the muzzle, tended to pick up powder fouling rather rapidly. The lens is tempered glass, however, so one doesn’t have to worry too much about scratching it when cleaning. The TLR-4 is selling in the $120.00 range from Internet sources as this is written.
Recently, Crimson Trace advertised its Railmaster Pro unit at $30.00 off for father’s day: $249.00 rather than $279.00. As this is written, it is being advertised for $214.00 on various Internet sites. I chose to buy it from CT because of their lifetime battery policy. Buy a laser from them, they’ll replace batteries for free. I normally replace batteries every two years, though anyone using a laser as a teaching tool or in frequent competitions would be likely to need to change batteries more often.
The Railmaster Pro–hereinafter RP–is a much more compact unit than the TLR-4. It protrudes no lower than the bottom of the trigger guard, and is much shorter than the muzzle. It is about as wide as the TLR-4, but seems less so due to its integrated design and rounded edges. In many ways, it may be considered a 3rd generation unit, not only due to its smaller size, but its electronics.
It is a very simple device. This left side view shows the ambidextrous activation switch, and the rail anchor. The unit comes with four different anchors appropriate to a wide variety of handguns to ensure correct placement of the unit on the rail.
This right/front view shows the positions of the LED light, the laser, and the battery housing. The RP uses a single three-volt CR2 lithium battery, a common and easily found, industry standard battery (it’s also used by the TLR-4).
The RP has four modes: laser only, light only, laser and light, and laser with flashing/strobing light. To select the modes, one pushes the activation paddles on both sides inward and holds them for 3 seconds, which causes the unit to rotate through the modes. When the mode one wants activates, release the paddles to lock it in.
The paddles are perfectly placed for first finger activation, even for shorter fingered shooters, and they take only a little pressure inward and little movement. There is no momentary switch, only a switch on/switch off arrangement. Some might think this odd, but it frees the trigger finger for the trigger, and with a little practice, turning the light on and off takes only a fraction of a second and little effort.
There is little difference between the flashlight beam of the RP and the TLR-4. If anything, the TLR-4’s beam seems to be a bit more “focused,” but the amount and quality of light thrown by each device is essentially identical. It is in laser intensity and visibility that the difference in price becomes evident.
This is a photo of the RP at a distance of about ten yards. The laser dot is large and brilliant. Keep in mind that the camera “sees” and records the laser differently than the eye. In person, the dot is bright red, somewhat smaller in diameter, and cannot be missed. On film–so to speak–the dot appears much larger than in person. I did not photograph the TLR-4 as the only difference would be that its laser dot is substantially smaller and weaker.
In bright daylight, the RP laser is clear and obvious, on all clothing shades, at a minimum of 15 yards. Moving back much further, it becomes difficult to see the laser dot, because it becomes larger and less distinct with distance. Green lasers are easier to see at longer distance in daylight, but they also cost about $100.00 more for the same unit.
The RP’s windage and elevation adjustments are made with a supplied allen key with a plastic paddle handle. The adjustments have a distinct “click” feel, like a quality optical scope, require little movement, and are solid once set. Crimson Trace claims the unit is set on target at 50 feet (a bit more than 15 yards), but I had to make relatively small adjustments in windage and elevation, which is expected. The inherent variability of many different makes and models of handgun makes that inevitable.
At only a bit more than $100, the TLR-4 is a useful and reasonable compromise. However, the RP has a far superior laser, a more modern design and more easily used activation paddles, and a flashlight little different than that of the TLR-4. It is about $90.00 more, but you do get what you pay for.
Rail Master Pro Specifications:
Battery: one 3v CR2 lithium
Laser Output: 5mW (maximum allowed)
Laser dot: app. .5” at 50 feet
Light Type: Light emitting diode
Light Output: 100 Lumens
MSRP: $279.00 (Green laser version: $379.00)