I have mixed feelings about electronics and prepping. There is always that sense of dread that someday I might not be able to get electricity to run electronics, plus there is the chance of an event that will disrupt them. On the other hand, electronics are extremely useful. I wouldn’t be able to get this article to you without them, for example. My compromise has been to try to avoid buying electronics that don’t fulfill some real purpose on the road to building a self-sufficient life for my family.
One of the electronics items I’ve been wanting to try has been a laser practice shooting system. These systems give you a laser cartridge that fits into the chamber of a weapon and fires a brief flash of light at a target when the weapon is “fired.” Most of them have a small target device that beeps and counts the hits. There are also systems that use computer software and a webcam to record and score hits.
Dry fire, by the way, is a key component of shooting excellence, but it lacks the feedback of seeing where the shot hit. The beauty of the laser systems is that you can confirm your hits and diagnose your misses. This equipment really shines when ammunition is hard to come by or expensive. Another benefit is that you can have quiet practice. I can imagine situations where you wouldn’t want the noise of live fire, but you would still need to maintain competence. Mind you, this doesn’t eliminate the need for live fire practice. You don’t get noise or recoil nor can it accurately simulate rapid fire. The distances are limited too. Nonetheless, it can reduce the need to burn ammo or reveal your position for practice. I also think this stuff would be fantastic for new shooters, since they could get familiar with a weapon without noise or recoil to contend with.
The folks at Laser Ammo http://www.laser-ammo.com/ have been kind enough to send me some of their gear for a review, and I will have to say it fulfills a real use, so it meets my criterion for electronics. It actually allows you to accomplish more in the way of training than I expected. I expected to like the concept, and I do. I also like the Laser Ammo products. The first component I found in the box was the SureStrike Ultimate LE Edition. This is probably their nicest kit. It includes the 9mm Parabellum SureStrike laser cartridge. That’s what goes into the chamber of your weapon. It has three parts. The first is the laser emitter. You drop in the battery (part two) and then screw on the activator/simulator cap (part three.) This part has a little switch that is struck by the firing pin causing the laser to pulse once. You can easily see where the shot would have gone, though it is bad for follow through to focus on the target after the shot breaks to see the flash. We will get to solutions to that problem in just a bit. The 9mm cartridge isn’t all you get in the kit. There are adapters for the manly .45 ACP as well as the popular .40 S&W and .223 Remington/5.56mm NATO. There is also a sort of extension rod that can be threaded through the barrel of a pistol onto the laser cartridge. You can then attach a red safety nut to the assembly that is outside the end of the barrel. This does a couple of things. First, it reminds you that you have set your pistol up as a laser trainer, which is a good thing to remember. Second, it seems to help stabilize the cartridge in the barrel, which means more consistent accuracy. There is a set of reasonably clear instructions, and you get a battery for the unit along with some small reflective targets to shoot at. Lastly, you get a nice little pouch to hold it all. Before I get into target practice, I want to mention a cool extra trick you can do with the cartridge. It can be set to emit a steady laser beam for bore sighting your weapon, which can save some range time and ammunition. I tried it in four pistols in .45 ACP and 9mm Parabellum and an AR-15 in 5.56mm. It worked fine in everything I tried it in. Assembly of the cartridge with the various adapters was simple, but you do have to pay attention when putting it together. If you don’t, the similarities between the 9mm and .223/5.56 adapter can trip you up, despite the fact they are clearly marked. You can guess how I know. Note to self: “Read the markings!” My other assembly foibles included putting the battery in backwards, but thankfully this didn’t destroy anything. I also over tightened the rod that goes through the barrel the first time, which meant I couldn’t get it apart without disassembling the pistol. It wasn’t a real problem but was slightly annoying. I mentioned accuracy above. While one might think a beam of light would be perfectly consistent and hit in the same place every time, remember that you are hammering it with the firing pin with each shot. If it fit the chamber perfectly, it would be quite hard to get in and out of the weapon. They also have to allow for variations in chamber dimensions from one weapon to another. That means it has to have a little bit of wiggle room so it does move a bit as you shoot. I was getting my shots to stay within about ½ to ¾” of the point of aim at seven yards, which is pretty close to what I might get with live fire with these weapons, so I’m pretty happy with it. I did find the rod and red safety tip helped accuracy, especially when the tip was snug against the muzzle. For repeat shots, I thumb cocked the 1911’s. A slight pull on the slide of the Glock makes it ready to go while retracting the operating handle on the AR-15 cocks it. The laser cartridge has no rim, so running the bolt or slide will not pull it from the chamber. If you have a Glock, they sell a reset trigger, so you can just pull it as rapidly as possible for repeat shots. I didn’t test this, so I can’t speak of how much trouble it is to install. It appears to be a pretty handy accessory at $200, though a bit pricey for many of us. It would be a great training tool for an organization or group, though. When you are done with laser practice, you can use a pencil to push it out of the pistol barrel or a cleaning rod on a long arm. It was a bit tight in my AR but easy to remove from all of the pistols. The only thing that I don’t like about it is the small and specialized battery it requires. There is just no way around that, given the size of the cartridge, but it isn’t something that you can likely find at the local store. The battery life is supposed to be several thousand shots, but I lost count after I let my nine-year-old son try it. (I had trouble, in fact, getting it back), so I can’t speak to this accurately. I know we have gotten well in excess of 1,000 shots, and the battery is still going strong. Laser Ammo does recommend that you remove the battery pack when you aren’t using the cartridge. This whole package runs about $197 from Amazon. You don’t need to buy the whole kit at once, though. You can just buy the individual cartridges. The 9mm Parabellum kit http://smile.amazon.com/Laser-Ammo-SureStrike-Cartridge-Practice/dp/B004F1D48K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1402343614&sr=8-1&keywords=laser+ammo is about $140.00, and you can then add adapters for other calibers. In addition to the handgun adapters I received, Laser Ammo offers adapters for 10mm, .357 SIG, .38 Special/.357 Magnum, .44 Special/.44 Magnum and .45 Colt. For the rifle, they add .308/7.62 NATO and for shotgun, you can get 12 and 20 gauge adapters. All of these work with the same laser cartridge. Up above, I mentioned that watching for your laser to flash on a target to see how you did is bad for follow through. Most of us have trouble with follow through, and anything that encourages us to look at the target rather than the front sight is going to aggravate it. I learned that shooting steel in matches. Your eye REALLY wants to go down range to see the steel fall. Oops. If you see the steel, it means you have done something to jerk the weapon out of your line of sight so you can see the target. This does not help you get hits! You are usually rewarded with an image of steel majestically standing there, mocking you. The same principal applies with the laser, and since a miss with a laser seems less “expensive” than looking stupid in a match, you don’t have as much incentive as you should to do it right. In other words, you could build bad habits if you don’t apply some discipline.
Enter a solution, deus ex machina, stage left, the LaserPET Electronic target. This is a neat little gizmo on a cute folding tripod that has a sensor about 2”x2” that sees laser pulses. Not only that, it can count them and beep when it sees one. You set this up across the room and take your Laser Ammo loaded weapon and shoot at it. Hear a beep; you got a hit. Hear silence; well, try again. Even better than that, it has two more modus operandi. Mode one is what I just described, a beep with each hit and a counter to keep tabs on your shots. Mode two gets more interesting. You get a start signal. It starts the clock, stopping when you get a hit, so you can measure your reaction time. You could do it from a holster, a ready position, or perhaps time a reload. Mode three is a par time. You get four seconds to get ready, and then you have to hit the target within five seconds.
As well as the target gizmo, they give you a pair of AAA batteries for it and some little targets that slip over the sensor to increase the difficulty.
Besides of the little folding tripod, which secures to the target by a standard photo tripod mount,) there is a hole in the back so you can hang it on a wall as well as standing it on a shelf or table.
I was concerned with how well this would work in different lighting conditions and at what ranges. I was very pleasantly surprised. I first tried it in our living room, and it worked quite well. It also worked well in the kitchen under bright fluorescents. This was at seven to ten yards. I then tried it in our sun room, which has windows on the length of one long and one short wall. There was no problem out to ten yards. I then set it outside on a cloudy afternoon and again there were no problems. I even faced the sensor up so it had to deal with even more light and it had no problems. I’m impressed.
I do find that about four to five yards is the practical maximum range for me, though. With the laser shooting a 1.5” group at seven yards and only having a 2”x2” hit zone, it starts getting a bit dicey to consistently hit it even if you are doing things right. This still provides excellent practice, even at close range because, remember, you are hitting a very small target. As the man said, aim small, miss small.
The one problem I have is that the sensor is essentially black, so lining up black sights is a slight strain. Using one of the slip in targets helps as they are light grey and provide some contrast to help locate the sights. It’s not a problem using a red dot sight on a carbine, but you do have to remember to allow for the fact that the bore (and laser) are lower than your sight. You have to aim high to get a hit at close range. I really liked this and my son loved it to the point of driving my wife nuts with all of the clicking. I was pleased that he was good with muzzle control, though I had to stifle his urge to fan a 1911. Sometimes, when you’re nine, rate of fire is too cool. It clearly improved his precision and I hope that translates to live ammo.
The LaserPet is about $110.00 on Amazon.
A huge leap up in ability comes with the L.A.S.R. Professional Software. Laser Ammo sells the software which was written by Centrolutions. It was probably the most exciting part of this package for me. The basic idea is that you have a webcam attached to your Windows computer and it sees the laser flashes and times and records them. You hang a target on the wall and draw a scoring circle or box on the picture of it that appears on your computer screen. The scoring area can be as small or large as you desire. You then start the session and shoot at it. It records hits and the time for each one. As with the LaserPET, you have a selection of modes. You can just have a basic shoot and count the hits or you can have it provide a go signal and the time to each shot. You can also set par times that will give you a start and then time how many hits you make in whatever time you choose. Your hits in all cases remain visible on the target until you clear them. You can also record them to a log so you can monitor progress.
This is pretty powerful stuff and allows you to do some very serious evaluation of your shooting. Since you aren’t limited to a 2”x2” target, you can get back a bit further. You can also create a target that works better for self-defense practice. You can have multiple targets and the software will call which one to shoot and score you. There is no reason you can’t set up matches with other shooters.
You do need a separate camera. The built-in cameras found on many laptops and some monitors aren’t likely to be pointing where you need to place the target. I have an IPEVO Point 2 View documents camera, and it worked surprising well. You can, however, get by with a considerably cheaper camera. It needs to support at least 320×240 resolution at 30 frames per second. The support folks said higher than 640×480 resolution really isn’t necessary, so you don’t need an expensive camera.
I initially set the camera up about 18” from the wall I taped a target to. Since it is a USB camera, I was limited in computer placement by cord length. That meant walking back and forth to start and stop it. That didn’t work so well with random starts, so I decided to try moving the camera back. I was really surprised to find that it worked quite well from five yards back. The quality of the image was rather poor, but it still recorded the shots perfectly. The screen quality actually doesn’t matter as you can setup and then evaluate your targets easily even if it is blurred.
They advise that it works better in lower light, but I found normal room lighting worked fine. Bright windows or lights can cause issues. Lighting needs to be pretty even accross the course of fire. I suspect that camera quality matters and the better the quality camera you have, the more it will tolerate bad lighting. My camera, being designed to image documents in a classroom probably wasn’t the best choice, but it worked fine.
I had a few lighting situations that led to false hits being recorded, but changing the lighting or shifting the camera easily remedied the problems. The program does warn if there are likely lighting problems. It really didn’t like it when I tried the Streamlight I have mounted on a carbine to illuminate a target, but that’s hardly a fair test. The light completely washed out the target in the video, and the program called foul.
A nice feature is that you can hang most anything up to use as a target. I started with a standard bull’s eye target and switched to a white sheet of paper to make it a bit easier to see the black sights on my weapons. I then tried an International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) tan cardboard targets, which worked extremely well. I also used some photos.
I used a laptop, which allowed me to move my laser range around easily. I’m sure you could make it work with a desktop, but it is more flexible on a laptop.
I can imagine setting up courses of fire in a room and then taking turns running through them. If you have more than one laser cartridge, you can also pit shooters against one another on their own targets. You can even tell it to require a certain number of hits to down a target, if you are using one of those Glock triggers that allow repeat shots without having to run the slide or cock a hammer. A revolver could be nice, too, but you would need enough lasers to fill the cylinder.
Additional possibilities are intriguing. I experimented a bit with projecting photos onto cardboard. I found that if you darken the photos enough and they were fairly even in brightness across the target area, the camera could record the laser flashes. It was easiest to do with one computer projecting the targets and a second running LASR. You should be able to do it with one computer, but it would be a hassle to coordinate the screens. You could setup a slideshow with threat and non-threat targets mixed together and check a shooter’s judgment. By inserting a blank image between slides, you could allow the shooter to ready for the next one. I am, needless to say, getting very geeky and involved at this point, but I wanted to see what is possible. It would take a fair amount of time and energy, but it could be worth it, especially if you are training multiple people. I almost forgot that you have choices for sound effects for starts and hits.
The software goes for $125.00. I’m saving for it, along with the rest of the system.
One concern I do have with any dry fire is safety. Be sure to clear the weapon. I say again, BE SURE TO CLEAR THE WEAPON. With the laser cartridge, you have to insert the laser into the chamber, so clearing the firearm is, thankfully, part of the process. You can’t chamber a round with the laser in the weapon– another safety plus. What I worry about is doing some practice, readying a weapon for carry by reloading it and putting it down. A littler later, you decide to do a bit more practice and forget where you were with the weapon. That’s one reason why I try to make a habit of not using my primary carry weapons for dry practice. I have similar ones that I use instead. It would be ideal to have dedicated trainers for lasers, but that’s not practical for most of us. Regardless, you still want to obey the safety rules. I like them the way Lt. Colonel Jeff Cooper (USMC) put them:
1. All firearms are loaded.
2. Never let the muzzle of a firearm point at anything you are not willing to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger, unless your sights are on the target.
4. Be sure of your target and what is behind it.
If you use these rules during all handling of firearms, whether live or dry fire or simply handling them, you will have to stack mistakes to cause a tragedy. The big ones for dry practice are number two and four with a lot of help from number three. We ALL make mistakes, and the person who hasn’t had a negligent discharge (ND) probably hasn’t lived long enough. If you use these rules, especially rule two, that ND will probably only cause embarrassment rather than tragedy.
This stuff isn’t cheap. If you can afford it, though, I think it can really help your shooting. It is also a lot of fun and a great way to start new shooters. You would have to balance your preps to decide whether it fits into your plans or if something else should take priority. I’ve decided that it fits mine, and I need it. – SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor Scot Frank Eire