Scot’s Product Review: Crimson Trace Rail Master Laser Sights

Crimson Trace is a Wilsonville, Oregon based company that sells laser sights and weapons lights. They have two basic strategies to attach them to firearms– dedicated ones that work with a particular model gun and universal ones, which will attach to the rails found on more and more of today’s firearms. The dedicated laser sights for handguns are subdivided into two variants– ones that are attached to the handgun’s grips and larger ones that attach to the front of the trigger guard.

The ones that are part of the grip offer the most compact package and can often be used with a standard holster. Some of these replace the grips on the pistol, while others work with pistols, such as the Glock that have integral grips, by clamping onto the pistol.

I’m writing about the two universal mount lasers Crimson Trace was kind enough to loan me. One, the CMR-201 Rail Master Universal Laser Sight is a red laser, while the second– the CMR-203 Rail Master Universal Green Laser Sight– is, as the name says, a green laser. Both sights can mount on Picatinny or Weaver rails, so they will work on many handguns, rifles, and shotguns. The red one goes for $115, and the green one for $220. Both are made in the United States.

The red one is smaller, perhaps the size of a box of matches, while the green one is larger, about the size of two boxes of matches stacked one on top of the other. They red one weighs less than an ounce, and the green one is less than two ounces. Both have rugged-looking polymer housings.

I was more interested in the universal rail mount lasers so I could try them on an assortment of weapons, which I couldn’t, of course, accomplish with the dedicated ones. They spent most of their time on AR-15’s but also got to visit with a Glock 19.

The dedicated lasers have an easy-to-hit switch that is generally activated by simply gripping the pistol. The rail mounts have ambidextrous paddles that work well, as long as you pay attention when installing it and put it in a good spot. It is more obvious with a pistol, but I had to tweak it some to get it right on the AR’s. When you install them on a handgun, the switch paddles can extend back and around the front of the trigger guard, making them very easy to operate them as part of the draw stroke.

I should probably back up a wee bit here and explain what a laser sight is. The basic idea is that it shines a laser at the target, and the laser can be adjusted so the bullets hit the indicated spot at a certain distance. In short, instead of using pesky sights, one simply puts the laser’s dot where one wants to hit something and then press the trigger. As with all sights, the bullet will hit somewhere else at any other than the zero distance, and it is our job to know that difference and allow for it.

The concept is simple and appealing, but in my view there are caveats. First, these things require batteries. I spent years as a photographer depending on batteries, and I learned to mistrust them deeply. All too often, they fail when most needed. The sights are obviously electronic. So, while electronics these days are very reliable, those years of taking pictures and dealing with computers have also left me apprehensive of electronics.

I have no idea if they can handle an EMP or Carrington Event, and the batteries would be hard to come by in a grid down scenario. I was unable to locate a rechargeable for the 1/3N used in the red laser, but Tenargy does make rechargeable CR2 cells, which are used in the green laser.

We are more familiar with the red lasers, but I think the green ones have a lot of advantages, particularly in daylight. Our eyes can generally see green a lot better than they can see red, and that means the green laser is really pops out better, which is what we need for a sighting system. Some subjects show the dots better than others, but I was surprised at how far I could see the green one, even on foliage. It seems to have better contrast on almost everything I tried it on. More things seemed to absorb the red light. This might be due to my individual eyesight, but I read similar comments by other shooters.

While I don’t see the need to use a laser with a red dot sight, if you do, another advantage of the green is that there won’t be any confusion between the dot in the sight and the dot projected by the laser. I tried the red one on an AR with an Aimpoint and found it very confusing. Since the laser and the red dot sight can’t be mounted in the same spot, they are pointing in different directions. The dots will, therefore, at best, only intersect once. At any other range, you will see two; it certainly confused me. There are some optical sights now that offer a selection between red and green dots, so if you really want to use a red laser with a dot sight, you could look for one of those.

While we can see the green laser better, there is a price in battery life. Crimson Trace gives the red ones four hours and the green ones two hours. Both put out the same amount of energy, so apparently green lasers consume more power. They have an auto shutoff after about five minutes, which should help save batteries at the cost of having it switch off when you would prefer that it stay on. It does start blinking to warn you to cycle the power switch before it switches off, but you have to be watching the dot to notice it. There are situations where you might have the gun in a guard position with your eyes searching your surroundings and you could miss it blink.

When thinking about the pros and cons of these devices, another consideration is the question of range. The green one was pretty easy to see at 15 yards on a bright day, while the red one peters out at about three to five yards, depending on the target. At night, the red could make it to 50 yards pretty well, while the green easily did 100 and more. In all cases, some targets are easier to spot the laser on than others. In any event, at some point, we will want to hit beyond the distance we can see the laser, particularly in daylight. While I will admit to being somewhat astonished by how far I could see the lasers, particularly the green one, I can hit with iron sight or optical sights much farther than I can see either laser.

Crimson Trace, in one of their videos argues that you need both iron sights and their lasers with the laser being the way to go for low light scenarios while the iron sights are best for bright light. They make a good case, though I would still like to see people able to use iron sights in the dark, just in case their battery goes bad at the wrong moment. I was pleased that they recognize that the laser does not solve all problems.

You also have to look for the dot and sometimes you spend energy and time finding it that you wouldn’t have expended if you just lined up the sights and took the shot. As I mentioned, I had much more success acquiring the green one. If, however, I was trying to line up a target that was against a background that didn’t show the dot, it was hard to see where it was and bring it onto the target. This was especially true along the edge of the lake we live on as the dots didn’t reflect back off of the dark water. In these cases, I had to use the sights to get the dot on the target. It is far less of a problem up close, of course, and that really is what these sights are designed for.

There are times that the lasers really help. You might be in an awkward position and simply can’t get a good sight picture. The need to use cover or concealment comes to mind as well as odd positioning. Another thought is that some of us have eyesight issues that make iron sights hard to use.

As Crimson Trace says, darkness is where the lasers show their stuff. You may not be able to see the sights, but you can see the laser dot on the target. This occurred to me when we used them while hog hunting before dawn with scoped rifles. The black reticle was not going to show up very well on the usually dark feral pigs even in good light, and it would have been even tougher in the dark, even with lights. We didn’t get a shot with them, but we played with them enough from the stand to make it clear they were useful. I have to wonder if all the playing with the laser might have scared off the hogs, but I was with a very excited just turned 10-year-old, so we were not effectively stand hunting anyway.

It occurs to me that they could help untrained shooters. Learning the discipline to use sights properly, particularly with handguns, takes time and training. You could hand someone a Glock with a laser and tell them to put the dot in the middle and pull the trigger with a good chance that they would get a hit at close range. It’s not an ideal solution, but it would be better than nothing.

I didn’t get a chance to try them in smoky or foggy circumstances. I have played with laser pointers, however, in fog and noticed that the light beam becomes visible as a pointer back to the laser. This could present a problem in some defensive scenarios. I live on a lake, and the extra moisture in the air also helped reveal the path of the laser at night. You could even see it going out through the riflescope. The green laser was generally more visible under these conditions than the red one, to my eyes, at least.

The lasers showed up vividly in a CCD-style night vision unit I borrowed.

The sights were a wee bit fussy to install on a rail and don’t have a quick release-style mount. They are held on with two screws, and if you secure the weapon in a vise it is a lot easier to get it on. I initially tried juggling. The battery cover for the red one slides open, while the green one is held on with two screws. Thankfully, you don’t have to disturb the sight to change the batteries. As mentioned above, take a bit of care locating them so you can easily operate the switch.

You will have more decisions about how to locate them on a rifle, and this might be a good time to talk about parallax. Parallax is the difference between two lines of sight. It can be a wonderful thing, as it is what allows us to have depth perception, but when shooting, it causes problems. The farther the sight line is from the line of the bore, combined with the fall of the bullet as it moves along its path, the harder it gets to keep things going where we intend them to go. When we adjust our sights, we set them so that the bullet will intersect the line of sight at some convenient distance. If we are shooting at something at a different distance, we may have to adjust our point of aim depending on the size of the target. The big problem when we introduce the laser is that we add a second sight line, so we now have extra stuff to consider before pressing the trigger. The closer we can get the laser to the original sight line, the better off we are. It is extremely helpful if we can get the laser directly above or below the bore, so we are only dealing with a vertical difference and not a horizontal one too. The red laser is centered in its case, but the green one is slightly offset to one side.

Some are going to say that this really isn’t that big an issue; truthfully, at most self-defense distances, they are right. We need, however, to be aware of the problem and the effect it can have, should we be outside those parameters. It could matter a lot on a head shot. We are more likely to encounter the problem with a rifle or shotgun than with a pistol for a couple of reasons. The sight offset on a long gun will likely be greater than on a handgun, exacerbating the problem, and we will probably use a shoulder weapon at greater distances than a hand one.

I have heard a lot of people tout the deterrent effect of the laser, and it gets some play on TV and in movies. The idea is that when the bad guy sees himself get lit up with the laser, he is going to stop what he is doing. That could well happen, if he is looking at himself at the time, but I think most of the time he will be looking at his intended victim or watching for police. I wouldn’t count on the deterrent of the laser but would welcome it if it happens.

On a long gun, like the AR, the best spot in my view is on the top of the handguard, but if you have a fixed front sight, it will probably interfere with the laser. The green one, thanks to the slight offset of the laser, may be able to get around some of the folding detachable front sights, but others will have to be removed. You could move the detachable front sight back a bit and put the laser in front, keeping in mind you need to be able to reach the switch conveniently. There are also short rails that can attach to the fixed sight tower, but then it is putting the laser switch in an awkward position.

The advantage of top mounting the laser is that the offset from the bore is in the same direction as your iron or optical sights. If you put it below the barrel, it is in the opposite direction, which compounds the number of things to think about while shooting. I would prefer mounting it on the side rather than below, but I already have lights mounted on one side with the tape switches for the lights on the other. I wound up putting one on the bottom of the one my son used with a fixed sight. The one I used went on the top rail, and I removed the front sight. If I were going to do this long term, I would work out another solution.

Adjusting the sights is pretty easy, assuming that your weapon is sighted in at the distance you want the laser set to. Find a way to set it up in a stable mount, aimed at a target at the right distance and then use the tiny included wrenches to move the dot so it matches the sights. It was easy to do with scopes, harder with red dot sights and iron sights, but still doable. You need, of course, to confirm it at the range. Crimson Trace has a video to help you along.

The size of the laser dot is about 0.5 inches at 50 feet. Crimson Trace says that if the dot gets irregular in shape, you probably need to clean the lens, and they provide tools to do it with.

Crimson Trace says the sights can handle heavy rain or being splashed, but you should not submerge them. If you do, the batteries should be removed and the unit allowed to air dry. They have a three year warranty on current products. They will send you a free set of new batteries once a year on some models but not the on the Rail Master units reviewed here or any that use the CR2 or CR 123 batteries.

Some instructors are using lasers to monitor student performance. I had hoped to try it but didn’t get a chance. The idea is that you watch the laser spot to see if students are holding steady, jerking the trigger, or poorly managing recoil. One strategy that sounds good to me is to adjust the laser so it is below the student’s sight line, so they can’t see it. This keeps them from being distracted by them or focusing too much on the sights, yet it is still useful to the instructor.

Crimson Trace has an excellent website with a lot of information on the use of laser sights. I particularly like their pages on training.

They have an instructor program, and not only do they give instructors a discount, they also make a donation to the NRA’s training endowment for each item sold to an instructor.

I am very interested in these tools, but I remain convinced that shooters need to know how to use sights and that sights should be the primary instrument in placing shots. I can, however, see situations in which a laser could be very helpful. I can see definite uses for training shooters and possibly helping people who have trouble using sights. Of the two sights, I am much more impressed with the green one, due to its greater range. Crimson Trace also makes these two sights with an integrated white light, which strikes me as a pretty useful combination. They are bulkier and heavier, of course, and have less battery life. I haven’t seen one, but if I were interested in a laser, I would want to take a good look at the light/laser combination before making the purchase. – SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie