Red Laser Sights vs. Red Dot Sights: Is There a Difference?

Nothing says “you’re screwed” like an electric viper pit of red lasers snaking across a character’s body in fiction. These beams of light preview right where a shot would hit, a reminder of the few seconds the character may have left to live.

It’s a nice effect for writing showdown scenes between the damned and double damned, but what exactly are these devices called?

Would it sound facetious if I said they were just called “laser sights?” I can’t skirt reality, that’s really what they’re called.

Here’s what a Crimson Trace CMR-201 Rail Master, one of the best laser sights on the market in my opinion, looks like mounted on a handgun. (image courtesy of, and used with permission)


Laser sights project a beam onto a target. This helps the shooter’s accuracy in low-light conditions.

However, some stories I’ve read call them “laser scopes” or “red dot sights.” Both would be incorrect.

“Laser scopes” doesn’t work because such a thing doesn’t exist. “Scope” is just short for “telescope,” meaning, well, what you think it means. Scopes use a telescoping lens that magnifies targets. Laser sights don’t magnify anything. They just shoot lasers. They’re “laser sights,” not “laser scopes.”

“Red dot sights” doesn’t work, either, although I can see how it trips some writers up. Laser sights project red dots onto targets.

But red dot sights are actually completely different things. Here’s what one looks like. This is a Vortex StrikeFire. ( image)


It’s also used for aiming, but it works much differently than a laser sight. It doesn’t project laser beams at all. It’s mounted to the top of a firearm, where you might expect a scope to be attached. The shooter looks through the red dot sight to aim. But instead of the classic crosshairs, the shooter sees a red dot.

That red dot is usually powered by batteries, but some models use fiber optics instead. Here’s what it’d look like if you stuck an eye next to the battery-powered StrikeFire. A green dot version is on the left, and the red dot model is on the right.


And here’s what the StrikeFire looks like mounted to a firearm.


That’s quite a bit different than the Crimson Trace laser sight shown here.


So a character in fiction covered in red dots isn’t being targeted by red dot sights. He’s being targeted by laser sights. And he’s still screwed.

Here are some other fast facts.

  • Laser sights also come in green
  • If a red dot sight can magnify a target using a telescoping lens, it’s called a “red dot scope”
  • The pattern the shooter sees when looking through a scope, such as the classic crosshairs, is called a reticle

Get the Book

The Writers Guide to WeaponsThe Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers:

3 thoughts on “Red Laser Sights vs. Red Dot Sights: Is There a Difference?

  1. If You See A Red Laser Bouncing Off The Walls, And Your Not In A Construction Site, You May Be In Trouble.

    But If The Shooter Has A Red Dot Scope. And He Sees You Before You See Them, You Might Not Know What Hit You.


  2. I’m not an expert, but for home defense, while the red dot sight is more accurate for target-shooting than a laser designator, being able to quickly and accurately bring the pistol to bear on a home invader and firing with the pistol at any body position using the laser designator; rather than having to bring the red dot sight pistol in line with your line of sight, makes the laser designator pistol much more effective for home defense.


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