Low-Light Shooting Tactics and Self-Defense
November 21, 2017
"Just because you know how to do something doesn't mean you should do it."
That statement is applicable to many things in life, but it started as a response to a student's question about low-light shooting tactics and the use of flashlights in self-defense.
Like many diligent shooters, the student had spent a lot of time and effort agonizing over the best flashlight shooting technique and the most effective low-light tactics. Although I certainly respected his efforts, as a civilian CCW permit holder, I feel that there was very little correlation between what he had trained to do and what he would actually need to do in a defensive shooting situation.
I enjoy firearms training and have just as much fun as the next guy when I get a chance to push the limits of that training. However, I always make a point of remembering that I am a civilian and the most likely application of my skills will be in a self-defense context. That means that my decision-making process should also be rooted in the logic of self-defense, not an excuse to apply my training.
The confusion between self-defense and duty-oriented methods exists in many areas of firearms training, but it's particularly pronounced in the area of low-light tactics. To illustrate this confusion, consider the typical low-light training exercise that is presented at many shooting schools. You're standing outside a shoothouse with a holstered gun, extra mags and your trusty flashlight. The instructor explains that there is an unknown number of armed people in the house. You must go in and, using your light and gun, identify and neutralize the bad guys without shooting any innocents. Pretty cool, huh?
As a shooting exercise, yes. As a logical solution to that real-world problem, absolutely not. To a civilian presented with that problem, the best use of his flashlight would be to find his cell phone so he could call 911. He might also use it to flag down the SWAT team when they arrive.
Some might argue that such a scenario actually represents your response to a suspicious noise in the middle of the night. You have to move through your house to your kid's room, secure the child and move back to your safe room. While that's more plausible, it still makes me wonder. Perhaps the money you spent on that shooting school would have been put to better use installing an alarm system in your house and moving your child's room closer to yours. Those changes would have a much more profound and immediate effect on your family's security than your house-clearing skills. Another shining example (pun intended) of the often misguided nature of low-light tactics is the Harries flashlight technique. A favorite of Weaver-style shooters, it involves crossing the hand holding the light under your gun hand and pressing the backs of your hands together to stabilize the structure and closely align both light and muzzle. Let's think about that.
One of the four cardinal rules of gun safety is "Never let your muzzle cover anything you're not willing to destroy." That makes great sense and is one of the foundations of responsible gun-handling skills. However, when you think of that in the context of the Harries position (or any other hands-together flashlight shooting position), the light and muzzle are always aligned. As such, functionally you are "willing to destroy" anything at which you shine your light. In our hypothetical midnight house-clearing scenario, you could easily be shining that light at the dog, your kid raiding the fridge or Grandpa sleepwalking. While the Harries technique is great for getting hits on target in low-light shooting exercises or as a search position for duty-bound officers during a high-risk entry, for a civilian in the middle of the night in his own home it means pointing his gun at anything in the dark — including his loved ones.
A More Logical Approach
The flashlight is one of the most useful tools you can carry for personal defense and much more than a headlight for your gun. At the most basic level, it's both a tool and a constant reminder to be aware and avoidant.
Imagine that you must walk to your car late at night in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Between you and your car are areas of darkness that could potentially conceal someone intent on assaulting you. Since you don't know that any threat is present, let alone a potentially lethal threat, drawing a gun isn't justified. Instead, you draw your flashlight and place it in your strong hand. As you approach an area of darkness, you use the light to illuminate it from a safe distance. By lighting the route to your car, you can expose and avoid any potential threats before you get close to them. You also send a strong message to anyone who might be sizing you up as a victim that you are "switched on," aware and prepared. That alone is a huge deterrent that makes you much less attractive as a victim.
Boundary-Setting and Cheap Shots
If proactive awareness and avoidance with the flashlight are not sufficient to keep someone from confronting you, be prepared to use your verbal skills, the light and your empty-hand skills as the next phase of your defensive strategy.
When approached by an unknown person, maintain your distance and use your verbal skills and physical posturing to keep it that way. Your immediate response to any type of verbal probe should be something like "Sorry, I can't help you." The tone of your voice should be confident, but not aggressive, and you should repeat that statement as necessary like a loop. Do not get sucked into a conversation or discussion.
To reinforce your verbal statement, casually raise your nondominant hand palm-forward. Again, this isn't an aggressive "talk to the hand" gesture, but a subtle signal that the unknown person should not approach too closely.
If the unknown person continues to close, command him to "Stay back!" The tone of your voice should now be authoritative, firmly setting a boundary. If he still chooses to move forward, it's time to use the "force multiplier" aspect of the light to initiate a tactic I call "flash and smash." Without warning, hit the switch and shine your light right into his eyes. If you've chosen a good tactical light with a high-output, pre-focused beam, it will either blind him momentarily or cause him to close his eyes, duck or look away. Any of these reactions is acceptable to pave the way for your next move: a full-power, cheap-shot kick to the groin or the shin. Although kicks to the groin can be effective, they can be harder to land than you think — especially if you're standing on ice or snow when you try to kick. That's why I like to kick to the shin. It's not only easier to do and easier to land, but it has the desired effect of crippling the person long enough for you to get away.
The Light as an Impact Weapon
Sometimes things escalate faster than we expect. Although the process I am describing here, like the levels of force in law enforcement, can be applied as a progressive continuum, you may need to start in the middle of that continuum. If an assailant closes too quickly for you to engage him at a distance, having the light gripped in the fist of your strong hand allows you to use it as a very powerful striking tool. Since the light doesn't have nerves in it and is structurally stronger than your hand, you can hit much harder with it. The basic striking sequence is called cycling, a term I borrowed from my friend Kelly McCann. If you're a natural righty, your left hand will reach out to gauge, push, probe, check or strike, paving the way for your right hand to smash with the bezel end of the light. Repeat the process as many times as necessary, using your left hand to defend and create openings and your right hand and light to hit with full power.
Once you start landing some shots with the flashlight, your attacker will probably throw up his arms to protect himself. When he does, seize the opportunity and go for that kick to the shin. Kill his mobility and escape safely.
Escalating to Lethal Force
Now let's imagine that you're doing everything right, trying to maintain distance using verbal skills and physical posturing. The light is in your power hand ready for a flash-and-smash or to be used as an impact weapon. You are watching the person in front of you intently, paying close attention to his hands. Suddenly, he starts to lift his shirt and reach for something in his waistband.
Based on your belief that he is armed and the fact that you are now in fear for your life, it's time to bring your gun into play. Ideally, you want to retain the ability to use your light, so you must pass it from your right hand to your left to be able to draw your gun. The easiest way to do this is to bring your hands together in front of you and roll the flashlight from your right hand into your left (see sequence above). This movement is very easily learned and keeps the light under control the entire time.
Once it is transferred to the left hand, the light is gripped in the same fist grip as it was in the right with the bezel on the little-finger side of the hand. Bring your left hand up to your temple as a guard as your right hand clears your cover garment, achieves a proper grip and draws the gun to a retention position. With a little practice, these movements will flow together very easily. Then, with a little more practice, you can incorporate the use of the light as a force multiplier to blind or distract your assailant as you draw. The light can be shined in his eyes before you initiate the transfer to the left hand, when the left hand comes up to guard or both. The idea is to use the power of the light to disrupt the attacker's vision and create an even better opportunity for your draw.
You may be wondering why I don't recommend just carrying the light in your left/nonfirearm hand from the very start. That would leave the right hand completely unencumbered and free to draw the gun at any time. That makes sense — but only if you know that you're going to face a potentially lethal threat and will have to draw your gun. If you don't know that (and how could you?), carrying your light in your left hand means that if you need to use it as an impact weapon, you won't be able to hit as hard as you could with your right. Also, since the decision to go to your gun depends on your perception of a potentially deadly threat, you are free to transition the light to your left hand at any time. You can also drop it or chuck it at the attacker when you choose to initiate your draw.
When applied with a proper skill set — and a logical mindset — the tactical flashlight can be an incredibly useful and versatile tool. It is an excellent reminder to be aware and alert, it allows you to illuminate your environment to look for possible threats, it can be used to blind an assailant to give you a momentary advantage to disable him, it can be used as an impact weapon, and, yes, it can also be a headlight for your handgun. But, just as the gun itself does not represent a full-service self-defense strategy, the light — viewed only as an accompaniment to the gun — doesn't either.
See the light — and the logic to use it to its fullest potential.