Switchology 101: The Right Light for Your Firearm

Switchology 101: The Right Light for Your Firearm
Switchology: The sweet science of knowing your equipment well enough to exploit the darkness during a gunfight.

Serious students understand that a gunfight isn't going to happen on flat, even ground with great lighting and a stationary bad guy. Real fights usually happen in the dark or in diminished light, they're usually close, they're usually fast, and the bad guy is usually moving. Serious students train for the worst-case scenario, not the best.


But what does that mean? Does it mean that you can attach a SureFire X300 Ultra to your blaster and call it good? No, it means that at some point, hopefully soon, you learn how to use that light. In a fight. In the dark. The first step, of course, is attaching a light. There is no true substitute for an attached light. Handheld techniques can bridge the gap between searching and shooting, but if you're going into a fight, a firearm-mounted light is king. Actually, night vision and infrared (IR) lasers are better, but that level of equipment and training is outside the realm of possibility for most folks, so that leaves us with white light techniques.

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Handgun light switches cover the spectrum from toggle to button. Regardless of the type of switch, practice diligently and understand the features. Trigger fingers should be used for triggers, not lights. If light activation requires use of the trigger finger, make sure to practice using force-on-force.

The Right Light

Before we move on to specific switches and the best way to run them, I want to talk about selecting the right light for the task at hand. Understand the type of beam that your light emits, and understand the components of those beams. The beam of a modern fighting light is factory preset to achieve a desired effect. In the case of the SureFire X300U, the 600 lumens are focused to create a nice, bright hot spot with a large corona and decent spill to allow for the searching of areas that makes sense with — you guessed it!— a handgun. Even though the SureFire M600 Ultra Scout Light also generates 600 lumens, it is focused to engage targets at a distance, which is more appropriate for...wait for it...a rifle.

Yes, a lumen does not necessarily equal a lumen. On a scout light, the 600 lumens have a tighter focus to achieve more throw, or distance, with the light. Measurable light from a firearm light is a finite thing. If you want lots of corona and spill to search something like the interior of a building, you will lose some throw from the beam. That's just physics. Be mad at Sir Isaac Newton.


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All buttons are not equal. Know if it's constant or momentary activation. Tape switches provide excellent placement options but can wear out easily and come undone at inopportune moments. Inspect and maintain your gear.

Constant vs. Momentary

If you are searching an area and do not know if there is a threat present, it is best to use momentary light by turning the light on and checking an area and then turning it off. Use the darkness as concealment as you move. If you are in an offensive position, you know where the target is and you intend to engage it, then by all means, leave that light on to fix them in position. Just understand that you need to be throwing enough lumens out there to use the light as a tool to disorient the target and prevent them from engaging you. There are many 60-lumen lights shot out by bad guys. We don't see that too often with 600-lumen lights.

Running Switches


You have the right light — what now? You need to figure out how to run those switches. Let's start with the most common, the handgun light. Most handgun-mounted lights use a variation of the toggle switch on each side of the triggerguard. This allows for use of either the support-side thumb or the primary-side trigger finger. I'm a big believer that the trigger finger should be used for only one thing whenever possible: pressing the damn trigger. The support-side thumb is the best choice for activating a pistol-mounted light, especially as a momentary option. While this article isn't about specific lights, the ability of the SureFire X-Series switches to be pushed in rather than toggled for a momentary activation makes them an attractive option. The use of the support-side thumb also allows pressure to be maintained on the switch while shooting, although it takes some practice. It may be asking too much of a normal human being to switch from momentary to constant when faced with a possible deadly threat, so being able to maintain pressure on the switch while shooting is a great skill. Train for it.

The other solution for using a pistol light is a pressure switch mounted on the grip. This is a more elegant solution but requires additional training to avoid inadvertent light activations. I don't think that an unintended light discharge is that big of a deal, and I prefer to run my guns like this (even if my police department doesn't), but it does require training and practice. There have been some bad shootings blamed on the sympathetic squeeze reflex, which is absolute garbage. I don't care how hard you squeeze the gun, if your trigger finger is outside of the triggerguard, the gun won't go bang. These shootings, while tragic, are due to negligence and failure to obey safety rules; the light switch is not to blame. The argument that shooters cannot train to accomplish fine motor functions under stress spits directly in the face of all of us who actually have. It's pandering to the lowest common denominator, and it's wrong. Rant complete.

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The SureFire dedicated shotgun forend is the industry standard. It requires training because of the multiple programmable switching functions. Practice is necessary and so is a rigorous inspection schedule. The author's department armory has several in the rack that have seen heavy use over the last 10 years and still provide excellent service.

Shotgun Lights

Now, let's talk about the shotgun, specifically the pump gun, as semiautomatic shotguns have their own unique issues. Because of the typical engagement distance of the pump gun, handgun lights are usually the best option, but mounting them on the shotgun creates a problem. Sections of Picatinny rail that attach to the forend using a system such as Magpul's M-LOK or forends that already incorporate rails, including the excellent Mossberg 590 railed forend, are good solutions, but the downside is that maintaining control of the momentary switch during the cycling of the shotgun can be problematic. There can also be issues with hand placement as there is limited real estate on the forend. I prefer to use either the barrel clamp-type Picatinny sections or a dedicated forend. Understand that when you use the momentary option on a light mounted forward of the forend, you will lose control of the switch when cycling, so your training and tactics should take that into account. For most people, the dedicated forend provides the best balance of light options, with both momentary and continuous buttons, while remaining easy to control during the fight. With semiauto shotguns, I almost always use a pistol light mounted on a barrel clamp Picatinny section. The clamp and rail components available from Nordic Components are the best on the market, and I use them exclusively.

Rifle Lights

Rifle lights are a different beast. Know the primary mission of your rifle, and choose your light accordingly. If you expect to engage beyond 50 yards, a light with a tight corona and good throw is what you need. If it's a CQB setup, then a beam with more corona and less throw will suit your mission.

As far as switches go, there are three major options. The first, and the most popular, is the click-button type. This is what I use because it's simple. A partial push on the button, most commonly set up to be activated by the support thumb, engages the momentary switch. If the need arises to dominate an area with light, pushing the button the rest of the way until it clicks activates the constant switch. It requires training but is relatively easy to master in a short period of time.

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Know your light and its intended purpose. Forcing handheld lights into firearm-mounted roles can make for a less effective overall package, but it can be accomplished using a quality mount.

The second type is far less common on dedicated rifle lights but is seen when people put handheld lights into the dedicated role, and that is the momentary-only push button with a tail-cap twist constant. Don't do this. This is wrong, lazy and less than optimal.

The last one I want to talk about is the tape switch. There are distinct advantages to this, and all of the major companies offer great options. But know this: Tape switches wear out, and the cables fray and break far faster and way more often than buttons. If the ease of switch placement and compatibility with multiple devices is a necessity for you, then make sure you have a robust inspection schedule and keep extra cables and switches on hand. They will crap the bed on you right when you need them the most. Stay ahead of the game.

Handheld Light

The last area of use I want to address is the use of a handheld light in conjunction with a pistol. There are multiple techniques floating around, and they all have advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of which technique you choose, your handheld shooting technique needs to be dictated by your handheld searching technique. If you use a palm-down, thumb-button activation technique when you search with your light, the "syringe" style shooting techniques won't work for you. You will not be able to move the light around in your hand when confronted with a threat. Handheld flashlight shooting techniques are simply a bridge between searching and shooting. If you know you're going into a gunfight, get a mounted light. It's 2017, not 1917; your tactics and equipment should reflect that.

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