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Tools of the Night Fight: Tactical Pistol Lights

Tools of the Night Fight: Tactical Pistol Lights

During training courses, I'm always amazed to see some of the gear that is and isn't available to the individual who decides to carry a gun at night. We each have our favorites, but what befuddles us is what isn't coming from tactical light companies.

In reality, we should all be ready to engage threats at night. That's obviously not an earth-­shattering statement, but here I am writing about it after seeing what happens when the lights go out.

Rules of Light

Let's start with the basics. First, we should all agree that we need to have a light on our person at all times. We must also have a light that will work for shooting if the need arises. To shoot fast and accurately without worrying about having a light handy requires us to have one attached to our firearm. With these truths understood, we need to define what an acceptable light is. No, the light on your smartphone doesn't qualify. Though many of us use a phone's light to search or navigate a dark space on occassion, it's a no-go for shooting.

Viking Tactical Light
The addition of a small piece of bungee makes any handheld flashlight ready for action and more versatile.

Pocket Light

A pocket-carry, handheld light should be small, lightweight, easy to use for shooting and, most importantly, always with you. I can't stress enough the "always with you" portion of that statement.

Daily carry choices vary but I generally choose to carry a Streamlight ProTac. Why this light? Because it's small, takes just one AAA battery and is easy to use. Its push-button requires the same motor skills to activate as my larger lights. If how the light comes on and at what intensity appears first is important to you, the unit is also Ten-Tap programmable. This small light even has the capability to strobe, which I'll discuss later.

Small and easy to use should translate to a light that's always with me, even though its max output is not shockingly bright at 70 lumens. But this is a point that I really want to beat into our heads, and I'm as guilty as the next guy.

Pistol accessories for night fighting
With the bungee, the light can stay at the ready even during operation of the pistol-mounted light.

What is easy? Obviously, it's easy to go about the daily grind without carrying a gun, a knife or a light. But then you lose all your cool guy points if you find yourself involved in a gunfight and you don't even have a gun.

If I feel I have room on my person, I upgrade to a very bright Surefire series of two-cell lights. By two-cell, I am referring to the 3-volt CR123 lithium battery, the standard for most Surefire lights. With this upgrade in power, I add significant brightness and ease of use, since I'm not changing anything significant with my daily carry rig. This is the light I should carry every day, but sometimes it's too much.

Basically, I get lazy. The two-battery Surefire has a push-button tailcap with a protector, and it can be clicked to the "on" position, which is not the best for those who use syringe techniques when shooting with a handheld light. The light also has a small section of bungee attached to keep it tight to the hand during shooting and reloading movements. Some techniques require getting ready, others will more quickly escalate. If speed is key, you may have to go without the bungee, and when there is a break in the action, plan to get the bungee in place if possible.

Surefire X300 and a Streamlight TLR-1 HL
Two of the best lights for mounting to a pistol are the Surefire X300 (left) and a Streamlight TLR-1 HL.

Some prefer a twist-style tailcap for constant-on activation. I do not. There's nothing wrong with this type of light, I just prefer the push-button, click-­type tailcap.

Pistol-Mounted Lights

Let's consider the pistol-mounted light. The current kings of the pistol-mounted light world are the Surefire X300 Ultra and the Streamlight TLR-1 HL. I really like the Surefire X300 because of compatibility with a DG grip activation switch. Surefire's DG switches are stiff and do not require glue or tape to mount to the pistol. It extends an activation button at the highest portion of the grip's frontstrap. To activate, push the integral button with the middle finger knuckle, which is an intuitive movement. Some experts suggest that we shouldn't use the grip switch because of the possibility of turning the light on accidentally. I respectfully disagree. If I am slow and deliberate, I will not accidentally turn on the light; if I am in a hurry, I want the light on anyways. Another capability this switch brings to the fight is that it can be manipulated while shooting with one hand.

Pistol-mounted light settings
The author is not a fan of a dim setting on a tactical light. The light on the left is set on dim, while the one on the right is set to impressive.

Recently, I've been exposed to a couple of new near awesome lights. While these new lights fill a serious need with their reduced size and ample amount of light, they're honestly not ready for the true night fighter. The problem is that the lights can't be activated with one hand. Ensure such gadgets can be used for the worst-case scenarios.

What else? If you are a law enforcement officer and you must conduct a search, you need to have a handheld that allows for easy transition to the pistol-­mounted light. This is where the bungee on the light can also shine. As the threat is identified, you can transition to the pistol light without much thought. If you are used to running a lanyard, good for you. I can't get through a reload or a malfunction clearance without the lanyard light dangling in the air, which increases the amount of time it takes to shut down the light, which is a highly important manipulation skill needed if bullets start flying.

Get Moving

When you see where you need to go, turn the light off and move. When it is time to shoot, get the light on, engage, make the hits and then move off the light. If you are shooting from behind a vehicle and need to reload, do so as you move to another part of the vehicle. This will hopefully give you the slight advantage you need when you pop out to shoot again. Creating confusion on the other end is the key.

Pistol-mounted light best practices
Be aware of what the light is doing and not doing. Bouncing back or bathing cover in light isn't helping you and gives the bad guys a good target to shoot.

To Strobe or not to strobe? I wasn't a fan of the strobe until I realized what this tool could bring to the fight during specific scenarios. If you have ever had a bright strobe flashed in your direction, it is unnerving to say the least. It won't make you quit, as some advertisements of yonder years tried to make us believe. However, it will degrade your threat's vision enough to allow others to use your light as camouflage for their movement. If you need to move your family across a hall, the strobe can be used to mask their movement. Of course, bullets will still penetrate past your strobe, so be quick about the movement.

Can Lights Be Too Bright?

When I want a light, I want it bright. The brighter the better. If you are searching and feel a light is too bright when shined on mirrors or light-­colored walls, offset the light during your search. If you are fighting ghosts or breaking up a toga party, then yes, maybe your light is too bright. Under most circumstances, it will be fine.

Beam Focus

If your light has an excessively wide beam, it can be an issue. First, it will light up your location more than it will illuminate the bad guys. This allows the threat to have a better idea of exactly where you are. Also, if you are shooting under a vehicle, the wide beam will be hitting the bottom of the vehicle and lighting up every bit of dirt as you fire. That's not cool if you are trying to see the threat, especially if you are trying to determine if the threat is still armed. You may also need to adjust your positioning slightly to keep light going downrange and not reflecting into your face. Not only will this make it easier for you to shoot, but the threat won't be able to see you nearly as well if all your illumination is directed in their direction and not bouncing back at you.

Pistol-mounted light best practices
Always on, always bright beats a dim setting. Dim doesn't do enough to bother or hinder the bad guy from engaging.

Do I want a dimmer switch? I am totally against a light having a dimmer switch. If I am using a headlamp, that's a different story, but for a handheld or mounted light, I want it bright all the time. During training, shooters will try to engage and inadvertently place the light in the dim mode. This is a huge disadvantage for the shooter, which means you're yielding a bigger advantage to the bad guy. Don't use any light with a dimmer for daily carry if you think you will ever use it with your firearm.

Now there's a new kid in town who thinks he is smarter than the rest of us: Surefire's Intellibeam. The Intelli­beam is photosensor technology that decides how much light is needed in a given situation. When I heard about this, I said, "No way, definitely not on a gun-­mounted light." After further investigation and then trying one, I must say it does the trick. If you have the firearm-­mounted version, at least you don't have to worry about it dimming beyond a certain point. The carbine-mounted version only dims from 600 to 100 lumens; the handheld dims from 600 to 15 lumens. This is entirely too dim for shooting and tactical applications, so on the handheld side, I am sticking with the standard always-­on, always-­bright version. The current Intellibeams also feature large bezels, which are not ideal for concealed carry.

Drop the Light and Shoot!

So, you are getting shot at every time your light goes on. Place your light in a position that is a decent distance from your body and light the target. Move away, get in a tight position and engage the threat. It's not the perfect solution, but it's better than taking effective fire. This will also help alleviate the issue we discussed earlier of dust being backlit by your flashlight.

Pistol-mounted light best practices for night fighting
Separation from a light is a good thing when things get hot. It will help draw fire while engaging the target from another position.

If they can see you, they can shoot you. Most shooters don't think about muzzle devices, but when we shut the lights off and see firsthand from the enemy's view what your muzzle flash looks like, it can be life changing. 

You go through all the rigmarole to keep quiet and remain unseen, then you fire one shot and the entire neighborhood knows where you're at. Muzzlebrakes are great for competition, but in tactical situations, I think not. There is only one muzzle device that I have seen to date that limits flash and has a muzzlebrake-­type device built into it: the Surefire WarComp. It works. It really works. I use standard three-­prong flash hiders on my SIG Sauer carbines, which also allow for a suppressor to be added.

There are many good flash hiders on the market from the Phantom, which is very inexpensive, all the way up to the Surefire three-prong versions, which will set you back around $150.

Pistol-mounted light best practices for night fighting
Surefire's WarComp (left) bridges the gap between compensation and flash hiding. They're available for 5.56 NATO/.223 Rem. and 7.62 NATO barrels. $150

Train in the Dark

Becoming proficient to employ a firearm with or without a light is a huge task. The only way to figure it out is to train. Once you are competent and confident, turn out the lights and see what you can figure out. Dry-fire your techniques before you go live with guns at night. It is good to build up the technique before getting down and dirty.

When the lights go out, be prepared with gear that you have trained with and have complete confidence in. When you check to make sure your gun is loaded at the beginning of the day, make sure the flashlight is fueled up as well. When the sun goes down, the freaks come out.

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