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Weapon Lights on Handguns: Essential or Unnecessary?

Handgun- and weapon-mounted lights are a supplement to hand-held lights, not a replacement! Still, illumination technology has come a long way, with companies like Streamlight and Surefire lighting the path forward.

Weapon Lights on Handguns: Essential or Unnecessary?

Shown here, a Shadow Systems MR920 Elite with Trijicon RCR and Streamlight TRL-7A light. Also, a Streamlight Wedge XT flashlight. (Photo by Joe Kurtenbach)

The majority of time I spent on patrol was on the night shift. Before I had school-aged children, I liked the freedom of being a night owl and sleeping in the next morning. My wife was the same way, so working the 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. shift fit our lives perfectly. In the winter it was dark the majority of the shift and in the summer, it was just the opposite. Flashlights, what are now commonly called “white lights” or “tactical lights,” were the size of a tail pipe and just as likely to be used as an impact weapon as a lighting device. Of course, as Use of Force protocols and compliance tools have evolved, carrying a large, heavy flashlight has become uncommon. It is also unnecessary. As light technology has advanced, tactical lights have become smaller, lighter and much, much brighter. For use in deterrance and compliance, we've found that simply flashing a bright enough LED light in an aggressor’s eyes can sometimes be disabling or disorienting by itself. I have a light the size of a lipstick tube that offers more white light power than the one I once carried that was powered by four D-cell batteries.

A natural evolution was to mount lights on long guns, a practice that had been somewhat rudimentary for many years. As far back as the late 1970s, law enforcement and military units were mounting full-size flashlights on shotguns and submachine guns with tape and pipe strapping, which was a big improvement over trying to hold a flashlight while simultaneously shooting a long gun. When Surefire, then Laser Products, introduced its weapon lights that were molded into the foregrips of Remington 870 shotguns and the Heckler & Koch MP5s, agencies and individuals could not buy them fast enough. Today, it is a rare thing to see a combat-grade long gun without a white light attached to the forend.

TLR-2 on CZ
The TLR-1 and 2 series of weapon-mounted lights from Streamlight is at home on pistol or long gun. The TLR-2 shown here also offers a laser aiming module. (Author Photo)

In the late 1990’s, I commanded a multi-jurisdictional narcotics task force that conducted its own raids, something we were doing two to three times a week during the Crack Epidemic. Heckler & Koch had introduced the USP Compact pistol, which was capable of attaching a white light to the dustcover without semi-permanent fixtures. This allowed investigators to carry the gun “slick” while concealed, but mount the white light when “going tactical” for a forced entry. I purchased the guns and lights for the unit with seized asset funds, and the platform was greeted with medium enthusiasm. Understandably, some of the task force officers chose to continue carrying the gun they had previously. Those that did carry the H&K liked the quick on-and-off light capability. Admittedly, one of my concerns with the new weapon system was the officers using the gun/light combination as a lighting device and not a weapon, and though I never did see any of the team use the gun in this fashion when human beings were in place, I did see a few of them looking through drawers and closets for evidence with the gun as a light. Of course, this was corrected.

Today, the pistol-mounted light is common, not just for tactical teams but on patrol and by armed citizens as well. I admit to being concerned, again, about how these lights/weapons would be used. Talking with trainers and commanders across the country, it appears my concerns were unfounded, as officers and citizens alike understand the proper use of the weapon-mounted light. It seems trainers are doing a good job of explaining the weapon-mounted light is a supplement to the hand-held light and not a replacement! It is my feeling the hand-held light should be used for search and identification while the weapon light should be used to engage. The hand-held light can be pointed in directions the weapon-mounted light should not, but when a serious threat arises, the mounted light allows both hands to be placed on the handgun for greater accuracy, enhanced incapacitation potential and reduced liability due to being more likely to hit the intended target. It seems the weapon-mounted light is as common as cell phones now and is being used in a tactically sound fashion.

X300 on handgun
The Surefire X300 series is one of the most popular weapon lights ever produced. While it can certainly be used on a handgun, and it is just as popular on long guns. (Author Photo)

The pistol-mounted weapon light is better than ever before, offering greater power, reduced size and weight, and enhanced ergonomics. Just placing the light on the gun is not enough, you should become competent in switching it on and off in an ergonomic manner. You know, not shifting your shooting grip to illuminate. If not, how do you plan to use it at crunch time? Some lights also come with laser sighting devices, which could make activation of multiple modes problematic. That choice is up to you, just be sure you know how to use the various modes. In addition, don’t feel like you have to upgrade every time a new model is introduced. Unless the new model has a feature that enhances your performance, the older will work just fine. I am still using lights I got back in the ’90s, and they still work just fine.

One of my all-time favorite lights is the Surefire X300 series, which has gone through several “renovations” over the years, getting better each time. The current version, the X300T (Turbo), is powerful and versatile and features a high-performance LED that generates a tightly focused, 66,000-candela beam pattern. This pattern will allow the end user to pick up threats quickly, even those that may be on the periphery. The Light Emitting Diode, or LED, is far superior in toughness to the traditional bulb and is now standard on all tactical-grade lights. The X300T-A attachment system permits secure, rapid attachment to, and easy removal from, Universal and Picatinny accessory rails. Intuitive switching allows instant activation without altering grip while accessory switches for pistols and tape switches for long guns are available. The X400 series, combines an LED light with a laser sighting system.

X300 Long Gun
The author prefers to use his X300-series light at the 12 o’clock position his carbine. This allows him to depress the muzzle and still use the light to search without covering a non-hostile, and does not create additional shadow spots when leaning out from either side of cover. (Author Photo)

In truth, I prefer the X300 series as a weapon light for my AR-15 carbine. Mounted near the 12 o’clock position on the handguard, forward of the front iron sight, I find that I can search with the muzzle of the carbine pointed downward, reducing the possibility of “flagging” or “muzzling” the wrong person. While many mount their weapon light on the side of the handguard, this can be problematic depending on which side of cover you are coming around. The beam may be partially obstructed or could “splash back” into the shooter’s eyes. I also avoid mounting my light below the barrel due to the shadow the barrel creates in the beam, which results in a dark spot. In addition, the toggle activation switch found on my X300 is easy to use with either hand’s thumb, depending on which one is forward, without having to add activation switches and wires, which I am not a fan of.

Surefire XC1
The Surefire XC1 is the most compact of the new generation of compact pistol lights. With 300 lumens of lighting power, it is more than capable of handling any EDC chores required of it. (Author Photo)

As good as all of the X300 lights are, I must admit I prefer the Surefire XC1 series on my pistol. Specifically designed for railed, compact handguns, the unit features a high-performance LED with a lumen output of 300. Surefire’s proprietary, precision-engineered smooth parabolic reflector projects a beam with a focused hot spot for mid-to-long-range illumination along with a corona of diffused light optimized for situational awareness in close quarters. The XC1 is not only compact, but also quite robust with a body made from aerospace aluminum that is hard anodized for a tough mil-spec finish. The unit is just a couple of inches long, weighs less than 2 ounces, and is powered by a single AAA battery so it adds little bulk and weight to your concealed carry pistol. The ambidextrous activation switch facilitates both momentary- and constant-on modes so it can be adapted to the situation at hand. Momentary activation is achieved by placing your support hand thumb on top of one of the two rear downward-activated switches and depressing it. Or, you can position your support thumb against the same switch and push forward until the switch toggles down. Simply remove pressure and the light will turn off.

Streamlight is another company with a history of delivering life-saving illumination equipment. They were the first rechargeable light I ever used, being mounted to the dashboard of my police cruiser. Today, their tactical light offerings are quite extensive and they are the preferred weapon light of law enforcement and military personnel around the globe. Their most popular weapon light is the TLR-HL as far as sales are concerned, but it has been my observation that the TLR-7 series is more popular with the armed professional.

Streamlight TLR-7A
The Streamlight TLR-7A is the pistol-mounted light of choice for many law enforcement agencies and military units worldwide. Its durability and multi-switch capability make it a favorite for those who go into harm’s way. (Author Photo)

The classic TLR-1 is a fairly large light with the TLR-2 being its laser-equipped counterpart. I think it would be ok for a long gun or duty pistol, but for those needing a more compact light, the TLR-7A is a great alternative. It has an anodized machined aluminum housing with a length of 2.5 inches and a height of 1.25 inches. It weighs 2.4 ounces, which includes the required CR123A battery. The switch housing is constructed of chemical-resistant polymer while the lens is impact-resistant Borofloat glass. The TLR-7A offers 500 lumens in a concentrated LED beam of light with a run time of around 90 minutes of continuous operation. A “safe off” feature is activated by rotating the bezel 90 degrees, which prevents unintentional activation and loss of battery life. Each unit comes with a high and a low switch, enabling users to choose their preferred activation method based on their requirements.

As compared to Surefire and Streamlight, Inforce is a fairly new player on the weapon light scene, but they are doing some great things, especially in the area of ergonomics. The Inforce LED auto pistol light, the Wild1, is lightweight, fast-activating and offers 2 hours of run time. Made from 6061-T6 aluminum with Type III MIL-SPEC hard anodized finish for greater durability, the light attached in seconds to any 1913 or universal rail. Constant and momentary functions are easily activated by pressing laterally on either the left or right paddle. The Wild1 produces 500 lumens of white light with a tight beam for close- to mid-range applications and balanced peripheral light for scanning the surrounding area. The bilateral and ambidextrous paddle switching system allows left or right hand activation and natural finger/thumb movement from the weapon grip frame to the switch. Its integrated mounting system is compact, convenient and securely attaches without tools to most any common pistol rail system. I really like how the support side thumb, whether right or left hand, can easily engage the paddle switch on the Wild1. I shoot with a thumbs-forward grip (as do many pistol shooters these days) and this thumb hovers just above the Inforce paddle making activation as easy as lowering the thumb.

Inforce Wild1
The Inforce Wild1 is one of the most ergonomic pistol lights available. It’s multi-pad switch is easy to reach and activate with either hand, including the support hand thumb when using a modern firing grip. (Author Photo)

When selecting a white light, think about more than just the number of lumens or candela involved. Think about how the hand interacts with the light, how easily the light goes on and off the gun, and think about the beam itself. Oftentimes, the beam will have a very bright center and that is where the high output is measured. I prefer a beam that is wider so I get the greatest field of view to look for additional threats. I tested a light a few months back that had such a bright “hot spot” in the middle of the beam that is was actually distracting! My eyes were pulled to the center of the beam, which is not good when one needs to scan as wide a field as possible for potential threats. The lights listed here are just a small sampling of what is available, so give critical thought to your selection and choose wisely based on your real world of work.

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