Sunday, January 13, 2019

Shots in the Dark: A Low Light Qualification

Research indicates that criminals often choose the darkness or low light conditions to pursue their nefarious profession. A significant number of shootings involving police officers happen at night as well. Criminals view darkness as an asset and use it as an advantage against those whom they would victimize. These realities mean that if you are forced to defend yourself, odds are it will happen under low light conditions; however, few people pursue low light training even when the opportunity exists.

Although shooting accurately with a flashlight is much more challenging than simply using a normal two-handed stance. My experience with students who have been practicing over the past several years is that low light mastery (like all shooting skills) comes with practice and the proper equipment.

For the first practice session in the 18-19 season, we used a modified Texas LTC qualification course. The first run was within Texas LTC time limits; however, we used the San Antonio Police Department target. Shooters started all strings of fire with flashlight in hand, drawing from the holster with the exception of the 2 second strings. My scores on run #1 were an acceptable with a 248 out of a possible 250. I was shooting my SIG P365 with Hornady Critical Duty 135gr standard pressure loads.

The second qualification was a modified Texas LTC qualification course as well with the same parameters. This time we used the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) target; however, we covered the target’s body with a clean t-shirt and the head with a mask. This makes it impossible to use previous hits, tape, etc. as an aiming reference point. For run #2 I used my SIG P320 with a Trijicon Red Dot, also shooting Hornady Critical Duty 135gr standard pressure loads. My score on run #2 was 250 out of 250.

Using your local or state police targets, qualification course, and (in this case) ammunition allows you to demonstrate your skills if you are ever called upon to prove it in court after a self-defense shooting.  I keep witnessed records of my qualifications and do the same for my students.


Through experimentation over the past several years we have confirmed much of the conventional wisdom concerning low light gear. While the 60 lumens Surefire 6P was certainly state of the art decades ago, modern high intensity lights have come into their own. We have discovered that a powerful light (300 lumens and up) overpowers a weaker light and permits the shooter to identify and engage targets that would otherwise be hidden from view.

The spot size of the flashlight beam is also important. Ideally when you illuminate a threat you want the spot shining directly in their eyes. Some lights have a very small spot designed to throw the light over longer distances. While this works well as a spotlight, it loses effectiveness when used as a self-defense light because the narrow spot requires too much precision to effectively blind the threat.

A flashlight with a large spot requires much less precision and therefore works better. For the last two years I have carried a Fenix FD30 and an older model of the Surefire 6Z. The Fenix has proven to be a good general purpose every day carry and self-defense light. It is small, lightweight, takes rechargeable and standard batteries, and is adjustable from 8-900 lumens. The FD30 has an adjustable spot that works very well as a self-defense light. I keep it adjusted for a wide beam spot which will blind anyone within self-defense distances. If I need the extra throw, I can adjust the spot to a more focused beam. A drawback to the Fenix and many lights like it is the tail cap design which makes using some flashlight techniques difficult.

Surefire lights are also a good choice. I have an older model Surefire 6Z that works very well with some modifications. My Surefire has a modified Malkoff Devices drop-in LED1 which throws 450 lumens and has a generous spot as well. My lights have a modified TorchLAB McClicky tail cap from Oveready. (2)  This tail cap allows you to click the light on with a press of the button unlike many Surefire lights that you must twist to activate constant on. There are literally dozens of flashlight models on the market today and it is impossible to test them all; although, the members of certainly try and is a good place to learn about all aspects of modern LED lights and rechargeable batteries.

How about a flashlight on the pistol? We have had several police officers who attend our low light classes and practice sessions and some are issued pistols with mounted lights. I have no objection to pistol mounted lights and they can make firing the pistol much simpler with the proper switch configuration. However, I do require everyone to master the hand-held light techniques for several reasons. Searching with a mounted light virtually guarantees that you will point the pistol in unsafe direction at some point. For that reason, I require shooters to search with their hand-held light and then they are free to release it and go to the pistol mounted light if they wish to engage.


When I first started doing low light classes (2014) we discovered that the two biggest challenges for shooters was recognizing the threat targets in decision-based scenarios and then hitting the threats. When initially exposed to low light problems, even very accomplished shooters who have very little difficultly hitting a target under normal lighting conditions often go through an adjustment period as they learn low light techniques.

So what is posing a challenge for them under low lighting conditions? Almost every student initially shoots high on the target or (presumably) over it. We discovered that students were subconsciously tilting the pistol up slightly in order to see the front sight better in the low light. Regardless of the lighting conditions you must properly align the sights and then concentrate on the front sight while simultaneously pressing the trigger. Hard to do under normal circumstances with good light--more difficult to do under low lighting conditions.

You must practice low light techniques to have any hope of using them under stress. As we’ve discovered, students simply don’t master the low light techniques from class--you cannot practice it once and get it down pat. Using a light in conjunction with a handgun is difficult and it requires practice. Thankfully you can practice the techniques with live fire during daylight if your range won’t allow night shooting. So how do you practice engaging multiple threats and shooting on the move with these techniques?

If your local range has IDPA matches, shoot the course of fire using your flashlight if the match director will permit it. Your score won’t win the match; however, you will learn how to shoot and manipulate your pistol under some stress. Practicing how to search a structure (like your house when nobody is home) in the dark is important as well. DO this with AN UNLOADED PISTOL (check it 3 times!). This helps you identify how the various angles and corners in your house make one technique a better option than the other.

To my knowledge, no data exists concerning private citizen-involved shootings with criminals under low light conditions; however, since a lot of criminal activity occurs after dark we can assume that there is a likely correlation. There are several reasons to use a flashlight: to observe and detect, to illuminate and navigate, to eliminate anonymity, and to identify and engage threats. Used properly, a flashlight lets you see danger before it can affect you and it can encourage the danger waiting in the dark to go elsewhere.

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