Gear, Parts and Accessories

Handheld Lights vs. Weapon-Mounted Lights

handheld light next to weapon light on SIG P229 pistol

As reported by the FBI, most lethal encounters take place at night or in low light. It goes without saying that a good light is important for self-defense. When choosing a defensive light, there are two main options — handheld and weapon-mounted. Both will have their pros and cons, so let’s take a look so you can decide what works best for you. 

Defensive Use

The primary purpose of carrying a light with your firearm, and the use we’ll be discussing here, is for defensive use. Target identification is paramount. If you’re in the unfortunate circumstance of having to draw your gun to defend yourself, you need to be certain what and who you’re aiming at. That means having a dependable light with enough power to reliably give you the full picture. 

There are many great lights on the market, but you’ll want to stick with a recognized manufacturer such as Streamlight, SureFire, Nightstick, Olight, Inforce, and Cloud Defensive. If you go with a light from one of these companies, you’re sure to have a good piece of equipment that will serve you well. 

Cloud Defensive REIN Micro on table
This Cloud Defensive REIN Micro can be used both handheld and weapon-mounted.

Handheld Lights

I’ll start off with handheld lights, because that is likely a type of light that nearly everyone has some experience with. Whether it was on a camping trip or rooting through the cellar, you’ve likely seen the utility of having a flashlight.

Handheld lights for defensive use are great because they can also be used for other tasks. An everyday carry flashlight can be used to find your dropped keys and for emergency self-defense. It could even be used as an impact device. A traditional handheld flashlight gives you options.

Handheld lights, however, have their drawbacks. It requires more skill to effectively operate and shoot a firearm with a flashlight in your off-hand. It is not impossible, but it will require a fair amount of practice to become proficient.

You want to remember, when you’re in a fight for your life, adrenaline will be impairing your fine motor functions. Opening doors, dialing a phone, and getting a good firing grip will all be more difficult. You will want to have everything down to muscle memory, so you’re not all thumbs when the time comes. 

Glock 26, Streamlight MicroStream, and HFB Fixed Blade on table
A small light for EDC is a useful tool that can double as a defensive light.

There’s no shortage of options, but it is important to go with something of quality. A $5 light from the hardware store won’t cut it. Go with a “tactical” light option designed for hard use. Some of my favorite handheld lights come from Streamlight, Surefire, and Nightstick. If you can spare the cash, Cloud Defensive makes some of the most rugged lights on the market that are almost bomb-proof. 

Top Choices:

Weapon-Mounted Lights

Weapon-mounted lights are more specialized tools. Because of this, they tend to do the one job they were intended for really well. Having a light attached to your firearm keeps your off-hand free to perform other tasks or get a natural two-hand grip on your gun. This makes for a familiar point of aim and handling.

Most people don’t train as much as they should, so it’s important to keep things simple. Another major benefit to having a weapon-mounted light is that it’s always there when you need it. There’s no leaving the firearm in one spot and the light in another, they function as one complete unit. Unfortunately, this complete unit makes the firearm more bulky.

This is primarily a concern with pistols for concealed carry and not home defense firearms, but it is a consideration. Another concern some people have, is having to point your firearm at what you want to shine a light at. This is true to some degree, but most lights will have a large enough spread that you can point off to the side of a person and still have sufficient illumination. 

Cloud Defensive OWL on AR-15 pistol
The Clould Defensive OWL offers a sleek setup that is completely snag-free.

Some people don’t like a mounted light, believing it will reveal their position to an attacker. They plan on using a handheld light held off to the side with an outstretched arm to confuse an attacker. With enough training, anything is possible, but this is not a concern that keeps me up at night. For many, I guess this creates more problems than solutions.

A weapon-mounted light is not something you want to cheap out on. The blast from repetitive firing is hard on electronic components. During training, the gun may get banged around.

My top choices for weapon-mounted lights come from Streamlight and Nightstick. Both offer a dependable light at a great price. SureFire is another top contender, but the price is higher. I don’t believe the average shooter gains enough to justify the cost. 

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Top Choices:

Nightstick weapon light and handheld light on table
Nightstick makes high-quality lights that deliver incredible performance

Final Thoughts

Handheld or weapon-mounted, the choice is yours. Both types of lights have their pros and cons, but when used effectively, are invaluable for self-defense. If you asked me, I’d recommend going with a weapon-mounted light for home defense. However, for everyday carry a handheld light may be more useful. You’ll have to decide what works best for you and your system. 

Do you prefer a handheld or weapon-mounted light for defensive use? Why? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • large nightstick flashlight and small streamlight flashlight
  • Cloud Defensive OWL and SIG P220 pistol with Streamlight light
  • handheld light next to weapon light on SIG P229 pistol
  • Cloud Defensive REIN Micro on table
  • Cloud Defensive OWL on AR-15 pistol
  • Glock 26, Streamlight MicroStream, and HFB Fixed Blade on table
  • Nightstick weapon light and handheld light on table

About the Author:

Alex Cole

Alex is a relatively young firearms enthusiast who’s been shooting consistently for around seven years. Though he is fairly new to the industry, he loves consuming all information related to guns and is constantly trying to enhance his knowledge, understanding and use of firearms. Not a day goes by where he doesn’t do something firearms-related.

Alex tries to visit the range at least a couple of times a month to maintain and improve his shooting skills. He also enjoys disassembling and reassembling firearms to see how they work and to keep them properly cleaned and maintained. He installs most of the upgrades to his firearms himself, taking it as a chance to learn.

Additionally, he is very into buying, selling and trading guns to test different firearms and learn more about them. He is not only interested in modern handguns and rifles, he appreciates the classics for both historical value and real-world use.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (3)

  1. I agree with the author as far as which is better, Handheld or weapon mounted? At the end of the day, it’s about practicing in the dark and seeing which works best for you. Practice opening doors while carrying a handheld light and see how it works. You can do this in your own home. Also, have a friend or relative put an silhouette target somewhere randomly in a room with a closed door, and see how your weapon light works without flagging the target. Just some suggestions for you to work through in your training. Shooting at paper targets on the range doesn’t make you a proficient shooter in real world application. You must train for every scenario.

  2. If someone adheres to the safety rule that one should not point a gun at anything not intended to be destroyed, then how can someone use a weapons-mounted light without violating this safety rule?

    1. Gregory, in the article the author mentions using using the method of aiming the muzzle just off the target when using the light. The beam is much larger than the point of aim. ~Dave

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