Be sure of your target and what’s behind it.
This rule of gun safety applies at all times no matter the circumstances. We need to see our targets to be sure of them, and in darkness that means bringing our own light (night vision and laser designators notwithstanding, for you military guys). Attaching flashlights to firearms isn’t a new idea. Now declassified photos of British SAS operators in the early 1980s show them using Mp5 submachine guns with big police-style Maglite flashlights taped to improvised mounts. In 1993 Heckler & Koch released their Universal Service Pistol, which included a compact Universal Tactical Light fitting underneath the slide and producing 90 lumens of light. Fast forward to 2011, and a dizzying variety of dedicated weapon lights ranging from very affordable to pretty darn expensive are offered for sale by a number of manufacturers. The latest generation of lights are smaller and brighter than ever. Nearly every new pistol design produced in the past few years features a rail underneath the barrel intended for a light. Light rails are being added to new variants of classic guns like the 1911 and Beretta 92. From SWAT teams everywhere to elite military door-kickers in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the local Sherriff’s deputy to pistols in civilian nightstands across the country, having a weapon mounted tactical light is becoming the rule, not the exception.
Some will say, “I’ve been shooting my whole life and I’ve never needed a tactical light before, why do you think I need one now?” Allow me to answer that question with another question. How much shooting have you done in darkness, where correctly identifying your target meant the difference between saving your life and killing an innocent person? LAPD SWAT is the busiest SWAT team in the world, responding to call outs and executing high risk warrants on a daily basis in one of America’s toughest big cities, and they have been using weapon-mounted tactical lights for decades. When they enter a residence to apprehend a dangerous barricaded suspect, instantly they need to be able to identify the bad guy, the bad guy’s thug friend lurking around the corner with a baseball bat, and the bad guy’s innocent wife and kids cowering in fear in the opposite corner of the bedroom. Regardless of lighting conditions in their operating area, their weapon mounted lights ensure that they can discern friend from foe quickly and effectively.
The predictable response is, “Ok, fine, so SWAT needs tactical lights, but I’m not kicking anyone else’s door down. Anyone who comes into my home uninvited deserves to get shot and my state’s castle law says so.” It’s a bad idea to blaze away in the dark at people you can’t identify, but you don’t have to take my word for it; take the word of Glenn Mizell. Having been burglarized a week before, Mr. Mizell woke up to the sound of his dog barking frantically in December 2007. He grabbed his home defense pistol and got out of bed, convinced the intruders had returned. Having calmed the dog, he was coming back to bed when he suddenly saw a figure rummaging around in his kitchen in the dark. Taking careful aim, he fired a single shot, which struck his wife Deborah squarely in the chest, killing her. She had not realized why he had left the bedroom, and had gotten up to make a snack. Mr. Mizell’s story quickly became fodder for gun control organizations, which spread the story around as a cautionary tale for wives who so foolishly let their husbands keep a gun in the house. Be sure of your target and what’s behind it folks.
Some flashlight companies like to advertise their tactical lights as a “less lethal” option capable of temporary blinding and disorienting an attacker. The opposing school of thought claims that flashlights are just a liability, giving your position away to the bad guys and presenting a bright circle for them to aim at. In my personal opinion, neither of these extreme perspectives is entirely correct. I sometimes do a drill at night which is easy to replicate (the hardest part is finding a place that will let you shoot in total darkness; this is where friends with large farms come in very handy). Duct tape a cheap 120 lumen tactical light to the head of a standard IDPA type target. Face away from the target, close your eyes, and have a friend activate the “constant on” switch. The light is shining on your back, but you are facing away from it with your eyes closed. Have your friend grab you by the shoulders and spin you 180 degrees until you are facing the target and your friend is safely behind you. Open your eyes and suddenly you are exposed to the brightness of the light. Bring up your firearm and shoot a controlled pair at the center of the target. If you are like me, the light from the flashlight will dazzle you, hurt your eyes, and be a major annoyance for a second, and you will then drill the center of the target with two well-placed rounds. On the other hand, the sights of my gun have never been drawn to the flashlight itself. I’ve never been tempted to shoot at the flashlight itself, but this is also a function of distance to the target—I do this drill at a distance of 5 to 7 feet from the target, which is a very typical indoors “close quarters” engagement range. If I were 25 yards away from a bad guy pointing a light at me, you bet I would be shooting at the light source.
The purpose of the tactical light is to help you be sure of your target. Up close, it may additionally buy you a split second of confusion on the other person’s part, while you make a critical split decision on whether it is wise to start shooting. Don’t view the tactical light as a substitute for lethal force or as a foolish gimmick that will certainly get you killed. Instead, view it as a useful tool that can assist you in certain situations, when used properly. You must choose your light carefully and know how to use it.
Light choices and techniques will be covered in Part II, coming soon!