Concealed Carry

Understanding Shooting With Low or No Light

Woman crouched behind a bed holding a flashlight and pointing a revolver with a green laser

According to FBI statistics, most lethal encounters take place at night in low or no light, average 3 shots, and are resolved in 3 seconds. Armed with that information you would think that more training and practice would occur under artificial light, limited light, and no light, but it does not and that is unfortunate.

My exposure and understanding of night shooting began during my military experience, and all of it was under natural conditions without the aid of artificial light. Toward the end of the 1960s, night vision was in its infancy and not very good. Unfortunately for the civilian, night shooting requires much more of an understanding of light than most have.

bore and flashlight not aligned showing poor technique
The Harries Technique was embraced by Col. Jeff Cooper and became the predominant technique taught at Cooper’s famed shooting school, Gunsite. It is widely used today and is well-suited to small flashlights.

Lighting Basics

Light, and the lack thereof, can be your friend as much as it is your enemy. The civilian nighttime environment is populated with myriad types of artificial light that can alter perception — unless it is misunderstood. During the first session in my series of night shooting classes, my students never fire a shot, they learn about the different types of light, direct light, indirect light, ambient light, reflected light, natural light, no light, etc. They also learn how those types of light, or lack thereof, affect what they see and how they are seen.

The students experience different types of sights and see for themselves what is useful and effective and what is not in different lighting conditions. In our training classes, I recommend plain iron sights without tritium inserts and a Crimson Trace laser grip in green as the best configuration. I do not recommend handguns with lights attached to them unless you want to:

  1. Inadvertently violate the rule of safety that states, “Never point your firearm at anything you do not wish to kill or destroy!”
    or
  2. Provide a good target for your adversaries.
Student shooting using the Harries technique
Students learn the Harries technique during twilight so their form can be corrected.

During training, my students become aware of light sources and the direction of existing light. It is paramount that you are aware of which lights will illuminate you both directly and indirectly. I like to say that my night classes are… Illuminating. I know, I can’t help myself. I also fire different types of firearms and loads so that the students can experience and understand the flash signature of each and how they affect the shooter as well as the shootee.

Preserve Your Vision

Without a doubt, the most important lesson to be learned is how to preserve and manage your night vision. Preserving your night vision is of vital importance, so you can see into the dark shadows. When I was in the Army, I was taught two ways to maintain my night vision.

The objective was to try and maintain night vision by always protecting one eye. Whichever eye was left open would of course be compromised by muzzle flashes, tracers, flairs explosions et al. That is the technique I have settled on when I need to see into the dark to search or shoot.

home with snow on the ground viewed through a night vision scope
NIght vision technology, even for civilians, has come a long way, but it still is not pistol mounted and viable for self-defense.

I close the offside eye to give it a rest and use the strong eye only. In that way, I can switch to the weak side to see into the shadows while the strong side is closed. In that way, both eyes get a reprise or time to recover from flashes or brightness.

Another way to help maintain your night vision is by not using any source that is brighter than the background. That is why sights that are illuminated, glow, or use optical red dot sights are discouraged by me. In my night training, I recommend plain iron sights without tritium inserts as the best configuration.

My reasoning is that your eye adjusts to the brightest thing in your field of view and illuminated sights of any kind compromise your ability to see in the shadows (where evil lurks). Alternating your eyes is a key technique that must be learned and practiced, but it is also important to limit your use of artificial light when you can.

Many find that approach to be a real “eye-opener” or closer… (Again! I am so weak.) And again please keep in mind that this advice is for the civilian only… Because the civilian is, by definition, relegated to the “Defensive” use of firearms, so ambush is your most valuable tactic. Once my students understand all the principles of light it’s time for them to go live in the second class.

Students checking their targets after night shooting
The proof is hits on target. Here, the students employ the Harries technique and then measure their results against daylight shooting performance.

Types of Lights

As previously mentioned, I also discourage the use of weapon-mounted lights on handguns. Although it is true that a mounted light illuminates where your weapon is pointed, you must realize that it also makes you a clear target for the bad guys hiding in the dark. Additionally, if the light shines on an innocent, you just broke a rule of firearm safety by having swept someone with your muzzle.

I prefer that lights not be mounted on the firearm as the current wave would suggest. Handheld lights are more versatile, and as in the FBI technique, do not provide your assailant with a target that centers you. Using a separate handheld light allows you to use light in a technique that I call misdirection where you fool the adversary by forcing him to look elsewhere, like a magician’s use of misdirection to pull off a magic trick.

Because of that and other reasons, I teach the use of tactical lights using both the Harries and FBI techniques, along with some others I have developed. That is another reason why I advise the carrying of a separate, non-attached, tactical light. I do, however, recommend a green, Crimson Trace laser grip that is grip activated as the best option. Lasers that are mounted elsewhere on the gun require separate precise manipulates to operate and everyone knows you lose fine motor skills under stress. The pressure switch in the grip is activated without any additional movements.

In the photos we see the difference between correct technique and incorrect technique. In the first photo on the left, you see the FBI Technique correctly demonstrated. Notice that the shooter can not be seen. The next photo shows how the shooter is highlighted by his own light because his stance is incorrectly assumed. The next two photos show how you can halo yourself when viewed from another direction when the FBI technique is poorly executed versus properly done.

There is one additional and important aspect of using lights of any kind, but that applies particularly to handheld models. It is of paramount importance that the light not only be extended to the side but also thrust forward. If the light is equal distance to you, it will “spill” and illuminate you without you realizing it.

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Weapon-mounted lights on long guns should also be as far forward as possible, and they are better still if they have a lens shade so that the light does not spill onto the barrel. Light reflecting off the barrel will not only give you away but it will make it much more difficult for you to see downrange because of the bright reflection that will rob you of any night vision that you might still have.

Practice, Practice, Practice

It goes without saying that any lethal encounter takes on a whole new perspective when you add darkness to the equation, but I’ll point it out anyway. Those who only practice their skills during the day or on a well-lighted indoor range have no idea of what they will face and will be overwhelmed by the complexities presented during their first such encounter in the dark.

Trust me on this one, you do not want your first night-shooting experience to be in a life or death encounter. Having to figure out tactics and techniques, only to find out that you do not have the proper equipment or training when your life (or the ones of those you love) is on the line is not a good idea. This should not be a situation of “on-the-job training.”

Revolver with green Crimson Trace Lasergrip
This revolver has a Crimson Trace Laser Grip. When used judiciously, it can be a real advantage.

Again, I prefer plain black sights on my handguns. That, along with good solid presentation techniques, indexing, and point-shooting skills as taught by me during The Lethal Arms Workshop training classes to quickly align you with the target are of immense value. Once you have mastered those techniques is when the judicious use of a laser to confirm your technique is all that is needed to assure a good hit.

Keep in mind that the situation — the lighting conditions and the speed things are developing — might not allow any time for the classic sight picture. That means good point-shooting skills could save the day, so don’t discount that skill.

Contact shooting drills are also used and practiced during our night shooting series of classes. This by no means comes even close to covering all that you should know about low light or no light encounters. However, it will hopefully motivate you to get some good night shooting instruction from an experienced instructor.

Have you practiced night shooting? Do you run a laser or light on your home defense gun? What techniques or drills have you found to be effective? Share your answers in the comment section.

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Comments (8)

  1. A weapon mounted light gives you one less thing to reach for and carry.
    An extra hand is worth it’s weight in gold!
    You find yourself holding a loose flashlight in your mouth
    whilst manipulating things that require a hand with an opposable thumb!

  2. Speck

    If you have trained and trained correctly you will be a good shot in the daylight.

    In dim light your body positioning you will have adopted for daylight shooting will allow you to make good shots are close range as long as the adversary is visible at all.
    Another trick is to aim using only the front post if you can see the sights. You REALLY need tritum sigts! You will aim low on the body as the shot will hit high using only the raised front sight.
    Lights are good but they may break.

  3. SPECKSYNDER, I did significant work the in the jungle and you wouldn’t laser or flashlight the enemy. In the home/property I prefer as little light as possible (I don’t own NVGs etc.). I know my house, my property and surrounding area. You could go out at hunt the problem or you could have it come to you. Would the problem deserve your attention enough to be on offense or defense or 911. Your experience in the Nam with flares etc. is priceless. There are some many scenarios for a no light situation, truly jungle dark and you know what I mean by that is hard to find in the world, (home to the unknowing). Don’t give away your position let the bad guy(s) do that for you. Not an easy answer to shoot at a target you can’t identify to be foe or friendly. Hopefully the bad guy(s) don’t come in hard on you.

  4. I’m not an instructor or anything like that but I do have plenty of experience in low light level shooting gained during my tour in Viet Nam 1968. Now we didn’t have any fancy flash lights or crimson trace lasers at that time and it is doubtful that we would have used anything such as that anyway. Flares or moon light was what we had to depend on. I can imagine scenarios here in the states when one might be caught without such fancy equipment. I have never seen an article that covers this situation. I would like to hear your comments on how to adjust your point of aim in such a situation.

  5. I was trained and a trainer on a Special Reaction Team. I trained military, civilian, federal and others that shall not be mentioned. I was taught this flashlight technique and taught my students and my soldiers this technique through my 21yr Military Police career. Having a three-cell flashlight back in the day had dual purposes illuminate and defensive. We also had a technique called the flashlight roll. Cutting the pie is slow moving across the fatal funnel so as an option you could lay the flashlight on the ground and on the edge of the door and turn in on and roll it across the floor lighting the interior of the room etc. as you move gun up across the entryway. Takes practice and you don’t do this unless you believe it the safer option of holding the flashlight and sweeping the interior. This is a one-man patrol technique for searching rooms etc. I’m going to bet someone will say a lot of negatives for this technique but at the time early late 70s early 80s it worked for us and not used in every empty space you come across. Techniques evolve and I haven’t seen the flashlight roll taught anymore. I have lights/lasers for my long arms and still hold my flashlight in this technique taught by the article. It works.

  6. Well I dont know about this

    Not a word about target identification– be certain you dont shoot the wrong person

    Close one eye? I have been combating shooting with both eyes open my entire life. Trust me after the
    first sot from a handgun night vision isnt squat. Weapon mounted lights are great for identification. Giving the other guy something to shoot at? If you are running right he will be in the light and muzzle flashes are good aiming points.
    A lot of these drill fall apart if subjected to stress.

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