Since there have been a few threads lately where low light fighting has come up, I've decided to do a little writeup about some of the fundamental principles of low light equipment, tactics, and techniques.
Firstly a statement about perspective: I'm talking mainly here to the defense minded citizen and the average law enforcement officer. While some of the ideas presented here have application for guys who fastrope out of Blackhawks in Afghanistan to go shoot terrorists or to guys who are on SWAT teams, the intent here is to speak to the equipment that the average joe is going to be carrying when something bad happens and how to use it effectively in low light.
Human beings have a natural fear of the dark. Human beings depend primarily on sight as a means of figuring out what is going on in the world around them so it should come as no surprise that we naturally find conditions where this sense is significantly diminished or useless to be extremely disconcerting. Our eyes are remarkable organs capable of incredible feats, but seeing in the dark isn't one of them. As a species our night vision capabilities are some of the worst you can find on the planet....certainly the worst you will find among top level predators. Our night vision depends on photoreceptive structures in our eyes called "rods" that have a pigment called rhodopsin in them which is sensitive enough to be triggered by as little as a single photon of light under ideal conditions. Unfortunately our rods have a saturation point, a point at which they essentially white out and our cones (the structures of our eye responsible for vision in daylight and perceiving color) take over. If our rods are exposed to too much light they become essentially useless for a brief period of time, and it takes as long as 30 minutes for them to "recharge" to the point where you regain your peak night vision capabilities. All of us have at some point gone from a place where there is abundant light into a place that has almost no light and we've all found out that it takes us a couple of minutes in the dark for our eyes to adjust so we can actually have some idea of what the environment around us is like.
Some human beings have learned to use this shortcoming we all share to their advantage. Statistics tell us that most violent crimes happen at night or in conditions of low light. A sizeable majority of officer involved shootings happen at night. Bad guys seem to like the cover of darkness and often use it to prey on their fellow man. A real life example: A local college student was walking with her boyfriend from a convenience store back to her near-campus apartment at around 8:30 one night in late October. Here in this part of Virginia at that time of year the sun is down completely and it is dark. She and her boyfriend weren't terribly worried, however, partly because this is a "safe" area and partly because the entire path between her apartment and the convenience store was well lit by streetlights and light from surrounding buildings. Unfortunately she and her boyfriend hadn't really examined their surroundings with a critical eye and didn't really notice that all the buildings in the area also served to block light and create areas of complete darkness. A couple of gang affiliated illegals, however, had looked over the area quite well. They had watched the college students coming and going through that area and had noticed that they usually traveled alone or in widely separated groups of two or three. They also noticed these dark areas created by the buildings and decided that they offered the perfect cover for ambushing people walking on the sidewalks under the bright street lights. The female college student and her boyfriend were walking past one of these dark areas lost in their conversation when they passed one of these dark areas that they had never really noticed before. Out of nowhere the girl felt a man grab her and felt something sharp poking into the side of her neck. Her boyfriend turned to see what was going on and he was struck in the head with a handgun by the other illegal. He was on the ground bleeding from his head and she was being held with a knife at her throat. The gun wielding man then proceeded to rob both of them. Thankfully for our two innocent kids the bad guys beat feet into some nearby woods after getting the money and didn't assault them further.
Now if our two college kids had been able to see two men standing in that corner with weapons in their hands from a distance, they likely would have run to the campus police station which was only about 200 yards away from where this attack took place...but they couldn't. Men who make preying upon their fellow man a lifestyle look at the world much differently than normal people do. They view darkness as an asset. They use the cloak of darkness as a weapon against those they would victimize. Knowing this you should now understand why the statistics show that bad guys do most of their work at night. The defense minded individual should also notice that these realities mean that if they are forced to defend themselves odds are it will be under conditions of low light.
...so what do they do about it?
Thankfully there are some options. GEAR -- General Purpose Tactical Lights
The most obvious solution to a lack of light is to bring a light source with you. These days there are literally thousands of light options out there. Practically every home in America has a tried and true Mag-Lite in it. This is a good thing as they are durable, dependable lights that almost all of us have used at some point or another to deal with a blown breaker or to fix a broken belt on the side of a lonely road on some dark night. (Well, maybe that last one is something only old timers have done) I have over a dozen Mag-Lites in my house as I type this. I have depended on them for years.
...but let's face facts. As a light used for self defense purposes, THEY SUCK. Yes, I know that back in the day every cop walking the beat could be found to have a Mag-lite on hand at all times to use in conjunction with his Smith & Wesson model 19 revolver and that they managed to use them successfully...but the reason they used the 4 D-Cell mag lites back in "the day" was because they were pretty much the only available option. Times have changed and technology has changed with it. Today there are lights that are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand that put out good amounts of light, that have almost indestructible LED lamp elements that never blow out, and that don't weigh more than a .44 magnum with an 8 inch barrel on it. These new generation lights can be had for VERY reasonable prices and are MUCH easier to carry on your person at all times and to use in conjunction with a handgun, which is the main personal defense weapon for most people in the US. Yes, I know you can't crack a grizzly's skull with one of these smaller lights, but I would challenge those who bring that up as a reason to keep using a Mag-lite to tell us whether or not they go about their daily life with one of those big beasts on their belt or in their back pocket at all times. The answer, dear reader, will be NO. Buying a big-ass, hardly carried, hard to use light simply because it would make a better impact weapon is about as sensible as buying a Walker Colt revolver as your primary self defense handgun because it will make a bigger dent in somebody's skull when you pistol whip them with it.
There are dedicated tactical lights out there meant to be used in conjunction with a weapon under stressful conditions to stop a threat. YOUR MAIN CARRY LIGHT SHOULD BE ONE OF THESE LIGHTS. Leave the mag-lites (this also applies to mini-mag-lites) at home or in the trunk for less deadly emergencies. Stick to dedicated tactical lights for every-day carry. Every tool has it's limits. Mag-lites are great tools for what they are...but they are NOT the best tool for every job.
Now that we've dealt with the dinosaurs of the flashlight world, which of the modern dedicated tactical lights should you choose? The answer to that question is bound to be controversial. Flashlights are a topic that causes as much controversy among flashlight geeks as Glock vs. 1911 threads cause among gun geeks, and I'm sure that once people get to my next sentence the weeping and gnashing of teeth will begin. Odds are that within the first page of responses to this article that somebody is going to tell you that the brand name I am suggesting makes "overpriced crap", or something similar. Ignore that noise and listen for a minute.
Surefire's 6P lights and the derivatives of that design set the standard by which all other tactical lights are judged. They are compact, reasonably light, powerful, and easy to use in conjunction with a weapon. They are essentially the Glock 17 of the flashlight world. Many years ago I purchased a Surefire 6Z, a derivative of the 6P that had some improvements aimed at making the light easier to use in conjunction with a handgun. The light had a lanyard attached to it to allow for dropping the light without losing it if you had to do something like clear a malfunction or reload your weapon. It also included rubber O-rings around the smooth body of the light with one larger ring just behind the mid-point of the light to allow use of a light technique called the "Rogers technique."
The Rogers technique is similar to how you see doctors use hypodermic needles. The big ring allows the user to set the light between the index and middle fingers of the weak hand. Instead of putting his thumb on the pressure button, the user instead rests the rear of the light against the meat of his palm. This allows the user to turn on the light simply by applying backwards pressure against the large ring, which presses the rear of the light into the base of the thumb, activating the light. This hold allows the user to still get at least three of his weak-hand fingers around the grip of the weapon.
As most of us know, shooting with both hands is easier to do under stress than shooting with one hand, and the Rogers technique allows for an almost completely two handed hold on the weapon which aids accuracy and proper indexing of the light significantly, in my experience.
To this day I have not found a handheld light technique that works better in conjunction with a handgun than the Rogers technique. (Also called the "hypodermic needle" technique or in some colorful cases the "cock-ring technique") As a result, the configuration found on the 6Z has remained my favorite configuration for a tactical light. I bought and carried two of them because the incandescent elements, while very powerful and bright, had a bad habit of blowing out on me at the worst time. I was not alone in this experience which is why you hear people often tell you that with flashlights two are one, one is none. A few years ago Surefire released a polymer bodied update of the 6Z called the Z2 combat light.
. This is essentially just a 6Z in polymer with a couple of improvements like a roll resistant bezel. I bought one as soon as they came out and I've been using it as my primary carry light ever since. I heartily recommend these two lights to the defense minded individual.
Now does that mean that all other lights are unsuitable for the task? No, it simply means that after much trial and error those are the lights I have found to be best suited for using in conjunction with a handgun, which is the primary defensive weapon for practically every legally armed individual in this country, LE or ordinary joe. There are other lights that will work with the Rogers technique like Surefire's G2 or the old 6P, but I find them more difficult to use with the technique than the dedicated "combat" lights. Surefire has, however, recently released a line of rings for the G2 and 6P style lights that will let you configure them to look very similar to the setup seen on the "combat" lights. I haven't had the chance to thoroughly evaluate them, but from a glance they look like they may be just the ticket for someone who wants a more positive use of the Rogers technique.
All that being said, the Surefire lights mentioned are not the ONLY options on the market worth considering. If someone wants a simple recommendation for a light with a minimum of fuss and bother, I'd say the mentioned lights are your best bet. If, however, you are willing to do some research and want just a general list of features to look for, here you go:
1. A general purpose handheld tactical light should put out between 60 and 80 lumens --
This is another point of controversy in the world of flashlight geeks. A lot of people are, to borrow Ken Hackathorn's description, "absolutely queer" for how many lumens a particular light can generate. Contrary to what people think a light that can double as the bat signal or that puts out enough light to melt the face of a bad guy like that Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark is not necessarily a good thing. Remember the opening discussion about how the rods in our eyes can saturate and become useless for a short period of time? The more lumens your light puts out the higher the chances that once you use the light you will actually "flashbulb" yourself when using it. Most interior structures in the United States have walls painted with light colors. Light colors reflect more light than dark colors. Somebody who lights up a normal residential hallway with a 200 lumen face melter even for just a split second is going to experience what is known as the "flashbulb effect".
The flashbulb effect happens when the rods in your eyes are hit with a flash of light sufficient to saturate them, but not long enough to allow the cones in your eyes to take over completely. This leaves you literally blind for a short period of time...completely unable to see a bloody thing. At the various low light training sessions I've attended there has always been somebody with a massive light that ends up blinding themselves the first time they use the thing in a shoot house. They were fine when on an open carbine range where none of the light was reflecting back into their face, but once they got inside an enclosed structure suddenly all that light started bouncing off the walls right into their eyes and it significantly diminished their ability to see shoot vs. no shoot targets and to navigate in the dark house. This invariably caused them to become dependent on having the face melter on throughout the shoothouse and unable to see or deal with anything that didn't fall within the circle of light generated by their hand-held.
...and that's not a good thing. Light is a target indicator. When a light goes off it draws the attention of everyone in the area, good or bad. As a result, you don't want to be searching through a structure with the light on all the time. You want to use the light as little as you can so as not to give people who want to kill you a fix on your position. This is why strobing or flashing is taught for searching and room clearing. You use quick bursts of light to figure out what's in front of you and you keep moving, meaning that if an unseen bad guy shoots at the light he will have to be doing it from memory and will be shooting at a location you no longer occupy.
If anyone doubts the validity of the flashbulb effect, conduct a simple experiment. Find a friend who is a photography nerd and ask to borrow their big camera flash. Wait until it is completely dark in your house and give yourself at least 30 minutes in the dark for your eyes to adjust to their peak night vision efficiency. Then point the camera flash down the hallway and trigger it. See how long it takes you to recover the ability to see to a useful level. You will then understand why it is called the "flashbulb" effect. (Note: You can also set up a game camera in the bathroom and ask the missus to report back on what effect it had on her during the night, but be sure you have a comfortable couch first.) A 60-80 lumen light offers enough power to clearly identify what is going on within the hotspot of the light, but not so much light that you obliterate your night vision.
Again, this is for a GENERAL PURPOSE TACTICAL LIGHT. There are occasions when the use of the face-melters is entirely appropriate (mostly in wide open outdoor scenarios) but the majority of people are going to find them to be a hindrance more than a help.
2. LED lamp elements are preferred --
LED's have proven to allow for longer battery life and can survive more abuse than incandescent lamp units. A more reliable light that uses fewer batteries is a no-brainer.
Here you can see the LED element on the right and the incandescent element on the left.
3. The activation switch should be pressure based --
...meaning you have to apply deliberate pressure to keep the light on rather than a "click" style on/off switch reminiscent of the old Mag lites. The pressure based switches are a pain in the neck if you are using the light to fix a circuit breaker or a fan belt...but click style switches are even MORE annoying when you are trying to use the light in a tactically sound fashion or in conjunction with a handgun. Under stress they inevitably get switched on when they shouldn't or left on for far longer than is desirable, making the person holding the light a target. There are a number of switch styles on the market that do everything from just keeping the light on with a click to engaging a strobe function...but avoid anything that isn't pressure based. The simple lock-out tailcaps seen as standard equipment on the Surefires pictured here and that are the default on most Surefire lights are already very good for their intended purpose.
More on the way.