Handgun Low Light Essentials

by TCinVA,
(the artist formerly known as John_Wayne777,
as adapted from his earlier post at M4Carbine.net)

The anatomy of 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 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. 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, with 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?

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 (pictured at right), 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, “cigar 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. NOTE: Surefire still offers these “combat” lights but they now have different model designations.

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.

The Surefire lights mentioned are not the ONLY options on the market worth considering, however. Surefire makes a wide range of lights in all sorts of sizes and configurations that work fairly well. Some other companies make some decent lights as well. 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. You can ask the guys who went through the Vickers/Hackathorn low light training courses about too much light.

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 entirely.

2. LED lamp elements vs incandescents –

LED’s have proven to allow for longer battery life and can survive more abuse than incandescent lamp units. The downside to LED units is that they don’t tend to penetrate smoke as well as incandescent lights do.

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 my advice is to 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.

GEAR — Weapon Lights

For as long as there have been flashlights, there have been people wishing they could mount them to a weapon. If you’ve ever tried to use a hand held light in conjunction with a weapon it becomes instantly clear that doing so makes you feel like a monkey trying to hump a football. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and just plain sucks. Dedicated weapon lights were invented to help make the process of using a light and a weapon at the same time easier.

Handguns –

Today the two most popular options on the market are the Streamlight TLR-1 and the Surefire X series weapon lights….and both are very good units. The TLR-1 is by all accounts a durable, reliable, eminently useful weapon light option….and coming in at around 100 bucks it is probably the best value in a weapon light currently on the market.

The Surefire X-series weapon lights are my personal choice for a dedicated handgun mounted weapon light. I prefer the Surefire units because they are a bit more compact and have a mounting system that I like better than the TLR-1’s screw based system. They also have much better tape switches available than the TLR-1 does.

With these weapon lights there are essentially two types of controls:

1. Tape switches: Pressure activated switches that are connected to the back of the light by a wire and that can generally be mounted on the grip of the weapon, allowing a squeeze to the grip of the weapon to activate the light.

2. Rocker switches: A switch mounted directly to the back of the light unit that is activated by moving the switch up or down by a either the trigger finger or a finger on the weak hand.

The TLR-1, X series and the various M3 derivative lights all come with rocker switches as a standard option. For a number of people the standard rocker switch is just fine. Others, however, have trouble using them effectively. I have found that rocker switches on weapon lights just don’t work well for me. My fingers are considerably shorter than the length of my palm making it difficult for me to reach out in front of the trigger guard on many handguns to use the rocker switch on a weapon light. On a handgun like a Glock I don’t have much trouble with it, but on something like a Beretta 92 it’s incredibly difficult for me. As a result I prefer tape switches for my handgun mounted lights.


The “rocker” switch.


The “tape” switch.

Like everything else in the “tactical” world, tape switches on handguns bring their own unique challenges and issues to the table. The biggest is accidental light discharges. As I stated earlier light is a target indicator. You want to use a minimum amount of light when you are searching a structure or doing something similar because you don’t want the bad guy to know where you are. Tape switches are easier to use on purpose than rocker switches, but the downside to them is that they are also easier to use by accident than rocker switches, which can lead to lighting yourself or your teammates (if you do the CQB thing for a living) by accident. The consequences of this can range from being a minor inconvenience to alerting the enemy to your presence and getting yourself and/or team members killed. The consequences for the average citizen or law enforcement officer are typically going to be on the very low end of that spectrum, thus I would say that the higher risk of light AD’s with tape switches is a good trade-off for those individuals (like myself) who find that rocker switches don’t work well for them.

I stated earlier that I prefer the tape switches used by the Surefire X series lights and now I’ll tell you why. Many tape switches out there are held on to the grip of a handgun via an adhesive or Velcro that is held on to the grip and the tape switch with an adhesive. These do not tend to be good long term mounting solutions, and they don’t offer the freedom to take the light on and off of the weapon at will. The Surefire X series lights, however, have the “DEVGRU” switch which is molded around a stiff metal insert that is specifically designed for mounting on a particular type of weapon. This means you can take the X series light (an X200B in the pictures) on and off of the weapon at will without worry. You also don’t have to find ranger bands or similar tricks to hold the switch on the grip of the weapon for hard use.

Now all of that is great for those who have a weapon with an integrated accessory rail, but what if your weapon doesn’t have one? Thankfully the various light companies have realized that there are lots of people out there who don’t have rails on their handguns and have figured out various aftermarket solutions for this problem. One such solution is the Surefire MR-11 mounting rail you see here:

The MR-11 attaches to the front of the trigger guard on the Beretta 92 without damaging the finish, and allows you to mount a Surefire X series weapon light. Other manufacturers also offer similar adapters, but the Surefire add-on rails are the best I’ve seen from anyone. They are available for a number of service weapons like the Sig P226, the 1911, and the H&K USP.

Okay….so you now have a weapon light and you’ve got it mounted to your weapon…but how do you carry the bloody thing? There are a number of holster makers out there who offer carry options for weapon mounted lights. Safariland offers versions of their excellent law-enforcement holsters (like the 6004) to accommodate handguns with weapon lights, and so do other makers like Comp-Tac, Blade-Tech, etc.

Unfortunately when it comes to concealed carry of a handgun with a weapon light your options are significantly narrowed. Most of the previously mentioned holsters are belt holsters that require some sort of covering garment. If you want to carry IWB it’s decidedly harder to find a holster to accommodate that. Thankfully Raven Concealment has come up with a great system that allows you to take one of their belt holsters and convert it into an IWB if you choose to do so. As you can see in the photograph the Raven Concealment system uses screws to hold on the belt loops. You can remove the belt loops and replace them with rubber IWB loops on the front of the holster, J hooks, or even tuckable loops.

Their standard belt configuration is also the most concealable holster for a mounted handgun on a light that I’ve found. While a mounted light does add some bulk to the weapon, the Raven Concealment holsters handle it better than any other design I’ve tried. Lots of very experienced people are buying gear from Raven Concealment and consider them the best kydex maker around right now. I’m very pleased with the gear I have from Raven Concealment.

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