Self Defense Shooting in Low Light

An instructor demonstrates the Harries flashlight technique. It’s accomplished by bringing the support hand under the strong hand, not around the front. The backs of the hands provide a stable shooting platform because each hand applies equal amounts of pressure. The author says that when she was teaching this technique, she stressed that shooters shouldn’t cover the gun hand when getting into position.

Ask concealed carriers what skills they would like to improve upon, and you’ll get a variety of responses: Increased accuracy. Better firearm manipulation. A faster draw from the holster. Faster follow-up shots.

These were the areas many police officers focused on when I was the Range Master. But, ironically, none of them ever asked to work on low-light threat identification and shooting, which is an important skill for both police officers and those who rely on a gun for self-defense. If not for mandatory training, the majority of officers would probably would never get any range training on it.

I co-instruct a low-light shooting firearms course at the annual International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers (ILEETA) conference, and discovered that organizations across the country were also neglecting to teach low-light threat ID and shooting. I’m amazed by this because if an officer or, for that matter, an armed citizen uses deadly force erroneously in a low light setting, it has the potential to have a tragic and catastrophic impact on the lives of all parties involved.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples in the law enforcement field of shootings involving citizens armed with beer cans, cell phones, nail clippers, and other non-lethal objects. There is no shortage of accidental blue-on-blue shootings, either. Considering that most violent crime occurs during the time of day when light is diminishing, it’s important for police and armed citizens alike to understand their capabilities and limitations in the dark. Let’s take a look at the physiology behind vision in reduced light.

Physiology of Vision in Reduced Light

It’s critical to understand that 80 percent of all information that the brain receives is acquired through sight. An inability to see greatly reduces our ability to make sound, accurate decisions. It is also important information to understand aggressors, so that you can formulate a plan to impair their vision.

The eye is made of cells called cones and rods. The cones are situated in the center of the retina. They require a lot of light in order to function. These cells are responsible for color, depth perception, and detailed sight. They are important because they help us make accurate identifications of threats.

Rods are cells that are located around the periphery of the cone cells. These cells function in low light. Rods help us determine an object’s shape or outline, and also detect movement, speed and direction. In low light, we see in shades of black, white and grey, depending on the level of ambient light. This is why, for example, witnesses typically incorrectly identify a vehicle color in low light.

When our vision is adapted to darkness, rod cells predominate. But the minute we are exposed to bright light these cells stop functioning and the cone cells take over…within three minutes. If we then try to readapt our eyes back to low light, it can take up to 30 minutes to fully adjust. During that darkness, scotopic vision, which gives us “off center” vision, occurs. We actually have a blind spot in the center of our vision.

Now that we understand the physiology of vision in reduced light, let’s take a look at a study regarding low light threat identification before we discuss how this information can be used to aid armed citizens.

Reduced-Lighting Threat Identification Research

In the late 1990s, Dr. Paul Michel, O. D., conducted research on officers’ ability to distinguish between a lethal and non-lethal object in low light conditions. This research was in response to an officer-involved shooting in which a police officer misidentified a beer can as a firearm. Even though many of us think we can see pretty well in reduced lighting conditions, this study definitively proves we are far more likely to misidentify objects.

Michel conducted his research in a sterile environment void of stress, environmental factors, and other criteria that impacts those involved in a critical incident, with 12 new police recruits. Although he does not disclose their ages, it is likely that they are young due to age hiring restrictions that are typical for new recruits. This is of great importance because our vision, especially in reduced light, deteriorates exponentially with age. He does disclose that none of the participants had any eye issues, and their vision was corrected to 20/20.

The experiment exposed 12 new police recruits to a subject, who was dressed in a black jacket. The published study doesn’t state the distance at which officers were situated from the subject, but; it is probable that it was within typical officer-involved shooting distances of 15 yards or less. The subject was given four objects: a 6-inch piece of garden hose, an 8-inch piece of black pipe, an 8-inch chrome-plated screwdriver, and a blued steel Model 59 Smith & Wesson handgun. This model handgun had been documented in police reports as the most misidentified objects by police officers for the previous ten years.

The subject held the objects one at a time in her fist, with her black jacket as a background. No movement was made to shape the perceptions. The cadets were given one second to observe the objects in varying diminished lighting conditions before being asked to identify the objects.

These are the results:

• At .04 foot-candles of light, cadets accurately identified the objects 4/48 times, for a 9% success rate.

• At .10 foot-candles of light, cadets accurately identified the objects 8/48 times = 18%.

• At .25 foot-candles of light, cadets accurately identified the objects 15/48 times = 34%.

• At .45 foot-candles of light, cadets accurately identified the objects 37/48 times = 84%.

To give this some perspective, .01 foot-candles of light is comparable to a full moon on a clear night, whereas a person standing directly in a beam of a vehicle’s headlight that’s about 30-40 feet away is comparable to .45 foot-candles of light.

It’s important to note that even with the rates of accuracy of the cadets, researchers noted that many times the participants’ accurate responses lacked confidence and certainty. Also, 80 percent of the participants stated during the exit interview that they used the positioning of the subject’s hands to make their determination…even though the hands were posed in a “neutral” position.

The main point with this hold is the cheek, not the neck, because neck pressure can constrict blood flow. Using the Surefire method helps the shooter align the light with vision. The downside is that an armed subject may shoot toward the light, so failing to move off line after shutting off illumination would jeopardize the shooter’s safety.

Clearly, research and science paint a compelling picture that anyone who carries a firearm for self-defense should ensure that they are able to undeniably identify a threat. And, in all likelihood, such an event will probably occur during periods of reduced light. As the aforementioned study points out, ambient lighting is not sufficient to make a positive, threat identification (especially considering that some metropolitan cities are resorting to shutting off streetlights in order to save money). You will never know if there will be sufficient lighting when a deadly force encounter occurs, so my advice is to provide your own light source whenever possible.

When carrying a handheld flashlight or using a weapon-mounted flashlight, be sure to:

• Illuminate the threat and continue to illuminate while shots are fired (if justified). This is necessary in order to terminate your deadly force action should the subject lower the level of force (i.e. drop the weapon).

• Practice good light discipline, toggling between on and off.

• Be careful not to create a light trail (dragging the flashlight toward your position). This is very difficult for most shooters.

• Be careful not to bounce light off of cover (self blinding).

• Remember that depending on its brightness, the light can temporarily disorient the threat, so use that to your advantage.

• If using a handheld flashlight, be sure to practice various shooting and reloading techniques. These skills are much harder than one might think. This is not instinctive shooting and requires repetition. There is also a tendency to shoot high.

• Whatever light source you choose, make sure to check the batteries regularly. Or, better yet, buy a rechargeable light and keep it charging until needed.

Here is a video from a low light training course for law enforcement firearms instructors. The drill we were teaching was practicing handheld lighting techniques and making sure trainers didn't leave a light trail, that they illuminated and identified the threat during firing, turned off illumination, and then stepped off line because the threat will likely shoot at the last point of illumination.

Improving your low light threat identification skills doesn’t even require a trip to the range. With an empty gun, or a training gun, anyone can work on getting into a shooting position safely. In addition it is important to study light patterns. Work with someone else and just a flashlight to see what impact light has from both perspectives. Even though shooting fast and accurately are important skills, the more critical skill is likely to be the one you’ve never given must thought to…identifying and addressing a threat in reduced light.

Low Light Threat Identification Drill

By replicating the study, participants can gain a better understanding of how an outside light source can impact their ability to identify an object. Here’s how:

• Place an individual in a black top in a shadowy corner of a dimly lit room (could be an indoor range).

• Have that individual select four objects, only one of which is lethal (ensure it is a training firearm; otherwise, check it to make sure it’s unloaded and safe).

• Tell the volunteer to hold the object in their fist against the shirt.

• Ask participants to line up unarmed and look to in the opposite direction of the volunteer until it is their time to view.

• From about 15-20 yards away, have the participants take a one-second glance toward the subject and then turn and walk away to the end of the line.

• At the end of the viewing, ask participants to note their guesses on the object.

• Repeat this for all four objects.

• Collect the results.

• Repeat the viewing process, only this time all the participants should illuminate the subject with a flashlight of any output.

• Ask participants to record their guesses.

• Compare the results.