Shooting with a Flashlight
The three best techniques for lighting your own way in a self-defense situation.
I’m a big fan of mounting lights on defensive handguns. Before you ever pull a trigger in low light or dark conditions, you need to know exactly what you’re shooting at. Besides positive identification, a weapon-mounted light will even allow you to see regular iron sights quite clearly. Yes, glow-in-the-dark Tritium sights are fantastic and highly recommended, but a light on the front of your gun makes for a surprisingly clear sight picture. Give it a try and you’ll see.
However, it’s important not to rely on a handgun-mounted light should you ever have to wander around your house as a result of some suspicious noise. (As a quick side note, unless you absolutely positively have to go looking around in the dark—perhaps to get to your children—you should avoid playing Ninja games with home invaders. It’s far safer to barricade in place and call 911. But that’s a whole other topic.)
The Danger of Searching with a Weapon-Mounted Light
For now, let’s assume you have to move through your home, looking for the source of that bump. You don’t want to be searching using the light on your gun. Why? You don’t yet know if the cause of that “bump” is something at which you should be shooting, or even pointing a gun. What if it’s a sleepwalking or thirsty child? Or a houseguest? Or the family dog? And there are plenty of incidents in which a neighbor stumbled into the wrong home at night. In any of these cases, you do NOT want to be aiming a loaded gun until you know for sure that you should be. That’s why you should always, always, always have a flashlight at the ready. Flashlights are for searching…weapon lights are for shooting.
So how do you use a flashlight in conjunction with a handgun? There are infinity-eleven techniques named after everyone, their brothers, and many of their cousins twice-removed, but they all boil down to three basic styles. We’re going to take a quick look at each and discuss some pros and cons, but keep these rules in mind before you continue:
• Some techniques have you anchoring your flashlight hand to your shooting hand. That means you’ll be pointing your gun right along with your flashlight. If your light is anchored to your shooting hand, it also moves with your gun…so the muzzle points right along with the light, which means you may end pointing a loaded gun as something or someone that isn’t a danger. If you use one of these methods, consider not bringing your light hand and gun hand together until you are ready to shoot. That will allow you to keep your gun muzzle in a safe direction while you’re searching with the flashlight. Admittedly, this strategy negates many of the benefits of the technique, and assuming a complex grip like this at the moment you decide to fire may be an unrealistic aspiration.
• When operating a light with your support hand, it’s all too easy to stick that hand in front of the muzzle when searching for danger under stress. Beware!
• If you have a weapon-mounted light along with a flashlight, consider dropping your flashlight if and when you make a decision to shoot. That will free up your support hand (which was holding the light) and allow you to use your support hand in a normal two-handed firing grip. If you choose this type of method, be sure to practice dropping that flashlight, because it’s unnatural for us to drop an object we’re holding—especially under stress.
1. FBI and Neck Index Techniques
These methods have you holding the flashlight in your support hand, and they differ slightly.
The FBI technique calls for holding the light using an icepick grip (holding the flashlight in your fist, with the lens closest to your pinky finger) out and away to the side, the theory being that you can move the light around independent of your gun and that if an attacker shoots at the light, it’s not near your vital areas.
The Neck Index technique calls for holding the flashlight, also using an icepick grip, but up against your neck or cheek. It’s more stable and less tiring than the FBI method.
These techniques offer flexibility and help you avoid pointing your gun where you don’t intend to, because it’s then pretty easy to keep your gun muzzle down while searching. On the other hand, you’ll be shooting one-handed, which is always more difficult and less stable.
2. Surefire and Related Techniques
The idea behind these methods is to grip your light, usually between your index and middle fingers with the lens forward of your knuckles. Then you can jam your light hand up against the gun and wrap a couple of fingers around the grip. This method works well with small flashlights that have a tail cap on/off switch. If your light has a switch on the side, hold it as you would a sword, and you can still press your light hand up against your handgun.
On the con side, unless you’re really disciplined and can hold a light in this manner while away from your gun hand, you’ll be pointing your gun where you point your light, so it’s no different than searching with a weapon-mounted light, which we all agree is kind of a bad idea. It’s a good method for shooting, but unnatural for searching and requires you to bring your hands together at the last second to fire.
3. Harries Technique
This method combines the FBI and neck index concepts with the Surefire and related methods. You hold the light with your support hand, using an icepick grip. Bring it under your firing hand and rest your firing-side wrist on top of your support-hand wrist. Rather than shooting with one hand unsupported, you get a little bit of benefit from the “shelf” your support hand provides. If you experiment with the Harries method, you might find it more natural to search with the light a distance away from your firing hand, then use it for a rest as you make a decision to shoot.
Recently I had the opportunity to experiment, practice, and tinker with firearm-light techniques in a live-fire shooting cave under the hills of Kentucky. In pitch-dark conditions and with safe targets and backstops, I spent some time searching and actually shooting with a variety of these techniques using a gun with a mounted light and laser. Here’s what I learned:
One caveat with most of these techniques is that they were developed before the advent of weapon-mounted lights. As you consider the pros and cons of each, they all gravitate back to shooting with the flashlight held in your hand. So the problem comes down to this. You should always use a separate flashlight for searching, but shooting with a flashlight always raises compromises. None of the methods of holding a light while shooting a gun offer as stable of a shooting grip as a normal two-handed technique. Of course, if your gun has a mounted light, you can shoot it normally, just like in daylight conditions, but you shouldn’t use a mounted light a searching light. So how do you reconcile these things?
I found—and keep in mind, this is just me—that I preferred the “separated” styles where I held the flashlight with my free hand and carried the gun one-handed in a low ready position. If I rounded a corner and found a target, I could simply shoot one handed. Personally, I didn’t see any significant performance difference between the FBI and Neck Index methods. What I did see was a noticeable improvement in my ability to get quick hits simply by moving into the Harries partially supported position. That extra stability really made a difference.
The best scenario for me in terms of reliable hits on target was transitioning to the weapon-mounted light when I made a decision to fire. By dropping the flashlight, I quickly resorted to “normal” daylight gun operation and could use a two-handed grip, even if I had already fired a shot or two one-handed. While that may sound like a great plan, it’s not at all natural to simply let go of a tool you’re using. I’m not necessarily sold on that strategy, and I can already see that it would require lots of practice before I would begin to trust that I would perform a transition like that under stress.
There’s one more method I tried, and that’s not using a handheld flashlight at all. I didn’t include it with the others because without lots of training, it’s dangerous. Modern weapon-mounted lights are bright—really bright. If you point one at the floor, it’s going to light up a room. Some advocate using this method to navigate and search, pointing out the benefit that no transition of your hands to a firing grip is necessary—you just have to raise your gun and aim. In theory, you won’t be pointing your gun at anything but the floor. In reality, your natural tendency when seeing someone, whether good guy or bad, will most likely be to raise the light, and therefore the gun. See what I mean? I don’t recommend this method, but you’ll hear about it, so it made sense to address it here.
Turn Out that Light—and Use Caution
So where does all this leave you? It’s simple, really. You have to try these methods on your own. Using a gun in low-light conditions is not an inherently safe activity, and any of the classic methods can end badly if you don’t employ extreme caution. Only by doing it in a safe, practice-only, completely unloaded manner will you figure out which method works for you given your natural tendencies, gun type, and flashlight type. Carrying a triple-checked unloaded gun, move around your house using a flashlight. Practice dry firing when you identify a target. If you really want to challenge yourself, try a magazine change while holding a flashlight. I guarantee that will get you thinking.
Walking around in the dark and trying to use a flashlight, handgun, and weapon-mounted light in conjunction with each other is not at all natural, so practice it in advance to get the kinks in your plan identified and resolved.