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Shooting Straight in the Dark

There is no more important skill a cop can learn than how to use a handgun in low-light conditions.

June 02, 2009  |  by William Murphy


About 60 percent of officer-involved shootings occur during the hours of darkness. That's a high percentage, and it doesn't even include gun battles between law enforcement officers and suspects in darkened buildings during daylight hours. Overall, low-light incidents may account for as much as 85 percent of officer-involved shootings in large metropolitan areas.

But very few officers are receiving adequate low-light training. That's dangerous for the health of the officers, and it leaves the agencies they work for open to potentially devastating lawsuits if an officer should shoot an innocent bystander in a low-light incident.

Police agencies and individual officers have a desperate need for low-light training. But not just any low-light training. They need training that can help them prevail against a threat in the dark.

The first basic test for evaluating a low-light tactical training program is to look at the results. If a student can't draw both his light and his weapon to deal with a threat after successfully completing a program, then it is clearly a bad program.

Using Your Light

There are several reasons to use a flashlight in police operations: to observe and detect, to eliminate anonymity, to identify threats, and to illuminate and control. The proper use of the flashlight lets you see danger before it can affect you and it can send the goblins waiting in the dark running away.

The best way to handle danger is to avoid it.

The second best way is to be ahead of the reaction curve. In most incidents, officers are behind the reaction curve because they have to wait for the bad guy to make the first move.

Using a flashlight as a tactical tool lets you identify danger and react to it. It helps you tighten the reaction curve. The light allows you to more quickly see a suspect draw a weapon so that you can end the threat before you are attacked.

Tactical Flashlight Techniques

There are four techniques that you have to master to be an effective low-light fighter.

The FBI Technique—Most likely developed by a government employee or trainer, this technique has been shown in numerous movies and TV shows. In the FBI technique, the light is held in the support hand extended away from the body with the bezel forward.

The Harries Technique—Developed by late Gunsite instructor Mike Harries, this technique requires the shooter to hold the flashlight in his or her support hand with the knuckles up on the light and the thumb activating a rear pressure switch. The back of the hands mate together with dynamic tension in the arms, holding the light hand and gun hand together.

The Neck Indexing Technique—Developed by use-of-force instructor Ken Good, this technique requires the light to be held in the support hand, knuckles up, thumb to the rear against the support side of the face or neck.

The SureFire Technique—Many trainers helped develop this technique, including Pat Rogers, Chris Caracci, and Rich Jee. It was developed specifically for the SureFire lights designed with contoured bodies and rubber grommets known as the "Z" series. The light is held in the support hand like a cigar, between the pointer and index finger, with the knuckle of the thumb activating the light. The index, ring, and little fingers wrap around the shooting hand.

Each of these techniques has its pluses and minuses. The Harries and SureFire techniques are great on the square range and allow for improved marksmanship because they allow both hands to steady and control the handgun during firing. The SureFire method allows you to move and shoot with greater range of motion and flexibility. Neck indexing is a great fighting tool. Even though you are pointing the weapon with one hand, the light clearly lights up your sights, allowing you to move and hit quickly. With neck indexing, you can lower your profile and raise the light above your head, hopefully causing the enemy to shoot over your head.

All these techniques should flow from one to the other smoothly, so neck indexing can quickly become modified FBI technique, and for more accuracy, modified FBI can quickly become the Surefire or Harries techniques.

The problem with the SureFire, neck indexing, and Harries techniques is that the light is in front of you or close to your head. We know from force-on-force training that your enemy may focus on the light and shoot at it. On a brightly lit live fire range, I could hold a flashlight in my right hand, extended away from my body and ask you to do the "William Tell" and shoot the light out of my hand. I would probably become a triple amputee. But turn out the lights and even the worst shooter will hit the bezel of the light.

Both neck indexing and the FBI technique allow the light to be held away from the body so that return fire will not hit you. These techniques also allow you to put cover between yourself and the enemy. For example, you can point the light out from one side of a telephone pole, your gun on the other, and protect your torso with the pole itself.

You Need Them All

Most students learn one technique and think it will work in most, if not all, situations. Force-on-force training teaches you the dynamics of interpersonal confrontations and that they are fluid and moving.

To fight, we need eye, sights, and illumination. In the SureFire or Harries techniques, a right-handed shooter has the advantage of rolling around a right corner exposing only a small portion of his or her body. When the corner is reversed, both techniques require the shooter to roll out further into the danger area, exposing more of themselves before the light shines on the possible threat.

In close quarters building clearing, the ability to shoot and work a light or gun with either hand becomes critical. But if you don't have the ability to change hands, neck indexing will allow you to work the compromised corner with greater safety. The answer to part of the problem is to attach a light on the pistol. This takes away the need for switching hands to corner because the light and gun are always ready and the setup is ambidextrous.

Whether you have a light on your gun or not, you still need to learn all four techniques. Lights burn out or break; you can't bet your life on one light attached to your gun's rail.

The biggest concern many officers have about the tactical use of flashlights is the fact that the light can give away their positions. A number of techniques have been developed to minimize this problem.

Intermittent light seems to work best. Too much or too little light puts you at a disadvantage. Light, shoot, move, and communicate sums it all up. The better you get at it, the safer you'll be.

All of us who have learned low-light pistol techniques have our favorite methods. And that's fine. But you need to know all four methods or you will be at a disadvantage in a real low-light gun battle.

William Murphy is a 29-year veteran of police work assigned to patrol division who has worked SWAT and training. A senior rangemaster for Gunsite Academy Inc., Murphy is the lead instructor for low-light and firearms courses at the SureFire Institute and Firearms Training Associates. He is also author of "The CCW Survival Guide."

Tags: SureFire, Flashlights, Low-Light Training, Flashlight Techniques, shooting techniques

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