Rule #4: "Identify your target and what is behind it."
—Col. Jeff Cooper, Rules of Firearms Safety
For many years, handgun-mounted lights were reserved for SWAT teams and K-9 handlers. The thought was that their unique assignments and extra training equaled justification for weapon-mounted lights. But that has changed. I began teaching the use of tactical illuminators, otherwise known as weapon-mounted lights, to law enforcement agencies over 10 years ago. As an instructor in the firearms unit I helped train our 140-officer department to carry them regardless of assignment.
According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR), 77% of assaults on law officers occur in low light. And 68% of police gun fights occur in reduced or no light conditions. In one-third of those shootings, reduced light was determined to have a direct result on the outcome of the engagement.
Over the last 10 years of sharing what I have learned about weapon-mounted lights, I have heard the same questions, concerns, and training issues from departments around the country. I have found that discussing Jeff Cooper's Rules of Firearms Safety in reverse is an easy way to hit all of the bases for a solid tactical illuminator training program.
John Dean "Jeff" Cooper was a United States Marine, firearms instructor, writer, and original founder of what is now known as the Gunsite Academy. He advocated following four basic rules of gun safety:
1) All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
2) Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
3) Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
4) Identify your target and what is behind it.
As firearms instructors or administrators, we can't simply allow officers to affix weapon-mounted lights to their pistols without proper training. And all officers should take it upon themselves to understand and follow these rules before using pistol-mounted lights on duty. So here's a primer to catch everyone up.
Know Your Target and Surroundings
The main purpose of pistol lights is to illuminate and identify the threat. Having the pistol equipped with a light allows for rapid illumination without fumbling for a handheld light, or trying to align the light beam with the direction of the pistol. When engaging a threat, regardless of lighting conditions, a verbal command of "Police! Show me your hands!" is a good way to establish contact and hopefully gain compliance without the use of force.
The "Police!" announcement is critical, as today's high-lumen lights are blinding to the receiver. What does the unassuming person think when they are blinded and only hear, "Hands up!" or "Get on the ground!" Without seeing the uniform, one might assume these commands are precursor to a robbery.
The tactical illuminator is NOT to be used as a flashlight for navigation, looking for lost objects or evidence, or for general lighting. Agencies often ask me, "What is your department policy for the tactical illuminator?" I usually answer, "It's the same as yours." I explain that every agency has a policy that prohibits drawing your firearm at times it is not needed. I explain that they can use a tactical illuminator in any scenario where the drawing of the pistol is authorized, such as when there is reasonable belief that a lethal threat may exist. If it's OK to draw, it's OK to use your tac light.
Keep Trigger Finger Off Trigger Until Ready to Fire
I like teaching the "Rule of Thumb." That is, the operation of the tac light is only done with the support hand thumb. A trigger finger is for pulling the trigger. For righthanded shooters, the thumbs do support functions on a handgun like operating the safety, magazine release, decocker, or slide stop.
I am not a huge fan of the pressure-activated switch for pistol lights, as I feel it tends to encourage a different grip on the weapon and could cause the light to illuminate at a time that darkness is preferred. They do have some advantages, mainly the simplicity of one-handed operation. In lieu of the pressure switch and the use of support hand thumb, the strong hand middle finger can be used as an emergency back-up, as this requires a special attention to detail, but never use the trigger finger.
When a potential threat is identified, the light switch should be locked on. This allows operators to concentrate on their grip and not on keeping forward or downward pressure to keep the momentary switch activated. I have found that it is difficult to keep momentary switches engaged while firing. I suggest only using the momentary light switch for brief navigation or signaling.
Never Let the Muzzle Cover Anything You Are Not Willing to Destroy
Also known as the laser rule, this one is really important. Officers need to be taught to use the halo or corona of light to search and ID threats, not the "hot spot" of the light. This is counter intuitive to our childhood experiences with "flashlight tag," but you must understand that the hot spot is coaxial to bore, which means it is pretty close to where the pistol is pointed and the rounds will strike. Close enough that it is good for close range aiming and shooting up to about seven yards.
But you don't want to aim your weapons directly at people just to ID them. And you don't need to. The major manufacturers all build pistol lights so that the corona of the light will provide sufficient illumination of the person and their hands at any distance when the hot spot is aimed at the subject's feet.
All Guns Are Always Loaded
The mounting and dismounting of a tactical illuminator for cleaning, battery replacement, etc., should only be done when the weapon is UNLOADED AND CLEAR. You wouldn't field strip the gun while it is loaded, and you shouldn't remove the light or try to clean it while it is on a loaded gun. Magazine out, slide locked to rear, check chamber and mag well.
You must use a holster that allows for the weapon to be drawn and holstered with the light on. This is critical to the speed and security of the weapon. There is no time in the field to safely mount or dismount a weapon light from a loaded pistol.
In addition to Jeff Cooper's rules, there are several important considerations when it comes to training with and using weapon-mounted lights in law enforcement.
A big one is to train to use as much light as you need to finish your fight. If darkness provides a tactical advantage, then shut the light off. However, if you need to cover the suspect while he is on the ground, potentially still armed or reaching for his weapon, then leave the light on if it helps you see what he is doing.
Too often I hear field instructors yelling at students to "Shut that light off!" immediately after they have fired a volley at their paper targets. But these instructors are not thinking about the scar this creates for the officers. In the real world, when an armed suspect goes to the ground but is not out of the fight, what happens when the officer can't see if the suspect still has the gun because he was told to "Shoot two rounds, shut the light off, and holster" in a qualification course?
Weapon lights are great, but always keep in mind that they are not the only option. Having access to a handgun-mounted light does not completely eliminate the need to still teach handheld light fighting techniques like Harries, Chapman, Rogers, or my preference, the "Neck Index." There are times that the light in your hand is sufficient to finish the fight. More importantly, you'll need to know what to do if your weapon light has failed.
Transitions from handheld lights to pistol-mounted lights should also be practiced. You want to get to your two-handed grip as quickly as possible in a pistol fight. We have most of our training in this grip, and therefore the most comfort and confidence in our shooting ability this way. Holding a flashlight with one hand is a marginal shooting grip by comparison.
It should be remembered that high-intensity light is also an OODA loop interrupter for the person on the receiving end. Use this knowledge to your advantage. Even in daylight, the 500+ lumen light or strobing light creates a concealment halo to hide a portion of the operator. The idea is that "concealment is a light switch away." It won't stop bullets, but it gives a margin of advantage to the operator versus not blinding the adversary.
To encourage the use of weapon lights during all lighting conditions, consider removing the batteries during daylight shooting drills, but getting in the habit of operating the switch into "constant on" or "strobe" mode for all of your draw exercises.
Lt. Brian Marshall is a 20-year veteran of law enforcement who currently oversees the Training Unit and Support Services for the Marietta (GA) Police Department and serves as department rangemaster. He has been a patrol officer, field training officer, crime scene technician, patrol sergeant, patrol lieutenant, SWAT operator, hostage negotiator, community outreach/bike patrol officer, detective sergeant, and public information officer.