Don’t Take the Dark for Granted
Why it’s Important to Train to operate in a Low-Light Environment
By Brian Fitzpatrick
Why do I need Low-Light Training?
In the United States, case law mandates that law enforcement agencies train their officers to operate with firearms in low-light environments — in the basic academy and at least annually during in-service training. A recent FBI annual report on officers killed and injured has indicated that approximately sixty percent of police officers murdered while on-duty were killed during the hours of darkness. This figure doesn’t include officers killed inside of darkened structures during daylight hours, often a low-light environment. As armed civilians (concealed carry permit holders, residents maintaining firearms for home and personal defense, recreational shooters, security guards, retired law enforcement personnel, etc.), should we hold ourselves to a lower standard? As a retired police officer, now private citizen, I would argue that as civilians, our lives are no less valuable than those of the fine law enforcement personnel who are sworn to protect us. If you agree, and you’re a gun owner, then you should be training and thinking about how to survive and prevail in an armed or violent encounter that occurs in darkness or near-darkness.
While operating in a low-light environment, hazards inherent to any violent encounter will likely be magnified and you’ll face additional dangers brought on by darkness:
- Silhouetting yourself due to backlighting, presenting a well defined target.
- Improper flashlight or weapon light technique, telegraphing your location and negatively affecting your accuracy.
- Low-light conditions can inhibit accurate perception of your surroundings, resulting in poor navigation, unsafe movement, and hazardous obstacles.
- Increased reaction time caused by darkness gives the advantage to your adversary.
- Darkness induced critical decision making errors can result in non-justifiable uses of force, such as poor target discrimination—misidentifying innocent as threat (Blue on Blue shootings).
- Amplified startle response due to darkness-induced-stress, which when combined with poor trigger discipline can have serious undesired results.
- Unsafe or ineffective weapon/equipment manipulation will probably be magnified in darkness (weapon and illumination controls, reloads, weapon malfunction clearing, etc.).
How do I find good Training?
Recognizing the need for low-light training is a good start. Where do you go from there? You should build a strong foundation of knowledge and skills, starting with a dedicated low-light firearms training course, taught by qualified instructors. You might be able to find a quality training provider in your area or you might have to travel a bit. Don’t settle for close or cheap. Remember that your life, and the lives of your loved ones may ultimately depend on what you learn and assimilate into your personal training regimen.
At a minimum, your instructor should be certified to conduct low-light training by one or more recognized training agencies, such as California or another state’s POST (Peace Officer Standards & Training) commission, the FBI, or the NRA Law Enforcement Division. Seek out training providers with significant law enforcement experience, both as instructors and in field assignments, including patrol, K-9 unit and tactical teams. These guys have spent a lot of time operating in the dark and can transfer knowledge to you. Also valuable are trainers with instructional and operational experience in military special operations units. There is no substitute for real world experience.
Diligently research training providers whose classes you’re considering. Download their course flyer or syllabus, instructor biographies and articles they’ve written from their website, blog, online magazines, or other sources and if possible, interview instructors over the phone or email. Find out about their course content, teaching philosophy, emphasis on tactical mindset development and commitment to safety. Make note of required personal equipment that you’ll need to have and of prerequisite training courses. Students registering for my company’s Low-Light Gunfighting Techniques course must have previously completed Intermediate Defensive Pistol (ours or from another school) including formal holster training.
What topics should be taught in a Low-Light Class?
Generally, the goals of low-light training are to impart the necessary knowledge and skills to safely operate in a low-light environment, to enhance one’s ability to survive and prevail in an armed or violent encounter occurring in low light, to maximize your ability to read, interpret, and exploit varying ambient light conditions for tactical advantage, and to gain proficiency using hand-held and weapon mounted illumination tools. Specifically, a low-light tactical shooting class should include:
- Understanding the value and need for, and the philosophy of low-light training.
- Understanding basic physiology of how human vision reacts to darkness and light, and then using that knowledge to gain tactical advantage.
- Learning the ten key principles of low-light training
- Learning the five principal hand-held flashlight shooting techniques
- Safely and effectively operate weapon mounted lights in dry-fire and live-fire drills.
- Understand the advantages, disadvantages, and limitations of the two common types of weapon mounted light actuator switches (integrated and remote).
- Safely and accurately operate your personal handgun—under direct supervision—in a controlled low-light environment (personally owned shoulder weapons may be allowed with additional conditions and training prerequisites).
- Low-light navigation, negotiating terrain, use of cover, movement in darkness, and use of darkness as concealment
- Threat identification in darkness
Now that I’ve taken Low-Light Training, what’s next?
As with any other training involving gun handling, you’ll want to incorporate your newly acquired skills and tactics into your regular dry-fire regimen, and also practice them on the range using live ammunition. You’ll want to practice your hand-held flashlight shooting techniques, and if you’re running a weapon mounted light, definitely include that skill in your dry-fire routine. During dry-fire practice, when you manually actuate your weapon light, simply indexing the switch shouldn’t move your front sight off your aiming point/dry-fire target. If your gun goes “click” and your front sight moves off of the target because you’ve caused movement when you actuated your light, then you’ll need to fix that problem (of course, make sure that pressing the trigger isn’t causing the movement either). Don’t hesitate to ask your instructor for his/her advice on dry-fire techniques.
Getting back to hand-held flashlight shooting techniques, most people have one technique (out of the five most common) that they prefer, and consequently only practice that one. That’s what I used to do—I only practiced the neck index technique because that’s what we trained for at the police department—however, I soon realized that the neck index tends to expose too much of your head and upper body when shooting from behind cover, such as a pole, pillar, trash barrel or car engine. So as a result, I started to include the Modified FBI technique into my personal training regimen for use with cover. Now I practice two different hand-held flashlight techniques. Why, you might ask, practice hand-held flashlight techniques when you’re running a weapon mounted light? Well what if your weapon light dies suddenly? Or what if you’re running a different pistol (without an accessary rail) on that day? You should be fully prepared to engage with either skill in an emergency.
Now that you’re comfortable with low-light theory, movements and shooting techniques, you should consider taking a related training course, maybe a scenario based class, that puts into use the low-light tactics and skills that you’ve learned. Most Active Shooter Response classes involve movement inside of structures in varying lighting conditions. In addition to our Active Shooter Civilian Response class, our company offers a Building Search & Room Clearing course which incorporates many low-light topics, both in lecture/knowledge development and also in practical and scenario based exercises.
If you’ve read this entire article, you are probably serious about learning to survive, and help others to survive, in low-light encounters with bad guys. You should take the next step and get some quality training. Stay safe and never stop training.
About the Author:
Brian Fitzpatrick is the owner and training director of MV Tactical & Firearms Training, Inc., which offers all levels of firearms and tactics instruction to the civilian and law enforcement communities. Brian is a retired police sergeant with thirty-four years of experience in Los Angeles County, California law enforcement. He has been a civilian and law enforcement firearms and tactics instructor for twenty-eight years. You can contact Brian at email@example.com. For information about MV Tactical & Firearms Training, Inc., go to www.mvtactical-firearmstraining.com.