Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, May 2001

"Let There be Light": Low-light Tools, Tactics, and Training

By Ken J. Good

Copyright © Sure-Fire Institute, 2001. All rights reserved.


Most officer-involved shootings occur during low-light conditions. Unfortunately, little tested and codified doctrine exists to deal with these confrontations.

Work is therefore required to develop doctrine, and training must be developed that results in consistent results under stressful conditions. During this process, tools, tactics, and training must be viewed as a contiguous whole, as separation here leads to confusion, and confusion leads to human error.

The purpose of this article is therefore to discuss illumination:

Tool Selection I: Night Vision Devices

A number of night vision and thermal devices have been developed by the military, and these are sometimes used to assist the law enforcement officer in low-light environments. However, while these devices have unique and specific purposes, they are not the proverbial "Holy Grail" to conquer the darkness. Why?

  1. They are too expensive for most departments. For example, a single pair of night vision goggles costs several thousand dollars to purchase, and after that requires routine semi-annual maintenance.
  2. Specific threat identification can be difficult. That is, while you see a human silhouette, you donít know for sure who that person is.
  3. They are inconveniently sized. Some sights are as bulky as a large telescope. Therefore they are not portable. Meanwhile, goggles, while portable, impair the userís depth perception and reduce the peripheral awareness required for close quarter encounters or foot pursuits.
  4. They can be difficult to employ. Due to cost and size, night vision devices are likely to be locked inside a car trunk or squad box. Therefore they are often not available during fluid, dynamic situations.
  5. Finally, they do nothing to proactively disturb the threatís ability to function. Therefore they are better for surveillance than arrest.
Therefore it is my contention that properly used white light illumination tools are the most appropriate and effective tools for most law enforcement low-light operations.

Tool Selection II: White Light Devices

Selection Criteria

In the past, powerful white light illumination tools have been too large to carry comfortably. This means that they are often unavailable in fluid situations, as no one will consistently carry something that is falling off, bouncing against his leg, or adding more weight to the "lightweight" gear already worn. Furthermore, most existing lights are not specifically designed for use during close quarter engagements. Thus they can hinder the proper use of handguns and shoulder-fired weapons, or interfere with arrest and control. As a result, officers can find themselves inside a dark building at noon without a proper illumination tool because it was left inside the vehicle.

To overcome these problems, the optimal law-enforcement lighting tool should meet specific criteria. These include:

Within reason, price should not be a selection criterion. Why? Because, compared to alternative forms of night vision equipment, even the most expensive white light is cheap. Unfortunately, people often scrimp on their lighting tools. Thus officers willing to put a $1,500 prop on a ski boat are unwilling to spend $150 on a powerful lighting tool. To these officers, I say: "How much is your arm, your face, or, for that matter, your life, worth? How much is a tool worth that may allow your kids to keep a parent?" Departments are often no more sensible. As one of my colleagues says, "Letís stop issuing a $600 firearm along with a buck-fifty flashlight."

Why White Light?

While law enforcement is a 24-hour a day operation, violent criminal activity typically increases after the sun goes down. But even during the day, building interiors can present murky, poorly lit environments.

Why is this significant? Because, during the process of dark adaptation, oneís normal 20/20 vision may drop to the 20/400-20/600 range. In other words, you become legally blind.

After about 25 minutes, night vision improves dramatically. Unfortunately, most officer-involved shootings occur within the first 2 minutes of the officer arriving on scene. Therefore the officerís vision will not be dark adapted, whereas that of the threat may be. As a result, the threatís ability to observe, identify, and successfully attack targets may be significantly higher than that of the police. Powerful white lights neutralize this advantage. For a catalogue of products I recommend, see


How the Threat Sees You

On the military battlefield, one of the sniperís highest threats is another sniper. Why? Because the enemy sniper "sees" the world the same way you do. So, to survive, the sniper must always see himself from the opponentís viewpoint and attempt to operate from within his opponentís mind. It is a mental chess game, with potentially lethal consequences.

Low-light operations are no different Ė one must learn to "see in reverse."

Arriving on the scene, officers can be lulled into a dangerous false sense of security. From the officerís viewpoint, little useful visual information is being gathered and transmitted to the brain, and therefore wrongly assumes that any threat must be functioning with the same set of information. This is not correct. First, the suspect presumably has been in the space longer, so his eyes are already better adapted to the conditions. Moreover, the officer is probably moving, and the human eye is very good at detecting motion, even under adverse situations.

So, how does the officer successfully operate with this disparity? As noted above, by properly employing illumination tools.

Employing the Light

Searchers should start by dividing search areas into designated sectors. Too often, officers searching a given area attempt to take in everything all at once. However, your light, vision and field of fire only covers so much area. So be systematic, create overlapping zones, and make sure one area is clear before going to the next.

While searching, donít stare at the "hot spot" at the end of the beam. Instead, let your peripheral vision feed you data. An analogy is driving, where you donít stare at the speedometer and gauges, but instead pick up the information almost subconsciously.

When searching for potentially armed suspects, remember that the lightís beam leads straight back to the person carrying it. So whenever the light is turned on, then you are a target. Therefore use the light only intermittently. To do this, discharge a short high intensity burst of light, then move away from where you were just standing. Evaluate what you just saw from your new position. An analogy for this is the firefly. When you see the glow, you know where the insect is. But, when you try to grab the glow, you discover the insect is no longer there.

Next, remember that the eye picks up movement. So sometimes stop and wait in the dark, and see if something moves. If something does, flash there. Likewise, keep in mind that whenever you are moving, the threat may be able to see you. So watch that you donít silhouette yourself against the backdrop of doors, windows, and other officersí lights.

Finally, avoid the trap of patterns, as these allow the opponent to predict where you will be, and thereby ambush or avoid you. Therefore:

As you perfect this methodology, you will be able to obtain better information in smaller timeframes, and thereby decrease the duration of your light output. The goal is to bring your ability to see closer to the 20/20 end of the spectrum while simultaneously maintaining a reduced visible signature.

A Lighting Tool can be a "Non-Lethal" Force Alternative

Obviously you want to operate in situations that are advantageous to you. As a police officer, this means that you do not allow potential threats to move or see freely in the low-light environment.

So, letís take a look at the "Force Continuum." "Force," in this context, means projecting your will and thereby obtaining compliance. This continuum starts with talking and moves to deadly force. Somewhere in between lie less-lethal options such as pepper spray and batons.

If you were to ask most officers where a light would fall in this continuum, they would probably say as a blackjack or baton. However, if sufficiently powerful, the light beam itself is a non-lethal method of temporarily blinding and overwhelming a threatening individual, much as pepper spray would be used in a similar situation.

For example, think of a flash bulb unexpectedly going off in your face. You blink and turn away, right? Well, a lighting tool can do the same thing. Indeed, with some extremely powerful illumination tools, this blinding effect can be experienced out to 100 yards. (The military also has blinding lasers, but these are much more permanent and dangerous devices that are unlikely to be used by police departments.)

During the resulting confusion, officers have an opportunity to close the physical gap. For example, picture a vehicle stop. One officer with a very powerful light creates a wall of white light behind which other officers can safely maneuver. Having freedom of movement, these officers are now better situated to deploy various non-lethal options. Put another way, weíve all heard and used the term "blindsided," and here we are using the lighting tools to do just that.

This method is especially effective (and even painful) if the threatís eyes are fully dark-adapted. The procedure is not much different from poachers who jacklight deer, and nearly as effective. (Again, think of yourself in a dark room when that flashbulb went off. What did you do? You probably covered your eyes with your forearm, but you did not move.) Another useful part here to note is that when contact is made, the visually disoriented person usually feels unbalanced and is therefore predisposed to be taken down. Obviously this is an advantageous situation.

When using a light, a common mistake is to direct the "hot spot" of the flashlight toward the suspectís mid-torso. The reason for this is that most officers have been (correctly) taught that "hands kill," and therefore watch a suspectís hands. While this is sound doctrine in daylight, at night it is better to aim the beam directly at the suspectís eyes. The beam still provides you with enough light to let you see his hands, and meanwhile he has a hard time seeing. If you doubt this, recall the trick played upon new officers told to pull over for a roadside chat with a more experienced officer. The newer officer is directed to fix his or her gaze to a particular spot and the fun begins, as the prankster directs the vehicle spotlight directly into the uninitiated officerís retinas.

This said, the disorientation doesnít last long. Therefore the officer must understand and exploit the timing, and use it to close the gap and thereby take control of the situation. Using a lighting tool in this manner provides the officer with a truly "Non-Lethal" nocturnal option.

Lights and Lethal Force

In most cases, a known threat will not be using a light, as that would lead you straight to him. And, if he shoots a firearm, then you should be able to hear the report and see the muzzle flash. At that point you can decide whether to retreat, contain, or assault, based on your mission and resources.

Nevertheless, the threat may see you clearly, especially if you are moving and he is not. Therefore you may be literally under the gun while groping in the dark. And, regardless of whether you see him, if you do not illuminate, then it is almost guaranteed that you will see nothing of consequence. So illumination is mandatory.

While sorting this out in your mind, continue to light and move.

Use of a Handheld Light with Handguns or Shoulder Fired Weapons

While the techniques for holding a flashlight alongside your firearm must be mastered, such mechanical manipulation does not equal an understanding of low-light engagement principles. Low-light engagement principles include knowing how to:

These are primary concerns, and failure here can be catastrophic.

Holding a Lighting Tool and a Handgun

There are many effective ways of holding a light alongside a handgun. I am often asked, "Which flashlight technique is best? " "My department teaches such and such. Should I use this technique or another?" My answer to these questions is "Yes."

I am not equivocating, either: each technique has its own strength and weaknesses. Therefore evaluation is not just, "How well did my group appear on the target?" but also how it tests in the crucible of "Force on Force" training and operational experiences. Tactics, body types, training time, experience, and equipment selection matter, too.

Now, before going further, let me note that discussions over tactics can quickly disintegrate into arguments. Indeed, sometimes such discussions are almost "religious" in their fanaticism. I have also noted that True Believers are often unwilling to put their bodies in a good simulation environment utilizing "Force on Force" engagement training, thus showing all concerned, in real time, which doctrine generally works best.

This is unfortunate, too, as it can lead to people using the same technique in all situations, including situations in which the standard technique is clearly inappropriate. For example, I recently read an article stating that if anyone tells you keep the flashlight away from your body (a technique), you can immediately discount anything this individual has to say, as he does not know what he is talking about. However, during "Force on Force" training engagements, I have seen many handheld lights struck by projectiles that missed the officer entirely. Why? Because the suspect was shooting at the only known reference point: the light. No sights, no dots, no lasers, just line up the body and shoot. Under these conditions, even marginal shooters firing from 30 feet away during an otherwise no-light situation have made dead center shots on the flashlight. If I asked that same shooter to do that in the daylight with his sights, he probably could not.

So, letís face the obvious: lacking other information, opponents automatically assume that a torso is behind the bright light. Therefore it follows that shots fired toward the light stand a good chance of hitting whoever is holding the light. Knowing this, when hunting armed or potentially armed suspects, it makes sense to keep the flashlight away from my body as much as possible.

Of course, once Iíve locked down the situation in my mind and know where my threats are (or at least are not), then I instantly revert to a more "established" technique. The bottom line is that the situation must dictate what technique is best.

Using the Integrated Light on a Shoulder-Fired Weapon

Using a handheld light while simultaneously shooting a shoulder-fired weapon is a very effective technique. However, it is an advanced motor skill that requires additional training. Therefore it will not be addressed here.

Meanwhile, shooting shoulder-fired weapons that are not fitted with integrated (e.g., mounted) lights is risky. The reason is that when a shot is fired, you are almost guaranteed a second fight in court. Having a good light on your weapon serves to show that you had reasonable knowledge of what was happening beyond the end of your barrel. Failure here can be catastrophic. For example, in Southern California an officer misidentified a handheld radio for a gun and therefore engaged an unarmed citizen with a 12-gauge shotgun. The department was successfully sued for a wrongful shooting, but the permanently crippled victim probably does not appreciate that. And for what itís worth, the department subsequently purchased dedicated lighting systems for all its shotguns.


Now that we have obtained a quality lighting tool and mastered how to operate it, we need to do some low-light training. The goal is to provide the officer with a realistic stimulus in order to elicit a realistic response, and then evaluate and improve that response. The evaluation, by the way, is not a criticism but an honest evaluation. What was intended? What actually happened? What worked? What could be done better next time? After all, we want responses to come relatively easily and without internal turmoil or resistance.


To reduce mishaps, all techniques must be committed to the subconscious during daylight sessions. So the first step is to practice them in classrooms or at the range under well-lit conditions. During this phase, officers get familiar with equipment and master proper weapons handling procedures.

Evaluation here consists largely of ensuring safe gun handling practices.

The Range

Some firearms have self-illuminating sights. I do not like them myself because during low-light, close-quarter situations, they can provide the opponent with a visible target. But that is another discussion.

Anyway, my recommendation is that you experiment on a live-fire range at night with little or no light. Obviously safety of range personnel is vital, and if night vision equipment is available, the range officers should be wearing it.

While at the range, things to learn include how to:

  1. Pick up the front site from the muzzle flash of your first shot.
  2. Rapidly move to a new position and fire a second volley.
  3. Move to a third position.
Evaluation here includes safety, speed, and ability to group shots.

"Force on Force"

Try as we might, the range is not the place to simulate tactical engagements. So, once officers are familiar with weapons and qualified at the range, they should proceed to a shoot-house where "Force on Force" exercises can be conducted using paintball guns or equivalent devices.

These exercises should be done at night. Sure, training at night is inconvenient. (Who wouldnít rather go home and have dinner with the family?) And yes, it is more work to supervise and administer. (In the dark, you need safety officers all along the line instead of one in a center tower.) And yes, getting hit with a paintball stings. But without sounding Neanderthal, it is as my martial arts instructor says: "If you want to learn how to hit people, you must hit people and be hit by them."

Why shoot at night? Well, if this is where the light is going to be used, then that is where the training should be done. An alternative is a range building outfitted with very dim lighting.

"Force on Force" training reveals errors not readily observable using other training methods. A good analogy involves defensive tactics training. Picture an officer doing technical work in the mat room. She does steps 1-4 to facilitate a wristlock to takedown. Repeat and repeat again. Now ask that same officer to complete the task against a training partner wearing a FIST suit who has been told not to cooperate. An entirely different outcome may be experienced. Likewise, experienced, "well-trained" officers may fail to make rapid, correct, decisions in a "Force on Force" environment. Why? Perhaps because until then, they had simply been lucky, meaning decision-making processes were never seriously challenged

Finally, the learning curve during "Force on Force" training is very steep. After all, we all dislike pain and stress, and therefore take steps to reduce it.

An unrelated but not inconsequential benefit of "Force on Force" training is that through it, officers share ideas, experience, and knowledge. As a result, group cohesion is developed, and the entire groupís capabilities rise.

"Force on Force" has many advantages, and cannot be too highly recommended.

Virtual Reality Simulators

Virtual Reality (VR) simulators present scenarios on a flat, 2D screen. The officer is asked to stand there and view the screen and make shoot, no-shoot decisions based on the information observed and heard.

VR simulators introduce judgment considerations, improve timing, and elevate stress levels. Additionally, they allow officers to have immediate feedback from other officers about shoot/no-shoot decisions and allow participants to evaluate shot placement and shot intervals.

However, VR simulators are not a complete solution to low-light training, or a viable alternative to "Force on Force" training. Technical shortfalls of VR include:

Another problem in VR is that VR doesnít stress an officer unduly. Yes, one wants to do well, but if you make a mistake, no problem, rewind and try it again. In contrast, ask people to enter a room in which there is a real possibility of getting stung by non-lethal projectiles. Watch their faces, and you will see them mentally and physically dig down for a gut check. Heart rates increase. Adrenaline starts to pump. Breathing patterns change. Palms sweat. Auditory and visual exclusion manifests itself. Etc. This is much closer to reality than watching shapes on a screen.

Range operator shortfalls are another consideration. In some range mastersí minds, success in VR is determined solely by shot placement, number of shots, shot timing, shot intervals and the employment of the correct level of force. Donít get me wrong; these are important measures. However, they are not representative of the entire skill set. Other simulator operators focus primarily on the speed in which the officer put rounds on target. Unfortunately, speed is not part of the true way of strategy, and has little correlation with tactical prowess.

Finally, the rules of the simulation may have nothing to do with reality. For example, the rules of the simulation often insist that before returning fire, you first seek cover behind the wooden box provided on your left. Never mind that a person cannot outrun supersonic projectiles or that the wooden box does little to change the physical laws of the universe as they apply to my chest and his bullets. Likewise, during simulation debriefs I have been chastised for firing three rounds as opposed to two. This analysis is completely based in fantasy. If I have to destroy a foot, shin and kneecap to bring the head into view, so be it. It is what it is, no more no less. VR simulators will not reward this type of approach.

Tactical Prowess

Tactical prowess means:

For my money, tactical prowess is best developed in a well managed "Force on Force" training environment. VR and ranges, on the other hand, reward static firing, static movement, and textbook responses. These are the exact opposite of the skills needed to handle close-quarter engagements, and are therefore counterproductive uses of training time and resources.

Bottom Line


  1. High intensity white lights are essential tools for police officers.
  2. Officers require both initial and refresher training in order to use their lights to the best possible effect.
  3. Initial training involves range and virtual reality training, but refresher training should emphasize "Force on Force" exercises.
  4. Tactical prowess, with or without lights, involves more than simply shooting fast.
About the Author

Ken Good is presently the director of the Sure-Fire Institute, a California-based company offering instruction to law enforcement and military personnel. His complete résumé appears at Click on "staff".

JNC May 2001