Weapon Light or Flashlight? The Answer is Obvious.

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Why not both? (Photo: David Higginbotham)

If you focus on any aspect of gun culture long enough, you’ll find that there’s a contentious point; a matter of debate. You’re likely to step right in one at any gun shop, kitchen table FFL or sporting goods store — 9mm versus .45, Mossberg versus Remington, AR versus AK … flashlight versus weapon light.

I used to side on the flashlight side, at least when it came to handguns and the nightstand. Using a flashlight with a handgun is more difficult, but since you can use the flashlight discretely apart of the pistol, it’s more versatile.

The argument goes, you don’t necessarily want to point a gun at something to light it up. Not only is it threatening, it can violate the basic rules of gun handling and in some circumstances, could be considered brandishing a firearm.

It’s a trade-off: shoot one-handed, give up some control of the pistol, and gain a whole lot more control of the light source.

I learned to shoot handguns with a revolver, one-handed, without a provision for a weapon light — a flashlight just made sense. And this is me admitting a personal bias: I can’t stand it when a new shooter asks “I just got a new Springfield-Sauer Glock model 7. What kind of mods should I get first?”

That increasingly common question instantly sets off a clusterbomb of knee-jerk reactions from me. Buying more shit won’t make you better. You don’t need that shit, just put some bullets downrange. You need to get the hang of shooting before you can start thinking about changes to your handgun. A flashlight was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you. You are not an operator.

Screw that. If your home defense guns have provisions for lights, put lights on them. Or at least, start thinking about it.

Here’s the thing. A weapon light doesn’t replace a flashlight, it accompanies a flashlight.

I changed my mind, like so many other good reasons to change minds, after realizing I had made a colossal mistake. I was breaking a personal rule: never assume you’ll be in remotely good shape in a high-stress situation.

Going back to talking to new shooters, one piece of advice I harp on is practice shooting in a number of ways. Don’t just line up at the range and burn through your ammo. Shoot using both hands. Shoot using one hand. Shoot using your weak hand only. Shoot two-handed on your weak side. You can’t predict what skills you’ll need in a potential self-defense situation, but you can at least practice them.

A small amount of experience in advance can make a huge difference in the real world. If you’re in a situation where you’re using a gun, you’re already in a bad way. Who knows which hands you’ll have in that bad situation — learn to use them equally well; or at least a little better.

Depending on only a flashlight is like depending only on one hand. Ironically, I didn’t see that until recently.

See Also: Flashlights Fired Out of a Shotgun: Ultimate Torture Test

I’m not tooting my own horn; this is relevant to my stupid old prejudice against weapon lights. I have great night vision. My eyes adjust quickly and I can make out details at long distances.

I live in a well-lit area and at night with or without moonlight there’s enough ambient light to see well outside and inside. Even in a power outage, I’ve felt OK. The flashlight almost seemed superfluous.

One night — it, of course, had to be at night — that illusion was completely erased. There was a flash flood. There was a major power outage. There was no moonlight to speak of. I was overly confident.

Something hinky was happening across the street. I heard something smash on the street, and there was a person crouched against a car. The figure was struggling at the car’s door and I went to the front porch to watch. Suddenly the figure stood up, opened the door and started the car.

There was no reason to worry, it was my neighbor; she dropped her keys under the car was all. She was struggling, but only to find where they went. Once she grabbed them, she got in, put the car in reverse, and I went blind.

My eyes had completely adjusted to the darkest of black nights and that car’s reverse lights are about as bright as a lot of headlights and I was staring right at them. I turned back to the hallway and it was just gone. I couldn’t see the front closet, I couldn’t see the picture of my dad on the wall, I couldn’t see my feet. And that’s when I realized my own, stupid mistake.

It wasn’t a high-stress situation, it wasn’t a self-defense situation, it wasn’t even a real emergency. And I’m grateful it wasn’t. The severity of losing my night vision so completely was enough to come to reason — if I had needed a gun, or even just a flashlight, I couldn’t have found it short of feeling along the walls and crawling to the nightstand.

It took a little while to get even some of my night vision back. In a bad situation, it could have been devastating. To learn that lesson on a quiet summer night was second only to never making that mistake in the first place.

To depend solely on interior lighting, ambient lighting, hand-held lighting, or personal vision, or a combination of them, is just foolish. Bring all of your options to the table. As they say, one is none, two is one. In my case, four was none.

As if to drive the point home even further, the next time I picked up my main flashlight it didn’t light up. The O-ring sealing the battery compartment failed and water had infiltrated it. Probably happened during the flash flood as I was lashing down tarps in the garden.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll probably spend a lot more hands-on time with weapon lights, trying to find what works for me. There aren’t universal standards for light manufacturers, so comparing their on-paper specs is pretty meaningless. Nothing short of actually using them will determine which are good and for what.

Some things, like lumens, use a real-world measurement that can be measured with a bias to deliver misleading information for marketing purposes. Also, some light can be too much light, depending on the situation. You don’t want to be blinded by your own equipment.

I’d like to hear what you want to look for when you’re considering lights. Solid brand and reputation? Beam intensity and pattern? Value and cost? Durability? What kind of durability testing is right for a weapon light? Let us know what you want in your lighting accessory reviews. We want your feedback.

So yes, learn to shoot with a flashlight. Learn to shoot one-handed. But also if you can, get a weapon light. If you like, get a laser sight, too. It’s one argument that all gun owners will agree with: it’s better to have and not need, than need and not have.

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Tom July 24, 2016, 2:15 am

    I have lights on all of the firearms used for home defense plus an extra flashlight carried on my person, I want to be able to identify what I am pointing my firearm at. And if memory serves me correctly I think it is written somewhere know your target and what is beyond.

    • Paul Strickland September 5, 2016, 3:19 pm

      Shouldn’t you know what your target is “before” you point your 45 caliber flashlight at it? Gun Safety Rule #2 ….Never point a gun at anything you aren’t willing to destroy or kill. A gun is not a handle for a flashlights. Gun lights are for trained Police and Military in areas where virtually “everyone” is a target. Those equipping for self defense or home defense should buy and learn to use a good hand held flashlight. If you can’t do this …sell your guns, charge your phone and buy a dog. Remember this….that noise in the kitchen at 3 am, the one you are searching out with your handgun/flashlight is more likely to be your 5 yr old stealing cookies than a criminal. And you flashlight is now in his face. Turn off your TV Tom….learn something.

  • Larry Koehn July 22, 2016, 6:13 pm

    I have always questioned the desirability of a shoot me I’m over here light. They add bulk and a forward weight to a pistol, shotgun or rifle throwing off balance. Do you leave the light attached 24/7? As soon as you turn it on at night it identifies your position and if you are anywhere near what you might be looking for. If it is not powerful and if it is not in an intruder’s eyes it illuminates you for their sights. Maybe it is good for a cop on duty but for home defense I think a much better bet is yard flood lights. It allows you to see the threat from a darkened house and the threat can’t see you and it allows you to use the exit of your choosing in the dark. If you are carrying on the street if you can’t already see your threat why is your pistol even out? I think that good night sites are a better investment.

  • Frank July 22, 2016, 1:50 pm

    Agree with all of what was stated except for the laser.
    In an active shooter situation, you need to be focused on the other persons hands and eyes, not following the bouncing red ball. Basic muscle memory will help you point your weapon at the threat, and, if you have time, take careful aim. Using your eyes to follow a red dot against differing backgrounds only takes your eyes and attention off of the threat.
    Strobe your weapon twice, (first flash makes them look toward you and second one gives them the night blindnesss), take a side step and if you have identified a target, light them up and take the shot. DOT-DOT–DASH*BANG,BANG

  • Jack July 22, 2016, 1:30 pm

    I live in a semi-wilderness location (a few other homes in acreage, but also large wooded areas). I have weapons lights on handguns and long guns. A “must” for me is a light that has a good spot beam but also a much larger (sightly dimmer) flood area. With this setup I can point the tight beam downward and to one side and use the flood area to identify a target WITHOUT pointing the muzzle at the animal/person in question. Some have built-in lasers, but that is a different question. We live in an area where drugs are fairly common and that can add to the mixture – read: high humans who may not be bent on evil, but might be in the wrong place accidentally. Of course anyone could face high humans who are very dangerous. Severe self control is absolutely necessary to overcome adrenaline when your wife or teens are up at night without your knowledge!!! I will not be without weapons lights AND flashlights.

  • Gary July 22, 2016, 1:20 pm

    Different situations call for different setups. If you dont use a light to keep from making yourself a target and fire at a figure crouching outside your door , just to find out it was a child trying to get their cat from under your car, you would change your opinion. If you are being engaged from 200 yards, then using a light will be bad for you, but if the intruder is within 25 yards, blinding him with a bright light will make him highly ineffective, i would guess. You have made me convinced I need to test all these theories. I will use soft air guns with lights and do various scenarios with my spouse to see what works best around my home. I think we all should try playing intruder to see what is the most effective defense plans and equipment for us.

  • JoshO July 22, 2016, 12:29 pm

    Another consideration with respect to adapted dark vision is the muzzle flash of your gun should you discharge it. Different loads utilizing different powders will display muzzle flash of varying colors and intensities. It’s good practice to consider this when selecting an HD load. Also another reason that a light of some sort is necessary — not only for positive target ID before you shoot but for target re-acquisition after the shot.

    This is also another great argument for a quality suppressor, which will eliminate 100% of your muzzle flash.

  • Greg July 22, 2016, 11:41 am

    I have backlighting at every entrance, so the interior of my home is dark. My plan is to use the weapon light on the gun indoors only for immediate target identification prior to deadly force. Will avoid going outside as much as possible.

  • LarrySV July 22, 2016, 11:09 am

    Thanks for posting this article. Both the article itself AND the posted comments provide a great deal of food for thought!

    @TexasC: you’re concerned that a light will give away your position (and it obviously will). I would point out that most intruders are not experienced “operators” themselves, so using a light might be risky but not be “as” dangerous as in the situations you’ve been in, involving “professional” opponents.

    And a related question for @TexasC and the author(Max): if you do NOT use a light, do you believe that use of a *laser sight* is a net benefit or net liability? A laser has many benefits but could also reveal your position to some degree (although not nearly as much as a light) — do you think the benefits of a laser for home-defense purposes outweigh the risk?

    • Mahatma Muhjesbude July 22, 2016, 1:15 pm

      I guess there are ‘operators’, and there are OPERATORS’, LOL! I always get a kick out of these kinds of arguments.
      So much holier-than-thou emotional intrasignence, When I used to instruct REAL operators in the finer art of warfare and CQB, we didn’t use flashlights of any kind that much. NVD’s were our ‘illumination’ of preference.

      Having admitted that, I do carry a very compact but very high lumen tac-light mounted under my CC EDC Glock.

      In my not so humble 40 plus years and still going strong experience in this type of ‘vocation’, I don’t subscribe too much like maybe i once used to, when I was ‘ignorant’ and in-experienced like some of the ‘operators’, lol, here who won’t ‘give away’ their position under ANY circumstances?! Which makes me wonder who won a firefight that never started, hahahah!

      The reality is that if you are in an Ambush mode, Remaining in unexposed stealth mode until you initiate the ambush is certainly an advantage, and the point of the tactic. But how often does that apply in anything but actual combat warfare? In some civilian venues and alternate legal reality worlds setting an ambush in your home or public property may be a criminal violation in itself?

      So in a more common application like tense confrontations with potential violent people, or stupidly ‘clearing’ a house when you don’t have to do anything but slip out the back door out on the street and call the cops, and your ‘position’ is still relatively easily determined by your movement and noise, NOT Having a very bright flashlight really doesn’t do much to help your safety. But it might definitely, and we’re seeing this more often than not lately, actually give you a tactical advantage if you have the right one and use it correctly at the right time.

      If a person is going to shoot his gun at you just because you’re there and he knows it, he’s just as likely to hit you without you having a light on than he is without one. If it’s dark out, he has the same night vision you have. So if you ‘see’ him somewhat in the dark, he’s able to see you.

      BUT if you are suddenly shining a blinding light in his eyes with your finger ready to shoot ; then how is he going to aim, or even point well enough to hit you, before you can clearly now SEE what he’s trying to do and shoot first?

      We’ve worked paintball and airsoft drills to test this. Try it sometime. It’s almost impossible to return accurate fire into a person holding the flashlight if the other person is blinded and has lno more night vision. A 600 plus lumen light can even blind someone in broad daylight with sunglasses on! People who don’t or can’t carry concealed guns are opting only for high intensity compact flashlights as self defense tools to blind people getting too close giving them time to get away?

      When you’re flash blinded, YOU CAN’T SEE! So how can you shoot accurately? Especially if the person holding the flashlight starts a flanking move? That’s one of the purposes of flash/bang grendades.

      With such high intensity lights now, especially the spacial disorienting strobes, The advantage of this in proper light usage and training almost outweighs any archaic notion of giving away your position and making you a target.

  • Jerry Slocum July 22, 2016, 8:41 am

    Max, check out the Viridian CL5 which has a 100 lumen light and a green laser. This product has what they call ECR (enhanced Combat readiness). When used in a ECR equiped holster the unit is turned on when you draw the pistol. They sell such a holster but I prefer one made by Dara Holsters. You can grab this pistol and shoot from the hip and have excellent accuracy, no need to get the sights lined up, which can be hard to do in a low light situation. I wont be without such a setup in the future.

  • Texas C July 22, 2016, 8:30 am

    This guy is a fool ANYONE Stupid enough to use a light in the dark is DEAD Period
    You draw attention to yourself and provide an Easy Target

    Oh by the way there are those of us out here that have been operators to use your term

    I only wish we had an enemy as brainless as the writer It would have been so much easier killing them in the dark

    • Oaf July 22, 2016, 1:25 pm

      Let us know how foolish you feel, because you were not being stupid and didn’t use a light to ID the threat, after shooting a loved one Stupid is as stupid does……..

    • Oaf July 22, 2016, 1:25 pm

      Let us know how foolish you feel, because you were not being stupid and didn’t use a light to ID the threat, after shooting a loved one Stupid is as stupid does……..

  • Eddie Ray July 22, 2016, 8:28 am

    I agree with John S.
    Not always good to give up your location.
    Not to mention do you really want to point a gun at everything you are trying to see?
    They have their place and I have many. Usally op for a separate hand held
    Thanks
    Edfie

  • John S July 22, 2016, 8:08 am

    Attaching a flashlight to a handgun for use in a night time combat situation is just asking for trouble. Why would you want the bad guys to see where you are by pointing a flashlight a them? It just makes you a better target for them, and takes away any chance of using cover and concealment. My combat weapons have laser sights that switch on with a button on the pistol grip when it’s time to use them. Otherwise, I prefer to stay dark.

    If you MUST carry a flashlight, carry it in the opposite hand and hold it AWAY from your body.

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