Editor’s Note: The following is a syndicated article by author Tom McHale that first appeared in USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine Volume 14, Issue 2, February/March 2017 under the title, “Lights Out: 10 Things I’ve Learned About Shooting in the Dark.”
I’ve had some interesting opportunities to shoot in the dark: during midnight 3-gun competitions, where your objective is to find and engage multiple targets in the fastest possible time while on the move; during dark shoothouse scenarios, where you move cautiously from room to room while searching for “good” and “bad” targets (ability to discern and identify targets is paramount here); and, in the category of “most fun shooting thing ever,” at the shooting cave at Rockcastle Shooting Center in Park City, Kentucky, where you have the opportunity to navigate a pitch-dark underground cavern while engaging hidden targets with rifle, pistol or both.
Like many topics we debate, shooting in the dark — with or without lights and lasers — is one of those activities you really need to try before creating plans and strategies of your own. Some of the “facts” that get passed around aren’t quite what they seem, while other hearsay gems are downright false. Fortunately, using safe dry-fire practices or a blue gun, you can learn quite a bit by bumbling around your own home in the dark.
Let’s take a look at some of the things I’ve learned, or at least have developed opinions on, after some time spent shooting in the dark.
1. No, a laser isn’t going to give away your position.
My favorite response to this immortal myth came from a gun blogger I know:
“You know what will give away my position?” he asked. “Me yelling ‘Get the [expletive] out of my house!’”
In the majority of home-defense scenarios, I agree with him. If you’re out and about, you’re almost always better off trying to get the heck away rather than sneaking around trying to find bad guys. Playing ninja games in the dark with a horde of silent attackers just isn’t a very realistic or wise scenario. That scene sure was thrilling in Silence of the Lambs, but the odds of you implementing it at home are about the same as politically disappointed celebrities actually moving out of the country.
Oh, one more thing: Unless your environment is full of airborne dust and smoke, most lasers won’t cast a visible beam anyway — just a dot on the target. Red lasers are invisible in clean air and green are nearly so. The bottom line? Stop stressing about giving away your position and use tools like lasers to help you get shots on target faster.
2. You can change batteries before they run out!
Even still in this miraculous technological era of smartphones and Flex Seal, the biggest objection I hear to putting a laser on a self-defense handgun is this: “Yeah, but what are you gonna do when the batteries run out?”
It’s a great point, because look at the chaos that ensues when our cars run out of gas, we forget to pay the electric bill or the pantry runs low on Pop-Tarts. But, seriously, I’ve learned an important concept: You can change batteries proactively. You know, like before they run out.
The way I see it, if a light or laser device has the capability to dramatically improve my advantage in a self-defense situation, I figure I can take responsibility as a big boy and change my batteries on a periodic basis so that I never get surprised by them failing at the worst possible time. It’s no different than stopping at the gas station before your engine sputters out on I-95.
3. A rifle makes a great low-light weapon.
Yes, I know this is Concealed Carry Magazine. I also know that AR-15s are tough to conceal, especially during sundress season. But if we can stretch the concealed carry topic just a tad to include home defense, you might think about using a modern sporting rifle. Handguns are built for handiness and maneuverability, but when it comes to getting fast hits on target, a rifle is hard to beat, especially in low light.
Having two hands supporting the weapon and that extra-long sight radius makes it very difficult to miss close indoor targets. Add a light and laser, and you can easily shoot from unconventional positions. While it might seem a little strange at first, try some rapid-fire, close-range shooting (like room or hallway distance) with an AR or similar rifle and you’ll see what I mean.
4. The perfect light strategy remains elusive.
Here’s an example of learning that something has no clear answer. Conceptually, I think we can all agree that having a separate flashlight on hand is a great idea. Gun-mounted lights are convenient and are no doubt the best solution for actually shooting with a light, but you don’t want to use that for search and identification because, by definition, you’ll be pointing your gun at whatever you illuminate. Before you make a conscious decision to shoot, that’s a bad idea.
If you’ve got a light in one hand and a light on your gun, what do you do if it comes time to shoot? If you use one of the classic techniques like Harries or Chapman, the light is “anchored” to the direction of your muzzle, so you’re really not accomplishing anything different than having a light mounted on your gun. If you use a freehand technique like the FBI, you’re faced with one-hand shooting unless you quickly assume a braced position.
I think much of the confusion arises from the fact that most light techniques were developed before the advent of small, reliable and inexpensive weapon-mounted lights. So what to do? Take the extra time to experiment on your own.
5. If you search with a weapon light, you’re going to point your gun at someone.
It’s relatively easy to train yourself to search with the gun indexed down toward the floor, and you’ll certainly light up the room indirectly with this technique. However, when you see a shadowy figure start to emerge, the first thing your brain will instruct your hands to do is raise the light, which is attached to the gun, in order to identify whatever you’ve just found. Now you’re right back to pointing your gun at what might be a home invader or perhaps a family member.
6. It’s a good idea to practice things like magazine changes in low-light scenarios.
Want to look like a drunk attempting needlepoint while wearing mittens? Try changing magazines while using a hand-held flashlight. Cruising through a dark environment with a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other is not exceedingly difficult with any of the common techniques. Even getting shots on target is fairly intuitive. When your magazine runs dry, though, things can get really awkward really fast. Do you move the light to your weapon hand? Try to retrieve and seat a new magazine while juggling the flashlight in the same hand? Stuff the light in a pocket? Drop it? You’ll have to develop your own right answer based on your light technique, so the learning here is to try it sometime and work out the kinks before your life depends on it.
7. Lasers might not be fast during the day, but they’re screamin’ fast at night.
In daylight conditions, using a laser sight is a game of “find the dim dot” even when using a brighter green unit. That’s OK though, as their real reason for existence is to facilitate shooting in lower-light conditions. It doesn’t have to be dark — just less light than midday sunshine.
What I’ve found is that the darker it is, the more a laser adds to your speed. Your eyes are going to fixate on the threat anyway, so that dot on or near your target will leap into view. You won’t be slowed down by any transition back and forth between your target and your sights. Your ability to shoot when the gun is not in a conventional sight picture position will also increase dramatically. If your gun is in some low-ready vicinity, you can shoot just as accurately if you need to.
8. You can see regular iron sights in the dark.
I’m a big advocate for using Tritium night sights that glow brightly in the dark, mainly because I’m happy to take every possible advantage. There’s no downside except one: cost. Night sights will add a C-note to the price of your handgun.
The big advantage to night sights is that you can see your sights without any ambient light. However, if it’s that dark, you won’t be able to see and confirm your target either. Just something to ponder.
If you don’t have the budget for night sights and are concerned with positive target identification, a weapon-mounted light will work just dandy with regular, non-illuminated iron sights. This is one of those nifty tricks to try: Using an unloaded gun, go into a dark closet and hold a flashlight in the approximate location of a gun-mounted light. You’ll be surprised at how clearly you can see your sights even though the light’s lens is forward of the front sight.
9. Muzzle flash isn’t that big of a deal.
If you get the opportunity to shoot in the dark — indoors or outdoors — by all means, do it. I suspect you’ll find what I did: Muzzle flash isn’t all that big of a deal in a self-defense shooting situation.
The internet forums will tell you that the muzzle blast from a .357 Magnum or other “hot” caliber will permanently blind you by melting your corneas into a puddle of goo. You’ll hear the same thing about using handguns with ported barrels. I think this myth persists because there’s a little bit of truth to it. There is muzzle flash. There’s more with boomier cartridges. Ported-barrel guns will create an exceptionally cool V-shaped flame pattern. The myth part is that it’ll kill your vision and spoil your view of the target.
I’ve shot lots and lots of pistols in 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .357 SIG and more in the dark (along with AR-15s and shotguns). In no case did the muzzle flash from any of them impair my ability to make the next shot. In fact, I never saw the flash unless I consciously looked for it.
I think this one also persists because it sounds logical in theory. Think about it: If you’re in the pitch dark for a while, your eyes will begin to adjust. If you suddenly shine a flashlight into your eyeballs, you’ll see weird blotchy stuff for a few seconds. However, are you really going to fire a shot in near total darkness where you have no ability to confirm your target?
10. Use all the light you want.
On a related topic, plenty argue about having too little or too much light. You might hear that using a 300-lumen light indoors will blind you in addition to any attackers. The theory is that light reflecting off things like white walls and such will impair your ability to see because of too much glare coming back your way.
Fortunately, this is an easy one to test on your own. If you don’t have a big, flame-throwing flashlight, borrow one from a friend. Then wander around your home with the lights out and try it. I suspect you’ll find what I did: It’s pretty dang hard to have too many lumens. If the paint starts peeling off your walls, then you might want to consider backing down, but other than that, get a light that offers the power you want. Besides, assuming it’s portable, you can use it for concealed carry too.
Practice, practice, practice!
Handling guns and lights in the dark is not a pre-wired biological instinct like winning Facebook arguments. It can seem unnatural, and you’re going to have to work at it. If your plan is to do “X” in a low-light situation, then you’d better practice that a lot in advance. Fortunately, most scenarios are fairly easy to try out right at home. Just be safe about it.
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