Over the years, law enforcement officers have been instructed in various flashlight-assisted shooting techniques. This is all well and good when you consider that most shootings occur under less than optimum lighting conditions. In darkness, a light source gives the officer the ability to navigate, locate and assess potential threats and, if necessary, deliver accurate fire. Although proficiency in flashlight-assisted shooting technique is certainly a plus, it only represents a part of a much bigger picture.
Probing and searching the dark for suspicious activity, conducting credential checks and motor vehicle stops remain fairly common tasks. On occasion, law enforcement officers may even manage threats with flashlight and gun incidental to arrest. In the grand scheme of things, shooting is the least likely scenario.
For any number of reasons, commonly-taught flashlight-assisted shooting techniques don't lend themselves to searching or threat management. Many firearms training institutions use some variation of the General Safety Rules first developed by Colonel Jeff Cooper. Although the language used varies, the rules and their meaning do not. In unadulterated form, Rule #2 reminds us to "Never let your muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy." Officers who have only been instructed in flashlight-assisted shooting techniques will inevitably default to them while searching. Since the gun and light are now locked up in a single unit, the muzzle will likely be pointed at subjects who do not pose a threat.
At best, muzzle searching can be the cause of citizen complaints, despite the officer's best intentions. In a highly charged, stressful situation, muzzle searching, combined with an unintentional discharge, may have tragic consequences. Having a technique in your tactical toolbox that allows an officer to search without committing the muzzle is the way to go.
Handheld flashlights are typically equipped with either a side button or tailcap switch. The larger, full-size flashlights from MagLite and Streamlight feature a side button switch and are most often activated by the thumb or index finger. On the other hand, the small tactical lights from BlackHawk, Insight Tech Gear, PentagonLight, SureFire and others are equipped with a tailcap switch requiring thumb activation. Depending on the manufacturer, thumb activation may require a light touch or a fairly hard press. Gun-mounted lights are now part of the law enforcement scene, even for patrol officers. Activation of these lights can be via a remote pressure switch or a rocker switch on the light itself.
In recent years, we've come to better understand interlimb interaction, particularly how it relates to an unintentional or negligent discharge of a firearm. Is it conceivable that one may attempt to merely activate the light and unintentionally fire the gun? In the perfect storm of stress and confusion, the answer, unfortunately, is yes.
Throughout my career, I've conducted countless force-on-force simulations, first with modified revolvers firing cotton balls and later, pistols with marking cartridges. These scenarios were often videotaped for later review by both instructors and participants. One casual observation I've noted is that, despite the participant's level of training or experience, their finger often drifted to the trigger as stress levels increased. Very often, participants recognized the error of their ways and removed their finger from contact with the trigger. On the other hand, some participants rode the trigger for extended periods of time and had absolutely no recollection of doing so after the scenario was over.
I would hardly categorize my observations as scientific fact, but other trainers have made similar conclusions. Life-threatening stress would, no doubt, have even a more detrimental effect. Factor in a finger on the trigger along with light and gun on the subject, and we end up with the potential for an unwanted outcome. Switch placement, manipulation and trigger action can further muddy waters.
Conditions of Readiness
Many firearms training programs put a disproportionate emphasis on marksmanship at the expense of operational skills. If an officer can qualify by achieving the minimum marksmanship standard, all is considered well. Other critical skills, such as drawing, reholstering, loading and clearing stoppages are often neglected. Instruction on working from the ready position or managing threats at gunpoint is often deficient as well. My concern isn't with progressive agencies that go the extra yard and cover all the bases, but rather those outfits that continue to cut corners. Those shortchanged officers often find a "way." Unfortunately, it's often the wrong way. This is especially true with low light skills.
Low light training should include different states of readiness, as well as light conditions officers will likely face in the field. Officers need to work with pistol and light both secured on belt, light only at the ready, gun only at the ready, and both gun and light pre-deployed.
Ultimately, one needs to develop a system that provides for a seamless transition from routine searching and probing all the way up through the application of deadly force. Safety for both officer, as well as subject, speed and economy of motion are paramount.
First, consider the preferred flashlight-assisted shooting technique. The Harries and Neck Index techniques are executed with the flashlight held in a bludgeon or overhand grip. On the other hand, the Chapman or Rogers techniques require a sword or underhand grip. In the event a situation escalates to the point of shooting, an improper grip will delay your response. The
preferred shooting technique will dictate how the flashlight is held during routine searching.
One system I have that works very well for the vast majority of threat management situation is as follows:
Search: An officer probes the darkness while holding the flashlight in their support hand. No level of danger has been detected, so the handgun remains in the holster. Routine searching should not be done with a gun-mounted light affixed to a pistol.
Ready: Something isn't quite right, but a specific threat has not yet been identified. The officer brings their handgun close to their body, similar to a gun retention position. The muzzle is depressed slightly down and away. Hands remain apart, and the light continues to probe the dark, independent of the muzzle of the gun.
Challenge: A specific threat has been identified. If a "hands-together" shooting technique is preferred, gun light comes together in a single unit. The muzzle is slightly depressed below center mass of the potential threat, low enough to see the hands and waistband. Finger is off the trigger, outside the trigger guard. A loud, clear verbal command is given to gain compliance.
Fire: Gun and light are brought to eye level. Obtain an index on the threat and press the trigger.
This system effectively eliminates placing the muzzle of the gun on a subject until a specific threat has been identified. Gun and light remain apart during the assessment phase, thus, there is no violation of Rule #2. The use of gun-mounted lights is not recommended for Search or Ready, but are entirely appropriate for Challenge and Fire. With practice, officers can work very quickly through the entire cycle while selecting the appropriate response. Risk is minimized, yet the officer has the capability of firing very quickly if justified.
The system previously outlined allows for a reasonably fast response in all but the most unusual events. In situations where time and distance favor the officer, potential threats can be managed in complete safety without forfeiting any advantage. But for every rule there's an exception.
One very troubling circumstance would be searching for a subject who is likely to be armed and in very close proximity. Even the slightest delay in locating, assessing and engaging this threat could prove fatal.
One possible remedy to this dilemma is the Close Guard position as taught by the Surefire Institute. With the Close Guard position, the elbows are bent 90 degrees and tucked in close to the body. Gun and light are held about solar plexus height, with arms parallel to the ground. The hands holding the gun and light are locked up, but the finger remains off the trigger and outside the trigger guard.
If an assailant presents a deadly threat from just a step or two away, the handgun can be fired with a high degree of accuracy from this position. Of course, the gun should be driven to eye level if time allows for better accuracy. This technique works very well with a handheld light and even better with a gun-mounted light.
Critics may opine that Close Guard violates Rule #2 because it locks up the light and gun, resulting in muzzle searching. However, bear in mind this technique should only be used in the most unusual situations when an officer has reason to believe the subject is armed.
There's a concept of English Common Law that's sometimes referred to as the Doctrine of Competing Harms. Essentially, it states that you're allowed to break the law if circumstances, when following the law, would likely result in greater harm than following it. When applying this concept to low light searching, Close Guard does indeed violate the "law" (Rule #2), but results in the greater good of keeping you safe.
Safe but Ready
Low-light training should encompass practical marksmanship, tactics and the operational skills outlined herein. Working through the various Conditions of Readiness should initially be practiced dry with unloaded guns and then in low stress, live fire exercises on the range. As officers become more proficient, their skills can be validated in more dynamic exercises or in interactive force-on-force scenarios.
Searching and managing threats while using one of the traditional flashlight-assisted shooting techniques presents both safety and tactical liabilities. The rigid "hands together" techniques can be fatiguing in very short order, exacerbating the likelihood of a negligent discharge. They may also contribute to perceptual narrowing at a time when we require as much visual feedback as possible.
Although weapon mounted lights have much to offer, they're an adjunct, not a replacement, for a handheld light. Gun-mounted lights prove to be terrific tools once a potential threat has been identified, but are inappropriate for routine searching.
The bottom line: Muzzle searching should be avoided except in the most extreme circumstance. The ability to search low-light environments independent of the gun allows the officer greater flexibility in performing routine tasks, while maintaining a greater margin of safety.