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Something About Shooting in the Dark

Up front I need to let you know that this isn’t going to be another article on how to hold your flashlight. There are probably around three thousand of those already. This article is a direct result of the shenanigans I see on the range when the sun goes down. This quarter is our annual night qualification. So our people come out and shoot their regular qualifications. To a person, they have been doing this for years. They have at minimum dozens of repetitions taking this test and it’s the same every time. Then when the sun goes down, we have them do a little shooting in the dark. It only makes sense since most of us work in the dark at least some of the time. I want to make clear that some of our people come out and crush the low light shooting drills. They paid attention in class. They invested in a weapon mounted light (WML) and did training on their own time. But those people aren’t what this article is about. I want to focus on the other people who struggle; I want to highlight their mistakes so that others can learn from them.


Two handed shooting grip made possible by having a WML.

So, let’s talk about that WML I mentioned. I didn’t think I would have to say this, but given the number of my coworkers who haven’t gotten the message I guess it needs to be said again. Putting a light on your duty gun is a really good idea. It allows you to shoot with a good two-handed grip. It also allows you to keep your light (and gun) on a threat or potential threat while doing other things like making a call on the radio. It also frees up your hand for things like reloads, clearing malfunctions, or dragging someone behind cover. If you don’t have a WML you end up having to hold a light in one hand and your gun in the other – that makes everything you do more difficult and awkward. I have not met a single person who could shoot with one hand as well as they can shoot with two, no matter their skill level. I can tell you that shooting with a flashlight in your hand is so difficult that many of our people who do it end up just giving up. They start out a shooting drill with a light in their hand. They miss and miss and miss. Then they put their flashlight away and start just shooting into the dark with their night sights and two handed grip. They actually end up doing better that way because guess what, they shoot better with two hands.

I’m afraid that they may be taking the wrong lesson away from this experience though. I worry that they’ll think that because they got through the drill that they are competent. I worry that they will decide in a real-world deadly force situation to put away their light and shoot in the dark two handed because that’s what they did at the range. Every person, cop, military, or otherwise should know that you should only shoot at a threat. But how do you know if someone is a threat in the dark? You have to either light them up or use a night vision device to ID the threat. Threat ID is absolutely critical. And without NVGs and lasers the only way to get good threat ID AND shoot two handed is to use a WML.


Still able to keep my gun/light on the threat while getting on the radio thanks to my WML.

Now let’s talk about getting comfortable. Or in this case uncomfortable. For some of our people, when we ask them to shoot a drill that they haven’t done before and worse, ask them to do it in the dark, everything falls apart. They act like they’ve never touched a firearm before. I won’t bore you with every oddity I’ve seen on the range. I’m pretty sure I’ve about seen it all. But I’ll tell you some of the craziness I have seen. A huge percentage of them keep their gun out at arm’s length and bend over at the waist to conduct their reloads. I can’t even figure out why they do it, but a lot of them do. Probably equally common is people manually cycling the slide on reloads, but riding the slide forward. Many times, this induces a malfunction.  Another one I’ve seen enough times that it needs to be addressed is cycling the slide three times when the gun doesn’t go bang when they expect it to.  This can be directly attributed to lack of training and square range theatrics.  I know that we have never taught our people to leave a magazine in the gun and rack the slide three times to clear a malfunction.  But it happens because the shooter gets confused and exasperated and they have so many reps racking the slide three times during qualifications, but so few reps of remedial action.  The qualification has become their training.  It has overridden all other “muscle memory”, or learned behavior.  I’ve seen people smack the back of the slide when it was locked open on an empty magazine. Again, I’m confused since that isn’t part of any manual of arms. I watched a guy mash his thumb down on his slide release as hard as he could, over and over. Finally, in exasperation he said to me “My mag is stuck!” So I had him hand me the gun and I pressed the magazine release and the magazine fell right out of the gun like it was supposed to. This is all due to stress and unfamiliarity with their weapon; which after years of service shouldn’t even be a thing, but it is. But the only stress is being asked to do something they aren’t comfortable with.


And yes, the same applies for your Patrol rifle.

If you carry a gun there is no excuse for not being competent with it. And that includes during hours of darkness. To quote Rick Sanchez “You realize that nighttime makes up half of all time?” If you are going to shoot at someone you absolutely must identify that they are a lethal threat first. In daylight this isn’t too hard. But turn off the lights and it gets much harder. Unless you’re kitted up with NVGs at all times you need a light. And unless there are extenuating circumstances, that light really should be attached to your gun. If you are a responsible gun owner and you don’t practice in the dark you need to understand something. In the scariest moment of your life you aren’t magically going to be able to perform a task that you’ve never practiced. If you’re a cop and you aren’t training to shoot in the dark you are just wrong. You are a liability to yourself and others. At a minimum you need to be able to put rounds on target, conduct reloads, and clear malfunctions in the dark. But to really be competent you need to be able to shoot drills that someone else set up, or run scenarios in the dark. You need to be able to react to the unknown the same way you would in the daylight.
One last thought for the LEO’s. I’ve heard every excuse from the folks who chose not to have a WML on their duty gun. “It’s expensive,” “I wasn’t issued one,” “I wasn’t issued a holster that accommodates a light,” “I work days.” I want you to ask yourself if any of those will be comforting when you’re in a fight for your life in the dark. I want you to ask yourself if any of those will provide comfort to the grieving family of the bystander you shot because you were trying to shoot one handed outside of your ability.

Dan Guy

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