A Case For and Against the Pistol Light
By Warren Wilson
Unlike most professions, police officers cannot predict their working environment. From one call to the next, the situation might be in a well-lit office, a pitch-black abandoned warehouse, or the proverbial dark alley. Since experience is our greatest teacher, smart cops (even those assigned to daytime shifts) keep a “torch” of some kind nearby or on their belt. The rail-mounted pistol light is as common to the police uniform nowadays as the badge and the gun. But somewhere along the way, that whole chocolate/peanut butter thing happened. Some cops love the combination of a powerful illumination tool mounted under their handgun’s barrel. For some others, well not so much.
The intended focus here is not necessarily low-light tactics, but whether or not it is wise to attach a light directly to a duty pistol. I would venture to say that half of the street cops I know do just that. And what about the other half? Do they know something the rest don’t or are they just satisfied with their current setup? As with most equipment choices in law enforcement, it’s more complicated than it appears at first blush.
The most common attribute of the rail-mounted light (RML) is that it allows for a normal two-hand hold. Who isn’t faster and more accurate with both hands on their pistol? Opening a door or pulling back a curtain with both hands chock full of emergency equipment is nearly impossible. As an experiment, try to open a door with a flashlight in one hand and an unloaded pistol in the other, then quickly assume your firing position with the handheld light. No matter your choice of technique (FBI, Ayoob, Harries, etc.), it will likely be slower and more awkward than simply re-acquiring a two-handed grip. No disrespect is intended to those well-researched techniques, but basic physiology gives the nod to the weapon light in this regard.
It’s rare to see an experienced SWAT team member without an RML during training or on an operation. One reason for this is how we take corners or what is more widely known as “slicing the pie.” Both left-handed and right-handed corners are unsympathetic to the operator’s preference of shooting stance. The best way to clear a left-handed corner with minimal body exposure is with the pistol in the operator’s left hand and vice versa. Also, proper tactics sometimes dictate that an operator must keep physical contact with his partner’s equipment belt via the off hand. There are many reasons for this practice, but that’s outside of the current topic.
Large building searches require the need to regularly transition the pistol from one hand to the other; a much easier task with an RML, unless an officer’s side job is juggling chainsaws. For the majority of us, it is not advisable. Using a handheld tactical light separate from the handgun means a weapon transition needs to be made safely by holstering the light, conducting the pistol transition from hand to hand, and then reacquiring the light. However, the enemy during this process is unnecessary movement and excessive time.
Another plus for the RML is that an officer only has to train one object on a threatening target. Without an RML, one must focus on getting both the flashlight and the pistol pointed at the threat. When it comes to law enforcement equipment and techniques, simple has proven best under stress.
Is it settled that the lightless crowd is behind the curve? Not quite so fast. A big disadvantage of an RML is its cost. Quality units can run from 100 to several hundred dollars. With the less than extravagant salaries enjoyed by most public servants, this could be enough of a reason for some officers to stick with their big old rechargeable three-cell flashlights in and of itself.
Another consideration is the added weight of adding an RML on a duty pistol. Your average “plastic fantastic” duty handgun weighs only about 31 ounces loaded. A four- or five-ounce light changes that somewhat. It may not seem like an overly weighty point, but try covering a door for 45 minutes during a building search. Every ounce becomes exponentially more taxing as the minutes pass.
Also consider that RMLs add bulk to an officer’s service pistol. That means new duty gear and an altered draw stroke. For example, as of this writing, Safariland does not make its excellent model 295 for pistols with RMLs. For those unfamiliar, the 295 is a level 2 retention holster. With practice, a duty pistol can be drawn from it just as quickly as from an open top holster. Instead, what is most commonly available for RML equipped pistols are basically bucket holsters with a rotating hood to secure the firearm. In an informal study, I was unable to locate an officer who felt as quick or as comfortable drawing a light-mounted pistol from this kind of gear.
Some experts offer tactical reasons to avoid RMLs. The argument is that whatever is illuminated by a pistol light is also covered by the muzzle. Searching with an RML is not usually a good idea. When that shadowy figure approaching during an alarm call turns out to be a fellow officer you didn’t know had arrived on scene, you might regret having an RML as your only option. As a compromise, there is a technique where the operator points the lighted pistol in the general direction of—but not directly at—the potential threat using the outer throw of the light to make the identification. This system certainly isn’t perfect for every situation.
Accidental weapon discharges have been indirectly attributed to RMLs. Officers who train to use their trigger finger to activate the light are the most common perpetrators. It’s not fair to give one single digit two different jobs. The trigger finger’s only responsibility should be activating the bang button. The offside thumb should generally be used to activate the RML. This is simply a training issue and can be overcome with repetition at the range or a safe dry-fire environment.
Undoubtedly, the single most important factor when considering an RML is weapon reliability. One of the largest manufacturers of police duty pistols admits that adding a weapon light to their guns can affect function; especially in .40 S&W caliber. Cool stuff hanging from a pistol rail can dramatically change its slide velocity. It took a lot of really smart folks to balance that delicate ballet of magic that goes on inside a properly functioning semi-automatic pistol. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that minor tweaks may turn a gun that once ran like a sewing machine into one that runs like a streaming video on a dial-up connection.
A slight topic drift still applies here: It should go without saying that law enforcement officers should never take a piece of equipment into the field without properly vetting it. Ever. In regards to a duty pistol, that means shooting it with the exact defensive ammunition, the exact magazines, and the exact RML out of the exact holster that will be fielded on duty.
There’s a reason this issue leaves us at somewhat of an impasse. Neither choice is perfect for all situations. The answer does not lie in one or the other. Famed gunscribe Evan Marshall once said, “We’re all a victim of our own experience.” That thought perfectly frames this type of equipment choice for law enforcement. There are needs for both a handheld light and a rail-mounted pistol light. Each light has reasons both for and against its deployment. Officers make their equipment choices based on their own experience. In my humble opinion, the answer lies in having options.
With the evolution of technology in handheld lights, there’s no need to carry around something the size and weight of a boat anchor. Several manufacturers produce flashlights that are roughly the size of a can of OC and much more powerful than the old three-cell rechargeable models that we of the 20th century cop club are so familiar. Some companies offer decent model lights that are still affordable. With practice, a pistol equipped with an RML can be drawn with reasonable speed from current production duty holsters. It’s not easy, but it is possible after an investment in training time.
Simply put, we can have the best of both worlds but we must pay for it with dedicated training time. Ultimately, it’s an individual choice. Another favorite quote from Evan Marshall is, “We’re all responsible for our own salvation.” Do your research and choose wisely. Or carry and train with both to keep your options open. PM
Warren Wilson is a Lieutenant with a municipal police department in Oklahoma. He is a SWAT team member/leader and has been in law enforcement for over 17 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
1. The rail-mounted light allows an officer to use a two-handed grip with the ability to have the offhand free to open doors.
2. An officer works around a right-handed corner with a pistol and handheld light.
3. Today’s highly efficient flashlights, like this Surefire Fury, are easy to carry and offer plenty of power.
4. Today’s law enforcement officer can take advantage of both the rail mounted light and a handheld light.