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Weapon-Mounted Lights for Tactical Operations

Written by Darin Dowe

Weapon-mounted lights are an established standard for tactical operations. Lighting systems are up-close and personal tools, so teams must select appropriate lighting systems and train in realistic low-light and no-light conditions. It is imperative that every operator know the lighting system is not a targeting system!

When choosing a light, determine how it will mount on the weapon and how it will ultimately affect the operator’s ability to put bullets on target. Dozens of manufacturers exist, and hundreds of types of lighting systems are available. Having so many options can be desirable, but it will also have an impact on how you train and operate. When outfitting a weapon, ask yourself, “Will the operator be able to easily activate the light, manage the weapon and engage the target accurately?”

Four basic lighting options exist: 1) vertical foregrip, 2) forend mounted, 3) universal clamp/barrel mount, and 4) tail cap (thumb) activated flashlight. Lighting systems attach in three ways: 1) they replace an existing forend, 2) they attach to a Picatinny (MIL-STD 1913) rail, and 3) they attach to a weapon’s barrel by a universal clamp. These lights have a variety of switches: an integrated horizontal or vertical pressure pad switch, a tape switch (tapes to forend or vertical foregrip), or a tailcap thumb switch. The integrated lighting systems replace factory forends. Picatinny mounted lights mount to a single rail (under foregrip integrated rail which attaches to factory forend) or quad rail (which replaces the entire forend).

During a transition from a horizontal forend mounted light and switch to a vertical foregrip mounted light and switch, operators may find themselves attempting to locate a switch that isn’t there. They are reverting back to muscle memory. The way to overcome this is through training and repetition. Awareness of assigned weapons systems and location of light switches is paramount! Ensure that training time is given to each weapons system and its distinctly different lighting system.

When lighting systems are acquired or changed, it will affect the weight and feel of the weapon, the position of the shooter’s lead hand (vertical/horizontal), his field of view and his ability to activate/deactivate the lights. The shooter’s ability to accurately put lead on target may be affected initially; this is overcome by repetitive lighting and shooting drills.

You must ensure that you are purchasing quality equipment that will function as described and allow for ease of operation. You must be aware of limitations or dangers that can impede training and operations. If you have flawed equipment, evaluate and justify the replacement of it. Obtaining feedback from other teams is imperative when faced with these issues.

An example of equipment impeding an operator’s use of a weapon is the pictured forend light. If the light, which replaces the factory forend, is mounted in the 1:30 or 7:30 position on an M-16, the operator’s field of view/sightline can be obstructed by the light housing. When scanning across the top of the weapon for threats, a foot or a hand could be missed. This limitation must be addressed in training. The more dynamic the entry, the more likely we are to miss something as small as a foot, especially when we have a built-in obstruction.

Another example of systems that have inherent weaknesses are stand-alone pressure pad switches that are taped or use Velcro® to attach to forends, vertical foregrips, vertical foregrips with “switch pockets,” or pistol grips. These switches can be easily damaged during operations. Contact and/or heat may degrade the tape or Velcro, causing the pressure pad to separate from the weapon.

When operators scale a fence or enter an aircraft and find that the switch wire has become hung up, the pressure pad switch has detached and the weapon light is inoperative, they have a problem. They must recover the switch; place it between the forend or foregrip; hope the light works; and effectively aim the weapon, illuminate and identify the target, obtain a sight picture, and engage, if appropriate. This may equate to situational overload, or a better decision to transition from a long gun to a handgun with a light.

These are not the only systems that have weaknesses or are dangerous. Vertical foregrip lights are costly, but there is a cost-effective solution being marketed. A widely produced rail-mounted vertical foregrip allows for the integration of a tail cap activated flashlight into the handle. The light is activated by pulling a trigger, engaging the light’s tailcap switch. The inherent risk is two vertical triggers: one activates the light and one fires the weapon. Operators are faced with the dilemma of which trigger to pull, and in what situation: illuminate, engage, or both? Should they have equipment that puts them in precarious situations, especially while trying to illuminate, identify and engage?

Training & Qualification

No matter what type of lighting system operators have on their weapons, they must apply the fundamentals of shooting: stance, grip, sight picture and trigger control. Operators must also be trained to activate their lighting systems while maintaining a sight picture (iron sights, holographic sights), stance, and grip and accurately engaging the target. Low-light and no-light training is a required training evolution.

Training should include the use of all weapon-mounted lighting systems in conjunction with Electro-Optical/Holographic sighting systems. When these sighting systems are in use, they need to be set bright enough so that they are visible when the weapon-mounted light is activated in varying lighting conditions. Lighting systems should be used in training such as live fire qualification, building tactics/room clearing, and force on force (Simunition® or AirSoft®).

A night SWAT qualification should be in place for all weapons and potential shooting positions that an operator could be in. The “low/no light SWAT qualification” should include, but not be limited to, the following conditions: standing, kneeling, prone, shield/bunker, shield/bunker defense (M-16/MP-5) shooting positions, all while wearing protective equipment (ballistic vest, helmet, knee and elbow pads, and an Air Purifying Respirator, or APR).

Qualifications should be recurring and similar to the daylight SWAT qualification. The difference between the daytime and nighttime SWAT qualification is based on the effectiveness of the weapon’s lighting system in a low- to no-light environment. The weapon’s effective range at night is the same as the daytime, but the light cannot reach as far as the bullet can! Each weapon system is limited by the lighting system’s ability to project usable light from a distance and identify a target.

The SWAT firearms instructor must determine the maximum effective range of your lighting system in dark conditions, a distance not likely not to exceed 15 yards. Engaging a target at night beyond a pre-determined distance has many variables to consider: the distance itself, ambient light, artificial light (street light, APC spotlight, tactical perimeter lights), the brightness of the weapon-mounted light, shield/bunker light, the suspect’s clothing (dark clothing is less visible utilizing artificial light), and the ability of the operator to visually identify and engage a threat. An operator’s vision and perception will vary during each situation.

Firearms training does not end on the range. Whether you have a live-fire shoot house or an abandoned building in which you can use marking cartridges, building clearing is mandatory training. The SWAT operator must be able to handle weapons, cover and clear an area of responsibility, and engage a suspect when appropriate, all while operating a lighting system. The best way to learn and enhance these skills (multi-tasking) is during building clearing exercises. Using shoot/don’t shoot targets and evaluating shot placement, coupled with the time it took them to identify (use light) and engage the target, will gauge their skill level. Once the basic searches have been mastered, the training is escalated to force on force.

Force on force training is beneficial to everyone who carries a firearm in law enforcement and the military. Night training is no different, but the complexities of the mission are. Not only must operators clear a structure, but they must do so without telegraphing their own or their team’s presence. When operators enter a room they must scan, they should locate and identify the target while using a light. The target is usually recognized by peripheral vision when entering a lit room and is subsequently identified. This same target may not be recognized in a dark room until illuminated by a light. Speed, or lack thereof, becomes more of an issue and is reinforced when they are struck with a marking cartridge.

When training with lighting systems, operators should be familiar with all the functions of the lights. They have permanent on/off switches, momentary pressure pad switches and low-light LED switches. Many systems have both permanent on/off switches and momentary on/off pressure switches, which are at different locations on the light and are manipulated in different ways. Operators must be able to activate these lights and do so while covering their area of responsibility, all while being ready and able to effectively engage. The activation of these switches can alter the grip operators have on a weapon. They must be able to do both—not one and then the other.

Advantages and Disadvantages

There are no disadvantages associated with lighting systems, provided operators are disciplined in the use of the light. Lighting systems allow us to clearly identify friend or foe, but can also telegraph our approach and location if an operator uses it haphazardly like a laser beam. We must ensure that operators do not silhouette the team when at the rear of the stack or keep their lights in the “on” position when they are not needed. A moving shadow under a door may signal to a suspect that the team is stacking up and preparing to enter.

An excellent way to counter the negative effects of white lights is to utilize low-light LEDs. Systems exist that have halogen white lights and low-light LEDs integrated into one system. The LEDs, under certain conditions, can provide enough light to clear a car, an open garage on approach during an entry, or an area within a structure during a slow and deliberate search in which a bright white light would be hazardous. LEDs can also provide enough light for breachers to set the Halligan pry bar without giving away the team’s position. The choice of situation-appropriate lighting can be evaluated during training.

Lights have been taken for granted since the SAS mounted lights as large as a KEL flashlight on top of their MP-5s. Smaller, brighter and ultimately more effective lights have been and will continue to be developed. What we haven’t always done is to evaluate our training based on our lighting systems, or the lighting systems based on what we want to accomplish during training and operations. SWAT teams must constantly evaluate their equipment and training needs.

Lieutenant Darin D. Dowe is a 21-year veteran of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, FL, a veteran SWAT Operator, former Sniper, Tactical WMD Program Coordinator and a SWAT Instructor in multiple disciplines. Dowe also has a background in Homeland Security, investigations and patrol. He can be reached via e-mail at darin_dowe@sheriff.org.

Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2009

Rating : 9.7


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