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Pistol-Mounted Tactical Lights

Written by Scott Oldham

Each year, the FBI gathers statistics on uses of force, specifically lethal force, that occur in the line of duty. What they show time and again is that more police actions shootings occur in conditions of reduced light than at any other time. Yet as we all know, very few departments slant their firearms training sufficiently to accurately reflect these statistics. Without a doubt, there are those agencies that attempt to give their officers time to shoot in reduced light. So often, however, due to circumstances that are more political than anything else, officers are trained not in what is reality but instead what is convenient.

The FBI-gathered statistics reflect that more shootings occur in periods of reduced light than at any other time, but does this mean strictly nighttime hours? What the statistics actually tell us is that more shootings occur between the hours of 6 pm and 6 am than at any other time of day. Within these hours however, at least in most of the country, lies a great deal of natural light.

Even with the natural, ambient light, there are places of darkness—in fact, even at noon there will be places of darkness that officers must enter. There will be buildings that must be searched, there will be basements that must be entered, there will be a myriad of different nooks and crannies that officers will go into each day in order to complete their assigned tasks, and in each of them, there potentially lays a threat.

Target identification and acquisition are but two parts of the entire target engagement sequence. If one does not acquire a target, if one does not perceive that target to be potentially hostile, then neither the presentation of the weapon, nor the manipulation of the firing mechanism will be required. In fact, overall target identification is the most crucial of all of the skill sets involved within the entire scope of a lethal-force engagement.

To that end, there has recently been an onslaught of products intended to assist officers in positively identifying a hostile target. With the advent of the Picatinny and universal rails that have now become regular, almost mandatory, feature on the leading law enforcement duty pistols, the ability for officers to semi-permanently affix a white light source to their pistols has come of age.

While the original concept of the firearms-mounted light goes as far back as the late 19th century with a product known as “The Owl,” technology has progressed to the point where it is now possible to have a very small, yet very intense light source constantly on the weapon, available for use, literally, at the push of a button.

What follows is a brief description of the most popular of the currently available pistol-mounted light sources for weapons that regularly see use by American law enforcement agencies. All have positive attributes and all have negative attributes. It is up to the individual officers or agencies to decide for themselves which light will be most suitable for their uses, within their scope of operational and budgetary requirements.

BlackHawk
New from BlackHawk’s Night Ops division is the Xiphos NT. This unique 65 lumen L.E.D. light offers much the same functionality of the acclaimed Gladius. Both of these lights come with a digitally regulated circuit that allows for the unit to generate a bright, quickly flashing strobe, which is used to disorientate hostile opponents.

http://www.blackhawk.com

The Xiphos NT is a 2.6-ounce light that mounts to the pistol via an offset from center proprietary mounting system known as the Cam-Clamp. It is this mounting system that allows for the unit to specifically interface with Blackhawk’s newest Level 3 SERPA duty holster, which offers a high degree of security while retaining the needed speed of draw that the users of these holsters have become accustom. The Xiphos NT, which uses only one 3-volt lithium battery to generate a run time of over two hours, retails for $199.

Insight Technologies
This New Hampshire-based company, in all reality, started the small, quickly attachable / detachable pistol light craze. When Heckler & Koch was looking for a firm to design and produce the “laser aiming module” that was required of the United States military’s Offensive Handgun program, Insight was contracted to design and build a product capable of producing visible white light as well as an infrared and visible laser.

http://www.insightlights.com

This unit, known simply as the LAM, was capable of being quickly mounted on the weapon and showed Heckler & Koch insiders great promise for their soon-to-be introduced USP series of pistols. While civilians are not allowed under current law to possess infrared lasers, Heckler & Koch and Insight saw the benefit behind a small but very bright white light source on a self-defense pistol. What followed was the UTL, or Universal Tactical Light. While this light was a success in that it achieved its stated goals and requirements, it was Insight’s next venture into this area that scored with overwhelming market success.

When Glock redesigned its basic pistol line-up, including the universal rail located on the forward dust cover, representatives approached Insight about producing a pistol light capable for use on those weapons. What followed was the much-heralded Insight M3. Still being produced today, the M3 grew into an industry phenomenon. The polymer bodied, 60-lumen light truly ushered in the age of effective, affordable lights for everyone—even those who are not dressed head-to-toe in black Nomex® and Velcro®.

Once the M3 became all the rage among officers and civilians alike, Insight, which is by nature first a defense contractor, realized that it could take its years of expertise in working with lasers, both visible and otherwise, and mate that with the basic M3 design to form that M6, which offers both a white light and a visible aiming laser.

Both of these products met their stated goals, and both continue to be produced by the company and continue to serve and sell quite well. Insight, however, noted that there were aspects about the basic light design that could be improved. While fine for most civilian applications, the light itself had shown durability problems during some uses, and both the M3 and M6 are not waterproof to any great degree. They also lack the ability to withstand the intense heat and constant pounding that they were being exposed to by some elite law enforcement and military units who fire many thousands of rounds through their pistols each year.

With those lessons in mind, Insight designed and began marketing the Extreme or “X” series. This series of lights, in both the M3X and M6X configuration, attempts to address the issues that have been noted with the earlier units. At the same time that the company was addressing the flaws of the original M3 and M6 products, Insight took advantage of technological advances and was able to incorporate improvements into the X series that allowed for it to be a 125-lumen light. The light has significantly benefited from a developmental cycle that had seen a substantial number of the original units (original M3/M6) in the field under varying conditions.

With the development of the Extreme Series, Insight succeeded in bringing to market what is now one of the only remaining incandescent lights available for use on a duty pistol. The X-series lights are waterproof to approximately 66 feet, are shock isolated and have numerous switching options, including one of the best trigger guard style semi-rigid pressure pads in the industry.

While they have not received the bulk of the press, nor have they garnered as much attention as the newer LED lights, the M3X in particular is a very good light that should be strongly considered by officers who have duties where the benefits of an incandescent light source—improved light “throw” and no appreciable color shift—can be of help.

When tested, both the M3X as well as the M6X proved to be durable units that—while bigger than some of the other competing LED units—offer much to officers who favor the incan descent light sources. Those who tested the units were universal in their praise for the trigger guard pressure pad that has unfortunately not received the marketing effort that it deserves as it is truly a beneficial addition to an already fine illuminator.

In addition to the company’s other efforts, Insight collaborated with another manufacturer in the development of a small LED tactical light that had originally been destined to be marketed by the other firm under its brand name.

While the unit, which was tested in prototype from, functioned flawlessly and exhibited several very worthy design features, the cooperative venture between the two companies ended in an amiable manner without the unit being brought to market. What did occur however was that Insight researchers continued to refine the specifications and design of this product to the point where they have now introduced the SSL-1, or Solid State Light-1.

The SSL-1 is Insight’s first venture into the LED weapons light market. The SSL also represents a growing investment by Insight into the law enforcement and civilian marketplace. The SSL-1 is an 80-lumen, 3-watt light that features dual switches located on the rear of the light body that act independently of each other and provide for a redundancy that is unique in the industry. Both switches, which are intuitive in operation and sure upon activation, provide for both momentary and constant-on functions.

With the SSL-1 only now coming into the marketplace, Insight said it is already working on future models, some of which will feature additional capabilities such as a strobing capability for use in disorienting potentially hostile suspects.

Safariland RLS
Safariland introduced its RLS Rapid Light System just in time for the IACP Conference in New Orleans, LA. This product is a true light “system.” It consists of a mounting platform coupled with a high-intensity LED light that generates 65 lumens. The unit may be purchased complete or the mounting platform can be purchased separately and used in combination with other manufacturers 1-inch diameter lights.

http://www.safariland.com

The concept of an officer putting a pistol light on and then removing it under crisis field conditions is fraught with potential problems. However, the fact is officers routinely engage in this practice, often daily. This may be due to a lack of suitable duty holsters, which Safariland is addressing, or it may be through departmental policies that do not allow permanently mounted pistol lights for non-tactical officers.

With the Rapid Light System, Safariland has attempted to create a product that lessens the hazards of this mounting practice and allows for an officer to quickly mount, then dismount a tactical light from the duty pistol without sweeping the muzzle over a body part.

The unit, which has a built-in belt clip, slips on any of the now ubiquitous rail systems in use on almost all modern duty pistols. The unit, once in place, is then locked onto the pistol by rotating the platform 90 degrees to the right or left of the muzzle. While this may sound somewhat complicated, in practice the use of the unit is quick and intuitive.

While the mounting platform shows much promise, it is the light itself that is most revolutionary. This LED light, which is capable of being used independently of the mounting platform, is powered by three AAA batteries and has a reported run time of a stunning 50 hours with a maximum lumen output of over 65 lumens.

While the unit may be intended for use on duty pistols, it will lock onto almost any rail system in use on a firearm, which will allow for its use on other weapons such as patrol rifles. Overall, this Rapid Light System achieves its goals and is offered at a very attractive MSRP of $125 for both the light and the mount. Both are available separately with the mounting platform offered for $45 and the light at $95.

Streamlight
Streamlight is a name well known to the law enforcement community as its products have long accompanied officers out into the darkness. The Streamlight Model SL-20, the company flagship, remains to this day one of the best rechargeable patrol lights ever created.

http://www.streamlight.com

While Streamlight had decades of experience with this type of lighting product, the company did not offer lights expressly designed for weapons mounting until it partnered with another major firm to offer that company’s light under the Streamlight brand name.

This partnership benefited both companies, and Streamlight at the time lacked a product to fill the growing market demand for such while the other company lacked a distribution system capable of bring their products to the masses.

For several years the partnership served its purpose. But as the partnership dissolved, Streamlight decided to invest its efforts on using the expertise it had gained in its long association with the law enforcement community to design and produce the TLR-1 and TLR-2 weapon-mounted lights specifically for use on law enforcement duty weapons.

Both of these 6-volt lights feature an all-metal body and use a “hi-lux” LED light source to produce about 80 lumens of light with a total run time of up to 2.5 hours. The units are capable of being mounted to either the universal or Picatinny-style rails, common to law enforcement duty weapons, through the use of what is termed a “rail-grabber” clamp system.

The TLR-1, Streamlight’s first weapon-mounted light, has shown itself to be a bright, durable illumination tool that is offered at a very good price in comparison to other similar units. The TLR-2, which uses the same light source as the TLR-1, adds an integrated laser for use in aiming the pistol for even further value.

SureFire
Like Band-Aids and other products that define their industry, the name “SureFire” has become synonymous with the entire genre of small, high-intensity tactical lighting products. Just as with handheld illumination tools, SureFire is the industry leader of weapon-mounted lighting tools, setting the tone for all others to follow.

SureFire has a long history of involvement with weapon-mounted light designs and was the first to introduce such a light for use on a pistol. This unit, which is the now discontinued Model 310, was a light designed expressly for the 1911 pistols that were carried by the LAPD’s elite SWAT unit. While this model served admirably for many years, SureFire realized that there were improvements that could, and should, be made to the basic design that would improve the ability of the officer to use the light and weapon in combination.

As the Model 310 was the first of its kind and was developed and fielded well before the advent of any type of standardized rail system, it was affixed to the pistol using a unique interface that replaced the original length slide stop with a longer unit, using this new unit as the attachment point for the light.

As technology progressed and refine- ments born of field use and abuse came about, the company developed several different models that were applicable to most of the common combat pistols on the market and to situations that were being encountered by the end users of these products.

http://www.surefire.com

Up until just recently, SureFire continued to produce incandescent light models such as the excellent Military and Nitrolon series lights, which were direct descendents of the original Model 310. But about four years ago, SureFire determined that the future of illumination tools was not with incandescent light sources but with LED-based technologies and other “high-end” advances that are only now becoming known to the general public.

As such, taking the expertise gained from over 20 years of design and production of pistol-mounted tactical lights, SureFire sought to craft a series of lights that has now once again become the industry standard. The new flagship of the pistol-mounted tactical light line is the X200. This unit, available in two models denoted as the X200A and X200 B, has revolutionized the way that many look at weapon-mounted lights overall.

Both units use LED-based light sources that, because of the nature of LED technology, are for the most part completely immune to the recoil and vibration that are the enemies of other light sources. Designed to illuminate longer ranged threats, the X200A uses a special lens known as a Total Internal Reflection lens to produce a very tight, diamond shaped beam with a total light output measured at 60 lumens.

The X200B uses a high output 5-watt LED that is set into a “micro-textured” reflector to produce 100 lumens. This unit projects a much wider beam than that of its stable mate, and it is most useful in the short-range environments in which most police actions shootings take place. Both models of X200 use an aluminum body for the utmost in durability and will attach to any weapon that uses either a universal or Picatinny rail system.

Both models of the X200 are capable of accepting any of the switching options that SureFire has developed for use in a wide variety of circumstances with a wide range of weapons systems. The X200 is a very well thought out and proven design that has received much use in the law enforcement and military special operations community and is reportedly the choice of such elite units as the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team.

Overall, the time for the standard issue pistol light has come. Technology has now progressed to the point where all of the pieces to the puzzle are now commonly available to officers and agencies alike that will allow for each officer to carry a tactical light affixed to his issued pistol daily. No matter whether an officer is assigned to the night shift, or works exclusively during the day, there will always be a need to enter reduced light areas, and the need for positive target identification will remain paramount.

Scott Oldham is a supervisory sergeant with the Bloomington, IN Police Department where he is assigned to the Operations Division as patrol supervisor, as well as being one of the team leaders for the department’s Tactical Unit. He and his partner, Sergeant Mick Williams, provide contract instruction on a wide range of subjects, including tactical and patrol-based skills. He can be reached at oldhams@bloomington.in.gov.

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2008

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