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Low-Light Pistol Course
Winning a low-light armed encounter will not be based solely on equipment. Knowledge of how your body performs and how your eyes work both under stress and in adverse lighting will also not be enough. Shooting skills and abilities with and without flashlights are nice to have but, once again, not enough. All of these components are necessary! Then you must throw in intense force-on-force confrontation simulation training to truly prepare yourself and your officers for low-light encounters of the worst kind.
Chris Cerino of the Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy and I recently conducted a Low-light Pistol Course hosted by the Summit County, Sheriff’s Office. Cerino is a former U.S. Air Marshals firearms instructor and former tactical team member with an Ohio law enforcement agency. Here are the highlights of that program and what we have come to believe and instruct about low-light survival.
“Fight or Flight” or Body Alarm Reaction
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is a branch of the autonomic nervous system. The (SNS) is triggered in high stress situations such as those in armed encounters. One of the results of an SNS reaction is an impairment of the visual system. Among other things, our visual field narrows (tunnel vision), low-light vision is reduced (as is the loss of ability to distinguish colors) and our depth perception is reduced (resulting in a loss of visual acuity and accuracy). Tunnel vision is cited as being experienced by a majority of officers in numerous studies of police gunfight survivors.
Understanding when your body is beginning to exhibit the symptoms of an SNS response is vital for you to take control of your body and mind. Symptoms include perception of increased heart rate, rapid breathing, cotton mouth and more. Once you understand how your body begins to exhibit an SNS response, you can begin tactical breathing (also described as autogenic breathing) to reduce your stress level. Certainly tactical breathing before undertaking any mission improves performance and should be part or your survival repertoire.
Walk into a darkened room from a sunlit day and your vision could deteriorate to about ¼ that of legal blindness. Retired member Kansas Bureau of Investigation and current Lasermax® trainer Marshall Schmitt reports that legal blindness is indicated in vision levels of 20/200. If you have 20/20 vision and walk into a movie theatre, for instance, your vision may deteriorate to 20/800. With time, your vision may improve to about 20/180 but that takes about 30 minutes.
Age has an effect on low-light adaptation, with older officers taking longer for their eyes to adjust as well as losing some night vision over time. Smoking has an adverse effect on the eyes due to eye irritation (yet another reason to quit smoking). Lack of Vitamin A can also affect night vision and can be aided by vitamin supplements.
Additionally, dayshift officers should avail themselves of good quality sunglasses so that when they go into that darkened house or factory, their eyes adjust a little quicker. Even when your eyes have time to adjust to the darkness, you will still not be able to locate hidden suspects, let alone determined what if anything is in there hands. That’s where flashlights come into play.
No, the latest and greatest piece of lighting equipment will not be enough, in and of itself, to save the day. That goes for high lumen level Xeon or LED bulbs, strobing functions, weapon-mounted lights, etc. To rely on equipment alone is to fall into the “equip-mentality” syndrome, i.e., the combination of training and equipment that ALONE will NOT win. That said, I want worthwhile equipment available and working for me.
A staggering array of lighting equipment is available, both hand-carried and weapon-mounted. Much of it is high quality. For general patrol purposes, police flashlights should produce a minimum of 60 lumens. Higher levels certainly have advantages. A long time ago, I worked at an outdoor rock concert facility where it was common to have crowds of more than 20,000 people. When it was necessary to move people back who were ignoring requests to move, I would routinely use my bright flashlight in their eyes.
Today’s rechargeable and lithium battery lights put out even more light in smaller and smaller packages. This enables all officers on all shifts to have high lumen level lights on their person at all times, and that includes plainclothes personnel. Furthermore, following the Navy SEAL adage of “one is none and two is one” it allows redundancy in lighting equipment by allowing the carrying of a spare light.
Lights allow the officer to navigate, locate suspects, identify them as threats and neutralize them with force (deadly or non-deadly force). They must be used judiciously and from cover if at all possible. As low-light training expert Ken Good says, “Paint the area with light” then turn the light out and move. Just a few seconds of light should be used. You can work behind this “wall of light” to conceal yourself and disorient the suspect, but the longer the light stays on, the more a suspect adjusts to the light.
Lasers and laser training has come a long way since they were introduced to law enforcement. With Crimson Trace’s Lasergrips™, Lasermax, and weapon-mounted light and laser combo units, there is a good argument for lasers in low or subdued lighting conditions.
Lasers are also a worthwhile consideration for older officers who wear bi-focals. Bi-focals require the wearer to shift between the top of the glass lens to see at distance and the bottom of the lens to see the sights. By using a laser-equipped pistol, the officer need only focus on the suspect and where the red dot is to get hits on target.
Sadly, the status of officer shooting skills in many agencies is very lacking. With most agencies revolving their firearms programs around passing qualification courses, departments often neglect the close-range, low-light circumstances, even though this is the scenario for most police shootings. Lack of skill at arms is a pet peeve of both instructors, therefore we begin our training program hands-on portion with a review and numerous repetitions of a proper combat draw-stroke.
A proper presentation of the pistol to the target achieves many things. Primarily, it builds a motor program that can be reverted to in an actual incident. This motor program brings the pistol to eye level—if possible—each time but allows officers to shoot, if need be, anywhere along the path of the pistol. This alignment by feel is so important and relies on the adage by the late, great Colonel Jeff Cooper who said, “The body aims, the eyes verify.”
If the target can be seen and properly identified as a deadly threat in subdued lighting, a flashlight may not be necessary unless it is already in hand. That said, many officers have flashlights in their non-gun hands while conducting field interviews, even in the ambient light of street lights or patrol vehicle take-down lights. It is incumbent upon you to be skilled with your duty pistol whether a flashlight is in your hand or not.
Coordinating a flashlight and pistol in your hands is one of the toughest skills to master, and yet officers frequently fail to train in this important skill. Flashlight stances such as the Harries, neck index, Chapman, Rogers, Ayoob and others should be in your technique toolbox. Although we all tend to gravitate toward our favorite hold, you should have a variety of techniques practiced that can be quickly assumed, used on both sides of cover, and are as solid as possible.
Many officers stack the pistol on top of the flashlight tube. The problem with this hold is that too much of an officer’s body is exposed from behind cover, and there is little recoil control. The SNS response mentioned earlier will not be conducive to stances, holds and maneuvers that can be described as fine motor skills. Flashlight holds and stances should rely on gross motor movements as much as possible. In addition, the position of the actuating switch on your light will affect what type of hold you can assume. A light with a tail cap switch cannot be used in the Chapman hold, for instance.
Since the coordination of light and pistol is tough to do (and indeed may be impossible for someone like a K9 officer with his support hand holding a dog leash), I am a fan of weapon-mounted lights. Weapon-mounted lights are the quickest and most accurate means of shooting in low light.
These weapon lights must remain mounted all the time, not drawn from somewhere and snapped in place as needed. It is not tactically sound to have a weapon-mounted light that you cannot re-holster or that takes time to add to the weapon once you find it somewhere on your person.
Fortunately, holster manufacturers are now catching on, and many are making duty holsters to accommodate most weapon-mounted lights. It is still imperative that if you carry a light on your duty pistol that you have at least one light that you can hand-carry as well. Do not forget that every time you point with that weapon light, you are muzzling the target.
Live-Fire and Force on Force
After basic flashlight holds were introduced and practiced dry fire, these holds are incorporated into live-fire drills. Lighting conditions are progressively diminished and changed from front-lit to back-lit targets. Utilization of movement was practiced with the concept of light it up to shoot, light off and move recommended.
Reloads exercising light discipline and movement while reloading are recommended with the suggestion of keeping the flashlight in the non-gun hand during the reload. While this seems surprising, keeping the light in hand is quicker and offers more control over the light than putting it under an arm, on the ground, tucking it in the belt or setting it on the floor where it might roll away and lost in the dark.
Scrambler drills are run. These require the officer to interact and communicate with partners while moving between points of cover. Once the basics are mastered, it is THIS part of firearms training that lacks from most agencies programs. Training to save your life is not about standing on a static line and shooting when the target(s) face or the whistle blows.
Instead, it is about being spatially aware of your surroundings in 360 degrees, looking out for where your partner is and coordinating each other’s fire and movements so that the threat is always pointed. It’s about scanning and moving and properly using cover, which is a lifesaver. It’s about properly identifying threats. Not every situation is a shoot, and no-shoot targets must be mixed in to require officers to see not just look.
In addition to these points, important issues such as stress inoculation and controlling SNS response were integrated into the force-on-force training as a final exercise. It is a whole different ball game when the suspect hiding downrange in the dark behind cover has to be found (and don’t forget they can move, too), properly identified as a threat (you have got to see their hands and what is in them). And here is the big one. They can shoot back.
We are big fans of airsoft technology and the low-cost, high-value training that can be accomplished with it. We have run single and partner officer drills using airsoft in force on force, and the results have been excellent. Pressure testing the skills you’ve been working on takes your training to a whole new level and must be conducted by all agencies! No longer a luxury, properly conducted force on force prepares our officers to face the real deal as much as we as trainers can.
The firearms and tactics training that we have been able to conduct has been well received and continues to grow. The goal of the low-light pistol course like all of our firearms and tactics courses is to teach officers to win, whether the encounter takes place at high noon or at zero dark thirty. Our goal is to educate our officer students with realistic low-light training so that on the street they may illuminate the suspects they meet and dominate the encounter!
Kevin R. Davis is a full-time officer with 25 years of experience. Assigned to the Training Bureau, he is a former team leader and lead instructor for his agency’s SWAT team. Visit his Web site at www.advancedtacticalconcepts.com. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, Mar 2008
Rating : 10.0