Night Fire: Three Things You Realize When the Lights Go Out

Night Fire: Three Things You Realize When the Lights Go Out

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For the last three decades, I’ve had the good fortune to take part in some of the best firearms and tactics training available. All to the US Military, Law Enforcement, and citizen alike. Small arms trainers realized long ago that for training programs to be practical, the troops needed to shoot at night. After all, the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program regularly shows that violent attacks on police officers take place at least fifty percent of the time “during hours of darkness or diminished light”.

Even the layman can clearly see that if you are called upon to defend your life from a violent attack the chances are fifty-fifty. It is either going to be dark or you’ll be somewhere the light is less than optimal. The bold truth is that scant few gun carriers will actually train or practice at night. Even most law enforcement agencies will rarely conduct training at night. More often agencies will ‘simulate’ darkness by having officers wear welding goggles. A representative from one agency explained to me that they didn’t conduct training at night. This was because people in the adjacent area could hear the gunfire after dark and complained!

Just recently as a part of our Student of the Gun TV taping, we took the crew out to the range and conducted some night fire training. What I would like to do in the next page or two is touch on a few items. Or areas of consideration. These are things that would never occur to most people who have not had the opportunity to train or practice in low light conditions.

Lights: Too Bright, Not Bright Enough

Whether you use a weapon mounted light or handheld light, you really don’t get a true feel for their actual capabilities until you take them out to a live-fire range. Though there is no specific formula that is universally accepted, one trainer offered that you need 2 Lumen of light for every foot you wish to see clearly in complete darkness. (When we say “see clearly” we mean positively identify a threat.) By that standard, a 100 Lumen light is good for fifty feet. Considering that most gunfights don’t take place at distances beyond seven to ten yards, a 100 Lumen light is not too bad.


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For practical self-defense use, I would offer that a 100 Lumen light should be the starting point or minimum. Do what you like, that is my personal cut off. Keep in mind, you are responsible for every round you fire. You must be absolutely sure that what you are shooting at is a legitimate threat. Lower powered lights are easier on batteries and work well for utility chores. 

Range Lighting

During the aforementioned range session, I had a chance to work with a new weapon-mounted light that put out a whopping 650 Lumen. ‘Great!’ you say, the more the better. Yes, a 650 Lumen light will let you distinguish targets beyond a hundred yards and that is a positive. I realized just how bright it was when I activated the light to test it while aiming at the ground by my feet. The light-colored sand reflected so much light back up that I was temporarily blinded. My dilated pupils were shocked and constricted. If you were to ‘bounce’ a 200 to 300 Lumen light off of an interior wall in your house a similar blinding issue could occur. Lesson learned.

Ammo Matters

When the majority of gun owners consider ammunition, their primary focus is the bullet or projectile. Controlled expansion is for self-defense, full metal jacket is for practice. Checking the price tags, some folks will rationalize that ‘a bullet is a bullet’ and ‘they all make holes’. These shoppers will save a few bucks by purchasing full metal jacket ammunition for all their gun carrying chores; including self-defense.

Ammunition is more than just a bullet. You need to consider the primer, powder, and casing. When it comes to night fire, the type or grade of propellant can make a big difference. When you shoot on a sunny day you will rarely notice the muzzle flash from your gun. Your pupils are either constricted or protected with tinted glasses. Unless you are using black powder or a similar substitute, rarely will you notice any gun smoke. What little smoke there may be dissipates quickly.

Turn out the lights and this becomes a different story altogether. The bright flash that you never noticed during the day can be distracting. As well as a bit unnerving at night, if you’ve never experienced it. Full metal jacket practice ammunition uses less expensive powder to keep the cost of the ammo down. The gray cloud of gun smoke that you never noticed is now illuminated by your white tactical light. Again this can be a bit disconcerting to the novice.

While the flash and smoke might not seem that big of a concern to you, they are definitely a bit of a handicap in seeing your threat clearly. If you are engaged in a gunfight in the dark, you are already having a ‘bad day’. Why make things tougher on yourself because you loaded ‘cheap’ ammo in your gun?

Color, Shadow and Depth Perception

One of the biggest problems I personally have with the ‘welding goggles’ fix is that all you are doing is shading the shooter’s eyes. The outside world is still lit up and flashlights are useless. Welding goggles don’t give you the deep shadows and depth perception issues that are encountered in actual low-light scenarios.

The human eye needs ample light to discern color. Red, brown or blue all become varied shades of grey when the lights go out. Big deal you say? If you are a police officer and the ‘suspect’ is reported to be wearing a red shirt, can you determine color without ample white light?

When the shooter does encounter the hard shadows and depth perception issues associated with actual low-light situations, they have a tendency to focus on the threat by looking over the gun or unconsciously dipping the gun out of their field of view. This reaction by the shooter naturally causes rounds to strike low or miss the target entirely.

It is during this aforementioned situation that you realize the value of a lighted aiming point. Lasers, red dots optics and Tritium sights are all excellent options when looking for a solid reference point in the mix of bright artificial light and dark shadows.

Parting Shots

It is arguably difficult to find a range that will allow you to train at night or in low-light situations. Difficult, however, is not impossible. If you have the opportunity to attend an advanced training course that includes low-light shooting I would highly recommend it. As with all life-saving skills, the first time you use the skill it should be on the training range. Not the real world.

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Paul G. Markel has worn many hats during his lifetime. He has been a U.S. Marine, Police Officer, Professional Bodyguard, and Small Arms and Tactics Instructor. Mr. Markel has been writing professionally for law enforcement and firearms periodicals for nearly twenty years with hundreds and hundreds of articles in print. Paul is a regular guest on nationally syndicated radio talk shows and subject matter expert in firearms training and use of force. Mr. Markel has been teaching safe and effective firearms handling to students young and old for decades and has worked actively with the 4-H Shooting Sports program. Paul holds numerous instructor certifications in multiple disciplines and a Bachelor’s degree in conflict resolution; nonetheless, he is and will remain a dedicated Student of the Gun.

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