A friend of mine loves to joke about tactical stuff. He’ll joke about how guns are dangerous and how he feels much safer with a “tactical whistle” or “tactical flashlight.” He thinks he’s funny, asking when I’m going to run a tactical whistle class or a tactical flashlight class. And it is funny. But there’s a lot to be said for the tactically sound use of a flashlight.

A bright light can be used to show a violent predator that you are prepared to defend yourself. A bright, blinding light to the eyes to foul the presentation of a weapon or just to stop someone in his or her tracks might be enough to turn the tables. It’s a certain display of preparedness and a very low-level display of force, and it could be just the distraction you need to disengage. Flashlights are no joking matter.


Flashlights can create a “curtain of light,” keeping you hidden, but if used improperly, a flashlight is as likely to light you up as it is to light up the bad guy.


With so many lights available from so many manufacturers, they’ve become tools — like guns and pocketknives — that many collect. You ask any person who’s into self-defense, and he or she will likely admit to having literally dozens of lights and knives. Available features of varying intensity, strobe and momentary-on/-off switches suit flashlights to a variety of purposes.

Long ago, as an employee of a peace officer training academy, I helped run a low-light shooting class. It was much more than coordinating a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other; we taught tactics and techniques that opened officers’ minds to the positive and negative effects lights can have in various situations. Many of the tactics were taught using force-on-force scenarios.

It used to be that we only thought of “lighting up” targets to shoot them, but in actuality, I’ve yet to have a problem shooting in low-light conditions. There has always been enough ambient light to see my sights and my target in real-world situations. Flashlights have more value than most people might realize, and not just for self-defense.

Before we go any further, I want to stress that seeking out a criminal is usually a job for law enforcement; nine times out of 10, a private citizen will have no reason to do so. However, there are times, such as if you’re forced to move through your home to get to a loved one, that this kind of movement can be essential to the defense of innocent life.

Lights showing trip hazards and cover points

Lights are used to locate danger areas, trip hazards and cover points, but do you know when to keep your light off?

It’s Curtains

Darkness is often associated with the unknown. Let’s be honest: Darkness has been a little scary for a lot of people since their childhoods. Flashlights can create a “curtain of light,” keeping you hidden, but if used improperly, a flashlight is as likely to light you up as it is to light up the bad guy. Not to worry, though: Proper training will give you the edge and keep the evildoers guessing exactly where you are.

The “curtain of light” can best be explained using a visual description. If you’ve ever been pulled over, the officer probably directed his light into your rearview mirror. By doing this, he is creating a well-lit area he can move outside of and, at the same time, robbing you of your night vision. While you’re squinting, moving your mirrors and attempting to refocus, he shows up like a ghost. By placing the light just right, he created a curtain that allowed him to move in the darkness beyond.

The Big 3

Flashlights are fundamentally used to navigate, locate and identify, and each of these uses can be combined with the curtain-of-light technique to hide your movements and your intentions. Forethought, solid tactics and some common-sense techniques can help you own the darkness.

Navigation simply means to plot out a route of travel. A crowded public place that suddenly loses power comes to mind. Use your light to find your way and avoid obstacles. If there is no threat, keep the light on, and you can lead the masses. If there is a threat, such as a rapid mass murderer, use your light sparingly and only in momentary mode.

This will allow you to “paint” an area with light to take a quick peek, but you should always turn it off as you move from Point A to Point B. Think of it as a quick brush stroke to see what needs to be seen. See the path and any obstacles it might hold and always turn the light off before you bring the beam down toward your feet. Most importantly, remain behind the curtain of that light.

A great technique for moving in the dark is to quickly move from cover point to cover point. Judiciously applied, the intermittent use of a flashlight doesn’t allow an attacker time to get a bead on your exact location. Be decisive and move quickly. Whether you’re moving toward a threat or retreating away from one, it’s a safe way to keep your opponent guessing.

Discipline Case

Light discipline is mandatory. Knowing when to use the light momentarily and when to go full-on is something you need to think about. Lights should be used sparingly to navigate until you locate what you’re seeking. Locating an assailant is obvious, but locating dropped equipment or the next safe place to which you’ll move are equally important. Lights are used to locate danger areas, trip hazards and cover points, but do you know when to keep your light off?

When the light comes on for longer than a quick look, you’re sure to experience at least some night-vision loss. If you locate what you’re looking for, you might opt to keep the light off so as not to deplete that night vision. Think about when you head to the bathroom at night.

You look for something but can’t find it. You switch the light on for a quick moment and, when the light goes back off, it appears even darker than before. Human eyes take serious time to fully adapt to darkness and reach their optimal sensitivity to low-light conditions. Rapid gains in sensitivity are made in the first few minutes after exposure to darkness, but it can take hours in darkness for human eyes to finally adapt and make small gains in sensitivity.


Even if you “painted” an attacker with light and saw his gun, don’t just shoot and shut it back off. Full-on light should be applied so you can see the results.


After you’ve located and navigated toward what you believe to be a threat, it’s time to identify. You can’t just shoot at something you haven’t positively identified as a threat. Identification might take more than a quick burst of light, so this might be the time for full-on light. You know that it is the hands that kill, but you can’t just shoot someone with a gun. The entire person, starting at the hands, needs to be scanned. Unless he has already shot at you, you can’t be sure that it’s not a good Samaritan trying to help. Start at the hands and be sure there’s no badge anywhere; check for a uniform, check the beltline and the non-gun hand. When in doubt, the eyes generally show intent and tell you what you need to know.

At times, full-intensity light is necessary. Even if you “painted” an attacker with light and saw his gun, don’t just shoot and shut it back off. Full-on light should be applied so you can see the results. Unless you need to retreat, you need to be watching what happens next. Did he fall or did he run? If he fell, you’ll want to watch what his hands are doing while he’s down on the ground.

Also bear in mind that the light alone might cause a potential threat to give up, and remember that deadly force must always be a conscious decision, not a simple, conditioned reaction.

Maintain light discipline with your firearm or you will get backsplash

LEFT If you fail to maintain light discipline, you may allow the beam to unintentionally hit something, resulting in “backsplash” that can give up your position.
RIGHT Through proper technique, you’ll be able to remain behind your “curtain of light” and move about mostly undetected, which is especially important when you’re mitigating a violent situation.

The Cover-Up

Using cover with a flashlight can be a tricky task. The standard tactic is to never “crowd” your cover when engaging or challenging a target downrange, but darkness creates a different situation. It doesn’t mean it applies all the time, but you want to stay very close to your cover when using a flashlight to keep light from splashing back and lighting or blinding you.

Try this experiment: In a darkened area, put a piece of cover (like a wall) between you and a friend. Stand back from the wall with your flashlight and try to illuminate your friend. You’ll likely find that you will splash so much light back at yourself that your friend will see you as if you are in a spotlight. Based on the color of the cover, you might also find that you will be blinded by the splashback, keeping you from seeing anything clearly enough to effectively engage.


You could light a hallway permanently so you could move to another location in your home by crossing behind the curtain.


Try it again, but get your flashlight past cover so you don’t get any splashback. You should find that you maintain your night vision and can see everything more clearly. (This is the time to hold the flashlight up high above your head or down low at your waist to create doubt about your exact location.)

Although the stationary curtain of light is most commonly used by police officers in their squad cars, you could, in a pinch, create the same effect with a flashlight. The largest downfall is that you’d have to leave your light behind, which, depending on the emergency, wouldn’t be a huge issue if you also had a weapon-mounted light. You could light a hallway permanently so you could move to another location in your home by crossing behind the curtain. It could give you the ability to triangulate an aggressor’s position from another avenue, and you could even use the curtain as a distraction and retreat from the home if necessary.

Remain Enlightened

With many years of training and proctoring scenarios behind me, there is no doubt in my mind that flashlights are tactically sound tools. I use my pocket lights to navigate, locate and identify on a regular basis. I’ve even been in a large convention hall when the power went out and felt the comfort of having portable light. Carrying a light and understanding its uses affords you capability, and understanding the techniques of painting areas with light, creating curtains of light and using cover to avoid backsplash affords you confidence.

Almost more importantly than either of those, having thought through scenarios of when to use momentary light or go full-on in the process of identifying threats instills competence. All of it takes your mind where your body has not yet gone, and all of it is essential training for responsibly armed Americans.