Firearms instructors sometimes find themselves teaching controversial subjects, and it is always important to ensure the training session is relevant to and realistic for the students in attendance. Doing so will always yield better results than simply implementing a generic lesson plan that provides an overview of the subject matter without specifics related to student needs.

The use and application of pistol-mounted lights and lasers fall into this category. The intent here is not to condone or condemn anybody’s belief or training curriculum regarding lights and/or lasers on handguns. It is to provide some perspectives for consideration before teaching a class on these subjects.

Since handgun-mounted lights and lasers are generally used for different purposes, they will be addressed separately in this article, relevant to their benefits and potential concerns.

Cover Story

An important reality with any weapon-mounted light is that the muzzle of the gun and the area over which the light is projected cover the same space. If the instruction is to fully abide by the commonly used firearms safety rules, for all practical purposes, mounting a light on a handgun is prohibitive in all but a very few cases.

The primary reasons for the utilization of portable auxiliary light sources are to navigate, locate and/or identify a person or object in reduced-light conditions. Portable lights may also be used to signal to others when no other means of communication is available. In each of these cases, the benefits of having a hand-held light to perform these tasks far outweighs the risks of executing these actions with a weapon-mounted light.

In keeping with best practices of firearms safety, the muzzle shouldn’t be pointed at an object until it is identified as a target, and the index finger shouldn’t touch the trigger until the decision to shoot the target is made. The time between target identification and the decision to shoot the target, if warranted, can be fractions of a second. Illumination of an unidentified potential target with a weapon-mounted light is risky at best, especially if that target presents no threat.

Incorporate Lights Into Your Training

Compounding the concerns with weapon-mounted lights is that each weapon system has two switches that must be operated definitively and appropriately. Training with a weapon with just a trigger can be difficult enough by itself. Adding an illumination switch that must be operated separately and independently will require more than just a few hours of training to be performed adequately, particularly under stressful conditions. In the heat of a high-stress, real-world event, trying to control two tools of the trade when both may be simultaneously or separately on or off is often more than most can handle without error.

Weapon-mounted illumination devices are not precision aiming devices. As with the headlights on an automobile, the idea is to get the big picture and see all of what is illuminated, not just focus on the brightest spot.

Simple handling drills — such as emergency reloads or immediate-action drills — require on/off light manipulation to minimize flagging or back-lighting oneself or another. Tracking is another potential problem when moving from cover to another location if the light is left on. When contemplating adding weapon-mounted lights to an individual’s or an agency’s inventory, consider adding the lights to all the standard weapon-handling and safety practices already in place. Then weigh the benefits along with the training necessary to implement the new tools successfully under duress. After this is complete, the value of a weapon-mounted light as opposed to the usefulness of a conventional hand-held light in typical applications will become apparent.

Low-light training doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should be practiced regularly before the time comes when it is needed. One teaching point borrowed from friend and colleague Wes Doss, Ph.D., a famed writer, trainer and gun personality, is that weapon-mounted illumination devices are not precision aiming devices. As with the headlights on an automobile, the idea is to get the big picture and see all of what is illuminated, not just focus on the brightest spot. Accurate shot placement still requires the proper use of the gun’s sight system.

A Look at Lasers

These continue to be popular sighting tools for handgun training and special applications. The training value becomes apparent while diagnosing deficiencies in shooter performance and remediating those problems.

An excellent drill with the laser is to shoot a group at distance — 15 to 25 yards — with the laser and immediately thereafter shoot the same group with the standard sights and no laser. The groups should be comparable. However, if the group without the laser is considerably larger or has a few fliers, the shooter is not consistently seeing the same sight picture as he or she fires. Another exercise is to put the laser on a far target as mentioned above and see what level of grip pressure and which body position results in the least amount of movement of the gun on the target. Practicing this exercise will shrink shot groups just by duplicating on the live-fire range what was learned dry.

After the shooter’s hold is consistently stable, add trigger operation to this drill. The challenge for the shooter is to stabilize the laser on the target as well as he or she can and then operate the trigger without increased movement. This drill follows the premise that a person’s accuracy is determined by how well he or she can stabilize the gun’s muzzle on the target followed by a full trigger cycle with minimum to no added motion. These drills and others are great diagnostic tools for shooters who need to see what is being done incorrectly in order to remedy a deficiency.

In order to be eyesafe to innocent observers, the power level must be kept necessarily low.

In practical field usage, lasers have some limited benefits. They will never replace standard sights, but they do allow accurate shot placement without being behind the gun. With the correct zero, you can hit targets at an angle or from a compressed position by putting the laser beam on the target and smoothly manipulating the trigger.

In bright light, and whether they are the traditional red or the newer evolution of green, lasers are still challenging for some to see. In order to be eyesafe to innocent observers, the power level must be kept necessarily low. And as with weapon-mounted lights, lasers have on/off switches that must be mastered if they are to be used effectively.

Instructors must have a full understanding of the benefits and deficiencies of weapon-mounted lights and lasers as they apply to students. This is imperative in creating a valid lesson plan and conducting training that is relevant and realistic for the use of either or both. As with everything else, no fair training students on techniques they’ll never use, and always be certain they’re trained to the necessary level for the equipment they intend to carry.