Self Defense

KR Training Low Light Shooting 1

Shooting a pistol well is hard. Shooting a pistol one-handed well is even harder. Shooting a pistol one-handed in low light conditions while also manipulating a light system... well that's next level stuff.

The evening following KR Training’s Advanced Training 2 Force on Force Scenarios consisted of attending KR Training’s Low Light Shooting 1 course, which is another of the required courses and brings me yet one step closer to completing KR Training’s Defensive Pistol Skills Program. This course introduces students to shooting in low light and focuses on helping students understand the considerations and trade offs between different aiming and lighting systems. This is a lot of value in attending a course like since range facilities that allow students to practice and train under such conditions are extremely limited.

This class started it out with a classroom presentation led by John Kochan. John is an interesting cat. Not only is he an experienced instructor with a long tenure at KR Training, but he’s also a research lab manager  at the Texas A&M Aerospace Laboratory for Lasers, ElectroMagnetics and Optics . As a result, he happens to know quite a bit about lighting systems and shooting.

The lecture covered a lot of information which started off with a show and tell history lesson that started with a handheld signal lantern, to the icon Maglite (which doubles as an attitude adjuster), to modern handheld tactical lights and weapon mounted lights. The history lesson naturally flowed into a comparative discussion of handheld versus weapon mounted lights which were fairly obvious. A handheld light allows one to illuminate without pointing the muzzle at whatever is being illuminated, however shooting with a handheld light means shooting one handed, which is difficult to do quickly and accurately, or with a compromised two hand grip (more on this in a bit). The obvious benefit of a weapon mounted light is the ability to shoot with a two hand grip. However, anything that is illuminated by a weapon mounted light also has a weapon pointed at it which is not always desirable and rarely advisable for an armed citizen. Additionally, a weapon mounted light can significantly limit holster options. As of writing this the two most widely supported weapon mounted lights by holster manufacturers are the SureFire X300 and the Streamlight TLR-1 HL. However, the market is starting to show signs of supporting the Modlite PL350. One other drawback for a handheld light is that it can make some tasks, like manipulating a door knob, difficult when the light is in one hand and a pistol is in the other. Given there are trade offs between the handheld and weapon mounted options, it seems like having both options available is a good idea. However, switching between the two systems can be slow. A lanyard can help reduce the transition time and even aid with simplifying tasks which were complicated by having tools in both hands while keeping the handheld secure and available. However, a lanyard isn’t a silver bullet as it might require modifying how a handheld is carried day to day (to avoid getting it hung up on items) and can also slow down the initial deployment of a handheld light in order to secure the lanyard to the wrist.

Some lecture time was dedicated to demystifying the difference between light intensity measurement units. Specifically, lumen and candela. If I recall correctly, lumen measures the total light output or brightness of a light. Candela on the other hand measures the intensity of a focused beam of light in a particular direction – this is sometimes referred to as throw as this focused light beam is what determines the distance that the beam of light can reach. There is a balance between the two measurements. Similar candela and lumen values indicate an unfocused light beam without a lot of reach. This isn’t a bad thing and likely a desired characteristic for task lights. That is a light that is intended to illuminate a large nearby area well so that a person can perform tasks in low light. An extreme difference between candela and lumen (with the candela being the larger of the two numbers) tends to indicate a highly focused beam of light with a long reach. However, that’s not necessarily a good thing since the beam might be too intense for short distance applications and may not produce enough spill to illuminate around the area where the beam is focused. From a tactical or armed citizen point of view, a good flashlight will have a nice hot center (the focused beam) with a good reach, but will have a fair amount of spill to illuminate well around the hot spot. A good value light that was recommended was Fenix D35 V3.0 Flashlight which delivers 1700 lumen and 21,900 candela on the brightest setting for about $80.

Crisp hot center with generous spill from the Fenix D35 V3.0

Given the versatility and ubiquity of modern tactical handheld lights, we spent a few moments discussing three techniques for shooting while holding a light in the other hand. The first technique we discussed was the Rogers technique which was introduced by former FBI Agent and firearms instructor Bill Rogers. The technique consists of holding the light between the index and middle finger of the support hand which allows the support hand to “support” the pistol in a pseudo crush thumb grip. In practice, the support hand adds very little support to the pistol and it can be a little awkward to illuminate other areas well when the hand is not “supporting” the pistol. Another technique we discussed was the Harries method. This method was introduced by former Marine Mike Harris in the 1970s. This method requires holding the light like an ice pick with the support hand with the thumb indexed on the back of the light where hopefully an activation button is located. Then the support hand is brought underneath the pistol (not in front) and “locks” the wrists together. Like the Rogers technique, the Harries method provides very little support to assist with shooting. The technique favored by KR Training is the Neck-Index technique which we spent most of the shooting portion of the class learning and developing. The Neck-Index technique requires holding the flashlight like an ice pick, much like the Harries method, but is then brought up and indexed against the neck. The idea is that the light illuminates where ever one is looking. A cheek index can be used alternatively. I found the cheek index to more consistently illuminate where ever I was looking.

After the lecture, which was actually quite brief, the class headed out to the range to do some shooting. Before getting into what we did on the range, I’ll cover the gear I used because someone will undoubtedly ask:

I forgot to mention several other KR Trainers were present including Karl Rehn, John Daub, Greg Howard, Ed Vinyard, and Doug Greig which resulted in a very low student to instructor ratio as can be expected from KR Training courses. In typical fashion, students were assigned to one of two relays and began with the range work.

While all of the students present had completed several per-requisite courses, we were instructed to work without concealment in order to focus on low light shooting skill development. The first drill we ran was a draw and shoot at a typical IDPA target from 5 yards on a signal. This took place as dusk was starting. However even with what seemed like an abundant amount of light, it didn’t take long before the muzzle flash that is not apparently present with good light started to become noticeable.

As dusk started giving way to night, the targets were getting harder to see and precision started to suffer. This led us in the next drill where we practiced using a handheld flashlight with the Neck-Index (or a modified Neck-Index) to illuminate while shooting. The steps of the drill were also changed a bit as follows: Illuminate target, on signal stop illumination, draw, illuminate, shoot until target no longer needed shooting (1 to 3 shots – student’s choice), stop illumination, holster. The idea from what I understood was to start building the habit of only illuminating when the target needed shooting so that the defender could then opt to move in darkness. For example, with a threat identified a break in illumination creates a moment where an attacker’s eyes adjust to the darkness and the defender can “move off the X” relatively unnoticed. Psychologically speaking, an attacker armed with a firearm who decided to shoot would likely shoot where the light was and the defender no longer is. This also creates a moment where an armed defender can draw their weapon before illuminating the threat again and incapacitating it. At least, that’s how I understood it.

The next drill reinforced the concept of momentary illumination by having students standing stationary will illuminating a target momentarily, then under the cover of darkness turning at the target to the left or right of the target directly in front of the student and momentarily illuminating it, then back to center, followed by illuminating the target on the opposite side of the center target. This continued until a signal was given. On the signal the most recently illuminated target was identified as a threat where the student drew in darkness, illuminated the threatening target, shot it until it no longer needed shooting, stopped illumination, and returned the gun to the holster.

It was around this time that many students, myself included, started noticing the shortcomings of their handheld lights or at least their current programmed settings. Let me explain. Some of the handheld flashlights used start on a low intensity beam when the activation switch is first pressed and require a second press in a short time frame to activate a high intensity beam. Students using these types of lights quickly found out that fumbling with and counting activation presses was impractical when doing other things such as working a pistol. Unfortunately, some of these lights could not be reconfigured or programmed to make it easier to activate the high intensity beam. I had a different problem. The Streamlight ProTac 2L I was using, while programmable, by default switches between high intensity, strobe, and low intensity with additional activation button presses. I found myself accidentally activating the strobe during this drills. While I suppose that might have some tactical value, it wasn’t what I was attempting to do. Furthermore, I found out the strobe had an interesting effect on RMR’s ambient light sensor which adjusts the brightness of the dot. The strobe caused the red dot to fluctuate from bright to dim which might have been a neat disco party effect, but awful distracting when trying to put accurate holes on a target. Luckily for me, the Streamlight ProTac 2L can be reprogrammed to work with a hi beam only setting, which I ended up doing as soon as I got home.

The next drill was very similar to the previous one, but added movement by having the students pace and face the targets for illumination until a threat was signaled.

As the third drill was going on, I got called to go to the “shoot house” range where Doug Greig had set up several fall down targets so students could experience what shooting inside of a structure in low light was like. For those of you that haven’t read the after action reports of the Advanced Training 2 Force of Force Scenarios or the Defensive Pistol Skills 2 courses and are not familiar with the “shoot house”, it is a range with a berm on three sides with a series of barricades and doors set up in a layout that can be used to simulate a small structure like a small house or a convenience store. There are a number of challenges presented by structures such as angles and lines of sight. Not to mention giving actors concealment and cover. However, those weren’t the primary focus of this shoot house scenario. Rather the focus was on practicing illumination, identifying a place to move under the cover of darkness, moving to that place, scanning with illumination, and of course, more low light shooting. Sight lines and angles present challenges in low light. Specifically when illumination comes into play as the structural angles that block the path of the light beam remain extremely dark in the shadows the structure casts. In fact, I completely missed a threatening target due to those shadows as I moved through the structure. The other thing that became apparent is that the light reflected off common surfaces can also cause our pupils to constrict and make it difficult to see deeper into the structure. This can also affect our ability to aim at a target in these low light conditions.

While I was gone, the main range had been rearranged with three stations. Each station had a barricade and several steel targets down range. The purpose of these stations was to allow the students to shoot around barricades while illuminating the targets well enough to engage them from different positions.

The first station consisted of three relatively large steel targets and a single barricade that forced the shooter to shoot around the right and left side of the barricade. The student engaged the three targets from the left side and then again from the right side for a total of six dings. My takeaway from this station is that shooting around the side opposite to the dominant shooting hand is the same as shooting with good light. In other words, for right handed shooting it still requires a good lean to the left in order to not put holes in the barricade. In good conditions, shooting from the same side as the dominant hand would require less of a lean. However, because the light can be blocked by the barricade it requires a lot more leaning, repositioning of the light (from a neck index to a top of the head index), or a combination of both.

The second station was similar to the first in the sense that it consisted of three targets down range and a barricade. The difference is that the barricade was configured with two different port holes to shoot from. One was about shoulder height. The other was quite a bit lower. My takeaways from this stage were very similar to the first. One has to adjust their position and potentially the position of the light source in order to allow the light to and projectiles to travel down range. Otherwise it leads to holes in the barricade of light splashing back at the shooter and not illuminating the targets well.

The third station consisted of a six small steel plate rack and a barrel. The barrel didn’t present much of a barrier that required any additional adjustment. However, the stage emphasized the importance of developing strong single hand shooting skills as the small plates are much more difficult to hit one handed. This means more concentrating on good one handed techniques while not forgetting to work the flashlight.

Students continued to work on these stages until the end of class. While this was going on I still had two other activities to complete. The first was completing a modified three seconds or less drill, which I’ve covered before in the Defensive Pistol Skills 1 and Defensive Pistol Skills 2 after action reports. In this course, the drill isn’t a test for score. Instead it’s intended to show the difficulty of shooting in low light conditions under pressure. It’s not easy to shoot fast and accurately in these conditions. As I’ve mentioned, shooting one handed is harder than shooting with two hands. To make matters worse, one also has to remember to operate the light system. Getting good at this will take practice. A lot of it.

As a side note, I decided to use Federal Premium 147gr HST, the ammunition I carry, during the modified three seconds of less drill. It’s worth noting that the flash given off by this premium defensive ammo is significantly subdued compared to the practice ammo we commonly shoot in practice and in training. While a flash is still present, the difference in flash is much less distracting and makes it easier to stay focused on the task at hand – putting holes in the right places quickly. Additionally, John Daub, who was running the drill, allowed me the opportunity to shoot the drill again using the Daniel Defense DDM4 V11 which has been outfitted with a Modlite OKW-18650 weapon mounted light. The notion that shooting fast and accurately with a rifle is easier to do than it is with a pistol was quickly reinforced as soon as I remembered my holdovers. Furthermore, it gave me a chance to confirm that a weapon mounted light does lower the difficulty in operating a weapon in low light conditions compared to a handheld light and all the hype surrounding the Modlite OKW as a fantastic weapon mounted light seems to be legit. The OKW light up that target like it was nobody’s business.

Daniel Defense DDM4 V11 with accessories

The last activity was a low light video training simulation conducted by Craig Smith and Chase Harris from Immersive Training Solutions. I ended up getting “shot and killed” by the bad guy in the scenario. However, there was a lot to takeaway from the experience and undesirable outcome. I’ve previously discussed the complex dynamics and the speed at which things happen in force on force and these video training simulations in the Advanced Training 2 Force of Force Scenarios after action report. Low light conditions increase the complexity and difficulty. For example, it takes more effort and time to discriminate a potential target as a threat or not. Additionally, the amount of input is limited to what is visible, or rather illuminated. The trade off here is time. We have the choice of acting faster with less input and potentially making a bad decision or slowing down to acquire more information and potentially suffer an undesirable outcome at the hands of a bad actor. The simplest way I can put it is that force on force training shows us that being in a gunfight sucks and low light training shows us that being in a gun fight in low light conditions sucks more.

There are so many things to takeaway from this type of class. The first thing is it’s a good idea to carry a handheld light. If you don’t have a handheld light and carry one, then get one and carry it. I’d argue that a handheld light is a much higher priority than a weapon mounted light. The next takeaway is one handed shooting is hard and shooting in low light with a handheld light forces one to shoot one handed. So get good at one handed shooting regardless if one outfits their pistol with a weapon mounted light. Also a weapon mounted light isn’t a bad idea since it allows one to shoot with two hands, but it isn’t a replacement for a handheld light. The last thing is go take a class. Going into this I thought the Streamlight ProTac 2L I’ve been carrying for years was good enough and ready to use in low light conditions. This wasn’t the case. While it is a very capable value priced flashlight, the default programming wasn’t ideal shooting in low light conditions. As I’ve said before, if a class like this intrigues you, then head on over to KR Training’s schedule to find an upcoming class that works with your schedule.

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