Handheld VS Weapon Mounted Lights for Concealed Carry

Let me preface this by saying this post about white lights is based entirely on my opinion and experience. Although I find it to be objectively true, my goal is not to convert anyone over to my philosophy. Do what you want. This is simply offering an alternate point of view on what many consider to be standard operating procedure.

As doctrine and technology have progressed, it’s well-established that having a light source for everyday carry is crucial. Positive identification of your target is mandatory. There are some unfortunate stories of bad shoots from people who didn’t collect enough data before pulling the trigger, and often times low light environments have been the common denominator. The question now is, not whether or not to carry a light, but rather what kind of light should be carried? The answer may aggravate the tactical groupthink of the internet.

Many times, the advice you’ll find on forums and social media is blindly regurgitated without fully understanding the context. Admittedly, this a step up from the old Fuddlore that used to infect gun shows, since at least people now know to follow the advice of those who are more experienced. Getting more firearms owners to embrace training is a good thing. However, as people mature in any craft, they start developing preferences based on their experience and what is applicable to them. You see this manifested in the firearms world with many different accessories and TTP’s based on situations.

For some reason, that concept doesn’t carry over to using lights for everyday carry. By far, the handheld light is the most prescribed method for concealed carriers. Most instructors will teach that weapon lights are nice to have but that handheld lights are an absolute necessity. Their reasoning seems fairly sound and usually is as follows: You should not be searching with your gun. The situation may not call for it and the last thing you want to do is flag someone unnecessarily. Handheld lights are dual purpose and can be used for less serious or tactical tasks. Weapon lights lights are stuck on your gun, so your barrel is pointing at whatever your light is pointing at. Once you’ve identified a threat with your handheld light, then by all means transition to using the weapon light. But I don’t like the added bulk of a weapon light so I just tell people to carry a handheld.

While I agree with the core sentiment and won’t dissuade people from this thought process, I think it disregards something important —context. Many times, low light principles and dogma originate from LE. This makes sense, as they use lights tactically more than any profession. In saying that, let’s consider some situations where LE would prefer to use handheld lights. Traffic stops, traffic control, investigating an area after responding to a call, disorienting as a non-lethal option while detaining or arresting people, and searching for nonviolent fleeing suspects are all things that come to mind. Handheld lights are much better suited for these tasks where lethal force isn’t justified or immediately required. Cops prefer handheld lights because 99% of their interactions don’t require lethal force.

The likelihood of a concealed carrier finding themselves in similar situations to these is significantly lower. We are defenders, not traffic or ordinance enforcers. We aren’t interacting with the general public nearly as much and aren’t enforcing laws. We can face the same criminal threats, but it’s in a different capacity. Police often instigate their interactions by investigating them. When they are called to go to an area via dispatch or through observation, they sometimes face unique target discrimination challenges. Within this set of challenges are concepts like dealing with photonic barriers and various lighting conditions that are involved with determining where someone is and if they have any weapons that would necessitate lethal force. By contrast, concealed carriers aren’t benefited by the ability to instigate. More often than not, we are behind the power curve and always responding to a situation after it has already turned bad for us. This isn’t saying concealed carriers can’t face the same issues, but we aren’t typically using lights to illuminate someone walking on the side of the road at 1 AM or using a light to push through window tint to look for drugs. This has absolutely nothing to do with skillsets or dictating what people should or shouldn’t have. By all means, buy whatever you want. This has more to do with applicability. It doesn’t make sense to dictate your equipment selection based on their tasks and standards.

This is where some will say, “Lights can be defensive tools.” I agree that they can be. On the very rare occasion I know I’m going somewhere I won’t be able to carry my firearm, usually a bar where I’ll be drinking, I bring my Surefire G2X and a knife. The probability of something dumb happening, like a fight, is higher there than normal and having the option of popping someone’s eyes with 600 lumens before rabbit punching them provides an advantage for sure. Some lights even have crenelated bezels to strike with, although I would prefer a knife at that point. Does this mean I believe a handheld light is worth carrying all the time for defensive use? No, but in situations where I can’t have a firearm, I’ll use whatever I have. Don’t mistake a last resort as a viable option.

I once read about a compromise where someone was trying to have their cake and eat it too. Basically, you use a weapon light as a handheld light and when the time comes, you can use it as a weapon light. This sounds great in theory, until you have constant light ND’s in your pants. Plus, weapon lights are unusually shaped compared to their handheld counterparts and as a result stick out more in your pocket, not to mention they’ll be harder to retrieve. And realistically, it actually takes a little while to install a weapon light; think of the common TLR-1 and X300 designs where it clips on but then requires a few turns to tighten. You typically don’t have 10 seconds to screw around and install your light. I admire the thought process and kudos for the creativity, but it isn’t pragmatic.

With all of that being said, why choose a weapon light over a handheld light as a concealed carrier? There are a few good reasons.

  1. Weapon lights enable better shooting. Having two hands on a pistol allows for faster and more accurate shots vs shooting while holding a light. As an added bonus, the little bit of extra weight the lights add to the front of the gun helps mitigate recoil. Remember, we are accountable for every round fired. We want them to be as accurate as possible. Additionally, most don’t practice one handed shooting enough and the techniques for handheld lights are awkward. I’ve tried most of them; the Harries, Rogers, Chapman, FBI hold, and neck index have been used in various classes. There are others, such as the Ayoob, but most of the other techniques are variations of the aforementioned. With enough training they become less awkward, but why train to perform something unnatural with worse performance compared to a better existing solution? The problem is, these techniques are taught on flat ranges and then aren’t validated. If you’re lucky, some instructors teach low light or force on force classes. Sometimes they teach both. When they do, they’re typically separate and aren’t fully incorporated into each other. The fast- paced nature of force on force often reveals that handheld techniques are slower and much harder to perform under stress. If you don’t believe this, get together with some friends and some UTM/Sim rounds to test it.
  1. Believe it or not, weapon lights are more concealable than handhelds. This may seem counterintuitive since weapon lights add bulk and increase the profile of handguns. But the weapon light is still concealed inside a holster versus in a front pocket. Nothing screams “gun” more than seeing a Surefire hanging out of someone’s jeans. The untrained may not immediately associate a tactical flashlight with having a gun, but it is an out of the norm indicator that brings attention. You can bury it deeper in your pocket, but then you won’t be able to retrieve it quickly, which somewhat defeats the purpose of carrying a light for defensive use.
  2. Weapon lights free up your other hand when you need it. Everything becomes more difficult with a flashlight in your hand. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you try opening a door or, God forbid, reloading or clearing a malfunction. Sticking the light in your mouth or pocket between each task isn’t very efficient. There are products like the Switchback to free up your hands, or you can make one out of a grenade pin or 550 cord, but it just adds complexity and cost to a solution that is already less than ideal. [Editor’s note: Have small children in your home? What are you gong to control them with, the light hand or the gun hand?]
  3. Having a weapon light means you have one less thing to worry about. Concealed carriers have to keep track of more things than the average person. You have your phone, wallet, keys, knife, gun belt, holster, and gun. Some even carry an extra mag, med kit, or another phone depending on their job. Many become minimalists after carrying a while because they’re tired of carrying everything and the kitchen sink. Adding a light to the list just becomes another thing that you need to track. With a weapon light, this isn’t an issue because it’s always on the gun.

That last detail was big advantage to me recently. At 12:30 AM a couple nights ago I awoke to faint noise outside and then the sound of my front door opening. Beep-beep-beep! Crrreeeaaak. Half asleep, I jumped out of bed and grabbed my handgun. I pied my bedroom doorway and then peered through it to see two figures walking through my front door. It was pitch black, which gave me a home turf advantage. They couldn’t see much and it forced them to slow their approach. I cut a tight angle to minimize my exposure and used the doorframe for what little cover it provided. It was more about concealment, which ended up working out fairly well. By this point, both of them had just stepped into the house so I pointed my muzzle at the floor about 10’ in front of them. I activated my TLR-1 HL for probably a third of a second. The room lit up for that fraction of a second and allowed me to gather all of the data I needed. It was two family members. I promptly stepped out of the doorway and back into the bedroom to stow my gun and put on more clothes than just my boxers. As it turns out, my wife invited them over, forgot to tell me, and then fell asleep. They were bringing meds over to help out since my baby, wife, and I were all recently sick from Delta/Omicron or whatever they call it now. To add insult to injury, she was also in and out of the house all day and forgot to lock the front door. Now, I take responsibility for this as well because I should’ve checked that the doors were locked anyway, and I normally do, but didn’t because I was exhausted from a combination of work and the kung-flu. That’s not a valid excuse. I’m just giving an overall background to this story.

In retrospect, it’s kind of good things unfolded the way they did. I was given a real-world scenario to test the skills I’ve learned over the years without repercussion. There were also some noteworthy findings in my AAR, other than learning to be more cognizant about locking the doors. I didn’t wake up my son or wife sleeping right next to me, which is strange because I’m usually the deep sleeper. I didn’t let my adrenaline overtake my reasoning and used discretion during the escalation of force. Choosing to conservatively light up the floor instead of the unknown figures prevented me from flagging my family. My family members didn’t even notice what the light activation was, let alone that there was an armed half-naked dude with a gun in a doorway. Most importantly, I was able to react quickly, while half asleep and sick, with an unlocked front door, when the distance from the front door to my bedroom is maybe 25’ max. It lets me know the place I stow my firearm is secure and quick enough and that the training regimen has formed some sort of unconscious competence.

What does this story have to do with my philosophy on weapon mounted lights? It pretty much reinforces it. When I was about to welcome some visitors to the rice fields, it was a quick grab and go process. I didn’t have to find the light separately and waste additional time. I had a free hand so I could pull security while opening doors or other things. I could shoot with both hands to provide more accurate and effective fire if need be. I was able to use common sense and gain the information needed without unnecessarily flagging anyone. I was able to respond quickly, naturally, and unconsciously without being slowed down by strange techniques, retaining the element of surprise.

So, does this anecdotal story provide a statistical relevance that reinforces my viewpoint? No. Does it provide an insight as to how I would have performed if I was using a handheld light? I think so. It would have been something else I had to remember to grab and given the time constraints, there is a high probability I would’ve forgotten it. I wouldn’t have been able to move as quickly or cut as tight of an angle through doorway using 3/4 of the handheld techniques. Most importantly, holding the gun like I normally do let me unconsciously perform the fundamentals while I could use the rest of my brain to process what was happening around me.

To preemptively address what someone is about to say, “Weapon lights are okay for home defense because you have clearer parameters,” here is the deal. If you’re questioning whether or not to engage someone in public by first popping them with a light, then you’ve already lost. You’re most likely in a stupid place, with stupid people, doing stupid stuff, during stupid times, and the ordeal probably could’ve been avoided. Nothing good ever happens at night. Staying home and avoiding bad situations from the start is a better defense than carrying a light. I’m rarely unarmed because I’m rarely at the places where I can’t be, like bars and clubs for instance, which is usually where a lot of stuff happens.

In the end, what does this diatribe against handheld lights mean if you carry one? Frankly, nothing. A weapon light works for me. This is simply an encouragement to evaluate why you do things the way you do. If you can justify your reasoning for exclusively carrying a handheld light other than saying, “Everybody else is doing it,” then go for it. It still won’t be as effective as a weapon light in terms of shooting performance, but if you’re at a job where you’re constantly carrying a light for admin stuff, then I understand the rationale for killing two birds with one stone. Just ensure you’re avoiding the pitfall of most and actually train with your handheld light. A real situation, especially a low light one, is not the time you want to find deficiencies in your skills.

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