Imagine that you are in a dark, lonely place late at night. An unfamiliar city street. A park. A country road where you have a flat tire. A city garage where the lights have all been broken. An auditorium where you are the last one to leave after a rehearsal. A self-service gas station you mistakenly thought was open. Your own bedroom.
Something alerts your senses – is it the sound of footsteps? Is somebody there? You keep perfectly still to minimize your own noise, and strain to hear more. Uneasily, you look around to catch any hint of movement.
Your skin begins to crawl as the hair on the back of your neck stands on end — a completely automatic and uncontrollable reaction to feeling threatened. If you were a cat, your back would be arched and every hair on your body would be raised, making you look as large and fierce as possible.
But you are not a cat. You have different defenses. As you peer through the gloom, you reach as quietly as possible for your gun. When your hand closes firmly around the grip, trigger finger straight along the frame, you feel ready to determine whether there really is a person out there, and whether it is a friend or foe.
“Who’s there?” you call loudly. There is no verbal response, but there is more movement, and you can finally make out a person, though it is too dark to see much more.
You consider whether you can safely run away or hide, but the environment precludes those options. Taking the best available cover is all you can do, so you do it. He starts to move toward you. You use your best command voice, “Stop!” No effect. As you issue the final challenge, “Stop, I have a gun!” you raise your weapon to firing position, hoping that its presence will dissuade him, but ready to fire if you must.
What do you see?
Think about that really, really hard. Imagine your own personal firearm raised in your hand, in that dim, dark place where in the next few seconds you may have to fight for your life. What kind of sight picture would you have?
How do you know? Are you guessing, or have you actually practiced in low light conditions? If you visualized a nice clear sight picture, you are deluding yourself.
About two thirds (roughly 66%) of gunfights take place at night or in low-light conditions, but if you are like most shooters, 100% of your training and practice has been outside during the day or on well-lighted indoor ranges. This is a little like running sprints to train for a marathon.
How can you prepare yourself for what is actually likely to happen — a confrontation in poor lighting conditions? There are basically two kinds of equipment aids: night sights, and flashlights, but even without this additional gear you can learn a lot by practicing under the right conditions with your unmodified firearm.
Night sights are tritium inserts that glow slightly. They come in a variety of colors and styles for nearly every defensive handgun, and have been reviewed extensively in this magazine and others. They cost a few hundred dollars to buy and have installed by a gunsmith, and they definitely provide a tactical edge for low light conditions, though there must be enough ambient light for you to identify the target.
But what if you don’t want to go to the bother and expense of modifying your gun? There are a number of flashlight techniques that can be used with or without night sights. The flashlight techniques enable you to identify your target even in very dark locations and at ranges exceeding 20 feet, but there are a few drawbacks to this. First, this is an advanced technique that should be learned under the tutelage of an experienced tactical firearms instructor, not something easily mastered at home. Second, it is more useful to police, who have a flashlight handy at all times when on duty, than to private citizens who don’t generally walk around with a flashlight instantly accessible.
Even if you don’t want to go to the expense of adding night sights or the effort of training with (and always having handy) a flashlight, a few sessions of dim light practice will show you whether you can count on your gun under those conditions or not.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to train in dim light on both an indoor and an outdoor range, but those opportunities are rare. First and foremost, find out what is and isn’t allowed at the range where you shoot. Most outdoor ranges I’m familiar with have a very strict “no shooting after sunset” rule, because it is considered dangerous and it scares the neighbors. Just one incident of breaking that rule could shut down the entire club, so don’t risk it — ask first.
Many indoor ranges were constructed for bullseye or sport shooting with no thought of realistic defensive training, so the lights are probably designed to maximize sight pictures, not to allow a good simulation of the partial visibility that most places have at night. If the range management approves, install a dimmer switch to give control over the light level, but don’t expect everyone else to share your enthusiasm for this kind of practice — if they say “No way”, don’t violate the rules.
You can get some of the effect of being in low light by shooting outside on a very cloudy day, wearing dark sunglasses. Night simulation goggles (not night vision glasses) are much better – they turn even bright sunlight into murky midnight – but they have to be taped to your face to keep out extraneous light, and you literally need a friend to guide you around like a newly-blinded person.
Fortunately, you can get much of the effect of night practice without firing a single shot.
Whether you are practicing at the range or at home, unload and triple check your weapon in good light. It is even better if you “sterilize” the gun, making it unfirable even if it contained ammo, by removing the firing pin if possible.
Next, check out your backstops just as you would if you were dry firing in a well-lighted place. If you are at home, your family should be behind you, or out of the house, not in the room beyond the sheetrock you’ll be pointing at.
Then go into the dark place (or wait for twilight to fall), giving your eyes plenty of time, 20 minutes at least, to adapt to the dimness. Get a good firing grip on the gun, finger off the trigger, and bring it into firing position.
Can you get an adequate sight picture? Remember, you won’t be shooting in total darkness because you wouldn’t be able to identify your target. You should be able to see your dry fire target well enough to make that identification, and your sights well enough to acquire a sight picture.
Try this under various lighting conditions, with various targets. What happens if the target is illuminated but your gun is not? What happens if there is enough light around you to fall on the gun, but no light where the target is? What if the target is dark, like someone wearing a black shirt? What if it is a light colored shirt? Plaid?
If you have plain iron sights, you will probably discover that the optimal condition is the one where there is some light on a light-colored target and you are in relative darkness.
If it is safe to do so, move around the area where you are, trying sight pictures from different positions. You will find that fairly minor differences in lighting can make a big difference in how easy it is to see your front sight. That’s why so many police and people who carry guns for protection are installing night sights on their favorite carry piece — they provide a more consistent sight picture in a wider range of lighting situations.
You are probably thinking, “But if I have to fire in dim light, won’t the muzzle flash blind me?” No, it probably won’t. It will be more bothersome to people standing behind you than it will be to you, but if you are particularly concerned about losing your night vision this way, consider using a defensive ammo with relatively low muzzle flash, such as CorBon.
Even “in the dark” you should follow good principles of taking cover. Be aware of any potential light sources behind you — you may be silhouetted and visible to your attacker while they are nearly invisible in the shadows.
The cover of darkness can offer danger, or safety. It is up to you. If you have practiced, even occasionally, in low light conditions, you will KNOW what your sights look like, and you will be far more prepared to survive the huge majority of attacks that occur in the dark.