It seems that most shooters practice on sunny afternoons outdoors or on indoor ranges that are not only well-lit but that have been designed so that the placement of the lights helps to maximize the desired sight picture.

Unfortunately, many defensive shooting incidents take place at night, often in places that are very dimly lit. According to the latest statistics on police officers killed (available on the FBI’s website), 45% of police fatalities, over a 10 year period, took place between the hours of 8 PM and 8 AM.

Does this dangerous time period also apply to private citizens? The Bureau of Justice Statistics, which keeps track of such things, shows that it does. In 2003, about half of the incidents of violent crime occurred at night, between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. Almost two-thirds of rapes and sexual assaults occurred during the night.

So, night time is fright time, when it comes to life-threatening crimes that may require lethal force to prevent.

Have you ever fired your gun in very dim light conditions? Do you know what your sights look like in near darkness? If not, you are ill-prepared to deal with a situation that develops under less than ideal lighting conditions.

What can you do to prepare for such an encounter?

Night sights. Many serious gun folk have specialized night sights installed on their gun. These are softly glowing luminous sights that do not need a power source; they look like white dots during the day and automatically glow at night. Good quality night sights should allow you to use your normal sight alignment during the day, and use the night sights in dim conditions. Although the sights glow in extremely low light or even total darkness, of course you should not shoot then, because you can’t be sure of your target.

Target acquisition. The most important thing about shooting in less than optimal lighting conditions is identifying you target. You need to be absolutely sure of your target, and your justification for shooting, before you pull the trigger. You are also responsible for what is around and behind your target, whether you can see there or not. You can hit what you can’t see.

A flashlight. If you keep a flashlight nearby at night, it can be very useful to illuminate a scene to determine what is really going on. That shadowy figure outside your house that appears to have a gun in his hand might be a uniformed cop responding to a neighbor’s call about a suspected prowler in the neighborhood, or your daughter coming in late from her date carrying a cell phone. Having a flashlight handy could keep you from making a tragic mistake.

The best kind of flashlight for ordinary use is one that allows you to either flash the light on and off, or keep it on, using only one hand. Since using the light can illuminate you, or at least give your position away, use short bursts of light. SureFire, SteramLight and MagLight, among other brands, have a wide range of excellent flashlights. Make sure yours is not so big and heavy that it is hard for you to manipulate with your non-dominant hand. When you hold it naturally, the flashlight should not come as far as your elbow. If it does, it will be too long to handle comfortably, and may hit against things as you are moving around.

If you think you want to learn to use a flashlight together with a gun, you should look into getting special training for this. There are several techniques. Mike Harries invented a method in which the gun is held in one hand, flashlight in the other, wrists crossed with backs together. That can work well with flashlight, like SureFire’s, which have as their switch a large area to press on the butt of the light. Ray Chapman’s method places the flashlight along the body of the gun, held with the non-dominant hand. This permits 3 fingers of the non-dominant hand to contribute to gripping the weapon, as only one finger and thumb are needed to hold and operate the flashlight. Mas Ayoob developed a method devoting one hand for the gun and one for the flashlight, using an isosceles stance to help align them.

Some folks are getting flashlights that are physically attached to their guns. The main problem with this is that in order to shine the light on anyone, including any innocent person, you have to point the loaded gun at them – not recommended!

Dry fire. With an empty gun and all the precautions you use for your dry fire practice, draw and point at a close target in dim light. Try this repeatedly with different light conditions and different targets. How hard or easy is it to get a sight picture on a target that is dark or covered with a patterned fabric? This is a particularly good exercise to do at home, as you can practice many aspects of home defense and get a better understanding of what it would be like to face an intruder in the dark.

Dim light practice. If you are really lucky, you might be able to shoot at your club outdoors as night is falling, or indoors with some of the lights turned off. Some ranges have restrictions to prohibit these activities, so make sure you won’t be violating any rules.

Does your point of impact change? Some shooters tend to shoot slightly high. You should aim for the center of mass, just as you would in full light.

Does muzzle flash distract you? In low light conditions, muzzle flash becomes more obvious, particularly from a short barreled revolver or a gun that has been compensated (had holes drilled in the top of the gun near the muzzle). Some shooters are extremely bothered by this, to the point of being unable to see the sights clearly for subsequent shots. Other shooters don’t notice the flash, aren’t distracted by it, and may even find it helpful in acquiring the next sight picture. If muzzle flash is a problem for you, you can either practice until you are used to dim light, or consider changing to a gun that is not compensated, that has a longer barrel, a semi-auto instead of a revolver (though small semis can have the same problem), or a type of ammunition that is designed to minimize muzzle flash.

Practice good tactics:

1. Be aware of your surroundings at all times.

2. Be prepared to move rapidly toward the best available cover.

3. Remember that you must always be able to identify your target with absolute certainly before you shoot.

If you ever need to defend yourself, it will probably be at night. Prepare for that, and you will never be completely in the dark about protecting yourself after the sun sets.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns magazine, Jan-Feb, 2005, Copyright © 2005, Lyn Bates