SureFire,Scout,flashlight,weaponlight,AR accessories,tactical lights

How to Properly Use Weapon-Mounted Lights

Choosing the best weaponlight and learning how to use it properly are key components of a self-defense plan.

By Steve Adelmann (RSS)
October 26, 2011

Back when I had a serious job, seeing targets in any lighting condition was critical to having a good day. While thermal and night-vision optics took care of the job outdoors, dealing with indoor threats was normally best handled with white light. Of all the items attached to my Army-issued guns, weaponlights were the most important. I could make do without just about any other accessory in the close-range situations I often faced, but an inability to identify and discriminate between good and bad targets simply meant failure.


An unfortunate byproduct of the times is that today’s home-defense firearm needs are not too dissimilar from those of our troops. Identifying all manner of hazards—from home intruders to predators snacking on family pets—is an ever-present reality in our world. Tritium night sights are great for aiding sight alignment in the dark, but you have to find and identify your target first; glowing sights will not help you do that. Assuming you have not lost power, turning on the house lights will help you, but they will also help an intruder. Holding a flashlight by hand alongside a firearm will work in a pinch, but it commits your support hand to a different job. By contrast, the weaponlight allows normal use of both hands and can decidedly tip the scales in your favor when the chips are down.

1911,mounting a flashlight to a handgun,tactical flashlight

Before manufacturers machined/molded rails into pistol dust covers, adapters were the only solution. They are still an option for older handguns, but fitting them correctly requires patience. Be sure to test-fire the handgun thoroughly to ensure proper function.

“Picatinny rail” has not always been synonymous with tactical arms. Before Sept. 11, I was in one of the only military units that used gun lights. We employed electrical tape, hose clamps, flex ties, bolted on Weaver rails and scope rings to fasten all sorts of commercial lights to our guns.

Today it is more common to find tactical arms with mounting rails than without. Likewise, several companies offer tactical lights intended specifically for gun mounting. SureFire is the recognized leader of the pack, making solid products that are pricey, but effective. Insight Technology leverages its growing military and law enforcement support experience into a variety of good illumination products. Streamlight is a late-comer to this game, but its product line includes several affordable, well-made gun lights.

Insight Technology,SureFire,weaponlight,handgun lights,tactical handguns

Most modern tactical pistols come from the manufacturer equipped with rail. SureFire’s X200/X300 series of weaponlights (top) work well on full-size rails. Insight’s X2/XML is required for short-rail pistols, like this Ruger SR9c (bottom).

When considering the bargain-priced lights currently flooding the market, beware—many won’t hold up to shock and recoil. Traditional bulbs that use filaments don’t like to be roughed up when illuminated. The aforementioned companies develop products that can handle the forces imparted by harsh use without missing a beat. If your budget forces you to settle for a cheap gun light, test it thoroughly on your firearm before relying on it to protect your life.

Bulb type and power source determine a light’s output (intensity measured in lumens) and efficiency (burn time measured in hours). Bulbs that use a filament, charged gas, or a combination of the two—commonly grouped into the incandescent category—tend to be much brighter and project farther. However, they’re also more fragile and consume batteries faster than a house full of kids with handheld video games. LED lamps are a longer-lasting solution made up of semiconductor chips encased in clear protective materials. They’re durable, just sip battery power and don’t burn out, but produce less visible light.

Recent advances in LED technology, however, have yielded significant improvements, including infrared (IR) LED lights for use with night-vision equipment. The CR123, 3-volt lithium battery has become the industry-standard power source for most full-size lights and other accessories. Though more expensive than traditional alkaline batteries, these little powerhouses help provide the intense light needed in a potentially lethal encounter and are becoming more common in stores.

Quick-detach flashlight mounts,SureFire,tactical flashlight,QD mount

A quick-detach mount like the one built into this SureFire Millennium 952V is just the ticket when you need to remove the light for movement through the woods. This light has the added advantage of a spring-loaded IR lens cover that easily rotates between white light and infrared.

Positioning the light forward on a rifle or shotgun handguard keeps it free and clear of the support hand while limiting the amount of barrel illuminated. Mounting on the opposite side of the body as the long gun is carried—right side of gun for a right-handed shooter—keeps the light from getting tangled with gear. The downside is any movement through vegetation will snag the light relentlessly. I always choose to keep my rifles slick when in the woods, which also reduces chances of a white-light compromise. Quick-detachable (QD) light mounts are useful in this situation, providing a means to quickly attach the light when transitioning to an environment where it will be needed.

Like most tactical long arms, many modern large-frame semi-automatic handguns include short rail sections that allow handgun-specific lights to be mounted. The smallest rail-equipped pistols normally require specially designed micro lights, such as the Insight X2 (which you might know as the Springfield Armory XML). Unfortunately, revolver shooters have few options for gun light mounts. While some revolvers’ ejector shrouds are beefy enough to facilitate permanent rail attachment, this is a modification best performed by a qualified gunsmith. Beamshot makes an inexpensive universal rail (UT1) that attaches to a handgun’s trigger guard. While not robust or even ergonomic, it is an option for the nightstand revolver performing primary home-defense duty.

pressure pad cable routing,AR-15,tactical accessories

Multiple electronics attached to your rifle means you have to figure out how to route cables so they stay out of the way. Small flex ties work well, while adhesive hook-pile tape allows placement of pressure switches on smooth surfaces.

Switch options are varied and highly customizable to shooter needs. Tail-cap buttons, rocker switches, tape-switches and rail-mounted pressure buttons allow momentary and/or constant-on settings. SureFire has gone to a standard “XM00” tail-cap that works on several light bodies. It has a self-contained button that also accepts a plug-in remote switch. The only thing left for the shooter to decide is which length of cable to buy and where to mount the switch. Remember to unscrew the tailcap or open the battery compartment on any light that is being packed in a range bag or gun case. The same pressure that holds your firearm in place during transit will inevitably activate gun light switches too, burning out expensive xenon bulbs and expending your batteries.

Using a gun light effectively isn’t as simple as installing the batteries, mounting it and then storing your gun until it is needed. Test the system in limited or no light to get a feel for its strengths and limitations. Learn how to manage your light switches while under stress or duress during the integrated act of firing. Remember, the same light illuminating your target also highlights your location rather nicely. Momentary switches allow a quick look without the constant burn that makes you an easy mark. I strongly recommend professional training courses that include work with gun lights. The techniques you develop while shooting paper targets at dusk don’t necessarily translate well to a dark room when that bump in the night turns out to be someone pointing a gun at you.

When used correctly, weaponlights can aid target discrimination, temporarily ruin a threat’s eyesight and provide the momentary advantage needed to take control of a potentially bad situation. Any home-defense rifle, shotgun or pistol can benefit from one in the hands of a trained shooter.

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20 Responses to How to Properly Use Weapon-Mounted Lights

  1. Shootist says:

    A light on the weapon just gives the bad guys something to aim at. I was trained to use a flashlight held away from the body. A laser is a different story.

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  3. Georg Felis says:

    Shootist, while holding a flashlight in one hand and a gun in another, how are you going to open a door?

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  5. Peter says:

    Much of the lore surrounding flashlight use dates back to the very early days when flashlights put out very little light.
    Modern lights not only put out enough light to temporally disorient the target but in an indoor setting it is possible to blind yourself from back splash from a light wall.
    The light is simply used to verify a target before shooting. Using any flashlight, weapon mounted or not, while searching can be a dicey proposition.

  6. DonM says:

    Of course having body armor makes using a light much more useful. Soviets used searchlights to illuminate their attack on Berlin in the waning days of WWII. It didn’t help much. The illumination/silouetting of the attacking soldiers seemed to cause many casualties, that perhaps outweighed the dazzle and illumination of defenders.

  7. Dougger says:

    Seems to me having the light mounted on the gun means that at some point you are going to violate Rule #1.
    It will likely be very brief and un-intentional, but you cannot get around the fact the as you are pointing the flashlight to see if that noise was a burgler, or your son coming home to crash on your couch, you are pointing your muzzle at the same time.

  8. Dougger says:

    This article should have been titled “How to Properly Choose Weapon-Mounted Lights”

  9. Independent George says:

    What about shutting your eyes for a second while flicking the lights on and off? It destroys the night vision of any intruders for the next 5-10 minutes while leaving your own intact.

  10. beantownshootah says:

    Dougger, you’re right about the proper title of this article.

    On gun safety rule #1, I was skeptical too, but the current generation of weapon-mounted lights are so bright that you can “bounce” light off a wall or floor, effectively illuminating an entire room without having to point your muzzle directly at what you are trying to see.

  11. Pingback: Seeing is Surviving | Shooting Illustrated

  12. Claude W. Duncan Jr. says:

    Question on using these lights. If you use one of these at night and shine it upon an unarmed person can you get arrested for aggravated assault since your firearm is also pointed at them.

    • Ed Friedman says:


      Good question. That probably depends on the situation. If you’re on public property, then it’s probably not a good idea, but on your own private property, I don’t think you’d be in any trouble. Still, for safety it can at times be a good idea to “bounce” the light off something rather than shine it directly at an unknown object.

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  14. jon says:

    Something not mentioned here but certainly not to be ignored is the legal NECESSITY of having a light on your home defense weapon. I’m not certain how many of you have stood in court to justify a fatal self defense encounter but let me tell you from experience…you better have A light source! The question ‘did you do everything possible to positively identify the perceived threat’ and if you were stalking around in the dark to remain hidden your going to jail AND liable for a civil lawsuit by the invaders surviving family. Don’t stop thinking about a self defense scenario at the elimination of threat, that’s the beginning of another battle in court.

  15. BadouinAztec says:

    Where is the best place to mount a light on a shotgun

  16. CJ Rigdon says:

    Using a flashlight with a gun can be a great help, and the flashlights you mention here work really well. However, there’s another light you might not have considered, one that is already frequently used by the military.

    The LazerBrite tactical flashlights are lightweight, durable, LED, and they can function as various types of flashlights, and can be separated to share with a friend. In my experience, the LazerBrite has been a great tool for all things outdoors, and is a vital part of my survival kit.

    In any case, I totally agree that tactical flashlights are great for those that love guns, and those that don’t. The worthwhile flashlights only increase one’s ability to shoot, and they even make for good improvised weapons if the need arises.

    Great article, in any case.

  17. Josh says:

    Anyone else accidentally activate your pistol light while shooting your pistol? I have a TLR-1 and every time I shoot my G22 I always activate my light with my support hand! Suggestions? Should I use a higher thumbs grip? Tighten my support hand?

  18. Gary says:

    Weapon lights are a baaad idea

  19. Weapon lights are a fine idea, training is what is important. That is the point of this article. If you are properly trained to use the weapon light then you will not run into the dangerous situations that seem to be happening more and more. In most situations you should use a hand held light but having the ability to switch to your mounted light is great.

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