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The Science of Sight: Low Light / Night Shooting

The Science of Sight: Low Light / Night Shooting

We all have five senses but one of them is the most critical for effectively hitting your target. Sight, or vision, is the critical component in identifying your target and then effectively putting rounds in it. Yes, I am fully aware of the subjects of contact shooting and “recon by fire” but those are topics for another day.

When we are discussing the most important reason for using a firearm, the defense of your life or that of another, proper identification of the target is vital. Away from the gun range there are far more things that should not be shot versus things that should be. Responsible citizens also understand that you are responsible for every round you fire. You own every projectile that exits the muzzle. If any of these round negligently strikes something or someone you are liable.

Caught in the Dark

Most of us understand that violent crime and assaults occur predominantly during the hours of darkness or in diminished light situations (indoors). The FBI Uniform Crimes Statistics are tabulated annually. Year after year they report that police officers are attacked and killed between 60 and 70 percent of the time during hours of darkness.

The twisted irony is that the vast majority of firearm training is conducted when the light is the best. Ranges are closed during foul weather and darkness. Most all public and private ranges have strict rules about shooting after sunset and few police departments train in darkness. For those that do it is normally an annual qualification not a regular event. If you are serious about defending your life with a firearm you need to seek out realistic training and determine whether the gun school or academy will conduct low light training.


How’s your vision? Do you require corrective lenses to drive a car? Consider the following scenario. It’s 2 a.m. and you spring up in bed in a panic. Your labrador retriever is barking

ferociously and you thought you heard a crashing/smashing sound. Your adrenaline is racing as your grab a pistol and flashlight from the night stand. You have children asleep in their bedrooms. Their safety is at the forefront of your mind.

Show of hands, how many of your think you’ll remember to grab your prescription glasses? Ok, you can put your hands down now. Let’s say you have the clarity of mind to look for your glasses but in the haste of the moment you can’t find them. Have you ever trained to shoot your defensive gun without your prescription glasses? More importantly, have you done so in the dark using only a flashlight to identify your target? What if your glasses are knocked off in a struggle? Do you have the instilled confidence to know that you can hit your target?

As we age our eyes require more light to function normally. It’s a simple fact of growing older. The eyes of a 40 year old require more light to see clearly than those of a 20 year old. Older eyes require three to four times more light to function as they did when we were much younger. As we age vision issues include reduced ability to see contrast and colors and impaired depth perception. Also, there is an increase in the amount of time it takes for the eyes to transition from light to dark or vice versa.

Also, the human eye, specifically the retina uses two types of photoreceptors: rods and cones. Rods work at very low levels of light. We use these for night vision because only a few bits of light (photons) can activate a rod. Rods don’t help with color vision, which is why at night, we see everything in a gray scale. The human eye has over 100 million rod cells.

Cones require a lot more light and they are used to see color. We have three types of cones: blue, green, and red. The human eye only has about 6 million cones. Many of these are packed into the fovea, a small pit in the back of the eye that helps with the sharpness or detail of images.

As visible light is reduced, the human eye loses the ability to see color. The first color spectrum to be lost is the red spectrum, the last color to be lost is the yellow one. That is why highway workers have switches from the traditional orange safety vests to the new “safety green” (super bright yellow with greenish tint) vests. When visible light is lost, all images change from color to

black, white, or shades of grey. Black is black, white is white, and all things that were colored are now grey. For this reason, a front sight with a white outline will always be white, regardless of light conditions. Red, orange, green, etc. front sights will look grey in diminished light.

White Light

The best tool available to help make up for the aforementioned vision deficiencies is white light and lots of it. When we find ourselves in the previously mentioned poor light conditions and we are handicapped by aging eyes or absent glasses it’s time to pour on the white light.

Generally speaking, the more light the better. There are two basic types of lights you will use to save your life; handheld and weapon-mounted. Regardless of the deployment system, tactical or combat lights should all share certain characteristics.

All of them should have a solid, focused beam of unbroken light. Cheap flashlights have dead spots due to poorly constructed reflectors. Stay away from adjustable focus lights for serious work. White LED lights are the rage and provide many benefits. With an LED, there are no bulb filaments to break and they offer tremendous battery-life and run time. Beware the cheap Chinese LED lights. These are made to be inexpensive, essentially throw away lights. I’m sure you’ll agree that your life is worth more than a $5.00 flashlight.

How bright should the light be? The current scale for measuring light strength is “Lumens”. Lumens measure the entire output of the light beam. Candlepower measures the brightest spot of the light. In general, 60 to 100 Lumen lights are good for utility purposes, checking your tires at night, finding a lost set of keys, etc. A light of 200 Lumens of higher is being far better for fighting purposes. A light small enough to be carried in a pocket and greater than 100 Lumens should get you through most nights.

For handheld tactical lights the switch should be some form of push button at the base of the light. This allows you to find it easily in complete darkness with either hand. Dual switching for momentary and constant on is a plus, but the more options you have the more you must train.

Weapon-mounted lights whether on handguns, rifles, or shotguns must be rated as such from the manufacturer and have a shock-resistant bulb/LED and circuits. Just because a light is LED instead of incandescent doesn’t mean it’s a good weapon light. The shock from a recoiling weapon can jar loose cheap wiring and circuits.

Using weapon-mounted lights is a bit of an advanced skill and must be practiced it you have any hope of doing it under stress. Can’t shoot at night? No big deal, take your weapon with light mounted to the daytime range. Turn the light on and run through some drills. You will soon know whether or not the gun and light will operate in conjunction with each other.

Training in the Dark

Operating a handgun, or long gun for that matter, while using a handheld light is another skill that must be learned and practiced. Again, you can practice the techniques in the daylight on a normal range. The culmination of your learning should take place in actual darkness on a live-fire range. This takes us back to our previous discussion of schools or academies that conduct training after dark.

There are several professional firearms schools that do indeed offer advanced fighting courses where students engage targets in the dark. During a recent trip to Prescott, Arizona I spent several days out at the Gunsite Academy. While there we ran nighttime training in both their indoor and outdoor simulators.

During the indoor simulator exercise I ran the scenario with clear safety glasses but without my prescription set. My pistol had a SureFire X300 weapon light. It was a challenge as there were both “Shoot” and “No-Shoot” full-color targets in the specially designed building.

If all you have ever practiced is slow-fire shooting on a square range in ample light, clearing a building in the dark with a flashlight is quite an eye opening experience. Any person serious about protecting their loved ones with arms should aspire to such training. It’s not easy and it’s not cheap but it’s worth every penny.

Seeing the Sights

The best iron sights are those that you can actually see in the dark. Tritium® inserts in the front sight a big plus. Remember, the front sight is the most important one. If you have more light producing radioactive material in the rear sight than the front it defeats the purpose.

Minus Tritium, your front sight should reflect any available light. The front sight, whatever the design, should stand out from the barrel not blend in.

Parting Thoughts

Facing a deadly attack in the dark is a horrifying proposition. Unfortunately an assault in the dark or under poor light conditions is statistically very likely. Such is the world we live in.

Step one is to accept this reality and steel your mind to meet the challenge. Steps two and three include arming yourself with the best training and equipment available. Tools without training are merely toys. Combining the two will give you the skill and genuine confidence you’ll need with thing go bump in the night.

-Paul Markel, Student of the Gun

Note: The author is firearms instructor with three decades experience, having trained United States Military personnel, Law Enforcement officers, and citizens. Paul Markel is also certified as a Law Enforcement Low Light Instructor by the Surefire Academy.

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