The Deployment of Pistol-Mounted Lights


Editor's note: Ken Good will be instructing the Low-Light Tactical Operations course at the upcoming HALO Counter-Terrorism Summit, taking place Oct. 29 – Nov. 2. The Summit will occupy San Diego’s entire 44-acre Paradise Point private island for homeland security training exercises, demonstrations and education. For more information, call 619/881-9125 ext. 3 or visit

In late 2010, a police officer in Plano, Texas, accidentally shot and killed an unarmed man while attempting to arrest the individual during an undercover drug operation. The officer stated he was attempting to press the activation switch on his newly issued pistol-mounted light and pressed the trigger instead.

“I was attempting to squeeze the light mechanism when my weapon fired and the suspect fell to the ground,” the unidentified Plano, Texas, officer said in an affidavit.

The officer was using a switching system that placed that switch directly below the trigger guard of his pistol. By applying rearward pressure on the surface of the switch in parallel to the pressure used to depress the trigger; the light is activated.

This incident should serve as strong reminder of the importance of selecting the proper equipment and becoming totally familiar with that equipment through proper training, prior to deploying with it.

Supplemental illumination is an absolute requirement for those going into harm’s way. Lights are used to navigate, locate, identify, communicate, and assist in the control of hostile threats. 

Over time, more and more officers have started mounting lights directly on pistols.  Pistol manufacturers have modified their designs to readily accept an array of pistol-mounted lights.

The Good News

  • If the officer’s flashlight is not present, dropped, malfunctions, or the batteries are inoperative, a secondary illumination tool is readily available through the pistol light. The old "two is one, and one is none" adage is in play.
  • If one hand is injured or otherwise occupied and cannot manipulate a handheld flashlight, the officer still has access to supplemental illumination and a weapon at the same time.
  • Officers deploying ballistic shields, handling dogs or specialty tools have ready assess to supplemental illumination.
  • The center of the beam and the center axis of the bore are in general alignment. Time/effort to acquire or maintain this convergence is eliminated. If the center of mass of the light is on the center of mass of the threat, rounds will end up co-locating in that area.

The Bad News

  • Light signature cannot be separated from the center of mass of the officer activating the pistol-mounted light in a standard firing position. Suspects will shoot at the center of mass of the light signature. A close look at a shooting involving LAPD SWAT where several officers were shot and one killed revealed that the sole suspect was bracketing the stationary, energized weapon-mounted lights. The suspect was using a .380 pistol.
  • The pistol/light combination can mistakenly become a light pointer in a manner not consistent with safe firearms deployment practices and established rules of engagement.
  • Switches on many current designs are relatively close to the trigger, which can be confused with the trigger, especially if the system is deployed with insufficient training and familiarity.
  • May increase the frequency of weapons malfunctions.
  • Different holster configuration required.
  • Draw stroke is altered.
  • Changes the balance and feel of the pistol once out of the holster.

Key Question: What does one do when an individual of interest is located and identified, but that individual is determined to be at a threat level that a weapon should no longer be pointed at this individual, yet it is still dark?

It is my stated opinion that officers must be trained to seamlessly deploy a small handheld flashlight in conjunction with their pistol-mounted light to address this exact scenario. When I say training, I am saying dry-fire, live-fire, simulation and force-on-force drills and scenarios.

I have seen a highly trained SWAT officer with extensive military background do the following in a stressful force-on-force training simulation: Officer is moving down a darkened hallway, sees an individual and elects to illuminate that individual with a weapon-mounted light on his M4 rifle. As he pushed the tape switch with his non-firing hand, he inadvertently pulled the trigger as well. The look on his face was one of total shock/surprise. He spent the next few seconds looking at his weapon as if it personally betrayed him.

Manipulation of the safety selector aside, what this clearly illustrates is that even if the activation switch is separated by a significant distance from the trigger itself, and the means by which the switch is activated is different from a rearward trigger pull, the known phenomenon of inter-limb interaction is still in effect.

Inter-limb interaction (also called sympathetic squeeze) is the involuntary contraction of an individual’s hand and finger muscles, which can be initiated by the squeeze of the other hand. 

ALL weapon-mounted light activations have the distinct potential of being a contributing factor in an inadvertent discharge of the firearm.

It’s the author’s opinion that the handheld light should be considered the primary source of supplemental illumination for most tasking and the pistol-mounted light serving a secondary role.

There are two basic fundamentals at work here, hardware and software.

Hardware: The actual physical design and ergonomics of the illumination tools in question. These are generally changing for the better. Operators have an ever-increasing variety of good choices..

Software: The training, experience and judgment involved in the actual use and application of the hardware in any given low-light situation. You have to understand the benefits and liabilities of the equipment selected as used in the environment.

One needs proper integration of vboth the hardware and software components. This requiresproperly designed/reliable equipment coupled directly with good training.

For years I have been a strong advocate for increased training in the area of low-light engagements. It must include demanding force-on-force drilling and scenarios. Officers should be placed into high fidelity simulations using the equipment they are being required to deploy with.

Following this type of training, I have often seen officers rearrange, swap out, and get rid of certain types of equipment as they come face-to-face with the realization that the equipment they were using did not serve them well during actual combative situations.

The more equipment you ask an officer to operate with, the more likely you are going to see some sort of mix up occur. The deployment of Tasers is a prime example. Do we eliminate Tasers entirely because somebody mixed this relatively effective less-lethal tool with his or her pistol?

When an officer accidently hits a pedestrian in a crosswalk while driving a patrol vehicle, do we ask officers to walk to their destinations from that point forward? Or do we evaluate the array of contributing factors, associated with driving a patrol vehicle? Was the officer typing on the computer, talking on the radio, tired from the long shift, stressed out of because of the economy or having relationship problems at home, etc. etc?

Was it one singular factor or a combination of contributing factors?

The more equipment and options you provide an officer, the slower their decision-making process becomes; Hick’s law in effect.

That being said, thousands and thousands of entries, engagements, and generalized queries have been successfully accomplished with the correct use of force being applied with all sorts of equipment combinations in play.

With any weapon-mounted light (pistol or shoulder-fired), it is my opinion that adding any type of pressure switches to these systems can be a contributing factor to individuals discharging the weapon inadvertently while under duress.  What is that increase in terms of percentage? I have no clue.

Can this increase (however small or large) be successfully managed? I believe so.
I believe the overall lack of inadvertent/negligent discharges of this type identified to date supports this opinion.

The larger question is: What is the tradeoff for NOT putting these devices on these weapons?

In my opinion, the proposition of banning or removing these devices from these weapon systems presents a far greater hazard to the officers and the citizens they are sworn to protect.

Should we look carefully, rationally at the people, the equipment and the training provided? Of course.

That being said, even if you start with a highly competent, well-intentioned, experienced individual, and provide that individual the best training and equipment known to date, there is NO way you can expect this individual to be mistake-free. Mistakes happen, all we can do is reduce the frequency and severity of those mistakes through constant vigilance and continued training.

Ken Good, a former Naval Special Warfare operator, specializes in doctrine of small unit tactics, communication procedures, use of weapons, demolition techniques, employment of pyrotechnics, and land, sea, and airborne operations. Following his active-duty commitment, Mr. Good spent the next 10 years directing anti-terrorism, physical security, small arms, and small caliber weapons programs for the Department of the Navy (DON).

He is the co-founder of Combative Concepts Inc. and Strategos International, founding director of the Surefire Institute, and author of Strategies of Low-Light Engagements: A Law Enforcement Officer’s Guide. For more information, visit Progressive Combat Solutions at



Lessons Learned from the Boston Marathon Bombing

Lenco’s armored vehicles provide mobile command centers and protection from dangerous suspects on the loose

The Front Sight Truth

Kevin Davis responds to Antione Lane’s Front Sight Lie piece from the February issue

Appropriate Use of Cover

Making effective use of your options for cover during a gunfight is the key to survival

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

After an incident occurs, it seems everyone knows what you should have done

Less Lethal Lessons, Part II

When deploying less lethal munitions, officers should take extra precaution to read the scene

Florida Officer Killed in Training

Ocala officer is accidentally shot while participating in firearms training.