Should you carry a handheld light (HHL) or weapon-mounted light (WML)?
The answer is surprisingly simple-get both.
Each light has a place and purpose. Using one type of light when the other is appropriate can be very dangerous.
If you want to continue reading, I'm happy to explain the justification behind my recommendation.
Table of Contents
Basic Requirements For Lights:
Tactical lights need to be simple to use. We need to consider that we are likely to overload or fail when adding operations requiring fine motor skills or complex procedures in a life-threatening, high-stress situation. Use a tactical light that won't need multiple taps and presses to turn the light on or move through many light patterns.
A light that requires turning the bezel for activation has a place, but you shouldn't use one for tactical purposes.
Most common flashlights come equipped with a constant on switch. You activate the button, and the light is either off or on. But there is definite value in having a light with an option of momentary on. Momentary on means the light turns on when pressure is applied to a switch and turns off when you release the pressure.
Brightness and Strobe?
What about different brightness levels and strobe function? I don't see any tactical advantage or application in a self-defense context for these features.
On the other hand, a strobe feature may be good in alerting someone far off because the flashing light is more noticeable. So if you are signaling someone to your location, strobe isn't a bad thing—context matters.
Varying brightness levels may be helpful in an administrative light. Dialing back the brightness is a good idea and keeps you from blinding yourself and others with too much light if you just need a little light to see where you're going.
So far, to recap, your tactical light should have momentary/constant on and be bright.
Lights have a lumen, Candella, and lux rating. These numbers describe the brightness (lumens), the shape or area of light intensity (lux), and the power or reach of the light (Candella). Which lumen and Candella ratings are best for various purposes can get quite extensive, so I'll save the topic of another post. First, however, here is some basic guidance.
If two lights have the same lumen output, the one with the higher Candella rating will throw the light further and appear much brighter. However, brighter isn't always better. Bright is good for a tactical light at a distance but may blind you for an administrative light to see something closer. Also, extremely bright lights splash off walls and can cause problems indoors.
In general, a light with 800-1000 lumens and a Candella rating of 15,000 or more will provide you flexibility in different applications.
I Learned the Hard Way:
Some time ago, I took a low-light carbine class with Kyle Lamb and used a rifle-mounted light that had a brightness adjustment button. Unfortunately, I accidentally turned down my light brightness about 10 times during that 2-day course, and I learned an essential lesson about the simplicity of operation.
Also, remember that once you are engaged in a gunfight, the purpose of the light is no longer to search a dark space but simply to illuminate the target area and potentially blind the threat while shooting.
Lastly, I would remind readers that regardless of the tools you choose to own and deploy in a gunfight, seek formal training in their use. Then practice becoming proficient in using the light.
Slapping a tactical light on your gun isn't difficult. However, using it effectively requres training and practice.
Thankfully, involving the use of your WML and HHL in “dry fire practice” is easy, and you shouldn't have trouble getting practice hours in.
Situations That Favor Weapon Mounted Lights
The apparent advantage of a weapon-mounted light (WML) is that you always have a light if you have your firearm.
Weapon mounted lights vary in terms of how they are activated. Some may have switches, paddles or may even automatically turn on just by assuming a grip. Ideally, you should be able to activate the light without breaking your grip. If you can activate the light even with a one-handed grip, all the better.
Situations in which you only have one hand in the fight favor a weapon-mounted light. You may be holding a child or pushing an innocent person from coming forward into the line of fire. You may also only have one hand in the fight because your other hand/arm is injured. It could also be that you are opening a door, reaching for something, or otherwise doing something so that your hand is not available at that moment.
In any of these situations, you can still activate your weapon-mounted light and illuminate your target.
Using a WML allows you to use a two-handed grip and a light, which is preferable to a single-handed grip.
There are two different functions of light in a tactical environment.
- verify there is a target by searching in a dark space confirming if you do or do not have a threat
- illuminate the target so you can see what you're shooting
A WML does the second point well. It is excellent at illuminating the target while providing me a two-handed grip on my gun. I can see the threat, deliver rounds, and assess the effectiveness of my shots.
However, realize, the light only follows the direction of my gun's muzzle. A WML is my choice if I only need to illuminate the target to see and effectively put shots on target. However, a WML is not a great choice if I am searching to identify if there IS a threat. That is where a handheld light's application comes into play.
Situations That Favor Handheld Lights
Handheld lights have a much broader application than a weapon-mounted light for obvious reasons.
It is an unsafe and harmful practice to search with a weapon-mounted light. The temptation may be there, but just don't do it. If you illuminate a family member, animal, or other non-threat, you have just muzzled them with your firearm.
A handheld light affords you the option of keeping the firearm in a ready position and illuminate an area or thing without at the same time pointing your gun at it.
There are a few standard techniques for using a handheld light and a handgun simultaneously. Here is a post for your reference.
You can also use a handheld light in non-tactical situations. For example, if you needed light to find the keys that dropped under your driver's seat, you wouldn't use a WML, would you? Handheld lights work well for these administrative tasks.
Why Have 2 Handheld Flashlights?
Understanding the roles each light plays, you may choose to carry a weapon-mounted light, tactical handheld flashlight, AND an administrative handheld light. The reasoning behind this setup is so your tactical HHL is always at full charge and never run down by the day-to-day administrative usage, just something to consider.
Speaking Specifically About Lights For Daily Carry
Flashlights are handy regardless of life-threatening encounters. Every day I carry a flashlight, pocket knife, and a firearm. Which do you think I use the most often? The pocket knife and flashlight get used several times a week in the course of everyday life.
So, I'm inclined to suggest that a person should always carry a handheld light. There are a lot of small, easy-to-carry EDC lights on the market, but I've always loved the Streamlight Microstream.
Weapon mounted lights are trickier for everyday carry. For one, they increase the footprint of the firearm slightly, which may decrease comfort and concealability in some cases. Additionally, weapon-mounted lights can significantly reduce the number of available holsters you can use. Holster manufacturers typically produce holsters for the guns people carry most.
Producing holsters that work with lights isn't something every holster company does well. So many just don't bother with it. I find the best holster for WML is the PHLster Floodlight. The holster bears on the light and not the gun.
For me personally, I keep a weapon-mounted light on my home defense firearm, but not my daily carry a gun. But if you carry a WML and don't have an issue with comfort, it can only help.
What ideas do you have, or what do you think I missed in this discussion? Let me know in the comments below!
*This post is updated and was originally published in 2018