Underbarrel Lights: They're not just for SWAT anymore!
By Sgt. Mike Burg
Reprinted Courtesy of Police Marksman Magazine
Having spent 13 of my 28 1/2 year career on the night shift, I know the value of a flashlight, and more importantly the value of more than one flashlight. In fact, we creatures of the night are also painfully aware that anything mechanical will fail just when you need it the most. That is why having multiple flashlights on night shift is a must. Obviously the remainder of my career has been spent on other shifts, both afternoons and days. During those shifts, I've also found a need for a good flashlight-memories of dark basements or buildings come to mind, as does the fact that here in Northeast Ohio, it gets dark fairly early during the winter months, so afternoon shift officers work in the dark as well.
When underbarrel lights (aka: muzzle lights, tactical lights) first came into vogue I got one for my SWAT pistol and I loved it. It was big, it stuck out several inches from the muzzle, it added some weight to the pistol, but I loved it. I no longer needed a third hand to search a building or room. It was great, my pistol and my light were searching where a threat might be and I had a free hand to open doors and move objects. I thought this was the next big thing especially for night shift officers, yet it never really seemed to take off. The problem? Duty holsters for pistols with underbarrel lights-no one made them. I even went to a local nylon holster maker to have one made for my SWAT pistol, two years later-I'm still waiting!
Now, the next generation of underbarrel lights are out. They are much smaller and big name holster makers such as Safariland® are producing duty holsters to fit pistols with underbarrel lights. Of course, for reasons that are rather obvious, the holsters are a little bigger and may take a little more time to get used to as opposed to a standard holster, but the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. For the most part, conventional flashlight shooting techniques (Harries, FBI, NYPD, etc.) force the officer to shoot one handed. This cuts down on accuracy, which will already be diminished due to the stressful situation. An underbarrel light permits the officer to use the two handed grip that they are used to; it's more comfortable. Granted, officers should be able to shoot (and hit the target) one handed and while using a flashlight; but realistically how often do we practice that? Often enough to be as proficient as with a two hand grip? Probably not. If you happen to be a Center Axis Relock (CAR) aficionado you can really appreciate an underbarrel light, and how it will permit you to use the CAR position.
Positioning the light on the rail is more than just snapping it on and going. You need to be sure that the light sits far enough back on the rail so that you can activate it with your finger. Be careful not to position the light so far back on the rail that the switch interferes with your trigger finger (not being able to get to the trigger.) The light needs to sit somewhere right in the middle. This may be difficult for some because of small hands and short fingers.
I thought that perhaps the weight of the underbarrel light, although minimal, may help in reducing muzzle rise and permit me to remain on target or get back on target faster. So far I really haven't observed any significant change in that area.
As with anything, there are a few drawbacks and problems. One of the things that I first noticed when I began to wear my holster was the difficulty I had getting into my right pants pocket. The holster is wider than most to accommodate the light. Because of that, it takes up more room on the hip, causing the pocket it sits over to be hard to access. Because of the size of the holster, combined with a seat belt buckle and the standard radio console, it is all but impossible to draw the weapon while seated in the patrol car. It should be noted that another officer on my shift who also carries a duty pistol with an underbarrel light can draw while seated in the patrol car. He is left handed and because there is more room between himself and the car door (no radio console) and the seat belt is high on the door post on the left side, it frees him to draw with fewer problems than a right-handed officer.
One alternative to these problems is to wear the pistol in a standard holster and carry the underbarrel light in a separate pouch on the gun belt. This slows the officer who may need to employ the weapon/light combination in a rapid fashion. It also increases the chances of improper positioning of the light on the rail if the officer is in a rush.
Always keep in mind that any underbarrel/tactical light is mechanical and battery powered and thus prone to failure when you need it most (Murphy!). Keep a back-up light with you and continue to practice flashlight shooting techniques. It does take a little getting used to; it's more than just breaking in a new duty holster. The size makes a difference more so than the additional weight. However I believe that the advantages of having an underbarrel light on the duty pistol outweigh the disadvantages, especially for night shift officers.
Related Article: Low-Light Training: Not Just a Shot in the Dark
About the Author
Mike Burg is a 28-year veteran with the Rittman (Ohio) Police Department. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, as well as an instructor in numerous police schools.