Saturday, October 9, 2010

Low Light Force on Force with Randy Harris

Last weekend I attended Randy Harris’ Low Light Force on Force class. This is one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. In fact, I’d kind of been badgering Randy to teach it ever since he mentioned the possibility of doing a low light class about a year ago. I’ve had a little experience shooting in low light conditions at the Utah Polite Society night shoots, and it was enough to convince me that this was a subject demanding further training. While this was primarily a force-on-force class, we also did a bit of live fire shooting to explore issues like muzzle flash when shooting in low light that you can’t really examine with airsoft guns.

The class had six students. Two were Suarez International Staff Instructors (Alex Nieuwland and myself). I knew two of the students from previous SI classes in the southeast, but the other two were new to me. Five of the students had previously been to other SI classes, but one had only taken a class from that school in Pahrump. Most of the class was held in a warehouse in Chattanooga, with a trip to a local range for low light live-fire on Saturday night.

I used my G17 airsoft guns for the force-on-force and my Glock 21 for the live fire portion of the class. I also brought my Nok training knives, which saw quite a bit of use. For flashlights I used a Surefire 6P and a Firstlight Tomahawk (a small L-shaped light that allows you to hold both gun and light in something close to a normal two-handed grip.

Friday Night
The class began at six o’clock Friday. This evening session was largely a brief introduction to the SI force-on-force curriculum to get everyone on the same page before going into the low light stuff, though we did step outside for a bit of low-light work towards the end. Everyone introduced themselves and we signed the usual waivers. Randy started off with both the standard gun safety lecture and a force-on-force safety lecture.

As usual for a Suarez International FoF class, we began with the suicide drill, also known as the Matt Dillon drill. Two students set up facing each other at 5-7 yards and tried to draw and shoot the other without getting shot in return. At seven yards, sometimes one student or the other missed, but at five yards stand and deliver was pretty much mutual suicide (hence, the name of the drill).

The solution to this is to move without leaving a forwarding address before the bullet arrives. If you’re not where the assailant expects, he’s going to have to take a second or so to figure out what’s going on before he can shoot you. Randy explained the basic idea behind getting off the X, then volunteered me to talk a bit about the Pekiti takeoff. The Pekiti takeoff is a footwork technique we’ve adopted from Filipino martial arts for rapid, explosive movement that does a great job of getting you off the X in a hurry. Randy also talked about the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop, developed by John Boyd to explain how people process information, and how getting off the X requires the bad guy to go through his OODA loop again before he can shoot you.

We moved outside to the parking lot. Randy pointed out that despite it being well after sundown, it was by no means dark. There was a streetlight across the street that provided some illumination for the parking lot. Some folks, particularly those selling tactical flashlights, make a big deal out of the percentage of gunfights that take place “during hours of darkness”. What they neglect to mention is that all this means is an incident occurred between 6pm and 6am. Very few of these gunfights actually take place in complete darkness. Indeed, it would be hard to find many totally dark spots in an urban area other than windowless interior rooms. Unless you live out in the boonies somewhere or you carry a badge and search darkened warehouses as part of your job, we’re really talking about low light, rather than complete darkness.

We did some get off the X drills and in these lighting conditions (probably pretty typical for an urban area at night) nobody had any trouble seeing and recognizing the other guy going for his gun. I noticed that most of the other students were getting off the X directly to the right or left. I remarked on this to Randy and he talked a bit about the different directions we can use for getting off the X and why the forward angles (1 and 11 o’clock) are usually better against an opponent armed with a gun.

Randy gave his PESTS lecture. PESTS is an acronym that stands for Pay attention, Evade or escape, Stop their encroachment, Tell them to back off, and Step to 3 or 9. Pay attention is simply remaining alert. The first step towards dealing with any potential problem is to notice it and the earlier you can do this the better it is. Evade or escape means moving away to avoid the approaching BG. Stop there encroachment refers to taking measures to keep them from closing the distance on you. In daylight, the preferred method for doing this is the fence: hands up at chest height, palms out. This is not only a universal gesture for stop, it also gets your arms up where they can block or parry an incoming strike. This isn’t as effective as a stop signal in darkness though. This is where a flashlight comes in handy: illuminating someone is a good way to signal them not to come any closer. It can be very effective, particularly since the criminal element may assume that someone carrying a light is probably a cop, or at least not someone to mess with. There are two ways to approach this. The less aggressive way is to aim the light at their feet. This gets the message across without being provocative. Flashing them in the eyes is much more aggressive, and may end up provoking a fight, but it sends a stronger message and provides a greater tactical advantage by screwing with their vision a bit. Tell them to back off is pretty self-explanatory. Stepping to 3 or 9 is a way to check for an accomplice approaching from behind you without taking your eyes off the first guy.

We worked some more get off the X drills, including some using the flashlight. Randy talked about the flashbang technique. The flash part is briefly hitting them in the eyes with the beam of your light. The bang is following that up with your pistol. Of course, this assumes that you already have the light in hand. Trying to quick draw the light before or at the same time you draw your pistol just isn’t realistic. Getting hit in the eyes with the light was annoying, but in these conditions and at these distances the blinding power of a tactical light was somewhat overrated.

With this, we wrapped things up and adjourned until the next morning.


After a relatively late night, Randy was nice enough to let us sleep a bit late, so we reconvened at 10 o’clock. We began with a brief review of the previous night’s festivities.

One of the difficulties with this class is that the warehouse where we were working had some skylights, and didn’t really get all that dark during the day, even with the lights off. There was a smaller room that got pretty dark with the windows covered up and we did most of our dark work in there.

Randy put us in the room and had us observe how visible he was coming through the door using a flashlight to floodlight the room. He contrasted this with using a brief flash of light to illuminate the room for a moment. Each of us gave the room a brief flash as we went by the door. As this went on, Randy had some people start making silly gestures to see how well people were really seeing what was inside the room. Even with really brief flashes they did pretty well. When I did it, instead of shining my light directly into the room, I bounced the beam off the room’s white ceiling. Randy picked up on this and we talked a bit about how this technique provides a more consistent illumination than having the bright spot at the center of the beam blowing out the less well illuminated portions of the room.

Since some of this material involved basically doing and entry on this room, we segued briefly into some discussion of CQB, mostly along the lines of “this is why doing room entries is really dangerous and you should avoid it if at all possible.”

We regrouped in the main warehouse and Randy talked about flashlights and flashlight techniques. There are two main roles for the flashlight: target acquisition and target identification. As we talked about the previous night, gunfights seldom take place in absolute darkness. Target acquisition can often be accomplished without using the light. In many circumstances, target identification doesn’t require the light either. Outside at night we didn’t have much trouble picking up on the drawstroke as a hostile action without using a light. There are circumstances where a flashlight is needed for target ID, and occasionally even for target acquisition, but they aren’t anywhere near as prevalent as the flashlight vendors would have you believe.

Randy divided tactical flashlights into three generations. Generation 1 lights are your traditional Maglights and similar brands. They are big and heavy, making them cumbersome to use with a weapon (but also making them excellent impact weapons). Generation 2 lights are your large rechargeable lights. These are popular with police officers because they use their lights enough for the cost of batteries (particularly expensive ones like CR123s) to be a concern. Generation 3 technology was originally developed for weapon lights, but it eventually migrated into small, powerful, hand-held lights like the Surefire 6P.

Moving on to flashlight techniques, we started with the FBI technique. The light is held at arm’s length, away from the body. The idea is that the enemy will shoot at the light, rather than at you. This seems to be a technique predicated on using the light as a floodlight. If used appropriately, in very short flashes, moving after each flash, the light shouldn’t be on long enough for the opponent to draw a bead on you. It can also make it hard to keep the light and gun coordinated. Nevertheless, it can be useful for things like shooting around cover.

We moved on to the Rogers technique, more commonly known as the Chapman technique. This is primarily a technique for big Gen 1 or 2 lights with side mounted switches, like a Maglight. The light is held in the support hand in a sword grip (like you might hold a fencing blade), up against the gun and gun hand, with the support side thumb on the switch and the smaller fingers wrapped around the gun’s grip as much as possible. This worked much better with a C-Cell Maglight than it did with a larger diameter D-Cell light. An alternative is the Ayoob method, which also brings the gun and a large flashlight together, but doesn’t try to wrap any support hand fingers around the grip of the gun. Another variant called the USMC method is useful for lights with very large bezels. It basically hooks the bezel on the knuckles of the primary hand.

The over/under technique, sometimes called the NYPD technique, puts the light under the butt of the gun.

The Hargreaves technique is for lights with tailcap switches. You hold the light in front of your pistol’s grip (or the magazine or magwell of a long gun) and pull it back to press the switch against your hand/magazine to illuminate. This works well with rifles that have straight magazines or magwells, but not so much with curved magazines like an AK.

The Harries technique is another method for Gen 3 lights with tailcap switches. The light is held in the support hand in an icepick grip. That hand is tucked under the primary hand and the two hands are held back to back. Randy emphasized that this technique was developed for use with the Weaver stance, maintaining it in an isosceles stance can be tiring. It may be easier to keep up for long periods if you relax the hands into more of an X, rather than holding them tightly back to back. For lights with switches near the bezel, the Van Keller technique is similar, but with the palm up and the light in a sword grip.

The Puckett method is intended for large Gen 1 and 2 lights with switches near the bezel. Grab the light by the bezel with your finger on the switch and rest the tail end of the light on your shoulder. This position not only supports the light, it also chambers it for use as in impact weapon.

The neck index is similar to the Puckett method, but intended for small Gen 3 lights with tailcaps. Hold the light in an icepick grip and hold it up against the base of the jaw. This keeps the light aligned where you’re looking and in a good position for use as an impact weapon. Along with the Puckett method, it is not a weapon focused technique, making it suitable for pre-fight uses of the flashlight as well as during the fight.

The last technique Randy talked about was the syringe or Surefire technique (also called the Rogers technique, just to make things confusing). This involves clamping the light between the fingers of your support hand as you grip your pistol in both hands. You pull the light back against the base of your thumb to activate it. Surefire makes a rubber ring that goes around a light and makes this easier, but it can be done with an unmodified light as well.

We tried out the different light positions using our own tube lights and the Maglights Randy brought. If I were using a big light, I would probably go with the Puckett method. With a small tube light, neck index seemed to work well, though Harries had advantages also. Syringe was useful, but fiddly to get set up. Randy also had me show off my Firstlight Tomahawk and how it could be used in conjunction with a two-handed firing grip on the gun.

We took a break for lunch. After eating we did some getting off the X. Because the skylights didn’t leave us with a lot of real darkness, Randy had us put our sunglasses on under our masks to simulate darkness. This was better than nothing, but not as good as really doing it in the dark. We worked gun against gun at first, then Randy introduced a knife wielding assailant into the equation. When I went up against the knife, I used my usual technique of bolting away from the guy and not worrying about the draw until I’d built up a bit of speed. This led to some more discussion about what directions to use when getting off the X, and how the response to a knife wielding assailant may differ from a gun wielding one.

After a while we moved into the dark room and did a bit of getting off the X there. The size of the room limited movement to a couple of steps, but it gave a much better feel for how this sort of thing would work in the dark, particularly from the bad guy’s perspective. After several repetitions, we started throwing in the flashbang technique. At this distance, roughly 4 yards, the blinding power of flashlights was definitely overrated. Throwing in the flash probably gave up as much in extra time to get off the X as it gained you by disrupting the opponent. I tried using the strobe function on my Firstlight Tomahawk as well. According to the students playing my adversaries, the strobe was no more effective than the solid beam.

We moved back out of the dark room and Randy talked about jamming the bad guy’s draw. Basically, if you’re within two arms’ reach of the guy and you see him going for his gun, you’re usually better off going hand to hand and trying to keep the gun in the holster than just getting off the X. Randy explained how to do this, then get to the guy’s flank where you can get your gun out and go to work on him without too much interference. We practiced this for a while, then wrapped up our force on force training for the day.

We broke for dinner. I had a nice meal with Randy, Alex, and one of the students from the class.

Saturday Evening – Live Fire

At 6 o’clock we rendezvoused at a local gun range for the live fire portion of the class. This was an indoor range, so we were kind of limited in what we could do compared to some SI classes, but it was sufficient for the purpose.

First off, Randy had us shoot a five shot group using our sights, just to establish a baseline. Everyone in the class shot pretty well. Next, he had us to go to full extension, acquire a good sight picture, then close our eyes and fire. We shot a five shot group this way, closing our eyes for each shot. The groups were a bit bigger than the ones with the eyes open, but not a whole lot.

Of course, this only really tests your ability to hold the gun steady without visual input, it doesn’t say as much about your ability to point the gun. Randy had us shoot another five rounds, closing our eyes as we went from the #3 position of the drawstroke to #4 (full extension). This established our pointing abilities. Again, groups widened a bit, but not by much. We followed this up by shooting rapid fire pairs and triples with our eyes closed, testing the ability to return to a proper point after recoil without any visual input. This also worked pretty well, with handspan sized groups for most students.

At this point, we’d pretty well established that we didn’t need to see our sights or even our gun in order to get good hits at 3 yards. Randy turned off the range lights and brought out a couple of lamps. We fired with the targets backlit first. This makes it pretty obvious where the target is, but doesn’t give you much visual input on your gun. Again, shots were definitely combat effective even with the limited visibility. We moved on to shooting with the light behind us, so we were backlit. This would have been a really sucky situation if the targets were shooting back, but against paper, this is actually easier than shooting with the targets backlit.

Randy reduced the light even further so that the targets were barely visible. We practiced using the brief illumination of the muzzle flash to adjust our subsequent shots. Interestingly, if you have everything really well lined up, you actually get a split second view of your sight alignment at the moment of discharge in the muzzle flash.

We brought the flashlight to bear, using the flashbang technique. In really dark conditions like this the reflected flash of your light can actually screw with your own vision a little bit. Next Randy had us floodlight the target with our lights, as if we were working form a solid piece of cover and shoot using the light. We worked this using the neck index and Harries techniques. I also tried it using both by tube light and my Firstlight Tomahawk. I had a jam during one of these drills, which I fixed using non-diagnostic malfunction clearance (no way to see what the problem was in the dark). However, I ended up dropping my light during the clearing process, while trying to rack the slide. It either requires more practice or tucking the light under my arm before doing malfunction clearance.

Our last drill of the night involved imagining the two sides of the booths as different pieces of cover and moving between them. I used my Kriss Super-V magazine (a 30 round Glock .45 magazine) for these drills. I intend to use it as my nightstand magazine and I wanted to see how it worked with a flashlight, particularly with the Harries technique (it works pretty well, as it turns out).

We finished up for the night at around 8 o’clock.


At 9 o’clock the next morning we reconvened back at the warehouse. We began with a review of Saturday’s material. Randy gave a brief lecture on basic hand to hand, then segued into knife defense. He kept it mostly to very simple techniques: block or parry the attack with one hand and palm strike the guy in the face with the other as you pushed him off and moved away. We worked these in the light until everyone was comfortable with them, then moved to the dark room.

The hard part of doing knife defense in the dark is figuring out where the incoming strike is coming from well enough to block it. Even if you know what you’re doing, poor or incomplete blocks are going to be par for the course. The flip side of this is that the low light affects the assailant’s targeting as well. What is intended as a slash to the throat may end up anywhere between the ear and the shoulder. We worked the defensive techniques against high and low line attacks for a while, then introduced the flashlight.

Yesterday, the effects of a tactical light at about four yards weren’t that impressive. Inside arms reach is a different story. At this range, a quick flash from a typical tactical light will not only take out your low light vision for a second or so, it will also do a good job resetting your OODA loop. This is how well it works when you know it is coming, I can only imagine that it would be even more effective against someone unprepared. As long as the good guy got the assailant directly in the eyes with the brightest part of the flashlight beam, they almost always got past the assailant and out of the room without the attacker even taking a swing at them. In contrast to the flashbang technique we talked about earlier, Randy called this streaking, because first you flash them, then you run.

Giving them a good solid shot in the eyes does take some work though. Just like with a pistol, accurately point shooting with your flashlight requires practice. It’s also important to flash your light briefly, then move, rather than leaving the light on as you move. Dragging the light while it’s on gives the bad guy a pretty good idea which way you’re going. Out in the open this would matter less, but in a confined space like this it can be deadly. Alex dragged the light when I was the BG. Knowing which way he was going I was able to reach out, clothesline him, wrap him up in an one armed bear hug, and go to work on his kidney with a training knife.

The need to flash the light briefly, then douse it immediately makes clicky tailcaps undesirable. These switches allow momentary illumination with gentle pressure on the switch, but click on and stay that way if you press too far. This sort of carefully calibrated pressure is a tall order under stress. Even under just the stress of force-on-force, folks with the clicky tailcaps had difficulty. Several locked their lights on when they intended just a brief flash. On a tactical light I want a pure momentary switch that I can mash down as hard as I want that will still go off as soon as I let up.

After a short lunch break we did some work against multiple attackers at very close range. This is a really lousy situation to be in, and there are no really good answers. The strategy Randy recommended was to jam one attacker’s draw and use him as uncooperative cover against the other. This takes quite a bit of aggressive action to pull off, and whether it works or not largely depends on how long it takes the second guy to spin through is OODA loop and start coming after you.

As usual, after doing this in the light for a while we moved into the dark room. With two assailants in there, the small size of the room really came into play. Lots of folks ended up either running themselves (bad) or their opponents (good) into the walls. I ran Alex into the doorjam spine first (sorry about that Alex). We also brought the flashlight into play, flashing one opponent in the eyes and jamming the other. Given the limited space and proximity to the door, getting out of the room rather than engaging in a gunfight inside often produced the best results. My best performance was probably the one where I just went between the two assailants, planted a hand on each of their chests and shoved them into opposite walls on my way out the door (being 6’5” has some advantages).

This was our last exercise. Randy handed out the certificates and asked for some feedback about the class. Everyone seemed thoroughly satisfied with the class.

Final Thoughts

This was quite an illuminating class (pun intended). Randy did an excellent job, as always, and he had a really good group of students to work with.

The best thing about this class was that it was focused on techniques, rather than gear. A lot of folks get caught up in the hardware aspect of low light shooting: flashlights, night sights, etc. In contrast, this class was very fight focused.

If there’s one thing this class will do, it will change a lot of students’ minds about how to utilize a flashlight. In most circumstances, there is enough ambient light to acquire a target without flooding the area with light. Often there is enough to identify a target without using the light even briefly. I was already most of the way down this road, but I think it was an eye opener for many of the students.

One of the biggest things I got out of this class was how to use the flashlight effectively to impede your opponent. The blinding effect of a tactical light has definitely been oversold. I don’t think any light you can reasonably carry on a daily basis is going to be an effective blinding tool at five yards. At one yard, however, it can be startlingly effective. Not only does it impair vision, it resets the OODA loop, giving a second or so of lag time even in an opponent that knows it’s coming. Getting a solid, center of the beam hit on the opponent’s eyes is important though; this is a technique that requires practice to use effectively.

While this class made some of the limitations of the flashlight clear, I still think it’s an important piece of carry gear. Not only is it an effective close range distraction tool, it’s also an important element of pre-fight maneuvering in low light when the BG may not be able to see you put your hands out to stop his encroachment. I also use a flashlight for more mundane tasks than any other piece of carry gear. As far as which flashlight is best, one thing this class definitely established is that come on momentarily when you press lightly and click into constant-on mode when you press harder, are a bad idea on tactical lights. The key to using a flashlight in a fight is to use it only in brief flashes. The idea that in the middle of a fight you will be able to calibrate your pressore on the switch so that it’s hard enough to activate the light but gently enough not to click the switch just doesn’t hold up in force on force.

This class has also persuaded me to switch from my Firstlight Tomahawk back to my Surefire 6P for daily carry. A tube light like the 6P seems to be easier to aim directly at the eyes because you can use it from the neck index and it makes a better impact weapon. For the moment, I’m forced to go with the 6P whether I want to or not. When I got home, I realized that my Tomahawk must have taken an airsoft round in the lens and it was cracked pretty badly. I called up the folks and Firstlight and they said to send it back and they would get if fixed at no charge. Excellent customer service.

The other oft-discussed piece of night fighting hardware is night sights. I don’t have any on my airsoft gun, but the Glock 21 has a set of Warren Tactical Sevigny Carry night sights. These have the tritium vials in the straight 8 configuration (one vial in the front sight, one at the bottom center of the rear sights, so you line them up by putting the front vial directly on top of the rear one. I didn’t absolutely need night sights for any of the live-fire shooting we did, but they did provide a reference point when it was really dark and I couldn’t see the gun itself. I think this does help for hand eye coordination. I do think I like the straight-8 configuration better than a three-dot setup though. I would say that night sights fall into the “nice to have” category, but they’re not absolutely vital.

This was really a great class. A lot of confrontations take place in low light and developing some familiarity with these conditions before the fight is very important. A lot of the low light material out there is very flashlight centric, this class really did a good job putting the light into perspective and teaching where and how it’s useful and where it’s not. I would highly recommend this class to anyone who carries a firearm for personal protection.


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