Fighting At Night
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Jim has a background in military aviation, specializing in combat rescue and close air support. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the policy or position of the Air Force or Department of Defense, and no references here should be interpreted as an endorsement of any product or service by any government agency.
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Anyone who has had to do serious work in the dark will tell you that night has a different dynamic. Cops and medical folks both regard night shift with a certain aura. Bad guys get more brazen at night. Simple things get harder at night, mundane tasks get more dangerous at night, fatigue plays a more substantial role at night. But if you are acclimated, trained, and equipped – you can use a lot of those nighttime factors to your advantage. In fact, you can use night to achieve gross overmatch.
Some elements of the US military traditionally brag that “we own the night” — people who really understand fighting in the dark know that it is probably more accurate to say “we lease the night.” Technology like night vision or infrared imaging and target marking certainly helps, but without training, a lot of that technology is really just a pile of expensive toys… and each flashlight, goggle, or laser becomes one more item that has to be accounted for, carried, and maintained. Our mantra at Tactical Tangents is People- Ideas- Hardware, so I am going to walk you through those elements.
How serious is your personal risk of getting into a fight in darkness? There are stats floating around that something like 80% of gunfights happen in darkness. That sounds plausible to me, but I haven’t seen a lot of source material on those stats, and that number by itself doesn’t tell us how it relates to you personally. Your occupation and personal risk assessment will drive how much time, energy, and money you need to dedicate to fighting in the dark. If you work in or around the military or law enforcement – you are going to work at night and you are going to face danger at night, but hopefully your respective agency will also train and equip you for that.
But what if you are a working dad and you have to run to the supermarket or megamart at 2 am to get more formula or baby Tylenol for your kid? What if you are a long haul truck driver and you find yourself in cruddy little rest stops and you wake up to someone pounding on the side of your rig? What if you are a nurse walking to your car as you get off swing shift? Take a minute to assess how often you are out and about after dark. Consider how that is affected by the constant change in sunset and sunrise throughout the year. Then assess how often you are out in the dark in higher risk areas. That will give you some sense of how much you really need to work on the night stuff.
So who you are drives a lot of this discussion. A typical concealed carrier probably doesn’t need to worry too much about taking a night carbine training class unless they want to play dress up. On the other hand, I have personally met people who had to protect their neighborhoods from looters after hurricanes, and I think they would have been grateful for some night training and maybe even equipment. I think everyone in law enforcement or military occupations should have at least a grasp of the fundamentals, and have a mental image of the tools available to them.
Consider also the risk of fighting in your house in darkness. That also depends a lot on you as a person. How good is your overall home security? How dark do you keep your house at night, and how dark is the exterior of your house at night? For a variety of reasons, I tend to keep some lights on in my house. Even if something goes bump in the night, unless it is a deadly ninja assassin team that cuts the power to my house… we are going to be fighting in lighted rooms. In your home, you have the ability to prepare the proverbial battlefield. Although your focus should be on keeping the intruder out of your house in the first place, you can also set up the house to put you in a position of advantage – keep the intruder lighted and yourself in the dark.
A final consideration is your own physiology. Some people, particularly as they age, just don’t see well in the dark. Your optometrist or ophthalmologist can help quantify that for you, but you know in your own judgement whether you are comfortable walking around your house with the lights off or driving on a dark night. People who don’t see well in the dark will need to mitigate that somehow.
Well, we wouldn’t be Tactical Tangents if we didn’t talk about the OODA Loop. So darkness affects a lot of the OODA Loop: OBSERVE – It is hard to see at night (crazy, right?), and you are subject to nighttime-unique perception issues. And other senses play a bigger role – hearing and even smelling may tip you off if you are paying attention. ORIENT – How you are trained and educated for night work will drive everything else in the cycle. DECIDE – Does your decision tree change at all in darkness? Are certain options off the table? ACT – You will find that even simple tasks get harder at night.
Positive Identification (PID) is an absolute requirement. You have to be able to see your target, verify your target as a threat, and accurately sort friend/foe/bystander. That requirement doesn’t change at night, but it does get a lot harder.
Unaided Visual Perception at Night: You need to understand how your eyes work at night without help from flashlights and night vision. Take the time to learn about the physiology of dark adaptation. Understanding that your pupils dilate and your sensing shifts from cones to rods will help you grasp what you will or will not be able to detect, how long it will take to adapt, and how sensitive that adaptation is to bright lights. There are also common illusions at night that you need to be aware of so that you don’t fall for them. My favorite one is the most basic: bright lights appear closer than dim lights. The FAA produced a great chapter on night adaptation and illusions here: FAA Night Flying Chapter
While it is flying-centric, you will find that it is a good primer for ground operations as well.
Let’s talk about that dark adaptation thing, you probably intuitively understand that it takes your eyes a few seconds to adjust when you walk into a dark movie theater – and it also takes a few seconds to adjust when you walk back out of a dark room into bright lights. That adaptation time (which has some numbers associated with it, but I will tell you that it is different for everybody), has tactical consequences. You have to account for it. That means that if you are a cop rolling up on a call, you may want to park a couple of houses down from the scene to give your eyes a few seconds to adjust before you make contact. That means that everything takes a little longer. It means that you need to try to preserve your adaptation by keeping lights very-dim or off. If you are a cop, take a few minutes and look at the light sources around your car… can they be dimmed? Can they be taped over? Are they helping you or hurting you?
It also means you physiologically just cannot see as well at night (duh). You need to slow down. Get into the shadows, use cover and concealment, and consciously observe your surroundings: Stop, Look, Listen, and Smell (SLLS). Note that Smell thing… we like dogs here at Tactical Tangents. Listening is also huge – you will often find people faster by listening for them than by looking for them.
Aided Perception at Night: We will discuss night vision and IR in more detail later, but the idea I want you to go into this with is that those tools are not cure-alls. They are also prone to illusions and weaknesses. Probably the most important one is lack of depth perception, then narrow field of view, lack of color distinction, and lack of near-focus. Even with high end binocular night vision, you will never have the depth perception that you enjoy with the naked eye… so it is important to train with them in a benign environment before you go running or driving with them. If you are working with someone (or something) working through night vision or infrared, you need to know that your counterpart isn’t seeing color. So when you call up to the helicopter, drone, or gunship, and you say “I need you to follow/kill that red truck” the counterpart usually won’t know which truck is the red truck. Consider also that an air asset like that may be using those same sensors during the day, so even when they should see color, they may not be looking in that part of the spectrum.
Synthesizing Aided and Natural Vision is where the magic happens. Some newer technology can blend sensor pictures so the operator can see IR, night vision, optical, and even radar all at once, and so each one can make up for the weaknesses of the others. That’s great if you are flying an advanced attack aircraft, or your agency has the money to personally equip you for that. In the meantime, understand that you might be better off having a night vision monocular in one eye and leaving the other eye unaided. You will see things with your naked eye that the night vision won’t pick up and vice versa.
You have an OODA Loop but so does the other guy. There is a lot you can do at night to screw with your adversary’s ability to observe and interpret your actions. The two most powerful tools you have: darkness and light. You are much, MUCH harder to see if you stay dark and stay in the shadows. A burning cigarette, or in our generation, a back lit smartphone screen can be seen from football fields away with the naked eye, and miles away with night vision. Certain clothes reflect more light energy, particularly if they have been washed with typical detergents with “optical brighteners.” Natural fabrics, or purpose-built synthetics, washed only in detergents without brightening agents will make you harder to see.
If you are getting serious, consider light sources like glint from lenses, reflective material built into most athletic shoes, and glowing tritium in watch faces and night sights. On the flip side, consider that you can throw on the lights, either as a baseline (like security lighting around your house), or suddenly, like a bright headlight or spotlight in his face. Similarly, you need to consider your noise discipline much more seriously… staying totally silent may keep him from looking in your direction. Consider coins and keys in your pocket, twigs and leaves under your feet, the mechanical noises of you manipulating a weapon or door, and of course, your cell phone. I am not going to discuss IR counter-tactics here, but you need to ask yourself if your adversary is sophisticated enough to employ thermal imaging. It is getting cheaper and easier to acquire with every passing year.
Crew Resource Management and Communications
How do you communicate at night? Human voices carry a far distance, and even whispers are distinct. If you are trying to stay silent, you need to work that into all of your communications. That means an earpiece for your radio. That means you may need to call 911 and not talk into the phone. That means if you have a buddy, you may need to work out some non-verbals like a shoulder squeeze or tap.
Again, consider what your counterpart can or can’t see. If you are working with an air asset, don’t use colors and don’t use left or right. Use compass directions and other descriptors. Many air assets have IR lasers that can point to what they are looking at, or you can use an IR laser (or… heh, tracer fire) to highlight what you are looking at. There is a scene in the movie 13 Hours where the security element uses night vision and IR lasers to talk each other on to the bad guys they are seeing and to coordinate targeting – this is a good example of how you can communicate and coordinate with lasers.
Don’t Fratricide Your Buddy
I mean that on a couple of levels. Identifying friend from foe becomes a lot harder in the dark. You can reduce that risk with set standards, pre-briefs, and dry rehearsal. There are technical solutions such as IR patches or strobes. But I will take that a step further and remind you not to blind your buddy. Be careful where you swing that light or laser – especially if it is an invisible laser. Also be careful not to highlight or silhouette your buddy with your light.
We specifically try to avoid getting too deep into gear at Tactical Tangents, but the equipment is integral to night fighting. Here are a few things we want you to consider in your hardware.
Set up your gun for night. I make two changes to my home-defense handguns: I add high quality night sights, and a weapon-mounted light. That last thing confuses some people, so let me explain: You have an absolute duty to distinguish friend from foe. You have a legal and moral responsibility to determine if the intruder is an actual threat to you, and if so, whether that threat warrants deadly force. Weird things happen at 3am. That could be your own kid sleep walking. That could be your daughter’s boyfriend sneaking out of the house after a make out session. I know it is fun to joke about shooting daughter’s boyfriend… but there won’t be anything funny about it if that happens for real – not to the boyfriend or his parents, not to your daughter, and not to the prosecutors. You need light to see well. You need light to perceive enough of the situation to make a good decision. If your house is well lighted and/or you can get the lights on quickly, you may be able to skip that, but the point is that you need to be able to identify your target.
Some tactical instructors will teach you that you should never have a light mounted to the gun, because the bad guy can see your light and shoot you. They advise instead on holding that light in your weak hand. I think that is stupid advice in the context of home defense. I think you will already have your hands full, and you will be short about 60 IQ points in the 3am adrenaline dump. I think our little ape brains struggle in moving our hands in different directions simultaneously under stress. I think that inside your house, you will need to be able to open doors and baby gates. I challenge anyone who follows that school of thought to shoot a USPSA, IDPA, or 3-Gun match with a flashlight in one hand, and tell me how it goes. If you are concerned with highlighting yourself, keep the light off until you need it. Of course, you will need to be cognizant and cautious about the fact there is a gun muzzle coaxial with the light if you wave it around. Reasonable minds differ on this, and it is a worthy topic on its own. Whatever you choose, weigh the risks, and train the way you plan to fight.
On the other hand, I do not typically carry a light on my concealed-carry handguns. I would like to, but it takes up too much weight and adds too much bulk for my needs. If I were constantly out at night though, that would change my risk equation and I would reconsider. In the context of out-and-about concealed carry, a handheld light makes a lot more sense.
Different cartridges also produce different amounts of muzzle flash. One of the things that makes “duty” ammo what it is, is that it is supposed to produce less visible flash. Take whatever ammo you intend to carry and shoot it in darkness some time. Then you will have a better idea of what to expect and a better sense of what you are carrying.
If you are feeling froggy, the next big step in setting up a rifle for night is to put a silencer (some people call them suppressors, tomato/tomahto) on it. Depending on your background, that might sound excessive, but consider that muzzle flash both impacts your ability to see and highlights you. The cage-style flash suppressors on most carbines reduce that some, but you will find very quickly that they really don’t kill the muzzle flash, certainly not the way a suppressor will. Suppressors are heavily restricted under the National Firearms Act, and some states restrict that further – but if you are serious about night fighting, a can is worth seriously considering.
Have a Flashlight On Your Person. I think the term “every day carry” is pretty trite. But I have gotten myself into enough trouble at night enough times, that I do actually carry a flashlight of some form everywhere I go. That isn’t always a traditional handheld flashlight though. When I am deployed, I ALWAYS have a headlamp in my pocket. Most of my jackets have little LED lights clipped to a zipper. In general, I want two basic types of lights – a BRIGHT WHITE light with lots of throw (effectively lights up objects at long distance), and a little dim blue or green light to read stuff if I really need it. I have heard different things my whole life about different colors of lenses being more “tactical” like a red lens will be harder to spot or preserve your vision better. There are definitely colors of light that will bloom out night vision devices, and -any- light will highlight you no matter what color you use. I personally prefer blue if NVDs aren’t a factor… seems to blend with moonlight and cultural lighting better.
And just because you have a flashlight, doesn’t mean you need to use it. Don’t just leave it on, use the momentary on/off function. Think about the risk every time you turn it on. When you do turn it on, you can mask the lens with your hand so that you are controlling where the light is going.
I recently got a new SureFire handheld, and if you’re interested, here is a quick review on it (Boom: Bonus Content for reading this far):
Got a new flashlight today. One of the newest generation handheld SureFires, the EDCL-2T. It is about the same size and style as every other 2-battery SureFire you have seen, but it advertises about twice the brightness at 1200 lumens.
First impressions are very positive, it is a lot like a bigger flashlight (like a Streamlight Stinger) but packed into the smaller SureFire package. What that brightness gets you, and it is kinda hard to quantify, is a whiter, wider, longer beam. So this light will tend to light a row of cars in a dark parking lot as opposed to lighting up just the closest car.
Worth looking at seriously if:
-You consider a bright ass light to have potential in deterring and disorienting an attacker
-You want -something- but work in an environment like an elementary school or hospital where even pepper spray or a knife aren’t viable options
-You like SureFires and already have an idea of how to hold/ carry/employ them (this one comes with a 2-direction clip)
-You have a good supply of lithium 123 batteries and think recharging is overrated (I’m not being facetious, I happen to think that)
-You work outside at night
-You travel at night
-Your unit or agency has funds to spend, like end of year money
-You need to do specific tasks like pre-flight an airplane in the dark, draw a lot of attention to yourself unmistakably, find a lost set of NVGs or a rifle “somewhere in that field” at night.
Skip it if:
-You think paying over a hundred dollars for a flashlight is ludicrous
-You just don’t need a bright flashlight, or you would rather have two decent flashlights stashed in more places than one spendy light that you have to keep track of
-The size and shape of a 2 battery surefire doesn’t fit your pockets well (like that skinny femoral flightsuit pocket – for that pocket, look at the ASP Tungsten 2 and the Inova X5).
-You want a positive “lock out” detent to keep the light from turning on at inopportune times. SureFires, as a brand standard have a rotating tail cap with a push button on the end. If you unscrew the tail cap far enough, it will keep the push button from working, but you also risk losing the tailcap. If you understand the issue, consider an ASP Tungsten 2 (though it is MUCH less bright).
-You use a light at night so frequently that recharging is the only sane way to keep it powered
Update: I have now carried it for 4 months since I wrote those initial reflections. It has grown on me a lot. I use it almost every night, and I get mad at myself when I either forget it or grab some lesser flashlight on my way out the door. It is so much brighter and clearer than other lights that none of them really compare. One aspect that has really surprised me, is that despite daily use, I am still on the first set of batteries. The Surefire guys worked some dark magic to make the thing that bright and that battery-efficient.
Buying Night Vision Isn’t All That Crazy
If you are willing to pay $2000 for a tricked out AR, maybe save your pennies and pay $3000 for a decent night vision monocular.
Going back to OODA Loops… if it gives you the ability to see before being seen – that is a pretty critical capability. There are of course a couple of caveats: night vision is expensive and kind of a pain to deal with. You need to mount it to something or you lose the use of a hand. If you mount it to a rifle, you risk damaging the scope and you are aiming your rifle around just to look. The more common alternative is to mount it to a helmet. Well, then you have to buy the helmet and mount, and those can both cost significant money – and you have to wear all that stuff, which may get pretty silly if you live in the suburbs. It is also a literal pain in the neck. Because of the weight of the device, the length of the lever it sits on, and the weight of the batteries or counterweight – you are mounting a lot of stuff to your head… stuff that can get caught on tree branches, stuff that can break, and stuff that weighs on you the longer you wear it.
Also consider that on most nights, there is enough environmental lighting from the moon, stars, cultural lights that you really don’t need night vision. In fact, on a full moon night, night vision may be more of a hindrance. So you really only need it on particularly dark nights, and because of that, you are better off getting higher end night vision if you are going to do it at all. At various times, you could buy a $400 night vision scope from the local megamart, but you couldn’t see anything out of it. My personal rule is that it has to be Generation III for me to seriously consider it.
Night vision typically doesn’t focus well within about four feet. So you may not be able to read your dashboard, or see where you are stepping, or read a display. In flying, we typically look under the gap between our goggles and our eyes to read the instrument panel. To mitigate the fact you are looking through a “soda straw,” you need to keep the sensor moving. It is a long-standing saying in the military that you need to keep your head on a swivel – but that is a lot more literal when you are wearing goggles. In human performance, we are taught that eyeballs move faster than heads, which is what people mean when they say “keep your eye on the ball.” You will find though, that you have to move your whole head instead of just your eyes to do that under goggles.
If you are going to bother with Night Vision, you might as well get an IR laser
Looking through an optical scope at night is a pain. I have never had one that I really felt was practical in darkness, even the more modern red dot optics. You’ll find very quickly that night is where lasers become worthwhile. The beauty of an IR laser is that the target doesn’t see it unless he is also using night vision. Some units have toyed with visible lasers as a force escalation/ de-escalation option. Much like the legendary rack of a shotgun, some units have found that a red or green dot bouncing on your chest has a certain unmistakable and universal deterrent effect. Just bear in mind that like a tracer, a laser can be traced back to you. The two systems I think are worth looking at (unless you are on a government budget) are the BE Meyers MAWL, and the Meprolight MOR.
All That Technology Takes Batteries
Those aiding devices all require power. Keep a pack of compatible batteries in your home, car, and office. If you have even an inkling that trouble is coming, refresh your batteries as part of your preparations.
While teaching a survival course once, I had to recall a group of students due to severe weather. I was carrying several flashlights, and it was so cold that all of the lights ultimately died on me. Growing up in Southern California, it didn’t even occur to me that I had to keep the batteries warm to keep them working.
Chem lights are one of the most useful tools in your night time toolbox, and while I see them all over in the military, I hardly ever see them among law enforcement and the civilian self defense communities. Think of chemlights with the same versatility that you think of 550 parachute cord. You can use them to signal and communicate, you can use them to alert you to an intruder, you can use them to identify triaged victims, you can use them to read with. You can keep it mostly covered in the aluminum wrapping to control where it throws light… and you can light up a rave with them.
Remember that All Tech Will Fail, and at a Critical Time
You need to work out a plan for how you will handle your night aid devices failing when it matters. If your flashlight fails, do you keep going? Do you try to fix it right there? Can you troubleshoot your gun in total darkness? I don’t think the typical user needs to be able to field strip and reassemble their gun while hanging upside down and blind-folded, but I think you need to be able to sort out basic functions and troubleshooting without the benefit of light.
Don’t Fear the Dark
With some reasonable preparation, proportional to your personal risk of having to fight at night — you can use the darkness to gain and maintain gross overmatch. Start by sorting out your own personal risk, which should drive your investment in training and equipment. Consider both technical and non-technical ways you can improve your ability to see and screw with your adversary’s ability to see. Arrange your kit in a way that it is helping you instead of highlighting you at night. Finally, use your superior judgment to stay out of situations that would require superior night-fighting skills… very few good things happen after midnight, manage your risk accordingly.
About the Author
Jim is a contributing editor in the Tactical Tangents project. His background is in military aviation and close air support. One of his goals in this project is to help his neighbors fight a regional uptick in crime in New Mexico. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of his or any other agency. Any products mentioned or linked to are intended to aid the convenience of the audience and enable further research, and should not be interpreted as an endorsement by Jim, Tactical Tangents, or any other agency.
Tactical Tangents is a free online resource for professional development of the Public Safety, Armed Forces, and Self Defense communities, provided by PIH Tactics LLC. For further information, please visit TacticalTangents.com and follow us on Facebook. We welcome your suggestions, if you have comments or corrections, please let us know. If you found this article useful, please share it with your friends and neighbors.
Related Article from ITS Tactical: https://www.itstactical.com/intellicom/tradecraft/navigating-the-dark-how-to-preserve-your-night-vision/
Special thanks to Trevor K. who shared some great insights to help inform this article.
Cover photo is from USSOCOM’s Facebook posts on 26 Dec 17. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.