December 09, 2022
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I spent many years patrolling on swing or graveyard shifts—lots of nighttime police work—and I experimented with numerous flashlight techniques. In my experience, there are three that anyone who carries a flashlight and a handgun must know. There are certainly other viable techniques, but one of the things I like about these three is they can be employed with any size flashlight. And these techniques work regardless of flashlight design; they’re not dependent on whether the light has a side switch or a tailcap switch. Here’s a brass tacks approach that’s focused on the “big three”: Harries technique, FBI technique and neck index.
This is the first flashlight technique I was taught, and it’s what most cops I know default to. It was developed by Michael Harries in the late 1970s when lights tended to be rather long and heavy, with side-switch activation. But the technique is equally effective with today’s compact, tailcap-activated lights. The Harries technique is particularly well suited for use with the Weaver shooting stance, which involves blading the body to the threat. The shooting arm is extended, the support arm bent, with the elbow oriented downward. Recoil is mitigated by the isometric tension generated by the shooting hand pushing and the support hand pulling.
To use the Harries technique, grasp the flashlight in an “ice pick” grip, with your little finger closest to the lens. Be sure to extend the gun first, then bring the light underneath and join the backs of your hands. If you extend the flashlight before extending the gun, the muzzle of your gun will likely point at your support-side arm, violating Col. Jeff Cooper’s second rule of firearms safety: Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. While it may seem awkward because your arms are crossed, when employed from a bladed stance, the Harries technique is comfortable. However, with the proliferation of a more squared-up stance, the Harries technique can be problematic.
Keeping your support-side elbow oriented downward while square to the threat can be uncomfortable. As such, many who prefer an Isosceles type of stance will raise their elbow so their support-side arm is more horizontal. This helps alleviate excess tension in the neck, shoulder and arms, all of which could cause you to fatigue more quickly. Since the Harries technique involves your hands being together, your light and gun move in unison. Whatever your light is pointed at, your gun is pointed at.
To some, this is concern enough to exclude Harries as a search technique because there’s a chance your muzzle will cross things that you are not willing to destroy. Therefore, strict adherence to Cooper’s third rule of firearms safety—Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target—is paramount. With your finger indexed along the frame of your gun, there’s no need to worry about an unintended discharge while searching. Since the Harries technique places your light near your muzzle, it’s rather easy to align both light and muzzle on a threat. However, keep in mind, there is bound to be a few inches of distance between the light and your muzzle. It’s far more important that your muzzle is centered on the target. If your light is centered, your muzzle isn’t, which could lead to a peripheral hit or even a miss.
For as much as the Harries technique has to offer, it’s not without flaws. For starters, it places the light in front of your face. If the bad guy shoots at the light, that could be a real problem. You can mitigate this threat by using light in short bursts and moving after illuminating. That way, if the bad guy shoots at the light, hopefully you’re no longer there. For a right-handed shooter searching around a left corner, the Harries technique works well. Your light is closer to the corner than your muzzle, so it will get around the corner first. Just make sure your muzzle, not just your light, clears the corner. Firing rounds into the wall won’t help your cause.
For a right-handed shooter searching around a right corner or vice versa, the Harries technique can be challenging. Since your muzzle will clear the corner before the light, you will be exposed to a threat around the corner—without yet being able to see around the corner. The goal with any flashlight technique is to locate and identify a threat before it locates you.
The Harries technique is also ill-suited for close-quarter environments. With your arms crossed, an assailant who grabs one of your arms or knocks either arm aside will at least momentarily take both of your hands out of the fight. Not only would this prevent you from bringing your muzzle to bear on the assailant, but it would also make it very difficult to fight him off.
Unlike the Harries, the FBI technique doesn’t require your hands to move together. This enables you to search independently of your muzzle. This technique is typically executed with an icepick grip, but I have seen it used with a saber grip (thumb closest to the lens) when used with side-switch lights.
To perform the FBI technique, fully extend the arm holding the light above and in front of your head, locking your wrist. If the light is in your left hand, hold it at about 10 o’clock—two o’clock if it’s in your right hand. The idea here is to get the light away from your head and upper torso so if an assailant shoots at the light, your vital organs aren’t in the line of fire. The biggest mistake with the FBI technique is to not get the flashlight out far enough. If you don’t get the light in front of you, you will backlight yourself, which makes you an easy target. Make sure the hand holding the light leads the way and remains closer to the threat area than the rest of you.
The FBI technique is comfortable to search with and is more flexible than the Harries technique. For instance, while the traditional method works well when searching around a corner nearest your gun side, bending at the waist and allowing the flashlight to rotate inward and downward can enable you to deftly negotiate an opposing corner. When searching lower, you can even bring the light under your gun in what amounts to a more spread-out Harries technique. Just be sure that when your support hand is moving, it’s not crossing in front of your gun’s muzzle.
When your wrist is locked and your arm is fully extended, your light seems to automatically align with your gun and the target, illuminating your gun’s sights in the process. Also, with very little effort, you can direct your light into your adversary’s eyes, which may cause him to close them reflexively or even to turn his head away. Either of which could give you a distinct advantage. Not only can you see your adversary, but you also hinder his ability to see you. And if it turns out he’s not actually a threat, other than being temporarily blinded by the flashlight, he’s fine. The FBI technique can be fatiguing during a long search. In close quarters, the technique can leave you vulnerable because your arm is so far from your body that it’s hard to fight. Also, with your arm extended, it’s likely to precede and therefore telegraph your movement around a corner.
Another downside to the FBI technique is it relegates you to shooting one-handed, which can be difficult—especially as the distance increases or the available target size is diminished, as would be the case if the assailant was using cover or had taken a hostage.
Neck Index Technique
Another “hands-apart” technique, the neck index, enables you to keep your light close while intuitively illuminating whatever direction your head points. This is accomplished in one of two ways, depending on the length of your flashlight. For longer lights, the body will rest on the shoulder, against the side of the neck. With smaller lights, the hand clutches the light in the icepick grip and is indexed to the side of the face.
From this position, the flashlight can make an effective improvised impact weapon. With a longer light, the body or tail end would be the impact surface, as if you were striking with a baton. With a shorter flashlight, the lens, or more appropriately the bezel surrounding the lens, is the striking surface. A flashlight also can be used in the same capacity to block an assailant’s attack or to dislodge his hands and break free if he’s grabbed hold of you. This capability makes the neck index a formidable technique in close quarters.
Of course, a pitfall to the neck index is that it places your light right next to your head. As such, this is not the ideal technique for searching large open areas. For that you have the Harries and FBI techniques. As with the FBI technique, the neck index leaves you shooting one-handed. Fortunately, in the close confines for which this technique is intended, that shouldn’t be a problem.
It’s important to understand these flashlight techniques don’t exist in a stand-alone vacuum. In the real world, you’ll need to transition from one technique to the next, as appropriate. This requires not only an understanding of how to perform the techniques, but also, of equal importance, a knowledge of under which circumstances each technique should be employed.
For instance, if you’re searching using the Harries technique and you come to a corner where it becomes impractical, switch to the FBI technique. If while using the FBI technique, you find yourself having to navigate in a tight space, flow to the neck index. Then when you’re back into an open area, go back to the Harries technique or perhaps transition to neck index.
Like anything else, you can’t expect to become proficient without practice. Fortunately, all you need to practice these techniques is a flashlight, an inert or confirmed unloaded handgun, and a darkened area. Of course, before betting your life on any of these techniques, you’ll want to live-fire them at the range. Start slowly and make sure your support-side hand and arm always remain out of the path of your muzzle.
There is no “best” flashlight technique for every circumstance, which is why you need more than one option. These three techniques aren’t flashlight dependent and are versatile enough to set you on a well-lit path to victory in a low-light engagement.