Light is an essential commodity in most defensive shootings. Regrettably, it is also one that is likely to be in short supply or absent when we need it; the majority of stateside shootings occur in times or areas of low light.
That means the savvy defender will need to provide their own light source at a moment’s notice in order to ascertain that a threat exists and warrants gunfire against it, and utilize our pistol’s sights to deliver that fire.
There are a few ways to do this: we can flip on the lights if indoors and able, but that is not always an option or prudent, as the dark can protect scumbag and good guy alike. We can pull out our trusty handheld flashlight and this is often our best move, but using it simultaneously with a handgun requires a lot of practice.
Another option is to employ a weapon mounted light, which will allow us to handily control both pistol and light at the same time, though they still have drawbacks we must overcome.
When it comes to lights, many manufacturers have stepped up their efforts, giving us lights that are brighter, tougher, smaller or more endowed with the features we want. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at state of the art WML’s and giving you a guide on WML use and employment so you can make a good purchase decision.
Why is Light So Important?
Simply put, the primary sense of humans is vision. Our eyes, while capable of resoundingly clear, crisp and speedy transmission of visual data, are highly dependent on light to perform well. We see well in light and poorly in darkness. The end. Apply this truth to a defensive situation, and the importance of light to a successful outcome is obvious.
To make a good decision about the threat at hand we need visual data. If my threat is currently in darkness, or less than ideal light, we will be denied that data or it may be error-prone.
Is he holding a knife or a gun? Is it a weapon at all? Are his hands even visible? If not, where are they? Is anyone else with him, or lurking nearby in the shadows?
All of these questions are important, and while sight is not the only sense by which we may ascertain the answers, it is often the one, and usually the surest.
You need not think that you may simply shoot when confronted wherever a potential threat exists and all will be well, even in your own home. Do not dare for a moment to think that you’ll be “sure” of the threat if you cannot see it clearly.
Plenty of poor homeowners have wound up shooting a child or relative who was entering or exiting the home at night upon mistaking the sounds of their passage for an intruder. Lighting them up with a flashlight, even flipping on the lights would have prevented tragedy.
Additionally, as a civilian you must be able to articulate the threat against you in no uncertain terms when (not if) you head to trial over the shooting.
How will you articulate in honesty what the threat was if you could not see it with clarity? A prosecutor may very well seize upon your omission to use light even in an otherwise clean shoot in order to build a narrative that you are the reckless one, or were lurking in the dark waiting for just such an occasion…
If you rely on a gun for defense, you need lighting solutions right alongside it. Handhelds are a great option, but require much practice in tandem with a pistol to still maintain speed and accuracy when shooting. A WML, our subject today, while not ideal for searching or mundane tasks, makes illuminating the threat and firing the gun simultaneously far easier.
Why a WML?
Handheld lights have their advantages and are still necessary for EDC as there are plenty of things you’ll need a light for that you don’t want a gun involved in or pointed at:
- general navigation
- finding dropped items
- illuminating a suspicious person to give them incentive to waive off any further interaction with you, etc.
…can all be made more hazardous or escalated by using a flashlight with a gun attached to it!
So no WML is a replacement for a handheld light, and if you can have only one, or will make room on you for only one, make it a handheld. Where WML’s come in is they make the “shoot” portion of the confrontation much, much easier to execute while still controlling the light as needed.
Aside from continual illumination of the threat, a WML will crisply backlight your iron sights, whether night sights or not, which will in turn allow you to acquire a nicer sight picture than you could in dim light alone or with night sights alone.
Lastly, as with handhelds, a powerful stream of light issuing from a WML can degrade the vision of an attacker and distract him, giving you an edge as the fight progresses. Impairing or eliminating an opponent’s vision is always a good idea in a fight, for all the reasons we outlined above.
Note that no current “tactical” flashlights, no matter how powerful, are powerful enough to “blind” an adversary as is often claimed. The will certainly degrade their vision, and may very well be highly distracting, but they will not blind someone
Disadvantages of WMLs
Their obvious disadvantage is that wherever the light is generally trained, you are also pointing the pistol, as any WML is mounted coaxially with the bore. It is possible, with training and practice, to overcome this and use a WML for general illumination and navigation in situations where you anticipate needing the gun imminently, but you should never use a WML for tasks that do not require a firearm.
WMLs, contrary to popular opinion, are not a plug-and-play solution for lighting; they require considerable training with to get the most benefit from them while also minimizing their drawbacks.
One of the major drawbacks is the urge to search with the light similar to the headlight on a car; always on in the dark. This is a bad idea for a host of reasons.
Another drawback is that the light, when activated, is always centerline to the shooter’s thorax and head, providing an easy aiming indicator for a bad guy compared to various techniques that can be employed with handheld lights to mitigate that occurrence.
This is a big deal if someone may be shooting back at you (though it can be minimized with, you guessed it, training!), and according to WML naysayers is the principal reason why you don’t want one on your gun, as it will get you shot in a blink.
I understand the concern of such folks but am inclined to point out there is no magic shield that keeps you from getting shot when you don’t have a light turned on. Bad guys are never bound by the same rules and ethics we are, and will wing rounds at anything given reason and little or no provocation.
WMLs also increase the overall size and weight of the gun they are mated to, and for carry this will almost certainly reduce comfort and necessitate a specialized holster that will carry both.
While not a deal breaker for most, ounces are ounces, and do add up. The added “ballast” up front hanging beneath the muzzle can help tame muzzle flip but also alters the balance of the pistols somewhat.
WMLs obviously require batteries, and though this is a small price to pay for something that offers so much capability it is still another “mouth” to feed those pricey little lithium batteries into.
Is a WML for You?
WMLs are not, say again, not an ideal solution for everyone. While they are a very popular option on handguns right now, they are only at their best in the hands of someone willing to get the training to realize it. You should not expect to bolt one on to your favorite handgun and be ready to fight in the dark like John Wick.
If you are a serious practitioner of pistolcraft and have every intention of putting in the work to make WMLs work for you, you will not be sorry with either the cost or hassle of getting your defense gun set up to run one. If you are a “fair-weather” shooter, one who practices infrequently if ever with your gun and keep it handily set about “just in case” a WML’s best attributes will likely be wasted on you.
Like all tools, WMLs solve problems when used correctly and may have significant drawbacks or even hazards when used incorrectly or by untrained people.
But, if you take the time to learn how to use it properly, and make practice with the WML a part of your training regimen, the advantages they confer in the dark are enormous, and allow a degree of control over both light and pistol, even with one hand, that is basically impossible to accomplish with a separate handheld light. Be honest with yourself about your skill and commitment to growth before you commit to a WML.
The Best Pistol WMLs
Like many other electronics sectors, flashlight technology has moved by leaps and bounds, and quickly. Lights considered “blindingly bright” in the heyday of Surefire’s and other makers EDC lights would be seen as nothing but laughably, contemptibly underpowered and short on runtime. Even lights of just one or two years ago have been handily outclassed by these latest offerings.
All of them represent what is “The Best” in their class.
Surefire is the undisputed leader in the tactical lighting arena, making lights that are both extremely bright and extraordinarily tough.
The latest iteration of their famed X300 weapon light series, charmingly nicknamed the “U-Boat” for its large profile thanks to its oversized head, this light is the one by which all others are measured; a scorching 1,000 lumen output fueled by a pair of 123A batteries, flawless beam with a brilliant hotspot, and best-in-category ambidextrous “mirror image” switching, the only drawback to this light is the price tag, usually retailing around $300.
It is built to last, though, with heavy-duty o-ring seals, an aerospace aluminum body and replaceable switching and mounting hardware. When you need a light as hardcore as it gets, get a Surefire, and accept no substitutes.
This light is essentially identical to the X300 above, only with the addition of a piggybacked aiming laser. Per usual with Surefire, no detail was missed, and the switching system for selecting wither light, laser or both upon activation is as intuitive and rugged as the rest of this unit.
The laser itself is zeroed and secured by specialty screws that will not move under recoil, assuring you that, once zeroed, you can count on the laser for every single shot. Spendy at $400, but one of the best of its kind.
We keep seeing more and more compact pistols come out with abbreviated rails, often a hair too small to accept Surefire’s or other manufacturers’ fullsize lights at all. For the longest time “compact” WML was synonymous with “sucks,” even in this era of super-bright lights.
Surefire finally rounded the bend and threw down the gauntlet in this category with their XC1-B, a compact WML worthy of their name. This small but mighty light pushes out 300 lumens from a single AAA battery, and weighs less than 2 ounces. Intelligent switching allows both constant and momentary on by pushing down either rocker or you can override to constant on with a crossbar switch.
Made from the same sturdy aluminum as its big brothers, and including the same o-ring sealing, the XC1-B is far from an afterthought for little guns with short rails; it is a full featured tactical light for concealed carry. Unfortunately little does not come with a smaller price tag from SF: still $300, the same as its larger sibling.
The biggest competitor to Surefire, and one of the only light manufacturers to come close to and occasionally beat them at their own game. Streamlight is known for making tough, bright and reliable lights in a plethora of variants at prices a lot nicer than Surefire’s “second-mortgage” strategy.
One of their best selling tactical lights was recently upgraded to a sizzling 800 lumen output: the TLR-1 HL. A little smaller than SF’s big U-Boat, the TLR-1 is nonetheless an excellent performer, boasting nearly as much output and a similar beam featuring a wide, even corona of softer light and an intense, sharply focused hotspot in the middle.
The rocker switch is a single unit on the back of the light akin to a teeter-totter: pressing the switch down on one side activates momentary, but will need to be pushed up on the other to activate momentary. The same is true in reverse for constant on.
While not as easy or nice as Surefire’s setup, the switching presents no problems with just a little practice, and you can buy a pair of TLR-1’s for the cost of a single Surefire X300U. Batteries are the typical 123A lithium cells, and are able to provide nearly 2 hours of useable light. A dynamite value in WML’s at $150.
“Anything you can do…” The Streamlight TLR-2 HL is the same light in all features as the TLR-1 HL above, but with the addition of an aiming laser. Streamlight’s piggybacked laser setup is controlled much the same as Surefire’s, with the biggest difference being the design of the selector switch: where Surefire uses a dial, Streamlight opts for a convenient toggle switch, allowing you to opt for laser only, light only, or both upon activation.
This switch is placed immediately below the main activation switches recessed into a protective shroud, and remains very easy to use while being resistant to accidental actuation. $250 is the average street price.
Streamlight’s latest entry into the duel between the giants of the flashlight market, the TLR-7 really turned heads when it was introduced: A small, slick and sculpted single-battery light that still manages to push 500 lumens with a total runtime of 1 ½ hours.
Don’t threaten me with a good time! This compact light also dispenses with Streamlight’s tried-and-true rocker switching for new, ambidextrous tap switches on either side. A quick tap activates constant on, a longer press will be momentary activation and (once activated by programming) a double tap will turn on the strobe feature.
This is a really remarkable package for fullsize pistols or compacts and is made all the better by its price. Average price in shops is about $110.
Inforce has been an industry disruptor for a little while now, turning out bright and innovative designs to rival some of the big boys, their . Their lone pistol-specific WML is the APL, a feathery polymer unit that weighs a scant three ounces (without battery) and features excellent switching in the form of two ambidextrous, low-profile clickable paddles on either side, affording easy activation with either the shooting or support hands.
There is a price to pay for this ease of carry and use, sadly: the APL only pumps out 400 lumens of light, which is a bit disappointing (though adequate) compared to other single-cell lights that use an energy-dense and expensive 123A lithium battery.
Additionally, the total polymer construction, while ultra light, is simply more fragile than aluminum or other metals; tales abound of a solid whack to a mounted APL sending it flying, broken, right off of the gun.
Still, they are greatly loved for their combination of adequate brightness, great switching and light weight. Can be had for about $110.
For APL fans that own guns with really abbreviated rails, Inforce makes the APL-C, with C indicating the compact variation. To save even more space and weight, this light ditches the industry standard 123A lithium for single CR2 lithium.
This drop in class also resulted in a loss of output by half, down to only 200 lumens of output. While fine for close range work, the resulting lack of power is noticeable at range and in less than ideal atmospheric conditions. Retails similarly to its larger kin above.
Olight PL-2 Valkyrie
This surprise entry from Olight boasts of the brightest claimed output in the industry for WML’s in this category: 1,200 eyeball roasting lumens. Wow. All within a familiar form factor and fueled by 2 standard 123A batteries.
While similar in size and shape to the Surefire X300U or the Streamlight TLR-1, the Olight Valkyrie is a different beast, though one wrought more by synthesis than true innovation.
The PL-2 Valkyrie has obviously cribbed some ideas here and there from other lights, namely the switching which was inspired obviously by the APL, the overall shape of the body from the TLR-1 and the mega-output LED as pioneered by Surefire. But the result is a light that is bright, easy to use, and welcome addition to the market.
As of this writing, there are reports of intermittent failures with the PL-2’s, and this is made worrisome by their less-expensive price. That being said, some stellar reviews from a variety of gun writers and other users who are notoriously hard on their equipment are strong evidence that, minus a few lemons, these lights are worthwhile purchases.
This Olight offering is more than a slightly shrunk version of the Valkyrie. In fact, it boasts what is arguably the most innovative feature on our list.
The PL-Mini is a rechargeable light that uses a magnetic charging tether that nests into a receptacle on the bottom of the light. This allows for convenient fueling of this tiny, light WML whenever you take the gun off.
Aside from saving a small fortune on batteries, I can see this having great utility with the gun on the nightstand for home defense; in the event the gun must be grabbed quickly. The magnetic tether will harmlessly pop off as the gun is picked up, with virtually no snag hazard. How clever.
This tiny rechargeable package still manages to produce a respectable 400 lumens of light in an even wide-angle flood beam, more than adequate at typical pistol engagement distances. The whole shebang with charger is yours for about $80.
WMLs are a superb lighting option for shooters who will take the time to learn them well. By working to their strengths, shoring up their weaknesses and using sound tactics, you can turn the darkness against the bad guys.
Review this list of the year’s current best-in-show and you are certain to find a WML that will work for your application, pistol, and budget. Remember: when the lights are low, the bad guys are busy. Be prepared.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.