Jeff Gonzales: How to Use a Flashlight for Armed Self-Defense Pt. 1

At a recent class at The Range at Austin, a student asked me about using a flashlight for self-defense while carrying concealed. My first response: are you carrying a good handheld light? My second: do you understand its importance?

Let There Be Light!

Consider the general utility of a good handheld light for a moment; how you can use it to find lost items inside your car, light-up your trip to the trash cans, look down your sick kid’s throat, etc. And unlike your firearms, “gun-free zones” don’t apply to flashlights. You can take one almost anyplace.

Now consider the possibility of using a flashlight as an impact weapon. They’re generally extremely sturdy metal rods. Some also have a crenulated bezel to increase the damage a strike can inflict on an attacker. Along with a knife, flashlights are an ideal everyday dual-purpose defensive tool.

When it comes to combining a flashlight with armed defense, know this: even though it’s hard to find yourself in a completely dark environment, it’s easy to find yourself someplace where you cannot identify a potential threat with 100 percent certainty. Is that someone coming at you or someone trying to move by you? There’s a big difference.

Identify the Unknown ASAP

I don’t see any compelling reason you can’t pull your handheld light out — even during daytime conditions — when things just don’t feel right.

When you become aware of a potential threat that you can’t initially decipher, you can use your flashlight to scan and, potentially, thwart, without having it in a “shoot ready” position. In fact, during the initial moments of an unknown encounter, it may be prudent to hold a light in your hand long before you can justify having a gun in your hand.

Light Up Their Life

When you decide to illuminate the unknown you must do so so you can positively identify friend from foe. Your technique should illuminate the unknown with enough light to see what you need to see to choose whether or not to employ lethal force.

Start big. Light up their center mass, so you can get a general picture of who’s ahead: where they’re moving, how fast they’re moving, how they’re dressed, whether or not their alone, their body posture. Then aim at their hands, scanning for a weapon. If the unknown person turns out to be harmless, finish with an apology for temporarily blinding the suspect.

If the situation becomes a worst case scenario, transition to your draw stroke — while maintaining the tactical advantage provided by a blinding, high intensity light. Your one-hand clearance method better be legit.

The real question: do you keep the light trained on the bad guy or extinguish it?

There’s no one “right” answer. That decision depends on what you saw in the first few moments that convinced you to draw your handgun. Factors like distance, action and whether you can move and move to a better location help determine the right course of action. The bottom line:  the situation will dictate.

There’s plenty more to discuss about flashlights and self-defense. For now, remember that a good handheld light should be in everyone’s load out. It could well be the difference between life and death.


Jeff Gonzales is a former US. Navy SEAL and preeminent weapons and tactics instructor. He brings his Naval Special Warfare mindset, operational success and lessons learned unapologetically to the world at large. Currently he is the Director of Training at The Range at Austin. Learn more about his passion and what he does at


  1. avatar BLovinghui says:

    My first move when confronting an unknown threat in darkened conditions is to flash them.
    Okay, I got this.

  2. avatar Madcapp says:

    Don’t bring a flashlight to a frying pan fight.

  3. avatar Joe R. says:


    If blinded by anothers (or your own light, e.g., reflected in a mirror) you can illuminate a dark room momentarily, and your ability to see in the dark will return.

    1. avatar Joe R. says:

      That didn’t come out sounding right.

      If you lose your natural night vision by having a bright light shined in your eyes, you can quickly restore it by shining a light away from you and looking at / into the lighted area.

      1. avatar Baldwin says:

        Ummm, no. No such thing as “quickly” restored night vision. Artificial illumination of the object/space in question is now “necessary” due to your loss of night vision which “will” now take quite a long time to recover. Additionally, most all urban scenarios negate night vision from the get-go. Carry a light, use a light. Lights are your friend.

  4. avatar Lnjk says:

    I carry a jetbeam C8 with a window breaking attachment on it’s end. As a defensive weapon, it gets the’point’ across, as well as being an excellent illumination source.

  5. avatar Gilbert says:

    Yes, part of my EDC is a momentary-on, on, 90 lumen Steamlight 66118 penlight – about the size of a Sharpie.
    2 – AAA alkaline batteries.
    90 lumens is not super bright, but within a few feet in your eyes, it’s not comfortable at all.
    Favorite part, other than really small, is the momentary on feature – light press and it’s on, let go, it’s off.
    Under $ 20.00

    1. avatar BLovinghui says:

      Use good quality batteries! I killed the same light with cells that corroded it straight to hell.
      Now replaced with a Streamlight ProTac 2L, better for tapping against a temple if need be.

    2. avatar Aaron Bennett says:

      Even 40 lumens is more than bright enough. When I thru hiked the AT in 2010, we’d regularly accidentally blind other hikers when we were eating in a group by looking up with the headlight on at the wrong time. Even on the low setting of 20 lumens it was more than enough to startle you and momentarily blind you for a few seconds.

      That was the standard for headlamps back then, they are much brighter now(unnecessarily so, in my opinion, as the battery life sucks, and I did plenty of night hikes with even a 10 lumen photon and did fine.)

      1. avatar dm says:

        There is no such thing as ‘bright enough’ when discussing the use of light for self defense. The goal is to blind the bad guy and be able to gather as much data as possible about the environment. It also has to be bright enough to overcome light barriers where you and the threat are in relative darkness but in between you is an area of bright light. Find a willing participant and have them try to use your 40 lumen light on you in such a situation and you will see how ineffective it is at doing the job. Until a flashlight replicates daylight, ‘bright enough’ wont exist.

        1. avatar Aaron says:

          I was saying it would still work and be effective, not saying you should get a dim light for self defense. It was more about the response of a guy saying 90 lumens was relatively dim.

          As I said on my hike, I’ve had plenty of headlamps shined in my eyes, they were all pretty effective. I’d use one in that situation if I had to, wouldn’t be the ideal choice.

          It’ll also hurt for a second because of the eye letting in too much light, so it would probably be effective enough. But obviously, probably isn’t good enough.

          Only problem I have with super bright flashlights is the battery life is abysmal, which would probably be ok since you would only be using it seconds to minutes, but I like longer life. From research, it seems like 150-200 lumens is the perfect amount to be plenty effective and have battery life that doesn’t render it a niche tool.

        2. avatar dm says:

          Aaron, between extremely high capacity batteries (nitecore 18650) and lights with more than one brightness setting I thinkmmost of your concerns are a thing of the past. You can get a light that has a 200-400 lumen mode for administrative tasks and a 800-1000 lumen mode for self defense purposes. Simply turn it down to look for your phone under the car seat and turn it back up before you put it back in your pocket. Even on the high with quality batteries it will still run for 1.5-2 hours.

  6. avatar Joe R. says:

    You can always throw a chemlight down a dark hall or stairwell.

    That’s not a euphemism for something.

  7. If you are going to run AA or AAA in your flashlights, be sure to run some NIMH Low Self Discharge rechargeables. Keep up to 85% of their charge after not being used for a year (great for storage in a bug out bag) and still have a large capacity. Also, you can recharge them for a lot cheaper than buying new ones.
    Eneloops, Green Duracells, etc.

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      Eneloops *seriously* kick ass…

  8. avatar OmnivorousBeorn says:

    Another reason to have a light on your EDC pistol. It simplifies things for sure.

    1. avatar BLoving says:

      Big fan of lights on “house guns”. EDC? Not so much. Too hard to find holsters that accommodate them and pointing a handheld light at a stranger likely won’tget you arrested if they turn out to be not a threat.

      1. avatar OmnivorousBeorn says:

        Light compatible holsters are harder to find, but I was talking in the context of what to do with your regular light when you draw your gun on a threat. Like, you use your regular light to identify someone, he’s a threat, you draw your gun, get rid of your light, and turn on your gun’s light. A little complex, but I’d think it’d work with practice.

        1. avatar dm says:

          That is the ideal strategy and it is well worth practicing.

  9. avatar Geoff PR says:

    Has TTAG done a flashlight roundup?

    A mix of the big-money lights and the good bang-for-the-buck lights, in a format similar to Jeremy (spoke in class today) S’s massive flash-hider roundup a while back…

    1. avatar Carrucan says:

      Hey Geoff. Kevin Felts at alloutdoor does a pretty thorough review of “tactical” flashlights. His tests include driving nails, a little stay in the creek, some freezing, and Ford F-150 drive over.

  10. avatar Mr. Woodcock says:

    Step 1: Attach flashlight to gun. Operate accordingly. Done.

    1. avatar Anner says:

      For an HD weapon, absolutely.

      For EDC, maybe. Even if I had a light on my EDC pistol (sometimes I do), I’d still have a separate flashlight. Two main reasons:
      1. I use a flashlight far more in everyday situations than in defensive situations, to illuminate dark areas. I don’t want to draw and/or muzzle the world when I just need to find the vehicle keys I dropped between the seats of my vehicle.
      2. Sometimes I must leave my pistol behind, such as walking into a govt building or through TSA. I can still have 200L and a defensive instrument that looks appears harmless.

      1. avatar dm says:

        Run both! With the plethera of custom kydex from quality makers out there and the fact that the lumen war is being won by streamlight, it is cheaper and easier than ever to get the brightest wml available and edc it.

  11. avatar strych9 says:

    They certainly make a good impact weapon in a pinch.

    I watched a bar fight at one point where a gangbanger took a Surefire E2D Defender to the head, which stopped the fight right there. Made the banger super easy to identify too. One of the cops came in and asked the older gentleman if he had hit the gangbanger with a Surefire, the old guy said yes and asked how the cop knew what flashlight it was. The cop pulled out his own light, said that he carried the same light and therefore he knew what the glassbreak markings looked like on a person.

    1. avatar Jon in CO says:

      I love that light. I lost one working one day. Super pissed about it. Now I rock the streamlight protac 1L

      1. avatar strych9 says:

        I have a decent collection of Surefire lights but their proclivity to grow legs convinced me to relegate them to the house, cars and camping trips and carry something a bit cheaper so that I wouldn’t really mind if it disappeared.

        Ended up settling on the Fenix PD22.

  12. avatar AndrewC says:

    When I can’t actually be armed, I have a Fenix PD35 TAC. 1000 lumens of strobe in the face will disorient most anyone. It seems like it would be pretty good for striking too.

    1. avatar CueBaller says:

      Exactly what I carry as well!

      One rechargeable battery which can provide over an hour of life at the full 1000 lumens is good enough for me.

      I bought mine close to a year ago and have been using the 60 lumen setting for the occasional times I need to actually us a flashlight, and have yet to recharge the battery.

  13. avatar Honzo says:

    My expectations with carrying a larger flashlight (3 CR123A cell type) onto airplanes has been very good. I have had to temporarily surrender it on entering a local government building as they said it may be used as a striking weapon. But if you are at all visually challenged, you should be able to request a temporary replacement (as with canes) to enable you to see printed materials more clearly. If they say no, mention the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). At that point you are justified in requesting they let you keep your flashlight with you (I think).

  14. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    How to Use a Flashlight for Armed Self-Defense:
    (1) Use flashlight to illuminate deadly attacker.
    (2) Point firearm at deadly attacker.
    (3) Pull trigger.
    (4) Keep pulling trigger until the attacker is no longer a threat.

    Too simple?

  15. avatar explainist says:

    I got 2 different light training stories in one day a while back:

    A guy who trains cops said there are three zones to a flashlight beam: Spot, corona and spill. The spot is obviously the center, the corona is the bright spot around the spot, the spill is barely light. This “expert” said put the spot on the ground, search with the corona and spill. If you use the spot your eyes adapt to that much light and you miss things in the corona and spill. If you search with the corona and spill you get as much light over more area as you can, and your eyes adapt to what you have.

    A guy from Bawlamer gave me Bawlamer scumbag light training: hold the light by the head, make a tunnel with your hand, sweep it over countertops and into drawers. swinging it around horizontally is like waving a flag, keep it upright and down low.

    I have one of these hot rods. You can stand at a mine entrance – spare me the adit BS, this is not a crossword puzzle – and light up the end of a 1/4 mile tunnel. In the eyes at close range, it is practically a weapon:

  16. avatar Kidevu says:

    I really like the Streamlight ProTac 2L with a DIY retention ring.

  17. avatar dm says:

    Get the brightest light you can and carry it. Upon entering a location where you may need it (parking structure, dimly lit sidewalk etc) be sure to have it in hand. A properly bright light will allow use of the hotspot for removing the visual horizon of the unknown while using the spill to check hands and waistband for weapons. If they arent a threat, apologize for the temporary blinding and be on your way. If they are a threat, ideally you would maintain light control with the handheld while drawing and either putting rounds on or switching light control from handheld to wml so you can pocket the handheld and gain a proper two handed grip. All that said, the situation will dictate the pace and step skipping that may need to occur. (Especially if you negelcted to have the light in hand)

    1. avatar strych9 says:


      Lights have a lot of variance to them and “MOAR LUMENS” is not the end-all-be-all answer.

      A bright light, in the 200-300 lumen range with a quality reflector that doesn’t have a central spot or “hot spots” is vastly superior to a 1000 lumen light with a garbage reflector.

      What kind of sights you use will also affect what kind of light you want as red-dot sights will washout with ultra bright lights and become basically useless.

      There’s a hell of a lot more to light selection than brightness.

      1. avatar dm says:

        Lux is also a highly important metric, but it isnt generally advertised on most lights so we must default to lumens. It is crucial to have an intensely bright hotspot and sufficient spill to search waistlines and hands while maintaining light control. Provided it meets those criteria, and is sufficiently durable for the intended use the more lumens the better.

  18. avatar Pete says:

    I have carried a Surefire M6 when stopping at night to gas up in less friendly states.
    Guaranteed to leave someone blinded for a few seconds.

  19. avatar Jimmy James says:

    Check your EDC light often and carry a set of spare batteries. Had a Eotech and Surefire EDC light DOA on me the other day with Surefire batteries. Thankfully i was doing my monthly check and not deploying the weapon or light in an emergency.

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

button to share on facebook
button to tweet
button to share via email