Night Shooting: The Thrill And Challenge of Low-Light Target Training

“Shooters, welcome to your dim light course of fire.” Those words take me back a few decades to the various training and shooting schools I attended as a tactical operator. They were the good old days when life seemed considerably simpler than it is now. But then, don’t we always look at the years gone past in that way?

But I digress. Why might we want to concern ourselves about shooting in low light conditions? Statistics show that up to 90% of law enforcement shootings take place in low-light conditions. That’s significant, and even if we allow for a 10% error in those figures, it still indicates that the vast majority of lethal force encounters occur during low light.

I’ll concede that a large portion of our readers may not be law enforcement, but even if that’s the case, we all have one thing in common: we prepare ourselves to defend ourselves and our loved ones against criminals. And criminals often use the cover of darkness to carry out their dastardly, devilishly, deceptive, dirty deeds.


It is often assumed that low light or dark conditions mean that we are operating at night, but such is not necessarily the case. Sometimes, our travels take us into buildings that might not have windows to let light in—think of basements, corridors, etc. If there is a power failure or the lights are otherwise turned off or disabled, we could find ourselves quickly in the dark.

Night time police activity.
Low-light engagements don’t just happen at night; some occur in darkened buildings. In urban environments, it is rarely completely dark, as there are almost always ambient light sources present. Photo by Istockhpoto.


There are several different levels of lighting that can be discussed. They are bright, medium, and low light. And then there is no light. Some conditions are backlit, and others might experience offset lighting. It’s a lot more than just light and dark.


There are a couple of approaches to training in dim light. For line staff annual qualifications, my agency issued dark goggles that we donned rather than taking officers out in darkened conditions. The lenses were dark green in color and meant to be worn in bright light to simulate darkened conditions. It turned out to be a joke, as the lenses scarcely simulated darkness, instead resembling the lenses of sunglasses. It really didn’t seem like it was nighttime in the least.

For tactical training, the department really did put us into actual scenarios at night, so that training was far more realistic. I’ve always said, “There’s no substitute for the real thing.”

A night time course of fire.
Law enforcement should regularly conduct dim light courses of fire. Extreme caution has to be taken to ensure no one wanders down range when they shouldn’t. It’s not as out of the question as it might seem. Photo by Michael Szpak.

Practical vs Impractical

During one private shooting school in particular that I attended, we ran an interesting drill for low light. It was inside an indoor shooting range. The scenario started off with each shooter being surrounded by other students with large pads. When the whistle blew, the students would close in, and the shooter would have to deliver strikes as hard as he could to the pads that the surrounding assailants had.

After 30 seconds of that (it was disorienting), we were spun in a circle by an instructor to make us dizzy, after which we moved to a chair where our handgun was kept (for safety reasons, we didn’t want to go through the striking scenario with a live weapon). Upon accessing the handgun, we had to engage a target in very dim light and perform a headshot (the other students would move back to a safe point while this was going on). Scoring a headshot in low light after going through all of that was a very interesting feat to pull off!

Other Examples

That’s just one example of a drill that can be done. Some other scenarios involve shooting a standard course of fire but in drastically reduced light. Variations can involve shooters using flashlights. Some agencies bring a squad car onto the range and turn on the emergency lights, which makes it difficult to adjust the shooters’ eyes and still engage targets.

Night time sniper target.
This is a target that the author engaged at 100 yards from an elevated tower on a sniper course at night, with only moonlight illuminating the target. The bullet impact is above the subject’s left eye. Photo: Jim Davis.

As part of sniper training, we spent some time at night practicing shots. One particular occasion sticks out in my mind, in which there was a good amount of moonlight. We had to scale a 25-foot tower and engage a hostile target 100 yards away, shooting the target in the No-Reflex Zone (the medulla oblongata). We did not have the benefit of night vision at the time (the agency was researching to obtain it, and this was in the mid-1990s), so we used our standard Leupold 3.5-10x Tactical scopes mounted on a Remington 700P in .308 Winchester.

When we backed the magnification down to six or seven power, the scopes allowed us to see surprisingly well at night. I was able to put a round into the head of my target fairly easily.

Comfort Level & Training

The idea is to get each student to the point where they are comfortable operating in low-light conditions. There are considerations that make operating in such environments unique.

Consider that being involved in an actual shooting in a well-lit environment is extremely stressful. A major consideration is the background behind your target, in that you have to make sure that there are no friendly people who might be hit by the rounds that you unleash toward the target. With the effects of adrenaline on your body and mind, such as tunnel vision, that’s a difficult task to perform in the best conditions. We typically tend to fixate on the target.

Now, add very low light to the equation. Between the adrenaline dump, the lack of light, and the presence of shadows, you might have a very difficult time seeing what’s beyond your target. Are you beginning to see how difficult this might be?

Those who want to practice a bit without danger should go into a safe area with some flashlights and experiment a little. You don’t necessarily even need to have firearms with you; just see how the lights work and practice looking beyond the target to see how the background appears. Experiment with various lighting conditions and flashlights. There’s a lot you can do without necessarily having to fire rounds. This will help familiarize people with how light can be used to defeat darkness.

Safety First!

This is serious training in that someone could become dead very easily, especially if it’s a truly no-light scenario. Running a firing line full of shooters can be nerve-wracking. Doing it at night, with practically zero visibility, is enough to make anyone nervous.

Let’s say we’re operating in complete darkness. Everyone has to remain at the firing line and only move forward when ordered by the instructors. A student wandering in front of the line without anyone else knowing could easily be up there when the line begins firing again, which could end in fatality. And it’s not as far-fetched as one might imagine.

Our instructors had glow sticks, which made it easier for us to see their hand signals. They also used a bullhorn to communicate with the line so we could all hear with our ear protection in place.

For every one of our firing lines, each student could call an immediate cease-fire in the event of an emergency by yelling, “RED!”

Everyone involved was also issued hand-held flashlights in the event of an emergency.


One of the factors that can become an issue is the muzzle flash from our firearms. Pistols, rifles, and shotguns can present us with different muzzle flashes; some are mild, while others are pronounced.

Dim light scenario with flashlights.
Buildings can be completely dark, even during daylight hours. Running low-light scenarios can be an important part of training. Approximately 90% of law enforcement shootings occur in low-light conditions. Photo: Katie Davis.

Night sights that glow with tritium are nice to have on our firearms and allow us to see those sights even in total darkness. However, they obviously don’t help to illuminate our target. And if we can’t see what or who our target is, then we can’t identify whether or not it’s a threat. Having a light source is paramount.

And not just one light source, for a couple of reasons. First, one light could go down, in which case we need to have a backup. Beyond that, if we’re using a weapon-mounted light (WML), it’s not safe to search an area with that light because we’d be pointing our weapon at potentially friendly people in the area, and that’s not good. We search with a hand-held light and engage with the WML.

Final Thoughts

Training in low-light conditions is a very good thing to experience and practice, given the percentage of criminal acts that take place in dim light. Target shooting in these conditions can also be more fun and exhilarating.

Shooting at night, steel targets and bowling pins.
Training at night doesn’t have to be all about being tactical – sometimes, it’s just fun to engage targets in low light. This sort of shooting definitely adds an element of exhilaration that many people aren’t accustomed to. Photo: Jim Davis.

However, we must take the utmost precautions when doing so. Communication is absolutely vital on the firing line in dim light/dark conditions. Utilizing glow sticks can also help shooters remain visible. Everyone must be briefed on procedures beforehand, clearly understand them, and adhere to them. The buddy system can also help ensure that no one goes down range when they shouldn’t.

As long as we keep safety foremost in our minds, training in reduced light can be exciting and fun, not to mention a vital skill-building exercise.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities. He is a dedicated Christian and attributes any skills that he has to the glory of God.

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