How To Set Up Your Rifle Lights

A pistol light pulling double duty as a 9 o'clock mounted rifle light. With this rail and barrel combo, expect shadows at the 3 o'clock.
A pistol light pulling double duty as a 9 o’clock mounted rifle light. With this rail and barrel combo, expect shadows at the 3 o’clock.

So when last we met, we discussed setting up optics and iron sights on your rifle.  This week, let’s talk about lights.  I personally believe that lights are essential for any rifle used for self-defense or law enforcement.  While they can have drawbacks (improper use can alert your adversary to your location and movement), you need to be able to identify your target before you engage it, and you can’t identify it if you can’t see it.  There are any number of reputable light manufacturers in the United States today, so I won’t focus on recommending specific lights.  Instead, I’ll focus on the practical aspects of setting up your lights – considerations for picking a light and considerations for mounting a light.

A handheld 3-cell flashlight in a forward-set mount that helps minimize shadows. The controls are press for momentary, click for constant on.
A handheld 3-cell flashlight in a forward-set mount that helps minimize shadows. The controls are press for momentary, click for constant on.

As with anything, mission drives the gear.  For example, if you’re focusing on home defense and you most likely won’t be spending a lot of time having to carry your gun, you may opt for a larger, heavier flashlight with more lumens.  If you’re focusing on patrol, working a perimeter, or spending hours clearing rooms in a team, you may want to compromise on a light with fewer lumens, but less weight you have to lug around, such as a single CR123 light.  Rail real estate might also be a consideration.  A rifle with a carbine length gas system and fixed front sight base only has about 7 inches of real estate per rail, and when you look at the gear that may need to be mounted – such as a sling swivel, possibly a laser aiming device, flashlight, maybe a tape switch, foregrip – that seven inches can get filled up really quickly, so a smaller light not only shaves weight, but real estate demands.  If you have a rail system that runs almost to the muzzle, however, you have all the space in the world for accessories and size may not be such a concern (don’t get carried away – just because you have space doesn’t mean it has to be filled).  How do you want to control the light?  Some weapons lights are available with tape switches, some have only push buttons/levers.  Some (most) have momentary and constant on modes, but how do you activate those two functions – twist, push, tape?

Pistol light in the 12 o'clock position.
Pistol light in the 12 o’clock position.

The considerations for choosing a light also play into the mounting of the light.  A longer barrel with a short rail can lead to shadows opposite the light’s mounting position – a light mounted on the left side of the gun can cast a shadow on objects on the right side (three o’clock) and vice versa.  A longer rail can help with this issue, allowing the light to be mounted much farther forward (shorter barrels work too, but they’re not always an option).  Mounting the light higher, close to the twelve o’clock position can help by pushing the shadow down toward the five to seven o’clock area depending on mounting side.  While you will still have a shadow, light will be available in the upper and side portions of your viewing area, allowing you to see hands, weapons, facial features, identification, etc.  Some shooters like to mount the light on the top rail at the twelve o’clock position, but this can be detrimental or impossible depending on your front sight base, rails, and optic setup (a lower mounted optic’s field of view would be partially obscured by a twelve o’clock mount).

Three different light positions, from L to R: 9 o'clock mount, 12 o'clock mount, mounted at muzzle.
Three different light positions, from L to R: 9 o’clock mount, 12 o’clock mount, mounted at muzzle.
The 12 o'clock mount as viewed through a lower 1/3 cowitness. If the optic were mounted lower, the light would impinge on field of vision.
The 12 o’clock mount as viewed through a lower 1/3 cowitness. If the optic were mounted lower, the light would impinge on field of vision.

If longer rails, shorter barrels, or twelve o’clock mounting are all out of the question, the use of a mount that sets the light forward at the one or eleven o’clock positions are an option.  If you choose to run a tape switch, where will you mount the switch?  You could mount it on a vertical foregrip (VFG), or you could mount it on a rail.  Mounting it on the foregrip means you’ll need a solid grip there to activate it, whereas mounting on a rail means you could use the C-grip (not the crazy, over-the-top-locked-out one) and still activate your light easily.  Mounting on the top rail would also allow you to activate the light with either hand if you need to switch shoulders.  If you decide to run a push-button light, can you activate it with either hand?

Dedicated rifle light mounted at the 11 'clock, just behind the muzzle. Pressure pad control is mounted at 12 o'clock.
Dedicated rifle light mounted at the 11 ‘clock, just behind the muzzle. Pressure pad control is mounted at 12 o’clock.

My personal setup is a single CR123 light mounted at the eleven o’clock, almost even with the muzzle device.  This eliminates almost all shadow from the barrel/muzzle device.  It has a tape switch momentary activation, which I have mounted at the twelve o’cock.  It also has the capability of a twist constant on if the pressure pad fails.  I use a modified C-grip, with my last three fingers of my hand on the VFG, my index under the rail, and my thumb on top of the rail.  The twelve o’clock allows me to activate the light with my thumb no matter which hand is on the VFG.

As always, I hope this has been useful to you.  There are a lot of variables when choosing a weapon light, and lights aren’t cheap.  Think carefully about your requirements, try out your buddy’s lights if you can, and make an informed purchase, then get out there and practice your manipulation!

About the author

Joel is an 11 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.

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