High-intensity crimefighting with next-generation strobe lights

By Ralph Mroz
Reprinted with permission from Police & Security News

The Blackhawk Gladius is a full-featured strobing high-intensity light with an array of programmable features.
Every so often a new tactical technology comes down the pike and generates a lot of hype. And some of this new stuff is actually very useful, and becomes part of the standard tactical kit. Remember when tritium sights, red-dot optics, and lasers were new?  How about small high-intensity lights, high-performance ammunition, wicking underwear, or even body armor?  Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s a gimmick. In fact, in just the last 15 years we’ve seen significant innovation in tactical tools…innovation that’s practical and saves lives!

The latest technology is strobing lights. If you haven’t seen them, we’re talking about variations of small high-intensity lights that have strobing capability. Sounds cool of course, but the obvious question is: what benefits does strobing provide?  Here are some of the claims made:

  1. Causes disorientation and blinding
  2. Causes peripheral vision disabling
  3. Limits the ability to get accurate fire on you
  4. Induces fear and/or indecision

What’s the truth? Well, I can’t say what the absolute, final, objective, statistically valid truth is. I can only tell you about my experiences and those of my colleagues who have worked with strobing lights. Manufacturers are in the process of rolling these lights out now, and we are just gaining a significant amount of street experience with them. My reference to “statistically valid” results was deliberate. Because whatever street experience show us over the next couple years, it will most certainly be of the statistical kind. That is, different situations will produce different kinds of results on different suspects. There won’t ever be “the conclusive answer”, but hopefully we will arrive at recognizable statistical trends.

Disorientation and blinding of suspects   Yes, this one is definitely true. There’s a reason that strobe lights are used on dance floors, and it’s not because it makes the whole experience more rational, lucid and clear. They are used for the same reason that alcohol is served in clubs—to put your mind into a different state than normal. This one is easy to verify. Just flash a strobing light at a buddy and vice versa. Better yet, do so unexpectedly while they are trying to perform a moderately complex task—like attacking you. They will likely stop in their tracks…the first time, anyway. (Like anything except a Taser or a kick to the jewels, once you are used to something or expect it, you can usually work through it.)  They will also be blinded by the very bright white light that’s strobing—we’re all familiar with the blinding effect of 60 or more lumens in the eyes of a suspect. The strobe adds disorientation to the blinding. The tactical advantages of this are obvious. And this effect alone is enough to justify the carrying of a strobe, in my opinion.

Peripheral vision disabling
Yes to this as well. I have experienced this effect both from the disabler’s position and the "disablee’s." I don’t know the science behind it, but it is true, and it’s easy to verify with three people. In a dark room, you and your partner stand together as you strobe a third person across the room. As you begin to strobe, have your partner approach the third person (who’s playing a suspect) from a 30-degree or more angle. Your partner will be right on top of the suspect before they know they are there. Then try the same thing with a constant-on light of the same intensity. You won’t get the same result—it’s not too difficult for the suspect to see your partner approaching. The tactical advantages of this benefit—in terms of apprehension or even getting your partner into position to take a critical shot—are also obvious, but to take advantage of it you will have to have a partner that you work with enough to know what’s going on and what to do. This applies to some of us and not to others.

Inability of the bad guy to get accurate fire on you 
Yes, to an extent, in my limited experience. It is harder for me to get a bead on a strobing light—because it appears to be moving—than it is on a stationary bright light. And if you move or jiggle the strobing light, more so. Part of the debilitating effect on the bad guy/shooter is also the disorientation that the strobe induces (see point one above.)  I suspect that if the shooter/bad guy was in a state of fear, that both of these effects (disorientation and inability to aim) would be enhanced. However, a strobing light is still a light, and if the bad guy points his gun in the direction of your light, which even with a strobing light can be done, his bullet will still go somewhere near it—and you. The beneficial effect of the strobing light in this regard (disallowing accurate fire) would thus seem to be proportional to the distances involved and the cover used. Field experience over the next several years will tell us more here.

Induces fear and/or indecision in the bad guy
Fear, I don’t know about. Indecision, however: yes. I suspect that the indecision is related to disorientation, but you definitely see a “What the f***?” look in suspect’s (and role-players) faces the first time you hit their eyes with a strobe. You seem to gain a second or two or even more of inaction on many suspect’s parts with the strobe, whatever the phiso-psychlogical mechanism.

Notice that I said “the first time” when describing these results. You can get used to them, and their effect diminishes, although even with frequent flyers, we probably won’t be strobing them so often in a short period of time that this learning curve will kick in to any great extent. And from spending two days in the dark with other role-players on both ends of a strobing light, I can also say that the debilitating effects do not completely go away—the strobe is always an advantage.

Bottom line 
What I can say at this point is that being on the receiving end of a strobing hand-held light is more uncomfortable and more debilitating than getting a blast of bright white light alone. The person behind the light buys themselves a second or two—in some cases maybe more—of time in which the suspect’s mind is trying to orientate itself to this new state that the light has induced. A couple seconds is an eternity in a survival event. As the person behind the strobing light, I am much less affected by it, if at all. So I do believe in the devices, and predict they will become commonplace as their worth is proved. As this happens, we will learn much more about their effective use as the volume of field experience come in.

Most people have heard that some people prone to seizures, such as epileptics, many have seizures triggered by a strobing light. This is theoretically possible but highly unlikely. Such people can have seizures triggered by strobes of intensity and strobe rate that vary widely, and even the flickers of TV screens can trigger seizures in some susceptible people. Video games, flickering sunlight, and the strobing effect of car headlights passing by fence posts can have the same unlikely effect. The fact is that only a tiny fraction of people with epilepsy are in danger to strobe-induced seizures and only a fraction of them are in the gender and age demographic that we deal with the most. Further, the most likely strobe rate to induce these unlikely seizures is 15-20 flashes per second, well above the strobe rate of the two lights discussed below.

Two strobing hand-held lights have appeared on the market recently, composing the first-generation of these devices: the Gladius from Blackhawk’s NightOps division, and the Lightsaver, distributed by Gunfighters, Ltd.

The Gladius is an 80+ lumen LED hand-held, aluminum-bodied light running on two standard CR123A batteries. With a bezel and tailcap diameter of 1.25-inches and a body that’s 1-inch in diameter and an overall length of 6.23-inches, the Gladius is slightly larger than the industry-standard size of the original Surefire 6P. (It thus requires a pouch or holster that will fit it properly. Blackhawk makes two: a plastic holster and a nylon pouch.)   The Gladius is highly shock-resistant and features an exceptional beam quality. As you might imagine, the Gladius is weapon-mountable and Blackhawk has a lot of options and features coming down the pike for this light.

The Gladius is a complex device with many different modes  The rotating tailcap switch has four positions: momentary on, strobe, constant-on and lock-out. You have to select the action you want by rotating the tailcap, then depressing the button on the tailcap. If you are in constant-on mode and keep the tailcap button depressed, the LED will power down from 80 lumens to about one lumen. The level that you stop the dimming at becomes the new default level that the light come on at in constant-on mode (strobe and momentary-on modes are always at full power.)  You can interrupt the dimming process by releasing the tailcap and holding it down, causing the light to power up. If the light is dimmed and you want full power, then quickly press the tailcap switch twice.

Don’t like those default settings?  There are two other software programmable modes you can choose from. You can choose the lowest brightness as the default constant-on level, or you can make the initial brightness of the constant-on mode be the last level you left it at. You jump from one of these modes to another by holding the tailcap down until the light blinks twice, then repeat. Repeating this two-step process cycles the light through the 3 modes. There are other options on the light as well. It also incorporates intelligent heat and power management, letting you know, for example that the batteries are getting low by flashing twice every 15 seconds.

If that sounds complicated, it is. It takes time to learn. The good news its that is offers a range of light options for a wide range of tactical situations. For a well-trained operator who practices with the full range of the Gladius’ modes, it can become second nature. For someone who only uses one or two of the light’s capabilities most of the time, getting to and from other modes of operation can be easily forgotten. Which isn’t bad except for one drawback—namely that for such a person it’s possible to get the Gladius into an unintended state that you can’t get out of in the middle of a fast-developing situation.

The pluses of the Gladius are that it’s extremely well made and well-designed, it has a wide range of light options, and it’s faster strobe rate seems to be somewhat more effective on most of the people I’ve tested it on, although strobe rate effectiveness is probably an individual thing. (Blackhawk declines to disclose the strobe rate of the Gladius, but it obviously faster than the Lightsaver’s 7.5 flashes per second (hertz), and the Blackhawk website says it’s less than 15 hertz. My best guess is that it’s in the 10 to 12 hertz range.)  Potential issues with the Gladius are that it’s complicated to master, the tailcap rotational direction may not be equally intuitive when you switch hands, and it’s expensive (with a list price of $250 and a street price closer to $200). In the druthers department, I wish the rotational cap had lands instead of grooves for friction with your thumb and finger as they rotate the cap.

The Lightsaver LS-162, a strobing light designed and manufactured in South Africa, is distributed in the United States by Gunfighters, Ltd. At 4.5-inches in length and about 1-inch in diameter, it is much more like the size of the standard Surefire 6P. It, too, is aluminum-bodied, runs on two CR123A batteries, and has an LED light source (this one is 75 lumens.)   The Lightsaver’s operation is quite simple. A quick pressing and release of the tailcap button switch provides constant-on light. Repeat and the light goes off. Pressing and keeping the switch pressed however, causes the light to strobe at about 7.5 times a second. That’s it—two modes. You cannot dim the light, and it lacks a momentary-on capability.

This lack of a momentary-on mode it the first thing that everyone picks up on when they first examine the light. Lou Chiodo, now retired from the California Highway Patrol, is the owner of Gunfighters, Ltd. By choice he spent most of his 23-year career with CHP on the midnight shift, so he literally depended on a flashlight to save his life. He has sold a lot of the Lightsavers to his students (Lou is a nationally known firearms trainer), and says that momentary-on capability is easily and intuitively achieved by quickly turning the light on then off. He says that yes, momentary-on capability would be nice, but the work-around is easy and well worth the strobing capability.

In contrast to the Gladius, which tried to pack as much tactical capability into a hand-held package as possible, the Lightsaver strives for simplicity. The opinion I came to, as well as the opinion of the colleagues that I’ve shared both lights with, is that the Gladius is a great tool for a dedicated tactical officer who has the greater need for all of its capabilities and will dedicate the time to learning its operation, while the Lightsaver is well suited to the average officer who usually needs only a light or a strobing light. After all, the real advantage of a momentary switch is in blink and move applications, and these are usually building searches. Also, the Lightsaver is less expensive, with a current price of $95 from Gunfighters. Ltd. (including batteries and shipping.)  I did find the faster strobe rate of the Gladius to be slightly more effective on me (but recall that effectiveness probably varies from person to person). In the druthers department, I found that the Lightsaver’s tailcap switch was so recessed that my thumb had to work to activate it.

The Gladius and the Lightsaver are the two virgin entries in an exciting new tactical tool category. Those of us with a penchant for experimenting now have the opportunity to try out this completely non-injurious force option on our customers, and to develop a body of training and application knowledge around this new capability.
It going to be fun!

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