An Interview with Erick Gelhaus
by Gila Hayes
Armed citizens began to feel Erick Gelhaus’ influence in the early 2000s when his knowledgeable posts earned a strong following on Internet bulletin boards including The Firing Line where his commentary reality-checked use of force topics, especially by law enforcement. He later became a gun writer for S.W.A.T. Magazine. We introduced readers to him in 2020 when he gave a frank interview (https://armedcitizensnetwork.org/lessons-in-preparation) about the aftermath of an on-duty shooting.
Since then, Gelhaus has shouldered editorial responsibilities at the FMG online publication American COP. Unlike law enforcement publications of the past, the content at https://americancop.com/ is not restricted to police. Much is applicable to armed citizens, and of interest to gun enthusiasts. My attention was drawn to one of his columns discussing low light issues and later a gear column that covered flashlights. He graciously agreed to answer my questions on the two subjects. He was quick to stress that the tactics and techniques we were discussing were not all his own. “I’ve learned from classes with Ken Good, Steve Fisher, Aaron Cowen, and from the folks I have taught with at Gunsite, as well as my own experiences,” he noted. Network members may find our chat as educational and useful as I did, so we switch now to our familiar interview format.
eJournal: Why is darkness so disorienting to so many of us? The sun is not up for about half of our lives so we should be used to the dark! Why do we need to carry a flashlight?
Gelhaus: Humans are daylight creatures. We are not like some of the other animals that have eyes set up to function at night. Our eyes are just not set up to do that. When it got dark, we retreated into our caves, we retreated into our huts, we closed the doors, we lit the fire and we stayed indoors until the sun came up the next morning. We don’t function well in a dark environment. We depend a whole lot on our eyes. Take away the light and it gets confusing.
There are a lot of different things we do using light. Whether I am in my house or outside, I am trying to identify things; I am trying to find things. I am navigating. I can control people to a degree with the light. I can control them, too, by taking away information by working behind that light, and I can communicate. For example, I can point that light at something that I want someone else to see. I might say, “See what my light is pointing at? Watch that door,” or I might say, “Go down this trail,” pointing with the light.
eJournal: Although it was your columns in American COP magazine that drew my attention to this topic, the need to function with limited light is not only the bailiwick of law enforcement. We ordinary citizens may need to navigate, gather information, and make decisions without much light available.
Gelhaus: The disconnect between the cop world and decent, normal human beings is that cops have to go look for folks in low light. We have to go find the bad people and that is where we have our own set of problems. Getting back to decent, normal human beings, if you look at Tom Givens’ work, none of his 68 students who have been in shootings required flashlights. I think that’s because if you are going to be a victim, there has had to have been enough light for the bad guy to decide you are going to be a victim. If there is enough light for the bad guy to figure out that you have failed the victim selection process that day, then there is enough light for you to figure out that is the bad guy.
eJournal: Unless you’re at home, asleep in your bed and awaken to the sound of footsteps in the hall…
Gelhaus: Look at Claude Werner’s work about the percentage of bumps in the night that are not home invasion robberies or burglaries. He found that well over 95% of the bumps in the night were family members, a drunk neighbor, or a developmentally disabled person from a couple of blocks over who just found the wrong house by mistake. (Learn more at https://thetacticalprofessor.net/2015/01/10/identify-before-you-shoot/ and https://thetacticalprofessor.net/2018/12/23/the-odds-and-stakes-of-home-protection/) They are not malicious.
The alternative happened to a friend of ours with whom I did a presentation last year at Tac Con about the aftermath of shootings. It was a developmentally disabled person who forced entry into someone else’s house. That is what most of the bumps in the night are, so you had better grab a flashlight before you grab a gun, and a gun with a light on it is still a gun. A light on it doesn’t change that.
eJournal: When you teach low light shooting, what do you prioritize as the skills and abilities your students need?
Gelhaus: First, just paying attention to their surroundings. I use an example when I teach at Gunsite because everybody who goes there sees it. There is a gas station in Chino Valley and right next to it is a Chase Bank. Look at the light from the front of the store and look where the light dies off. Look at what is going on at the edge of where that light dies off. Who is out there? Pay attention to who is standing in the shadows at the edge of the light when you roll in to get gas or a container of milk.
Pay attention when you roll up to use the ATM at the bank next door. That bank is very well lit around the ATM, but eventually that light dies off. Who is at the edge of that light? Who is on the other side of the parking lot when you roll into the ATM? That’s when decent, normal human beings are going to have problems – when someone is going to try to rob you. If the hair on the back of your neck stands up and if a little voice says, “Excuse me! We do not want to be here right now,” go find another ATM.
Second, have a light. It does not have to be one of these crew-served things [holds up two large flashlights], it can be a little pocket light like the Stiletto from SureFire, but have a light. Who is on the other side of the parking lot when you roll into the ATM? Illuminate him and ask, “Hey, how’s it going?” If the person knows you are aware of them, they may not want to play anymore. They are depending on you not to pay attention.
#1 pay attention and #2 have a light.
eJournal: There are a lot of lights on the market. I’ve dumped a couple I bought because the controls were too complex. One had a strobe option that got it put away in a drawer because just my luck, I’ll inadvertently activate it. Have flashlight makers added too many options for us to use under stress?
Gelhaus: [vigorously nods head] I think multi-function buttons that do everything under the sun on a single button cause this problem. The light I use to find the keyhole when I forget to leave on the back porch light is different than the light I need to make don’t shoot/shoot decisions. When I am trying to solve problems, I want a light that gives me as much power as I can possibly get when I push one button, and I want it to go off when I let go of the button. I do not want to have to cycle through it two or three times.
If I press the tail cap button on the end of the Stiletto, I get full power, so I am going for the button on the back of it if I am trying to get enough light to make decisions. On the side, there is a button that gives me low, medium, and bright in that order. I do not want low when I am trying to figure out what that bump in the night was. I want low when I am trying to find the lock in the back door.
I am pretty agnostic about who makes my lights – I care more about what it does, although I would not depend on what’s on sale at Costco when I was making decisions that could impact my life or someone else’s life. For about 10 years I have carried a little, teeny-tiny throw-in-my-pocket light from Terralux that runs off a single CR123 battery. It has two tail caps on the back; it has a large, thick tail cap that is full power off/on. A smaller, shorter tail cap gives me strobe, but if I turn on the big tail cap first, it lets me step down or step up the light. If I grab it and I just hit the big button I get all the power it can put out. But if I need the strobe to get somebody’s attention, or I just need less light, I can get it without having to fight.
eJournal: Too bad it’s no longer made. Let’s name names – which brands are your go-to sources for lights?
Gelhaus: There are four big-name flashlight companies out there with a couple of smaller ones. Take a look at their lights and try them in the real-world environment. Get a SureFire, a Streamlight so long as you can keep the strobe from kicking on when you press the button on the back, a Modlite, or Cloud Defense and rock on.
eJournal: Sadly, there is a correlation between size and light output. Let me relate a mistake I made in a team tactics class you taught. One of the drills had partners navigate out of a dark room. For years, I have had flashlights in the car, in my backpack, in my briefcase and several at home and work, but when you sprung that drill, where do you think my flashlight was?
Gelhaus: In your backpack in the range shed.
eJournal: Right! After that, I bought several of brightest, smallest single cell rechargeable lights I could afford. Today and every day since that class, there’s a 500-600 lumen light clipped in my pocket. Thanks for that lesson. When fitting a light into every-day-all-the-time carry, it is tough to balance enough light against something that is small enough to carry. How much light is enough?
Gelhaus: There is a minimum threshold of light needed to make decisions. As we get older, we need more light to help make decisions, whether that is asking, “What is that 50 yards down the street?” while you were doing 35 miles an hour in a residential area, or “What is that down the hallway?”
The science on it says once you hit adulthood, every 13 years the amount of light you need doubles. Today, the amount of light I need is double what it was for me at 45 which was double what it was for me at 32. We have always known we needed more light as we got older, but now there is science to back it up. For me, 500 lumens is the lowest.
The minimum I would want for a “go find bad people” light – and I do differentiate it that way – is on the far side of 750 lumens and somewhere on the far side of 50,000 candela. This is where we have to talk terminology. Lumens is just the measurement of the light at some point. Candela is the strength of the light at a specific point. I call lumens “spill,” or how we fill up the room with light, and I call candela “throw” or how far out there we can project that light.
Let’s apply that to pistol lights, the smaller Streamlight TLR-7 is not a bad concealed carry pistol light. Its 500 lumens puts out sufficient light in a master bedroom or maybe in a dining room or down a residential hallway, but I would not want to go looking for bad people with that light.
The X300U-B SureFire is right at the plus side of 1000 lumens. It is strong enough to get me down a long driveway. It gives me the length of a traffic stop in the cop world, which again, normal, decent humans are not being put in that situation because usually, the problem is coming to them.
eJournal: You hit a hot button in that example: pistol-mounted lights. I’m not a fan. What are the advantages and what are the problems?
Gelhaus: I want a handheld light to go look for bad people with because Rule Two still applies. Never let your muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. I cannot just violate the rules because I have a gun with a light attached.
For the vast majority of my career, I worked nights. From 2007 until I retired in 2019, except for maybe three years, I worked cover shifts or swing shifts. I was going home between midnight and two in the morning. My off-duty gun was a mid-sized version of whatever my duty pistol was, and it almost always had a light on it. Now that I am retired, except during the 2020 riots, I am not carrying a pistol with a light on it. I carry either an M & P Compact or M & P Shield. I do not have a light on either of those guns. When I am carrying concealed, I have a handheld light with me. I think that is realistic.
eJournal: Many schools teach methods to illuminate the target with a handheld light while retaining some semblance of a two-handed grip on the gun. Does using those techniques while searching risk Rule Two violations? If we search with the gun and the light separated then need to shoot, is there time to move into a two-handed Harries or Rogers/SureFire or similar grip?
Gelhaus: If I’m searching, whether the gun is in a low ready or a compressed high ready, I am using the light with my other hand. If I find the threat, first, I am probably going to see a foot, an elbow, a leg, or a hand, rather than a whole person. Once I find them, I am going to put as much light onto that problem as I can so that I can make the best decisions possible. If that becomes a deadly force problem, the light stays on them while I bring the gun to where I can use the sights. I may not get to a Harries shooting position; I may end up having to shoot one-handed. I want to get as much light on that guy or gal as I can to make decisions, to rob them of information and to keep them from being able to see what I am doing back behind that light.
Maybe I will be working from the FBI flashlight position [raises light in non-dominant hand high above shoulder]. Maybe I am coming down to a Surefire jaw index – which is great if you’re shooting with iron sights because you can work it off the angle of your jaw. If you’re shooting with an optic, bring the light up to where the temple is on your glasses because that projects the light over the optic, so it won’t reflect off the glass.
If you can get into a traditional Harries position or other positions that folks have had their names slapped onto, rock on. I just don’t know if you are going to have that chance. If I am searching and I find a problem that requires deadly force, I may not have the time to get to one of those positions.
If I am searching from a Harries position, back of hand to back of hand, support side elbow dropped all the way down to where I get the isometric tension on the pistol that I lose by taking that support hand off the gun, I am not going to come out of that position if I find someone. I have found that I do not tend to search from that position. I tend to separate the light from the gun so that I am not getting into a Rule Two situation where I am running my muzzle everywhere my light is going.
eJournal: That is the difficulty with connecting the flashlight hand to the pistol. In the private citizen’s world – although perhaps I am overstating this concern when we are discussing an in-the-home threat – shooting or pointing a gun at someone who is not a deadly threat to you is a problem.
Gelhaus: In the current environment or in parts of the country that are dealing with overly-politicized prosecutors, I would not want to give them a test case. I would rather be able to say my light was above my shoulder or next to my jaw and my muzzle was at low ready or a high ready, but not on the bad guy or the not-sure-what-they-are guy until I had to make that decision.
eJournal: Why not just turn on the electric lights?
Gelhaus: If it works to your benefit or if you can turn on all the lights at once, that puts everyone on an equal footing. Most of the time, though, when I get to a doorway the light switch that is closest to me is going to light up the room behind me, not the one I am looking into. Now I am back lit.
Back in the 1990s, not only did you have Andy Stanford’s book on low light, but you also had Ken Good and Dave Maynard teaching at Combative Concepts, which became Surefire Institute. Andy Stanford and Ken Good developed a series of principles. Don’t back light yourself was one of those principles. If at all possible, work from the least amount of light to the most amount of light was another.
I am not saying leave all the lights out and go sneaking around the house! You cannot use deadly force on anything you cannot identify; you cannot identify anything you cannot see; you can’t see anything that is not illuminated. I am in my bedroom. It is two in the morning, and I hear the crash, boom, bang! Is it a teenager coming home or are we the victims of a hot prowl burglary? I go to the bedroom door. I have a gun in hand; I have a light in hand. If I turn on the bedroom light, I am back lit in the door, and I am not working from the least amount of light to the most amount of light.
What if I have a light for the hallway right outside the door? I can stick my hand out in the hallway to turn on the light. There is nothing wrong with that; I am not going to tell you it is a bad idea. I am just going to ask, “What is the benefit?” You already know the way around your house. What is the benefit of turning the lights on? Where is somebody likely to be that the lights are going to illuminate them to your benefit?
It’s your house. You know where the framed pictures are; you know where the mirrors are. Don’t run the flashlight across them. Have the light down at the baseboard or up on the crown molding. A light with 750 to 1,000 lumens and enough candela to throw it across the room or down the hall or fill the living room, pointed down low or up high, can illuminate everything almost to the level day light coming in open windows.
eJournal: I’ve got to ask why are people even leaving the bedroom at all? Absent a law-enforcement duty, should we hole up behind cover in the safe room unless there’s someone elsewhere in the home who an intruder may harm?
Gelhaus: I think the reason the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” exists is because we are all curious. [Sighs] I get it! You’ll go downstairs to look if you live alone and you don’t have kids and you hear something weird and the dogs are barking. I have been guilty of that myself. But if I hear the crash, boom, bang that precedes hearing somebody moving around downstairs, maybe I hear the back door shattering, or I hear the kitchen door getting kicked in, I am probably going to barricade and wait.
A couple of summers ago, during the riots, we saw people leaving their houses to go out and engage folks. It did not go well for them either in the moment or down the road as prosecutors got involved. If I do not have to go outside, why would I? I can look out windows, I can look out the peep hole in the door, I do not need to go outside to see what is going on.
eJournal: It is an interesting progression. The breakdown of law and order drives good folks to get serious about training and about gear. It comes at a time when there are so many more equipment choices than there were 40 years ago when people felt their neighborhoods were safe.
Gelhaus: I look back at the lights I had when I was in the Army, the lights I had when I was working on the ambulance, the Streamlight SL 20 I got when I was a baby cop. The stuff we had in the 1990s, made me swear off rechargeables. The big battery sticks we had in the Streamlights at work took a set very quickly. If you threw it back in the charger every time you used it, you would quickly compress the amount of charge. The new rechargeables – after battery designations went to numerical like 18350, 18650, not AA, C, or D – are amazing! We can get light output and longevity that you cannot touch with a traditional CR123 battery. We’re getting brighter lights with more lumens that are lasting longer. Don’t be afraid of the new rechargeables.
eJournal: Of course, I am old enough to remember Maglites on which we rotated the head trying to get rid of the dead spot…
Gelhaus: I remember when I first stumbled across a SureFire 6P. Sixty-five blinding lumens of tactical light! Now that is what you would use to find the key slot on the back door. Lights have come so far over time.
eJournal: I remember! When they were new, I would have gone to great lengths to get a SureFire 6P. Now, if we were to try to use a 6P to create the bounce of light that you described a few minutes ago, we would be sorely disappointed. Even the little one-cell Fenix in my pocket gives a pretty good splash off the baseboard, enough to see a foot or elbow, as you said.
Gelhaus: Being able to work that spill keeps you out of a Rule Two violation. That keeps you from running a muzzle across those more-than-95% of people you may find in your house in the dark that are not part of a home invasion. The behavior of the other 3% will make it clear that you don’t need to point the muzzle at the baseboard.
eJournal: This has been a great discussion of modern light choices, plus techniques for smart and safe use of today’s brighter lights. I appreciate being able to learn from your experiences, the wide variety of flashlights you’ve experimented with, and the way you have defined and prioritized what we need to do to stay safer when its dark.