Nothing from a Vacuum: Weapon Mounted Lights

weapon mounted lights
July 19, 2023  
|  2 Comments
Categories: Learnin'

The gear you use, just like you, has a lineage and ancestors. Take a short walk through history and learn about weapon lights. 

“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

Weapon Lights: A History

The weapon light, or appropriately weapon mounted light (WML), that currently rides on the rifles and pistols of fighting men of all types and stripes wasn’t invented in a vacuum, and it’s certainly not new. Like, really not new. To get that half thousand+ of reliable lumens in a small, durable package took a long time and a colluding set of circumstances.

Nothing from a vacuum. Weapon Mounted Lights.
This article originally ran in 2015.

What was the first weapon-mounted light? Though surely humans have been hacking each other apart by firelight and slashing with swords by torchlight since those implements were invented, we can’t really classify a campfire as a “weapon mounted light.” While a 17th-century matchlock would provide an ember of illumination, it was for the operation of the musket itself and insufficient for anything other than that.

If you’re on social media, you may have seen the image below. It reappears occasionally and makes the rounds. 

Rare flintlock pistol with a lantern attached for night hunting.
Rarissima pistola a pietra focaia per la caccia notturna. Translation from Italian: Very rare flintlock pistol for night hunting.

This is a Rarissima pistola a pietra focaia per la caccia notturna, which, at least per Google translator, means “Rare flintlock pistol for night hunting”. For a time, it was on auction at Czernys.

The pistol is estimated to be from around 1800 — the same year as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. It’s worth noting that there’s a rudimentary lens to focus the candlelight and that the entire shebang is integral to the flintlock. It’s fun to imagine the Mark Warrens and Will Pettys of the day arguing to only use candle wax derived from Sperm whales rather than beeswax because of its brighter light.

Vintage weapon light (lantern) open showing the candle inside.
Close up of the rusted flintlock and how the light is mounted.

While it was probably okay for that special purpose (lonely night hunters), it didn’t catch on. For one, it’s rather heavy and ungainly. No doubt it got hot very quickly, couldn’t be easily concealed, and when you took the time to light it, it probably stayed on for a long time. I bet reloading could get exciting too. Having one man with a lantern and another with a weapon was simply more efficient. This was developed for a special purpose. Thus, we look at this with curiosity.

But how about light bulbs?

The incandescent light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison (or, just as likely, stolen by Edison) back in 1879. The first portable battery was invented in 1888. Put the two together, and you have the flashlight, 1898.

And just fourteen years later, US Patent 1070883 was issued for a Weapon Mounted Light. More than that, it was integral to the pistol, adjustable, and activated by a pressure pad built into the grip. Per the patent, the light was designed to illuminate the target but not the shooter.

Figure 2 and 5 from the US Patent for a WML.

Here’s an excerpt from the patent:

Heretofore in the operation of firearms in a dark room or after night where there is no illumination, difficulty has been experienced in properly locating the object or target to be shot at, and any illuminant carried by the marksman results in danger to the latter.

This invention overcomes the above difliculties by providing an intermittent illumination of small character and of great density which does not illuminate the marksman, but the target exclusively, especially adaptable to protecting one from the assaults of burglars, who more commonly operate in a darkened locality.

Older style English aside, does it sound familiar?

Fred Forrester was a man well ahead of his time. I do not know if any were actually produced, nor if any survive today.

But no, this didn’t catch on. Back in the early 2000s, the issued Visible Light Illuminator (VLI) was temperamental. I can only imagine this was far worse, both in regard to durability and light output.

The ability to fight in darkness has always been a great advantage — just not one that’s come easily. Though there have been some large battles waged in the dark of night throughout history, they’re always highlighted as the exception rather than the rule. During the Great War, many advances in night fighting were made; illumination shells provided the backdrop and tracer rounds tracked the efficacy. This continued into WWII. The Japanese, in particular, were said to be excellent night fighters and part of the reason they dominated the Pacific for much of the war. The naval and aviation services also increased capabilities on all fronts.

Reeder pointed out some light use by the Finns that is at least somewhat reminiscent of poaching (he, too, reads the occasional esoteric libram for fun and entertainment). In  December 1939, the Finnish Army was conducting a planned retreat in the face of far more Soviet troops. At one point during the night of December 10, HQ  troops under Col. Aaro Pajari of the Finnish 6th Division were flanked by a Russian battalion and nearly routed. Part of their remarkable stand, however, was a “hunter-killer team” of two of Pajari’s men. One carried a powerful flashlight, the other a Suomi submachine gun. Together, they prowled the woods, and when they spotted Russian soldiers, one would switch the light on, at which point the Russians “…invariably froze like deer, just for an instant.” In that instant, one Sgt. Miinalainen would cut them down with his SMG. Not a weapon-mounted light, but the principle was there. Hakkaa päälle!

Both the Allies and Axis powers worked on night vision. The early models look big and ridiculous by modern standards, but in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

US Army Infrared M3 Sniperscope from 1945.
US Army Infrared M3 Sniperscope from 1945 side profile.

During the intervening years between the wars, there were some advancements. JW Reid, a Special Agent for Union Pacific, used this guy to hunt down burglars:

JW Reid

J. Zajac patented a “firearm light” which used dual beams (on either side of the barrel) that would converge 100 yards away.

Figure 1 from J. Zajac's firearm light patent.
Get your own WML on Amazon.

We did see urban fighting in WWII and beyond. This is the area, at least for military personnel, where white lights tend to dominate in modern times. As to why they weren’t used in WWII, I have a theory. The TL-122 flashlight was issued. You know, that ugly angle head dinosaur. Big, dumb, and no doubt a similar bulb would have broken under the recoil of the Garand. Furthermore, in those days of mass air raids and carpet bombing, civilian casualties were not as much a consideration as they are today.

Vietnam War Era flashlight.

We would see a limited-run military WML soon, though. Like its predecessors used for law enforcement and hunting, it would serve a special purpose.

In 1962, the Limited War Laboratory (LWL) was created by the US Army. Their mission was to make all manner of cool shit to counter the impending Soviet threat. They made the great grandparents of many things we use today, like silent sniper rifles (with 500 grains of ‘fuck you’ per projectile), illuminated reticle scopes, backpack feeding systems for the M60, and even plastic M16 magazines–any of this ringing a bell?. They also worked on solutions for the “tunnel problem” in Vietnam.

The Tunnel Rat kit was produced in 1966. Among things like a specialized suppressed .38 revolver, a bone conducting microphone that attached to the skull, and a headlamp that activated via a bite switch (think CamelBak nozzle), there was a weapon light. The kit was not adopted due to numerous issues (read more from the National Museum of the US Army), but it was a step in the right direction.

A US soldier with the Tunnel Rat kit from 1966.

A couple of years ago, Larry Vickers recreated and then gave details about the weapon he used during the Model Prison Raid during the invasion of Panama. The same configuration was later used for SCUD hunting during Operation Desert Storm.

SCUD Hunter Carbine
Get a modern weapon light from SureFire.
Close up of the weapon light on the SCUD Hunter Carbine.

…a waterproof SCUBA dive flashlight painted black was installed underneath the bottom handguard via hose clamps, and then our commo guys wired the flashlight for push button activation. It worked well for the intended purposes but they were replaced in short order once Surefire 6P flashlights came online. 1988 was a long time before Surefire weapon lights hit the market and became the industry standard.”

It’s not strictly true that Surefire wasn’t around. At the time, they were named Laser Products, and as you’ve already guessed, they focused on lasers.

The Terminator (1984)

Surefire made its first official foray into lights in 1985 with the Model 310. It was for the 1911, and though it looks silly now, it stuck around in one way or another for quite some time. Later, WML models didn’t look quite so clumsy but were easily recognized as dated.

Pistol with a WML.
Long gun with a WML.
Pistol with a SureFire weapon light.
Get a SureFire WML on Amazon.

So, what happened? How did this previously special-purpose item, once nearly solely relegated to Special Forces and SWAT/ERT/ESU/whatever, make it to general use? Houses. Caves. Civilian casualties. Fratricide. Places where night vision of the day couldn’t exclusively be used, and not everyone had it anyway. During the early years in Iraq, the very best we could get our hands on were 120-lumen incandescent SureFires if you were lucky. They ran for twenty minutes on (2) CR-123 batteries. And we loved them for it.  Because during the invasion, we had the relatively fragile, low-powered, and leaky VLI or worse. [To read more about the subject of the early war lights, check out this article by Murr].

Nothing brings faster advancements in warfare than warfare itself.

Our current crop of bright, durable, and long-running WMLs wouldn’t exist without previous development, needs, and failures. We needed the bulbs, batteries, electronics, and mission requirements first.

No doubt, our children will look at X400Us and panoramic GPNVGs the same way we look at that laser on the AMT Longslide from Terminator or a Korean War NVG setup.

Note: Check out the thread this article sparked on M4 Carbine

Learn more about the increasingly ubiquitous weapon light

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Dave Merrill

Dave Merrill

About the Author

About the Author: A combat veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Dave "Mad Duo Merrill" is a former urban warfare and foreign weapons instructor for Coalition fighting men. An occasional competitive shooter, he has a strange Kalashnikov fetish the rest of the minions try to ignore. Merrill, who has superb taste in hats, has been published in a number of places, the most awesome of which is, of course, here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He loves tacos, is kind of a dick and married way, way above his pay grade. You can contact him at Merrill(at)BreachBangClear.com and follow him on Instagram here (@dave_fm).

2 Comments

  1. Stu N

    Worked as a CA police officer from ‘73-‘98. In the late ‘70s to early ‘80s I used a commercially produced thick plastic clamp that snapped onto the barrel and ejector rod housing of my SW Model 19 6” revolver that held a small diameter, push switch activated pen light. I think the light was made by Streamlight. Though not as convenient as modern WMLs since I had to take it out of my jacket pocket to use because there wasn’t a holster that would accommodate it, it did come in handy and was quite a simple and effective alternative to using a full size flashlight in tandem with my revolver.

  2. Tobias P

    Note: You can start even earlier than that the 18th century. The 16th century saw smaller shields equipped with lamps.

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