Gear Review: Cree “Tactical” LED Flashlight

Remember back when Mag-lite was the last word in aircraft-grade aluminum illumination? Those old incandescent Mag-Lites weren’t any brighter than ordinary flashlights, but their indestructible machined-aluminum bodies made them the choice of police, private security, Elvis and burglars. They were “tacticool” before people had a chance to learn to hate that word. The longer D-cell Mag-lites resembled aluminum billy clubs; they delivered a more devastating blow than any Monadnock PR-24 police baton ever could. Despite their size and weight, however, they still weren’t all that bright.

Then new technology arrived in the form of noble gas (Xenon bulbs) and heavy metal (Lithium batteries). SureFire and Streamlight built flashlights bright enough to temporarily blind and disorient a target without having to bash his brains in with five D-cell batteries wrapped in an aluminum Little League bat. And they were tough enough to drown, drop and attach to the hardest-kicking riot shotguns in the SWAT unit’s arsenal without fizzling out at the worst possible moment.

The new flashlights were rugged, dazzlingly bright and incredibly compact. Their only drawbacks: astronomical prices (for lights, bulbs, and batteries) and battery run-times of one hour or less. They quickly became the law enforcement standard, until LED technology took the lead and never looked back.

Okay, fine. But why the Brief History Of Tactical Flashlights? Because I couldn’t resist buying three more of them at Costco last week. You should have heard my wife’s groan. Before you drop a measly $20 on the Costco 3-Pack of Cree “Tactical” LED flashlights, make sure you know what you’re getting. Follow my advice, and you won’t be disappointed.

Ruggedness:

This is no SureFire or Streamlight. Despite the rubber O-ring on the battery cap, the Cree doesn’t claim to be waterproof, just water-resistant. It also claims to be drop-proof from 1 meter, but the rather thin polycarbonate lens doesn’t really look up to the challenge and neither do the rather flimsy innards shown above. The electrical contacts are not over-engineered like Streamlights, SureFires and even Coasts; they kind of scream “Made In China By The Very Lowest Bidder.” And not in a good way.

Controls:

The Cree features a tail button switch with a rubberized polymer cover. The switch itself produces a distinct “click” when pressed, which could alert a hidden, dark-adjusted bad guy to your location and to the fact that you’re about to light him up. This fact alone disqualifies this light from being suitable for any ‘tactical’ use.

This single switch also controls four different operating modes: momentary, low power, full power, and strobe, by using a complex and tedious system of short and long button presses. Turning on a hazardous-use flashlight shouldn’t require a HAM radio operator’s Morse Code qualification.

Press and hold the switch for a momentary beam, which powers on after a frustrating and tactically-useless 0.5 second delay, and powers off instantly when the button is released. Press and release the button once for the low power setting.  Press and release again for full power. Press and release a third time for a strobe-like operation. Press and release again to power off.  From any mode, a press and hold will power the light off.

All these different settings are potentially useful if you’re camping, working on your truck, or whipping an Ecstacy-fueled rave mob into an epileptic frenzy. But if I’m illuminating a bad guy whom I might need to shoot to protect my life, the only setting I want on my flashlight is maximum brightness right f***ing now. Full power should be the first setting, as it typically is on better multi-mode “tactical” lights.

The strobe setting is not bright enough, nor are the strobe pulses short enough, to produce the profound disorientation that a wickedly-bright true strobe light can cause. It would be useful for signaling rescue searchers or aircraft, or getting yourself forcibly ejected from a rock concert by shining it at the stage. But I don’t see a tactical use for it. Especially considering how many button presses are required to activate it.

Brightness:

The packaging claims an impressive 150 lumens, which I have no way of testing quantitatively  since I have no idea what a lumen really is. The beam from my 105-lumen Coast Tactical LED flashlight is slightly more intense but considerably more narrow than the Cree’s full power beam, and this observation would be consistent with the Cree’s higher lumen rating. However you measure it, the Cree is plenty bright: bright enough to illuminate and bright enough to dazzle.

Once you press the button enough times to power it all the way up, that is.

This picture was taken in indirect sunlight on a ridiculously bright day.  The light is pretty damn bright.

Battery Life:

The Cree flashlights use 3 AAA batteries, either rechargeable MiMH or standard alkalines. Battery life is claimed to be 1 hour at full power and 4 hours at low power.  These figures are decent by Xenon-incandescent standards but unimpressive by comparison to higher-grade LED tactical lights. My mid-grade Coast 105-lumen, by comparison, will run for 200 hours (more than a week) using decade-old NiMH rechargeables.

So-so battery life is acceptable for true ‘tactical’ lights, since there are no ‘tactical’ engagements where sound tactics would dictate that you leave a light on for that long.  But (see below) this isn’t really a ‘tactical’ light at all.

Weapon Mounting:

Not gonna happen. The Cree’s tube diameter is larger than the industry-standard 1″ inch, so it won’t fit ordinary Picatinny rail mounts or leftover 1″ scope rings. Oversized mounting rings would cost more than the light itself, so why bother? It’s not built to handle recoil anyway.

Strike Bezel:

The Cree flashlight has a crenelated ‘strike bezel’ that will cause some extra damage if you ever have to jab someone in the face with it.  Don’t be tempted by this: if your mission will ever include jabbing somebody in the face with a flashlight, you should not be carrying a $7 flashlight. I’m not exactly sure how I know this, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.

Instead of incapacitating a bad guy, the ‘strike bezel’ just makes it more likely that some TSA crotch-groper will decide that your flashlight is a ‘weapon’ so you can’t carry it onto your next airline flight. If that happens to you, unload the 3 AAA batteries and board your flight, leaving your $7 flashlight in the trash after you blow your nose all over it.

Conclusions:

“Tactical” in this case, is only a marketing word. These lights are bright and black and look pretty cool, but they are not deployment-rated gear by any stretch of the imagination. They’re not waterproof, not shockproof enough, the lens is too fragile, and the tail switch is too noisy and complicated to use in a high-stress situation.

So they’re not what they say they are, but despite all that they make great general-purpose flashlights. They’re a hell of a lot brighter and more rugged than anything else you’re likely to find for under $7 each including batteries. They’re cheap enough to leave in places where you’re not likely to need them soon, like a boat or toolbox or survival kit.

I’ve stashed one in my desk and another in my car, and my kids are begging me to give them the third flashlight so they can strobe themselves while spinning around in circles until they barf.

Not gonna happen.

23 Responses to Gear Review: Cree “Tactical” LED Flashlight

  1. avatarAbunai says:

    I love flashlights. Love ‘em.

    It seems like more often than not when I go to Costco I end up with a pack of these. Do they replace my SureFire? No. My weapon light? No. But they’re great to have around the house. They seem tough, bright, and reliable. I’ve got them in all my cars, my RV, etc.

    Finally, living in the Pacific NorthWest, I can tell you that they also appear to be ‘water resistant’ enough for daily use outdoors . . .

  2. avatarCUJO THE DOG OF WAR says:

    Good article , Chris! I am a flashlight lover myself, and was glad to see when they finally came out with higher power LED lights. Technology is great-it is just like I did the same with Night vision gear, I waited for better technology and prices and now have 3 great scopes. I own several Surefire and Blackhawk and Streamlight, but they can be rather pricey and the old xenon’s could blow at the worst time and burned batteries in no time. I prefer the ones that use the CR123A lithium batteries and I’ve found the best buy is Surefire’s batteries-usually around $26 for 12, versus $10 for 2 of other brands! I gauge the lumen scale by having the average Surefire light at 80 lumens-bright but not terribly. I recently came across Fenix brand, most specifically the tiny PD30. It is a Cree led, about $63, and at high power is 257 lumen. It’s w/proof to 2 meters, sealed head and rear push cap. It is solid and lightweight and at nearly $200 less than my best Surefire, I now have 2. I believe it is 1″ diameter but as there is NOTHING in my home that small in diameter, I cannot verify at this time.

    • avatarCUJO THE DOG OF WAR says:

      I’ve been watching the price of thermal imagers go down from $8000 to $4000. If they hit $2000 I may finally bite.

    • avatarCUJO THE DOG OF WAR says:

      As I was writing this my new Surefire G3 flashlight and its slip on infrared filter just arrived by UPS. Now I truly can use this with my infrared headset and ride the motorcycle around at night with no visible light.

  3. avatarDon Curton says:

    I could care less about tactical anything on a flashlight. My problem is that I rarely “need” a flashlight. And yes, that is a problem. Cause when I need it, the batteries are well and truly dead from sitting in a drawer for the past 12 months. Or stuck in the glovebox in hot Texas summer weather.

    I’ve bought several diver style flashlights, made by Pelican, that are kinda pricey. Definitely NOT tactical, but bright, good battery life, and rugged.

    The switch issue is also a big deal for me. I’ve got a drawer full of otherwise decent flashlights that no longer work because of the cheapo second-rate bent-tin switch. Don’t know why I can’t seem to find one with a decent click switch that won’t bust.

    The kind you’re reviewing above remind me of the company safety prize flashlights they hand out around here like candy. The look good until you actually start using them, then you end up giving them to your kids cause they are little more than toys.

  4. avatarJohn Fritz says:

    Not gonna happen.

    Meanie. :)

  5. avatarMark says:

    “The switch itself produces a distinct “click” when pressed, which could alert a hidden, dark-adjusted bad guy to your location and to the fact that you’re about to light him up. This fact alone disqualifies this light from being suitable for any ‘tactical’ use.”

    The click? Let’s not mention that this thing does produce light. Unless your attacker is blind, this is probably not a big of a “tell” as you make it out to be.

  6. avatarChris Dumm says:

    Mark:

    Point taken, but we’re not supposed to turn on the light and leave it on. Momentary illumination helps preserve a tiny bit of your dark adaptation and avoids giving the hidden baddie a constant fix on your position. This light’s percussion chorus of clicks defeats the purpose of that technique.

  7. avatarGunmart says:

    Hey! I have one of those lights. Thanks Costco (BTW – I concealed carried in your store when I bought it – suck it!)

    Its a good enough light, and its what I keep on my nightstand. Its about 70 lumens as compared to a 70 lumen headlamp that I got at Cabelas…. Definitely enough to light up a room and make it blinding if you shine it in someones eyes.

    Good enough!

  8. avatarBarry Roberts says:

    I have a handful of these as well. I agree with all the negative comments above, and I have another. These lights appear to drain the batteries while supposedly idling. I had one on my desk at work and it didn’t get used for monthhs. The batteries are dead. Same for the one in my wife’s nightstand drawer. I don’t have that problem with inexpensive TerraLux or even Energizer lights with good (Duracell) batteries. It’s gotta be the light. Anybody else see this? I’m ready to toss them in the garbage.

    • avatarAndy S says:

      I have noticed, along with some of my friends that the Costco 3 pack kick off after very little use, I put the batteries in a low voltage tester and they indicated a full charge. I then removed the rubber switch cap, took out the small circuit board and replaced it with a small switch, batt. to casing. It’s been running now for months on the same batts that I removed. and I use it every day. I think the circuit boards are at fault.

  9. avatarJoe Grine says:

    Best one liner: “I’m not exactly sure how I know this, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.” lol.
    Good Job, Chris..

  10. The Surefire G2 LED is a great value for a top-quality light.

    You can get it with a xenon bulb, or an LED bulb for still-excellent brightness (120 lumens) and good runtime (2 hours). The O-ring sealed plastic body keeps the cost down, but you still get a reliable switch and an effective reflector assembly (which is as important as the brightness of the bulb itself). The LED bulb doesn’t get as hot during heavy use.

    It’s my go-to light when my black lab decides to loiter at the back of the yard at night.

    (In case anyone wants to know what the terms Lumen and Lux mean: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lumen_%28unit%29 )

  11. avatarDan says:

    I got a set of the first gen of these from costo. Everytime I need one, they are dead. I’m guessing the switch circuitry uses power when off. Fail….

  12. avatarG. says:

    I just wanted to make a correction on the so called slow strobe light… if u pay attention it is not a strobee but an SOS light signal:)

  13. avatarcard says:

    Hi, thanks for sharing.

  14. avatarmountain man says:

    Yeah, the switches are a two phase. On or in stand by mode to be turned on. No true off mode that does not use the battery. I put a piece of .6 mm vinyl between the battery’s contacts till needed. I’ve got a monster flashlight (MF) T6, and a surefire EL2 for my defense/tactical lights. These costco lights are great for doing things where they will get lost, broken ect. They put to shame the old plastic everready or rayovac lights of similar price! even give maglite a run for their money (Not counting the billy club use) not bad for $15.00 for 3 lights!!!!

  15. avatarTom says:

    Lost in the conversation seems to be … IT COSTS $7.00!!! Comparing it to a $150 Streamlight is quite stupid.

  16. A handy light to have, but for the price, don’t expect too much. This is the kind of thing that’s cheap enough to buy a few and keep them in the car, in the garage, etc. Don’t be fooled by marketing hype ;)

  17. avatarCJ Rigdon says:

    This flashlight, but you may be overlooking one of the best and most versatile flashlights available on the market: the LazerBrite tactical flashlight: http://www.lazerbrite.com

    Not only is it made in the USA, but it is both lightweight and durable, as well as completely waterproof, and it is very affordable as well.

  18. avatarOliver says:

    Just a nit, but Lithium (atomic number = 3) is *not* a heavy metal.

    It is the the *lightest* metal and will float on water. Doing this, of course, would be rather silly as it starts to react with water resulting in caustic lithium hydroxide, flames, and hydrogen gas.

    It is this caustic reaction that gets people with the consumer batteries burnt when they are exposed to cut or damaged batteries.

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