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.