Bright Ideas: Choosing a Tactical Flashlight

If you’re choosing a tactical flashlight, the decision calls for more than just cursory consideration. Over the years, I’ve seen a fair number of publications, videos, reviews, etc., that suggest a flashlight (along with a knife) makes a good companion to your gun. Even in places where you might not be able to bring a gun, chances are a pocketknife won’t raise concerns. And even in places that also ban knives (airplanes for example), you can still bring a flashlight. And they come in mighty handy when you really need one . . .

Just like a knife or a gun, a flashlight is only going to help if it is within reach. Which means that you need one that you’ll be inclined to carry with you. If your light’s too large, too heavy or otherwise too uncomfortable to tote, you’ll leave it at home.

Just like I own a number of pistols in various sizes and weights that I carry depending on weather, dress, etc., I also have a number of flashlights and knives that I can tailor to my wardrobe and my situation. That said, I have some standards. Just as I no longer carry a .380 since SIG Sauer came out with their smaller, lightweight 9mm P938, there’s also a lower limit I won’t drop below when it comes to purchasing a good tactical light.

There are a fair number of quality flashlights out there (Streamlight and Surefire to name just a couple) and they come in a range of prices, sizes, power sources, illumination levels and cool features. If you take the time to determine your mission ahead of time, choosing the right flashlight is easier than you think.

But just as there’s no “right” gun for all people in all situations, there is no “right” flashlight, either. Let’s take a look at some of the features and situations you’ll want to consider.

Let’s start with price: be prepared to pay for quality. You are simply not going to be able to get a good tactical flashlight that’s going to last for $10. Quality components cost money.  My everyday pocket carry Streamlight ProTac 2L costs $40 at Amazon (list price of $80) and it’s at the bottom end of the quality spectrum.

Second, there’s the illumination source. If a flashlight uses anything besides LED technology, you should probably give it a pass. If it uses old-style bulbs — halogen or otherwise — definitely skip it. Bulbs are a heated element in a near vacuum. Sooner or later, it burns out (or breaks if you drop it). Add to this the fact that bulb-based flashlights generally consume a lot more power for similar light output than their LED-based cousins and you have a losing candidate for your tactical flashlight choice.

While we’re on the topic of illumination source, how bright is bright enough? Again, that’s going to depend on your needs. If you’re looking for something to help you find the breaker box during a power outage, then 30-40 lumens will be more than enough to get by.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for something that has the potential to temporarily blind and disorient an attacker, you’ll want something in the neighborhood of 200 lumens with 500 or 600 being even better. Brighter flashlights deplete batteries more quickly, so as with other considerations, take your intended needs into account when selecting your unit.

And that brings us to power source. The choices, generally, are two: disposable battery or rechargeable. If you go with disposable battery, is it something commonly available like AA, AAA, etc. or is it something more esoteric like a Lithium 123A? Not a big problem if it’s an unusual one, just make sure that you have a good stock of them, especially if you are preparing for an end-of-the-world, SHTF scenario.

The other alternative is a rechargeable light. No need to worry about batteries here, but if you don’t stay on top of keeping it charged, it may crap out on you at the worst possible time. Rechargeable versions also tend to cost more than their conventional brethren and remember that no rechargeable battery is forever — their ability to hold a charge will diminish over time.

A fourth consideration is illumination modes. Back in the day, flashlights had two modes — on and off. Nowadays flashlights have various settings that let you choose illumination levels as well as “Studio 54” mode, otherwise known as strobe. The thinking behind the strobe setting is that it will confuse an attacker. Really? I’m thinking 500 lumens in the face is probably a pretty good attacker deterrent.

Will a strobe really make that much additional difference? Add to this the fact that a strobe creates a “stop motion” effect for you, the observer. Is that thing the guy is pulling out of his pocket a gun or a badge? That might be good to know before pulling the trigger dontchathink?

But the ability to select illumination levels might be a handy feature. A 500 or 600 lumen light is going to guzzle batteries like a college student hitting the Red Bull at exam time.  My 500 lumen Surefire Fury promises only 1.5 hours of run time on full power, but if I toggle it down to its 15 lumen setting, I get closer 45 hours.

That’s great if I want to use the Fury both for tactical as well as practical applications, but as in many cases, when something tries to do more than one thing, it may compromise one or the other of its primary functions. In the case of the Fury, there are a couple of problems. The first one is that the lower illumination mode is the first one that comes up when switching it on. You need to click the light twice to get to the 500 lumen setting — not so great if I need to pull my flashlight in a hurry and light up a perp’s face.

On the topic of switching, keep in mind that for many of these multi-mode lights, you have to press the on/off switch multiple times to get to the various modes. With my ProTac 2L, the first press gives you high beam, the second is strobe mode and the third gets you low beam. Sometimes it can be tricky to get the button pressed fast enough to select the correct mode.

That means that even if I valued the strobe function, I can’t be sure of reliably being able to engage it every time under stress. I’m just happy if I can find the power button.

Another consideration with a multi-mode push button is how you plan to use the flashlight in a tactical situation. If you’re searching your house in the middle of the night for a prospective bad guy, chances are that you aren’t just flipping on the light and walking from room to room announcing your presence. More likely is that you have your finger on the momentary activation switch and are giving quick flashes of light in various directions as you move while searching the house. If you have a multi-mode light, you might find yourself alternating from high to low to strobe as you conduct your search — not an ideal situation.

That’s one big reason why a weapon mounted light should really be a supplemental, not a primary light source for home defense. You’ll want the ability to quickly turn the light on and off. Plus, with a weapon-mounted beam, whatever the flashlight is illuminating is also the same thing you’re pointing your gun at. If it happens to be a family member, cop, or other non-threat, you’ve just violated at least one of the four laws. On the other hand, if you’re competing in a midnight 3-gun, then constant illumination and light/barrel synchronicity is probably a good thing.

All of which goes to the heart of my recommendation that you carefully consider the “mission.”  If you are looking for a general purpose flashlight, one with high/low settings is probably just the ticket. On the other hand, if you need a tactical light that you can rely on to direct a blinding beam at an attacker, you may want to consider a flashlight with a single on/off switch.

Streamlight seems to have split the difference with their 600 lumen Protac-HL. A full review is forthcoming, but one feature that bears mentioning is the programability of its illumination modes. You can select low/high toggle functions, low/high/strobe, or high only.

Then there are considerations like fit and finish, ergonomics, and convenience items. If you buy a quality unit, fit and finish shouldn’t be a problem. Both Streamlight and Surefire offer lifetime warranties that cover the light for anything other than intentional abuse. Other manufacturers of quality flashlights will, too.

Convenience items are small, but still relatively important considerations. For instance, my Surefire lights come with pocket clips. That way it’s not rolling around in my pocket with my spare change. Surefire offers a version of their Fury that’s shaped like an hourglass that enables you to comfortably hold the light between your middle and ring fingers for gun/light manipulation. Maybe that’s good for you, maybe its not.

My 180 lumen Streamlight Protac-2L is about as thick as a magic marker – pretty much unobtrusive in my pocket. The Protac-HL on the other hand is about 50% thicker — you’ll definitely notice that in your pocket, but at more than three times the illumination, which would you want on a dark night?

One final consideration of ease of operation.  You want a flashlight that is easy to hold and easy to activate – both momentary and full on modes. If you keep these considerations in mind when choosing a light, you should find yourself with a great piece of kit that suits your needs.

comments

  1. avatar Ken says:

    The Fury comes in several models including my favorite, the Z model. It’s a single output light with and “combat ring” that I prefer for using the “Rogers Technique” while handling a handgun that you alluded to. It’s both a momemtary on as well as the twist-cap on. I’ve never found the whiz-bang, multiple illumination choices to be of much use. Yeah, a strobe is fun at parties but for a serious light, I’ll just take the plain jane versions.

  2. avatar imrambi says:

    Another company to look at is FourSevens (http://www.foursevens.com/products/flashlights/Tactical). There Tac line gives programmable modes with a turn of the head, no need to toggle through modes. You do have to program the head by going through the modes, but then its an on/off flashlight with 2 different modes based on turning the head.

    I recommend staying away from rechargeables, not only do they lose their charge over time and can die any time but when used it will also die faster than nonrechargeables. Battery gauges are not a good test for rechargeables as they can say they are good, and then 5 minutes later the battery dies.

    1. avatar RightYouAreKen says:

      All of my “good” flashlights are 4Sevens (or as they are called now, FourSevens) and I’ve been very happy with them for several years now. I have:

      Quark 123^2 Tactical R5 (2 CR123A batteries, 230 lumens) http://www.foursevens.com/product_info.php?products_id=2936
      Quark 123 Tactical R5 (1 CR123A battery, 205 lumens) http://www.foursevens.com/product_info.php?products_id=2947
      Quark 123^2 Turbo X (2 CR123A batteries, 450 lumens) http://www.foursevens.com/product_info.php?products_id=2901

      All have long runtimes, uber reliable, easily adjustable (the “Tactical” program gives an easy two intensity switch by turning the bezel), and sturdy.

  3. avatar Dale says:

    Visit the candlepower forums for more info than you could ever possibly want

    1. avatar Buzzy243 says:

      +1
      With extra emphasis on the “more information then you ever possibly want”.

  4. avatar Vid Luther says:

    This is awesome. I think I’ll get me one.

  5. avatar Wade says:

    I’v been using the Surefire G2x pro for a few months now, it has 15 lumen and 200 lumen settings, and it uses a tail cap “click” switch, instead of Surefire’s usual twist-for-constant switch. Once you get used to it, zipping right past the low setting straight to the high beam is instinctive, and very fast.

  6. avatar jwm says:

    My reason for carrying a flashlight isn’t quite so tactical. Before I retired I worked mostly night shift. I have encountered power failures more than I care for and was in the bay area for the 89 Loma Prieata quake. I carry a mini mag lite in led where ever I go. It’s simple, cheap and it works. Because of their fairly low price I’ve bought a bunch of them to put in cars and stash in emergency kits around the house. Buy the large packs of AA batteries and you’re good to go.

  7. avatar ChuckN says:

    You may also want to consider a light the has crenelations
    (i.e. spikes or flattened points). Don’t discount cheapies either.
    I picked up a no name brand at the local hardware store for $15
    Aluminum alloy housing, waterproof, 4″ x 1/2″ and puts out 50
    lumens on 1 AA. Not quite the quality of a Streamlight et al but
    definitely more useful for everyday stuff, which for me means
    carrying it more often.

  8. avatar Chris Dumm says:

    I haven’t had problems with AA andd AAA NiMH rechargeables for daily use, but they’re not good choices for the light you leave in your car or emergency kit. They don’t fade over weeks, but they do seem to loae their charge if rhey sit for months.

    Lithium CR-123 and 18650 rechargeables are pricier, but have much better charge stability than common-size NiMH cells. Their total capacity is less than disposable lithium batteries, but they don’t seem to lose their charge over time. My 650 lumen strike-bezeled kubotan sits for months at a time but the rechargeable lithium 18650 always performs when I need it.

    I’ve always liked the LED Lenser lights. They used to be sold by Coast Cutlery, but now they’re imported by Leatherman. They’re modestly priced and mostly use AAA batteries for low operating costs. They also work fine with rechargeable AAAs, which makes them even cheaper to run.

    Be sure that whichever light you choose has a *silent* switch. Clicks suck, especially in the dark.

    1. avatar NR says:

      Buy high quality NiMH cells: imedion or eneloop. They have a pretty strong following among flashlight nerds, and will hold about a 75 percent charge after two years. Or maybe three. Certainly you’d be alright if you cycled them every six months or so. They’ve been tested pretty thoroughly but various independent sources around the web, and they cost about the same as energizer and duracell. They’re all I use.

      As for flashlights, I’m very happy with my fenix ld20. $45, roughly 2 hours at 180 lumens, 100 (I haven’t tested this one) hours at 5 (or thereabouts) lumens. Only downside is no momentary on, but I can select the highest or the lowest mode before I turn it on.

  9. avatar Harold Davey says:

    TSA will not permit any flashlight that has crenelations, in carry-on luggage.

    1. avatar Chris Dumm says:

      I’ve heard this from other sources, but I’ve never had my other modestly-sized crenelated light even be inspected by the TSA.

    2. avatar Aharon says:

      Yet they allow stiletto heals, not that I’m complaining about women wearing stiletto heals.

  10. avatar Jim says:

    Maglite has their LED XL series that gives you a really good compact light for not a whole lot of money. I think i paid @ 30 bucks for mine at Lowes. End cap switch is hi-lo-strobe…strobe seems best used for amuzing cats. I carry mine pretty much all the time and I use it at least once a day..well night because I work nights. But anyway, you get proven maglite durability and a really bright light that will fit in any pocket. When I worked the door of a local bar I used a small Streamlight for checking ID’s and blinding the occasional drunk troublemaker and it did a fine job for both tasks. Only thing I dont like about it is the fact it uses 123 batteries. Not a lot of run time for the cost of the batteries.

  11. avatar DJ says:

    I can enthusiastically endorse the Streamlight line of Tac lights. I have several of their 600 lumen Protac-HL models, and they are amazing. I wish they’d drop the strobe function altogether and give customers a third programmable option of High-Low, so you don’t have to choose between messin’ with the switch in a serious situation (therefore leaving it on “High” all the time), and not being able to use it to find the car keys you dropped in the grass without blinding yourself. Make high-power the first-click default on all settings, and leave the messing with the switch for lower-importance tasks. In the meantime, mine stay locked on High all the time.

    I also have several of their 1-AA battery ProTac models, including the blue-bodied EMS model, which is perfect for non-tactical/general-purpose use. The low/medium/high switch-toggled options give it a lot of versatility; bright light when you need it, yet long battery life for everyday use.

    Not connected in any way to the company, or any entity that sells these lights; just a happy customer.

  12. avatar Joshua says:

    “The thinking behind the strobe setting is that it will confuse an attacker.”

    I thought it was to draw attention to your location as a signalling device in a emergency situation. Think less tactical and more police like. If I’m a first responder /concerned citizen directing traffic after a power outage I might want the strobe function to draw attention to myself as I walk the road way. Similar to why bicyclist use strobing functions on their bicycle lights.

    1. avatar nonnamous says:

      Getting hit by a strobe is really confusing. An old roommate of mine hit me with the strobe light and I completely got disoriented and would have had a hard time properly locating him in a case where I was trying to return fire.

      1. avatar Obs says:

        Remember, some video games back in the day were banned in Japan because the “rapid flashing” would trigger seizures. I can visualize you pupils opening and closing to try to adjust. Yeah, that sounds like a headache to me.

    2. avatar Jim says:

      Since an LED is solid state, it only uses power when the light is on. Therefore the strobe mode can potentially double your battery life. That is especially important in power outages or other potentially long term needs. This doubling of battery life is also true for flashing lasers when used for gun sights such as on the Crimson laser on Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 38.

  13. avatar Dale says:

    A few additional thoughts on flashlights.
    1) A lot of folks buy an el-cheapo light to throw in the glovebox of their car because, well, it’s just going to be sitting in the car so you don’t want to waste a lot of money right? WRONG. When the day comes that you have to change a tire or repair something in dark, foggy, rainy roadside conditions you will be VERY happy if you buy something quality (and waterproof) from Fenix or Streamlight or Surefire.

    Also, I change the batteries in my smoke and CO detectors twice a season (I use the switch from/to daylight savings time to remind me). Only recently did I add changing the car-flashlight batteries to that list. I have no idea why it took me so long to “get regular” about changing those batteries too.

  14. avatar Phydeaux says:

    Fate of Destinee did a review of the Elzetta flashlight a while back. I’d not heard of it before, but it looked very interesting.

    http://www.elzetta.com

  15. avatar cr12 says:

    foursevens just recently won me over as a customer, i wanted something to EDC and the quark pro fit the bill perfectly, the twist to program is so easy and intuitive, pretty bright for 1AA, i have surefires,(i love them and are great lights, but they are expensive) but the expense of cr123’s gets old. I highly recommend this light. especially for EDC, small enough not to get in your way, easy to find spare batteries for in a pinch, and now that I carry it everyday I find myself using it all the time. I think it ran me about 50 bucks through amazon.

  16. avatar Montesa_VR says:

    A flashlight that sits in a car in Minnesota will eventually experience 40 degrees below zero. Is one battery type less susceptible than any other to the inevitable loss of power that comes from extreme cold? I was leaning toward a 12V rechargeable just because of the ability to bring the battery up to temperature.

    1. avatar Dale says:

      Yes, for those conditions you generally want a flashlight with some sort of Lithium batteries (CR123 style or the Lithium AA batteries).

      Some “AA” battery lights can take the newer lithium AA batteries but you have to be a little careful, if a light is “unregulated” putting lithium batteries in it can burn it out.

      For getting higher end lights I love the Battery Junction. One of the solid deals out there right now is the Fenix E21 for about $35 while it’s on sale
      http://www.batteryjunction.com/fenix-e21-150-lumens.html

  17. avatar Jose Suro says:

    I use a Surefire G2X Pro tactical and it a wonderful light. It is bright enough to blind somebody and maybe stop a fight right there. Surefire flashlights are expensive but B&H in New York has really great prices. Here’s mine:

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/743162-REG/Surefire_G2X_A_BK_G2X_Tactical_LED_Flashlight.html

    J.

  18. avatar Cellude says:

    Another one to look at, which I currently carry is the Klarus XT2C. No memory so instant full brightness but a 10 lumen setting for practical purposes. It also has a secondary mode buttom that allows instant access to the 470 lumen strobe.

    I found the instant access to strobe a must if one is using it for self defense purposes when there is no time to be cycling through modes.

    http://www.klaruslightusa.com/index-33.html

  19. avatar jon says:

    I use a Nitecore P25 Smilodon and I absolutely love it! The USB charging port is great and the overall functionality is better than other nitecore lights like the MH25 as modes are changed with a button instead of the head.

  20. avatar Mike says:

    I really love Fenix tactical flashlights. I also try and find lights with very pronounced strike bezels. Klarus makes a really great strike bezel that is an awesome option and adds to the self defense factor of the light.

  21. avatar Doug says:

    I’ve found, from training at night, any lighting over 300 lumens is just too much. You may blind your target, the problem is you stun yourself in the process.

    Tactical lighting seams so lost to me. What does tactical light mean? Is it because it’s black? The lumens? None of this to me seems like a solid argument as tactical.

    At Trifecta Tactical we have created a true tactical light. Like the writer stated “I’m just happy if I can find the power button”. The MERK as we affectionately call it will turn on and off at your motion command. Low ready the light is off, aim and push light on, the user has no other function to do. The computer controlled light does the switch for you. A quick magazine change you say? Yup you go dark get ammo and back in the fight, you don’t need to even think about your light it does it for you. If you’re in an awkward shooting position and need the light on push the button and you get the hard-on, push it again and back to MERK mode.

    There’s 200 lumen beaming from this light, which in my experience is plenty. Look there’s so much more to this truly tactical flashlight and you can see video and read more at http://www.trifectatactical.com. We’ve put this light threw the ringer and it’s still shining bright, check it out tell your local gun shop to get on it. Be the first of your buddies to have the most tactically advanced light there is.

  22. I second what imrambi said, I’m a fan of the Foursevens Quark Tactical, great small flashlight for EDC but packs plenty of power!

  23. There are lots of great flashlights out there. I know that this is old, but right now I really like the eagletac d25c and the sunwayman v11r. Both of these lights are super small for the enormous amount of light that they put out. The v11r even has a completely variable output knob.

  24. avatar Jamesbretl says:

    Those are some great recommendations! I myself use the Surefire P2X and man..It is bright! It is definitely worth every penny. To be honest you cannot go wrong with any of the P2X Fury series lights.

  25. avatar Aaron says:

    This is Aaron from Bronte, professional manufacturer of tactical flashlight.
    If any interest, please contact: xiatian921228@hotmail.com

  26. avatar Mike says:

    There are many great tactical flashlights… but one of my favorites is the 800 lumen Nitecore P10 Strobe Ready with the split tail cap switch. It has a tactical mode (a UI meant for self defense purposes) and immediate access to the strobe at any time. If you prefer a full size tactical flashlight my son-in-law swears by the 960 lumen Olight M22 Warrior.

  27. avatar Michael says:

    Pretty surprised there arent any mentiones of Nicore who i read about at dadstoolshack.com/tactical-flashlights/

    I was looking for other mentions and didnt find it here, anyone else heard of Nicore?

  28. avatar kates says:

    Ok. I always prefer Brand. I am using Fenix PD35 from a couple of years. Although Streamlight also has a good reputation; Still I will go Fenix because of longevity.

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