A couple of months ago, I took a class that incorporated some low light training. And by low light, I mean a pitch dark range with only your flashlight to identify shoot/no shoot targets. The instructor was Steve Gilcreast of the SIG Sauer Academy (who’s been a featured weapons expert on a couple of Top Shot episodes). Steve has over 12 years of experience in law enforcement, much of it on a SWAT team, so he knows a thing or two about the tactical use of a flashlight to clear a potentially dangerous scene. Steve talked about what he looked for in a flashlight . . .
Durability, size, brightness, and momentary activation. With respect to brightness, Steve said that while he used to recommend flashlights in the 150-200 lumen range, with the advent of more powerful torches, he now suggests getting as bright a unit as you can with 200 lumens being your absolute floor.
He also made the point that if you’re using a flashlight to clear a room (or your house, if you are investigating the proverbial “bump in the night”), you’re probably not going to want to walk around with it powered on. All that does is give a potential bad guy an easy target to shoot at.
Instead, he recommended selecting a flashlight that has a momentary activation switch that fires the flashlight at its brightest mode. A quick burst of light is enough to identify any targets, then you move and flash it again in another direction. Along these lines, he’s not a fan of multi-mode flashlights, particularly those that require multiple quick presses to switch from high to low to strobe to whatever. There’s too great a chance that you could accidentally activate the wrong mode, so Steve prefers a light that has a single mode for tactical uses.
After that class, I took an inventory of my flashlights. My daily carry light is a Streamlight ProTac 2L which was reviewed by Zack Pike back in August.
Following Foghorn’s post on the Surefire P2X Fury, I picked up one of those. Initially, I liked the low/high mode that the original P2X featured. I figured I could use the battery conserving low mode for things like navigating my breaker box and the high mode if I ever needed to hunt down a bad guy or illuminate something a long way away. That, of course, was before my aforementioned class. I quickly realized that the P2X in its current format wasn’t going to work for me in a defensive capacity. Apparently, Surefire realized this too, as they came out with new single mode models shortly after Foghorn’s review.
So, I relegated my P2x to secondary duty as a weapon-mounted light for my Mossberg 930, and began the search for a new, powerful tactical flashlight. I obviously first considered the Surefire P2X Tactical model, but at a price of around $125 (now you can find them for about $110), I decided to look around a little more. My search brought me to the Steramlight ProTac-HL which, at $65, offered 20% more brightness (600 lumens versus the P2x’s 500 lumens) at nearly half the price.
Now, when someone offers something at half the price of the other guy, my Spidey sense starts to tinle. A price disparity that great has to come at some cost…but damned if I could figure out what it is. The Streamlight is made of a durable aluminum housing and includes a clip that’s great for keeping your flashlight right where you want it. It certainly seems to be as rock solid as the more expensive Surefire. I wanted to see how it worked, so I did some testing both for area illumination and for long distance.
This first set of pictures was shot in my very messy cellar using only the flashlights for illumination. The 500 lumen Surefire is on top, the Streamlight on the bottom.
I tried to shoot these such that I illuminated the same point with both lights – close, but not perfect. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two in terms of area illumination – certainly the 20% more promised lumen level is not readily apparent to the eye. That said, both lights did a bang-up job.
The next shots were taken outside. I’ve kept these two at full size as the smaller versions are hard to make out. The barely illuminated pine trees in the distance are 100 yards or so away.
First the 500 Lumen Surefire:Then the 600 Lumen Streamlight:While the difference is slight, you can start to see the extra power of the Streamlight does make a difference illuminating a target 100 yards away.
Finally, I tested both lights on my kids’ swing set about 50 yards out. Again, the 500 Lumen Surefire is first:
Yes, I know the resolution sucks, but I was holding a flashlight with one hand and my iPhone with the other in below freezing weather, so pardon me for not breaking out my Nikon.
What’s apparent, however, is that this last set of comparison shots really highlights the difference. The extra 20% brightness produced by the Streamlight enabled the iPhone to get a better lock on the target and produce a marginally clearer picture that was better lit. The Streamlight, then, is clearly the winner here.
A bright flashlight is a good thing to have, but it ain’t worth squat in a gunfight if you can’t use it tactically. And let’s face it, you want to know how it would perform in a gun fight. I noted earlier that the ideal tactical flashlight is a single mode with a momentary on capability. At the same time, some users might like the ability of the flashlight to have a low brightness mode if they planned to use it for an extended time.
Surefire solves this problem by simply having you buy two flashlights. One like the regular P2X will do Lo/Hi toggling with each activation of the switch. The Tactical version will give you that single high brightness level with each click.
But Streamlight decided to take a different approach. The ProTac HL has user-selectable modes that you can set on the flashlight. Options are high/strobe/low (the standard Streamlight setting good for those who want to run their own Discotheques), high only, and low/high.
The user selects the mode of choice using Streamlight’s TEN-TAP programming system. Basically, you rapidly tap the switch 9 times and then hold it a tenth time. Each time you go through this procedure, you cycle to the next mode. The system is pretty foolproof. Once set, it’s highly unlikely that you would ever accidentally change the mode – once set, it stays set.
This approach makes the ProTac HL a very versatile light that enables you to customize it for your mission.
The only real nit that I have to pick with the ProTac HL is its size. Whereas my Protac 2L is about as thick as one of those thin magic markers, the HL is a lot bulkier. If I’m wearing pants of a more tactical nature with dedicated pockets for flashlights, etc, I can carry it easily, but in my everyday jeans or — even worse — the Dockers I usually wear to work, I think I’m going to stick with my 2L and leave the HL by the bedside. The Surefire is no smaller, so the fact is that if you want a light with that kind of brightness, current technology means the slightly larger form factor.
All that said, the Streamlight beats the pants off of the competition here. It’s less expensive, brighter, more versatile in terms of operating modes and has a belt clip to boot. My only concern would be whether the extra complexity of the TEN-TAP system might ultimately lead to reliability issues. Time will tell on that, but given the track record of other Streamlights I’ve owned, I’m not all that worried.
Ratings (out of five stars):
Design: * * * * *
Short, belt clip, a little on the thick side, but that’s a function of its power. Pretty close to as perfect as today’s state of the art in flashlight technology gets.
Durability: * * * * *
Waterproof and shockproof. Granted, I haven’t had the urge to forcefully smash a $70 flashlight on the ground or try running it over with my F150, but it has been dropped onto the concrete a couple of times with no ill effects. Based on my experience with the 2L, I expect the black to wear off in some places with use, but no dings here for that.
Usability: * * * * *
The TEN-TAP system makes this the flashlight for everyone. Whatever you want to do with it, you can. And you can change your mind and choose a different operating mode any time.
Value: * * * * *
Did I mention this thing is only $65? It has more features and is brighter than the competition and beats the pants off of them in price. What’s not to like?
Overall Rating: * * * * *
It’s hard to hand out five star ratings because nothing is really perfect. But I can’t think of one thing to ding this light on. Sure, I wish it were thinner, but it’s not fair to subtract a star just because the light doesn’t violate one of the laws of physics (based on current technology). Maybe in a few years when manufacturers have figured out a way to get more brightness in a thinner form factor, this light will not longer be 5 stars, but as we approach the end of 2012, this is as close to state of the art as you’re going to get.