right side views

Last year, I finally broke with my traditionalist attitude toward handguns and purchased a polymer framed pistol with a built in accessory rail for everyday carry and home defense use. Since I was using this pistol for home defense and that rail was just hanging under the barrel unused, I started looking into purchasing a good weapon light. Only one problem — I was completely overwhelmed at the number of choices. And since I was overwhelmed, I’m guessing some of you’re feeling the same way. So I figured the best way to figure it out would be a head-to-head deathmatch. The Thunderdome of weapon lights, if you will. Four flashlights enter — one flashlight leaves . . .

For my testing I narrowed my choices to four premium pistol-specific models that would hold up to daily use and are popular for use in law enforcement and military roles. After a few emails and a dozen or so phone calls, I had samples on the way from Insight Technology, Streamlight and SureFire.

Meet the contenders:

Streamlight TLR-1s

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With a $199 msrp and street price of around $120, the TLR-1s is a lot of light without breaking the bank. Its 300 lumen output rating, sturdy aluminum housing and a strobe function it is a good representation of the average light in this category. Don’t let the value price fool you; this is a serious light that can hold up to major abuse.

Insight Technology M3X LED

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This light is an update of the M3 pistol light that has been around since 1998. Insight is a sister company of EOTech under the corporate umbrella of L3 Communications, and their lights are often sold as EOTech products. While confusing, it does mean that all of the military spec materials and quality you find with EOTech sights is present here. This light is the same msrp ($199) as the Streamlight, but lacks the strobe function and is only rated at 150 lumen output. But it makes up for the lack of features by being built like a tank.

Insight Technology WL1-AA

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This is the wildcard of the test, being the only one in the group powered by AA batteries instead of the CR123A lithium cells that are pretty much the standard for all high powered weapon lights (“assault” lights?). Insight (or EOTech… or L3… or whoever the hell they call themselves today) sent me the light/laser combo, but there is a model without the laser that functions the same. For the purposes of this test, I’ll ignore the laser module on the bottom and treat it as the light only model. I was excited to see how this light stacked up against the others since it only has half the voltage to work with. With a $249 msrp for the non-laser version, it costs a bit more than some others, but features a strobe function and the same build quality and polymer housing material as the M3X. Just think of the money saved by not having to buy expensive lithium batteries!

SureFire X300 Ultra

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The 800lb gorilla of the test is certainly the X300 Ultra with a 500 lumen output. It’s typical of SureFire quality and styling, but at $299 msrp, is the massive light output worth the extra cost over the others? It doesn’t strobe, but it’s FIVE HUNDRED LUMENS on the end of a handgun!

THE TESTING

Build quality

All four lights are very close. All four are built to withstand daily LEO or military duty abuses, and without a full-on torture test, this category is pretty much a dead heat. It’s safe to say that any of them will handle more abuse than most people would ever put their expensive firearms accessories through.

Light output

The obvious winner here for raw power is the SureFire. The others just don’t quite match the blinding intensity of the X300 Ultra. But this led me to a surprising discovery. For someone that may use the light outdoors often, a super bright light is the best way to go. However, indoor use changes things.

Most police departments train their officers to use a weapon light in a quick momentary fashion when entering a room to avoid the light itself becoming a target. I noticed the light colored walls in my home reflected so much of the SureFire’s 500 lumens back at me that a quick blast inside the house wouldn’t just blind an intruder, but me as well. The other three all reduced this problem considerably.

For the outdoor test, I set up targets at 50-meter intervals out to 500 meters. The targets were white 8.5”x14” legal sized copier paper. Though the TLR-1s is rated at twice the output of the Insight models, all three would light up the 250 meter target just about equally. Only the X300 Ultra made a drastic difference. I hit the switch and realized I could see all ten pieces of paper. The SureFire is rated as a pistol light, but can easily pull double duty as a long gun light.

Beam pattern

The M3X LED and the TLR-1s both have an intense center spot that smoothly fades into a wider beam that’s slightly dimmer. The X300 Ultra and the WL1-AA both have a sharp-edged center spot with a dimmer outer ring. This really comes down to personal preference. Both work equally well. I initially thought the shallow reflector of the WL1-AA was the reason for this sharp cut off, but the X300 Ultra has a very deep reflector like the other two.

Switch operation

All four have switches that can easily be operated with the index finger while holding the pistol in either hand. The M3X LED and the TLR-1s operate in an identical fashion; rotating the switch assembly counter-clockwise gives momentary activation while clockwise turns the light on. This can lead to a bit of confusion until you get used to the fact that operating the gun with the opposite hand means that the control of the light is inverted.

For example, using the light right handed means pushing down to turn it on, while using it left handed means you push up to turn it on. The WL1-AA solves this problem by using two switches. Pushing either one down gives momentary activation, while pushing up turns the light on. SureFire went a completely different route to solve the same problem. The X300 Ultra still uses a single switch, but pushing it either up or down turns the light on. Momentary switching is accomplished by pushing forward on the switch. The win in this category is a tie between the WL1-AA and the X300 Ultra.

Mounting system

SureFire includes four different types of mounting hardware with the X300 Ultra. Two each for both MIL-STD-1913 (Picatinny) rails and a universal type that fit rails which don’t conform to the 1913 standard like Glock pistols. To be installed or removed with either type of system, it must be slid onto the rail from the front of the pistol. One type of mount includes a spring loaded tab that must be pulled downward to disengage the notches in the rail.

The other has tabs that must be pulled rearward to unlock a bar that slides across to engage the notch. The second type also features a screw that gives you the option of locking the mount into place with an allen key. Having to slide the light off of the rail from the front isn’t a big deal, but I keep my gun loaded. To safely remove or install the SureFire, the gun really should be unloaded.

The TLR-1s includes inserts that are specialized for four specific models of pistols as well as a picatinny standard. It’s installed from the side (no hand in front of the muzzle) and clamped down with a screw that can be tightened with the edge of a coin or, albeit with some difficulty, using your fingers.

The M3X LED is available in two different models. One uses the sliding crossbar latch similar to the SureFire. The other, which is the model used for this test, uses a thumb screw clamping system similar to the TLR-1s. The screw itself engages the rail and locks the light into place. No adjustment is available.

The WL1-AA features interchangeable keys for different rail standards and uses a quick release lever to clamp onto the rail from the side. The locking key is adjustable fore and aft by using one of four different screw holes. If installing and removing the light often, this system is by far the best. I kept gravitating back to this light because I clamp it onto my conceal carry gun when I take it off to go to bed at night and remove it the next morning.

Other observations

The battery door on all but the X300 Ultra are latched at the top against the rail, essentially locking the latch into place with the rail. The SureFire uses a tiny cotter pin that locks the door latch in place. This is my one major complaint about the X300 Ultra. The pin rattles and can easily be lost. The light still has to be removed to change the battery, so I see this as a design flaw. In its favor, it’s the only one of the four to feature a piece behind the switch that fits against the trigger guard, giving it a slightly cleaner look when installed.

The WL1-AA is a little narrower than the others due to its AA battery compartment. This would make it an ideal candidate for holster use.

The M3X LED is big. So much bigger than the others, in fact, that even on my huge FNP-45 it looks disproportionately large. If you are buying a light for your subcompact 9mm, this light may not be ideal.

The TLR-1s gets the award for most available accessories. Streamlight sells a mount to mate this light to just about every type of firearm made, even my ancient Colt Gold Cup. There are lens filters in red, blue and green. And there’s a remote switch battery door is available for use on long guns in combination with a corded pressure switch.

Oddly, the Insight lights are both advertised as mil-spec, but they are not serial numbered like the SureFire and Streamlight. For military and law enforcement agencies who have to track multiple units for inventory control, this simple feature can make the difference in their decision to purchase similar units from other manufacturers.

And the winner is…

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There is no clear winner here. The lights are all so close that their strengths and weaknesses cancel each other out. It comes down to which features are most important to the individual user.

If I have to rank them, the X300 Ultra and the WL1-AA are a tie for top honors. The SureFire is by far the most powerful of these lights, and that makes it ideal for both handgun and long gun use. The WL1-AA has the easiest mounting system to install and remove quickly, cheap batteries available in any just about every retail store in the country, and an intuitive switch that simply makes sense for a defensive handgun so the operator doesn’t get confused under stress.

The TLR-1s ranks second. Its features and performance make it a good solid light at a great price. It remains a very popular light for good reason.

In third is the M3X LED. Its design is a bit long in the tooth, but it’s still a quality product. For someone searching for a no-frills light that can take the abuse of being tossed in a range bag and or a glove box day after day and still function flawlessly in a life threatening situation this one should be on their list.

Since this test began, Streamlight has released the TLR-1 HL that’s rated at 630 lumens. (TTAG just received the TLR-2 HL — same light with a laser — so stay tuned). Just how powerful can a tiny flashlight that will fit underneath a pistol barrel get? The continuous advancement of LED technology has no end in sight. Competition among the manufacturers continues to push the technology to new levels and the prices lower and lower. This only stands to benefit the industry and ultimately we the customers as time goes on.

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45 Responses to Pistol Weapon Light Comparo: Streamlight TLR-1s, Insight Technology M3X LED, Insight Technology WL1-AA, SureFire X300 Ultra

  1. Dude, a flashlight review with no beamshots? I know this isn’t candlepowerforums.com, but still… That’s like a gun review with no pictures of targets to show groups.

  2. This might be a stupid question, but I’ve never tried out a weapon light before. How do you see your sights when the light is in front of them? I’ve used lasers but when it comes to lights I always figured you wanted a separate light so you could hold your gun out and light the sights and the target at the same time. Am I missing something?

    • It’s just like looking down the sights while point at a white wall. The sights are visible to the point that night sights seem like a waste of money. It is also why many people prefer fiber sights instead of tritium ones.

      • Ah. So with basic 3 dots I could see the blades but not the dots then? That makes sense.

        • You’re sights will profile against your target because the target will be brighter than your sights.

          Also, if you’re inside then there will be enough ambient light bouncing off the walls and ceiling to be able to see your gun and sights outright even without them showing against the target.

          Furthermore, fiber optic sights will collect a lot of that ambient light and will positively glow which is why a lot of people prefer fiber optics over tritium when paired with a light.

    • Like Nick said, your sights are profiled against whatever’s being lit up. Aslo, because you’re behind the beam, so you’re not blinded by it, there’s typically enough ambient light to see your sights (coupled with fiber optics, your sights will outright glow against your target).

  3. TO: Chad Patterson, et al
    RE: Flashlights….

    ….only point out where YOU are.

    Rather than a flashlight, get a Crimson Trace laser targeting system mounted on the weapon.

    If you need a flashlight, use one in your non-firing hand and hold it off-set from your body….opponents will fire at the light…hoping to hit you.

    Regards,

    Chuck(le)
    [When going to a gunfight, bring a gun. Preferably, bring at least two guns. Bring all of your friends who have guns. — Marine Corps Rules for Gunfighting]

    Chuck(le)

    • Hmm… Odd response, I think our military shows the effectiveness of weapon mounted lights. No need to sacrifice control of the weapon. Do you have any evidence to show that a WML puts you at greater risk than a single handed shots with your weak arm straight out? I haven’t seen any.

      I also don’t know many people who look instinctively look directly at a very bright light in a dark room.

      • TO: g2240
        RE: The ‘Military’?

        I think our military shows the effectiveness of weapon mounted lights. — g2240

        I did 27 years in the infantry. Airborne. Ranger. To boot.

        I think I have a better grasp of combat ops than I suspect you do.

        Or are you some form of Special Feces? And have special goggles to see where your opponent can’t?

        Regards,

        Chuck(le)
        [God is alive….and Airborne-Ranger qualified.]

      • TO: g2240
        RE: Heh

        Do you have any evidence to show that a WML puts you at greater risk than a single handed shots with your weak arm straight out? I haven’t seen any. — g2240

        Care to meet me on an indoor paint-ball court? Black out conditions? The high-speed, body welt forming venue?

        You have your weapon-mounted flashlight. I’ll have my laser system and ‘off-hand held’ flashlight.

        Let’s see who gets ‘killed’ the most.

        Regards,

        Chuck(le)
        [Don’t you just LOVE empirical proofs?]

        • So you don’t have any actual evidence? I’m not trying to be a smart ass, just trying to see if some other up to date evidence actually exists. Is there any other organization who agrees with your school of thought?

          There may be, I just don’t know of one.

        • I can tell you in current SF units putting new batteries into your weapon mounted light is part of pcc and pci. I have never met an operator that holds a light off to the side in a fight.
          I want to see your reload drill.

  4. Excellent review, all that I might add is that I prefer the lithium batteries due to the longer shelf life and the fact that I have had more battery powered items ruined by leaking batteries than I care to think about, including a six cell mag light.

  5. since most of us will be using weapons mounted lights in our homes or at relatively short distances. can these lights be too bright?

    • I believe the author stated as much. The 500 lumen X300 reflected a lot of light back at him when indoors.

      I’ve found something around 190 lumens is about right in my house and in the yard.

    • I have a Streamlight Poly Tac LED, 130 lumens, on my AR15. It’s plenty bright in my house… I honestly wouldn’t want anything brighter unless it had more flood.

  6. Thanks for the review. FYI Insight or L3 what ever name they are using this week, has NO customer service. I had problems with their premier Procyon lights. It flew off the gun each time I qualified. After many calls and emails, they sent me a WL1-AA replacement that won’t fit a LE holster. I’m pissed and in the dark.

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  8. I’m out on anything insight builds or sells. I bought their latest Procyon (? Spelling) to carry on duty a couple of years ago. It falls off my glock under recoil. They suggested I cut the groves deeper on my issued weapon. Then they promised to send me something better to replace it. The replacement wouldn’t fit my holster. Now my kid has it glued on his airsoft gun. Customer service is unhelpfull after 6-8 calls and months waiting, I run a surefire. Paid for 2 but got 1.

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  10. Hey, great article. Your guys argument about a mounted light vs a handheld light is a little ridiculous. You need to have both. They have different purposes. You would never want to use your pistol light when there is a chance of somebody being there that is not a potential target. You do not want to put somebody in the kill zone that does not deserve it. And using a FBI technique to hold a flashlight allows you to turn the light on and off quickly and put the light away from the center of the body. Anyway, I have recently made up a comparison guide of the top 10 pistol lights, check it out.

  11. Nice review. I think I’m gonna give the streamlight a try. I tried the new crimson trace and it just doesn’t have the brightness I’d like.

  12. I ordered the insight Led (the same as reviewed above) light without the laser on Amazon about 2 years ago.. I mounted it directly onto my Glock 17 model. I have fired plenty of ammunition through the glock without any problems with the light falling off..

    A friend of mine was handling my firearm and she dropped it (unloaded.. and I never let her touch any of my firearms again).

    The mounting system is kind of weak. It’s the ONLY thing I don’t love about that weapon light. And that is what broke.

    I sent an email to Amazon and they wouldn’t do squat. I copied and pasted their response to l3 and was responded to within one day.. I shipped out my light and it was returned repaired and cleaned within 2 weeks. But they also included a note that they no longer produced that light.

    Sad.. that light in my opinion is the best light period..

    If you want to dismount it, it takes 1 second. You can hold it away from your body or put it in your mouth or whatever..

    You have leaking batteries? Run to the gas station and get aa batteries.. or practically anywhere else in the country for cheap aa batteries.. go and TRY to find 123s at a store.. tell me how much you would have to pay in a pinch.

    Plus I use rechargeable batteries.. I had some rechargeable 123s but they were so unstable it wasn’t worth it..

    Guess I’ll wait for someone else to make this awesome product to buy for the rest of my firearms.

    Tj

  13. StreamLight is an awesome brand. Yes, i have used their products and thus i know very well about this.
    You are not mentioning top 10 products.
    I found one good article here: http://besttacticalflashlights.org Top 10 tactical flashlight
    It helps me to choose one of the best tactical flashlight and your article help me to go again with streamlight.:)

  14. When it comes to the weapon light then i have found only surefire and streamlight. Because both company always build high quality light and user like me always satisfy with their products. Their price little bit high but worth to buying those weapon light.

  15. Incredible Review, all that I may include is that I favor the lithium batteries because of the more drawn out timeframe of realistic usability and the way that I have had more battery fueled things demolished by spilling batteries than I think to consider, including a six cell mag light.

  16. I personally thought this was an excellent review and based on the weight factor, I would choose the TLR-1. While these aren’t going to stay the hottest on the market forever as lumens and new products are offered, I believe the TLR-1 is most all around ideal and a step ahead of shake flashlights like http://www.foreverflashlights.com which offer the old technology that at one time was new and innovative. Good article, thanks for putting it together!

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