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:
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
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.