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.