While everyone recognizes the need for a flashlight, all too often very little thought is given to selecting the right one. While, on the surface, a flashlight is a relatively simple tool, there are a number of elements that need to be considered before making a purchase.
Every flashlight is a compromise in size, weight, light output, battery type, beam shape, beam reach and runtime. So before you do anything else, you need to consider how the flashlight in question will be used. Flashlights differ greatly in convenience and performance.
While, on the surface, a flashlight is a relatively simple tool, there are a number of elements that need to be considered before making a purchase.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has a specification that standardizes flashlight performance. There are six ANSI FL-1 criteria for flashlights: light output, runtime, peak beam intensity, beam distance, impact resistance and water resistance.
Although compliance with these standards is voluntary, most major flashlight brands now include the ANSI FL-1 performance data on their packaging. The ANSI FL-1 tests and results are intended to provide the consumer with standardized metrics to compare performance.
Light output is described in lumens, the international unit of measure of the total quantity of visible light emitted from a source. It is a measure of the intensity of the light omitted from a flashlight on the highest setting of brightness while powered by new batteries.
Some flashlights also list candela or candlepower as a measure of brightness. Candela is the international base unit of luminous intensity. Candlepower, although still used by some manufacturers, is an obsolete unit expressing luminous intensity, with 1 candlepower being roughly equal to 0.981 candela.
Think of lumens as raw output; lumens provide the potential for performance. High lumen counts, while a great selling point, don’t tell the whole story. Without the proper focus, lumens may only be so useful on a flashlight.
Candela is the international base unit of luminous intensity. Candlepower, although still used by some manufacturers, is an obsolete unit expressing luminous intensity.
Candela is a measurement of concentrated light. Think of candela as light on the target, not at the bulb. Candela is the result of lumens being focused and thrown downrange.
Peak beam intensity is the light intensity in candela at the brightest part of the beam. It is measured at a specific distance with the light on its brightest mode and tightest focus.
Beam distance is the distance in meters at which the flashlight produces a light intensity of at least 0.25 lux, which is the amount of light from a full moon on a clear night. (For those who’ve never had the pleasure of trying to do something with no more light than the full moon provides, that’s not a lot of illumination.) On variable-output flashlights, the beam distance will vary with the brightness setting selected. For realistic engagement with a tactical flashlight, you can cut beam distance for a given light at least in half.
Beam and Runtime
Although light output is important and a great comparison tool, it alone does not tell the whole story. Beam intensity, beam distance, beam shape and runtime all need to be taken into account when evaluating the effectiveness of a particular unit. You also want a flashlight that produces the optimal beam with no dark holes, rings, hot spots or shadows.
A tactical flashlight should have a combination of spot and flood beams. You need sufficient throw to be able to identify objects at a distance, but you also require sufficient flood to provide peripheral illumination in order to get the whole picture of what’s going on. The desired balance will depend on the application, but regardless, if you choose to get it done with an LED (“light-emitting diode,” those fancy new bulbs), there are two options for accomplishing it: Use a lens over the LED emitter or use a specially designed reflector.
Runtime is the number of hours until the light output drops to 10 percent of its original value. Testing is done using the batteries included with the flashlight or using the batteries recommended by the manufacturer.
Some flashlight makers use both tactical and total runtime. Tactical runtime may be defined as the runtime at the highest setting for multiple-output lights until output drops below 50 or 70 lumens. Total runtime is the runtime until the batteries are exhausted.
Pick Your Plants
The type and availability of batteries may be broadly classified into two types: disposable and rechargeable. Disposable batteries are great if a flashlight will only be used occasionally. If a flashlight will see frequent, heavy use, rechargeable batteries will provide considerable cost savings. You should never attempt to recharge disposable batteries, as it can be dangerous to do so.
Availability of batteries is also a consideration if the flashlight uses replaceable units. Many tactical flashlights run on CR123A batteries, which are less widely available than others. Although they are an outstanding choice for tactical applications, you may wish to go with a flashlight that uses more standard cells, such as AAs. These batteries account for 50 percent of all batteries sold and are available everywhere batteries of any kind can be had.
Rechargeable flashlights are now available with a charging port on the side of their bodies, eliminating the need to remove the batteries or place the lights in separate charging cradles. Charging may be accomplished via wall (AC) chargers, car (DC) chargers or USB chargers. And there are now also batteries with built-in micro-USB charging ports.
Lithium batteries are the most reliable batteries, although alkaline batteries are usable and less expensive. Lithium batteries have a very high power density, a shelf life of up to 10 years and superior low-temperature performance.
A single output mode may be sufficient for general-purpose use and certainly simplifies the operation of the light. Some models offer two or more modes, such as low, medium and high.
You may not use more than one mode very often, but having the option can be advantageous. Lower outputs extend runtime and battery life and are less of an impact on dark-adapted vision when less light is needed to accomplish the task at hand.
A variety of mode-switching options are available. Some flashlights are programmable to turn on with a particular brightness, after which you can toggle through other settings if so desired. Some models offer special modes, such as strobe, which has been the subject of some controversy in the tactical community. Some consider it simply to be a marketing gimmick, while others deem it a valuable tactical tool. Strobing is typically employed when closing gaps to disorient and confuse threats, to channel the route you wish a subject to walk or to gain attention. Having a strobe feature isn’t a disadvantage but rather just an additional option that’s there if you choose to use it.
You may not use more than one mode very often, but having the option can be advantageous. Lower outputs extend runtime and battery life and are less of an impact on dark-adapted vision when less light is needed to accomplish the task at hand. A variety of mode-switching options are available.
As with all lighting techniques, the effectiveness of strobing depends on the amount of environmental light. It works best in conditions of near-total darkness, and the pulse rate will also have a lot to say about how effective your technique is. If the pulse rate is too fast, it limits the effectiveness of the technique. If too slow, it is merely a distraction.
The type of on/off and mode switches are important considerations when selecting a tactical flashlight. The switches should be easy to operate with one hand yet difficult to accidentally activate. A flashlight with separate momentary- and constant-on switches is desirable, as it helps the user avoid switch errors.
With some brands of tactical tailcap switches, you press a button for momentary-on and twist for constant-on. Click switches are also popular. With these, you press for momentary-on and press until it clicks for constant-on.
Although click switches are the most popular, for tactical applications, my personal preference is for a momentary push-button tailcap switch. A momentary switch acts as a “deadman switch” in the event the light is accidentally dropped. In this regard, click switches can pose a tactical liability. A lock-out feature or switch shroud that prevents the light from being accidentally turned on is also a good feature to have.
Impact resistance is important for a tactical flashlight, measured by the height, in meters, from which the light (including batteries) can be dropped onto concrete — without cracking or breaking — and remain functional. A light is dropped while in the “OFF” position and allowed to come to rest before being inspected for damage. For ratings over 1 meter, each sample light is dropped six times with different faces toward the ground. The primary purpose of this test is to ensure the light remains fully functional if it is accidentally dropped.
Water resistance is also important for any light that will be used in the rain or around bodies of water. ANSI FL-1 water resistance is rated in accordance with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standard 60529. IEC 60529 is a European system of test specification standards for classifying the degrees of protection provided by the enclosures of electrical equipment.
There are three possible ratings: IPX4, IPX7 and IPX8. Testing for water resistance and immersion is conducted after the impact-resistance testing.
- IPX 4: Water-resistant. Can be splashed with water from all directions without water getting inside.
- IPX7: Temporary immersion. Immersed up to 30 minutes at a depth of 1 meter.
- IPX8: Submersible. Submersible up to 4 hours at the specified depth. (Though it can sound impressive, IPX8 ratings are pointless unless the manufacturer specifies the depth.)
The better flashlights have bodies of machined aluminum or heavy-duty polymer. Machined high-strength aluminum-alloy bodies are extremely resistant to damage from impact, crushing or bending, which allows the lights to be made as small and light as possible without sacrificing strength. The term “aerospace aluminum” is marketing jargon without any specific meaning.
Polymers are durable and lighter in weight than aluminum. They are also more comfortable to hold in cold weather and are non-conductive. Look for polymer-bodied flashlights constructed from high-strength, glass-filled polyamide polymer. Because polymer is inefficient at conducting heat away from the emitter, many high-output polymer flashlights utilize an aluminum head or bezel.
The window material is also important since it allows light transmission and protects both the reflector and emitter from water and debris. The windows on the better flashlights are commonly either Lexan polymer or tempered, coated Pyrex (borosilicate) glass.
Thanks to technological advances, small size and high output aren’t incompatible with one another. Smaller flashlights are easier to carry and therefore more likely to be at hand when needed. They are also easier to employ with flashlight-assisted shooting techniques.
Sometimes a tactical flashlight features a crenelated bezel to facilitate use as an impact weapon, and such crenelations perform quite well for their intended purpose. Although a flashlight with aggressive self-defense crenelations will generally not raise any eyebrows, it may be considered a prohibited weapon in some instances. And, depending on how the flashlight is carried, the crenelations may also chew up clothes.
Should you choose a flashlight that has a crenelated bezel, one option to make it more likely to fly under the radar in a non-permissive environment would be to place a slip-on filter over the face. Although that defeats the purpose of the crenelations, it’s quickly removable. Another option with some flashlights is to remove and replace the crenelated bezel with a standard bezel ring for those circumstances under which the crenelations could become an issue.
Buy Once, Cry Once
Before purchasing a flashlight, whether in a brick-and-mortar store or online, find a way to actually get your hands on it. Switch it on, off and between modes and consider how well you would be able to do so under the loss of dexterity inflicted by stress or gloves. If at all possible, test the flashlight by shining it down a darkened corridor to see how brightly and broadly it illuminates an area. Also, check out the warranty. Most of the better flashlights are warrantied for life.
A tactical flashlight should be comfortable and easy to hold and provide a good grip. Look for a model that has a body, bezel or tailcap designed to resist rolling if the light is dropped. Knurling and/or texturing on the body is also an important feature, as it will improve grip and reduce slipping.
It is also a good idea to carry two flashlights — a primary and a backup in case of failure of the primary. Like firearms, when you need a flashlight, you need one right away. Perhaps most importantly though, price will be a consideration, but it should never be the single determining factor when selecting a flashlight for use as part of your everyday carry gear. Don’t bet your life on the cheapest flashlight you can find. Spending a little more to get reliable quality is a cheap investment. After all, you’ll find yourself reaching for it far more often than you will for your carry gun, and as an alternate force option, that flashlight will hopefully prevent violence before it occurs.