The tactical light is used as a data gathering and early warning tool: checking for obstructions in the path of travel, looking underneath the car in the parking garage, or surveilling the back seat before opening the car door. The tactical light allows us to see possible threats to health and safety before we actually encounter them, giving us time to decide on a course of action.
When dealing with a human threat, the light can also serve as a distraction device. By shining a very bright light in someone’s eyes for a brief period of time, we can disorient him slightly. This buys us needed time to choose a defensive action, whether it is running away or drawing out a lawfully concealed handgun.
If we have determined that a valid threat exists, the tactical light can serve as a shooting aid. This helps us get proper alignment on the threat, making it easier to achieve combat accurate hits under poor light.
In those cases that another weapon is not available, the light can be used as an impact device. It is not ideal for the purpose, but in the absence of anything else—on an airliner or in a courtroom, for instance—it is better than not having anything at all!
There are many choices in tactical lights. Let’s navigate the options by looking at the attributes of the ideal light.
Since we are talking about a piece of safety/rescue equipment, the first criterion is reliability. Above all else, the light must come on when it is supposed to, go off when you want it to, survive expected abuse, and still remain easy to operate.
Better lights from reputable companies are structurally solid. I have found the weakest point is actually the on/ off switch. Even some of the best lights have switches that occasionally fail, but some are more likely to fail than others.
I have come to the belief that a basic momentary switch is the best choice in a serious light. This is the kind that comes on when you hold it down and turns off when you release the pressure. Often, the switch housing rotates to turn the light on and off without holding and releasing the button. The momentary switch is an old, but very reliable, design.
Most lights made today have the much more convenient clicky switch. The clicky comes on when you press it down and will stay on continuously if you push it until it clicks.
Clicky switches are by far the most popular type, but I have two reservations about them. First, they wear out more quickly than the momentary type. About a year ago I attended a training seminar put on by one of the major light manufacturers, and several of the demo lights they handed me had switch problems. They were all of the clicky type.
My second reservation has to do with the tactics of light use. We know that one of the body’s natural reactions to a threat stimulus is to drain blood from the extremities. This means that fine motor control diminishes, and tactile sensation (feeling) is reduced.
Most trainers agree that the ability to turn the light off and on rapidly and frequently is the key to fighting in the dark. It is possible, even likely, that under such circumstances the tactical light will get clicked on and stay on, even when you want it off. Having a light that might accidentally get stuck in the “on” position could be a liability.
As recently as a couple of years ago I recommended the clicky switch. After seeing lots of them fail and seriously considering the tactical disadvantages, I’ve gone back to the old fashioned momentary switch.
Not long ago, incandescent bulbs were the primary choice in tactical flashlights. Today the best choice is the light emitting diode (LED) light. Aside from being more efficient and rugged, an often overlooked benefit of the LED is short ramp-up time. A light bulb doesn’t come on at full brightness. It starts glowing, glows a little brighter, and works its way up to full power. That is called ramp-up. LEDs, in contrast, come on at full brightness with virtually no ramp-up time.
When using the light as a distraction device, an opponent’s eyes will be treated to the full, instantaneous output of an LED. The perceptible ramp-up of an incandescent bulb gives the eye time to blink and miss most of the output, but not with the LED. This makes brief flashes of light appear much brighter.
A tactical light needs to be with you at all times, which limits how big and heavy the light can be. For these reasons we will consider only two battery types: the ubiquitous AA and the powerful 123A cells.
AA batteries are available in a variety of types, but the most powerful commonly available is the alkaline cell. The 123A was designed from the ground up as a lithium cell, which packs more energy than the older alkaline chemistry. (There are lithium AA cells, and they have a capacity very similar to the 123A, but they are not common and are very expensive.)
Because of the more powerful chemistry, 123A lights tend to be far brighter than their AA powered cousins. The 123A batteries are more expensive, but their 10-year shelf life, tremendous power output, and compact size make them ideal for a tactical flashlight.
I like light. The more, the better—but only if it’s the right kind. The quality of the beam is at least as important as the total light output.
A flashlight beam usually has a hotspot, which is the circular portion in the center showing the greatest brightness. Around the hotspot is a dimmer corona, termed spill.
The light comprising the hotspot is more collimated than the spill, which means that the light rays are more aligned. Those aligned rays tend to travel farther to illuminate distant objects. This is called throw, and is the metric by which most people judge tactical lights.
You’ll find quite a variance in beams by shining them at a relatively blank surface. Hotspots vary in size in comparison to spill areas; some lights have very small but very bright hotspots and very large (but very dim) spills, for instance.
While a bright hotspot is great for looking at things a ways off, it is less useful at room distances. Those collimated beams tend to create a lot of glare when they hit shiny or very lightly colored objects. What’s more, a substantially brighter hotspot can cause the iris of the eye to close in accommodation, resulting in the spill area appearing much dimmer than it might really be.
A flood beam lights up a room without having to sweep the light from corner to corner.
When that happens, it seems as though you’re using a pencil-thin beam. It’s tough to search a house, or even just the back seat of a car, when you have to constantly sweep a narrow beam around to light things up!
For that reason I prefer a flashlight without a well defined hotspot, and a spill area that matches (or nearly matches) the hotspot. Such a light is considered to be a flood, and I’ve found it is the ideal defensive tool.
A flood beam lights up a room without having to sweep the light from corner to corner. It illuminates everything in a wide area, making it easier to identify a threat without wasting time sweeping from side to side. It also has much less tendency to cause glare, and using it in a room with windows or glossy painted surfaces doesn’t compromise vision like a beam with great throw does.
I have found that a flood beam with an output of 200 lumens (or more) works best in a defensive role.
Flood beams are difficult to find, but they are worth the effort. My recommendation is to search until you find a light where the hotspot and spill are as close in brightness as possible—and ignore how far away you can spot things!
I have found that a flood beam with an output of 200 lumens (or more) works best in a defensive role. It will easily illuminate even a large room with a nice even light that still has enough brilliance to cause a flinch reaction when shone into an adversary’s eyes.
Lights that feature variable output levels are attractive as general illumination tools, but less desirable as defensive devices. If I am going to use a light to help protect my life, I want it to come on at full brightness every time. Sooner or later, a variable output light gets left in the ‘low’ position when it needs to be used.
There are some variable output lights that come on at maximum every time they are activated, but often are turned to a lower setting by some manipulation of the switch. Just like clicky switches, this may present an unintended mode change in the midst of a fight, which is not the best situation. I keep my defensive light simple; I carry a smaller, variable output AA light for general illumination to resist the temptation of getting a more gadget-laden primary light.
A good tactical light is not an inexpensive purchase—nor should it be. Think about how you will actually use it, and shop carefully.
[ Grant Cunningham is a nationally known gunsmith who specializes in repair and customization of double action revolvers. He also writes a popular blog dealing with a wide range of self defense and shooting topics. Grant can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website, www.grantcunningham.com. ]
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