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Tactical Flashlight Crash Course

A crash course on tactical flashlights

In order to choose the best tactical flashlights for your needs, it helps to know the basics.

To begin, you may want to check out the InfoGraphic on Tactical Flashlights to get a headstart on the various components.

Manufacturers

  • Purchase only from companies that are top-quality, legitimate manufacturers as listed in this guide.
  • Warning: the Internet is full of cheap knockoff tactical lights – “2 for $12.99” etc., should be a clue – stay away from them. If you can’t Google the brand name of the flashlight, and find a legitimate manufacturer to back it up – don’t buy it!

Warranty

  • Almost all of the top companies offer limited lifetime warranties. This doesn’t cover batteries and abuse but if a button goes bad, or it just doesn’t work – you’re covered.
  • Klarus, Olite, and Nitecore offer 5-year warranties. Essentially, all parts, again except batteries, are covered.
  • Pelican offers a limitless lifetime warranty. If anything goes bad, again, except batteries, you’re covered.
  • Keep your receipt – warranties usually only apply to the original purchaser.

Power Source

  • Alkaline batteries include AA and AAA.
    • AAA batteries are available in alkaline and lithium and are normally used in penlights.
    • Probably the most common alkaline battery is the AA. The 14500 battery, is the rechargeable lithium equivalent of the AA batteries. 14500s are more powerful, but should only be used if the manufacturer specifies they are compatible with your flashlight.
      • In a few lights, AA batteries can be used as alternatives to 123A and even 18650.
  • Lithium Batteries
  • 18650 batteries.
    • Many lights are configured for 2 123As or 1 18650.
    • 123A are lighter but have less power and run time than a 18650.
    • Newer 20700 and 21700 lithium are the same size as the 18650 but have higher capacity and volume. Again, ensure your light is compatible before using it.
    • With the current interest in vaping and their use of 18650 batteries, these batteries will continue to get better and better.
  • Internal Lithium packs.
    • Some lights have an internal lithium pack that is specific to light and is rechargeable via magnetic or USB connection.
    • These power packs are more common in high-powered searchlights and some keychain lights.

Features & Applications

  • Common features include different light levels and strobes and even different program modes. These modes will retain a sub-set of the lighting configurations which are most useful for tactical use or camping use, etc. You also have power level indicators as well as the ability to lock out the light to prevent accidental discharge. Many also include electronics to avoid reverse polarity issues. A few even have stepless and automatic light adjustments automatically based upon the environment.
  • Common applications include penlights to everyday carry.
  • Special applications may include law enforcement use of one light level and momentary on-off only, to mitigate any lighting error, to intellibeam to avoid splashback, to intrinsically safe for explosives and flammables, to UV for anti-counterfeit authentication (bank cards, id, and currency) to searchlights to hunting applications. They’re all here in the above post and on this site.

Construction

  • Most of the best lights are constructed with aircraft aluminum. Some models (Streamlight and Pelican for example)  are starting to use polymer which is lighter and more comfortable in cold weather (since they don’t get as cold as aluminum.)
  • The lens of quality lights will be some sort of anti-reflective treated crystal vs. the plastic or cheap glass used in poorly made products.
  • CREE LED bulbs are the best lights available and come in numerous configurations to optimize the brightness, color temperature, and run-time designed by the manufacturer. All of the lights in the Definitive Guide use only CREE LEDs.
  • The reflector cone, which houses the CREE LED, is specifically designed to optimize (focus or spread) the light. Some manufacturers, like Surefire, custom make these cones, which add to the cost and desirability of the light.
  • Water resistance rating – Although lumens are not regulated, water resistance is tested by a scientific panel, and ratings are assigned to flashlights.
    • Here’s the complete listing of IPX water resistance ratings.
    • Recommendations – If you’re going to be around water make sure your light has an IPX rating of 7 or 8. Most of the lights in this guide are rated at least a 7. Unless you’re scuba diving, you should be fine.
  • Buttons and switches
    • Although some lights are twisted to turn on, off, and access different settings, most lights have either a side or tail switch or button and some have both.
    • The easiest control point is the tail switch or button because the grip is more like an ice pick vs. a sword grip. Lights with both a side and tail button are also good choices.
    • Check out the InfoGraphic on the Construction of the Best Tactical Lights here.

Specifications

  • Weight –
    • Weight is in ounces. Some companies list weights with batteries, while others list weights without batteries. Still, others don’t say if the battery weight is included or not. Keep this in mind when you review the various offerings.
    • Additionally, lights with optional battery configurations will weigh differently. For example, two 123As will weigh less than one 18650 battery (approximately 34 grams vs. 43-45 grams.)
  • Length –
    • This is self-explanatory and is simply the length in inches from end to end.
    • Length is important because of its intended use. For example, 4 or 5 inches is more appropriate for everyday carry than a 9 inch light with more lumens.
  • Lumens –
    • Simply stated, lumens equal brightness. A 100-watt incandescent light bulb is approximately equivalent to 1600 lumens.
    • All flashlights from top-quality manufacturers utilize CREE LED bulbs. You will never change a flashbulb. For example, if you run the light 6 hours a day for 365 days a year, it could last for 23 years.
    • LEDs are low-energy and high-efficiency bulbs and are almost indestructible.
    • There are no government regulations to ensure lumens are stated correctly. The manufacturers listed in this guide, however, have been shown to list their lumens truthfully. That is not the case with the cheaper light companies where lights listed as 1200 lumens are tested to be closer to 300 lumens.
      • You may notice some manufacturers state their lumens as 1000 or 1200 while others may state 844 or 926. These numbers are probably more accurate but as of yet, we have no lumens police to enforce accuracy and again, you need to rely on the manufacturer vs. the advertising.

Recommendations

  • Want a smaller penlight?  Look at lights with an AAA battery. These are usually the smallest and will effectively be the size and shape of a pen. Some are UV if you’re looking for document authentication.
  • Looking for everyday carry (EDC)? Search on CR123A. Most EDC is about the size of one CR123A. Look at the images and check out the Amazon reviews. Also, look at the prices relative to the costs and amount of Lumens. All are great lights but only you know your needs.
    • Some come with USB chargers that can either charge the battery directly or are inserted into the flashlight itself to charge.
    • Tactical Lights usually come with a non-roll construction and some type of striker concept on the front of the light. They will be water-resistant (remember to check if their IPX rating is 7 – a very few will be 8.) See if the size and price are good for you and check them out.
    • You can find aluminum and polymer lights. Polymer is lighter and doesn’t get as cold in the winter. Both are solid choices.
  • Want a bright light for the bedside? You’re probably looking at 2 123As or 1 18650. These are bright but make sure that you have access to the strobe easily and that the light has a tail button. These are pretty common. Again, check the sizes and prices to see if you can find a match.
  • Want a specialized light?
    • UV lights are available for authentication purposes – credit cards, ids, and money.
    • Work in an environment where unintentional sparks could cause a disaster? Look at an Intrinsically Safelight.
    • Search Lights? These lights not only have higher lumens but more distance. Many come with an internal battery pack. Search searchlights and review the costs vs. lumens and size.
    • Need a rail light for your firearm? Simply sort on rail lights and check out the sizes, lumens, and prices. Some have internal battery packs also.
    • Need a hunting light? Search on the hunt and check out the available lights. Again, look at the size, cost, and lumens, then check out the various features such as light colors, etc.
  • The growth in technology makes the best tactical lights even better year after year. As in all technology, we are getting to the top of the growth curve such that changes are now occurring in smaller increments. Now is the time to buy.
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