Why You Need a Good Tactical Flashlight

By Richard Johnson
Posted in #Gear
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Why You Need a Good Tactical Flashlight

November 26th, 2023

7 minute read

Seeing a threat is the first step in dealing with it. After all, if you never see the danger, how can you hope to defend yourself?

using a good quality tactical flashlight for self defense and personal protection
When selecting a tactical flashlight for self defense and personal protection, the author recommends erring on the side of quality. Unknown brands often fail to deliver on their promises.

The common criminal prefers to hide in the shadows. Consequently, many violent attacks happen at night. It is imperative that you have a good flashlight designed with self-defense in mind. These kinds of flashlights are generally described as being tactical.

A tactical flashlight is more than just a marketing gimmick. A true tactical light will be rugged, bright and have controls compatible with firearms use. Let’s talk about what those things mean.

Quality Construction

The fable of the three pigs serves as a warning against buying cheap products when your life is on the line. Poor construction can mean water intrusion during a rain shower, a shattered lens or broken controls.

On most flashlight packaging, there will be two measurements of durability: impact resistance and water resistance.

surefire flashlight streamlight tactical flashlight law enforcement and personal protection self defense use
Surefire and Streamlight are two brands that are well known in the law enforcement and tactical training industries. Both are worthy of your consideration.

Impact resistance is typically measured in meters for how high a drop the light can survive. If the company adheres to the voluntary FL 1 standard for flashlights, the number will be rounded down to the nearest whole number. That test indicates that five sample flashlights each survived six drops onto cured concrete from the specified height.

If the company does not adhere to the voluntary FL 1 standard, the impact rating is meaningless as you have no idea if the testing was for multiple drops of multiple samples onto a hard surface or a single drop onto a feather pillow.

Not all lights that claim to adhere to the FL 1 standard actually follow it. If, for example, you see an impact resistance height of 1.5 meters, you know the company is not adhering to the standard and should be wary of any claims made about its durability. This is because the FL 1 standard requires that any distance be measured in whole numbers, rounded down. So 1.5 meters should be listed as 1 meter following the FL 1 standard.

Water resistance is most accurately described using an IP code. IP codes define the amount of particle and water intrusion the flashlight withstands. A code will often look like this: IP67, where “6” represents the amount of particle intrusion protection and the “7” indicates the amount of water intrusion protection the flashlight has. Often, an IP rating will be given for water only, and the first number will be replaced by the letter x.

flashlight ratings standard packaging display
Examine flashlight ratings carefully on the packaging. The Streamlight package on the right is within the FL 1 specification, while the other is not. The out-of-spec flashlight failed during drop testing.

IPx1 through IPx6 are increasing levels of water resistance, but do not protect the flashlight against complete immersion. The IPx7 rating means the flashlight will withstand 30 minutes of submersion at 1 meter. IPx8 means the flashlight can be submerged at a depth greater that 1 meter.

The words “waterproof” and “water resistance” on flashlight packaging have no measurable meaning. Make sure you look for an IP rating for a true understanding of the water resistance you can expect.

Currently, there are no standards for measuring repeated impacts on flashlights when mounted to a weapon.

How Bright, and for How Long?

If you’ve been flashlight shopping lately, you’ve likely seen companies advertise flashlight specifications like lumens, candelas and runtime. But, what do each of these things measure?

Total light output of a flashlight is expressed as lumens. This represents all of the light coming out of a light from the center of the beam to the spill.

runtime of a flashlight is measured output in lumens over time in minutes hours lux brightness total
If you carry a gun, you should carry a high-quality flashlight. This one from Surefire is an excellent choice offering high durability and good runtimes with a simple button interface.

Peak beam intensity, or the brightness of the most concentrated portion of the flashlight output, is expressed in candelas.

Neither total light output (lumens) or peak beam intensity (candelas) are the best measurement of how much light a torch can throw. Rather, they work together to give you an idea of how much total light you can expect and what kind of beam you might get.

For example, a flashlight that has a total output of 1,000 lumens and a peak beam intensity of 10,000 candelas likely has a broad beam of light that can more evenly fill a room than a flashlight with 1,000 lumens and 35,000 candelas. Conversely, the 35,000 candelas flashlight would likely be better at illuminating someone across a field. Neither light is objectively better; rather, each light is better suited for different needs.

Runtime is a measurement that is heavily gamed by some flashlight manufacturers. Read this carefully: Runtime is not how long a flashlight will emit its rated output. Rather, runtime is supposed to measure the total time a flashlight emits “usable” light.

What is “useable” light varies depending on whom you ask. According to the FL 1 standards, that measurement is 10% of the initial output. For a 1,000 lumen light, that would be 100 lumens. If a manufacturer isn’t adhering to the FL 1 standard, maybe the number is even less.

how long do batteries last in a flashlight streamlight self defense tactical handgun pistol ccw gear springfield xd-s
Streamlight flashlights like this ProTac HL use impact-resistant construction and very efficient LEDs. They output a lot of light over the entire life of the batteries — not just the first time you turn them on.

A manufacturer can report a runtime of two hours for a 1,000 lumen flashlight, even though the flashlight only emits 1,000 lumens for two minutes and then limps along at 110 lumens for the next 118 minutes.

In my experience, the best manufacturers maintain 50% or better of the flashlight’s initial output for most of the reported runtime. In my testing, I’ve seen that some of the best sellers at a major online retailer can’t even manage that.

Ease of Use

Ultimately, a flashlight needs to have controls that allow for instinctual use under stress. In my opinion, a quality defensive flashlight will have momentary and constant on options that are instantly available at the highest output settings.

Lower output settings and strobe modes are acceptable in a defensive flashlight, but they cannot interfere with the ability to instantly access the most powerful setting available.

tailcap switch on streamlight tactical flashlight bright easy to use review bright lumens candela
A tactical flashlight should have an easy-to-access power button and not be hindered by a lot of superfluous features. For many people that means a large tailcap switch like this one.

Some of the popular lights that are marketed as suitable for tactical use are better suited for hobbyists. Many of them have five or more output levels that require you to memorize multiple click combinations to locate the needed mode. They may be fun to play with, but they are not ideal for identifying and addressing an attacker.

For a defensive flashlight, I prefer a tailcap switch with options for a half-press and full press (click). With this type of switch, I expect the half-press to be momentary on mode at full output while the press to click is constant on at full brightness.

My Recommendations

For most self-defense purposes, I prefer a high lumen, moderate candela flashlight from a reputable manufacturer.

I’ve tested more than 100 handheld flashlights during the past 10 years. I’ve come to rely on Streamlight and SureFire products as durable lights that have actual outputs and runtimes that closely match their claims. Other companies offer good products, but I’ve not yet found another with the solid track record these two have.

surefire tactical flashlight with xd-s for ccw self defense
In the author’s testing and experience, the Surefire line is extremely dependable. They also throw a lot of light.

Currently, I carry the Surefire G2X Tactical flashlight daily. It runs on a pair of CR123A batteries and emits a rated 600 lumens. The beam pattern has a wide spread without a hot center. I’ve found it is excellent for room clearing and illuminating a car interior.

My testing shows the light maintains output in excess of 60% of its initial throw for more than an hour, which is significantly better than others I have tested.

Another good choice is the Streamlight ProTac HL. It is similar in size to the G2X Tactical, but with slightly more output and a moderately tighter beam. It is also good for room searches, but it has just enough cohesion to the center portion of the beam to offer more reach than the SureFire.

It is also powered by two CR123A batteries, though runtime isn’t quite as long. In my testing, output stays above 50% of initial output just shy of one hour.

streamlight pro-tac hl flashlight high quality durable rugged design engineering build
The Streamlight ProTac HL, shown above, has proved to be a reliable performer for the author. He has used two of them for more than a decade with no problems at all.

Until I started carrying the SureFire, I carried a ProTac HL in my pocket daily. Additionally, I carried a second one on my duty belt as a police officer at a busy Florida department where it was exposed to drops, rain, salt spray and oppressive humidity. I never once had a problem with either of the lights.

There are other good lights on the market. However, I urge you to employ skepticism when reviewing manufacturer claims. Flashlight sales appear to be a lucrative market and there are some unscrupulous people who exaggerate performance in an effort to part you from your money. Be aware, and make an informed decision.

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Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson

Having made many odd choices in his youth, Richard was left with two career choices: aerospace engineer or cop. After failing his second year of chemistry, Richard pursued a law enforcement career where understanding covalent bonds was not a requirement for success. Along the way, Richard discovered a passion for writing. Consequently, he hung up his uniform and now publishes GunsHolstersAndGear.com where he reviews firearms and other shooting gear to feed his frequently annoyed family.

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