Bigger is not always better.
Wait, let's discuss that a bit.
It's no secret that that's how many items are sold – “bigger is better”, and certainly, with tactical flashlights, it's easy to just promote lumens.
But, how bright, and how many lumens do you need for tactical use?
Although I've read numerous suggestions on how bright a tactical light should be, one of the most definitive books written on the tactical use of a flashlight, “Deployment of Illumination Tools – Law Enforcement Training Primer” by Ken J. Good, states that the recommended brightness for a tactical flashlight should be “a minimum of 250 lumens for an adequate light source”. He further states that “traditional 2/3-D cell flashlights using incandescent bulbs, are inadequate sources of light”.
The evolution of the Light Emitting Diode or LED
Although an engineer for GE invented the first visible light LED in 1962, it wasn't until much later that the now commonly available home and flashlight LED's really were in commercial use.
Even in the late 1990's, the typical tactical flashlight was a two to three D-cell light with an incandescent bulb. LED flashlights, when they first appeared, were typically low light trinkets.
The Cree's LED chips, the Lithium battery, and the Digital Power Management chip (DPM) has culminated into the Tactical Flashlight as we now know. You may want to read my post on how to choose a tactical flashlight which gives even more information on the three technological wonders.
So, what is a lumen?
Whereas “watts“, the typical rating indicator for incandescent lights, are a measure of the amount of energy required to produce light, “lumens” are a measure of the light produced and tell us how bright the light will be. The more lumens, the brighter the light.
Also, whereas 90% plus, of the energy used to produce light in an incandescent bulb is wasted heat, virtually, 100% of the energy used to produce light with an LED actually produces light (and with little-wasted heat energy.)
Since we're conditioned to thinking in terms of “watts”, the light that is produced by, for example, a 100-watt bulb is equal to 1600 lumens of light. This is not linear, however, as a 60-watt bulb would produce 800 lumens.
How do Reflector cones control the light?
With tactical flashlights, however, we're not talking about the typical lumen light conversions, since most of these relate to home light bulbs. The tactical flashlight uses a reflector cone to manage, focus, and control the light from the LED.
Some reflectors are “smooth” to produce a long throwing hotspot (think searchlights) with a clear transition to the light spilled around the center. Other tactical lights use an “orange peel” reflector to soften the transition between the hotspot and spill.
You may have noticed the center light hot spot on some flashlights. These typically have a much-reduced amount of light spilling out to the sides since most of the light is focused in the center. Other lights are more evenly illuminated, a product of the orange peel configuration.
Although theoretically, the choice of reflector type, should be matched to the task to which the flashlight is being used, more and more tactical lights are being developed with the use of the “orange peel” reflector, and the consensus is that this option of more versatile. The tradeoff is not such a steep dropoff, and I notice that orange peel reflectors still retain a solid center focus with an even and stronger light spill off to the sides.
Some firms, such as SureFire, even CDC machine the reflector out of aluminum to produce the desired orange peel reflector cone. Of course, these are more expensive than other lights which deploy a combination of a cheap plastic reflector with a plastic magnifying glass as the lens.
Are the stated lumens accurate?
That's a great question.
Since many lights are sold on lumens, the more the better, and since there are no government agencies who operate as “lumen police”, it is tempting for manufacturers to fudge on their claims of lumens.
And fudge they do.
As I've stated in my post on how to choose a tactical flashlight:
It is not uncommon to see lights that are advertised to be 700, 1000, 1200 or more lumens which are in fact closer to 160 lumens. In fact, one company engaged UL Verification Services, Inc. to test various, commonly available, tactical flashlights with the following results:
- Flashlight 1 – Claimed 700 lumens – tested lumens 166.4
- Flashlight 2 – Claimed 1000 lumens – tested lumens 281.6
- Flashlight 3 – Claimed 1200 lumens – tested lumens 319.6
- Flashlight 4 – Claimed 1000 lumens – tested lumens 331.3
How do you avoid false lumen claims?
Years ago, stereo amplifiers were sold on the basis of “watts”. In other words, how powerful the amplifier was. Certainly then, a 1,000-watt amp was at least two times better than a 500-watt amp. Seriously?
Eventually, consumers started to see how ludicrous this was and they became more nuanced in understanding the features, benefits, and ratings of stereo equipment.
In a sense, the heyday of super hyped lumens on tactical lights is waning. People are starting to see that their 2000 lumen flashlight is less bright than someone else's 300 lumen light.
It doesn't help that China is flooding the market with super-hyped lumen flashlights as really cheap prices. Like 1000 lumens for $12.
But, overstated lumens are the least of the problems with these lights. They're cheaply made and quickly become disposable lights.
The best way to avoid false claims, and end up with a light that you can depend upon, is to stick with some of the well-known brands such as SureFire, Streamlight, Klarus, Fenix, and NiteCore. There are others but these are truly the manufacturers who only sell quality lights. They also include lifetime warranties – another hint that you're buying quality.
In reality, they simply can't afford to fudge on their lumen ratings – no matter how tempting.
So how many lumens do you need?
Well, let's start with Ken Good's recommendation “at least 250”.
Nowadays, that's not that difficult to obtain. When Ken wrote his training manual, 250 lumens were some of the top producing lights.
It's easy to get a tactical flashlight in the 300 to even 1000 lumens range. Many of the gun mounted lights are between 300 and 800, while some of the higher end lights go to 1600 and even 2000 lumens.
The trade-off with higher lumen lights is the runtime.
Even with lithium batteries and DPM chips, higher lumen lights have lower run times than lower lumen flashlights. Most of these lights use 2 CR123A batteries or a 18650 battery, and some have built-in USB chargers either on the flashlight unit itself or built into the battery.
In truth, the run times for even the higher lumen lights are really good, but, there is a tradeoff.
There's also a tradeoff with respect to size, although one light (covered in this post), is small enough to fit into a jean's key pocket yet boasts 700 lumens.
Bottom line, lumens are important and I would suggest somewhere around 300 to even 1000 lumens, but equally important are the features inherent in the light.
You'll need to get a light that you'll carry, so size is important – make sure it's convenient.
You'll need to get a light that is built to take tough treatment and survive in wet situations – you need quality.
Also, some of the features will be critical.
Actually, with respect to tactical lights, the fewer features the better – you want one point control over momentary and permanent light, and maybe quick and easy access to a strobe. Too many other features or a requirement to use two different control points (for example a tail button and a side button) will make tactical use too complicated during a time of stress.
Check out my Recommended Gear page for more recommendations and reviews.
Become a knowledgeable buyer, you're life, and the lives of your loved ones may depend on it.
Always be prepared. Be well.