It's important first to understand exactly what is a tactical light. There has been such a technological revolution with respect to these products, that you really need to understand what are the critical features. These are discussed in detail below. Secondly, you need to recognize your need. Hunting dust bunnies under the couch is completely different from having a light that can be used for self-defense. This site reviews and recommends a number of lights based on specific needs. Finally, Tactical lights are the only defensive gear that is universally accepted. No matter where you are, at home, on the road, or even in a plane, you can use your tactical light to protect yourself. Nothing else comes close to this universal acceptance and effectiveness.
How did the lowly flashlight evolve into a quality piece of tactical gear?
Not that long ago, the typical flashlight was a rather fat bodied thin aluminum, or black or yellow plastic job, with two or three D cell batteries, and an incandescent bulb. You may remember them. They weren't waterproof, nor were they shockproof. The bulbs quickly burned out, and the batteries would run down faster than you could replace them. Carrying the light around was no easy feat (it certainly didn't fit in the pocket), it only had an on and off switch, finally, it really wasn't that bright.
In the late 20th Century, the synchronicity of three scientific discoveries really matured to create the modern day tactical flashlight – the LED light chip, the Lithium battery, and the Digital Power Management (DPM) chip. These, combined with modern construction processes and materials, is what evolved to produce the present day tactical flashlight.
Light Emitting Diode (LED)
An LED is a semiconductor chip that converts electrical energy directly into light. With an incandescent bulb, about 90% of the generated energy is heat, with only about 10% producing light.
The principal manufacturer of LED's is Cree, Inc., which was founded in 1987 at North Carolina State University. Cree is a global leader in lighting and chip technologies and is predominately used in quality tactical flashlights. The Cree chips are developed with various maximum lumens (brightness), and color temperatures (warm, blue etc.). Thus a manufacturer will choose a specific Cree chip to match the power and brightness levels they wish to achieve in a given tactical flashlight offering.
Lower quality flashlights will generally not use or advertise that their light contains a Cree LED. It is not unusual, however, to see these companies use the Cree nomenclature on their products. For example, the XLM-T6 is a common Cree LED and some flashlight companies will use the designation “XLM-T6”, without stating Cree, in an effort to mislead consumers into believing that the product has a Cree LED.
Generally LED are rated by lumens or brightness, runtime, color, and throw. There is a technical definition of “lumen”, however, essentially, lumens relate to brightness. As opposed to thinking in terms of “watts”, as you would for an incandescent bulb, you think in terms of “lumens” for tactical flashlights.
As a comparison, a 100-watt incandescent bulb will produce the same light as a tactical flashlight with 1600 lumens.
As a practical matter, 5-10 lumens is enough light to illuminate a menu in a dark restaurant, whereas 150 lumens plus is needed for tactical purposes, and lights with 1600 – 2000 lumens are often used in search situations.
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
As I've stated numerous times, in various TactBright articles, there is no government agency which is charged with determining the authenticity of lumen claims, so the consumer is left to use their own common sense in determining realistic lumens.
How can you tell if the Lumens rating is realistic?
Generally, the top Tactical Flashlight companies, such as SureFire, Streamlight, Fenix, Klarus, and NiteCore and others, have actual lumen ratings which are in line with their stated claimed lumen rating.
Additionally, it should be understood that Tactical Lights which sell at two for $22 are probably not quality lights. Obviously, everyone is concerned about pricing and would like to purchase as inexpensively as possible. Unfortunately, a number of unscrupulous manufacturers are flooding the market with these cheap lights and the only distinguishing characteristic are the numerous names to which under. To further complicate this issue are the numerous positive ratings on Amazon and other forums as well as ex-military special forces individuals which promote and sell these lights.
The Lithium Battery
Compared to Alkaline batteries, Lithium batteries:
- Shelf Life – can be stored 10 years and still supply up to 90% of their power.
- Temperature Tolerance – can function from -75° to 176° F.
- Power Density – for a given size, it would take 2.5 alkaline batteries to match the power of one lithium battery.
- Weight – lithium batteries weigh about half as much as alkaline batteries.
- Voltage – terminal voltage for lithium batteries is 3+ volts compared to 1.5 volts for alkaline batteries.
- Voltage Maintenance – lithium batteries maintain fairly constant voltage for up to 95% of its life vs. alkaline batteries which drop rapidly and wastes power.
Compared to Alkaline batteries, Lithium batteries rock and are truly a marvel of modern technology.
Rechargeable Lithium batteries are also commonly available and can be recharged with separate chargers, a USB ports on the flashlight itself, and even USB ports on the battery itself.
The typical Lithium batteries are the CR123A, and the 18650. Two CR123A's are equivalent to one 18650, and some lights give you this option. Interestingly, the proliferation of Vaping has promoted the availability of 18650 batteries and their related chargers, since that is the typical battery found in e-cigarettes. Additionally, AAA and AA alkaline, Lithium and Lithium rechargeable batteries are also often commonly used.
Digital Power Management Chips (DPM)
DPM's control not only the power management utilization of the battery but for choosing the various switching options such as brightness levels and strobe. Prior to this you essentially had on and off.
Current DPM chips may allow for multiple light levels, strobe, SOS, as well as lock-out and even power level indications. Generally, three flashes indicate a 70% plus power lever, with two flashes indicating 30% to 70%, and one flash indicating less than a 30% power reserve. Other light may use a Green, Orange, and Yellow light to indicate power reserve.
In addition to the three technological advancements discussed above, the modern tactical flashlight is a combination of both waterproof and shockproof construction, with elements which include the use of a high-strength aerospace anodized aluminum alloy that renders them extremely resistant to damage from impact, and crushing, and allows them to be much smaller and lighter.
Reflectors, which is the coned shape metal between the lens window and the LED, in some lights are even made from CNC-machined aluminum instead of stamped metal or molded plastic allow for superior light reflection from the LED. Of course, these cost more but they maximize the quantity and quality of the light.
Finally, the transparent covering that protects the reflector and LED from debris and water is called the window. Although some manufacturers use plastic and cheap glass, better quality lights use tempered, coated Pyrex glass. Pyrex is essentially ordinary glass with boron added, which gives it two desirable properties: it melts at a higher temperature and has a much smaller coefficient of expansion. In flashlights, the latter quality helps resist cracking when one part of the window is heated more than another, as when a flashlight is turned on, or when it is suddenly cooled, as when splashed with water.
How are tactical lights rated?
In the United States, ANSI in 2009 published FL1 Flashlight basic performance standard. This voluntary standard defines test procedures and conditions for total light output, beam intensity, working distance, impact and water resistance, and battery running time to 10% of initial light output.
Impact resistance is measured by dropping the flashlight in six different orientations and observing that it still functions and has no large cracks or breaks in it; the height used in the test is reported. Water resistance, if specified, is evaluated after impact testing; no water is to be visible inside the unit and it must remain functional. Ratings are given in IP Code terms, whereby jet spray corresponds to IP X6, brief immersion to IPX7, 30 minutes immersion at 1 meter or more is IP X8. Typically, most quality tactical lights claim an IP rating of X8.
Outside of these ratings, Tactical Flashlights come in various sizes with tail, side and both tail and side switches. Obviously, the use of different LED's and batteries produce various maximum lumens with various running times and different switching options. These options are discussed in full in the TactBright reviews and on the Recommended Resources page.
Choosing the right Tactical Light
How do you go about choosing the right Tactical Light? Here are some suggestions:
- Understand your purpose.
- Do you want a light on your nightstand or are you just hunting dust bunnies? Is this for backpacking or self-defense? Is this a gun mount? Do you want every day carry, or would it be all right to have a sheath on your belt? You need to start with the end in mind.
- Understand that quality costs.
- There are hundreds of thousands of cheap lights flooding the market (unfortunately). Again, understandably, everyone is concerned about costs, and Asian markets are capable of producing really cheap lights. You need to recognize that a Tactical Light is really part of your self-defense and protection gear – for you and for your family. How much is that worth? Seriously, this is not the place to cheap out – buy quality and be protected.
- Understand what makes a good Tactical Flashlight.
- This article lays out the features of a Tactical Flashlight which directly relate to an understanding of what light to purchase. Spend time in understanding Tactical Lights as you would any other serious purchase.
- Look at my Reviews and my Recommended Gear page. I regularly update recommendations that I feel fit specific needs. Check out these reviews as well as the other tactical articles we produce and continue to educate yourself on this important subject.
Summary and Recommendations
The modern-day Tactical Flashlight is nothing like the flashlight of even 20 years ago. It has a light source, the LED, and power source, the Lithium Battery, as well as a Digital Power Management chip that is brighter, longer lasting and capable of more options than even imaginable with older lights.
Critically important, the modern Tactical Flashlight is a non-lethal tool that can save your life and that of your loved ones. It is also a tool that is accepted everywhere – at home, at work, while traveling, you name it. It should be part of everyone's everyday carry.
Learn about this important tool. Learn about your available options and learn how to use it. Check out the numerous posts on TactBright to find out more.
Always be prepared, be well.