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What’s different about military tactical lights?

Military vs Civilians and Tactical Flashlights


When most people use a flashlight, they are lighting up the darkness with it. When soldiers use tactical flashlights, you might not even see them. So what exactly makes something tactical and what is different about military use of tactical flashlights?

Tactical flashlights were originally developed to be mounted to, or used in conjunction with a firearm to help in identifying a target in low lighting. These lights were the answer to many needs as they could also temporarily blind an assailant, which we will talk about in more detail later.

The best way to find out the down and dirty of military use of tactical flashlights is to speak with someone who is intimately familiar with the military and combat. For this reason, I spoke to former Army Warrant Officer Edward Powell. Powell spent more than 20 years in the infantry, special operations, and CIA paramilitary units.

What Does the Military Use? 

The military and the government have put out a list of requirements and testing before tactical flashlights can be used. There isn’t one brand or model for all the branches of the military, and special forces units may even choose something completely different than the rest of their branch of the military. Some examples of special forces units are Army Green Berets, Navy Seals, Marine Force Recon, and Air Force Pararescue.

Click this link to the Federal Business Opportunities government website for more information about standards and testing for military tactical flashlights. The physical characteristics, such as lumens, must be tested for certain criteria as well as hot/cold operational testing, weather-related testing (fog, salt, humidity), immersion, durability, MOLLE, and mission capability. Basically, they need to be sure that whatever tactical flashlight the troops are using will hold up under combat and survival conditions.

Military vs. Civilians 


First, the word “tactical” is used to describe something with features specifically designed for military use.

Tactical flashlights can, in many cases, be mounted to a weapon. They are a necessary part of gear for soldiers, law enforcement, and first responders.

There are differences in the uses of tactical flashlights between military and civilians, such as how and where lights are mounted and held. First, we’ll look at military uses and then show how tactical flashlights are great tools for civilians as well.

Tactical Flashlights and the Military 


A military tactical flashlight is more than a tool. Today, it’s generally part of a weapons system.

This hasn’t always been the case, however. Many remember the days when the angle GI flashlight (which is still quite popular) was used by tunnel rats in Vietnam. In those days, a soldier was sent down into tunnel complexes armed with an M1911 pistol and his trusty GI flashlight to engage in very close combat with armed adversaries.

Since that time, military personnel has explored a range of options to make the task of fighting in the dark, often at very close ranges, a little less daunting while increasing the odds of their survival. Mr. Powell recalled, “I remember a time when soldiers mounted a full-size Maglite on the handguard of their M16A1 with hundred miles an hour tape,” referring to Army green duct tape used by soldiers to repair most anything. Powell went on to say, “You can imagine how unwieldy this arrangement was. So, as flashlights decreased in size, more soldiers began using mini-Maglites instead.” Of course, these makeshift mounting systems were not the most effective means of accomplishing the task, but they worked under the circumstances.

It wasn’t until the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were in full-swing that weapons mounted lights became a mainstay in military operations.

The Surefire M951, a ruggedized system for the M16/M4 family of weapons became the preferred system and offered vast improvements over previous solutions. In fact, with the addition of a tape switch, high-output halogen bulbs, and infrared filters gave soldiers a decided advantage over adversaries.

These systems have continued to evolve, in the last decade or so, with additional innovations, such as high-output LED bulbs and miniaturized components.

Weapon Mounted


Weapon mounted lights are used to help when aiming at a target. What you may not know is that, particularly in special operations, infrared filters are added to the tactical flashlights. These filters cause the light to only be visible when using night vision equipment. To the naked eye, it appears that the light is off. This is important so that they don’t give away their position to the enemy or interfere with the users’ vision through night vision devices. Later models have even eliminated the need for separate filters by integrating two light sources, one for visible light and one for infrared.


Combat Use


In close range, these tactical flashlights can be used as a weapon since they have a sturdy build and bezels on the end (also used for breaking glass). They can be used in strobe mode to temporarily blind and disorient an enemy or in SOS mode to signal for help. Moreover, these lights can be used in a “handheld” mode to accomplish a myriad of tasks, including map reading, maintenance, and repairs, or searches conducted on an objective.


Brands Used By the Military 


There are basic standards that tactical flashlights must meet in order to be used by the military or to get a military contract.

Most all of the companies that produce tactical flashlights comply with these standards in general. Also, each soldier may have their own favorite brands and models of tactical flashlights, regardless of what was issued. Some in the military may even purchase their own backup tactical flashlights.

Some brands used are


Surefire- M2 Centurion, M951XM07, M951, G2X
HDS- EDC Tactical, EDC Ultimate
Streamlight- US Military Streamlight Sidewinder, ProTac 2L-X
Pelican- 7060, M6-2320C
Fenix- PD35 Tac, CREE XP-L 1000
Maglite- ST3D01
Fulton- MX991

Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list.

The reason it isn’t comprehensive is that there are so many units that pick out their own lights, but these brands have had contracts with the military at some point. The military mostly buys what is already on the market, so long as it meets the requirements set forth by the government. The don’t commission flashlights as much as they used to. Of course, special units may request certain brands and models and the order is paid for with unit funds.


Tactical Flashlights MUST Be


  • Well built, durable
  • Waterproof, weatherproof, shock resistant
  • Lightweight, and
  • allow for increased grip and ergonomics

Civilian Use

In 1984, LAPD began mounting lights on weapons systems, which then drove the demand among law enforcement agencies nationwide.

This is the beginning of the spread of tactical flashlight use to civilians, although it began slowly and with law enforcement agencies before sparking interest among the general civilian population. Given the nature of police work, the use of tactical flashlights in the law enforcement community was the answer to a great need and coincided with advancements in tactics and weaponry.

Though tactical flashlights were made originally for military use, then police use, they can come in handy for civilians as well. There are some practical ways that we can apply the military uses of tactical flashlights for civilian use.


Self Defense


If you are using a handgun for personal protection, a tactical flashlight can help you see your iron sites better and can help to identify threats. Sometimes the light will scare off an attacker, and other times, it can be used to disorient an attacker long enough for you to either flee or attack. If you are going to be out late at night for any reason, a tactical flashlight is a great piece of gear to carry and is easy to use.



This is probably the most obvious, but worth mentioning. As mentioned above relating to self-defense, a tactical flashlight is a great tool to carry when you will be walking outside in the dark, even if it’s just walking to the car. This will also make sure that you don’t get hurt stepping into a hole or tripping over rocky terrain. In an emergency situation, like when the power goes out, a flashlight is much easier to use than a candle. Keeping a small tactical flashlight on you will ensure that it’s always convenient for any of these situations.

This is the biggest draw for outdoorsmen, such as hunters, hikers, and even divers.

A signal for Help


Have you ever had a flat tire while driving home at night? Not only will your flashlight allow you to see what you are doing to change a tire, but will also come in handy if you need to signal for help. Think smoke signal, but with light.

Utility tool


Tactical flashlights have bevels on the end that are sturdy and can be used to break a window if you are locked out of your car and need to get in before help can arrive. In the same way, these flashlights are built tough, they have to be for military use. This is why a tactical flashlight can also be used as a weapon to fend off an attacker.

Other Considerations


There are some basic features that differentiate tactical flashlights from ordinary flashlights.

Most regular flashlights don’t have the bezel on the end (used for breaking glass and for use as a weapon), nor do they typically have the control button at the tail (which makes turning the light on and off much easier in a tactical situation). Moreover, they also tend to be ruggedized with o-rings for sealing out water and other environmental contaminants and made of aircraft-grade aluminum alloy materials. Most also have a hard coat anodized or similar corrosion-resistant finish.

Beyond the basics, there are several things to consider when choosing the right tactical flashlight for your own personal use.

Sizes range from compact to almost pin light size. There are weapons mounted lights, handheld, headlamps, and more.

Be sure to consider what your circumstances are.

A civilian walking to their car in the middle of the night will not benefit much from a weapon mounted light. A police officer conducting a routine traffic stop is probably not coming at you with a gun mounted light either, as long as the stop didn’t begin with a high-speed chase anyway.

Civilians are generally better served with a handheld light unless hunting with a deer rifle. Soldiers are better suited with a weapon mount. Know your audience.


You Might Want to Know


There are different ways to hold a flashlight, whether you are law enforcement or a civilian.

When we think of holding a flashlight, we usually just think of holding it down by the waist, but here are a few you might want to know if you are ever in a self-defense situation. (Note, you can read more about different holding techniques in this article.


FBI Hold: This is where you hold the flashlight above the head. If the light is shining on an attacker, the attacker won’t be able to see where to shoot and will usually just shoot at the light. Holding it at arm's length above the head means the bullets are less likely to hit you if they come flying.

Neck-Index Hold: This means holding the flashlight with your hand resting on your shoulder, which allows for better illumination on your target and better control over your gun.
Harries Hold: You’ve more than likely seen this type of hold in the movies. This is where the shooting hand rests on the hand holding the light. This hold provides increased stability for the hand holding the gun.

Surefire Hold: In this hold, you position the small tactical flashlight between the middle and ring fingers of the hand holding the gun. This is probably the least useful hold as it may be hard to find a tactical flashlight small enough to fit in between the fingers while holding a gun.

Now that you know all the ins and outs of tactical flashlights, what makes them ideal for military, and how that can apply to civilians you should be ready to meet any challenge that requires knowledge of a tactical flashlight.

(note: I am extremely grateful to Brandy Powell and her spouse, former Army Warrant Officer Edward Powell, for their expertise and service in contributing to this article.)

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