Guns and flashlights go together like beans and cornbread

Posted: October 24, 2011 in Beginner, Information, Product Reviews

And if you don’t know how beans and cornbread go together, you need to educate yourself.

So you’ve got a gun and you want to be able to use it to defend yourself. That’s a good step. But when do most bad things happen to good people? Night time’s the prime time for crime time, or so it seems. You have to be ready to use your gun in a darkened environment, but shooting at something you can’t see violates rule #4. You need to identify your target before firing. There are a number of sad stories of people shooting their teenage kids sneaking in after curfew because they didn’t clearly identify the target before shooting. These safety rules aren’t just to cramp your style, they’re intended to preserve innocent life. So if you can’t identify your target as a legitimate threat to your safety or the safety of your loved ones, you don’t shoot it. It’s also incredibly hard to hit what you can’t see. Your solution is to bring your own light.

But which light to bring? There are thousands of different lights from different brands. Some of them are super cheap dollar store plastic jobbies, and some can cost several hundred dollars. Obviously, that’s a heck of a range. What does this light have that this one doesn’t? In many cases, there’s not a ton. Expensive lights may be brighter, but how much brightness do you need? The big difference in lights based on price seems to be durability and reliability, as well as how well the company will stand behind their products. Surefire, pretty much the gold standard of flashlights, has an amazing level of customer service. No-name Chinese flashlight from Wal-mart is likely to have a replacement guarantee, in that you are guaranteed to have to replace it before too long.

For some people and for some jobs, that’s just fine. I have a ton of cheapy flashlights scattered all over my house. Sometimes you just need a little bit of light and if it turns out that it’s broken, you can pretty easily just grab another one. In many cases, like in pitch blackness and when you’re working at arm’s reach, almost any amount of light is sufficient for what you need to do. For others (searching for fugitives in the trees from a helicopter) you will need a lot of light.

How do you decide which light is right for you? First, I’m going to assume that you want what is commonly called a “tactical flashlight.” That’s a bit of a useless term, since tactical just means “something you use to help you accomplish a task”. Pretty much any light will help you accomplish a task, so I think the term is mainly just marketing drivel. Anyway, lights that are designated as tactical lights will generally have a few features you should look for, which is why I bring them up. They are designed with durability, simplicity, and functionality in mind. At least they should be. I have a few that are more than a little complicated, and I’ve stopped using them for anything other than in-home administrative stuff. Anyway, here’s a list of the qualities you should look for in a flashlight:

  • Tailcap switch
  • LED lamp
  • ~1″ Diameter
  • ~6″ Length
  • Water Resistant
  • Impact Resistant
  • Smooth Bezel
  • Strobe (Optional)

A tailcap switch just means that the activation button is on the end opposite the lamp, instead of being somewhere on the body. The big Maglites or those super cheapy plastic flashlights with the slider switches are good examples of what you don’t want. You want a push button you can active with your thumb while holding the light in your fist. The reason you want this is the holding the light in this way gives you the greatest flexibility. You can hold it way up high to shine light down on something, you can put it next to your face and have it illuminate whatever you’re looking at, or you can use it as a striking tool. I prefer the Surefire 6P/G2/Z2 tailcap functionality to any I’ve tried. It’s a momentary switch, so you push it and the light comes on, you release it and the light goes off. If you want a constant-on, you twist the tailcap to tighten it down. If you want to lock it out so it doesn’t accidentally turn on, you loosen it. It’s about as simple as it gets, and it helps you avoid accidentally switching to constant on when you just wanted a momentary flash. The more features your light has (low, medium and high output plus strobe, plus SOS, plus whatever) the tougher it’s going to be to manage in the way you want under stress, as a rule. If you want a light with 60 functions for when you’re camping or when you have friends over to show off your flashlight collection (I can’t be the only one who does that), that’s great. But for your “save your life” light, simple is good. Strobe is good, if you can get it, and specifically if you can get it in such a way that you don’t accidentally get strobe when you wanted momentary, or accidentally get constant on when you wanted strobe. Having all those functions controlled by various manipulations of the one button seems a bit iffy to me. You would have to practice with it a lot to ensure that you could rely on using it correctly under stress. So anyway, that’s a huge discussion of tailcap switches, but to my mind, that’s really what elevates a flashlight from “good” to “great.”

LED lamp is a no brainer these days. You get more light, longer battery life, impact resistance, and longer bulb life. There is no reason, in my mind, to go with anything but LED in any flashlight ever again. Until someone invents something better, anyway.

The reason I suggest a diameter of roughly 1″ is that it should fit comfortably into your hand. If you have smaller hands, you can go with a narrower light, and bigger hands can manage a thicker one. Basically, you want something that’s thick enough to get a good grip on and thin enough that it isn’t bulky or uncomfortable to carry/hold. Same thing holds for the length. You want it to be long enough that your thumb can work the tailcap switch and the bezel sticks out from the other side of your hand. This is partly just for function, but it’s also for striking. Anything from about 4″ to 7″ is tolerable, but something in the 5-6″ range is ideal. You want it to be portable and manageable.

Water resistant should be a duh. It doesn’t need to be a dive light, but you don’t want it fritzing out because you tried to use it in the rain. Impact resistant should also be a bit of a duh. You’re using this primarily as a light, but it’s also a good impact weapon if someone gets up in your grill. That’s an argument for intense impact resistance. What about just regular impact resistance? Some cheap lights with incandescent bulbs can break just from falling out of your pocket. That is not at all the kind of flashlight you want to stake your life on. Get a light designed to take a beating. Whack it on the floor a few times and make sure it’s not going to die on you. If it does die, you should contact the manufacturer and tell them they sold you a junky light and demand a refund. If you bought a good brand, you shouldn’t have an issue with the light, and if you do, then you shouldn’t have an issue with the customer service.

You want a smooth bezel on your light. I know they make some with giant vampire fangs and razor blades sticking out of the front of them, but you don’t want those, no matter how badass they look. For one, 99 times out of 100 that you use that light, the only face that will be in danger of getting shorn off is your own. You will tear up your pockets, your hands, your car seats and anything else that gets close to you with one of those ridiculous things. For two, if you should actually be forced to use that light to defend yourself, opposing council is going to show it to the jury and your lawyer is going to have to explain why you decided to buy and carry a flashlight with a garden weasel on the front of it. Rest assured, the jury will see a giant black spiky light and think that you’re the wack job for carrying it, no matter what the dude did that forced you to tag him with it. Your light should be simple, bland, innocuous. It should look like you had a flashlight in your pocket that any reasonable person would carry, and you had to use it to defend yourself, not like you went out and bought the DEATHLITE 9000 and then went hunting dark alleys for victims. Finally, you just don’t need it. I took a flashlight/handgun integration course and during training I accidentally whacked my partner in the forearm with my very smooth bezel and it cut into his skin like a cookie cutter. I felt awful about it. But that was me hitting him with much less than 100% force and with a smooth bezel light. If I’d been using some spiky monstrosity, I could have done some real, lasting damage. When you’re whacking a dude with your light to defend yourself, you’re going for “Hey, stop it!” not “Maimed for life”. Trust me, if pain is going to stop an attacker, a plain smooth bezel will hurt plenty. If it isn’t, a spiky light means you’re just going to splash a lot more bad guy juices around than is good for your health.

The strobe is an optional one. Some people like it, some people don’t. It can indeed be disorienting, and it can help to hide your movement behind it, but it can also complicate your controls. Personally, my fighting lights don’t have strobes. I would rather maintain my clean, simple interface. That’s just me, though. If you think a strobe is the best thing ever, then you go buy a light with a strobe.

So that’s what you’re looking for in a specific light. What brands should you check out? Surefire is my favorite. They’re real proud of their lights (the $80 minimum kind of proud) but there’s a reason for it. They’re great. Battle-tested, rugged, reliable, bright, everything you want in a light. But you pay for it. Streamlight is a brand I’ve had recommended a number of times, but I don’t have much experience with them. From what I hear, they’re just a light step below Surefire in price, reliability and design. Probably worth a look. Insight makes pretty lights, and I had one of theirs that I really loved. Until I dropped it on the concrete floor of my basement and it broke, it was my very favorite light. Could have been a fluke, but I just don’t trust them anymore. Fenix is sort of the dark horse. I also don’t have experience with them, but they have a good rep and good prices. They’re a Chinese manufacturer, so I wouldn’t count on great customer service. I keep meaning to buy one of them, but the ones I want always end up being just a little cheaper than Surefires, so I never want to take the risk when I could buy one I know I’ll love. Jetbeam is another Chinese company that makes solid lights. I have one that I like, but it’s too complicated to be a viable fighting light. I think they have good quality materials and workmanship from what I’ve seen, so they’re probably worth another chance.

What about other considerations? Batteries are one. A lot of tactical lights take lithium CR123A batteries. They’re pudgy little guys, and they’re more expensive than regular batteries, but they last a good long time. They also crank out the kind of power you need to run a bright light. What about brightness? Most recommendations for tac lights suggest 80-125 lumens or so. I would stick with that if i were you. Unfortunately, lumens is a really lame way of measuring a flashlight’s output, and there’s no standard measurement or regulation on it. You can get an 80 lumen Surefire that is visibly brighter than a 200-lumen cheapo light. How does that work? No idea. You can also get different “temperatures” of light from different flashlights. Some are such pure white they almost look blue, and others have a distinctive yellow tinge to them. That’s pure preference, as far as I’m concerned. Rechargeable? I tend to like that on a conceptual level, because I hate spending money on batteries. However, most kinds of rechargeable battery will lose charge over time even without use. If you plan on putting  light in your glove box, you might come back in a year or two to find it dead right when you need it most. Bad news. So do some research on batteries and see what makes sense to you. What about a low mode for navigating in a dark room or reading a map? I would say get one of these and carry it on your keychain. Anything where you just need a little light or where you aren’t worried about needing to whack a dude with it, that little light is the best thing out there. My first one survived 3+ trips through the washer and dryer before it finally died on me. They’re light, cheap, bright, and rugged. Probably the best money you can spend on a pocket flashlight. I would rather have my fighting light do that one job and do it the best it can, and let my cell phone or an alternate light be my backup source.

As you may have guessed, my recommendation for the very best light you can get that meets all of our criteria is this one: Surefire 6P LED followed closely by the Surefire G2 LED. 6P is all aluminum, and G2 has an aluminum bezel but a polymer body and tailcap.

Those are decent prices, too. Mostly because Surefire stopped making that design and went with this one instead. They’re brighter (by a lot), more expensive (by a lot), and now come in two versions. The “Tactical” is just like the old one (momentary switch, twist for constant on) and the “Pro” version also has a low mode. I’m not entirely sure how that one works, though. As with the older models, 6P means aluminum housing, G2 means polymer.

If you’re thinking “I will never spend more than $20 for a flashlight” then you should probably just make sure you’re home before dark every day. The more expensive lights are often worth every penny, if you know what you’re looking for and buy a good brand. Now that you’ve read this article, you should be in a great position to make some smart choices. As always, check online for reviews. Amazon tends to be pretty good for those, but the very best place you can possibly go to get info on flashlights is the Candlepower Forums. Those people put my flashlight geekery to shame. Go there, learn from them, and then make an informed choice.

How do I know what works and what doesn’t? Because I’ve bought a lot of crappy lights. I’ve gotten some with big spiky faces and 16 different light modes and all manner of other nonsense. I wasted my money so you don’t have to. You get the benefit of my idiocy. Enjoy!

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