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Choosing the Right Flashlight

Choosing a flashlight may seem straightforward. And for a typical, every day, around-the-house flashlight that you’ll spend $10-20 on that may be true (more or less). But as your needs become more specific and demanding, that flashlight you pull out of the everything drawer isn’t going to cut it. That’s when you’re moving into the realm of the “tactical” flashlight.

The term “tactical” often refers to law enforcement but, depending on the context, it can also refer to other performance factors. The needs of a camper, hunter, spelunker, or law enforcement officer are quite different from one another, but all those users have specific requirements and those are what the term “tactical” answers to.

Types of Flashlights

... Left to right: Spotlight, Lantern, Headlamp, Worklight

Spotlights — The most common type. The most powerful spotlights will pierce through thick smoke and dust. On the other end of the spectrum are common domestic flashlights, but there is a huge range in between. Spotlights usually have a flood mode for widening the beam and lighting more space.

Lanterns — Like an old-fashioned lantern with a flame, a tactical lantern lights up a relatively large area by spreading light in all directions. They can be used for reading or ambient space lighting.

Headlamps — Headlamps provide a focused light source and are great for when you need your hands for other activities (skiing, hunting, caving, etc.). These lights attach to an elastic band that fits around your head. As your head turns, the light will shine wherever you face.

Worklights — Work “flashlights” are very portable lights that can be carried with tools, usually equipped with a stand for positioning

Features to Consider

Output — It might seem obvious but the amount of light a flashlight delivers, measured in lumens (lm), is its single most important feature. A high lumen light, like those used by police or fire fighters, will usually have an output of at least 800 or more lumens (and some go as high as 10,000 lumens). These lights throw powerful beams, designed to cut through smoke and/or light up a wide area. A high output beam is virtually blinding to someone it is aimed at. A more moderate output, adequate for many less extreme tactical uses, would be in the 200-600 lumen range.

Range — Just as important as the maximum output is the available range. Many tactical lights offer multiple settings for different situations. Brighter isn’t always better, especially when used indoors, so settings that allow the user to easily adjust to lighting conditions are very desirable.

Beam Distance — You might assume that the higher the lumens, the farther the beam will travel, but that isn’t always the case. A very narrow, focused beam reaches the farthest, but it throws very little ambient light in its laser-like path. So, a light that is made for beam distance may very well have a greater beam distance than a higher lumen light with a more multi-purpose design.

Beam Type — The two basic beam types are Spot (narrow beam with long reach) and Flood (wide beam with short reach). Many tactical lights are adjustable and allow for transitioning between the two beam types, usually by twisting the head. But some lights are dedicated Spots or Floods.

Bulb Type — LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs now rule the field. So, the only point here is that if anyone tries to sell you a flashlight with incandescent or xenon bulbs, you should pass. They are comparatively expensive (if not, it’s only because the seller is trying to unload them), get very hot, and drain batteries quickly.

Size — This is an essential consideration. A flashlight that doesn’t need to be carried on your person (but lives, for example, in your vehicle) has no practical size limitation. Whereas a camper or cave explorer will place a high value on their light being compact and light. If you need to carry it externally—on a belt or piece of clothing—look for clips that make it easy to access.

Materials — One thing you won’t see on a tactical flashlight is a lot of plastic. A plastic casing is the hallmark of a household flashlight (usually with nothing more than an on/off switch). Tactical flashlights are made of heavier, more durable materials (aluminum, titanium, stainless steel). If minimizing weight is essential, there are composites and polymers available, but they are not as durable.

Battery Life — Make sure you understand the battery platform you are buying into and what the options are. Whether you use disposable or rechargeable, you probably need extras on hand if you are planning on sustained use. Rechargeable batteries are more expensive up front, but may prove less expensive over the lift of the flashlight.

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