I’ve written about the utility of the high-power flashlight as a defensive tool. How do you choose from the myriad of makes and models?
I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately about flashlights, mostly asking about specific brand names and if I’ve had any experience with them. It seems that nearly every day a new “tactical” light manufacturer comes along, and there are getting to be a veritable ton of new flashlight choices. How, I’m being asked, can one make an intelligent choice?
Let’s start with the fact that most of the popularly-priced lights are made in “job shops” in China, where flashlight manufacturing has become big business. That isn’t to say that they’re necessarily bad (or good), but you have to understand that starting a flashlight company is really easy, especially in China. There are lots of small machine shops that can produce the metal parts, plastics molders to do nearly everything else, and even companies that make pre-assembled circuit boards ready to be put into a light.
This is why you see so many different brands of flashlights that look eerily similar: that’s because they are!
These small manufacturers have their choice of quality, as they can get everything from very low-end components to very high-grade parts. Chinese manufacturers will gladly supply whatever quality level you want to pay for, and they’re capable of producing both the best and the worst.
Some makers will choose the lowest-cost options, some will choose the most expensive, and the rest (most of them, actually) will fall somewhere in between. The problem is that it’s not possible for most of us to discern which parts are good and which are so-so.
The housing of the flashlight, for instance, is the least important part; it’s easy to make an aluminum tube that can stand up to being driven over by a Jeep, a favorite advertising (and “testing”) gimmick. The switches which actually make the light work, however, are not so easy to evaluate — the cheap ones fail early and frequently, and the only way to know is to use the thing for a while. (I once attended a training session for a major flashlight company, and a large percentage of the lights they were using to sell us on their product had defective switches!)
Another invisible area is heat sinking. An LED module develops a lot of heat, which both shortens the overall life of the LED and results in diminishing output as the module heats up — and they heat up rapidly! A poor heat sink means that heat doesn’t get dissipated, which result in a light which won’t last as long and won’t put out consistent amounts of illumination. Again, it’s a hard thing to examine (because the light has to be disassembled, a task which isn’t necessarily easy) and hard to test (doing so requires some specific measuring equipment and knowledge.) It’s easier to drive over the light and take pictures of it, and frankly probably sells more lights anyhow!
The circuitry which powers the LED is another area of differentiation. Not all voltage regulation circuits are the same, and some of them even use some sneaky slight-of-hand to make their lights look brighter than they really are. Some aren’t mounted to resist shock very well; even some well-regarded U.S.-made lights aren’t all that shock resistant, as I’ve found out the hard way!
Beam quality is another variable. A beam with artifacts (like rings or dim spots) makes it harder to positively identify your threat, as you need to keep moving the light around so that the brightest spot falls on what you want to look at. A light that puts all of its output into a thin, pencil-like beam makes it difficult to see surroundings, likewise making it much harder to spot threats.
I could go on, but suffice it to say that there’s more to judging a quality light than lumens and tough-looking pictures.
Over the years there are a few flashlight companies I’ve come to trust for high quality, longevity, output consistency, and beam quality. I’ve purchased a lot of lights, broken more than a few, and have settled on a very few trusted makers. None of them have ever paid me for an endorsement.
If you run into me anywhere, I’ll usually be carrying either an Elzetta (the top of the heap in flashlights; yes, you pay for it but there’s nothing better) or a FourSevens (when I need a top-notch AA-powered light, which I usually do when traveling.)
That isn’t to say there aren’t other good manufacturers out there, of course. These, however, are the ones I’ve personally grown to trust — to the point that I actually carry them all the time and in preference to anything else.
The problem is that there are a lot of third-tier makers as well, and they’re spending big money on advertising and endorsements in the shooting world. Educate yourself; the Candlepower Forums (CPF) are a great place to learn about what makes a modern flashlight work, and the reviews tend to be skewed heavily to the better quality lights. In general, if I can’t find a review of a light on CPF I usually won’t bother with it.
A good flashlight is not only a great utility tool, but a very useful defensive tool as well. Choose wisely, and don’t be impressed with the advertising images!
-=[ Grant ]=-