“All The Lumens”: how much flashlight do you really need for self defense?

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I got an interesting email in response to my recent review of the FourSevens Quark Smart QS2L-X and Preon P2 lights. In that review I said that the lithium-powered Quark Smart, at 950 lumens, was actually more than enough light for my purposes and that the Preon at 220 lumens was still easily sufficient for use as a defensive tool.

From the tone of the email you’d think I’d attacked holy writ! He told me that I was “irresponsible” to recommend a flashlight that “only” put out 220 lumens when the 950 lumen models were available. I wrote back that he needed some perspective.

How it all started

The lithium-powered high intensity flashlights started to appear in the late 1980s and introduced those of us in the private sector to the concept of light as a control and distraction tool. The first ones I saw were from a company called Laser Products in Fountain Valley, CA. Their flashlight, which would ultimately become the name of the company itself, was called the Surefire. (In fact, my oldest lithium flashlight is an original Surefire 6P I purchased in the early 1990s and is marked Laser Products on the tail cap.) That flashlight was a revelation: incredibly bright, would fit in a palm but put out more light than a big police-type flashlight that used three “D” cell batteries. Everyone wanted to try it out to see how bright it was!

I carried that original 6P everywhere and it proved its worth against shady characters several times over the years. I’ll never forget the first time: early one evening, coming out the back door of my office, I surprised a car thief breaking into my vehicle. I was about 30 feet away when I noticed someone getting into my car; I was surprised to catch the thief in the act and he was surprised that I’d caught him!  He came out of the car with a two-cell Maglite in his hand (ironically stolen from under my front seat) and raised it menacingly while moving in my direction.

I raised my little Surefire, hit the switch, and put the center of the beam in his eyes. He became suddenly apologetic, dropped the flashlight, held his hands in front of his face and winced at the bright light as he started into the “dance” any cop will recognize: “hey, man, I wasn’t doin’ nothin’…I, uh, lost my keys and was, uh, lookin’ for ‘em!” He quickly headed out of the parking lot while continuing to make up stories to explain his presence, hands in front of his face to shield him from my bright light. He finally turned tail and sprinted down the street.

It may not have been good, but it was good enough

How much light did it take to cause this fellow to reconsider his course of action? The original Surefire delivered — get ready for this — a grand total of 65 lumens. That’s less than a modern LED-powered single-cell penlight (the tiny FourSevens Preon P1, using a single AAA cell, puts out 100 lumens!)

That wasn’t the last time I’d do that with what we now consider to be a “weak” flashlight. The reality is that it doesn’t take all that much to disorient someone momentarily and put him on the defense. If 65 lumens did it so convincingly, I’d think a light that’s five times as bright — which is how bright my current favorite carry light, the FourSevens Quark Smart QS2A-X, happens to be — would do the job even better.

Still, there are those for whom “all the lumens!” is a battle cry, and I can’t say I don’t agree with that point of view to an extent. When it comes to lights, more is generally better. That doesn’t mean, however, that “less” won’t work just fine — particularly if it comes in an easier-to-carry package!

Think about what the task is

I think we sometimes forget the utility of the tools we have, and more importantly how good they’ve gotten over the last decade. Yes, the brighter lights are great to have. If, however, someone can’t or doesn’t prefer to carry the larger/heavier/more expensive light, a smaller model can still do a creditable job in dissuading a bad guy. Of course they’re also fine for all those other personal security tasks, such as looking under the car or lighting up a dark corner.

I’m glad we have the choices that we do today. When I bought that first Surefire it was pretty much the only game in town; if I wanted a defensive flashlight, that was the choice I had. Today we have lights that perform better by any criteria you want to use, even at the low end of the output spectrum. Even the dimmest light I’ve got right now will outperform that old Surefire!

So, to my commenter, recommending a “lesser” flashlight isn’t “wrong”. In fact I’ll always recommend getting the brightest light one can in any given form factor (to include battery types), but if the difference is a light that will be carried and used versus one that would end up sitting on the nightstand I’m always going to go with the one that people can and will have on them when they need it.

That’s the responsible thing to do.

– Grant Cunningham

 

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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