What is the best defensive flashlight? Here are my favorites!

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Last time we considered the value of the flashlight as a defensive tool. Today, let’s look at the choices in the marketplace and how to make sense of them.

After much experimentation I’ve come to some definite conclusions as to what constitutes my “ideal” defensive flashlight.

* It has to be reliable above all else. It has to be able to withstand abuse, dirt, dust, perspiration, rain, and occasionally being dropped into a mud puddle or onto a concrete floor without so much as a flicker. It also needs to withstand being used as an impact weapon and still function.

* Reliability extends beyond abuse; the on-off switches are a weak point of most flashlights, and in fact the reason I will no longer buy lights from the major ‘tactical’ light manufacturer is because of first hand experience with their faulty switches.

* Speaking of switches, the main on/off switch should be in the tail of the light. This way you can grab it and turn it on very quickly without needing to hunt for the switch.

* The beam should have a great amount of flood to it; I’ve found that lighting up an area with a thin ‘pencil’ beam, no matter how bright it is, is tedious at best. I want the beam to light up a room without having to move it around much. The LED that best accomplishes this is the Cree XM-L series, and I recommend you only consider lights which use it.

* The light should put out somewhere between roughly 125 and 250 lumens of light. Lumens are, unfortunately, a very bad way to compare flashlights because they don’t take into account the qualities of the beam, which are more important than the amount, but it’s what everyone uses. Anything less is a little dim for my taste, and anything more is overkill. (It’s worth noting that my first defensive flashlight use was with a relatively dim 65 lumen incandescent, but it was blinding compared to the 25 or 30 that a big Maglite put out at the time.)

* The light must not have a strobe mode, or at least one that can be disabled. Despite what you might have seen on YouTube, strobe modes don’t disorient people on the receiving end. They do make your attacker look like he’s moving in slow motion, but only because you’re missing half of his movements. I want to see what he’s doing, so I don’t use strobe – and I don’t want my light to inadvertently drop into strobe mode. If the light has such a feature I want it so buried that it can’t possibly be activated accidentally.

* The on/off switch must be mounted in the tail and have a momentary mode before it ‘clicks’ into the on position. It also needs to do one thing only: turn the light off and on. If it controls brightness and the accursed strobe modes, it’s no good as a defensive tool. I don’t want my light to come on in battery saver mode because in my panic I hit the button the wrong way. If I need light, I need all it can give me right now!

* If you want the light to serve as a general purpose tool, you’ll want a high mode and a medium or low output mode. If the light has those, they need to be accessed by doing something other than pushing the tail switch.

* It must not have a plastic body; they’re unable to adequately dissipate the heat the electronics package generates, which leads to premature LED failure. Metal only!

With those criteria in mind, your major choice will be the kind of batteries the light uses. There are two major types: lithium primary cells (usually of the CR123 size) and alkalines or NiMH rechargeables (the familiar ‘AA’ size.) Both have advantages and disadvantages.

Lithium primaries have exceedingly long shelf lives and have very high power density. This means they can deliver a lot of power in a short time even after sitting for a couple of years. The brightest lights you’ll find will almost always use lithium batteries, and you can have your choice of 1- or 2-cell sizes. The disadvantages of lithium cells is that they’re expensive (you can mailorder them in bulk for a bit over $1 apiece, but if you buy them in the local store you may end up paying close to $5 a cell!) Their energy density also makes them a little dangerous; lithium batteries have been known to “vent spectacularly”, which is geek-speak for “blowing up”. A good flashlight will usually contain the mess, but will probably destroy the light. (The remains of a ‘vent’ are also considered hazardous waste, and for good reason.)

The ‘AA’ format packs far less power at half the voltage. Alkaline batteries can’t deliver a lot of electricity in a short amount of time like a lithium can, and don’t have anywhere close to the same shelf life. The result is generally a dimmer light that is physically a bit longer. On the plus side, they’re cheap and do allow you to use rechargeable NiMH cells. The rechargeables are even more economical to operate and deliver greater current, which allows for a brighter light. In most cases a flashlight running NiMH batteries will be noticeably brighter than when using plain alkalines. They’re also safer; catastrophic failures with AA batteries are exceedingly uncommon.

I have both lithium and ‘AA’ lights in my collection, and find myself using the ‘AA’ lights and NiMH rechargeable batteries more often in the last couple of years. Their economy and safety can’t be beat, and with the new XM-L emitters they’re incredibly bright as well. (One big benefit of the lights using two ‘AA’ cells is that they’re long enough to make a decent Kubotan, allowing you to use them as fairly efficient pain compliance tools. I always carry a 2-cell ‘AA’ light on airliners for just that reason!)

I’ve owned quite a few lights from a number of manufacturers, and here are my current picks. None of these manufacturers have provided me with anything; I’ve purchased all their lights at retail, just like anyone else. My ratings recommendations spring from my own hard-earned experience!

Lithium models:

The very best flashlights on the market come from Elzetta. Their base two-cell model will set you back nearly $200, but there is nothing else that’s built like one. If you search the ‘net you’ll find torture tests that are darned near unbelievable; what kills other flashlights the Elzetta shrugs off. I’ve used mine extensively for several years and have encountered zero issues. Their Malkoff light modules are easily upgraded, making for a flashlight that can’t be outdated when newer, brighter, more efficient LEDs are introduced. An Elzetta is a light you buy once; expensive, but in my estimation they’re worth every penny. Get the one with the Malkoff M61 module for the perfectly shaped beam. (The only fly in the ointment is that this is a single-output light, which makes it less desirable as an all-around lighting tool, but when I carry the Elzetta I always have along a single-‘AA’ cell pocket light as well. The Elzetta does most of its duty as a bedside light to be grabbed along with the gun and cell phone should an emergency occur, a task which doesn’t require variable output.)

A more economical alternative are the lights from EagleTac. I’ve owned a couple of their models for several years, and despite banging them around they continue to function. I’ve sent a lot of sub-$100 flashlights back to manufacturers for warranty repairs, but never an EagleTac. My favorite is their 2-cell T20C2 Mk II; though it has a strobe mode assigned to the back switch, it can be deactivated and can’t be re-activated using just the switch. Be aware that it’s available with a couple of different LEDs and you need to make sure you’re ordering the preferred XM-L. Very good lights at a fair price.

In single-cell lithium lights, one I particularly like is the Olight M10 ‘Maverick’. Most of the single-cell lithium lights are small enough to preclude any effective use as an impact weapon, but the M10 is just enough longer that it protrudes from the hand and makes solid contact with the target. Of course it has the desired XM-L led and a neat little side-mounted switch for controlling output (the on/off is in the proper tail position.) Olights have a generally excellent reputation for durability.

Alkaline/NiMH ‘AA’ powered lights:

In the 2-cell category my absolute favorite is the FourSevens Quark Tactical QT2A-X. Finding a bright XM-L equipped ‘AA’ light isn’t the easiest task, but the QT2A-X comes through. Excellent build quality, very bright, durable tail switch that only turns the light off and on, and a simple high/low output choice by turning the head. My wife has carried one since the model was introduced and has had zero issues. I liked it so much I bought one for myself.

The runner-up in the 2-cell ‘AA’ light sweepstakes is the EagleTac P20A2 MkII. When I started looking for high performance ‘AA’ lights (after owning nothing but lithium models) a few years ago my first purchase was this light’s predecessor. At the time it was the brightest light in its class, and it proved to be reliable and rugged. The P20A2 MkII improves on the old model immensely. It shares all of the attributes of its lithium brother profiled above, including the availability of two different LEDs; make sure you get the XM-L model.

In the single cell ‘AA’ category there are unfortunately no lights which meet all my criteria; that is, there are no out-of-the-box flashlights which do. Some get close, but all eventually have issues which render them less than desirable for the task. There is, however, a very easy way to get one!

The Quark Tactical QT2A-X, which I talked about previously, is actually a multi-voltage light; it will put out the most output sized to the battery on which it is running, and FourSevens has extra bodies available. Changing out the body is as easy as unscrewing the head and tail and then screwing them onto the new body. Takes no more time than changing the battery!

By buying the QT2A-X and their single ‘AA’ battery tube (called the “Quark A-Series Body”) you wind up with a very bright single-cell light with the XM-L LED and all of the other features I’ve talked about. As I’ve noted, their lights are quite durable and reliable. (Oh, you can also get a single-cell lithium body as well, the “L Series Body”, to convert the light to use that battery. If you want the pocketable single-cell length but can’t decide between batteries, or want the flexibility to use what’s available, this is the best of all worlds!)

Because of that flexibility I own not one, but two Quark Tactical QT2A-X lights — one set up in its stock two-cell configuration, and one in the one-cell ‘AA’ trim. I’m absolutely pleased with both, as my wife has been with hers.

(One note on FourSevens lights: they come programmed to turn on in “high”, which is a step down from “maximum”. They’re quickly and easily reprogrammed and the lights include instructions, but be aware that they won’t put out maximum light until you do that; you only need to do it one time.)

There you have it: my master list of what I believe to be the best and the best values in high-performance defensive lighting tools!

-=[ Grant ]=-



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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