Who is this guide for?

You work hard for your money and your time is important. This tactical flashlight buying guide is for people who are serious about finding the best flashlight for them.

You’re going to learn the best tactical flashlights in the top categories for 2016.

As a professional outdoor guide I don’t settle for anything but the best lights when I’m guiding clients and I’m going to distill the them down for you so you, too, can find top quality lights.

What is a tactical flashlight and why do I need one?

 

Good question, friend. Tactical flashlights are, roughly, a category of rugged, durable, and high performance lights meant for specific uses.

These aren’t your cheap dollar store lights one might buy for the kids’ birthday party sleep over. We’re talking about alloy aluminum bodies, high output batteries, and enough lumens to find your way safely down a subterranean river.

Why do they have a place in your gear? Some are meant to be used for self defense, home defense, or security jobs. Others are ultra-compact, lightweight, and high output – perfect for trail runners or outdoor experts.

You don’t have to be riding a dinghy deep in the inky black of night, surrounded by Navy Seals, and landing on some secret shoreline for a hyper-concealed assault to use a tactical flashlight. They’ve earned their place in everyone’s tackle box, pocket, or backpack.

Important factors to consider when purchasing a tactical flashlight:

Not all tactical flashlights are made equal. We’re going to break down some of the most critical distinguishing features of tactical lights on the market today.

Size

Tactical flashlights can come in sizes from barely bigger than a AAA battery to just slightly smaller than a Louisville slugger. Some things which may factor in to your choice here:

  • Larger size may be better for self defense
  • Size will affect portability
  • Smaller lights may be better to carry, larger lights might be best for tucking in the trunk of the car
    Tactical LED Light

    Fenix RC40 ultra high output tactical LED light. One of the larger lights on the market.

    Battery Type

    Tactical LED flashlights often operate on batteries you’ve never even heard of before.

    Particularly the ultra-compact lights tend to use obscure, and expensive, batteries which may be hard to find when traveling. These little high-output batteries allow for amazing performance in the light, but come with serious drawbacks of cost and convenience.

    Before purchasing a light be sure to check what type of battery it consumes and whether or not that makes sense for you.

    Case Material

    Tactical lights are most commonly made from two high grade metals:

    1. Aluminum Alloy
    2. Stainless Steel

    Be careful not to get too wrapped up in the jargon floating around out there. Sellers will try to wow you with words like “military grade” or “aircraft grade”. Just remember – it’s a flashlight, and not a stealth bomber. Chances are that a well made chassis of any stainless or aluminum alloy is going to more than suffice for your uses.

    Both aluminum and stainless are extremely corrosion resistant (aluminum oxidizes immediately after creation). Neither metal has any real superiority when considering corrosion.

    Waterproof Rating

    Most tactical flashlights are waterproof rated to some degree.

    Understanding IPX waterproof ratings can be a little challenging at first so we recommend doing a little research first. Check out this well organized article which will clear up your questions about IPX ratings and which is right for you.

    Modes

    Tactical flashlights can present a variety of advanced and intelligent features. There are so many modes available that it can be a little intimidating to even begin choosing which modes make sense for you.

    We’re going to break down a few of those modes here:

    Strobe

    The strobe mode is most often used for tactical disorientation and defense. This mode can be intended to blind or confuse an assailant be it human or animal.

    SOS

    Distress signals are universal and some tactical LED lights come with a built in emergency distress flash pattern. This is recognizable to trained rescuers and clearly shows that someone needs help at the location of the light.

    High – low settings

    Most high grade lights have several power consumption settings.

    Low settings are great for use around camp late at night when you’re just looking for your toothbrush or organizing equipment. Use this when you’d prefer not to blind yourself.

    Medium settings generally provide a balance between performance and battery conservation. These settings may be your most commonly used as they’re battery conscious yet high output.

    High power settings will burn through your battery like wildfire. These settings are best used when casting shadow puppets on the moon. Your light will cut through the night like a light saber but don’t expect longevity here.

    Lockout

    This handy little feature is great for lights which will primarily be carried in a bag or case. Usually a long press of the button will then set the light so that it cannot be accidentally turned on.

    As an outdoor guide I can tell you it is a major hassle to get into camp and find your light is dead because something bumped it inside your backpacking and it ran all day long.

    Tactical LED Flashlight Reviews

    Best Ultra-High Output Tactical LED: FENIX RC40

    Tactical LED LightFeaturing built-in rechargeable batteries, nearly 11″ of length, and weighing in at a beefy 2.6 pounds this light is not for the faint of heart.We’re talking about 6000 lumens of bad-guy finding power packed into this small baseball bat.

    At just south of $400 this light is not the best choice for everyone. Night fishermen, serious security professionals, and law enforcement may find this light to be worth the investment.

    Luckily this light comes with a shoulder strap. With such an obtrusively wide head it will be hard to find a place to carry it on your equipment or harness. Shoulder strap may be the only way to go if you’re going to carry this with you on patrol. For these reasons we suggest this light may be best for use on car, bike, boat, or ATV.

    Pros:

    • Up to one hour of use at 6,000 lumens of output
    • IPX 8 waterproof
    • Included shoulder strap, car charger, wall charger, extra o-rings
    • 7 modes
    • Plug your phone into the light to charge your phone or other device – at the expense of draining the light battery
    • Can possibly be seen by passing aliens…

    Cons

    • At 11″ long and 5″ wide, this light won’t be easy to justify in the backpack
    • Built-in battery means you’ll have to wait for a charge after you burn it out, no quick swapping of batteries
    • High price

    Best Ultralight Compact Tactical LED SUREFIRE TITAN PLUS

    surefire-titan-plusLet’s take a look at the complete opposite side of the spectrum with this super tiny LED light. Improved for 2016, this long recognized leader in lightweight compact lighting is sure to fit the bill.

    Running on one AAA battery this light is perfect for those who need the adaptability of finding batteries on the go. In many travel situations being able to reliably have access to charge your light or buy specific batteries may not happen. Swapping out a AAA battery is a sure thing no matter when you are on the planet.

    Weighing only two puny ounces (with battery) it makes sense for this light to sport and pocket / hat clip. Carry it every single day and never even notice it until you need it. Clip it to the hat brim for a fishing or camp light.

    Brass plated construction may not technically be as strong as SS or aluminum, but you’d be really hard pressed to destroy this hearty little guy unless you toss it under a tank track.

    Three output modes:

    1. 15 lumens – 7 hours
    2. 75 lumens – 2 hours
    3. 300 lumens – 1 hour

    Pros

    • Ultra lightweight
    • Hyper compact at only 3″ long
    • Replaceable battery
    • Quick detach optional keyring

    Cons

    • Brass body construction
    • Rotating head switch instead of push button switch
    • Relatively expensive for its size

    Best Handgun Tactical LED Flashlight SUREFIRE XC1

    surefire-xc1Any concealed carry operator knows handgun uses are, statistically, extremely close range fights. For this reason it’s not really necessary to go around looking for a light that sports some ridiculous long distance beam for your compact handgun.

    Carrying a handgun comfortably means lightweight and compact size. A nice, expensive, and well selected handgun can quickly become clunky, bulky, and uncomfortable with a poor choice of light.

    The XC1 is small! Tipping the scales at 1.6 ounces with one AAA battery this little piece of equipment won’t weight you down or change the ergonomics of your handgun.

    The only real negative to the Surefire XC1 is the weighty price point at well over $200.

    Pros

    • Lightweight
    • Ultra-compact
    • Ergonomic

    Cons

    • An expensive addition to your equipment
    • Compact design may cause those with smaller hands to adjust grip for access to switches

    Best LED Headlamp BLACK DIAMOND STORM

    blackdiamond-stormAn improved design on a well loved platform from a company that knows how to make outdoor gear. This one is for just about anyone looking for that perfect sweet spot in a headlamp LED.

    There are brighter or more impressive LED headlamps out there when you look at the numbers – the Storm comes in packing 250 lumens of light from a single LED. This isn’t the biggest number in headlamp output by any means.

    Here’s the reason we chose this headlamp – it’s compact and robust with features and settings without having a standalone battery pack. I can’t stand having an extra batter pack dangling off the back of my head while wearing a headlamp and you’ll find it defeats the purpose of a compact headlamp.

    The Black Diamond Storm balances great features and output with one single battery and light housing on the front of a comfortable band.

    Pros

    • Fully adjustable power output
    • Red and green night modes
    • Up to 80m focused beam
    • IPX 6/7 Waterproof

    Cons

    • Uses four AAA batteries

    FAQ:

    What parts of a tactical flashlight need maintenance?

    Regularly clean the threads of your tactical light to ensure longevity and upkeep. Use a damp paper towel that won’t tear apart to gently clean debris from both sides of all threads.

    Clean the waterproof o-rings using the same damp cloth and check them for damage. Nicks, pinches, or rotted rubber in your o-rings can cause water to leak past and destroy your light. Check and clean o-rings regularly.

    Use a gentle application of SILICONE based lubricant on the o-rings before reassembling. Silicone won’t rot your rubber o-rings, other lubricants can destroy the rubber. USE ONLY SILICONE!

    How do I clean my tactical weapon light?

    Coming straight from the manufacturer, the best recommendation for weapon light cleaning is as follows:

    Clean gunfire residue from your weapon light by using a pencil eraser. Make sure it’s new, clean, and soft rubber. Avoid those old, hard, dried out erasers, they could cause micro scratches on your lens.

    What does LED stand for?

    LED is short for “light emitting diode” this is a solid-state piece of electrical hardware which produces light.

    LED’s can be manufactured to emit light in just about any wavelength of the spectrum.

    What are the advantages of LED over incandescent bulbs?

    LEDs are much more efficient than traditional incandescent.

    An LED of the same light output will last much longer than the equivalent incandescent bulb on a single battery charge.

    LEDs don’t put off much heat, this means you can run very high output lights with almost no residual heat. This is one reason why LEDs are more battery efficient than incandescent bulbs.

    LEDs can be easily tailors to produce full spectrum white light or any light color in between. LEDs can be programmed for many output modes and strobe effects.

    Summary

    Don’t get too wrapped up in the tech specs of every light on the market. It’s important to recognize what your intended use is for your light before purchasing.

    There are hundreds of great tactical LED lights on the market and each one has its place for the right person at the right price.

    Our list of the best tactical lights has shown you great products at each end of the market so don’t be afraid to do some searching if you need a light somewhere in between.

Featured image credit Brian Wong