I have a drawer full of flashlights here. There’s a huge variety of types, in all different sizes – with a heavy bias towards single AA – but they all have one thing in common. They’re all broken. On the other hand, I do have two ancient Mini Maglites that are beat to hell but still work perfectly.
A good tactical flashlight is an essential piece of equipment. The problem is the military issue, right angle model is far too big for most uses. It’s heavy, bulky and not all that powerful. That’s why almost everyone buys their own pocket size model. Up until a couple of years ago, the sensible soldier or law enforcement officer bought a Mini Maglite; they’re tough and powerful, and there’s a whole range of accessories available for them. The trouble is that the design is pretty outdated. Current Maglites now have modern LED lamps instead of old-fashioned bulbs, so they’re brighter and last longer, but the rest hasn’t changed in years.
That’s not to say a Maglite is a bad flashlight, because it definitely isn’t – they’re extremely well made and really tough. There are a lot of newer models available though. The question is, when choosing a tactical flashlight, which one should you get? There are plenty excellent flashlights to choose from. There are even more that look great but will let you down the first time they take any abuse, and that can be a disaster.
If you’re buying a new tactical flashlight, LED technology is a must. There just aren’t any advantages to a traditional bulb. LEDs are brighter, use less power, withstand shock much better, and don’t burn out after a few hundred hours. Don’t consider anything else. What you do need to think about is the sort of power output you need. If you’re looking for a compact flashlight for night map reading and finding stuff among your personal gear, you’re going to be fitting filters or masking most of the lens with tape, so there’s no point in going for a 900-lumen pocket searchlight. A high-powered LED will just generate excess heat and run down your battery more quickly. On the other hand, if you’re checking perimeter security, you’ll want something that throws a good beam.
Getting the battery right is vital. A lot of modern LED flashlights use 18650 lithium ion batteries. These hold a lot of power, but you might not always be able to recharge them. AA cells are smaller but easily available almost everywhere, including through the military supply chain.
Finally, you need to make sure you get a quality product with good waterproof seals. Look for a reputable brand like Surefire or Streamlight; don’t take a chance on a no-name model because it’s likely to let you down when you need it most. A good flashlight will survive being splashed, submerged, dropped, bumped or even used to smash windows, and that sort of quality will only cost you a few dollars more. As my drawer full of dead ones shows, buying cheap won’t save you any money in the long run.