What is a tactical flashlight? It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot and is used in a ton of marketing, commentary, and content. Here are a couple more questions for you. What is a defensive flashlight? Is a tactical flashlight and a defensive flashlight the same thing? Does it even matter?
As subjective as it may be, I would say that a tactical flashlight is designed and used to gain an advantage or desired outcome when paired with a handgun. It is used to gather as much information as possible as quickly as possible to decide the best course of action for the situation you are trying to mitigate.
This is where the water gets murky. Wouldn't that definition work for a self-defense flashlight as well? Sure it could, but for this article, we are going to differentiate a tactical flashlight from a defensive flashlight by the presence of a firearm. A tactical flashlight is used WITH a firearm and a defensive flashlight is used WITHOUT a firearm. Does it even matter? Maybe not, but stick with me here. Let’s get into some features to look for in a tactical flashlight.
5 features of a tactical flashlight
A tail-mounted switch is ideal for simple activation. This type of switch is easy to use, which is ideal in tactical or defensive situations. I like being able to easily locate and be able to activate my light in total darkness. To me, this is where a tail switch is a clear winner. The only thing I have to figure out is which way to orient the light and the switch is where I need it to be. With the flashlights I own with a side switch/button, this is not the case. I find it can be hard to locate the switch in total darkness and it takes me a bit of time to do it. They are fine for a lot of uses as long as they are not tactical or defensive.
Think: more is better. It is popular for folks to feel a need to state a minimum recommended number of lumens for different types of flashlights, and there may be times when this is possible to do. I’ve been there myself. However, when it comes to tactical flashlights, defensive flashlights, weapon-mounted lights, etc., there are just too many variables to give a definitive answer regarding minimum output.
In the most basic terms possible, you need enough light to accomplish the task at hand and typically, more is better. I've heard the arguments about blinding yourself indoors, and yes, it is possible. However, it’s simple to avoid this issue and proper training will mitigate this concern. Spend the money, get a quality high output light, and get proper training on how to use it.
You have to be able to maintain a good grip on your light. There could be times when you are trying to grip your flashlight and your hands may be wet, sweaty, bloody, etc. Your light needs to be constructed in such a way to assist you in this area. Make sure the body of your flashlight has adequate knurling. Avoid flashlights with a smooth body and little to no texture.
I prefer lightweight anodized aluminum bodies on tactical flashlights. Most quality lights will have a certain level of waterproofness and will offer impact resistance. A tactical flashlight is a tool that needs to be dependable and can handle some hard use. A rugged, durable design that offers waterproofness and impact resistance is important. My preference is lightweight anodized aluminum bodies. I like finding a balance of strength, durability, and weight.
In stressful situations, there is no room for fiddling around with various outputs on a tactical flashlight. When the adrenaline kicks in, it is best to have a light that is simple to operate. Look for a flashlight with very simple operation or with the ability to program simple operation. When you deploy the light and depress the switch, it should go to the highest output. Avoid lights that require you to cycle through various modes before hitting high.
I prefer a couple of different options when it comes to how my tactical flashlight operates. One option is to use a flashlight with a single high output that activates with a press of the tail cap. The other option is a dual-mode momentary switch where a light press activates low output and a full press activates the high output. I like to be able to fully press the switch in a high-stress situation and know I will be pushing out all the available lumens.
There are a lot of quality flashlights on the market and personal preference is very subjective, much like the features I mentioned above. My opinions are based on my personal experiences and your experiences may dictate something else entirely. However, when it comes to my two current “go-to” tactical flashlights, they are:
- Surefire EDCL2-T: The Surefire EDCL2-T features a high 1200 lumen output and is simple to use with a full press of the momentary tailcap switch. Some folks complain about having to twist the tailcap for constant on activation, but I consider that a secondary feature of this light. If you want a “clicky” activation switch for daily use you should not get this light. In my opinion it is better suited for tactical or defensive applications for that very reason.
- Streamlight Protac 2L-X: The Streamlight Protac 2L-X features 500 lumens and is programmable allowing the end user to select 1 of 3 different programs. My preference on a tactical or defensive light is to avoid any opportunity for user error. With that in mind, I program my 2L-X for high output for simple use. This helps me rest easy knowing when I activate my light it is ready for business.
Both of these lights have held up very well for me with some decent use. I haven’t owned the Surefire for quite as long due to how new it is to the market, but I haven’t been disappointed thus far. I can say from the construction quality and based on my history with other Surefire products, I have high expectations in terms of longevity.
As for the Streamlight, I have owned numerous variations of the Protac over the years. I have never had any issues with them and they have been exposed to some pretty hard use. I have bent a few pocket clips, but I don’t consider that a ding on the light. Dependability has been a non-issue for me.
The bottom line is when you are shopping for a tactical flashlight you need to be intentional about the features you are looking for. Get some training and find out what works and doesn’t work for you. Compare different lights, lumens, and features to make your decision based on experience. My preferences are based on my experiences professionally and in my personal life. These have changed and will more than likely continue to change as technology and tactics progress over time. When I look back at what I was using and how I was using it 15 years ago, I can only laugh.
If you are interested in the basics of using a flashlight for self defense, be sure to check out our article: “How to use a flashlight for self-defense.”