An everyday carry (EDC) flashlight is an essential tool. It’s mission critical equipment no matter what the mission may be. Unfortunately, all too often very little thought is given to its selection.
There are a number of things that need to be considered when selecting a flashlight. Every flashlight is a compromise in size, weight, light output, battery type, beam shape, beam reach and runtime. When selecting a flashlight, it’s important to consider how it will be used. Flashlights differ greatly in both convenience and performance.
ANSI FL-1 Standard
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has a specification that standardizes flashlight performance. There are six ANSI FL-1 criteria: Light Output; Runtime; Peak Beam Intensity; Beam Distance; Impact Resistance; and Water Resistance.
Although compliance with these standards is voluntary, most major brands now include the ANSI FL-1 performance data on their packaging. The ANSI FL-1 tests and results are intended to provide the consumer with standardized metrics to compare performance. Keep in mind that it’s an honor system, as the manufacturers do their own testing.
Light output is measured in lumens. The lumen is the international unit of measure of the total quantity of visible light emitted from a source. Light Output is measured the highest brightness of a setting of the flashlight powered by new batteries.
Think of lumens as raw output. Lumens provide the potential for performance. High lumen counts, while a great selling point, don’t tell the whole story. Without the proper focus, more lumens may not be as useful on a flashlight.
Some flashlights also list candela or candelpower as a measure of brightness. Candela is the international base unit of luminous intensity. Candlepower, although still used by some manufacturers, is an obsolete unit expressing luminous intensity, equal to 0.981 candela.
Candela is a measurement of concentrated light. Think of candela as light on the target, not at the LED. Candela is the result of lumens being focused and thrown down range.
Peak Beam Intensity
Peak Beam Intensity is the light intensity in candela at the brightest part of the beam. It’s measured at a specific distance with the light on its brightest mode and tightest focus.
Beam Distance is distance in meters at which the flashlight produces a light intensity of at least 0.25 lux, which is the amount of light from a full moon on a clear night. That’s not a lot of light. On variable output flashlights, the beam distance will vary with the brightness setting selected. For realistic engagement with a flashlight, you can cut stated beam distance for a given flashlight at least in half.
Although light output is important and a great comparison tool, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Beam intensity, beam distance, beam shape and runtime all need to be taken into consideration when evaluating the performance of a flashlight. You also want a flashlight that produces the optimal beam with no dark holes, rings, hot spots, or shadows.
An EDC flashlight should have a combination of spot and flood (spill) beams. You need sufficient throw to be able to identify objects at a distance. You also need sufficient flood to provide peripheral illumination for situational awareness. The desired balance will depend on the application. There are two options manufacturers have with a LED in order to accomplish this — use a lens over the LED emitter or use a specially designed reflector.
Runtime is the amount of continuous runtime measured in hours until the light output drops to 10 percent of its original value. Testing is done using the batteries included with the flashlight or using the batteries recommended by the manufacturer if no batteries are included.
The type of batteries must be considered in selecting a flashlight. Batteries may be broadly classified into two types: primary (non-rechargeable) and secondary (rechargeable).
Primary batteries are great if a flashlight will only be used occasionally. If a flashlight will see frequent heavy use, then rechargeable batteries will provide considerable cost savings. The use of rechargeable batteries is also more environmentally friendly. You should never attempt to recharge primary batteries, as it can be dangerous to do so.
Lithium batteries are the most reliable batteries and my choice for tactical applications, although alkaline batteries are good too and less expensive. Lithium batteries have a very high power density, a shelf life of up to 10 years, and superior low-temperature performance.
Some rechargeable flashlights are now available with a charging port on the side of the body, eliminating the need to remove the battery or place the light in a separate charging cradle. Charging may be accomplished via wall (AC) chargers, car (DC) chargers, or USB chargers. And there are also now batteries with a built in micro-USB charging port.
Many of the newer rechargeable flashlights feature a proprietary-sized battery and/or a battery that isn’t user-replaceable. They often also feature a battery status indicator (”fuel gauge”) that allows easy tracking of battery charge/discharge status. A battery status indicator is important to have on any flashlight with non-user replaceable batteries.
The use use of proprietary integral batteries allows manufacturers to design flashlights that are more compact and with a more ergonomic form factor than could be the case if standard batteries were used, making them great for EDC.
That being said, I recommend user-replaceable batteries in a rechargeable duty flashlight, as it allows you to simply drop in fully charged batteries when the flashlight batteries need to be recharged. Additionally, I prefer primary (non-rechargeable) lithium batteries for mission critical tactical applications due to their performance and reliability.
A single output mode may be sufficient for general-purpose use. It certainly simplifies the operation of the light. Some flashlights offer two or more modes, such as Low, Medium and High. You may not use more than one mode very often, but having the option can be advantageous. Lower outputs extend runtime and battery life, are less of an impact on dark adapted vision when less light is needed to accomplish the task at hand.
A variety of mode switching options are available. Some flashlights are programmable to turn on with a particular brightness, for example, maximum brightness. You can then toggle the light to a different mode, if desired.
Some flashlights may offer special modes, such as a strobe. The strobe feature has been the subject of much controversy in the tactical community. Some consider strobing to simply be a marketing gimmick. Others consider it to be a valuable tactical tool.
Strobing is typically employed when closing gaps, to disorientate and confuse threats, channel the route of a subject, or to gain attention. Having a strobe feature isn’t a disadvantage. It’s an additional option that’s there if you want to use it.
As with all lighting techniques, the effectiveness of strobing varies on the amount of environmental light. It works best in conditions of near total darkness. The pulse rate too is important. If the pulse rate is too fast it limits the effectiveness of the technique. If it’s too slow, it is merely a distraction.
The type of on/off and lighting mode switches is an important consideration when selecting a tactical flashlight. The switches should be easy to operation with one hand, yet not turn out accidentally. A flashlight with separated momentary and constant-on switches is considered desirable by many as it avoids switching errors.
With some brands of tactical tail cap switch, for example, you press for momentary-on, and twist for constant-on. Click switches are also popular. With these, you press for momentary-on, press further to click constant-on.
Momentary switches act as a “dead man switch” in the event the light is accidentally dropped. A lock-out feature or switch shroud that prevents the light from being accidentally turned on is also a desirable feature.
The Impact Resistance is also an important consideration. Impact Resistance is the height, in meters, from which the light (including batteries) can be dropped onto concrete without cracking or breaking and still function. Lights are dropped while in the off position and allowed to come to rest before inspecting them for damage. For ratings over one meter, each sample light is dropped six times with different faces towards the ground. The primary purposes of this test to ensure the light remains fully functional it’s accidentally dropped.
Water Resistance is important for any light that will be used in the rain or around bodies of water. ANSI FL-1 Water Resistance is rated in accordance with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Standard 60529. IEC 60529 is a European system of test specification standards for classifying the degrees of protection provided by the enclosures of electrical equipment.
There are three possible water resistance/immersion ratings: IPX4: IPX7 and IPX8. Testing for water resistance and immersion is conducted after the impact resistance testing.
IPX 4 – Water Resistant. Can be splashed with water from all directions without water getting inside.
IPX7 – Temporary Immersion. Immersion up to 30 minutes at a depth of 1m.
IPX8 – Submersible. Submersible up to 4 hours at the specified depth. IPX8 is meaningfulness without a manufacturer specified depth.
Body Materials & Construction
The better flashlights have bodies of machined aluminum or heavy-duty polymer. There are pros and cons to each.
Machined high-strength aluminum alloy bodies are extremely resistant to damage from impact, crushing, or bending. It allows the lights to be made as small and light as possible without sacrificing strength. Not all aluminum flashlight bodies are the same. Thinner aluminum bodies are a little lighter, but they lack the durability of the thicker, machined aluminum bodies
The term “aerospace aluminum” tells you little. It’s marketing jargon without any specific meaning, although it may be employed by manufacturers to indicate high grade. I sometimes find myself using the term in writing.
Heavy-duty polymers are durable and lighter in weight than aluminum. They are more comfortable to hold in cold weather and are non-conductive. As is the case with aluminum bodies, not all polymer bodies are the same.
Look for polymer flashlights that have bodies made of high-strength, non-impact-resistant, glass-filled polyamide polymer. Because polymer is inefficient at conducting heat away from the emitter, many high-output polymer flashlights utilize an aluminum head or bezel.
The window material is also important since it both protects the reflector and emitter of a flashlight from water and debris, and allows light transmission. The windows on the better flashlights are commonly either Lexan® polymer or tempered, coated Pyrex® (borosilicate) glass.
Size matters, especially for EDC. Thanks to technological advances, small size and high output aren’t incompatible with one another. Smaller flashlights are easier to carry and are more likely to be at hand when needed. They are also much easier to employ with flashlight-assisted shooting techniques.
Larger lights are no longer necessarily brighter, although they are more likely to have a longer runtime due to a greater battery capacity.
Some flashlights feature a crenellated bezel to facilitate their use as an impact weapon for self defense. The crenellations do perform quite well for their intended purpose. Although a flashlight with aggressive self-defense crenellations will generally not raise any eyebrows, it may be considered a prohibited weapon in some instances. And, depending on how the flashlight is carried, the crenelations may also chew up clothes.
Should you decide to go with a flashlight with a crenellated bezel, one option to make such a flashlight more likely to go under the radar in a non-permissive environment, would be to to place a slip-on filter over the bezel. Although that defeats the purpose of the crenellations, it’s quickly removable. Another option with some flashlights is to remove and replace the crenellated bezel with a standard bezel / bezel ring in those instances in which the crenellations could pose an issue.
Some Additional Advice
Whenever possible, try before you buy. Pick the flashlight up and operate the switches. Think about switching on, off and between modes under the loss of dexterity due to stress or gloves. Test the flashlight by shining it down a darkened corridor to see how brightly and broadly it illuminates an area.
The ergonomics are an important consideration. The flashlight should be comfortable, easy to hold, and provide a good grip. Look for models that have a body, bezel or tailcap designed to resist rolling. Knurling and/or texturing on the body is also an important feature, as it will provide grip and reduce slipping.
Read reviews from trusted sources. Also, check out the warranty. Most of the better flashlights are warranted for life.
It is always a good idea to carry two flashlights — a primary flashlight and a backup flashlight in case of failure of the primary light. As is so often said, two is one, one is none.
Carrying spare batteries or having them at hand, is a must for any flashlight that uses replaceable batteries. Batteries are ammo for your flashlight. Never carry spare batteries loose. Get a battery carrier, such as a Thyrm® CellVault™.
Price should never be a consideration when buying flashlight. Don’t bet your life on an inexpensive flashlight. Spending a little more to get the very best is a cheap investment.
*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.