Tactical Flashlight Basics|
At the most basic level, a tactical flashlight is lighting equipment specifically designed for use in applications that may require combat, offensive actions and military engagement. Tactical flashlights are generally designed to be used in tandem with a weapon or firearm and thus are usually smaller, more powerful and far more durable than their everyday counterparts. Commonly constructed of steel and aluminum, tactical flashlights are often waterproof and utilize batteries and lamps that maximize light output while producing long run times. Switches are usually positioned so that the user can operate the lamp one handed, with switches located at the rear or ergonomically placed so that it can be turned on or off with the thumb.
Tactical flashlights tend to be smaller and more compact to allow the user to hold the light in the same grip position as a firearm to maximize targeting accuracy. Other variations on the tactical flashlight include hands free lights that may clip to hats, clothing or affix to straps intended to allow the unit to act as a headlamp, much like a miners light. Still more variations are even more highly specialized and allow the light to be directly attached to firearms for complete hands free operation and precise targeting control.
Tactical flashlights continue to become even more specialized and refined as new technologies and designs come to the fore, improving run times, durability and battery life. LEDs, lithium ion batteries and high strength composites are being increasingly used to produce tactical flashlights of unsurpassed quality and effectiveness that for all intents and purposes are rendering older versions obsolete. Although more costly to purchase, tactical flashlights offer a degree of power and reliability that is invaluable in fields such as law enforcement, security, emergency services and the military where both the lives of official personnel as well as civilians may depend upon lighting accuracy and effectiveness.
Pre-2005 Tactical Flashlights and Recent Advancements
Prior to 2005, tactical flashlights had not evolved much technologically beyond the mundane household flashlight. Tactical flashlights were typically made out of metals and such as aluminum and steel or plastics/nylon composites, and bulbs were usually incandescent with few options beyond krypton or halogen for improved brightness. Much of the design of tactical flashlights dealt with better reflectors for more intense light projection and ergonomics to allow better control of the light in conjunction with a firearm. In the early 2000’s lighting technology began a major evolutionary trend with the appearance of illumination grade LEDs. Although these LEDs were generally low powered and unable to match incandescent lamps in terms of light output, they demonstrated greatly increased run times and a far greater durability. As interest in LEDs increased, developers very quickly brought LED lumen output up to par with incandescent lamps until today in 2011, where we now have LEDs that surpass incandescent lamps in every aspect of performance.
LED technology has now become an industry mainstay in tactical flashlight design, allowing manufacturers to produce flashlights that can run for over 10 hours on a single charge while producing three times as much light as an incandescent lamp. Since LEDs have no filament and are entirely solid stated in design, they are highly resistant to damage from impacts and vibrations such as those encountered from dropping or the discharge of a firearm. The lifespan of an LED, particularly in the low voltage applications of flashlights, are over 100 times greater than incandescent flashlight bulbs, reducing maintenance costs and producing a reliability the incandescent bulb cannot match.
Although LEDs have brought much needed improvements in reliability, power and durability, the technology for supplying the power to these LEDS has itself been slower to keep up. Although efficiency increased with LEDs in place of incandescent bulbs, alkaline batteries remained expensive to replace, which put more focus on including rechargeable batteries that could last through several cycles before needing replacement. Early rechargeable batteries were nickel-cadmium units that relied on toxic materials for their construction and required careful charging procedures to preserve their life spans. Improper charging techniques tended to greatly shorten their operational life and they have quickly become obsolete. Nickle-metal hydride batteries were the next step up from NiCds and offered more charge cycles and greater tolerance for improper charging procedures.
Although the most common rechargeable battery in use today, their main drawback is an inability to maintain a charge over long periods and moderate power transfer at low current levels. Lithium Ion batteries are currently the favorite among electronics manufacturers because they are lighter, can transfer a lot of power at low current levels, have no memory issues which simplifies charging procedures and can retain most of their charge for during long periods of inactivity.
Lithium ion batteries are ideal for tactical flashlights due to their light weight and ability to provide a lot of power over a long period of time. Combined with LED technology in a tactical flashlight, the lithium ion battery produces a light that can run for several hours on a charge, needs no special charging procedures and will last for 1,000 or more charging cycles before needing replacement.
Tactical flashlights must withstand exposure to the elements, the vibrations, shocks and impacts associated with discharging a firearm or dropping, and still perform without issue when called upon. To achieve this kind of durability, manufacturers construct tactical flashlights of materials such as aluminum, steel and plastic composites that can withstand extremes of abuse without adverse effect on internal components. Internal components include LEDs, solid state controllers for strobing, dimming and alternate light color functions if included, silicone rubber seals to prohibit moisture intrusion, and corrosion resistant stainless steel and or coated contacts, wiring and hardware. Lenses are typically a polycarbonite composite that resists shattering and scratching. Overall, a tactical flashlights’ construction will allow the unit to be used under a wide variety of adverse conditions without any loss of effectiveness and reliability. Although not indestructible, high grades units like Magnalight’s MK-1 LED Tactical Flashlight will typically last for years with little more than basic care and maintenance.
Tactical Flashlight Choice
Choosing a tactical flashlight depends upon several factors. Prime among these are the intended applications and user comfort. For hunters or hikers, a tactical flashlight may be slightly overkill but represents the best in reliability and effectiveness if they are willing to absorb the slightly higher cost. For military or law enforcement use, how well the light can be handled in conjunction with a weapon, how easily it is maintained, light beam power and operational charge life are the most important considerations to take into account. For professional services, a tactical light should not hinder operation of a firearm and it should be strong enough to provide accurate identification of subjects at some distance. Only through careful consideration and testing can one be certain which tactical flashlight is right for their needs.