Choosing a flashlight can be a daunting task. There are so many questions you need to ask before making your flashlight selection! What is a lumen? What's the difference between xenon bulbs and LEDs? Are rechargeable batteries appropriate for you or not? How big should the flashlight I select be? What should I spend? The list goes on. In this article I will try to explain some flashlight basics so that you can make a more informed decision to better fulfill your needs.
The first thing you need to do is identify your flashlight needs. Do you want a light that is cute as a bug for an automobile glovebox? For around the house when the power goes out? Head mounted for tracking a wounded deer? Secured under a weapon? Like many other tools, some flashlights are suited to very specific tasks. You probably don't need a $5,000.00 Surefire Hellfighter Spotlight to check circuit breakers; likewise, most compact pocket flashlights won't blind a home invader.
- Bezel: front part of light that often includes flashlight lens, reflector, and bulb.
- Candlepower, or Peak Beam Candlepower: The measurement of the brightest spot in a focused beam.
- CR123: The most common size of 3v lithium disposable battery because of their tremendous weight to power ratio.
- Fast Charger: A transformer used for quick charging lights that sometimes has capabilities of being used with different overseas currents.
- Halogen Bulb: A clean burning bright bulb that maximizes light output with halogen gas that helps keep the interior of the bulb clean.
- HID: High Intensity Discharge lamps replace the filament with a capsule of gas. Very bright and efficient and uses less power. Requires a ballast.
- Incandescent: A bulb which uses a thin filament with electrical current passing through it.
- LED: Light Emitting Diodes. Durable and long-lived lightbulbs. Up to 100,000 hours run time. Soft focus, short range. Less power than incandescent but can give 100's of hours of run time at low illumination levels.
- Lumen: A measurement of the entire output of the bulb. Focus is not considered.
- NiCd: Nickel-Cadmium rechargeable battery. Rugged with high performance.
- NiMH: Nickel-metal hydride rechargeable battery.
- Reflector: Surrounds the bulb and focuses and directs the beam.
- Run Time: How long the batteries will last.
- Xenon Bulb: A clean burning bright bulb that maximizes light output with Xenon gas that helps keep the interior of the bulb clean.
Contrary to popular belief, alkaline batteries are not obsolete. While they are larger in size, weigh more and do not have the shelf life of the popular disposable lithium batteries, alkaline batteries still work as well as they ever have. Any alkaline battery powered flashlight will serve perfectly when a circuit breaker trips or the power goes out at home. An alkaline powered LED flashlight can last for days. That being said, there are alternative power sources such as rechargeable NiCd, NIMH, or lithium ion batteries that might better serve your purposes, so consider the amount of power you need and for how long when buying your flashlight.
Three volt lithium disposable batteries provide more power in a given size than alkaline batteries. It would take about 2.5 alkaline batteries to match the power output of one lithium battery, and one lithium battery weighs about half as much as an alkaline. Lithium batteries also maintain fairly constant voltage for up to 95% of their life. This contrasts with alkaline batteries, which drops voltage at higher discharge rates due to their composition. Lithium batteries have very low internal resistance with their more modern composition, which is ideal for heavy loads.
Disposable batteries generally offer longer run times for a given bulb power than rechargeables and are typically lower in initial purchase price. It's also easier to keep spares on hand. Unfortunately, long term operation costs are considerably higher with disposable battery lights they are seldom as bright.
Rechargeable flashlights have extraordinarily low operating expense and are well suited to frequent use. They can often support a brighter bulb or LED and store conveniently in custom charger holders. The initial purchase price is usually higher and they self-discharge at a higher rate when in storage, but for long term use rechargeable lights offer significant savings over disposable battery lights.
Incandescent bulbs use a thin filament with current passing through it. The filament gets hot, and this excitement causes the filament to glow, making light. The sealed glass surrounding it prevents oxygen from corroding the filament. Gasses sealed in this glass like xenon and halogen increase the operating temperature of the filament, making the bulb brighter and keeping the interior glass cleaner. The life of the filament is also increased. Argon and Krypton are also used but are not as efficient for flashlights. These bulbs are generally not very durable or shockproof, but they do offer an extremely bright white light and are easily focused. They are the most powerful, have great performance and are a great choice for long distances, so if you're buying a light for situations where a lot of light is needed but it doesn't get rough, an incandescent flashlight may be the way to go.
Light Emitting Diodes. LEDs have solid state construction and are extremely durable. Because of their long life (up to 100,000 hours) they do not require periodic replacement, which is great if you're looking to save money in the long run when selecting a flashlight. They have a soft, easy glow and are great for close viewing. They are generally not nearly as powerful as incandescents, but lower powered bulbs can have run times with hundreds of hours in some flashlights.
High Intensity Discharge bulbs use a capsule of metal vapor instead of a filament. Many times brighter than standard incandescents, but require a ballast for current control. Bulbs last at least twice as long as incandescents and emit a very bright white light using less power.
Candlepower or "peak beam candlepower" is the measurement of the brightest spot in a flashlight's beam, with focus not taken into consideration. A lumen is the measurement of all visible light. The best way to get an idea what amount of lumens or candlepower you need for your application is by viewing a light and finding out what the numbers are. These can be found on sites like OpticsPlanet or by checking with the manufacturer. When you get an idea what the numbers are for a couple lights you have seen, you'll get an idea of how much light you're going to want for your application. A keychain light might be one lumen. Some 2AA penlights with a single one watt LED lamp will offer about 45 lumens and run for over three hours. This is useable for most tasks from changing a car tire to preparing food at a campsite. This same light won't illuminate a raccoon twenty yards away very well, but if it had an incandescent bulb which is more focusable it certainly would. Drain on the battery would be significantly more though, decreasing run time. Some lights offer you the choice of switching between LEDs and incandescent bulbs, offering the best of both worlds.
Most experts in personal defense state that a minimum of 80 lumens is required to temporarily blind an adversary, although that is a subjective statement. One variant of a tactical light that is pretty new and works extremely well is a strobe. Strobes are very disorienting and are even able to cause loss of balance easily.
Brightness is very important when selecting a flashlight. If your light isn't bright enough you won't be happy with the purchase, so be sure to take a look at the various numbers, and pick an option that is bright enough for your needs.
Battery size mostly dictates the size of the flashlight. If you want to buy a smaller flashlight, you're going to get a light with a smaller battery. Large rechargeable wall mounted flashlights powerful enough to push light through heavy smoke are used by firefighters not only because of the intensity of the beam, but because they are used every day for long periods of time. Size is not a primary concern. Many of these top flashlights are also rated for use around explosive gasses and vapors due to the rugged and reliable seals used in their construction.
Colored LEDs are popular with hunters lately. Green is not supposed to spook game; red is the easiest on our eyes, and blue tracks blood. Whatever. The next thing you know a pink light will stop your stomach growling in your tree stand. Colors really are easier on your eyes, though, and they do make blood appear black, but from my testing you won't notice the blood any better than with a white light, and if you shine any light on a critter he'll see it. Still, colors certainly are easier on the eyes, so if you want to preserve your night vision on a hunt, be sure to choose a flashlight with variable colored light.
Two schools of thought, take your pick. Metal is stronger. Is it? Metal is heavy and can crack, whereas plastics have resiliency. Metal gets cold, whereas plastic feels less cold. Metal may spark and be magnetic. Old school prefers metal, but many of the most durable and popular pistol frames are some kind of proven plastic material. The choice is up to you. Pick a flashlight with either material for your own reasons.
Any flashlight is fine for light duty use. If it's a work light and swims in a toolbox full of wrenches you should spend a bit more for durability. Some manufacturers make lights that are simply overbuilt for most purposes, but if you're in harm's way like our soldiers, what price can you put on safety? Deer don't shoot back at people, and buildings aren't getting dropped on hunters in the woods, so a sportsman can get by with a lot less than a U.S. Marine in Iraq. Remember, the initial cost of a rechargeable flashlight is higher than a disposable battery light, but in the long run, especially if it's used a lot, it's significantly cheaper.
As mentioned earlier, colored lights are much easier on the eyes than white lights, and for that reason I recommend them for hunting, as long as a white light is available also. The colors (take your pick) are great for getting to your stand before sunrise, but a real pain for field dressing. Some people prefer colors for blood tracking. I'm still not a convert. LED lights really are great in hunting applications because of the soft light and long run time. A headlight with an adjustable band is fantastic in these scenarios because you only have two hands. One normally has a gun or bow in it and the other is carrying other gear or busting brush. Elastic headbands can be used over hats, and headlamps can certainly also be used as a hand-held light.
B. Scuba Diving
Pelican is the primary manufacturer of illumination tools for scuba and diving, and many of their lights are waterproof to 500 feet, much further than we will ever go while alive. Definitely check out the waterproof and pressure specs when checking out flashlight features before your purchase.
C. Law Enforcement
The days of the 6 "D" cell metal flashlight on a duty belt are over unless you need to use it as a club. Since collapsible batons have taken the place of the club, there's no reason to be weighed down and clumsified by such an archaic illumination tool, especially since lights a tiny fraction of the size and weight are readily available with many times the brightness and run time of those obsolete dinosaurs (of course they still work just fine). Various pistol techniques are more easily mastered with a smaller light that fits your hand, and battery replacements are small and weigh about as much as an extra pistol cartridge.
D. Spotting/Marine Use
These are similar uses because of the distance and power required. A waterproof flashlight model is perfect for marine use. You can identify floating debris that can be harmful to your boat's hull, and even see under water to a certain extent. Search and rescue operations are enhanced with good light. Sometimes all you are searching for is deer in a field or a raccoon across the campground. A spotlight is perfect for these tasks.
Camping scenarios lend themselves well to lantern use even more than in the home. Lanterns are perfect for tent use and stationary use on picnic tables, giving a wide area of light for performing multiple tasks as well as comfort. In handheld flashlights, low powered lights with LEDs are perfect.
F. Weapons Mounted
Weapon Lights on pistols are the accessory du Jour. Right or wrong, everyone thinks they need one, and all of a sudden their pistols are obsolete because they do not have accessory rails. Most new pistols have grooves in the dustcover to accept various tactical lights. When first introduced, certain accessory rails were proprietary in size, making sure that you used the manufacturer's own version of a light. Now rails are quickly becoming more standardized with Mil-Std 1913 (Picatinny) sizes.
Problems abound with pistol mounted lights. People point guns at people because they simply want to use their gun mounted light. What is firearm safety rule number one?
Don't point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy! This is a serious matter and not a bit funny. You may find that if you use a mounted light incorrectly you will be shown a pistol holster in a dark body cavity you never knew you had. Some older lights were also heavy and caused pistol malfunctions similar to limp-wristing. Any affixed light contributes to malfunctions a bit. Holsters are still fairly hard to find that accept lights, and if you do find one it has to fit not only your exact gun, but your type of light also.
Weapons mounted lights are a fantastic tool if practiced with and used appropriately. Rifles and shotguns can readily accept powerful lights of all sizes, so when you're choosing the perfect flashlight for your firearm, be sure to consider the weight, brightness and reliability you need.
G. Emergency/Home Use
As stated before, just about any AA powered cheap flashlight will work for checking for a popped circuit breaker, and I have them in many rooms in my house and they are always available. But for more preparedness better lights are required. LED lamps are worth their weight in gold for the long run time they offer. A lantern is useful for gatherings of people around the dinner table or to play cards. I have even played pool under lantern light. At least one bright and powerful light per family should be standard, and more is better. Be prepared. What is safety and peace of mind worth?