Plenty of people ask me what I think the best tactical flashlight is. My normal response is “the one you have in your pocket.” In reality what they really want to know is what are the features and functionality to consider when making a purchasing decision.
In this post I’ll share all of the features and functionality you’ll need to be aware of when selecting one for yourself. This post is for anyone buying their first tactical flashlight, anyone unhappy with previous flashlight purchases, or anyone needing more practical information about tactical flashlight features and manufacturers.
Why should I read this?
The goal of this post isn’t to sell you something (like most other “best tactical flashlights” posts). The goal is to arm you with data that will help you find a flashlight that you’ll really like to use. All of the photos used in this post are of tactical flashlights I own. (Not stock flashlight photos off of some manufacturer’s website).
My hope is this information helps you pick the right flashlight(s) for the task(s) at hand. Just like tools, you have more than one screwdriver and you’ll probably find you’ll need more than just one type of flashlight.
At the end of this post I have a link to another page with a list of my current favorite tactical flashlights if you want to see my top picks in each category.
Note: Links to Amazon.com may be affiliate links that generate me a small commission at no extra cost to you.
How do you plan to use your tactical flashlight?
Where and how you want to use your tactical flashlight will have a direct bearing on the model you choose. The reason there are so many different flashlights to choose from is that each one is designed with a purpose.
The exciting thing is that manufacturers are packing more lumens into smaller flashlights due to more advanced designs, LEDs and power sources. Every year new models get released and popular models get upgraded with the latest components.
Full size tactical flashlights
A full size tactical flashlight is one that has to be carried in a holster and can’t be carried in your pocket. The exception to that is tactical or cargo pants which typically will have at least one pocket that could carry a larger flashlight.
Full size tactical flashlights are typically used as “nightstand” flashlights, truck flashlights, or bug out bag flashlights. Larger flashlights generally will have higher output (over 2000 lumens) and designs that make them suitable for search and rescue applications or situations where you need a ton of throw to illuminate objects at great distances.
Mid-size tactical flashlights
The mid-size tactical flashlight is really the sweet spot for most people making their first premium tactical flashlight purchase. Fenix, Nightcore, Klarus, Olight, and others have some great values in this space.
These are flashlights that easily fit in your pocket and can have an output of up to 2000 lumens. This is my favorite class of tactical flashlight because you can use it for so many different types of lighting applications.
EDC – Everyday carry (small tactical flashlights)
Everyday carry flashlights probably aren’t exactly tactical, but they are really useful due to their size. They are smaller and less powerful but they are so easy to carry you really have zero excuse not to always have a flashlight with you.
These flashlights are great for task lighting. Some even have magnets in the tail of the flashlight so you can stick them to your open hood as you work on a car. Some of these tiny flashlights actually have 600 or more lumens of output.
Hybrid Tactical flashlights
These are flashlights that have high lumens output but an unconventional design. For example, Nitecore just released a flashlight with 10,000 lumens of output and it’s only 4.33″ long and the flashlight head is just 1.61″. Unfortunately, these non-standard designs make them tough to mount on a black rifle or to use easily in conjunction with a handgun.
Lumens ratings – everything you need to know
The first thing people want to know is “how bright is the tactical flashlight? The reason this is almost always the initial question people ask is that the lumens rating is one of the primary features that manufacturers highlight. It typically has the greatest impact on the overall cost of the flashlight as well.
What is flood and throw?
As you read more about tactical flashlights you’ll hear the terms flood and throw. Flood and throw describe the lighting characteristics of a flashlight. “Floody” tactical flashlights are better at giving you more even lighting from edge to edge but may sacrifice long distance lighting capability.
If your tactical flashlight has a ton of throw the beam is typically narrow and good at lighting up the very center of your field of view. Conversely, you’ll lose edge to edge brightness.
How come this 3200 lumen tactical flashlight doesn’t seem as bright as this 2000 lumen model?
I have a 3200 lumens tactical flashlight that doesn’t appear to be as bright as one of my 2000 lumens output flashlight. It doesn’t mean that the output ratings are incorrect. It’s all due to design.
The 2000 lumens output flashlight uses a smooth silver reflector with a narrow, deep design. The 3200 lumens model uses a silver orange peel reflector. The reflector is a bit more shallow and slightly wider.
These two design differences have a direct influence over the lighting characteristics of these flashlights. The 2000 lumens flashlight with the smooth, narrow reflector has a ton of throw and it appears brighter than the 3200 lumens flashlight because the beam is so concentrated.
The 3200 lumens output flashlight (due to the reflector design) doesn’t concentrate the light, it spreads out the light. It’s been designed to prevent light fall off at the edges, but that sacrifices brightness at long distances.
So you need to decide what kind of flood and throw characteristics you want in a tactical flashlight. Look for clues in the flashlight design (namely smooth vs. orange peel reflectors), read GOOD reviews that INCLUDE beamshots (like the ones you find here), and use flashlight forums for additional feedback from actual users.
How many lumens do I really need in my tactical flashlight?
This answer is predicated on the “type” of tactical flashlight that you want to buy. If the flashlight is “full size” I wouldn’t buy anything with less than 2000 lumens of output. If you want a mid-size model I think you need to buy at least 1000 lumens. In an everyday carry model I’d get at least 600 lumens.
Remember, that most tactical flashlights can only access the highest output in turbo or high mode and it’s meant to be used for minutes at a time, not hours. In other words, you’ll probably be using less than the maximum lumens output much of the time.
My thoughts on super cheap flashlights claiming really high lumens output
The adage “you get what you pay for” applies to tactical flashlights. If you see an off-brand flashlight claiming 3000 lumens of output for $19.95 I’m going to take an educated guess that it’s an inflated claim. If you are on an extreme budget one place you can go to sniff out bargains is the BudgetLightForum.
Occasionally, I’ve purchased an off-brand flashlight based on forum member suggestions and been pleasantly surprised. So the bargains are out there but you really need to do your research if you choose to go with something that’s not from a major manufacturer.
Tailcap switches, side switches and user interfaces
Every tactical flashlight has a user interface. That user interface consists of the mechanisms that give you access to the different lighting modes on your flashlight. Typically, this access is through a side switch or a tailcap switch, or a twisty head.
There really is no industry standard for the design or functionality of these switches. Each manufacturer uses these switches and their functionality as a way to differentiate themselves from their competition.
Tailcap switches and how they work
Almost every tactical flashlight has a tailcap switch. Exceptions to that rule are the small, everyday carry flashlights. The tailcap switch allows you to hold the flashlight at eye level.
A tailcap switch typically performs the following functions:
- Depressing the tailcap switch completely turns the flashlight on
- Partially depressing the tailcap switch turns the tactical flashlight on temporarily (sometimes in turbo mode or if the flashlight has last mode memory, whatever lighting output you used last.)
- Continuing to depress the tailcap switch (for some flashlights) will cycle through the lighting modes.
Dual or split tailcap switches (my favorite type of tailcap switch)
The dual or split tailcap switch is my favorite type of tailcap switch design. Essentially, you have two different tailcap switches on the tactical flashlight instead of just one. There is no standard for this type of design, as each manufacturer builds them somewhat differently. The biggest advance in this type of design has come from Klarus and you can see an example of their newest design below. You can read more about this design in my Klarus 360X3 review as well.
A dual tailcap switch typically performs the following functions:
- The primary switch to turn the flashlight on and off
- The secondary switch gives the user immediate access to either the strobe mode or the High/Turbo mode
- The secondary switch typically will also cycle through the other lighting modes.
Why is this tailcap switch design my favorite? Because it give me immediate access to the strobe capability of my tactical flashlight. This makes it a great non-lethal defense tool.
Side switches and how they work
Side switches typically do the following:
- Turn the flashlight on
- Cycle through the all of the lighting modes
- Can be used for flashlight programming (if alternative lighting modes are available)
Side switches are also thumb operated, but make it convenient for holding the flashlight waist high.
Twist head switches and how they work
Although there are a few mid-size tactical flashlights that use a twist head to cycle through the lighting modes, it’s not a very common interface. In fact, it’s my least favorite way to use a tactical flashlight.
You typically have to hold the body of the flashlight with one hand and then adjust the flashlight head with the other hand. You end up fiddling around trying to switch between modes. It’s slow and inaccurate and frustrating.
Unless the tactical flashlight is an exceptional (and I mean EXCEPTIONAL) price I’d stay away from flashlights using this type of control.
Water resistance and impact resistance
Tactical flashlights are both water resistant and impact resistant. Each flashlight will have a different rating so you’ll want to review the spec on any light you are interested in.
When you look at a flashlight’s spec sheet you’ll see an IPX rating. The IPX rating indicates the depth a flashlight can be submerged before water breaches the o-ring seals. Most tactical flashlights have a rating of IPX 8 (or typically 2 meters).
Impact resistance and potted electronics
Impact resistance is defined by the manufacturer. Most tactical flashlights are rated for 1 meter. The exception to this would be tactical flashlights that use “potted” electronics.
These flashlights embed their circuitry in resin which make them far more impact resistance. They are also more recoil resistant as well (when mounted on a shotgun or black rifle). One manufacturer that uses potted electronics in their tactical flashlights is Elzetta.
Temperature control features (protecting the internal electronics and LED)
Any premium tactical flashlight uses some form of temperature control. There are really no standards for this feature. Each manufacturer approaches this with different types of technology that is proprietary to the brand and/or flashlight model.
Why does a tactical flashlight need protection from overheating?
Imagine you have a tactical flashlight running at the maximum of 2000 lumens of output. This means the LED in this highest output mode (aka turbo mode) is getting over-driven. The LED gets very hot and that heat is transferred into the head of the flashlight. It also is heating up the circuitry within the flashlight.
What happens if your flashlight has no temperature control?
If you don’t have some kind of temperature control, a few things happen. The flashlight can get so hot you can’t hold it, you potentially fry the internal circuitry and the LED. The internal temperature control will ramp down the output of the flashlight to prevent component damage. That’s why I mentioned earlier that the maximum output of a tactical flashlight is meant to be used for minutes, not hours. In the event that you forget, a good tactical flashlight will lower the output automatically eliminating potential damage.
Tactical flashlight reflector design
I already touched on this topic in the Lumens section, but I’ll quickly explain why reflector design makes a big difference in the performance of your tactical flashlight. Essentially, it determines if your tactical flashlight is designed for “throw” or “flood.” In other words, a reflector is either designed for creating a narrow focused beam of light or designed to spread light evenly across your field of vision.
Typical tactical flashlight reflector designs
There are two typical reflector designs. These designs can give you a clue as to the type of lighting you can expect from your flashlight:
- Smooth silver reflector – typically found in flashlights designed for throw and longer beam distances
- Orange peel silver reflector – typically found in tactical flashlights designed to give you more even lighting characteristics
Other design characteristics that can affect light quality are reflector width and depth. I highly recommend flashlight reviews that show you actual beamshots from the flashlight in low or no ambient light conditions so you can determine if the flashlight has the lighting characteristics you need.
If you’ll only own one tactical flashlight go with this reflector type
If you think that you’ll only one tactical flashlight I recommend going with an orange peel reflector. This will give you a tactical flashlight with a wider beam pattern, better lighting from side to side over your field of view. More of an all-around flashlight for a wider range of uses.
Common tactical flashlight accessories
Here is what typically comes with a new flashlight from a premium manufacturer:
- Extra O-ring(s)
- Battery (if rechargeable)
- Charger or recharging cable
I buy most of my flashlights on Amazon.com. Regardless of where you choose to purchase you should be getting the items listed above. Sometimes vendors add additional items, but the list above is the bare minimum you should receive.
Note: The list above applies to manufacturers like Fenix, Klarus, Olight, Nitecore, Streamlight etc. If you decide to go with an off-brand light, make sure you understand what you get as accessories and what you don’t.
Tactical flashlight bezel design
The bezel of a tactical flashlight is the ring on the flashlight head that screws on and typically is used to secure the glass lens on the end of the reflector. Bezels come in two designs:
- Crenellated (aka “strike bezel”)
What is a crenellated bezel?
Most tactical flashlights have some form of a crenellated bezel. This means the bezel has ridges of some kind on it. There really is no industry standard for this design. Bezel crenellation varies from flashlight model to model. Some flashlights have very pronounced ridges and some are sharper than others.
To me the biggest selling point of the crenellated bezel (or strike bezel) would be for self-defense. Here is an example of a strike bezel that has purely been designed to turn your tactical flashlight into a striking weapon.
Best tactical flashlight for self defense – features to look for
A tactical flashlight is a great non-lethal self defense tool. The best feature of a tactical flashlight is the strobe mode. If an attacker suddenly gets a 2000 lumens strobe pointed at them in an area with little or no ambient lighting it can definitely give you a few extra seconds to get to safety or to access a more lethal weapon . A good strobe can be very disorienting. This makes it harder for an attacker to carry out whatever their plan was.
The dual (or split) tailcap switch is a strobe’s best friend
One thing to remember is you need a flashlight that can easily give you access to the strobe mode. This is why I highly recommend a tactical flashlight that uses a dual tailcap switch. The second switch gives you immediate access to the strobe so you aren’t fumbling around cycling through the lighting modes to find the strobe. Earlier in this post I discussed the dual tailcap switch in detail.
Don’t forget about the strike bezel
The second self-defense feature of a tactical flashlight is a crenellated strike bezel. A well-defined bezel (prominent ridges and edges) can be used to hit and scrape an attackers hands and face. Although tactical flashlights aren’t really heavy, the way you hold them can give you some great striking leverage. Klarus makes a very aggressive strike bezel that fits some of their tactical flashlight models.
Best tactical flashlight for camping and hiking – features to look for
There are two features I think you need in a tactical flashlight made for camping and hiking. The first is an extremely low lumens output. This is sometimes called twilight mode. This is just a super low light output that you use for reading or locating items close to you. It makes it faster for your eyes to adjust after the flashlight is turned on.
Another mode I’d want is beacon mode. When you put your flashlight in beacon mode it will emit a quick “blip” of light at the maximum lumens output of your flashlight. Because the light is only on for a split second you could put it strategically positioned where potential rescuers could spot it at night and just leave it on while you sleep. The steady blip of light will hopefully attract someone’s attention.
Tactical flashlight batteries and power sources
Tactical flashlights will use either standard or rechargeable batteries. Most tactical flashlights will use a rechargeable battery. The most common is the 18650 lithium ion battery although multiple types of lithium ion cells are used by various tactical flashlight models.
The standard (non-rechargeable equivalent) of the 18650 lithium ion battery is the CR123a. Typically, most tactical flashlights will accept both but it varies from model to model.
Lithium ion batteries are either charged within an external charger or charged from within the flashlight. Batteries charged in the flashlight would need to be attached via cable to a power resource.
Proprietary rechargeable batteries
Some tactical flashlight manufacturers may use a proprietary rechargeable battery. Typically, they do this because they need to have an extremely high output battery to achieve the maximum lumens output for the flashlight.
I typically prefer a tactical flashlight that uses easy to source rechargeable batteries. I don’t like being specifically locked in to one manufacturer for a battery. I suggest purchasing an extra battery for those flashlights using a proprietary power source. That way if the manufacturer decides to stop stocking the battery later on down the road, you have one on hand.
What about tactical flashlights that use AA or AAA batteries?
Typically, to support higher lumens output a flashlight needs to use rechargeables or CR123A batteries. If I was putting together a bugout bag or an emergency kit for my vehicle I’d have at least one good AA powered flashlight. Why? Because in the event of a big disaster, where you have no power you’ll have no way to recharge batteries. Just about any house will have AA batteries. So will any store. Most of the manufacturers in my list (see next section) make a good AA powered flashlight with decent lumens output.
There are a few dozen flashlight manufacturers but I’ll share my list of favorites here. Every one of these companies produce some great tactical flashlights with a wide variety of features.
The most important thing to consider when choosing a particular manufacturer is warranty, supporting website and documentation. Also, you want to buy from a company with a reputation for accurately representing the lumens of output for their flashlights.
Flashlight forums and review sites
Tactical flashlight forums and tactical flashlight review sites can be helpful as you try and determine what to buy. Two forums I happen to like are Candlepowerforums and Budgetlightforum. Both have some really knowledgeable folks and are typically good at answering newbie questions.
A word on flashlight review sites. Some are good and some are just a regurgitation of info and pictures you can find directly at the manufacturers website. I steer clear of reviews that have nothing but stock photos. Why? Because there is a 95% chance the person never used the flashlight. The exception to this might be a post on a new product announcement.
Tactical flashlights on Pinterest
Don’t forget about using Pinterest to find a tactical flashlight. Pinterest is a visual search engine that give you the opportunity to check out detailed flashlight and beamshot photos. I’m always posting my tactical flashlight photos on Pinterest, so don’t forget to check them out (and follow) at:
Troubleshooting your tactical flashlight
I have at least a couple of dozen of Nitecore, Klarus, Olight, Fenix, and Thrunite flashlights plus a few others by lesser known manufacturers. Out of all of these flashlights I’ve had one that developed a bad tailcap switch, one that was DOA on arrival and one that had battery charging problems. This doesn’t even include at least ten other tactical and EDC flashlights I’ve given as gifts and are still being used without issue today.
In my experience, (like most electronics) tactical flashlights either work right away or you’ll quickly be aware of any issues. I’ve only had one flashlight tailcap switch go bad a year after purchase. In the event your new flashlight isn’t working I suggest doing a little troubleshooting:
- Make sure you remove the battery and pull the plastic tab that keeps the battery from making contact
- Make sure you fully charge the battery
- I know most of us don’t do this… but read the instructions (some flashlights have a mode that locks out the tailcap or side switch… so it’s worth checking)
- Use social media – not to complain, but to share your issue. Most companies monitor their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and typically respond in a timely fashion
Lastly, protect yourself by buying your flashlight from a store that won’t hassle you if you need to return it. I realize that there might be cheaper places to shop for a tactical flashlight, but I typically buy mine at Amazon.com. Saving $5 doesn’t really mean much if I have to jump through a dozen hoops to get a replacement.
Best tactical flashlight buyers guide
Unlike most buyers guides, this one consists of flashlights I own and use. All photographs were taken by me. Personally, I feel comfortable suggesting just about any flashlight made by Fenix, Nitecore, Klarus, and Olight. I’ve either owned these brands or given these brand flashlights as gifts to friends. Out of more than 30 purchases I’ve only had two arrive DOA and both times manufacturers easily rectified the problem.
If you plan to own one premium tactical flashlight I recommend the Nitecore P12GT. 1000 lumens, super bright LED, very affordable, easy to carry:
If you need an extremely bright tactical flashlight (2000 lumens) with a ton of throw (316 meters), you’ll want to consider the Klarus XT11GT.
Fenix makes excellent flashlights with great fit and finish. The Fenix TK16 sports a 1000 lumens of output and dual tactical tailcap switch.
If you need a “search and rescue” style flashlight, a “nightstand” flashlight, or a flashlight that reaches out like a laser beam, the Klarus XT32 fits that bill. Its unique reflector design gives the XT32 a range of 1000 meters.
I love the Fenix E18R. It’s my favorite EDC (everyday carry) flashlight and has a full 750 lumens of output. It’s incredibly bright for such a small flashlight. Aside from excellent fit and finish, it has a magnetic tail so it can be used as task light. Fits easily in your pocket. Not the cheapest EDC flashlight but worth every penny.
Best tactical flashlight – conclusion
The best tactical flashlight is the one that has all of the features and functionality you need for your given application. If you’ve never bought a tactical flashlight before there should be enough info here to help you make a good choice. If you already own a tactical flashlight but aren’t happy with it, this post should help you pick a better one the next time around.
Are you ready to start checking out tactical flashlight reviews? Get started here!