In search of a tactical torch

This month’s column looks at flashlights. I had to convince my editor that an article on flashlights is relevant to firearms. Yeah, yeah, I know. I write the Firearms Tactics column. OK, this month, I’m testing light cannons. How’s that? (Editor’s note: I admit I asked for a bit more detail than usual, but I like to think I was easily won over!)

Like the handgun, flashlights for law enforcement can be divided into three major categories: duty, off duty and special purpose. There is a little overlap, but for the most part flashlights are purpose-built. I’ll cover off duty and special purpose lights will be covered in a subsequent article.

Duty flashlights

I define a duty light as one designed to be carried on the belt, suitable for a number of assignments. They must be able to provide intermittent light (momentary switch), and full output for a sustained 2 hours. Officers can go from searching an open field to a house and get reassigned to direct traffic or process a crime scene in the same shift. Their light must be portable enough for the officer to stuff into a pocket or on the belt to get over that chain link fence.

Duty lights should be able to withstand a full immersion for a few minutes, about the equivalent to dropping the torch in the mud and rinsing it off. Every torch on my duty light list is waterproof, which means each can handle a full immersion for a specified period.

A good duty light should be competently sealed by O-rings or a similar mechanism, which is an important safety feature plus something that adds to the longevity of the product. Many of the products in a drug lab can be ignited by an errant spark.

A duty light should be able to survive simple shocks, like rolling off the vehicle hood onto the pavement, and things that challenge its structural integrity, like being pinned between the driver seat and the console during a pursuit. Scientists use various methods to measure the intensity or energy of a light source. The two common units are lumens and candelas. The candela is a measurement of intensity of a light source, measured at the source. The lumen measures the amount of light projected in a given area, measured at the projection. They really don’t readily translate, but not to worry, most manufacturers provide the lumens and candelas of their products.

The lights tested range around the 150-350 lumen output. This is bright enough for making a traffic stop, without blinding the officer when he opens a closet door and encounters a bright white wall.

I think the most useful information for a patrol light is the subjective test. That is, comparing lights by shining them down an alley or inside a warehouse works best for most officers. I will do this in my reviews, but readers should know that form factors and features are most often going to trump light output. For example, the Pelican 7060 LED has a tail switch and a barrel switch, as opposed to one or the other on many similar models.

There are two major form factor types for a duty light: mid-sized (about 7-12 inches long) and full-sized (12-20 inches long). I like the mid-sized ones, because they make shooting easier. When I test flashlights, I take them to the range. You should, too. The flashlight is as essential as any other safety equipment item like the baton or handcuffs. One should be particular about its features, limitations and form factor. Not every flashlight works for every officer. It really depends on the officer’s assignment and habits.

I have always preferred using a flashlight for shooting rather than having a dedicated light. There are a few good products out there, but some gun-mounted lights change the shooting characteristics of the gun. Often, a deliberate method of marrying the light in one hand and the handgun in the other to create a stable, two-handed platform works better and adds flexibility.

Shooting

There are several ways to hold a flashlight and grip a handgun. I recommend methods that maintain isometric tension with the shooting and non-shooting hand. The Harries Technique (back of wrist to back of wrist) is a good way to maintain tension. Bear in mind that almost every light technique is an assisted one-handed gun technique. I like the Marine Corps technique, which I understand was used by the U.S.M.C. Embassy Guards. This is a full grip where the fingertips of the shooting hand touch the light bezel, while the non-firing hand actuates the side switch and palms come together.

One must practice using a light on the range while opening doors, changing magazines and manipulating the switch. Believe it or not, the biggest mistake the experts see is when officers use too much light, too often. (Tip: Cut a dowel that mimics the properties of the duty light to use for training on the range.)

Magazine reload

The magazine reload sequence goes like this: Communicate your reload. One should already be behind cover. Concentrate your muzzle and eyes on the greatest threat. Tuck light under shooting armpit, light output facing greatest threat. Gun elbow bends, retracting the gun a little. Eject magazine, extract fresh one. Pointer finger of non-firing hand should be near tip of bullets in magazine. (See the June iPad edition of LET for a succinct video demo of the mag reload sequence.)

Insert a fresh magazine, withdraw light from armpit and reassume full extension of shooting position. The magazine reload drill is modified for opening doors, extracting cuffs, etc.

Streamlight duty lights

My agency issued Streamlight SL-20s. These machined aluminum bodied full sized lights really haven’t changed in dimension for at least 15 years. When Streamlight offered to send me an SL-20L for this article, I reluctantly agreed; I didn’t expect it to be a completely different light. Let me give you a hint: don’t be on the receiving end—this product has been taking its vitamins.

The Streamlight SL-20L shares the same form factor as the one I had as a rookie, except it puts out a full 350 lumens, almost too abrupt for close-up work. The trademark bright, uninterrupted center with a healthy spillbeam excels in the alley test. I found a steady illumination for almost a full city block.

Like several models of the Streamlight Stinger series, one can dim the brightest beam by holding the switch down and strobe it by clicking the switch twice. The SL-20L throws a beam that can produce a moderate amount of backscatter, reflection of light back to its source. This is not a consideration for a patrol light unless one patrols in an area that tends to be foggy. One thing that most LED lights with dimmer switches do: Should you use less than the full output of the LED light, it strobes right about the same frequency of those high-efficiency street lights. It’s unnoticeable, unless one is recording a scene by the light of the torch.

TerraLUX InfiniStar

The company TerraLUX has saved many officers a lot of money by providing simple LED conversion units for their outdated lights. Until now, TerraLUX didn’t make a tactical light of its own. This product makes quite a splash.

TerraLUX bills the 300-lumen InfiniStar CR as the last flashlight you’ll ever need. It’s the complete package, but the core of the product is the modular LED light engine. Individual components can be replaced for new innovations or performance upgrades.

I’m not sure how much upgrading this light is going to get. It uses a 3,000 mAh power stick and has a runtime of more than 2 hours. The InfiniStar throws a beam that saturates the target center with three separate parts—a focused center with soft edges, a floodlight halo and a relatively narrow spillbeam. At the range, it allows for quick target identification and a view of adjacent targets, but I like a little more spillbeam. The InfiniStar CR charges by plugging in a cord to the barrel, which is simple and makes the charger more portable.

There are a couple of things I would change about this product. First, it needs to have a tailcap switch. That’s a pretty simple thing and I expect that to be one of the modular improvements. The lanyard hole in the existing tail cap should be larger and have a little more meat surrounding it. Second, it needs to strobe and dim. Again, that’s why this flashlight was designed the way it was in the first place. Officers should eventually be able to purchase upgrades.

The InfiniStar Design is typical of machined aluminum flashlights. The barrel is a mite thicker than most and is covered with a grippy rubber sleeve. It has excellent ergonomics for shooters. This is a superior product with inherent quality.

Pelican 7060 and 8060LED

No one even raised an eyebrow when LAPD adopted the 7060 as a patrol light. When I tested it, I found the dual switches and strategic gripping surfaces gave me perfect control, even when patrolling in a downpour. The design allows for almost any type of shooting technique, and it is easy to orient by feel. Although the switch modes should include dimming and strobe capabilities, one can overlook this, considering the lightweight case and great handling.

Two things you should know about the 7060 LED: First, it uses cooling fins to dissipate heat. It never gets too hot to the touch, but the warm feel of the bezel area may surprise you. Second, my experience of using this light for more than a year suggests that it charges a little faster than advertised. Its 160-lumen output spec is a little surprising for me, too. It seems much brighter than that.

The 8060 LED is larger and heavier, but still has the sleek handling of its smaller brother. Its 179-lumen output can hold steady for several hours. The beam on both lights concentrates well and has enough spillbeam to cover a large portion of the periphery. The 8060 LED will actually take C batteries when the power pack runs out. I don’t think officers will ever have a problem here; this light can be left on for almost a whole shift, which few others can do.

Bushnell HD Torch

This is a bizarre light with an even more bizarre output. It runs on two CR123 cells and shines a perfectly square 165-lumen beam (there is a 200-lumen model for hunters), so everybody illuminated appears as if on TV. It also has a “find me” LED illuminated tailcap, which should be taped over if it’s going on patrol. The square beam’s defined edge gives clear vision everywhere within the beam, which makes suspects appear literally as if they were on stage. There are no irregularities, cold spots or deceptive shadows in this beam. This square, by the way, does not blind the officer searching a bedroom, and it renders more accurate colors than most models. I played with this one a little and it’s intimidating.

Streamlight Stinger LED

The Stinger LED has it all. It puts out 180 lumens and can be dimmed or strobed for longer runtime. Its reflector has a deep dish design, which does great in fog or when cops wish to play firefighter (not recommended), or when firefighters wish to play cops (I’ve heard they do—also not recommended). The Stinger LED has dual switches and the kind of design that allows the officer to quickly put the light into play.

If you tried the magazine changing instructional in this article with your light, you’ll know why many shooters appreciate the form factor of the Stinger LED. It also loans itself rather well to writing citations.

The Stinger LED does not get very warm. Like the Pelican 7060, its charger can be vehicle- or office-mounted. I recommend mounting the charger (a pretty sturdy product in its own right) in the patrol car where it can’t be overcharged or affected by earlier generations of “battery memory.”

I’ve used both the Pelican 7060 and the Stinger LED during a night pistol match. It would be hard for me to choose between the two. I brought the Bushnell HD to the same match. Everyone wanted to try it out, but it’s not rechargeable, so its BYOB (bring your own batteries) to use it.

4sevens Quark X AA Tactical

What if I told you that this next light has a maximum output of 280 lumens and runs on AA batteries? What if I told you it has a momentary switch, programmable output and IPX-8 waterproofing? What if I told you this is one of the least expensive lights to own and operate?

When David Chow of 4sevens handed me a Quark during SHOT 2011, I thought I was going to test it as a backup light. I did. However, this light has all of the desirable features of a full-sized duty light in a compact form factor. In fact, this is one of the few duty lights that can be carried in a shirt pocket. It is 5.8 inches long and weighs 2.2 ounces.

You should know dozens of lights fall under the Quark trademark with various qualities and aspects that distinguish them. All of the Quark models are compact and designed for tactical use. I will leave it up to the officer to pick one.

The beam on the Quark emanates from a textured, deep dish reflector. The center beam’s undefined edges and generous spillbeam allow for a syringe grip where the user holds the light at the web between the second and third (or third and fourth fingers) and presses with the palm of the non-trigger hand. This method is normally reserved for compact lights that don’t usually have this kind of output.

The Quark Series of flashlights have rewritten the paradigm. They even come with a hand grip accessory for opening doors and changing magazines. I’ve had a year to play with this light and I can’t find anything that doesn’t say “swear me in.”

Leupold MX modular light: MX 431

Someone at Leupold R&D was sitting at a board meeting one day and wondered, “I know we build some of the most durable rifle schools in the world… What if we applied what we knew to making flashlights? What would they look like?”

I’ll answer that: These flashlights would look like a thing right out of Modern Marvels. It has a sapphire lens, which is recessed twice in the head. You know, sapphire, the stuff that Rolex uses for their watch crystals. The bezel switch, where one can select strobing, dimmed output and even SOS, uses a magnetic switch. It goes “snick, snick” in the hand, like the sound of wing doors on a Lamborghini. It’s threaded for optically correct Alumina filters. The lights have replaceable modular bezels, tail caps, main-tubes and an array of accessories. The 6061 aluminum used in the products is hard anodized and the units are waterproofed to four atmospheres.

The MX-431 has a 180-lumen output using an efficient regulated circuit. The beam is, as one might have guessed, flawless and huge. It has a terrific feel, if not a little bezel heavy. The price is amazingly affordable, considering it will last a career.

There are many suitable lights not on this list. However, these particular lights boast unusual features. BOLO for the follow up article on off-duty and special purpose lights.

 

Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer and military small arms trainer. He teaches criminal justice at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., and welcomes comments atlbertomen@letonline.com.

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