Brighter is better

I’m back talking about flashlights. This time it’s backup, off-duty and specialty lights.

Once again, I have to work hard to justify talking about flashlights in a Firearms Tactics column. I was going to be facetious about this, but I learned a lesson or two about carrying certain things along the way.

While searching the interior of a large factory for an armed suspect, my primary torch went out. My backup was what everyone carried at the time: a Mini MagLite (this was before it was popular to add a TerraLUX upgrade, which would have changed this story altogether).

I guess I should have expected it. There was a fatal crash earlier and I was traffic control for a couple of hours on a busy intersection. My light had been on the whole time.

On the armed suspect call I ended up searching a warehouse-sized room with long rows of shelving containing electrical parts on either side. The factory was closed, but there was an air compressor and another noisy piece of equipment that kept starting and stopping randomly. I radioed to the nearby officer about my light. About that time he spotted the suspect, who, still armed, surrendered. The next day, I ordered a backup light, an early model Laser Devices hand light, which served me well for several years.

The difference between a backup light and an off-duty light is their primary application, although their descriptions commonly overlap. The backup light is the tool that goes on duty with an officer for the purpose of seamless operation. That is, if the officer was searching for a suspect in a warehouse and his primary light goes down, he can reach for the backup light and continue the mission without modification.

The off-duty light is for staying off duty, which includes assisting uniformed officers to incidents in which the off-duty officer should not get involved. Note the language is to incidents, not in incidents.

Backup light and duty light techniques should not vary. If the officer uses a Harries Technique (back of the hand to back of the hand) with the duty light, the same technique should be used for the backup. Usually I recommend officers get lights with similar form factor and operation, using the same logic as the backup gun. The best backup guns take the same magazines and have the same type of operation as the duty gun. Often, they are smaller combinations of the full sized firearm, like a Glock 22/Glock 27 or Ruger SR40/SR40C combination. For those officers who have won the lottery recently, it can be the Kimber Tactical Custom II, Ultra CDP II.

With off-duty lights, the part that most users forget is the fact that not only is the light going to be smaller, the gun will be, too. When practicing or shopping for these lights, officers should wrap their grip on their 5-shot revolver or lightweight auto to make a purchase decision.

Specialty lights have a different purpose for their illumination, but serve an alternate law enforcement purpose: this can be distraction, color rendition, searching or personal illumination.

Tactical considerations

Off duty, an officer is less likely to carry other equipment like a TASER or OC spray. Flashlight makers have responded to this by machining aggressive grips and sharp edges into their lights. While this increases their utility, they should never be considered weapons by any means. Still, if the light is in the hand, the sharp edges can create distance. Place the sharp bezel of any of the lights here on someone’s sternum or similar body part and push to see what I mean.

Brighter is better. The lights here are not only bright, they are designed to sustain brightness without cooking the lens or the owner.

Dual purpose lights means the officer can carry less on the belt. The 80-lumen TerraLUX LightStar 80 (2xAAA) is not quite as bright as its contemporaries, but it can also be employed for evidence location and off duty. It has two features, besides a 5-hour runtime on two AAA cells: It uses a Hight CRI LED, which renders true (natural light) colors and it has a replaceable bite grip (yes, it goes between the teeth) for a hands-free grip. This light has an output that appears brighter than its specifications.

I like the idea that this penlight was actually designed to be put in the mouth, where it’s easy to direct light. However, it should not be employed this way with a firearm, as it will backlight the gun.

The Streamlight Night Com UV (2xCR123) has the form factor and brightness of a C4 backup light, but the reflector has six UV LEDs (365 and 390 nm) surrounding that reflector. It can be used for simple non-destructive examination at the patrol level.

Got a plan B?

Some of the best backup lights are actually brighter than primary lights. Since CR 123 cells have become relatively less expensive, the backup lights listed later have become a reliable way to ensure officers will never be without a torch.

There are some compelling reasons why we should be more selective while choosing a backup light. I prefer to shoot with a short lightweight torch, rather than a full sized light. If my gun is out, it’s easier to maneuver with a smaller torch, especially if it can be put on the belt when the cuffs come out.

Many of us have adopted tethering tools like rings or loops on the light body. I use an adjustable shock cord tether from which the light can dangle when opening doors. I can flip it silently in my palm and resume ops.

Another technique that supports using smaller lights is that of syringe style gun techniques. Shooters often put specialized rings or O rings around their lights to allow for a gripping surface between two fingers. Full sized lights don’t work here, but 2xCR123 cell lights do.

CR 123 cells are relatively safe, but certain practices will make them even safer. First, buy cells recommended by the torch manufacturer. Second, if it’s a multi cell light, buy them and replace them in pairs. Third, if you turn them on for a while and the light gets warm, vent them and let the cells cool outside of the light.

Most CR 123 cells have a tremendous shelf life, often 5 to 10 years. If one is keeping the backup light in the deployment bag for a call up, it’ll work. If you aren’t keeping a CR 123 light in your deployment kit, you’re wrong.

SOG Dark Energy SOG DE-02 (2xCR123)

The Dark Energy is a two-cell tail switch light with a momentary switch that allows the user to change modes (low power and strobe) by simply pressing the switch after it is clicked all the way on. Officers will like this switch because a light touch gives a momentary light at maximum brightness. This one allows for excellent light discipline.

When I tested the Dark Energy, I found that it tended to stay cooler than similar products when left on for extended periods. Since the Dark Energy fires a full 247 lumens and is several grams lighter than just about every two-cell lights on the market, this is one of the better backup products. Most users will like the aggressive spiral patterned machined gripping surface on the flashlight head.

SOG uses a polished reflector that fires a very hot center and moderate light in the periphery. It cuts into fog well, but the beam is abrupt when reflected back from a light colored wall. For a stippled reflector with a similar focus, try the Brite Strike.

Brite Strike BD-180-MH (1xCR123)

Brite Strike has a lot of different law enforcement lighting products. However if they ever decide to build just one backup light, the BD-180-MH should be the one. If it’s an off-duty light, it’s the EPLI. Both are lightweight, bright and fit in the palm or the pocket. Foremost, the BD-180-MH has a unique recess for the momentary tail switch, which protects the mechanism while allowing any type of technique, including pressing the switch on the palm.

The body of this light is a little sturdier than most and it has a solid heft without the weight. This product can fall under both backup and off duty categories.

Brite Strike BD-198-HLS (2xCR123)

This is the big brother to the BD-180-MH, and it includes a multi tailcap switch that dims and strobes. This particular model has a great feel in the hand; as soon as I began playing with it I attached an adjustable shock cord to wrap around my finger for magazine changes. The model number will give you an idea of how bright it is; the deep reflector concentrates this brightness. I don’t like that one must the press the switch all the way before the light goes on. But the BD-198-MH (Momentary/Hi) is the exact same light with a different tailcap switch, the one I prefer. Oh yeah—remote pressure switches are available for those who like to mount them on carbines.

I’m a little biased when it comes to Brite-Strike. This is a company founded by police officers who make products for police officers. They use their own products in real situations. The quality of their products is self evident. Actually, it’s grossly self-evident because these guys epitomize over-engineering. My tests have concluded that these products are not going to fail, and they weren’t designed for bloggers sitting behind a desk all day. They are working products with high quality materials for an industry known for being rough on equipment. Having said that, its durable finishes rival anything I have in my gun safe.

Off duty lights: The Nextorch K3 and Brite-Strike EPLI (2xAAA)

The Nextorch K3 is a penlight-sized light that takes two AAA cells. It has a metal tail switch and a wire pocket clip, reminiscent of high-quality penlights of the past. The push-button switch will access all four modes of the light: dim, momentary, click on and strobe.

The business end fires 180 lumens through a reflector that efficiently spreads the beam output evenly. Unlike the EPLI, the beam on this one is more of a floodlight—it can light up an interior rather well, but not an alley.

The Brite-Strike EPLI (Executive Precision Lighting Instrument) is the size of a penlight and takes two AAA cells. Its soft tail switch can cycle each of the four lighting modes. It fires 160 lumens in a piercing beam, which looks brighter on the other end of an alley than the 180-lumen K3. Both have all of the attributes for an off duty light, including weather resistance, plenty of run time and shock resistance.

I’m sort of split on the two choices here. I generally prefer the abrupt beam of the EPLI. If I’m out somewhere and need to marry a handgun with a hand torch, I like to be able to cast a beam pretty far. However, the Nextorch K-3 does a great job of flooding an interior room, giving the officer a better heads-up of what’s in his periphery. If I need to light up an open area like a parking lot, I’d pick the EPLI. If I need to light something like a hallway—or know I will be predominantly indoors—it’d be the K3.

For me, it’s a toss-up: The EPLI has a brighter center, the K3 has brighter edges. The Nextorch K-3 has a metal tail switch, which has a solid springy feel. The K3 is lighter and really does feel like a pen. However, if I need to feed my flashlight to an aggressor, it would be the EPLI, hands down. You decide.

Specialty lights: all others

Brite-Strike’s Tactical Balls (RID 3) were not designed for dynamic entry, and the light from them is bright but not blinding. They’re not a replacement for flash bangs—not even close. They were designed to be tossed in by the patrol officer to create a moment of distraction and to backlight the bad guy. I would have loved to have these on patrol to toss into a room to buy a second or two. Where would I use this product? I would toss several (they come in packages of three) into a blind stairwell that allows a potential shooter several angles on my ascent or descent of that stairwell.

Streamlight Sidewinder Compact II (1xAA or 2xCR123)

This portable lighting instrument is designed to be mounted on a helmet, headband or clipped to MOLLE webbing. It comes with a strong metal clip that attaches to a helmet for hands-free use. It will clamp onto nearly any helmet style.

The Sidewinder compact II has a unique selector knob/switch that allows the user to choose one of several LEDs and intensities. It’s easy to work this instrument without looking at it. Streamlight added to the versatility of this package with a unique power cell compartment. First, the power compartment cap is tethered, so the user can change batteries on the fly without losing it. Second, it will accept AA or CR 123 batteries. Yes, different cells, different voltages, same light.

A helmet-mounted light has many uses, few of which are associated with directing a firearm. In fact, when the light is behind the gun, the rear sight becomes flooded and the gun is backlit. This light is ideal for tactical teams doing other types of missions like EOD disposal and hostage negotiation. Since it can be clipped anywhere, it can also be used for the officer not wearing the helmet working perimeter for the Critical Response team. It can be a flasher for traffic or an IR flasher marking friendlies for the eye in the sky.

HP 21 (4xD) from Coast Products

When I first looked at the HP21, which looks like someone sculpted a traditional patrol light large enough to be part of an advertising display, I thought “Are you kidding me? No one’s going to carry that.” After playing with it for a few minutes, I knew exactly where Coast Products was going with this.

This is a specialty light that belongs in the sergeant’s car, especially if the patrol area is wide open or wilderness areas. The spec for this one says it all: 1,317 lumens. It’s an inexpensive, lightweight searchlight that is actually an array of seven lamps, each a powerful light on its own. If that wasn’t enough, it takes D cells, making a resupply for a wilderness search air droppable.

You know how the instructions say not to look directly into the beam? This one makes itself explanatory. Why, I vaporized a few objects with this one already.

The Coast HP21 is a good agency investment. The head can be adjusted from spot to flood. The area lighting from this product is perfect for a highway Jaws-of-Life operation where timely seamless flooding of the work area can mean victim survival.

The Coast HP21 has a strobing option in the multi switch. I experimented a little with it. It is very disorienting, which is probably why extra bright strobes are currently being tested for crowd control. Since it comes with a shoulder sling, it may be a great tool for civil disturbances.

Your flashlight is part of a complete package. Officers who pay attention to their safety equipment recognize the importance of selecting the light as part of the entire shooting combination.


Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer and retired military small arms trainer. He teaches criminal justice at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif. He has a BS in criminal justice and an MS in online teaching and learning. Bertomen has taught shooting techniques for over a decade. He enjoys competing in shooting sports, running and cycling events. He welcomes comments at