Types of Flashlights
Go to any flashlight page on Amazon or eBay, and you'll find lots of different flashlight options. Here's what you need to know about each and how you find the best flashlight for your particular needs:
LED Flashlights – Most flashlights today are "LED Flashlights", meaning they use LED bulbs in place of the old incandescent bulbs. LED bulbs are cheaper and more reliable!
Most LED flashlights use one of the following Cree LED bulbs:
- XM-L (T6)/(U2), the bulb used in most LED flashlights, with a maximum output around 700 lumens
- XR-E (R2), with around 300 lumen count
- XP-E (R2), with around 300 lumen count, but larger than the XR-E
- XP-G (R5) and XP-G2, which have a higher lumen count (500+) and better beam-throwing capabilities
- XP-C (Q4), a low-power LED bulb that is cheap and prone to overheating (BAD!)
- XM-L2 U2/U3, another common bulb with a light output upwards of 1000 lumens.
- XP-L/HI, available since 2014, has a similar light output above 1000 lumens.
Tactical Flashlight – Tactical flashlights are devices that have been designed for military or police use. Some classic features of military and tactical flashlights include:
- The ability to mount to a weapon
- Higher lumen emissions
- Compact size
- Made with weapons-grade aluminum
- Strike plate for use in hand-to-hand combat
- Switch placement at the tip for quick turning on
- Multiple light settings
"Tactical" and "Military" flashlights are usually the same, though some are designed with law enforcement and others with military use in mind.
Ultra-Bright Flashlight – Also known as a "portable sun", these flashlights offer extremely bright beams (upwards of 3,000 lumens, with some reaching as high as 8,500 lumens). These are usually used by security guards, law enforcement, and the military, but they are always not built with a "tactical" design (see features above).
Types of Flashlight Bulbs
LED – Light Emitting Diode (LED) flashlights have an LED bulb that generates a good amount of light without producing heat. LED bulbs have a VERY long lifespan (around 10,000 hours) and are highly durable, thanks to their lack of filament or glass. LED lights were once pricier, but now they're so common that they're usually the best-priced flashlights on the market.
Incandescent – These are the classic flashlights that have been around for decades. They use a glass and filament light bulb, so they're prone to breakage and have a shorter lifespan. The bulb generates heat as well as light, so energy is wasted—thus the bulb doesn't shine as bright. These are cheap and available EVERYWHERE.
Xenon, Krypton, and Halogen – These flashlights use filament bulbs filled with pressurized gases that help to extend the lifespan of the filament. The bulb burns brighter (by burning the gas) without generating more heat or wasting energy. They are the brightest flashlights on the market, but don't last as long as LED bulbs.
HID – High Intensity Discharge (HID) flashlights have a bulb that uses electricity passing through a ball of ionized gas. They're bulky, pricey, and not as common as other types, but VERY bright.
Shake – Shake flashlights, also known as Faraday flashlights, contain magnets that, when shaken, produce light via electromagnetism. A minute or two of shaking will produce an hour or two of light, but the light isn't very bright. They're used more for emergency flashlights than anything else.
Flashlight Terms You Need to Know
When it comes to buying the flashlight itself, it's always easy to consider the more common features: switch, light bulb, length, weight, etc. However, there are a few less common terms you need to know:
"Headlamp" – This is a flashlight designed to sit on your head, useful for cyclists, miners, or hikers. They can use LED, incandescent, or other light bulbs—all that matters is that they're strapped to headgear that allows you to use a flashlight hands-free.
"Penlight" – This flashlight is built into a pen, usually a small LED bulb incorporated into a metal housing. The light can be bright, but it's usually used in emergency situations as a back-up flashlight.
"Magnetic Selector" – Instead of clicking a button to turn the flashlight on/off or change settings, a magnetic ring selector allows you to turn a ring immediately to your desired flashlight setting (bright, dim, flashing, etc.). It's a pricey feature but very handy in a broad range of situations.
"CRI" – You'll often find flashlights with "high CRI" or "neutral CRI". CRI refers to the Color Rendering Index, or how closely the artificial light resembles sunlight. Neutral CRI flashlights tend to be more artificial, while high CRI flashlights emit light beams that look surprisingly natural.
"Portable Sun" – This is a fancy marketing term for VERY bright flashlights. A portable sun usually has upwards of 3,000 Lumens (see the definition of lumens below), and the light is designed to cover long distances (hundreds of yards/meters). These hyper-bright flashlights tend to be pricey and use a lot of battery power, but are excellent in case you need something very bright.
"USB Charging" – A flashlight that markets itself as "USB Charging" means that it can be plugged into a USB port (directly to the wall or your computer) to charge the battery. Most USB charged flashlights are on the smaller, weaker side, though there are some multi-functional, long-lasting LED flashlights that are designed to be charged via USB cable. It's a handy recharging feature perfect for security personnel or in urban settings.
"Strike Plate" – This is often something you'll see on flashlights that are marketed as personal safety devices. A strike plate is a reinforced section of the flashlight intended to be used to strike an assailant or attacker. It's a common feature on tactical flashlights, as the strike plate turns the flashlight into an extra "weapon".
"Adjustable Focus" – This is a feature that allows you to determine the intensity of the beam. A low-intensity beam is better for lighting up a larger area, while a high-intensity beam is ideal for outdoor use in low-visibility and foggy conditions. Flashlights with adjustable focus allow you to determine how focused or dispersed the beam of your light is.
"Output Modes" – Some flashlights are designed with one setting: On. This is called a "single output" flashlight. "Multi-Mode" flashlights come with multiple settings, including dim, medium, high, and strobe. Some flashlights are even customizable to allow you to adjust the settings as desired.
"Tailstanding" – This means that the flashlight's tail is designed to be flat so you can stand it on end. This is useful for campsites, tents, or even indoor use. A good flashlight will be tailstanding.
What is a Lumen?
When shopping for flashlights, you'll always read or hear about how it has "500 lumens" or "1,000 lumens".
The term "lumen" actually refers to a unit of light or brightness. In a pitch black room, there are 0 lumens of light. The more lumens there are, the brighter the flashlight.
In your typical LED flashlight, you'll find anywhere from 20 to 250 lumens.
Lower-end flashlights usually generate up to 80 lumens.
Mid-range flashlights are closer to 250.
High output LED flashlights will generate up to 500 lumens.
An ultra-high LED light will emit over 500 lumens.
(Remember the "portable sun" mentioned above? That bad boy can let off upwards of 3,000 lumens, making it a HYPER-bright flashlight!)
See the lumen chart below:
What is a Candela?
Lumens aren't the only term used to describe flashlight beams. While lumens refers to the brightness, "candela" is the term used to refer to the intensity of the beam. The higher the candela (intensity), the stronger the beam.
Cheap, low-cost LED work lights usually have a beam below 2,000 candela. The beam isn't strong but it doesn't need to be because it's designed to illuminate a radius rather than generate a directed beam.
LED flashlights usually emit a beam anywhere between 2,000 and 25,000 candela. Higher candelas mean a more intense, brighter beam that can penetrate fog and gloom.
Tightly focused LED flashlights emit a beam upwards of 25,000 candela. The beams are much more focused, so they have more illuminating power specifically where the beam is pointed.
Understanding Power and Runtime
There are multiple power sources used for your flashlight:
AA/AAA Batteries – This is the classic power source for smaller flashlights, or for modern LED flashlights that don't require as much power to produce bright beams. These are cheap and easily available everywhere. You can find rechargeable batteries to help you cut back on waste.
• Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) bulbs last for around 1,000 recharge cycles.
• Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) bulbs last for more than 1,000 recharge cycles, and are more energy-dense than basic Nickel Cadmium batteries.
• Capacitor batteries last for upwards of 50,000 cycles, charge faster than regular batteries, are lightweight, but will discharge power more quickly than regular batteries.
• Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) batteries will usually last for around 500 recharge cycles, and tend to lose power if unused. They're often used in high-tech flashlights, as they're common for portable electronic and laptop power sources.
C/D Batteries – These bad boys are the power source of choice for the larger incandescent flashlights used by security personnel, as they store more energy and add extra heft to a flashlight that doubles as a baton or weapon of self-defense. However, they're being phased out, as LED lights require less power but tend to generate more light.
Battery Packs – High-grade flashlights often come with proprietary rechargeable battery packs integrated into the design. Some flashlights can be used with both batteries and battery packs, while others are intended to be used ONLY with manufacturer-made packs.
123A Lithium Batteries – These batteries come with twice the voltage of regular alkaline batteries, but are half as large/heavy. They're much pricier, however, and thus are usually only incorporated into tactical flashlights.
How long should your flashlight last on each battery charge? The "runtime" of each flashlight will depend on both the flashlight and the power source:
Larger flashlights with larger batteries (C/D) tend to last for upwards of five hours.
Tactical and rechargeable flashlights use smaller batteries that hold a smaller charge, so their runtime is anywhere from 1-5 hours.
Small tactical flashlights that use capacitor batteries will have a much shorter runtime—anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on the light output.
Of course, the amount of time the battery will charge depends on the type of battery used. Some will take just a few minutes, while others will need hours to recharge.
Capacitor batteries are designed to charge completely in around 90-120 seconds.
Fast-charge rechargeable batteries (usually NiMH or NiCd) will require 2 to 3 hours of charging time.
Lithium Ion batteries will usually take 3 to 5 hours to fully charge.
Standard rechargeable batteries (NiMH or NiCd) will take anywhere from 8 to 12 hours to charge fully.
Factors to Consider When Flashlight Shopping
Here is a list of everything you need to think about when buying a flashlight:
Size – Tactical flashlights usually range between 4 and 5 inches long, mid-sized flashlights are anywhere between 6 and 10 inches long, and a full-sized light (for security) are longer than 10 inches.
Lens Material – Borofloat glass is a high temperature, durable glass that offers good transparency. Anti-reflective coated glass produces a very bright beam but is easily scratched. Plastic is the cheapest type of lens and is easily scratched or damaged. Anti-scratch coated polycarbonate is unbreakable and scratch-resistant without being too pricey.
Body Design – Cylindrical flashlights are traditional but are prone to rolling (on the ground), while anti-roll flashlights use a flat bezel surface, asymmetrical design, or anti-roll ring to stop the flashlight from rolling away. The switch may be set in the head (common with larger flashlights) or tail (common with tactical flashlights). They'll use either a button, a switch, or a magnetic ring to turn on.
Body Material -- Polymer is lightweight, durable, and cheap, and is usually used for basic flashlights. Type II Anodize is a thinner finish used on an aluminum body, but Type III Anodize is durable, scratch-resistant, but very pricey.
Heatsink – Heatsinks are usually incorporated into the body of an aluminum flashlight, while polymer flashlights tend to use aluminum LED housings for heatsinking (drawing the head away from the bulb to extend lifespan).
Warranty – A basic flashlight will usually come with a warranty that lasts from 1 to 5 years, but high-grade flashlights often have a lifetime warranty from the manufacturer.
Water Resistance – IPX4 means water-resistant, and it can be used in most weather. This is the most common resistance rating. IPX7 means waterproof, so it can be submersed underwater (1 meter) for 30 minutes without permanent damage. IPX8 means submersible (to a specific depth, as determined by the manufacturer) for continuous use. Most IPX8 flashlights are intended for use by divers and underwater repair technicians.
Impact Resistance – The average flashlight will have a 1 or 2-meter impact resistance, though you can find some designed to handle upwards of 3 meters. The higher the impact resistance, the more durable the design.
Ergonomics – An ergonomic flashlight is comfortable to hold for hours. It's a mixture of lightweight, easy to grip, and comfortable for the wrists. Most flashlights are designed with some ergonomics in mind, but you can find a wide range of specially-built ergonomic lights.
Purpose – High-precision tactical and military lights are different from flashlights used for hunting, fishing, outdoor sports, camping, or hiking.