What Makes a Flashlight ‘Tactical’?

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Flashlights are darn useful.

They help you search under the sofa for lost change, guide you home down dimly lit streets and peer into the dark recesses of your car’s engine bay.

But more importantly, they can save your life.

Some devices, known as tactical flashlights, have features that can aid in self-defense, act as a deterrent to unsavory characters, and perform as a weapon—where legal and appropriate.

Allow me to explain what makes a flashlight tactical—and the techniques for safe use.

The key features of a tactical flashlight:

  • Waterproof.
  • One button operation.
  • Tail-cap switch.
  • Flat-edged bezel.
  • Heavy knurling.
  • Durable.

What Is a Tactical Flashlight?

Tactical flashlights aren’t standard issue.

While your general store-bought flashlight is ideal for searching for candles during a power outage, in more extreme or life-threatening situations, a tactical flashlight comes into its own.

Originally, manufacturers created them to attach to firearms. This allowed military and law enforcement officers to illuminate their target—increasing the accuracy of their aim. And, it’s not a new concept—with Fred Forrester applying for the first gun-mounted flashlight patent in 1912.

Check out our article for more on the Origins and Invention of the Flashlight.

With the flashlight attached to the firearm, it meant that the marksman didn’t have to use one hand for wielding the gun while holding a light source in the other.

This innovation also provided non-fatal, life-saving applications.

The intense beam from a tactical light can momentarily blind aggressors—allowing law enforcers to apprehend them without the use of bullets. Furthermore, in dark or dimly lit conditions, these flashlights can help officers to identify the correct target—and prevent the discharge of friendly fire.

When handheld, security officers can use the more substantial examples, such as the 4D Maglite, as a weapon—in much the same way as a baton. They’re a lot more durable than a home flashlight—which would break if used to apply blunt force.

tactical flashlight infographic

The Myths Behind Tactical Flashlights

Some incorrect myths—often gleaned from watching TV cop shows and movies put many people off from buying a tactical flashlight.

Let me blow some of those apart.

Only for Professionals

There’s a common assumption that these products are the sole domain of law enforcement officers and the military—and that they’re overly technical or complicated to use.

In reality, they’re simple devices to use—with manufacturers designing them for one-handed functionality. Furthermore, with minimal buttons or switches, you can operate them, even in pitch-black conditions.

Prohibitively Expensive

The advancement of LED technology means that highly powerful tactical flashlights are now within the budget of everyone.

Some top-end titanium flashlights are a little heavy on the wallet. But the satisfactory aluminum varieties cost little more than a standard multi-function flashlight.

Bulky and Cumbersome

You’ve seen the movie trope of an incompetent security guard patrolling a warehouse with a massive 36-inch flashlight. That may have been the case 20 years ago—nowadays, tactical products are much more compact—often able to sit wholly within the palm of your hand.

Previously, security flashlights needed to be this immense size, to hold a multitude of D-size batteries to power an incandescent bulb. Highly efficient LEDs don’t need these immense power packs to provide impressive lighting.

However, if you want the feel of a sizeable baton-type flashlight in your hand, they’re still available.

Require a Special Hold

You can hold a tactical flashlight however you want.

Some people believe that they need to carry a tactical flashlight in the overhand position, close to their ears as if they’re about to perform a covert FBI raid.

It’s true that there are numerous methods of holding a flashlight tactically, depending on the law enforcement agency guidelines and whether you’re using it in combination with a firearm. I’ve listed a few methods at the end of this article. But, it’s not a requirement.

It’s perfectly acceptable to hold the flashlight in an underhand waist-high position.

Need Special Batteries

One common reason that people steer clear from tactical flashlights is the misconception they need bespoke batteries.

They’re concerned that they will utilize some rare, imported, and weirdly shaped powerpack that will be impossible to locate in stores.

In truth, the majority of tactical flashlights run off standard alkaline and lithium batteries.

Features of a Tactical Flashlight

An online site may describe its flashlights as tactical—don’t take that at face value.

Some unscrupulous manufacturers consider painting a flashlight black as sufficient—though it possesses no other features to allow it to perform well in the field.

Here are the key features that make a flashlight genuinely tactical.

Lithium Batteries

You can purchase robust and reliable tactical flashlights that run off standard disposable alkaline batteries. The attraction of these is that the batteries are readily available. Wander into any general store, and there are a plethora of brands—so you’re never without illumination. What’s more, they’re a cheap power source.

However, they lack the power of other forms of battery and have a relatively short shelf-life of around five years.

The optimum choice for serious enthusiasts is a tactical flashlight that utilizes disposable lithium cells. They have a greater power output, last longer and have an immense 15-year shelf-life.

LEDs

There’s no place in a tactical flashlight for an incandescent bulb. While cheap, easily replaceable, and fine for general home use—in demanding conditions, they’re ineffective.

They’re also highly inefficient, turning 95 percent of their energy usage into heat—only five percent becomes light. What’s more, drop or knock an incandescent bulb, and it will most likely break. Not very practical if you’re in a life-threatening position.

Typically, tactical flashlights have LEDs. These high-light, low-power sources mean maximum battery-life combined with the ultimate in illumination.

Furthermore, if you’re mounting a tactical light on a firearm—LED’s are a must. The immense power in the recoil of a fired weapon would break an incandescent bulb filament.

Waterproof

A tactical flashlight needs to function in all situations. Whether in heavy rainfall or accidentally dropped into a stream, it needs to withstand the effects of moisture.

Hence, genuine tactical flashlights are waterproof, providing both peace of mind and ensuring that your safety isn’t compromised. They should have an IPX7 rating or higher—meaning that full immersion in water is possible.

Durable

Plastics are out. They can become brittle when exposed to extreme weather conditions and easily break if dropped.

Tactical flashlights have durable metal construction. The most common material is anodized aluminum—a sturdy yet lightweight compound that will stand up to intense use. Type II is the standard, although you can often opt for the stronger, thicker, and somewhat heavier type III aluminum.

If you’re feeling flush, you can purchase top-end titanium tactical flashlights that have the strength of steel yet remain lightweight.

Heavy Knurling

Tactical flashlights typically possess heavy knurling impressed into the metal surface of the handle. This promotes a firm grip, ensuring it remains secure in the hand, even when sweating.

Furthermore, the rough surface can prove useful in survival conditions—for example, as an abrasive surface to light a match.

Rubber grips are increasingly rare, as, over time, they can perish.

Portable and Accessible

Most tactical flashlights have a carrying clip to allow you to attach them to a belt or vest. Some also come complete with a bespoke holder.

These refinements allow the device to be easily transportable, yet deployable swiftly with just one hand. In dangerous situations, you don’t want to be rummaging around in your backpack while an assailant is approaching.

Flat-Edged Bezel and Housing

Many tactical flashlights incorporate at least one side of the bezel or housing that’s flat-edged. This allows you to position the flashlight on a surface—without it rolling away.

Furthermore, a bezel with angled or serrated edges provides a maximum-force surface for emergencies—such as smashing windows should you become trapped.

Simplicity

While tactical lighting devices are the ultimate in flashlight porn—they’re surprisingly basic.

Manufacturers have designed these phenomenal light sources to allow you to use them in extreme and challenging conditions—such as complete darkness or when under threat. Hence, there’s no place for a whole plethora of buttons, knobs and switches.

You can operate the majority of tactical flashlights with just one finger, and by pressing/turning one button or switch. This means you can quickly alternate between modes (constant, momentary light, strobe, etc.).

Typically, they allow you to access the hi-beam function immediately—so you don’t have to cycle through other light options, which could waste time and place you in danger.

Tail-Cap Switch/Button

Unlike many household flashlights—which have the on/off switch on the handle casing—tactical flashlights have a tail-cap switch.

This has two main benefits:

  • It’s always accessible—you don’t have to turn the flashlight the ‘right way’ up to access the switch.
  • You can hold the flashlight in an overhand position (thumb towards your body—not away from it).

High Light Output

Out in the field, you want a flashlight with a seriously high light output.

Whether looking to illuminate a high area—or to disorientate an attacker—you need a lot of lumens.

While 150 lumens may be ideal for your backyard—true tactical flashlights deliver 300 lumens plus. This enables you to light up an area the size of a football field or incapacitate any would-be assailants for a short time.

Black in Color

Ok, not always, but mostly.

You can purchase a few tactical flashlights in bright colors, which have the practical application of easy location in darker environments. I know many casual campers who consider the color choice invaluable for finding them in tents and grass.

However, for tactical use, they should be black (Ok, I’ll make an exception for weapon-mounted guns which are tan, but you know who you are).

If you’re under threat, you don’t want to advertise your location with a colorful flashlight. A black casing reduces the risk of an assailant spotting you or providing them with a target.

Furthermore, if you find yourself in a self-defense scenario—a jet black flashlight looks eminently more imposing than a patterned pink one.

Other Features

Above, I’ve explained the most common elements of a tactical flashlight—that is, the very minimum characteristics that these awesome devices need to provide.

However, there are some additional elements that some flashlights include—depending on their intended usage:

Strobe Function

If self-defense is your main aim, this is an essential feature.

The flashlight emits a continuous, rapid, and intense, extremely bright flashing light. Its blinking pattern changes, which, combined with its severe and dazzling beam, will confuse and momentarily blind assailants.

This is a favorite tool of the law enforcement community.

SOS Light and Beacon Function

If you’re in an extreme survival situation—and you desperately need help—these tactical flashlight functions could save your life.

An SOS feature sends out a Morse code ( …—…) signal to indicate you need assistance.

The beacon function emits a full brightness flash every few seconds. This makes you easy to spot while retaining maximum battery life. Useful for getting located by search teams or fellow outdoor enthusiasts.

Filters

Some manufacturers supply tactical flashlights with filters (or you can purchase them separately), which alter the color of the beam. Most commonly, these include:

Gun Mounting

If you want to use your tactical flashlight with a firearm, you’ll need one that has gun mounting capabilities.

Many tactical flashlights also have compatible remote pressure switches that enable you to operate it via a pressure pad that you locate on your rifle stock.

Pistol with Pistol Light attached
By PraiyachatPublic Domain

Why Do I Need a Tactical Flashlight?

To me, a great flashlight is as essential as a first aid kit or penknife.

When I leave my home, along with the usual checks of wallets, keys, and cell phones—I always ensure I have a flashlight in my backpack or on my belt.

You genuinely never know when one will come in handy—car breakdowns, power outages, and poorly illuminated streets.

Naturally, your flashlight doesn’t have to be tactical. But, choosing one of these types means you have a light source that has some impressive power, is durable, can cope with water, and is energy-efficient.

Yet perhaps most importantly, a tactical flashlight can increase your safety.

Tactical Flashlights for those who need them

Here are some of our Tactical Flashlight buying guides to review:

The Self-Defense Use of Tactical Flashlights

You may use a handgun as your defense against threats. If that’s the case, a tactical flashlight is essential for low-light situations. It helps you to both correctly identify and locate your adversary and also enables you to see your gun sights in the dark.

However, in some countries, laws prevent the carrying of a firearm. A tactical flashlight can prove indispensable in self-preservation. Furthermore, you can usually carry them into schools, hospitals, and airports, where they prohibit firearms.

While a specific tactical flashlight is most desirable, you can still use a standard flashlight in self-defense.

Here are my top tips for using a tactical flashlight:

Identify Street Threats Before They Occur 

Even if you’re a stacked hulk of a man—something is unnerving about walking around dimly lit streets at night.

Would-be muggers and assailants can use the darkness to cover their unsavory intentions and utilize the element of surprise to catch you off guard.

A tactical flashlight can help you notice villainous types hiding in the shadows before they attack—allowing you to either vacate the area or prepare yourself for defense.

Furthermore, the bright beam that these flashlights emit can act as an effective deterrent. If you catch the assailant in the beam—all they can see is a bright light—not you.

Hence, they have no idea whether you’re a seven-foot giant or a law enforcement officer—making them reconsider their illicit actions.

Disorient Assailants

A bright and rapid flashing strobe will temporarily confuse and disorient an attacker. However, even if your flashlight lacks this capability—you can still briefly incapacitate them.

If a threat arises, shine your flashlight directly into the assailant’s eyes.

As a natural and involuntary reaction, they’ll hold their hands to their face to shield the light. This means they can’t see you, and any firearm or blade that was pointing in your direction has now become less of a threat.

Additionally, even when you take the beam away from their direction, their eyes will take time to readjust to the ambient conditions, giving you the advantage.

This is time for you to flee. If there’s no imminent danger, it would be foolish to attack, despite having the advantage.

While you may feel the perpetrator needs punishment—a panicking and flailing criminal wielding a weapon is still dangerous.

Use as a Weapon

This is strictly a last resort.

Should you find yourself in an unavoidable combat position—you can use your tactical flashlight as an improvised weapon.

Their heavy-duty construction, and usually beveled edges, makes for a potent tool to disable an attacker.

How to Use Your Flashlight Tactically

If you’re using your flashlight to find your way to the bathroom at night—it doesn’t matter how you hold or use it.

However, there are some special techniques used by different agencies with more tactical applications.

While there are several techniques available, below are what I consider to be the two principal methods.

While you utilize them primarily in conjunction with a gun, they’re also ideal for non-firearm situations when you are in a possible attack or defensive position.

The FBI Hold Position

This is my favorite holding technique. It’s ideal for use with a handgun or when unarmed and searching for possible intruders.

Grasp the flashlight in your dominant hand using an overhand position—you can use your other one for opening doors or pulling back curtains. Raise the flashlight about two inches above your head and around eight inches to the side.

This high-level light source is ideal for illuminating large areas, especially behind objects such as sofas or trash cans, where criminal types may be hiding. There’s little point aiming the beam upwards unless you’re searching for Spiderman.

Not only are you gaining serious visibility—you’re also reducing the chances of endangering yourself.

Any would-be shooter will aim towards the light source. As it’s a distance from your body, it distracts the assailant, reducing the chances of shots to your vital areas.

Furthermore, should an assailant surprise you, your flashlight isn’t easily accessible for them to grab away from you.

Flash and Scan Technique

This is an excellent tactical flashlight maneuver which is ideal for searching larger areas where you believe an enemy is hiding.

Here’s the process:

  1. Assume the FBI hold position as I described above.
  2. Stand perfectly still.
  3. Switch on your flashlight.
  4. As quickly as possible, scan the illuminated space for signs of intruders or anything that looks out of place.
  5. Mentally make a map of the immediate area.
  6. Turn your flashlight off.
  7. Using the memorized layout, move around four paces to another location.
  8. Switch on your flashlight.
  9. Scan the area again.
  10. Repeat until the area is secure, or you’ve located the intruder.

This method provides a comprehensive search while keeping you safe. Any armed invader will likely shoot at your last position (where they saw the light).

Here are some extra tips for searching with a flashlight:

Hand Blackout

If your flashlight doesn’t switch off quickly enough or retains some residual light, you can use the hand blackout technique when doing the flash and scan.

Use the palm of your non-dominant hand to blackout the light source—and remove it again when you need the light.

Alternatively, if your other hand is carrying something, press the flashlight against your chest to null the light.

A quick word of warning:

Some flashlights with heavily-toothed bezels will still emit light from the sides. Check first before using it in a real-life threat situation.

Lights Out

Flashlights are indispensable—tactical ones take it to the next level.

These high-powered and durable tools are incredibly simple to use, yet provide functions that a standard household flashlight cannot emulate.

Their ability to withstand extreme conditions, aid in self-defense, and assist if lost in the wilderness means they truly are lifesavers.

The bottom line:

If you want to be practical—go tactical.

Check out our Best Tactical Flashlight Reviews!

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