Disclaimer: There are plenty of guides and wiki’s on the internet. There are forums completely devoted to the topic that this article will discuss. My efforts are simply to share EVERYTHING I know about flashlights hopefully in a way people can find useful.
The “Semi-Comprehensive” means I will not be right 100% of the time nor believe to be the end-all authority on the topic. I will be updating this with new content and editing it for flow and accuracy. Please let me know if anything needs to be fixed.
Table of Contents:
• Types of Flashlights
• Anatomy of a Flashlight
• Quick Guide to Batteries
• Flashlight Performance
• FAQ – To be Continued!
Flashlights have been a household tool for almost a century. The idea of having something small, light weight, and quite bright that can fit in your pocket though is a pretty fresh concept. Almost on par with computers technology of these tiny marvels is constantly changing and difficult to wrap your mind around at first. Rather than confuse you with rhetoric I hope to explain this in a practical way that anyone can follow and enjoy the comfort of knowing you have a pocket light to keep you safe.
Why carry a flashlight?
It’s a fair question to ask. If you carry a pocket knife(s) it’s very likely you also carry a ton of other gear. A phone, keys, pen, a huge wallet, multitool, and many other things which make you rattle when you walk or make you uncomfortable when you sit. The problem is that if you ever are in a situation where you NEED light very few things will work as improvisational tools. A cell phone might but at the expense of communication with the outside world. A light can aid in escaping vision-impaired locations, prevent dangerous slips and falls, and even potentially steer clear of predators. With lights that weigh less than a disposable pen (and relatively inexpensive) they should be considered by everyone.
Where to start?
Start with a problem and determine a solution. It’s the most practical way to go about life and works great here as well.
The best way I can figure is to explain the various types you will likely be choosing from for EDC, coat pockets, or the truck. I won’t discuss lasers, HID search lights, or even incandescents. Then we will talk about the various parts of a light and generally (but not absolutely) how they impact performance. Then I will l will give you a quick guide to batteries and how they impact ability to solve a specific need. After that we will put this information into a practical guide to performance. Lastly I’ll put a number of basic questions that plagued me for years and you have probably heard many times with some curiosity. If you have any questions please let me know!
Types of Flashlights:
Just like with pocket knives there are various categories I would place lights into. Mostly this comes down to if you can carry it on a keychain, pocket, coat pocket, or you need to carry from place to place. Otherwise it comes down to how a light is made similar to how a Spyderco Native is made compared to say a Chris Reeves Sebenza. How production model impacts performance, reliability, and ultimately price.
• Budget Lights: Anytime someone is trying to sell you a light at the hardware store counter this is a budget light. They are cheap and likely brighter than most the lights you remember from 20 years ago. They are small. Usually they have at least six 5mm LED’s that glow purple . Often these budget lights are found online from places like DealExtreme. These are cheap and can provide some great performance per dollar. The downfall is often the threads are gritty, soldering isn't amazing, and occasionally (the really cheap ones) can show up and not work without a bit of elbow-grease, or a trash can. These are always Chinese and that isn’t a bad thing as most lights come from China; like the Tenacious though you ultimately get what you pay for.
• Quality Lights: Like I mentioned you get what you pay for. These come in real boxes with instructions and warranties. A Chinese light for $50-$100 is usually outstanding, especially if from a notable brand. They can fail (as can anything) but your chances are exponentially lower than those from the bracket above. These also provide ample performance. Surefire is what I would consider a quality brand and are American lights. This means they are more expensive but should be respected for providing a quality product. The Harley Davidison to the Honda and Kawasaki street bikes for example (to each his/her own). The key to this bracket is: Bang for your buck, well respected brands, high volume production.
• Semi-Custom: There are some lights out there such as Peak LED Solutions which are essentially made from a small shop with a few employees. This isn’t a one-man-band (or woman) but they don’t design a product overseas and receive a wrapped pallet. Usually the warranty is very nice and the quirks are heart-felt. The price is a bit higher and you often have a few more custom options than the major brands. They are selling to enthusiasts primarily.
• Host Lights: The most popular is the P60/D26 hose made famous by the Surefire 6p. Essentially people have made lights designed to take the modular light engine Surefire created. This means you can buy lights and custom engines building really anything you want from 200 lumen to 1300 lumen pocket lights. I’ll expand on this at another time but it could be a 10 page article in itself.
Dereelight Javelin head on C2H body, P60 drop-in
• Custom: One guy or lady with a lathe making beautiful products. Similar to the Sebenza of lights these range in price, mostly due to materials used. Aluminum lights are pretty affordable compared to custom knives, brass and stainless steel are a bit more, Titanium and Copper are in Sebi world. Terrific pocket jewelry and highly recommended!
Macs Custom SST50 EDC
They also come in varying sizes...
• Keychain: Small lights with small batteries. Usually twist operation and limited brightness or runtime.
Veleno Customs 40DD
• EDC: These are a tad smaller than most folding knives. Sometimes with clips, sometimes without. These most often come with AAA, AA, CR123 or rechargeable lithium sized equivalents. They can be bright to insanely bright with corresponding runtime. Finding one that “throw” very far can be difficult as I will explain later. Usually sub 1” diameter heads are comfortable in pocket, much larger and you will notice them.
Javelin/C2H, Nitecore Extreme, Zebralight SC51, Peak Logan 123 w/ momentary switch
• “Coat Pocket”: My own term for anything about the size of a TV remote with a head up to 3” in diameter. You can get nice runtime and throw out of these and I find them about the upper tier of my own functional needs.
• Big LED Lights: Anything bigger than I mentioned above makes for great conversation pieces. They get larger, longer, heavier but also brighter and can really reach out and touch the trees with admirable runtime. For my own uses these aren’t as useful. I don’t own an accurate hunting rifle nor a fashionable duffle bag. 16 ounce lights are heavy in your coat pocket (if they can fit)…trust me.
Elecrolumens "Big Bruiser"
Anatomy of the Flashlight:
I don’t have an electrical engineering background. Without talking out of my hindquarters I’ll explain the basic parts and basic functions. These parts are VERY important; like the human body if you change a couple factors it becomes a totally different organism. Let’s start from the front and move backwards.
The bezel protects the lens from impacts of dropping or in some cases swinging at someone in a defensive encounter. Mostly they just look cool. These range from “defensive bezels” that look like a Klingon war blade to mildly crenelated ones that just seem tactical. Smooth and shallow bezels will not effect the beam quality or rob a bit of your light of a bit of throwing ability Extreme bezels may make your beam look quite odd.
These come in various sizes, shapes and colors. Specifically they are intended to only protect your LED or bulb. Construction wise they can be plastic or glass. Of the glass category they are often specified as mineral glass or even sapphire lenses, these are scratch resistant and sapphire more-so. Plastic lenses tend to scratch easier but also can't shatter if struck violently. Often referred to as “UCL” or “Ultra Clear Lens” are more efficient than traditional glass in allowing light to pass though without interference. For all intents and purposes you won’t have much of a choice regarding the lens and if careful even won’t scratch a plastic one. At least not to the point it would impact performance at a noticeable level.
Diffusers either snap-on, slip-on or fit between your normal lens and the bezel. These can change the color of the beam or in the case of frosted/opaque texturing remove the “hot spot” at a loss of some output efficiency. Great for making a thrower into more of a flood light, or at least not as obnoxious of one.