Best is always a subjective term. The best tactical flashlight for me may not be the best tactical flashlight for you. It comes down to what your needs are and how you will use the unit. It also comes down to unexpected needs. So as you consider what it is that you need a tactical flashlight to do, consider also, the unexpected. Preparedness is a good plan for building a toolkit that helps you solve problems that are not the norm. So what is a good list of features? The simplest answer is the ones that you need the most. Here is a list for consideration:
Lumens: A good tactical flashlight has about 1000 maximum lumens available. We say available because you should be able to choose from multiple light settings as situations or requirements on the scene change. TIP: Look for a unit with maximum lumens in the 1000 range. More than 1000 lumens and you face faster battery depletion. Less than 1000 lumens and you are limited by your equipment.
Power Supply : Rechargeable is a good feature. Even if you do not carry replacement batteries, you can at least recharge the ones you have if you are deployed longer than anticipated. For that reason 18650 Li-Ion batteries should be the standard. A unit that requires two batteries offers more power. You can also find units for sale that come with a charger included in their price. That feature adds value. Rechargeable batteries also help to decrease the long-term and ongoing cost of buying batteries. From a cost perspective, rechargeable batteries are an asset.
Battery Value: Not all Lithium Ion batteries are created equally. Pay close attention to the battery lifecycle. The battery lifecycle is the estimation of how many times the battery can be recharged before it needs to be replaced. As Lithium Ion batteries age, they become less efficient. They operate on an electron exchange chemistry reaction. As such they do not last forever. A good rule of thumb is to aim for a battery Lifecycle in the 800 cycle range.
You should be able to recharge the battery 800 times before it needs to replacing. A battery with a lower recharging cycle number decreases the value of your purchase. A battery with greater recharging cycles may add unnecessary costs to your purchase and therefore decrease the value of the unit.
Energy Efficiency: A good tactical flashlight has enough energy and energy efficiency so that you can use it in an almost unrestricted way. These are tools and as such, you should be able to use them when you need them. It is also important to consider how long a flashlight will produce light based on its light modes.
The most appropriate range of energy efficiency should allow you to use your light on the high setting for at least three hours with four hours being optimum. As such, you will likely need a battery with 2600mAh. Set your light usage goal at High-4 Hours, Medium-12 Hours, and Low-30 plus Hour range. This range of energy efficiency gives you a good overall usage without having to carry a tactical flashlight that is too heavy or that is cumbersome.
Light Source: Some tactical flashlights still use an incandescent bulb. Be wary of low-priced units and be sure to check out the bulb-type. Incandescent bulbs not only break and burn out, but they suck down a lot of energy quickly. You will most often find these types of bulbs in cheap lights. A good solution is a light that uses a CREE® XML2 T-6 Emitter or something similar.
These offer you the best volume of light with the least amount of energy usage. That whole conversation about value is played out right here. Choosing a good emitter type allows you to find a tool that offers you the most usage for its cost. LED is definitely the way to go.
Emitter Life: LED lights have a lifecycle which is usually longer than any incandescent bulb. Even so, not all LED bulbs are created equally. Some units are short lived and once they are gone you either have to replace the emitter or the entire unit. For that reason, aim high. An emitter that rates with a lifetime in the 50,000-hour range is pretty much ideal.
When shopping for a tactical flashlight be sure to pay close attention to the emitter lifecycle expectancy rating. Some may last as little as 10,000 hours and quite a few last only to 20,000 hours. A better value is one that offers the most usage for its cost. A tactical flashlight with an emitter that produces 50,000 light-hours is good.
Modes of Use: This is where you need to decide on what you need the tactical flashlight to do. How are you going to use it? Some models offer a few settings. Low and High. Others may only offer on and off. Aim for a few features that are beyond what you need, but also consider the value. Pay for what you need, shop for what is available in that price range.
You can find high-quality models with five modes —High, Medium, Low, Strobe, SOS. You can also find models that offer variable lumens in High-1000 lumens, Medium-600 lumens, and Low-300 lumens. A zoomable feature adds a lot of value because it allows you to customize the light source as your environment changes.
Beam Angle: If a tactical flashlight is defined by its pairing with a firearm, then being able to adjust the beam angle becomes a critical feature. Not all tactical flashlights have an adjustable beam angle. A good range to aim for is a beam angle in the 5º – 120º range. This allows you to adjust the unit to fit your shooting environment. The better the tool fits the job the more value it adds to your life.
Beam Distance: The beam distance is a rating that reflects usage and potential usage. If you are on patrol and you need to investigate a large territory quickly then a long beam range is good. If you are stuck indoors and the warehouse you patrol is 200 feet long, then you can get by with less.
The consideration for tactical tools is always that the search situation and environment can change. For that reason, aim for a maximum beam distance in the 700-800 foot range. Consider that 750 feet is about .14 miles. That is a lot of distance and a good range that also adds value.
Visibility Distance: Beam distance and visibility distance are different measurements. We can see in low-light conditions. For that reason, aim for a maximum visible distance in the 2,200-2,400 meter range. Consider that 2300 meters is about 1.4 miles. Such a distance allows you to scan large distances quickly and helps in an outdoor situation such as search and rescue or criminal pursuit.
Body Material: Some tactical flashlights are constructed using plastic. Some are constructed using steel. Plastic is breakable, especially if you fall or drop the unit. Steel is heavy.
For those reasons, consider aircraft aluminum which is lightweight and durable. There is no need to be bogged down by your gear. Shop smart so that you can carry gear and still perform at peak efficiency. If you have to chase vandals through the streets you are not going to want to pack too much weight.
Attachment Options: A good strategy is to look for a unit that offers multiple attachment features. Such as a removable belt clip in conjunction with a removable wrist strap. This allows you to carry the unit in a way that does not obstruct the use of your arms and then to deploy the unit on your write as needed.
On/Off Switch: The best place for on/off switch is usually on the tail cap because it is not in the way when shooting, and you cannot accidentally turn it on or off if you bump it. Some units have the on/off switch on the side or the unit is activated by turning the front end cap. Both are not good options as you have to use one of your hands to activate the unit and that means you still have to bring your weapon to bear.
Weight: Lightweight is best. Nothing more than about eight ounces without the batteries is ideal. You have enough gear to carry that you do not need a bulky and clunky tactical flashlight dragging you down.
Operating Temperature: Aim for a unit with operating temperatures between -20 to 60°C. This allows for the greatest use in most situations.
Overall Length: The goal here is to find a unit that fits well on your belt, that is not so long that it encumbers walking, sitting, or running, and not so small that you will not notice if you lose it. For most of us, that is about an eight-inch long body and a head under two inches in diameter.