More than 25 years ago I enlisted in the Air Force Reserve as a security policeman. Back then a duty light was the two “D” cell, right angle light. If you were able to track down the straight version, man you were on the cutting edge of light technology. It wasn’t long after I arrived back home to my unit that we got really high tech with the arrival of the Mag Lite. This was like introducing the centerfire cartridge to an infantryman.
In the past two decades we have seen lights shrink in size and put out more light than those we use to spot deer prior to hunting season here in western Pennsylvania.
With all of these changes and advancements, what’s an officer to look for in a light for duty? First, it’s important to define the mission of the light. A flashlight dedicated to a weapon should have different specs from one used solely for signaling. Because of these differences, we’ll limit the scope of this article to multi-use lights—the kind used by most officers that can be carried on your duty belt or on a vest in a pouch. Granted, many officers use more than one flashlight on duty. But when push comes to shove; there is one light that goes with us at all times.
Lights that fall into this “carry them all the time” category are offered by Inova, SureFire, Streamlight, DigiLight, Pelican, Laser Devices, Blackhawk Products, PentagonLight, and many others. These companies offer lights in many configurations: LED or xenon bulbs; powered by alkaline, lithium, or rechargeable batteries. Personal use duty lights have truly become as unique to the user as footwear.
If you opt to purchase a name brand light, you can’t go wrong. Knockoffs may be cheaper, but because they’re often of lower quality you’ll most likely be in the market for a new one soon.
The type of light you choose will be influenced by many factors. Do you need a light that has the ability to blind your opponent? Do the batteries have to offer you a long run time? Do you want the light to give you the option of being purely handheld or should it also be weapons mountable? The list of questions could easily equal the number of officers who read Police Magazine, so we’ll just stick to the basics.
The first thing that should be noted when buying a light for duty is its primary function. Even if it’s meant to be multi-purpose, your flashlight must meet your various duties, not those of another officer with a different detail.
If you work primarily where there are large areas to search, such as a warehouse or a field or down the street, a bright light is a must. If you work in the tight quarters of a house, parking garage, etc., you may want to consider a light with a bit less output. As I was told by my friend Walt Rauch—a fellow gun scribe, retired cop, and former Secret Service man—when using bright lights indoors, remember they will reflect off mirrors, metallic bangles, and china cabinets, blinding you and those behind you. This effect makes you and those with you useless until your eyes recover from this blast of white light.
If you need a duty light for your belt, I suggest any of the one-inch diameter two- or three-cell CR123A lights. These will be small enough to carry on your duty belt, yet won’t weigh a ton or be so large as to get in the way. The six- or nine-volt offerings are available in LED or any number of xenon halogen or other white light configurations.
Most of these lights put out an ample amount of light but, in some cases, it’s too much. Lights of the six- or nine-volt size have a lumen output of 60 to more than 150 lumens (lumens equals total energy output of a light; candle power equals the total brightness of the light). In rough terms a 65-lumen six-volt lamp provides enough light for me to clearly read the average team logo on a sweatshirt in the far corner of my yard, which is 40 yards from my door. This is enough light to see items in a subject’s hands and be able to tell the difference between a Motorola Razor and a Kel-Tec 9mm pistol.
LED vs. Xenon
The need for bright lights that use batteries economically has led to the development of LED lights. The LED lights of my twenties were great for lighting a wristwatch or the headlights of a model train, but not much else. These lights have progressed to being able to compete with many of the xenon bulbs; LED lights can’t match the distance of xenon. For most applications like clearing an average room, searching a 60-foot trailer or a vehicle, a high output LED will serve many users needs. The drawback to an LED light is the blue cast the light produces, but this is only a minor drawback. The LED lights overcome this with runtimes of two to four hours while a comparable xenon light will require more power in an hour. LED lights are supposed to burn for thousands of hours while the xenon-type bulbs are expected to last for a hundred hours or less.
LED lamps are very useful for searching and for target ID in close quarters. The tried and true xenon halogens put out a more concentrated light, making them more suitable for weapons lights. This concentration allows for target ID at longer distances.
With their many differences, it would be impossible to choose a favorite between the two new brightest types of flashlights. LED and xenon lamps work in unison and complement one another; neither is superior to the other.