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Lighting The Way

Select a duty light to suit your unique mission with a little help from our tools guru.

June 01, 2006  |  by Scott Smith - Also by this author

Enhancing Brightness

For all of the talk about LED and xenon, the one thing that actually makes the new breed of lights so bright is the lamp and reflector assembly. Most of the lights we buy at the big box or “dollar” stores use generic lights that reflect off a silver colored plastic reflector. While great for finding a hammer in the tool shed, they’re not up to finding a perpetrator holed up in a house or yard.

Today’s duty lights use machined aluminum reflectors that are highly polished. This yields a full-field light beam, without dead zones. The result is a much brighter light efficiently using most all of the light produced by the bulb.

LED lamps use similar technology to capture all the light created by an LED. If you compare an LED light to a xenon halogen, the angles of the LED seem to be more acute, to more tightly focus the light. Inova uses a concentric machined lens to yield a very tight beam that rivals many xenon lights. SureFire uses a similar method of focusing the beam, but the reflector totally encapsulates the lamp, ensuring that all of the LED’s light is used. Whether you choose an LED or xenon unit, check the lens. Knockoff lights use cheap clear polymers that scratch, crack, and melt from the high heat these lights produce. You want a lens made of tempered glass or Pyrex for durability and resistance to melting.

Body Building

In the last few years a debate has erupted over the material that the light’s body is made from. Many lights are made from various aircraft grade aluminum alloys and are hard anodized, making them virtually indestructible. Like firearms, several lights are now made from polymers and are just as durable. Here, personal choice or agency policy will determine what you purchase.

I have found that most of the alloy-tubed lights are one inch in diameter. This means that your handheld light can double as a weapons-mounted light for a long gun with the purchase of a one inch scope ring and a weaver base. Several companies offer a base to mount a light through the ventilation holes in the forearm of an AR-style rifle. This adds to the versatility of your purchase, saving you a few bucks.


Both LED and xenon halogen lights make nearly perfect duty lights. But they both have one problem: the need for a constant source of energy. Most of the six- and nine-volt lights use CR123A lithium batteries. These can get expensive, averaging two bucks per battery. The solution for this is to obtain a light that has rechargeable batteries. Rechargeable lights fall into two categories: those with a removable/rechargeable battery pack and those with built-in batteries.

Most of the rechargeable lights with built-in batteries recharge fairly quickly, and tend to be larger than those with removable batteries. With very few exceptions, these lights take “C” or “D” cells, which may be too large to comfortably carry on your duty belt. These lights generally have substantially longer runtimes than those with removable battery packs. Lights with internal battery packs can be left charging in your cruiser or wagon to ensure you have a serious light when needed. Like the lights with an internal battery, those with removable packs are easily charged in your vehicle or at the station and generally come with two packs, so you can have one charging and one in your light. I found that a nine-volt pack that has been completely drained takes about one hour to fully charge, some as long as two hours.

Which Switch?

The last item to consider when looking at a light for duty is the switch. Although this might seem unimportant, it will determine how you’ll use your light. “Tactical” lights usually have a rear cap pressure button. This facilitates use of the Rogers or Harris light technique. If you have a light with a body-mounted push button switch, the Ayoob method works well.

Either way, look at the cap or switch. Does it feel flimsy and cheap? Is the assembly sealed to ensure dirt and water won’t compromise the switch? If it’s a tail cap switch, is there a button lock-out so you won’t accidentally turn the light on while carrying it? If it’s a push-button switch, does it engage positively? If any of these are lacking, chances are that the light won’t hold up to duty use.

The Overall Package

When you roll all of these items into one light you arrive at the end product, a light for daily use. A light can be a tool to illuminate an area, identify a target, or even act as a less-than-lethal weapon if it’s bright enough to temporarily blind suspects. And I know I sound like a broken record, but I can’t stress this enough: Don’t go to a bargain store to buy a cheap light thinking it’s “just like major brand A.” It isn’t. If it were, the price tag would match.

Today, the abundance of lights available allows you to choose one to meet your mission requirements. If you pick up any current law enforcement supplier’s catalog, there are pages of lights. Hopefully the information in this article will help you sort out which will best work for you. For more specific details check out manufacturers’ Websites and visit online forums where you can discuss particulars with other officers. With a little homework you will soon be a lighting technology guru.

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