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How to Use a Strobing Flashlight

Strobes have become extremely popular on police flashlights, but this tool has its pluses and minuses.

June 30, 2010  |  by Edward M. Santos

Using Strobes on the Street

Before we discuss any strobe light application methods, let's discuss what I believe to be one of the biggest hurdles faced by my students as they attempt to learn strobe light techniques. The method of accessing the strobe feature continues to be an issue with many light designs. This issue deserves to be discussed in this forum as the switching method needs to be at the top of your list as you evaluate a light for purchase.

Each manufacturer has its own method of switching between strobe, constant/momentary on, and various intensity outputs. I have to say that I am not crazy about any particular switch design currently available. I also realize after working with one manufacturer for more than three years on this issue that there is no simple solution.

Ideally the operator should have the ability to switch from constant or momentary on to strobe without any fine motor skills necessary. The switching between light functions should be effortless, without gimmick, and certain even under stress when a lack of tactile function is to be expected.

In addition, gloves are often worn during many of these critical situations. Before buying a strobing light, ask yourself how well the switching method will work while wearing gloves. Do not limit your evaluation of strobe lights to lumen output, brightness, or brand. Be sure to experiment with the various switching solutions offered and anticipate their effectiveness under stress-related conditions.

Operating in a low-light environment requires many elements and skills to be successful and maintain a position of tactical advantage. There is not enough room in this article to discuss low-light tactics in their entirety. I will, however, discuss strobe light considerations as they relate to control.

Suspect control is one of the most important aspects of low-light applications but also the most underused and misunderstood concept. Let's think of the many advantages you realize by applying light as a control tool.

With the light in his eyes, the suspect is preoccupied and uncomfortable and will not be able to direct an effective threat your way. He will not be able to look for escape paths, and he will have a very difficult time determining how many of you he is faced with. His discomfort, disorientation, and inability to see clearly in your direction all result in a situation that will be much easier for you to control. The chances are much greater that he will become compliant rather than raise the level of his resistance.

I am not talking about a major change in your tactics. All I am asking you to do is to make a small adjustment in the application of your light/firearm deployment skills. Place the hotspot of the light in the suspect's eyes. (See photo on page 33). There will be enough peripheral light to see the hands even if they are left down by his side. More than likely, the hands will be brought to his face in an effort to shield away the light. If a cover officer is available, a constant-on light should be deployed in addition to the strobe so you can maintain the best visibility of the suspect.

These are but a few of the considerations surrounding strobe light operation in law enforcement. Do I use one? You bet.

When used appropriately a strobe light can be a very powerful tool in your tactical tool box. As with any tool, its effectiveness depends on our ability to understand its limitations, benefits, and overall function.

There is no replacement for practice and skill refinement. The basis for any deployment system or technique is manipulation skills and ultimately the further refinement of those skill sets should be your goal. If you choose to add a strobe-capable light to your arsenal, become familiar with its operational controls and know when to use it. 


Almost every major police flashlight or weapons light manufacturer is now offering lights that feature strobing. Here's a quick look at some of the more popular makes and models and how the strobe is triggered for each.

5.11 Tactical Light for Life Series

Law enforcement gear, apparel, and footwear manufacturer 5.11 entered the flashlight market a couple of years ago with the full-size (11.5 inches long) Light for Life UC3.400. The company now also makes a mid-size model, the 8.75-inch PC3.300. Both flashlights recharge in 90 seconds thanks to capacitor technology and both offer strobe features. The full-size light sports a 270-lumen strobe that is triggered by two clicks of the "on" button. To activate the 200-lumen strobe on the mid-size model, you push and hold the "on" button.

Visit 5.11 Tactical Online

BlackHawk Night-Ops Line

BlackHawk's Night-Ops line of tactical illumination tools includes the Gladius Maximis flashlight and the Xiphos NT weapons light. Both have strobe features and both are named for swords carried by ancient soldiers. The Gladius Maximis is a 6.23-inch flashlight with a maximum output of 120 lumens and a runtime of 90 minutes. To activate the strobe, the operator turns the tail ring and pushes the tail switch. The Xiphos NT is a 3-volt, rail-mounted pistol light with 90 lumens of output. Its strobe feature is activated by tapping the "on" lever twice.

Visit BlackHawk Online

Brite-Strike Blue Dot 198

Designed by police officers for police officers, Brite-Strike's Blue Dot 198 line offers several models with strobe features. The lights take their name from their maximum output of 198 lumens, and they are available with a variety of different functions. The functions are activated via an end cap switch. To turn on the strobe, the operator cycles through high, low, and strobe modes by pushing the end cap button.

Visit Brite-Strike Online

Inova T-4 and T-5

Recently acquired by Nite Ize Corp., Inova is best known for its keychain lights, but the company makes some excellent duty lights. The T4 is a rechargeable model with an output of 200 lumens. A mid-body switch activates high, low, momentary, and strobe modes. The T5 is a nine-inch-long lithium battery-powered flashlight with a maximum output of 200 lumens. It also has a four-mode mid-body switch.

Visit Inova Online

Insight Tech-Gear Arcturus Line

Insight's 150-lumen Arcturus lights come in two versions: a rechargeable and a lithium battery-operated model. The light's functions are activated by pressing the tail cap. Two quick clicks triggers the strobe.

Visit Insight Tech-Gear Online

Streamlight Weapon Lights

Featuring C4 LED technology, Streamlight's TLR-1 and TLR-2 (with laser sight) now offer strobe mode. Both lights have a maximum output of 160 lumens. The strobe is activated by clicking the paddle switch twice and then holding it down. Like prior versions of the TLR-1 and TLR-2, the lights are machined out of aircraft aluminum with black anodized finish. Both weigh less than five ounces.

Visit Streamlight Online

SureFire Z2-S LED CombatLight

Compact and powerful, SureFire's five-inch-long Z2-S LED CombatLight is a rugged duty light with a 160-lumen maximum output. The CR-123A battery-powered flashlight has a runtime of two hours. And its beam is not only powerful but also very smooth thanks to its precision micro-textured reflector. Strobing is activated by three rapid clicks of the tail cap.

Visit SureFire Online

Ed Santos is the author of "Rule the Night Win the Fight: a Practical Guide to Low-Light Gun Fighting." He has been teaching firearms and tactics for more than 25 years and has studied low-light operations for more than 20 years. Santos is a retired Army officer and a reserve deputy in northern Idaho.

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Comments (15)

Displaying 1 - 15 of 15

Neil Murphy @ 2/2/2012 12:40 PM

I am curious. On TV cops (a generality) use their flashlights overhanded. Is this true? Why?

[email protected] @ 4/17/2012 12:16 AM

so you can crack someons head with the handle another way of protection.

Sias Fourie @ 1/8/2013 12:57 PM

Hi Edward,
To make a long story short, does not allways happen, but I will try and keep it as short as possible. I am an ex Warrant Officer Trainer from the South African Police and I spearheaded the development, the design, together with the current Commander of the Special Task Force in Cape Town, Col Corne Vermeulen. Way back in 2000 and even before that, I started experimenting with the Disorientating effect of the Strobe Light as a Less than lethal tool.
We did not have the very bright LEDS we have now, but even with a 34 Lumen Krypton Globe 3 D Cell flashlight it worked.
I got involved with Lightsaver and with the help of our sister company, Azoteq we developed a Strobin light running at approximately 7,5 cycles per second, we found was the most disturbing effect we could muster. I did quite a bit of medical research and also used the few prototypes in the SAPS, Crowd Management as well as Crime combating units, operating in the whole of the Cape Peninsula. I wrote down a few of the bright points (excuse the pun) and put together a lecture to be added on to Low light training. Lou Chiodo from the States as well as Don Gold took an interest and the thing got of the ground in the SAPS. I left the SAPS in 2003 and joined Lightsaver as a sales Manager as well as their Technical advisor to supplying equipment to the SAPS and other Law enforcement agencies. I undertook a coutrywide tour and visited som Tactical Response teams and introduced them to the Disoreintation Strobe in a Low light workshop.
I want to stop here with what we have tried to do, but I need to say a few things about the Light and how people (trainers and users in the field) approaches it. It is done with suspicion and rightly so, because I really believe that if it was easier to accept by Law enforcement, it would have also been accepted by the criminal.
Please keep in mind that this is a major find in the hands of police officers who only wish they can lay their hands on.
Contact me - Sias.

K. vd Linden @ 3/3/2013 7:13 AM

Hi Edward,

I am an "oldtimer" at the police force in Amsterdam, started in January 1972.
Last 11 years I am a police trainer at the Dutch Police Academy. Before that I was working in special squads and some special units since 1977 till 2002.
Your findings are 100% correct. Only on 1 part we made a small advancement.
From 2004 on, up till today we are developing the use of Strobe lights for our tactical training (95% hand to hand and 5% weapon training). After 3 years training/development/pilots in practice with 400 students, we came to the point that we needed a light that no manufactor produced (or wanted to). So we designed a tactical light that covered our needs. To use a light tactical is not only the light, but a complete package. It starts with 1-handed quick draw, upside down with momentary switch on the rear, thumb operated, always on in Strobe, (under stress you don't have fine motorical skills)
It is attached with a small spiral cord to your holder so You can drop your light during the arrest.
It is usable as a normal light, but then you have no stress and can hold the switch 2 sec for high, med, low modes.
After switch off. . . .it always starts up in tactical Strobe.

To counter the effect You described that you can move your hands several inches before detection, we set the strobe to 20hz.
After many tests we found that it was still very difficult for the suspect to locate the position and distance to the operator, and there was no chance anymore to move your hands without detection.
So this was the con. are brought down to a minimum and the pros are still in function.
contact me for more info or photo's of the light we have developed.

friendly regards
K. van der Linden

Dale D. @ 9/3/2013 5:25 AM

Edward, I read your forum and I wanted to let you know that I am an inventor that recently developed

CJ Rigdon @ 12/27/2013 12:04 PM

Wow, I never knew that the idea of using a strobe light to disorient attackers went so far back, though I suppose it makes sense.

In terms of whether the strobe is useful over just a normal bright light, I have to wonder if the advantage of the strobe light comes from destroying night vision. If a light continues to go on and off in someone's face, their eyes will not have time to adjust to either brightness, which can result in them being unable to see. Furthermore, it makes me think of flash on cameras. The more pictures are taken the more "spots" can dance in front of someone's eyes when one is using a flash. The more "spots" there are, the more difficult it is to see. So I would say its entirely possible that a strobe light has benefits that a normal flashlight might not.

The best option might be to have a tactical flashlight that can work as both a strobe light and a normal light, such as the versatile LazerBrite:

In any case, great article!

Steven Tope @ 5/12/2014 8:38 PM

Hello. I would be interested in learning more about the light that Mr. K van der
Linden wrote about, i.e., any specific information regarding the size, weight, lumens, price and if it is available for purchase in the U.S., etc. I also would be interested in knowing if there are any other flashlights available in the U.S. which meet the standard that Mr. van der Linden wrote about in his 3/3/2013 post. Thank you.

Charles Ramsey @ 5/21/2014 5:52 PM

Actually these lights are causing epileptic seizures and deaths in those with photic or pattern epilepsy. I believe these lights kill more innocent people than all other police caused deaths combined. There is no reason to use these on people who are not breakng the law. Stay tuned there will be lawsuits against the police and the nanufacturers.

June @ 6/10/2015 5:57 AM

I'm in agreement with Charles Ramsey and I thank him for mentioning this. I ended up reading this article because I was trying to research the use of flashing lights in TV shows. Even that much is extremely painful to me and often triggers an epileptic attack. My epilepsy is genetic, it came from my father and probably others in my family, there is no control for it except medications and a special diet. I didn't know police were using such lights. If it were used on me and triggered an attack, I would be rendered completely catatonic and possibly speechless only able to make moaning sounds. Even though I can hear and understand the person, I cannot speak. It would also cause such pain that I can't move and would likely collapse into a fetal position. Police should be aware of the non-violent reaction that this may produce in some people. Unfortunately, without special training in this, it's very dangerous and negative results are certain with some cases. Please be careful.

Mike Van volkenburg @ 7/27/2015 4:46 PM

7 sycles per second is the median frequency of the alpha waves of the brain. External inputs of energy aka strobes, can cause epileptic seizure, unconciousnes and a number of related problems. This has been common medical knowledge for decades and is used by licensed physicians in some treaatments.

Hrrrng @ 9/24/2015 11:12 PM

Also accidentally sending epileptic suspects into potentially life threatening fits is a problem

Chuck @ 10/9/2015 10:09 PM

Left out one of the easiest and best uses--a strobe makes movements much more visible, making it very difficult to hide.

Most strobe flashlights don't hit the optimum frequencies for disorientation (Fenix w/ their 7.8Hz is the only one I know of,) but even the cheapest flash, held steady will cause any movement in field to be very visible.

Ideally, you need a visor which will sync with the flash so that YOU aren't disoriented...while this wouldn't be difficult, I'm not aware of any such units for sale. (A flash at the proper frequency in blue light, viewed through a green filter (with a green steady light) would provide near perfect vision for the operator while still disorienting the subject. As an alternative to synchronizing a visor with the light.)

Given the difficulty the American police have in properly training officers to bring in suspects alive and unharmed--something most European forces have no problem doing, such non-lethal tools need to be exploited.

Jack @ 5/7/2016 10:43 PM

We must also consider the fact that a pulsed power LED consumes much less battery power than a light of the same power being on all the time. This fact allows for much smaller units using smaller available batteries.

Zvi Harduf, Ph.D. @ 5/16/2017 2:54 AM

I failed to locate the time-pattern of the effect: is it immediately induced, are there significant individual variations between genders, ages etc.

Zvi Harduf, Ph.D. @ 5/24/2017 2:33 AM

Dear Dr Santos.
I failed to locate the time-pattern of the effect: is it immediately induced, are there significant individual variations between genders, ages etc.
Are these DATA available?

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