Part 1 of Bug Out Flashlight Wisdom addressed modern LED lighting and the single CR123-cell flashlights in particular. In Part 2, flashlight features and operational wisdom will be discussed. I can tell that the dust has not yet settled on flashlight interfaces in the same way it has not yet to settle on computer operating systems, gun safeties, and even knife blade locking mechanisms. I have three different flashlight switch options in the same brand of flashlight. And another light that has a user-specified programmable interface that you access with three quick twists of the bezel. I had to get YouTube help just to figure out how to program my light.
By Doc Montana, a contributing author
This post is Part II of a series. To read Part I (click here)
But in the end, this is all for you. Once you go down the rat hole of choice, there is no end to the possibilities when there’s no limit to money and electric circuits. I’ve got variable 0-100 lumen lights, high-low, low-high, single speed, three-speeds, and even considering Surefire’s new line of “IntelliBeam Technology” actually does the brightness adjusting for you depending on how much light is already falling on the scene. I guess it means I’m old if I had to stop and think about that one.
A big choice with the switch is whether or not the light can be turned on using a flat surface instead of a thumb. Recessed switches can prevent unintentional activation of the light, while protruding switches allow the light to be activated with a crude tap on the butt. Both have their place. I prefer shrouded switches, but find that exposed buttons are great for brief on/off lighting and weapons lights. Also, exposed switches usually prevent the light from standing on its tail for a feeble attempt at general area lighting. And in Surefire’s absurd fashion, they managed to make some of their tail switches peek out above the shroud enough to prevent solid tail standing, but not enough to activate the light. Some of those engineers in Fountain Valley really need to get out more.
Other brands have split the difference shrouding only 50% of the tail switch in two 25% barriers on opposite sides of the ring. A flat surface cannot activate the light, but any smaller protrusion can be used as a surrogate thumb. Of course tail-standing with that design is out of the question.
The choices within any individual flashlight can be a simple on/off, to a complex multi-bright-multi-strobe-SOS programmable interface. Or anywhere in between. There are three considerations when thinking about the interface. The first thing to think about its if the interface is even necessary for your needs. Some lights like the 4Sevens are programmable and then hold the lighting sequence until changed. Other brands require a specific set of clicks on a switch meaning both that the choice can be ignored or must be memorized. Other than that, it’s a crapshoot as to what will happen when a user tries different click or twist combinations. Maybe something, maybe nothing. Maybe the worst possible choice for the situation.
The second consideration about the interface is which way you want it to cycle. Defensive lights cycle from brightest to dimmest while utility lights cycle from dim to bright. Other lights might cycle through a series of dim to bright to strobe, etc. All lights have their advantages, but you will need to carry the the light that best needs you anticipate. Personally, I prefer only two stage lights that have low or brightest or brightest and low. The Surefire Fury goes from 20 lumens on first click to 500 on second click. My Surefire E2D Defender goes from 500 lumens on first click to 5 lumens on the quick second click. Both have their place in my daily carry.
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And the third is consideration has to do with if the interface is if it’s something that you actually memorize. For instance, the 4Sevens lights have a triple rotation of the bezel to access the interface before you can fiddle around to what the blinking light means. Other interfaces, like the Streamlight, might be as simple as clicking through the secondary bezel-mounted button, or with a set of quick-clicks of the tail switch. Some other lights have rotating bezels with different features, while others have different degrees tailcap depression.
As much as I’m a fan of modern technology, I like a simple, predictable interface that I can toss across the room to a child when necessary that will work 100% of the time. For me, that’s Surefire and Fenix. However I do love my small 4Sevens lights and use Streamlight AA, AAA, and CR123 lights in Bug Out Bags, Truck glove boxes, and daily carry. But trust me, when the S H’s the F, I’ll grab my Surefires first, no questions asked.
The Bezel is the business-end of the flashlight. It is responsible for the light throw, the shiny reflection, and in some cases, the sharp rim or crenulations that can crack skulls, scrape DNA, and inform those nearby that the light is on when face-down on a smooth surface.
The reflector inside a flashlight can be smooth, rough like an orange peel, or of high-tech geometry blasting the beam in an efficient and desired way. Orange peel reflectors are the new hotness. Long gone are the hot spots and dark spots of the D-cell Maglites. The new norm is uniform light spread across the entire landscape. Seriously, if you haven’t yet experienced quality in hand lighting projection, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise. There is a reason some light cost over a hundred bucks and it’s not just the American fingerprints all over the manufacturing.
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Crenulated bezels, or those with raised bumps like the turrets of a castle or scallops on a knife blade, are both fighting weapons and essential indicators of when the light is on, but face down on a flat surface. The raised regions of bezel, or crenulations, make tiny dull knives that focus the impact onto a smaller sharper surface when shoved into flesh. And the spaces between the crenulations allow light to seep out indicating that the batteries are in use but going nowhere. Frankly, I am surprised how many times I encounter a face-planted flashlight dumping photons into a tabletop, countertop or floor. It seems everyone but me parks a running light down on its lens.
The thin metal strips of spring steel that parallel the flashlight’s body are a simple idea that just cannot seem to evolve beyond its knuckle-dragging stage in life. Flashlight pocket clips, not unlike folding knife pocket clips, run the gamut from passing usefulness to better-off-without-it. The clips vary widely in design, shape, grip strength, direction, and location. Some even play both sides and don’t work well in either direction, while others have mastered the skill of ineffectiveness in only one orientation. Surefire has a well-developed clip that grabs a pocket edge quite well with the lens down, but also has an oversized wrap-around portion of the clip that gives a second carry option as well as grabs nicely to the bill of a baseball cap. Only problem is Surefire lights are known for being a little big and can be heavy so you might need to snug up the cap’s retention on your skull.
No matter the clips shape, the one thing I want for sure is the ability to remove the clip. Not to keep it removed, per say, but rather to take it off and bend it how I want. Mostly the clip needs tightening to my personal specs, but occasionally, I want to increase or decrease the shovel angle on the clip’s tip to either slide into my pocket with less help, or reduce its stress on my pocket or thigh because it pokes out like a figurehead on a wooden ship.
Paper or Plastic?
Most lights today are made of one or two of three materials. High end lights for non-explosive conditions usually run aluminum throughout. A few are titanium, but those are definitely outliers. Drop down a price point or two and you find plastic and polymer. The final material is a Lexan or similar hard plastic that is often transparent. My preference is aluminum when titanium is not available. Although I don’t notice any weight difference between the two since the quantity of metal in a flashlight is pretty low given the strength requirements of such a device.
Aluminum does have it’s downsides including higher cost, need for proper anodizing, and care when threading together the components. Aluminum can be milled to much finer tolerances than synthetics so they are usually noticeably more refined. That is the quality aluminum flashlights, not the junk ones in the hardware store checkout line. But aluminum does scratch, dent, and sink. Plus, it seems that only those cheap Chinese dollar-lights next to the cash register are the only ones that truly embrace my love of bright colors. Surefire seems to think silver is a major departure from the norm.
The use of plastic can cut the cost of a light in half or more for roughly the same output performance by the same company. However, the flexible nature of plastic means that a hard blow will likely knock the stuffing out of the light whereas a quality aluminum one would just get bruised. A good indication of how well a light will stay together under stress is found in the number of revolutions holding the components to each other. Two complete rotations is the minimum for high quality. If less than two, wear your seatbelt. If less than one, wear a helmet. Fenix lights use up to three rotations to keep their heads screwed on tight, and Surefire is at least two spins. And when twisting the pieces, notice the smoothness of thread interaction. Many quality lights use thick durable threads, and even squared off thread tips. While lesser lights, even those that might spin two or more times use such paper-thin threads that you can bend the head off the body even when screwed down tight. Not all threads are created equal.
Batteries are Life
My barn full of lights run on everything from button-cell batteries to 18v rechargeable packs, but many of my EDC and bug out lights run on CR123 batteries. And if you ask to borrow a light, you will get a tube full of AA batteries. I divide my lights up across three categories: Those that will be stored for later/emergency use, those for high performance use, and those for general or anticipated use. CR123 batteries ride in my stored and high performance lights, and AA and AAA batteries ride in my general use lights.
The reason for the dichotomy is simple: cost. To get maximum performance out of a high end light, you need fresh batteries. Most modern LED lights only run their maximum output for a short time, then they step down their output according to available voltage. Finally, there will be no difference between high and low. So if you want a blinding bright blast you will need full power batteries. And since maximum output runtime is measured in minutes, every second of on now is a second of lower output later. Usually this is not a problem because the output of a high end flashlight is plenty so even halving the lumen count is still triple figures. But halve that again, and you start to sense you are at a disadvantage.
Rechargeable batteries are a great idea that is gaining more traction in the market. However, there are many nuances and persnickety flashlight circuits out there so using high-powered rechargeables is on a case-by-case basis. That said, some companies are going full on into the rechargeable side of EDC lights beyond the key fob lights. The Factor Company is pushing the edges of tactical and EDC formfactor lights including micro-USB rechargeable flashlights that can take regular batteries if needed.
It’s a Wrap
Having to bug out is never a good thing, but having proper lights solutions at hand can certainly make the difference between life and death. Whether feeling your way through a dark stairwell, or cutting corners through garbage-filled alleyways, or jumping over downed timber at night on the way to your bug out location, proper lighting is likely the first of your bug out tools to be put to the test. While some like to say the best flashlight is the flashlight in your hand, I like to say the best flashlight is the best flashlight to have in your hand. Junk can get you killed as fast or even faster than lack of experience. Lighting solutions, like firearms and survival knives must mirror your talents and expectations because when you put your life in your flashlight’s hands, you must know it’s limits as well as its dedication to your mission.
All Photos By Doc Montana