A few days ago, I got into an exchange regarding illumination devices for self defense. I won’t rehash that exchange but suffice it to say that I took the position that there is no replacement for a handheld flashlight. I firmly believe that and with very few exceptions those who partook in the exchange agreed. That brought forth a request to provide a few recommendations for handheld flashlights. I figured that it would be much more valuable to explore the topic rather than simply provide a few examples with no explanation or context. And here we are.
A handheld flashlight is an extremely useful tool for many more things than just self defense. In fact, I consider it so indispensable that I consider it to be an essential item that I carry one on my person every single day. I’m well aware that just about everyone carries a smartphone nowadays and that said smartphones have a flashlight app. However, a smartphone flashlight is sometimes awkward to use and not something that I would want to drop when attempting to illuminate something under pressure or in an awkward position. Far better to drop a rugged flashlight that costs far less than a far more delicate smartphone. For those reasons, I almost always use the handheld flashlight anytime I need or want to illuminate something and that’s a task that occurs almost on a daily basis.
I am assuming that some of y’all who are reading this are in violent agreement with the idea of an everyday carry flashlight. If not, then I am assuming y’all are at least following my logic. Either way the idea has some caveats. The first is that an everyday carry tool should lend itself well to the tasks that one does… Well, everyday. Depending on what one does for a living, where they live, and other contributing factors there is a chance that the one’s ideal everyday light will not necessarily be ideal for self defense use. I can’t imagine, let alone cover, all of the different individual variables in order to suggest an ideal everyday flashlight for all the possible situations. I may be incorrect in doing so, but I suspect that for most readers a flashlight that lends itself well to defensive use will also be good enough for everyday use. Be mindful of this while continuing to read this post.
The first thing I like to consider is the size. I want a light that is small enough to fit in a pocket and light enough to be cumbersome. For me specifically, I want it to fit in the left back pocket of my pants or shorts. I also want the light to be able to comfortably fit in my hand using a reverse grip so that my thumb ends up on the tail cap. For me that translates into a light that is about 5” long with a diameter width of about 1”. I understand the attraction to pen lights, but I stay away from them for two reasons – they can be more difficult to operate and they rarely have sufficient illumination power.
Let’s talk about illumination. More often than not conversations about how powerful a flashlight ability to illuminate is happens in terms of lumens. Lumens measures the total light output of brightness of a light source. As such, more lumens means more light. However, it doesn’t tell the whole story. A flashlight’s illumination ability not only comes from the light source, but also from the design of the head which is made up of reflective surfaces and the lens which makes the flashlight a directional illumination tool. Because of this we have to consider the flashlight’s candela which measures the intensity of a focused light beam. The higher the candela the more intense the focused beam of light is which gives us an idea of the light beam’s ability to push past photonic barriers (light pollution) and keep going instead of getting washed out. A very high candela value paired with a relatively low lumen value suggests a light beam that is a very tightly focused beam (or hotspot) with very little spill which isn’t what we want. A low candela value paired with a high lumen value suggests the light won’t reach a long distance but will illuminate a large area (think of a flood light) which isn’t what we want either. We want something that has good reach, but also illuminates a large enough area. In terms of self defense, we want the light to fully illuminate a potential threat so that we can positively identify it as an active threat which means we need to be able to see the person’s hands. We also want the light to illuminate enough area around the potential threat to help us see who and what else is around the threat which could be accomplices or innocent bystanders. At least, this is what I recall learning in the Low Light Shooting class I attended at KR Training.
So what are good lumen and candela values? Time to use a little math. Based on my knowledge and experience, I think a 1 to 20 lumen to candela ratio is about right to get a crisp hotspot with sufficient spill for defensive use that also works well for general applications. So for a light that claims 500 lumen, I’m looking for about 10K candela. For a 600 lumen light, 12K candela. For a 1000 lumen light, 20K candela. And so on. This begs a couple of questions. How much lumen is enough? Is more lumen always better? These are harder to answer. The more intense the light, the more disorienting it will be when shined into a person’s face. In that sense, more is better. However, the more intense the light, the more splash it will have off reflective surfaces. This means if used indoors or in an area with a lot of reflective surfaces a more intense light is more likely to disorient the user or interfere with their own vision. My suggestion here is somewhere north of 500 lumen but south of 2000 lumen assuming the 1 to 20 lumen to candela ratio is present.
One thing to keep in mind is the more powerful the light is the faster the flashlight will drain the batteries, which brings us to the topic of power sources. I’m going to come clean and right off the bat say that I’m not a fan of integrated lithium ion rechargeable batteries. They just take way too long to fully charge. This might be changing given some of the newer lights are now using USB-C charging interfaces, but even then I’d rather carry a spare battery (or batteries) that can be swapped in to get a dead flashlight up and running quickly. Not that being able to quickly change the batteries will help in a self defense situation, but this would be my preference for every other situation I can think of. With that out of the way, the two most common power formats I see in flashlights that have sufficient illumination and fit the size category I’ve described come in the form of CR123A or 18650 batteries. Some flashlights that fit these criteria are sometimes available in a dual fuel format and will work with other of those types of batteries. However, some will only work with one or the other and using the unsupported type of battery can result in festive fireworks. Not the fun kind, but the kind that can result in severe injury.
Let me circle back to the topic of size and more specifically how it fits in hand with a reverse grip. This is important and portrays a strong bias towards a specific defensive illumination technique: the neck (or cheek) index. This technique, which is arguably the most favored technique taught in high quality defensive pistol curricula, requires that the flashlight be held in a reverse grip in the nondominant hand while using the thumb to operate the flashlight via a button found on the tail cap. The hand is then indexed against either the next or the cheek so that it is consistently illuminating where one is facing and leaves the dominant hand available to draw and operate the pistol should the circumstances justify and necessitate its use.
Given the technique bias and in addition to the flashlights size and power, having a tail switch is an absolute must. Moreover, the operation of the switch should be dummy proof. In other words, it should turn the light on and off. Nothing more, nothing less. Having a temporarily on function when the switch is not fully depressed is fine. What is less desirable is having a button that cycles through various brightness settings or illumination functions (such as strobe or SOS modes). While those functions may appear to be convenient, the features may become problematic when attempting to operate the flashlight under stress. The most common argument I hear towards these convenience features is that strobe effects have disorienting effects. I completely agree that a bright strobe light to the face can be disorienting. At the same time, a 10K to 40K candela beam of light also has disorienting effects. The point is that the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle is almost always preferred in high stress situations like a self defense incident.
To summarize, for the average person, a good everyday carry flashlight that is well suited for self defense should be about 5” long with a 1” diameter, provide a simple on/off operation tail switch, with an illumination output of 500-2000 lumen and 1:20 lumen to candela ratio. Mileage will vary depending on one’s preferred defensive illumination technique and the circumstances of their day to day life.
With that context here are a couple of suggestions for flashlights that fit these criteria? The two flashlights I’ve used for a significant amount of time are the Streamlight ProTac 2L and the Fenix PD35 V3. Both of those are fairly affordable and have proven themselves to be durable and dependable to me. Between the two, I prefer the Fenix PD35 V3 as I find it has a better lumen to candela ratio and offers simpler tail switch operation. Another flashlight that I have been considering for a long time, but have yet to try is the Modlite Handheld with the PLHv2 light head. The Modlite is quite a bit more expensive than the first two mentioned, but I’ve been very impressed with how well a couple other Modlite products have performed for me. As such, that flashlight is next on my list of flashlights. There are certainly many other lights available on the market that fit these requirements.
An accessory to consider for the type of flashlight I’ve described using the defensive illumination technique mentioned is the Thyrm SwitchBack flashlight ring. The accessory replaces the typical pocket clip that comes with these flashlights and provides a finger ring that works with the neck-index illumination technique. Additionally, the ring can be used to reposition the light in the non-dominant hand in such a way that the hand can also be used when shooting with a two-handed grip while the light continues illuminating the target. I’m only suggesting this addition for consideration as I’m just getting acquainted with it. However, the accessory looks very promising and several folks who know a thing or two about shooting have recommended it to me.