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Police flashlight technology 101

By Ralph Mroz

The revolution in small, powerful, handheld tactical lights started by Surefire many years ago has now come to fruition. The market is exploding with lights from what seem like dozens of new manufacturers, all of them small, handheld and very bright. Today, you can buy a 60-lumen LED light at the checkout stand of your local Walgreen’s for $9.95. You intuitively know that such a cheap light isn’t up to the rigors of law enforcement work, but what’s the difference in all these new lights anyhow? What makes one better than another? Which one is right for you? In this article we’ll briefly describe the important features that differentiate one light from another.

Powerfully bright lights are now available in very small packages. (Photo courtesy of Pelican)

LED vs. incandescent
Incandescent lights are the kind that Thomas Edison invented, and that you grew up with. They cause electricity to flow through a filament (like tungsten) in a gaseous atmosphere (like Xenon or Halogen), and the glowing filament produces light. Incandescent lamps are fragile because the both the filament and the glass enclosure containing the gas can break. Thus they have to be shock-isolated if they are used in rough environments, such as attached to firearms. By contrast, LEDs (light emitting diodes) are essentially glowing pieces of a very special kind of sand. They have no easily breakable parts and are inherently shock-resistant. Incandescent technology is mature, while LED technology is gaining ground daily. Until recently, LEDs weren’t produced with good-quality, bright white output. Today they are getting more and more inexpensive, much brighter, and whiter. The bottom line is that incandescent technology is all but obsolete now unless you need IR capability, since most LEDs today don’t produce IR — however that capability is on the horizon.

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