Every Man Should Carry a Torch: A Primer on Flashlights

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From helping you find your way back to your campsite, to allowing you to find a missing widget under the bed, to providing illumination when the lights go out, to warding off a would-be attacker, there are few tools as handy and essential as the flashlight. And there are few tools that elicit as much affection and attachment. I think our British friends’ word for the flashlight – torch – gets right to the heart of the appeal. The flashlight is simply the latest iteration of the ancient need to carry fire in one’s hand.

As we’ve moved from burning branches to battery-powered tubes, the number of options for handheld light has multiplied. You may think that all flashlights are the same, but boy you’d be wrong. There’s more to know than you could possibly imagine. Today, we’ll stick to the basics that every man should know and consider when buying a flashlight.

Five Basic Categories of Flashlights

Keychain/EDC. Typically 3” or less in length, these flashlights are an essential part of one’s EDC (Everyday Carry) kit. Their small size allows you to stick them in your pocket, stash them in various bags, or — and this is the easiest, most foolproof option — attach to a keychain. With their low light, they are intended to be used as a backup or emergency flashlight, not your primary one. The plastic variety often runs on coil cell batteries, like what you’d find in a watch, so when it dies, you’re better off replacing it entirely versus going through the hassle of replacing the battery. There are also some slightly higher-powered aluminum versions out there that will run on a single AA or AAA battery. In general, a keychain light won’t run you more than $10.

Utility. This is what you’ll find in most houses as a general use flashlight. It’s not a serious light by any means. It’s probably lightweight, made of plastic, and gives off just enough light to get the job done. They’re cheap, and will last a few years for your most basic flashlight needs.

Tactical. Brett has explained exactly what makes a flashlight “tactical” in a previous post (he also outlines how to use one): “A tactical flashlight is simply a flashlight that’s been designed for tactical (i.e. military or police) use. Many tactical flashlights are designed to be mounted to a weapon for low-light shooting. They’re typically smaller than traditional flashlights, emit much more light, and are made of weapon-grade aluminum for maximum durability. While tactical flashlights are designed primarily for military and police units, they’re also a really handy everyday and personal defense tool for the average civilian.”

These will generally be 3-7” in length, and are meant to be carried on your person as a self-defense tool. They may be small, but they pack a punch. I’m making a few broad generalizations here, but they’re generally made of aluminum, will be between 100-500 lumens (more on that later), and should run you between $30-$100.

Heavy-Duty or Industrial. These are the heavy, generally aluminum flashlights that you have in your house or garage, or on a worksite for extended use. Because of their hefty weight, some people carry them as a personal defense weapon as well. Think classic Maglite for this category. They give a lot of power but retain their handy size at generally between 5-14” long. They’re usually too big for a pocket, but still easily handheld. Prices vary widely on these flashlights — anywhere from $20 to a few hundred.

Emergency. These are hand-cranked or solar powered lights that don’t rely on batteries. They’re used mainly in emergency kits.

Options and Functions to Consider When Buying

Next, we’ll go through the various options and features you’ll find when shopping for flashlights. The majority are simply user preference, but I’ll outline pros and cons where appropriate.

Battery Type

What kind of battery will your flashlight run on? Most flashlights will run on either AA or AAA batteries, but you’ll also find ones that run on C, D, or 9-volt batteries. Some flashlights will run on lithium batteries, which are better for long-term storage and cold operating conditions. Be sure to check the packaging or product details, however, because not all flashlights will accept them.

Generally, flashlights with multiple brightness levels have longer run times. There’s also the renewable energy type (emergency lights) as mentioned above that are hand-cranked or solar powered. No matter which light you go with, you’ll want to have plenty of batteries on hand, so stock up. It’s also a good idea to keep a few batteries close to where you store each flashlight in your house or in your EDC kit.

You also want to be sure to know about the ease of changing the batteries. Some lights may require a small screwdriver, while some may have a slip-off case like a remote control would. Keep this small detail in mind while shopping.

Material

There are two main types of material for flashlights: plastic and aluminum. Some models have stainless steel in the head for greater impact resistance. Aluminum is usually known to have greater durability, but it can get extra hot/cold and is heavier than plastic models. This is simply user preference, but unless it’s a high-grade plastic material, aluminum will be your best bet.  

Bulb

LEDs have come to rule the flashlight market. The bulbs last up to 100,000 hours, are incredibly durable, use only 20-25% the energy of an incandescent, and generally provide all the light you could possibly need. Incandescent bulbs have a softer light, which some people prefer, and are cheaper. They are more fragile, however, and break easily when dropped. They also have a much shorter shelf life not only with the bulb, but they use up your light’s battery juice much quicker, as well.

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