A Functional History of Flashlights
By Benjamin Kurata
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Since the conception of hand held light back in the late 1890 by Conrad Hubert who developed the first hand torch in 1890 and founded Eveready, humans have looked for better ways not just to see their way through the dark but to also brave the demons of the night. Then, the steady stream of a single beam of light was ok for finding your way but was not satisfactory in a defensive situation.
Hubert’s first portable flashlights were hand made from crude paper and fiber tubes with a bulb and a rough brass reflector. The National Carbon Company introduced the first D cell in 1898. Because the batteries were made from zinc-carbon were not capable of long run times, and bulbs were carbon filament which were very energy in-efficient, flashlights of the era produced only a brief “flash” of light thus the name, flashlight.
You can match a flashlights shape and size to your needs, but ensure your hand torch has the features necessary for tactical applications. Anything less makes you a target.
The first “working” flashlights had tubes made of thin aluminum, held 2 D cells and usually had a plastic reflector that held a somewhat fragile incandescent bulb. Run time was limited, and output was dim compared to today’s lights. Soon after the incandescent bulb, halogen or xenon was designed. We then found the hand held light would also be used as an impact tool as demonstrated by the development of the Kel-Lite and Maglight.
The Kel-lite was developed in 1968 by Donald Keller. The success of the Kel-Lite led to the rise of competition, primarily Maglite and Streamlight, who improved on Keller’s basic concept. Streamlight opted for high-output models using a rechargeable Ni cad battery and halogen bulb technology.
The Ni cad rechargeable battery system was a welcomed change, however the ability to continually recharge the batteries created a memory in the charging and discharging levels of the batteries. It was not a perfect solution, but better than the non rechargeable.
Anthony Maglica founded Mag Instrument, Inc. in 1955, which is the company that introduced the Maglight. Maglite developed an improved, flush switch and a variable-focus system, allowing a single light to be used as a high-intensity flashlight or wide-angle lantern.
Maglite flashlights used krypton or xenon incandescent bulbs that were also powered by the zinc– carbon and alkaline battery. Current models have LEDs and Ni-cad or Upgraded Nickel/Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery pack recharging systems.
The next real breakthrough in flashlight technology came about as a result of a meeting between Ken Good (former Navy SEAL and later founder of the SureFire Institute) and Dr. John Matthews, the founder and owner of SureFire LLC. According to Mr. Good, Mr. Matthews showed him the prototype of what would later become the SureFire 6P — the first compact, high output (for the time) flashlight. Mr. Good’s response was something along the lines of, “It’s good, but it needs to put out more light.” When Dr. Matthews inquired as to how much more, Mr. Good replied, “When I shine it into someone’s eyes, I want to see the light come out of his ears.”
Maglites were flavor of choice for many years and came in many sizes—mostly big. Today’s modern tactical light produce more lumens in a much more manageable package.
I remember buying two SureFire 6P’s (because one is none, and two is one, as the SEALs say) and later upgrading to the higher output 110-lumen xenon lamp. The CR123 non rechargeable lithium batteries were crazy expensive and run time with the higher output lamp could be measured in mere minutes. Heat buildup was also a major issue, as incandescent lamps put out about 10% of its output as visible light, and about 90% as heat. This meant it made a better hand warmer than flashlight. However, with the advent of the SureFire 6P, the “tactical” flashlight market was born.
Many years ago, I taught a Reduced Light Operators class at the SIGARMS Academy. One of my students was a NCIS Agent. After the class ended, he threw his Surefire 6P into his suitcase and headed to Pease AFB to catch a military transport back to the DC area. He later told me that midway into the flight, the cargo hold fire alarm came on in the cockpit and they had to make an emergency landing in the NYC area. His 6P tailcap switch had become depressed during takeoff, and the heat from the light had set his suitcase on fire. Shortly after that, Surefire came out with lock-out tail caps. I retrofitted all of my lights with one.
Batteries come in all shapes, sizes and price tags. As a result you should consider battery usage and availability in the selection of light, including rechargeable batteries such as the one shown on the right from Tact-Out.
The first LED flashlights gave off a blueish-white, very diffuse beam pattern. While it was very good for close-distance navigating and locating, it had limited utility as a distraction tool.
Technology continued to improve and today there are 1- to 3-cell handheld flashlights that put out 200 to 800 lumens. More importantly, the beam “hot spot” is more focused and compact. The beam is now capable of “reaching out” and illuminating 200 to 300 yards, depending on ambient air quality (smoke, humidity, dust, etc.).
I have been teaching reduced light techniques for over a decade to Law Enforcement and Military personnel and lately have been introduced to Tact-Out Industries Lithium Ion rechargeable Sabre 4 (200 lumen dim / 400 lumen Strobe / 400 lumen high) and Sabre 8 (400 dim / 800 strobe / 800 high) lights running on CREE LED’s. These lights have literally caused me to rewrite my lesson plan to include a block of instruction and live fire drills on Working with High Output Lights.
The development of the high-output LED white light—and ability to set the light sequence in Strobe or SOS modes—is revolutionizing how we use handheld lights. In fact, it is taking the handheld lighting system beyond an illumination tool and into a true “tactical” tool with focused, raw illumination power and the capability to temporarily disorient.
Combined with a programmable “smart” chip in the flashlight bezel, today’s state of the art lights are capable of multiple light modes:
Constant low output momentary
Constant low output constant
Constant high output momentary
Constant high output constant
On the horizon, there’s a least one company that’s adapted the High Intensity Discharge (HID) technology from the automotive world into hand portable lanterns capable of more than 2,000 lumen output. As of this writing, the lanterns are on the large side and the run time is relatively short, but technology is always advancing…
Flashlight Selection and Use—a Functional Perspective
The majority of the time you’ll use a flashlight to (1) navigate and / or (2) locate in diminished light. You don’t need a bazillion lumen light cannon to accomplish these tasks — a 50- to 100-lumen light will work just fine. We’re talking about taking Fido for his / her evening walk after dark, or looking for that small part you dropped while working on your car engine in the garage. The important thing is to have the light on your person at all times.
The Sabre-4 is an ideal small tactical flashlight. It can throw a concentrated beam of light over 100 yards, with a field of view of 50 yards and be used with offensive or defensive lighting techniques to visually confuse or disable an attacker.
Another category of flashlight is (3) a low output “task” light. Whether it’s reading the fine print on the menu in that chi-chi restaurant, or threading a leader on your line when fishing at dusk, you don’t need a lot of light. Using your cell phone as a flashlight just ensures that your cell phone battery will be really, really dead when you have to make an important phone call. Several manufacturers make “squeeze” type lamps about the size of a quarter. I have one on each keychain. If it’s important that you not lose your dark-adapted vision, a red, low output task light will work just fine. I have a red, low output LED light turned on and clipped on to myself whenever I teach reduced light live-fire courses. And yes, Safety Rule # 1 becomes never, ever point your weapon at the red light.
Finally the most important category, (4) personal protection and self-defense. With the combination of high lumen output, tight, focused beam pattern and strobe feature, today’s lights are serious defensive / distraction tools when used properly. What are the specific advantages of a high output, strobing flashlight in a defensive situation? Well, first, in the dark it allows the user to clearly identify the individual in question and see what’s in their hands. (Make an intelligent choice as to the next course of action.)
The Sabre-8 features a constant beam is too strong for an individual to look into and the strobe is very disorienting. The Sabre-8 can be mounted in the adjustable weapons cradle and used on your shotgun or tactical rifle. The cradle will adjust to either a Picatinny or Weaver mount.
Second, if a potentially hostile person has been waiting in the dark and their eyes have become dark adapted (more on the science of eyesight in a later article), a bright, white light in the eyes takes away that person’s dark adapted vision.
The strobe feature is highly disorienting, and it’s not unusual to see a “recipient” throw their hands up to cover their eyes, physically turn and stumble away from the light. Again, this gives the user more time to assess the situation and more options when determining the appropriate next step. Even in a normally lit room during daytime hours, at close distances (20 feet or closer), a high output light will create a response so the “recipient” will close or shield their eyes and turn their head away.
Some flashlights come with the activation switch in the tail cap; some come with the activation switch on the body (tube) of the light or on the rear of the bezel. At least one manufacturer puts an activation switch in both locations. My personal preference is the activation switch in the tail cap. I don’t have to perform a tactile search to locate the switch after pulling the light out of my pocket or belt scabbard. The tail cap switch also gives me more options as far as deploying the light with a handgun or a long gun.
Regardless of location, the switch’s primary mode should be programmed to momentary on, which means when you release the pressure on the switch, the light goes off. Diminished light instructors have a nickname for a light that is “constant on” – that is, after you let go of the switch the light stays on. We call it a “bullet magnet.”
So in conclusion, as flashlight technology has improved and become more specialized, the search for the “perfect” single flashlight has become more difficult. Depending on your situation, you may find yourself with a general purpose dual output light that fits easily into your pocket or purse; low output task lights on each keychain; and a high output, multifunction capable self-defense light such as Tact-Out’s Sabre series if you foresee having to illuminate and identify at extended distances and / or use the light as a serious distraction tool in a defensive situation. Pick whichever works best for your situation, and remember, “One is none, and two is one.”
To learn more about Tact-Out Industries, visit their website at www.tact-out.com.
About Benjamin Kurata
Benjamin Kurata is an International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) Master Instructor and has taught live fire courses at the past six IALEFI annual training conferences. He is also a charter (founding) member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) and has taught live fire courses at the past three ILEETA annual conferences. He has been a firearms instructor for over 30 years and co-founded the Law Enforcement Training division at I.T.I. – Texas; the Action Target Academy; and was an instructor at the Sig Arms Academy. He is currently an adjunct faculty member in the Criminal Justice department at the University of the Incarnate Word San Antonio, holds a M.S. in Criminal Justice from Michigan State University and a M.A. in Management from Maryville University.