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Why Compact Weapon Lights Are Kind Of Terrible

Yes, compact pistol lights like the TLR-7 and so on (some people even try to defend the TLR-6 and Crimson Trace lights) are very popular right now, especially with the Instagram crowd.

Let us suggest the following: 

First, compact pistol lights lack enough output to be useful except for some limited contexts. Top low-light trainers have been saying so for some time now. 

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a light on a gun. It’s too good of an idea for anyone to say otherwise. This is to say you should have enough light on a gun. Ergo, don’t put just any light on your pistol; use one that’s going to actually work if it needs to

Second, a decent handheld is far better value for money.

So, let’s have a little light banter. 

Compact Pistol Lights Don’t Have Enough Output

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Output of a flashlight is the end result of chain of components including the battery, the LED emitter, the software governing the emitter, the reflector and the flashlight head itself. Generally speaking, the smaller any of those components are, the less light they can put out. 

The old saying in car racing applies: there’s no replacement for displacement. 

In other words, the smaller the light and the battery, the less light it can put out. What I’d like to suggest is that output on a weapon-mounted light being compromised for the sake of form factor is not a good trade-off. 

The job of a weapon light is to illuminate a target such that it can be clearly seen. If you cannot articulate that someone is a threat because you definitely see them, shooting is not legally defensible. 

For a weapon light to do that job in all environments – meaning indoors, outdoors, inclement weather, photonic barriers – it has to have a certain threshold of outputIf you follow top trainers who specialize in low-light instruction (Aaron Cowan, Steve Fisher, others), one thing they all agree on is that higher output is better and that compact lights aren’t viable for duty use. 

My own experience using flashlights and headlamps for decades – including the incandescent to LED transition – overlaps fairly well with what experts in low light shooting have advocated. I’ve found that lower-output lights that produce less than 10,000 candela (at minimum; 20,000cd+ is preferable) are hopeless outdoors if you want to see further than 10 feet, and output of less than 500 to 800 lumens don’t work very well indoors. 

Hotspot vs flood is another good topic, but more or less for another time. That said, if pressed I’d say I want the maximum amount of both. 

In other words, there is an output floor – a minimum number of lumens and candela – that a light has to produce in order to do those things. And if you’re going to carry a pistol light outside the house, it has to be useful everywhere. The smaller a flashlight is, the less able it can do that. 

Ergo, if you feel compelled to add a weapon light to a carry gun, a compact weapon light is not what you should opt for. 

Where A Compact Pistol Light Is Useful

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This isn’t to say compact weapon lights don’t have a place. 

Where they tend to really shine – pun intended! – is indoors. Though higher-output lights will still outperform them (especially illuminating around objects), compact lights do work fairly well in enclosed spaces. 

We’ve all heard the term “nightstand gun” before, and that’s where they are a good fit. A compact light also wouldn’t be out of place on a PCC/PDW/short carbine for home defense purposes and for the same reason. 

So it’s not that your TLR-7A or what have you is useless; it’s that they are limited in what they can do well. Instead of being encouraged to add one just because Influencer X did so on the ‘Gram doesn’t mean you should.  

Higher Output Flashlights Are Getting Cheaper

Higher Output Flashlights Are Getting CheaperHigher Output Flashlights Are Getting CheaperA lot of things are competing for space in your budget, so get the most return on the investment you can. A barely sufficient (or insufficient) weaponlight is never going to be as useful as a completely sufficient handheld. 

Granted, a Modlite or a Cloud Defensive light costs what it does for a reason. Those companies make products for professional use, and they are worth investing in. With that said, John or Jane Q Public is not going to put the kind of stress on a flashlight that would possibly break budget-friendly EDC flashlights. 

There’s a trickle of high-output flashlights that are pocket-sized, budget-friendly, and have significant output, meaning 800+ lumens and 20,000+ candela. 

Goonbeam is certainly a brand worth looking into. Noctigon is another. Fenix and Nitecore lights, to name a few, are some other lighting brands that make EDC-sized high-output flashlights. 

Add a Thyrm switchback or a bungee cord loop, and you won’t have any issues deploying the light and a two-handed shooting technique. 

A weapon light is only useful for shooting, and if attached to a gun, it requires the average civilian to be presented with a threat to use it. A flashlight, on the other hand…well, those are useful a heck of a lot more often. 

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