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Published May. 3, 2022

Everyone’s used a flashlight, but tactical situations require special features to support this specific use, and the best tactical flashlights are purpose-built from the ground up. End-users in these situations require lights that are extremely bright by normal standards and which prioritize things like durability and water resistance. Finally, the best tactical flashlights will often feature thumb switches, strobe modes, or different colored lenses to give them more capabilities in specific tactical situations. 

Here are the best tactical flashlights on the market and why they’re worth every penny.

How we tested

All the lights on this list are tactical LED lights. We picked those because they offer improved battery life, brightness, and beam color. For this review, we tested the flashlights in the best places to evaluate their performance. That includes using them as concealed carry aids, at the firing range, or in the field. Additionally, some of the lights on this list operated without issue for months. With so much positive feedback, you can be confident that they’re the best tactical flashlights on the market.

The SureFire Stiletto is the coffin-shaped wonder that we reviewed back in early 2021, except now it’s in an upgraded 1,000-lumen version that fits handily in anyone’s pocket, and with an improved external presentation. The Stiletto Pro is a flashlight that fits every use, from searching through the back seat of your car for a lost item to momentarily illuminating or dazzling a potential target in a life-or-death self-defense situation. Featuring a 50-lumen low mode, a 300-lumen medium mode, and a scorching 1,000-lumen high mode, as well as a strobe mode for dazzling, it is all powered by a USB-rechargeable battery. Finally, the Pro version of the Stiletto swaps the polymer of the version I reviewed for aluminum, making it even more premium.

Part of what makes the Stiletto Pro so good is the fact that it eschews the typical cylindrical shapes of most flashlights for a flattened, coffin-shaped form factor, which is more fitting in the user’s hand and easier to put in one’s pocket. Probably the biggest improvement that the Pro has over the already-stellar Stiletto is the 1,000-lumen output power, which is a lot of power for a pocket-sized light. As with many of the lights that I own, use, or have used, this one is rechargeable, which I prefer simply because it ensures that I can have a light that I know is charged at all times, without having to run out to the store for batteries. Ultimately, you have a great EDC companion.

However, when I said that this light fits “every use,” I may have been stretching the definition of “every.” One key area where this light lacks is that it doesn’t have a red lens mode, making it immediately limited for military field use. It’s not designed for that, but it’s part of the reason why I don’t use my Stiletto more often in situations where I’d need a durable flashlight. The pocket clip is also a weird choice, designed to be clipped to the brim of a hat, at the expense of carrying light-up in my pocket. This is another issue that makes it difficult to justify for any kind of military use, since one wrong bump against something, and you’ve got a 1,000-lumen flash, which is also inconvenient when carrying in civilian attire as well. Finally, while the batteries are rechargeable, good luck actually replacing dead battery cells, as the batteries in this are proprietary and inaccessible to most users.

It’s not perfect, but when many people think of a tactical, standalone flashlight, they think of something that offers the capabilities of the Stiletto. This is a pocket-friendly, ultra-bright light, and whether you need it as a duty flashlight, self-defense flashlight, or simply a utility flashlight, SureFire makes the best handheld tactical flashlights, and the Stiletto is one of them.

Product Specs
  • Lumens: 1,000
  • Lighting modes:
  • Low: 50 lumens
  • Medium: 300 lumens
  • High: 1,000 lumens
  • Strobe
  • Power source: Rechargeable lithium battery
PROS

Pocket-friendly

Extremely bright

Rechargeable

CONS

No red lens

Difficult to replace the batteries

Pocket clip works only one way

If SureFire was Coke, Streamlight is Pepsi. It’s slightly less popular, but with a string of certified classics to its name, and the Microstream is one of them. Proof that a great light doesn’t have to cost a lot, this is something that’s small enough to keep on your keychain to replace your phone flashlight. Plus, it also has a relatively high output of 250 lumens. That wouldn’t be extremely high in a larger light, but it is outstanding in a light that’s not much larger than a tube of lip balm. When we reviewed it in early 2021, we were extremely pleased with its performance, owing to its great value. Best of all, it’s rechargeable, meaning that as long as you’ve got a USB cable, which is included, you’ll have power for your flashlight.

The biggest advantage of the Microstream is that it’s incredibly affordable, meaning that if you’re the kind of person who hesitates before buying anything nice because you’re worried that you’ll break or lose it, this is the light for you. However, this also means that almost anyone can afford a good flashlight, in this case, one that will do its job and stand up to serious abuse. I’ve had my Microstream since writing my review of it in early 2021, and it’s been used and abused by myself and others effectively nonstop since then. Even though a 250-lumen light is probably the dimmest standalone light on this list, for such a compact flashlight that’s designed mostly for emergency illumination in a pinch, it’s perfect. Plus, for close-up tasks like reading, it has the low mode.

A small flashlight isn’t going to be popular with people who have large hands, and that’s an inherent physical issue. However, compounding this issue is the fact that the tail switch on this light is somewhat finicky to switch between high and low modes, meaning that it might take you a few tries to get it right, and accidentally go into high mode when you meant to go into low, or vice versa. Again, like the SureFire Stiletto, the Streamlight Microstream lacks a red lens function, making this a light that’s better suited for EDC than military use.

The Microstream is the optimal compact EDC flashlight, and it’s one of the best rechargeable lights available for most people, owing to its fantastic price. It’s no slouch in the durability department either, so you’re getting a lot of light in a little package.

Product Specs
  • Lumens: 250
  • Lighting modes:
  • Low: 50 lumens
  • High: 250 lumens
  • Power source: Rechargeable lithium battery
PROS

Extremely affordable

Durable

Bright enough for most compact tasks

CONS

Too small for some users

Finicky switch

No red lens

Editor’s Choice

Most of my uses for a tactical flashlight are squarely military, so I need a small tactical flashlight that’s durable and features a red lens for reading in low light tactical scenarios. The SureFire Aviator satisfies all of these capabilities. This truly mil-spec flashlight represents the pinnacle of durability for handheld military flashlights and makes for a great duty flashlight for anyone who needs red lens capability, especially if they’re known to be tough on their gear.

The SureFire Aviator is advertised as “virtually indestructible” and that’s neither fiction nor hyperbole. This light is legendary for its durability, being able to withstand the rigors of almost any military use. I’ve personally witnessed these lights with dents, scrapes, and zero paint left on the body operate perfectly with only a change of battery or a bulb swap. The controls are also incredibly intuitive, allowing you to easily select illumination modes, eliminating the possibility that you might accidentally use the white light when you mean to use the red one. Additionally, this light features a safety mode that prevents activation in any case, which is essential for when you need total light discipline. Finally, this light features high and low white and red lens modes, which is great for when you need a red lens to read a map, versus when you need one to search through a darkened seven-ton truck or aircraft fuselage.

The obvious downside of this light is that they want you to pay north of $260 for a 250-lumen flashlight, in a market where many users can get 1,000-lumen lights for the same price, even from SureFire. Unless you need an indestructible red lens flashlight, you will likely be in the camp of seeing this as excessive. Another issue that people may have is that this light isn’t rechargeable, and instead uses conventional CR123 batteries, which can be difficult to locate in quantity at many stores, but which are commonly found in military supply warehouses, comm shops, and armories. Overall, these are issues that are caused by being a specialized tool for specialist users.

The SureFire Aviator lives up to its military name by being rugged, fully featured, and exhaustively tested. If you have a need for a handheld tactical duty light that features a red lens, look no further than this model.

Product Specs
  • Lumens: 250
  • Lighting modes:
  • High white: 250 lumens
  • Low white: 5 lumens
  • High red: 39 Lumens
  • Low red: 1 lumen
  • Power source: CR123 batteries
PROS

Extremely rugged

Easy to use controls

Essential red lens function

CONS

Relatively low output

CR123 batteries only

High cost

When I asked currently-serving servicemembers what tactical flashlights they preferred, the response was, in almost every case “Flashlights? You mean headlamps?” That’s for a good reason. After thinking about it, I remembered that I hardly ever used anything except a headlamp for military purposes. One of the names that kept coming up in this discussion was Princeton Tec, and the Vizz Tactical is one of the pinnacles of product development in that field. This is a headlamp that offers not only red and white lenses, but also green, blue, and infrared, meaning that it will work for all your tactical illumination needs, all in tactical colors for those of you who need, say, a multicam flashlight strap to go with your multicam plate carrier.

The Vizz Tactical headlamp is a rugged, multipurpose headlamp that is purpose-built for military use, and which has several capabilities that make it optimal for that purpose. For starters, the LED lights offer a 420-lumen white light, as well as lower output red, blue, and green lights, and an infrared bulb for use under night vision. The 420-lumen white light has a narrow beam, meaning that this makes for a good long range tactical flashlight. The decision to use non-rechargeable AAA batteries offers one specific military advantage, which is that you can quickly swap batteries as long as you have AAAs on hand. Finally, and in a marked improvement over many headlamps on the market, this one is actually well-regarded for its durability, which is essential for military use.

Probably the biggest downside to the Vizz is the fact that it doesn’t offer the option to use rechargeable batteries unless you use a separate charger for rechargeable AAAs, which is an extra cost to consider. Another issue is that the elastic headband on Princeton Tec headlamps eventually wears out, which isn’t necessarily an issue with Princeton Tec specifically, and is more a side effect of elastic straps in general. Eventually, you’ll have to replace it, especially if you are like me and you swap your headlamp between on your head and wrap the strap around your plate carrier. Finally, in an effort to cut down on control clutter, Princeton Tec has put every function behind a single button, meaning that you’ll need to learn how to do things like changing the sequence of lights, in the event that you don’t need green or blue lights as much as you need white, red, or infrared.

All of my gripes with the Vizz Tactical are minor, and that’s because it’s one of the best headlamps that I could find. Have extra AAA batteries on hand, and this will be a headlamp that lasts for years.

Product Specs
  • Lumens: 420
  • Lighting modes:
  • Low: 50 lumens
  • High: 250 lumens
  • Power source: Rechargeable lithium battery
PROS

Extremely bright

More durable than most headlamps

Red and infrared lens mode for military use

CONS

No rechargeable batteries

Elastic strap loses tension

Complex setup

Best for Law Enforcement

The Coast HP3R is proof that penlights aren’t necessarily weak flashlights, and that you can get a full-power flashlight that’s the perfect balance between large, high-power lights and tiny microlights like the Microstream. When I sold equipment to police departments, these types of penlights were probably the most popular purchase items for law enforcement. They have a slim profile, so they’ll fit inside your breast pocket next to a pen or marker.

Penlights remain popular because they fit everyone who can hold a pen. These aren’t huge, bulky, 2,000-lumen affairs, but rather lights designed for quick illumination in close-up environments. The Coast HP3R makes this happen by using AAA batteries, or a slim rechargeable battery, which gives it roughly the same dimensions as a Sharpie marker, albeit slightly thicker. Still, it’s a durable light, made entirely of aluminum, and featuring a splash-resistant IP57 rating. One of the best features of the HP3R that makes it stand out from the other penlights on the market is that it features a focusable illumination head, allowing the user to select a wider beam for close-up tasks, or a tighter beam for illuminating objects at longer distances, which is usually a feature reserved for much larger lights.

The Coast HP3R does have some drawbacks. The pocket clip is constructed from stamped metal, which can wear out over a short period of time. After about a year, you might experience reduced pocket retention with the stock clip. Fortunately, they’re easy to replace. The flexibility of the illumination head doesn’t extend to the thumb switch, however, and it still uses the same “single press for high, double for low” control scheme that’s often led me to accidentally engage one when I needed the other. Finally, when you compare this to options like the Streamlight Scribe, it’s significantly wider, owing to the adjustable head and increased lumen output, which matters in a family of lights that’s known for being compact and concealable.

Penlights are extremely popular police flashlights, and the Coast HP3R is one of the best duty lights on the market in this category. It has the brightness, durability, and flexibility that professional users need, no matter if they’re law enforcement, first responders, or ordinary people who want a compact and concealable small flashlight.

Product Specs
  • Lumens: 385
  • Lighting modes:
  • High: 385 lumens
  • Low: 28 lumens
  • Power source: Rechargeable lithium battery or AAA batteries
PROS

Focusable for different tasks

Durable

Pocket-sized

CONS

Cheap pocket clip

Finicky controls

Wider than other penlights

The Cloud Defensive Rein is my personal weapon-mounted light for my rifle because it features a good blend of beam throw distance, beam width, and other features that made it stand out above other top-rated tactical flashlights like the SureFire Scout light and Streamlight HLX. A weapon-mounted light is an essential accessory for any self-defense or duty set up to ensure proper target identification. This is one that will fit most of your needs because it’s durable, reasonably priced, and even reasonably waterproof.

The Cloud Defensive Rein makes a great mounted light for a self-defense weapon, but several users pointed out that it’s one of the best police tactical flashlights because it combines a healthy brightness of 1,300 lumens with a longer throw distance, making it a great choice for identifying things like armed individuals at intermediate distances in low light situations. A 1,300-lumen beam is also a handy tool for startling or dazzling a target in a defensive situation, giving you a split-second advantage to identify your target, owing to the fact that this flashlight is an eye-scorcher. Yes, I tested it on myself. Finally, unlike a lot of other tactical flashlights meant for use on a rifle, this one includes a pressure plate, which means that you can put the switches wherever it’s comfortable, rather than having to pay extra as with brands like SureFire.

The biggest issue with including a pressure plate is that you’re somewhat limited in terms of other attachments for your rifle or long gun because you’re locked into using the included switch, which isn’t great in terms of usability, especially with gloves. The switches are small, and for users who might want to use an IR aiming laser like a PEQ, DBAL, or MAWL, they’ll often use a combination switch that connects to both the laser and their light, with a pair of switches that controls either one. That’s not an option with the Rein. The battery also runs down while sitting idle, meaning that I take my battery out once a month to put a fresh charge on it with the charger, which is sold separately. Finally, the beam is a little wider than that of the SureFire Scout Light, which on my 10.3-inch barrel DDM4V7 PDW, caused the muzzle gasses to obscure my vision while engaging targets at the range during testing, even while using a SureFire Warden.

This is a fantastic, bright, and sturdy rechargeable tactical flashlight for your rifle, as long as you’re ready to go all-in with the Rein. As a duty flashlight or self-defense flashlight, it’s a great choice, but you have to make sure it works with your rifle setup, or modify your setup to work with this light.

Product Specs
  • Lumens: 1,300
  • Lighting modes:
  • Hold mode
  • Constant on
  • Power source: Rechargeable lithium battery
PROS

Very bright

Long beam throw

Included pressure switch

CONS

Proprietary pressure switch and tailcap

Battery loses power while idle

Wider beam catches muzzle gasses, obscuring vision

Our verdict on tactical flashlights

Tactical flashlights aren’t always flashlights used for actual tactical uses. Sometimes, they’re ordinary flashlights that are just brighter or more durable than the standard variants. The SureFire Stiletto is purpose-built for EDC and for use as a police flashlight, and excels in that role, especially for pocket carry. The Streamlight Microstream is more of the second category, being a relatively ordinary compact penlight that comes in a tactical color from a tactical company. The Princeton Tec Vizz is probably the best example of a military headlamp for use in a field environment, with every feature that I could ask for.

What to consider when buying tactical flashlights

There are certain features that set our picks apart from the others on the market. There are several types of tactical flashlights, as well as certain characteristics that informed our choices. Below, we’ve broken those down to make them easier to understand. 

Types of tactical flashlights

Standalone

Standalone flashlights are the most “normal” of the tactical flashlights, being not much different than normal ones, except for the addition of tactical features like improved durability, brightness, strobe modes, or lens colors. These lights are often popular with law enforcement and EDC enthusiasts, as they offer a discreet way to carry a lot of light in a small package. 

Weapon-mounted lights

As the name says, a weapon-mounted light attaches to a firearm. They’re specifically designed to provide illumination of a possible target that you’re aiming at, immediately before firing. This allows you to line up your sights, ensure your target is actually your target, and in some cases, induce a flinch response in an attacker by momentarily blinding them, giving you a window of opportunity. These lights are good for anyone who carries a firearm, especially in close quarters. Additionally, there are infrared weapon lights that are useful for aiding night vision devices in situations where there is no ambient light to be amplified.

Headlamps

A headlamp is, understandably, a tactical flashlight that goes on your head. These can either be mounted to a strap and wrapped around one’s head, or they can be mounted directly to a helmet or other headgear by use of a clip, rail, or NVG bracket. These have the advantage of leaving your hands free to operate equipment, search for someone or something, or read a map.

Key features of tactical flashlights

Lumens

A lumen is a measurement — like pounds or gallons — used to relate the brightness of a light, so a higher lumen count results in a brighter flashlight. However, the intensity of the light is measured in candelas. The difference between the two is that candela increases when the beam is narrow and decreases when it’s widened. Quality brands, like the ones on this list, will leave their lights on for 30 seconds before measuring their stated output, as required by PLATO standards.

Power source 

A flashlight’s power source is usually a replaceable battery, either rechargeable lithium or non-rechargeable alkaline. Additionally, there are so-called “dual fuel” lights that can use both, either by using similarly sized batteries or by having compartments that will accommodate two different types of batteries.

Light source

The bulb of a flashlight will dictate things like power consumption, output, operating heat, and other factors. Older flashlights used incandescent bulbs with a heated filament, but modern lights use light-emitting diodes. Additionally, many modern lights use multiple LED heads that feature white lights, as well as red for reduced eye strain or visibility at night.

Pricing 

Quality tactical flashlights typically cost more than the standard flashlights. However, there are good options to be had at almost any price point. 

  • From $30 to $100, you’ll find a lot of quality, entry-level handheld flashlights and headlamps. 
  • From $100 to $200, you’ll find premium handhelds and the beginning of weapon-mounted lights from budget brands such as Streamlight, or used lights from brands such as SureFire. 
  • From $200 to $400, you’ll find a lot of premium weapon-mounted lights from brands such as SureFire, Cloud Defensive, and Arisaka. Weapon-mounted lights will often be more expensive due to the fact that they need to withstand weapon recoil.

FAQs about tactical flashlights

You’ve got questions. Task & Purpose has answers!

Q: What is the brightest tactical flashlight?

A: The brightest tactical flashlight from a reputable brand is the Nitecore TM20K. It features 20,000 lumens, which is insane.

Q: What is the most reliable tactical flashlight?

A: Many users swear by SureFire flashlights due to their durability, water resistance, and solid soldering.

Q: What is the most powerful tactical flashlight?

A: The most powerful tactical flashlight by a reputable brand is the 20,000-lumen Nitecore TM20K. 

Q: What kind of tactical flashlight does the military use?

A: Most U.S. service members use Petzl, Energizer, or Princeton Tec headlamps for standard tasks, but SureFire lights have long been the standard for weapon-mounted lights for their durability and reliability.

Q: How many lumens should a good tactical flashlight have?

A: As many as are needed for the job at hand. Other factors like beam tightness, throw distance, battery consumption, size, and heat issues are at play here, so getting a high lumen count is important for raw illumination, but comes with other factors as well.

Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. We independently evaluate gear by putting products in the hands of subject matter experts. The products we test may be purchased by Task & Purpose, our staff, or provided for review by a manufacturer. No matter the source, our testing procedures and our assessments remain free from third-party influence. Learn more about our product review process.

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