Scot’s Product Review: Streamlight Weapons Lights

Bad things can happen in the dark, and one of the great comforts we have is being able to make light. Light allows us to perceive our surroundings and make our way without stumbling. One thing I am seldom without is a good compact flashlight in my pocket.

Over the last few years, weapon-mounted lights have become popular, especially in law enforcement circles. They are probably even more popular in Hollywood entertainment, and if you can stand the stuff, you will probably see at least one scene in almost any action TV show or movie with the hero searching about with a blinding light attached to his/her weapon.

On some levels, this gives me the creeps, since I’ve had Colonel Cooper’s Four Rules of Gun Safety burned into my brain. One of them tells me not to cover anything with the muzzle I am unwilling to destroy. The way most people, especially on the tube, search with a gun mounted light means that sooner or later, they will sweep things that should not be shot. To get around this problem, some trainers suggest that if we search with a weapon light, we should use reflected rather than direct light. The idea is that if we point the gun and light at the ceiling, light will bounce down and illuminate the room well enough to spot a problem. We can also get the same effect by bouncing light from a wall or even the floor. All this is fine, if we have a surface that reflects light well. However, if we are outside, for example, it isn’t going to help much. We also have to consider what is downrange when we point our weapon at a wall, ceiling, or floor. That’s one of the other rules: be sure of one’s target and what is beyond it.

For me, the better approach is to search with a handheld light, but that doesn’t mean I eschew a light on my weapons, particularly the long guns. There are a number of techniques to use a handheld light with a handgun, and they can work pretty well, though they are not as easy as using one mounted to the gun. I have yet, however, to feel very comfortable using a handheld light with a long gun, especially something like a pump shotgun that requires manual operation of the action. Further, once we have identified a threat, I have no problem with the weapon being pointed at him (or so close that the weapon light keeps him lit up). At that point, it is really nice to have both hands free to operate the gun, especially a shoulder fired arm. We also might want to use a phone or radio.

Once I decided that I wanted lights on my defensive guns, I had to do a bit of study to figure out what to get. Quantifying the light helps us decide if a particular light does what we need it to do. There are a couple of measurements– lumens and candelas– that we often see in regard to flashlights and weapon lights. Lumens measure the total output of the light. Candelas measure the brightest point in the beam of light that comes out of our device. This is where it gets confusing. We can have a light with a lot of lumens that are spread widely but don’t have much of a concentrated hot spot, so candelas are low. Alternatively, we can have a very tightly focused beam with a lot of candela but not very many lumens so that there isn’t much light outside the beam, but the beam can go long distances. The distance variable does depends on some other issues, like how much moisture or haze is in the air. There are many combinations of these two variables. You can get more information on this here or here. The second link is specific to the Streamlight brand of light, which is what I’m writing about.

In choosing a light, ruggedness is also critical as are decent ergonomics. If the thing goes dark at the first shot or you can’t get it on and off easily, it isn’t much good. The ability to get it turned off is pretty important, as your bright shining light is also a bright shining target.

When I decided to get a weapon light, I wanted a good value for the dollar, but I certainly didn’t want to buy junk. Since the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security were not funding my purchase, I had to hold my initial purchase to about $100, which brought me to the Streamlight TLR-1 which goes for about $105.00 these days. The TLR-1 uses an LED light source and is powered by two CR123 3-volt lithium batteries. Streamlight claims the LED will go for 50,000 hours and the batteries will provide a 2.5 hour of run time with the illumination staying constant until the batteries croak. I’ve found the battery life to be pretty accurate, and I hope to never encounter the end of life of the illuminator. It is claimed to be waterproof to one meter for five minutes. I have gotten one of mine wet, but it wasn’t immersed. I haven’t been able to make myself throw it in the tub to test this point. They claim it is shockproof, and mine has stood up to a lot of .223 and some 12 gauge. The light usually lives on an AR at all times, even for daylight practice, and has never stuttered through a good 3,000 rounds or so. I put it on a shotgun to see if it would hold up to slugs, and I noticed no issues. I also ran a couple hundred rounds with it on a Glock 19; again, I had no issues. I did get some fouling on the front lens, but it wiped off easily.

The light mounts on a rail. They give you adapters to fit most rail systems. The U.S. military’s Picatinny rail is probably the most common, but there are some proprietary ones out there, and Streamlight is kind enough to provide adapters for them. The rail mount is spring loaded, so it snaps onto the weapon and then you tighten a little screw to secure it. I would prefer a lever, but their systems works pretty well. You can get it tight enough with your finger, but I’ve had one come loose. I simply use a coin to give it a bit more torque.

The switch is located on the rear of the light and is ambidextrous. You can push it one way and it stays lit while you hold the switch pushed; it goes off when you release the switch. If you push it the other way, it stays on until you push it off. I found I could use it on the Glock or the long guns without much trouble. That said, I did buy the remote switch for the long guns, and I’ll write more about them later.

The thing puts out “up to 12,000 candela peak beam intensity and up to 300 lumens measured system output,” according to Streamlight. This is pretty bright. There is a hot center spot that fades into a wide circular beam that, as it approaches the edge, gradually rolls off to darkness. It is pretty dazzling to look into from 15 yards, particularly if one’s eyes are dark adapted, but it isn’t stunning if you look away quickly. I have seen lights with higher ratings that will rock you on your heels, but this one will just bother you pretty badly. I’ve seen figures that say you can see 200 meters with it. However, with brand new batteries in it and used in the hazy, moist air around the lake where I live, it peters out past 75 yards or so. You would do better in dry, desert air, but I can’t be sure how much better.

It is 3.39 inches long, 1.47 inches wide, and 1.44 inches high. It weighs 4.18 ounces and is constructed of machined aircraft-grade aluminum. I have dropped them with no ill effects, except that they left a mark on the floor.

If you want to use one on a handgun, there are holsters available for many handguns with the light attached. They have been on the market for almost ten years, and Streamlight has sold enough of them to establish a firm market for holsters.

I liked my first one enough to buy a second one, which wound up on the spare AR that my son or wife might use.

Streamlight couldn’t leave well enough alone and added products to the same line. The TLR-1 HL is in the same form factor as the TLR-1, but they modified the beam. It has 630 lumens and the same 12,000 candelas. The idea is that it projects a wider beam with the same strength in the middle hot spot. To get the wider beam, it has to have more lumens; the cost of more lumens is less battery life, which drops to 1.25 hours.

I have not used this light but wanted to mention it. My thought is that it would be better for use on a handgun, especially indoors. By spreading the light beam to cover more area, it would enhance situational awareness while not reducing the ability to see at a distance or to bother a bad guy. It costs a bit more than the TLR-1, $122.00 with the standard switch.

Streamlight also makes another variant of the TLR-1, the TLR-1 HP. This light uses the same body as the TRL-1 but has a much larger reflector, so it can throw a longer beam. It is intended for long guns and puts out 46,000 candelas and 200 lumens, while running for 1.75 hours. It extracts $122 with the standard switch. It is bigger and heavier than the TLR-1 at 4.83 inches long and 5.3 oz.

While I haven’t used the regular TLR-1 HP, I have used the TLR-1 Game Spotter, which is the same unit with a green LED. The idea is that green light does not spook game at night. Although the hogs I was hunting recently refused to cooperate for a test, other animals milling about in the dark seemed unfazed by the green light, so I deemed it a success. I have spoken to several hunters who swear by them and haven’t found any that swear at them. Changing the light to green costs about 25% of the light, as the candelas drop to 31,000 and the lumens to 150.

The beam on this light has a very dazzling hot spot in the center, and it rolls off to a sharp cut at the edge. The overall beam, as expected from the specs, is smaller in diameter than the TLR-1 but not by as much as I expected. It reached a bit further than the TLR-1 in my damp air, perhaps 100 yards. Streamlight claims 350 meters, which it might do in clear, dry air but not along my lake. This light does have the “rock you on your feet” effect when the center spot hits your eyes but only for that small portion of the beam.

The Game Spotter goes for $111.00 with the standard switch and $159.00 with the remote switch for long guns.

I don’t, by the way, see using the TLR-1 HP or the Game Spotter on a handgun, due to the size of the reflector. If you want to try the green light on a handgun, they make a filter that can be used on the TLR. It goes for $18.00. I tried it and was pleased at how little light seemed to be lost. It was noticeable, but the light was still very useful in the dark.

Streamlight makes variants of most of these lights with a strobe. The idea is that the strobe will disorient an opponent. I’m sure it would, but I also get a bit disoriented by them myself, so I chose not to get that option and saved some money. If you can deal with being behind a strobe, though, it would be worth considering.

They also make versions with laser sights for aiming. I’m intrigued by that idea and might try one at some point.

Something that helps these lights work better on long guns is one of the remote switches Streamlight offers. These are pressure switches about three inches long and a half inch wide that are sometimes called “tape switches”. A few of the lights are available in kits that include all the needed parts to remote the switch; these kits usually save you some money. If you are converting an existing light to the remote switch, you need to change out the door over the battery compartment. The door contains the ambidextrous switch for operating the light; this feature has to go in order to make room for the connector for the remote switch. The new door retains the switch on the side a right-handed shooter would typically use. It goes for $35.00.

Next, you need the switch itself. There are two versions– the straight wire one and the coiled wire one , both costing $35 each. The coiled switch is marketed for pump shotguns, but I prefer it on any long gun, as the coiling helps keep the wire out of way. Both switches include clips to attach them to a rail. All this means you need a rail on both sides of the weapon, unless you want to use the provided adhesive strip. I’m not fond of the adhesives, as I find they often fail plus they make it hard to remove the switch and wire if you want to use them on a difference weapon or just get them out of the way for some reason.

The switches are the momentary contact sort, which means you press them for light and let go for dark. They work well. Some like to position them for use with their thumb (my choice), while others like to use them with their fingertips. It’s all personal preference. We normally mount the light on the handguard, but there are grips that can attach to the handguard that hold the light.

Flashlights and weapons lights are a crowded market area that seems to get more congested every day. Streamlight has solid products worth checking out.

Personally, I am trying to get a light for every long gun that we might employ for self-defense, but I’m still relying on handheld lights for handguns. Part of that has to do with only having one handgun that can mount a light, but the bigger part is my comfort level with using a handgun with a handheld flashlight. I am far less comfortable using a long gun with one, so my priority has been to put the money there. Perhaps if I find a larger supply of funds, I’ll start adding more handguns with rails and lights. However, I’m seeing other, more important priorities at the moment and among them are lights for the long guns. As always, my solutions may not match your needs, so put some thought into it.

– SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie