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The Lumen Debate

Back in April I talked about the great ammo debate and how bigger does not always equal better.  Today I am going to jump into another debate of a similar comparison, only this time I am talking lumens and flashlights and not caliber choice.

In the past five years there has been a trend among flashlight manufacturers to produce small lights with a huge lumen output.  Prior to this some of the brightest hand held flashlights you could find maxed out between 120 and 200 lumens.  The first compact flashlight I purchased as a police officer was a Streamlight Stinger and it maxed out 90 lumens.  I thought that thing was the best flashlight on the face of the earth.  I cleared more buildings, located more suspects, and found more drugs with that flashlight than any other flashlight that I own;  all with a sub-standard (by current specs) 90 lumens of brightness and less than 90 minutes of run-time on a charge.

Two years ago I retired my standard Stinger for a Stinger LED when it was issued by my department.  The LED version was bumped by Streamlight to a total output of 325 lumens on its brightest setting, and while that much light has a use, it’s a very limited use and not very practical for an Every Day Carry (EDC) light or a weapon mounted light. I find that I rarely use the full 325 lumens and often opt to use it on the medium power setting of 175 lumens.

Brighter is NOT Always Better

I know what some of you are thinking as you are reading this – “why would the flashlight companies keep increasing the output of the lights” and the simple answer to that is so they can sell you more flashlights.  One of my Lieutenants always talks about how many different types of fishing lures places like Walmart and Bass Pro sell, and his theory on that is they were never meant to catch more fish; they were designed to catch more fishermen.  The same holds true for flashlight companies.  It is a simple business model designed to bring you back for the latest and greatest the company has to offer.

Haley Strategic INFORCE WML

Haley Strategic INFORCE WML

So now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into just how many lumens you really need. As a police officer I utilize my flashlights for searching buildings, cars, and the great outdoors, and based on my personal and professional experience I think that 200 lumens is the absolute max you will ever need for an EDC flashlight or weapon mounted light.  Could you get by with more or even less? Absolutely you could in certain situations but I am talking about one light to do almost anything indoors or outdoors.  Some folks will probably disagree with this but I am basing my opinion on real world, in the field, experience. 200 lumens has more than enough power to identify any intruders in your home while have a blinding effect on them and also have enough power to light up things out in the distance if you are outside.

So why is brighter not better?  The simple answer is light reflects and depending on what you are doing and where you are doing it the light just might reflect back into your own eyes effectively killing your built in night vision. This could be a fatal mistake if this were to happen when someone has broken into your home and you come face to face with them and blind yourself with your new 10 million lumen light. Would the brighter light work better outside? Possibly, but even then there is a point where too much is not good.  If your light throws out too much light it can wash out whatever you are trying to identify and that could be the difference between you shooting a potential bad guy or your neighbor who came outside to see what was going on.

For those of you visual learners out there (like me) here is a great video put together by Travis Haley and Haley Strategic where Travis talks about lights and even gives a really good demonstration at night.  It is a little long and some of the information is a repeat of what you have already read but it does a great job of adding a visual to the information.

Which Light Should I Buy?

I know it will come up so I thought I would take a minute to talk about what light to buy.  And that is not a real simple question to answer because there are some many out there with a lot of features that I like.  So I will try to be somewhat general and say to look for a light in a size that you are comfortable with and that has an output of at least 100 lumens and a max of 200 lumens.  If it has other features such as adjustable brightness or a multi function switch (momentary, strobe, etc) they are just icing on the cake but not always necessary.

As far as brands I have become a huge fan of the INFORCE lights.  I own a WML and plan to add an APL, and 6VX to my collection in the near future.  They haven’t fallen into the high lumen marketing like the other companies so you can’t go wrong with any of their lights.  I also own and have experience with Surefire and Streamlight and they also make quality products that are in use by law enforcement and military forces worldwide.

Contrary to popular belief, you CAN have too many lumens. If you look to any of these brands and stay away from some of their offerings that have off the charts lumen ratings, I don’t think you can go wrong.

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12 Responses to The Lumen Debate

  1. John July 30, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    Great points, I couldn’t agree more. I use the AIM Sports 150 Lumen tactical light on my Walther PPQ. Got it off of Amazon for $30. I have a video on youtube reviewing it at JEFirearms (selfless plug) But for 30 dollars it is an incredibly affordable light for those on a budget in need of a quick mount light for their home defense weapon. Personally I don’t CC with a light attached, so being able to quickly slide it on and off is a HUGE plus for when the gun goes from being an EDC weapon to a home defense weapon.

  2. George Hill July 30, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    There is another problem though. Candle Power and Lumens are rather vague units of measure that are not standardized across the industry. I’ve seen some company’s 90 or 120 Lumen lights outshine lights from other company’s lights with higher ratings. The only place where these ratings actually stack up are within their own manufacter’s Brand. So they are only good for comparing products within the brand and not to other brands. (Former Retailer for the last decade)

  3. Richard July 30, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Lumens, as mentioned by Haley in the video, are only part of the equation. The Stinger LED is throwing 24k candela, which is probably brighter than what most people want in a building search. It is good for lighting up the interior of a car on a traffic stop when you are back at your car, though.

    I’ve got a Streamlight ProTac HL that I really enjoyed using for room clearing/searches. It is throwing 600 lumens, but only 16k candela. This gave me a much nicer flood-type capability to see a lot of a room instantly without a super-bright hotspot.

    The original Stinger (we’ve all used/still have them) did 90 lumens and 11k candela. So in comparison, the ProTac HL would give you a slightly brighter center spot, but with a much brighter spill/flood. I found this allows me to really see more of a room with each activation but not wash anything out.

    Think about the medium level of the Stinger LED – do you find it better than the original Stinger? It is rated at 175 lumens and only 12k candela. Roughly twice the light with about the same brightness at center. I don’t know how much you like it, but I suspect it gives you a similar effect that I get from using the ProTac HL.

    Given a static candela measurement, is 600 lumens “better” than 300 lumens? Not sure. I imagine the law of diminishing returns kicks in somewhere.

    Lights are fun tools and having several for different functions (room clearing vs. long distance) gives you a lot of flexibility in the field. Just my 2¢.

    • Robbie July 30, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

      Richard, You are right that lumens are not the only thing but at the same time I think you can get way too technical with it and confuse people. I am fortunate enough to have an agency that will purchase some of the lights I have and do have the ability to keep several lights for different tasks. Some folks don’t have that luxury and I wanted to help them make a decision on one light that could do almost everything they need without being too much light.

  4. Richard July 30, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    One other thing…a good explanation of the ANSI/NEMA FL-1 standards are here: The standards are not perfect, but they do move the industry closer to standardization, which can help the consumer make informed decisions.

  5. John Gilbert July 30, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    I have been operating on this theory for the past year and a half good article

  6. Jake July 30, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    Nice job Robbie, I’ve been saying this for a quite a while. Lumens aren’t everything, and you can definitely have too many.

  7. Mike July 30, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    Great video. Just last week I installed the HSP WML on my “primary” AR in the same spot on an MOE handguard. Did a little walkthrough in the house and was very impressed. Lit up my iron sights beautifully. Certainly no need for any more lumens.

  8. John M. July 30, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

    I have the WML on my AR and an APL on my M&P. I feel that both are perfect for my needs and what I use them for.

  9. Mark Masano July 30, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

    No way would I buy any Chinese aimpoint garbage. I only put good American products on my guns.

  10. BlackSheepWarrior (@BlackSheepWar) July 30, 2013 at 10:52 pm #

    The more lumens the better for the outdoors. I could see where a high output light could reflect from the mirror etc on a vehicle stop but I’m still a big fan of powerful lights. 200 lumens can practically light up a small mountain but the new Streamlight HL lights are like night suns. Like anything else you need to train with it and make sure you know the limitations. Nice write up!

  11. Cymond July 31, 2013 at 5:10 am #

    I know it seems stupid, but I like momentary only. I also like a lower output for clearing my house in the middle of the night when I can barely open my eyes. I currently have a TLR-1S (160? lumens), and the thing is just too bright! It’s not bad when my eyes are adjusted for a well-lit room, but when my eyes are adjusted to the dark (like rolling out of bed at 3 AM), it’s truly blinding.

    My ideal defensive light would have a very low mode (under 100 lumens, maybe as low as 60) for when things “go bump in the night” but a high-mode in the 150-200 range for when I’m outdoor or my eyes are adjusted to a well lit room. It should be able to switch between modes by flipping or rotating a switch – NOT by a complex series of button taps.