The creation of today’s nail-tough, high-performance tactical lights can really trace its roots back to the invention of the light bulb, or the ability to harness and conduct electrical current, but for modern shooters the journey best begins back in 1927, when Oleg Losev—a soviet inventor—produced the first LED. The concept remained largely ignored for decades, though, with scientists viewing it as an interesting anomaly with no practical use. Some dabbled with the phenomena, although it wasn’t until the early ’60s that an infrared version received a U.S. patent. Red, visible light versions followed, although even by 1968 the purchase price for a single LED was several hundred dollars.
Kel-Lite First in Tactical Lighting Evolution
The same year, far away from those squeaky sterile research labs, Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Donald Keller grew so tired of cheap, stamped-metal flashlights prone to breakage, that he introduced the Kel-Lite. It used the then-traditional incandescent bulb prone to burning out and breaking (problem partly solved later with the addition of halogen gas), but with a body built from 6061-T6 aluminum, in models long enough to hold up to seven D-cell batteries and a wide metal bulb housing, it worked double duty as a baton. The weather- and shock-resistant housing quickly made it the choice of first responders.
Keller left the company in 1972 and continued his design work for Maglite and Brinkmann, among others. About the time of his departure, though, a fledgling firm named Streamlight was hard at work creating a 25 million candlepower “torch” at NASA’s request, one capable of simulating the intensity of the sun in outer space, where there is no atmosphere to diminish intensity. The technology developed in the project soon found its way into the company’s 1 million-candlepower handheld units designed for military and law enforcement professionals.
Then Came Maglite
Significant competition for the two tactical light giants was scarce, until Maglite launched in 1979. Its first offerings were C- and D-celled, aluminum-bodied flashlights designed for first responders, with a twist. Turning the light housing on select models broadened or narrowed its beam.
The same year, Dr. John Matthews, a Cal Tech Phd., filed several patents for laser-aiming devices for firearms, and formed the company Laser Products. More than likely, he never envisioned how the company’s original mission would lead it to become the industry’s leader in lighting. The firm’s name officially changed to the more familiar SureFire in 2001.
Streamlight and Kel-Lite merged in 1983, and Maglite rolled out its first small, personal-sized flashlight the next year. “Terminator” hit movie theaters in 1984, and audience reaction to the handgun-mounted laser on the silver screen (produced by Laser Products) forever cemented the marriage of futuristic, high-end electronics and firearms into popular culture. The same year, LAPD used the company’s lasers on shotguns for security during the Olympics. Riding a wave of positive publicity, the firm developed the first fully integrated weaponlight for a shotgun in 1986, rolled out the Model 310 for 1911s the same year and by 1988 was offering the same tough technology in handheld units, with a tailcap switch.
Then the White LED
Battery sources continued to evolve, as well as the bulbs and their construction, but in 1994, the first blue LED was invented. With the right coatings it could produce white light and in 2003 CREE developed a “high output” blue LED. The cost was down significantly, and the tiny little diodes don’t seem to care about recoil.
The race was on, but the frontrunners were soon accompanied by others in the market. Many have come and gone, but ExtremeBeam, which was founded in 2009 with handheld, LED-driven tactical lights, has a thriving product line today. “We offer a full line of long-range, weapon-mountable flashlights,” said Eric Doi, the company’s director of marketing. “Our line focuses on extreme durability, as all parts are machined from solid bar-stock aluminum and are backed by a limited-lifetime warranty that includes destruction.”
Doi has some advice whether you’re considering his company’s product line or another’s, even years from now. “The most important factors buyers should look for are durability, reliability, battery life, brightness and if it is weapon mountable,” he said. “Many tactical lights on the market right now are not made to take the recoil of a firearm.”
Today the power sources, like the CR123, last longer than ever before. Bear in mind, though, improper disposal or using counterfeits can have disastrous consequences. Don't take my word for it. Here's a story with aircraft incidents as cited by the FAA.
The tactical lighting evolution, no doubt, will continue. It’s natural selection at its finest when new materials are harnessed to ensure the survival of tactical lights in conditions in which they fail or underperform. We’re pretty certain that’s not what Charles Darwin had in mind, but the firearm enthusiast in him would certainly approve.