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Published Sep 23, 2022 3:00 PM

I’ve served as a law enforcement officer for 14 years, and I can tell you that pistol lights can be the difference in life-or-death-situations. After dark, it’s much more difficult to identify friend from foe. And if you’re counting on a light for your self-defense handgun, you want one that’s dependable and intuitive to use. It doesn’t matter how bright your light is if turning it on isn’t second nature or if it fails. To help you find one that you can depend on should the need arise, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best pistol lights available today.

Best Overall: Surefire X300U-A

Surefire

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Why It Made the Cut 

The X300U-A generates 1,000 lumens with a hybrid beam that provides good spill for up close engagements but also pushes out for intermediate distances.  

Key Features 

  • 1,000 lumens
  • 1.5-hour runtime
  • Two CR123A batteries
  • Ambidextrous push/toggle
  • IPX7 waterproof rating

Pros

  • Extremely rugged
  • Rapid attachment with Rail-Lock system
  • Activation doesn’t require altering your grip
  • Hybrid beam pattern

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Too large for EDC

Product Description

For the past eight years I’ve been running Surefire X300s on my duty handguns and have upgraded each time they roll out a new one. The X300U-A is my favorite model because of the rail-lock that allows for rapid attachment and removal of the light. Intuitive switches, durability, and the holster compatibility of the X300U-A made it my preferred pistol light for duty use.

Featuring a precision TIR lens, the X300U-A has a beam that reaches out for mid-range engagements, but it also provides surrounding light on the peripherals for close proximity. This combination provides excellent all-around performance when it comes to throw and spill. 

Ambidextrous switches on the X300U-A allow for one-finger control with either your thumb or index finger, and momentary-on can be accomplished by simply driving your support hand thumb forward onto the switch while shooting. You can activate constant-on by toggling the switch up or down, which allows the user to keep the light activated with one-handed shooting.

With an aluminum body that’s corrosion resistant and an IPX7 waterproof rating, the X300U-A is a rugged and robust pistol light and was a no-brainer for the top spot.

Best for EDC: Streamlight TLR-7 Sub

Streamlight

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Why It Made the Cut

The Streamlight TLR-7 Sub’s small footprint makes it an ideal option for IWB or EDC. 

Key Features

  • 500 lumens
  • 1.5-hour runtime
  • One CR123A battery
  • Ambidextrous rear switch
  • IPX7 waterproof rating

Pros

  • Small footprint
  • Peripheral illumination for close proximity shooting
  • Lightweight

Cons

  • Lights are model specific and not compatible across manufacturers

Product Description

With the same 500 lumens and intuitive switches as the popular TLR-7 A, and Sub Ultra Compact light performs like a full-size light, yet it’s small enough to carry IWB. The Sub securely attaches to most of the popular slim frame guns on the market.

Ambidextrous rear switches provide constant-on with a simple click on either side of the rear switches, or you can run them as momentary-on by holding down the switch for more than half a second before being released. The safe-off feature also allows you to lock the light to prevent accidental activation during storage.

The sub attaches via a rail clamp which can be done without tools, and the light, anodized body is scratch resistant. Given that the light is intended to fit slim-frame pistols primarily used for EDC and concealment, the TLR7 Sub has a generous spill that illuminates the inside of residential structures extremely well for such a small pistol light.

Best Premium: Modlite PLHv2-PL350

Modlite

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Why It Made the Cut

The convenient out-the-front battery change, intuitive controls, and generous lumens and candela make the modlite an exceptionally capable pistol light, but all the features come with hefty price tag.  

Key Features 

  • 5700 Kelvin color temperature
  • 1350 Lumens
  • 54,000 Candela
  • PHLSTER ARC switch paddles
  • 18350 rechargeable battery

Pros

  • High candela
  • Out-the-front battery change
  • Two-cell battery charger included
  • Multiple switches to customize for user

Cons

  • Attachment rails and switches had quality issues but are remedied in current model
  • Expensive

Product Description

The Modlite PL350 includes an entire suite of accessories, such as a 18350 rechargeable battery, a set of PHLSTER ARC switch paddles, and a 2-cell XTAR USB charger.

With an out-the-front battery, the PL350 also resolves the need to remove your pistol light to replace the battery. Simply remove the light head and replace the battery. It also offers amazing throw and spill with an ultra-clear BOROFLOAT lens that allow 98- to 99-percent light transmission. 

This pistol light has 1,350 lumens and 54,000 candela, which is powered by the 18350 cell and that is more powerful than two lithium CR123 batteries. All this juice produces amazing throw or long-range engagements and generous spill of the peripherals. When using the PL350 to identify targets on the range, I was able to illuminate steel silhouettes at 75 to 100 yards and still had spill on the edges to locate and identify objects surrounding the target.  

Activation was easy with switches that provided a tactile “click” up or down for constant-on, but it should be noted there is no momentary-on feature with the PL350. While this light has several premium features, they come at a premium price. But if you’re counting on this light for a service or self-defense weapon, it’s worth every penny.

Best Long Range: Surefire X300T-A Turbo

Surefire

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Why It Made the Cut 

The X300T-A Turbo combines high lumens and tons of candela to illuminate long distances and provide great spill on the edges. What’s most impressive is that Surefire accomplishes this by using the same housing as the previous X300 models, which prevents any issues with holster compatibility for those already running a legacy X300.

Key Features 

  • 650 lumens
  • 1.5-hour runtime
  • 66,000 candela
  • Two CR123A batteries
  • IPX7 waterproof rating

Pros

  • Fits X300 holsters
  • Turbo beam pattern
  • Ambidextrous push/toggle
  • Rugged
  • Attaches to Picatinny and universal Rails

Cons

  • Tightly focused beam provides less spill to peripheral areas

Product Description 

The X300-A Turbo generates a tightly focused 66,000-candela beam pattern out to 100 yards. The beam pattern also illuminates with spill to help you maintain situational awareness outside the hot spot, giving users the best of both worlds when it comes to illumination. 

Built with the same quality and durability as their previous X300 models, the Turbo includes a rugged hard anodized body with an IPX7 waterproof rating. Intuitive ambidextrous switches allow for instant activation without altering your shooting grip and can be activated as momentary-on or constant-on by either pushing the switch forward or toggling up or down respectively.

When I evaluated the Turbo model against the Modlite PLHv2-PL350, it was difficult to distinguish a difference between the two beam patterns. Targets were easily illuminated and identified out to 100 yards. Surprisingly, the Surefire accomplished similar performance to the PL350 on two CR123 batteries. 

Best Budget: Streamlight TLR-1 HL

Streamlight

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Why It Made the Cut 

The Streamlight TLR-1 HL is one of the most common pistol lights you’ll see at the range or on your local officer’s duty gun and for good reason. This intuitive and brightly capable pistol light offers great performance at a reasonable price.

Key Features 

  • 1,000 lumens
  • 1.5-hour runtime
  • Two CR123A batteries
  • Ambidextrous momentary/steady on/off switch
  • User programmable strobe
  • IPX7 waterproof rating

Pros 

  • Concentrated beam with peripheral illumination
  • Tool-less rail clamp system
  • Fits most light bearing holsters
  • Key system attaches to most firearms

Cons

  •  Beam not optimized for long range illumination

Product Description

The TLR-1 HL provides 1,000 lumens of white light for clearing residential structures or searching exterior venues. Its beam pattern is wide with good spill to illuminate large areas, making it popular for law enforcement officers working in urban environments. 

With its rail clamp system, the HL attaches or detaches quickly with no tools and mounts directly to any pistol that has either the Glock style universal rail or MIL-STD 1913 Picatinny rails. The light body is made of durable anodized aluminum with an IPX7 waterproof rating and is engineered to produce a concentrated beam with optimum peripheral illumination. Streamlight prioritized keeping the upgraded HL model inside the same footprint as the previous TLR-1, which allows users to keep their old holsters.

Powered by two CR123 lithium batteries, the TLR-1 HL has a 1.5-hour runtime before needing a battery swap. The intuitive ambidextrous switch is easy to operate for those first-time pistol light users, and it carries a sub $200 price tag.

Things to Consider Before Buying a Pistol Light

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the countless offerings, but users should focus on how they intend to carry and use their light. 

Carry Style

If you plan to carry a subcompact or slim-frame handgun for your EDC (everyday carry), especially in a kydex holster, then options are reduced considerably due to size. If you want a light for your home-defense or service weapon, the possibilities abound, and you’ll likely narrow your search through personal preference and budget. 

Brightness

If you’re working as a LEO in an urban environment around buildings and structures, then you’ll need high lumens and good spill, versus the rural LEO needing high candela for long distance illumination.  

Batteries

This comes down to personal preference, but you’ll need to decide if disposable or rechargeable batteries best suit your needs. You might pay more upfront for a rechargeable light, but keep in mind that those replaceable batteries will add up, too.

FAQs

Q: How many lumens should a pistol light be?

Your pistol light should have enough lumens to illuminate your surroundings, which depends on whether you are using it primarily indoors or outdoors. I would recommend having a light that produces at least 500 lumens, which will provide sufficient light for most scenarios. Just remember that lumens is purely a measurement of how much light the LED can produce, but design traits in the weapon light like the size and shape of reflector and glass clarity will determine how bright the weapon light actually is. Quality pistol lights with 500 lumens and high-quality reflectors and glass often outperform higher lumen competitors, so focus more on how the light performs versus the product specification sheets.

Q: What is the difference between lumens and candela?

Lumens and candela are the most common terms you will see a manufacturer use when marketing their pistol lights. Lumens refers to the raw measurement that describes how much light the LED can theoretically produce. Candela, on the other hand, describes the total amount of light within a certain beam angle and direction and helps measure the strength, volume, and intensity of light. Candela is a much better predictor of how the light is going to perform, especially for products like the Surefire X300 Turbo and Modlite PL350, which are both designed to produce a beam that reaches out to longer ranges.

Q: What does throw and flood mean when describing a pistol light?

Throw and flood are terms used to describe the weapon light’s beam pattern. Throw refers to the light’s ability to project light over distance, where flood describes the ability to illuminate a large area. Based on your individual needs, throw or flood will be a priority. For example, my everyday carry pistol will most likely be used indoors or in close proximity, so prioritizing a light with a generous flood that will illuminate a broad area is beneficial. 

If I was still patrolling both urban and rural environments, pistol lights with better throw that can reach across multiple yards or into a wooded area would be more beneficial. Pistol lights usually prioritize one of these attributes more than the other, but there are products like the Modlite PL350 that provide both throw and flood in the same light.

Q: What other features are important in a pistol light?

We often spend much of our time obsessing over the light’s brightness, without considering other important features, like the pistol light’s interface with the shooter.  Activating the light in an emergency needs to be intuitive. Toggles, paddles, and switches vary among manufacturers, and individual user preference plays a role. Switches like the one on the Streamlight TLR-7 Sub and Surefire X300 Turbo provide the ability to drive your thumb into the switch for momentary-on but can also be toggled up or down for constant-on. These models are my preferred style of switches. The ability to run momentary-on so that the light deactivates during reloads, malfunction clearances, or movement is a must, since you don’t want to illuminate yourself during these tasks. Constant-on while shooting one handed is also valuable and applies to the law enforcement officer and everyday carry citizen alike.

Final Thoughts

The best pistol lights are a must for any defensive or duty pistol. Your ability to illuminate threats to provide proper identification is mandatory if you’re an LEO and critical if you’re depending on it for self-defense. Pistol lights should never be an afterthought in your preparedness and can be just as vital as the pistol it’s attached to.

Methodology 

The recommendations listed above were determined based on my personal experience with each light, as well as my role as a trainer at Fieldcraft Survival and former LEO. I’ve personally carried all of these lights (except the Modlite) on duty or in training. For the Modlite, I personally tested it at the range for its brightness capabilities and intuitiveness.