All the Lumens – Fitting Your Rifle with the Right Light

Lumens, who needs them!

After all the “Should I use a light or not.” are done, and you decide a light is best for you the next discussion is inevitably all about lumens.  Lumens is a measurement used mostly for marketing but is not without its value.  A lumen is useful, it’s a measurement of the total amount of visible light the human eye can detect from a given light source.  Not necessarily usable light, just how much the eye can detect.  When it comes to the firearms world It is mostly a measuring tool coopted as a means to sell lights but it can be used as a point of comparison.    

Lumens are important, but how that light is focused or dispersed is more critical.  Is the beam broad, flood, focused, or something in between. Does it pierce through darkness, dust, or fog, or just reflect it back at you.  The result is a never ending argument about how many lumens you “need” for a given task and how they work.   Social media and tactical experts cover the spectrum. Everything from lights are not needed, to how many lumens can I get.  I have heard every “argument”  from those requiring a degree in math to complete nonsense.  Unfortunately experts never using a light outside a classroom or range still outnumber those with real experience.  With three decades using them on everything from carry to duty it really is not that complicated.

Over the years I have taped lights to my rifle, cleared the tower at Thunder Ranch Texas with a keychain LED and reveled at how “bright” an 80 lumen light is.  After thousands  of hours of real world use my conclusion is simple, the more lumens the better, period. I have never cleared a building, car, or anything where I complained I had “too much light”.  Nor have I aimed a rifle at a suspect in a dark room, street corner, or on a traffic stop and complained it was “too bright” or I could “see too much”  Ever have someone shine a light at you, defeating light thrown is easy, throw back more light.  Someone shining a 300 lumen light at your face, throw 1000 back and it drives right through them.  Bottom line,  I want as many lumens as technology can provide. Any “issues” in my experience are operator induced not technology based.   After securing Surefire’s new 600DF I was asked “why would you want a 1500 lumen light”, my answer, because they don’t make a 2000 lumen light (yet) I can trust, when they do I want it!   With that settled (at least for me) let’s take a look at how those mighty lumens are used since that is what actually matters.

It’s not how many Lumens but how they are used. 

Everything involving firearms is about application.  How its designed, what it will do, what you can do with it, and where you will likely use it. What works in one situation may be a liability in another.  Lights are no exception, whether its hand held or weapons mounted it depends on what you do and where you do it. How they throw light determines their best application. Keeping it simple, most throw light in two ways, flood or spot.  There are some things in the details in terms of how “bright” it is from center to edge, you can get lost in the minutia, for the most part it either lights up the room or focusses on a spot.  Focused beams (spots) are better at looking through glass, inside vehicles, checking corners in rooms or identifying specific objects.  They are excellent for looking down the alley or piercing into the car, window, or doorway. They  throw light farther focusing those lumens in a smaller beam (or circle). Broader beams flood the area covering more area with less focused light.  They are great for CQB work where across the yard is extended range and across the room is the norm.  It means you see more in a room at the peripheries.  I really like these for home defense since you want to see as much as you can as quickly as possible.  Given a normal room size it pretty much turns dark into daytime in an instant allowing you to see most everything in the room.  Identifying your threat (or not) is key, maybe everything in a real world encounter so use what is best for what you will do and where it will get done.  Here are a few examples of the differences using my Surefire lights that can make that decision easier.   

Light, Inside and Out

Starting inside the Surefire XH30 (focused) and XH35 (broad)  were compared at closer range, about ten yards.  Both are rated at 1000 lumens on their highest setting and had fresh batteries installed.   Shining into the staircase you can see the difference in the “cone” of light. The broad beam extends more light to the edges, even up the stair case to the second floor.  It’s not as “bright” but you can see more of what’s around you.  Using the focused beam the circle is tighter but you can see with more definition.  Moving to the corner behind the heavy bag it’s the same thing.  Stepping back a bit further with a pistol in the frame you can see the difference in the ability to find details between the two.  The XH 35 tends to send more white light to the edges of the cone, just not as deep.  Mounted to a home defense or dedicated entry weapon my preference would be the XH35.  Move outside, or at longer ranges and things change.

Being able to see as much as you can when looking through or at a vehicle is critical.  Placing a Smith and Wesson M&P Shield on the dashboard you can see the difference between the XH-30 and XH-35.  Using the focused beam you can just start to see the reflection on the back of the slide and its whiter, more directed. You can also see into the footwell.  With the broad beam, especially depending on where its pointed you can almost loose the pistol.  You can see more around the car, just not the gun.  Enter the 1500 Lumen 600DF, the real winner here.  Not only is it brighter you can see the pistol more clearly.  Move to a longer range and it’s even more pronounced. 

Standing at 25 yards the M&P shield was placed on the range wall.  Using the XH35 you probably can’t see it unless you know where to look.  Lots of light around the area, none on the weapon.  Move to the focused beam of the XH30 and it is markedly better, you can actually see the pistol.  Using the 600DF it’s literally night and day with bright white light allowing you to clearly see the pistol.  Camera is okay, but at the range I could almost identify it as a Shield, not just a generic pistol. Even at 50 yards with the 1500 lumen light you can see the pistol.  At longer range it is more noticeable.  Looking at the range office from 110 yards you can see quite a bit, even into the windows with the 600DF, the 1000 lumen XH30 is not bad, you can see the building just not as well.  Move to the XH35 and you can see very little.  All were mounted to a tripod and pointing to exactly the same spot providing a true comparison.   

Bottom Line

The test was less about who’s light you choose as what they do.  Surefire just offers a nice line of 1000 and 1000+ lights making for a good comparison and they were all at hand. Surefire still remains the choice for many professionals, if not for the light then their rugged reliability.  Still, their line has improved and there are plenty of other choices but the overall effect is the same.  Both the XH-30 and XH-35 have the ability to switch between 1000 and 300 lumens.  If too much light frightens you then turn it down.   There is also a strobe switch, mostly to be ignored.   That’s a whole other never ending argument, but in my experience it’s mostly useless and distracting, but it’s there if you want it.   Surefire’s X300U is dedicated to 1000 lumens using the focused beam, my choice for a duty pistol.  It fits existing holsters for the X300 one of the most prolific pistol lights on the market today.  Streamlight has really stepped up their game as well offering excellent light and in some very small packages.

Surefire’s 600DF is one of best carbine light available right now with more on the horizon. People are starting to see the value of high quality lights with lots of lumens and some very solid companies are stepping up to that game. These lights allow you to see at a distance once unheard.  With the Surefire Scout using  a quick mount nets you a 1500 lumen hand held.  Just remember, with high power comes high power draw. Beyond the safety and liability issues I never “search” with a weapon mounted light unless there is a known threat I am looking for. Otherwise stick to a lower power handheld and leave the high drive light for critical applications. 

No matter what you use do yourself a favor and test it in the real world.  Never believe what you read on the box or hear from the experts.   The last place to determine its not enough is in a fight.  So get out and train with whatever you are using and choose the beam that best meets your needs.  Even better, have several, you simply cannot have too many lights!    

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