At the time of me writing this article, April 2018, tactical flashlights have been on the market for about fifty years.
I don’t know what is harder to believe: That they weren’t thought of sooner since the very first flashlights predate the tactical flashlights by seventy years. Or has it really been that long, yes, it has but a “tactical” flashlight of 1968 is much longer, wider and not as bright as a tactical flashlight of 2018?
The first police department to be issued flashlights was New York City in the year 1902 and this has made police work a little easier ever since.
Weapon mounted flashlights date back to World War One, but typically the recoil of the gun being fired many times caused the bulb’s filament to break. The earliest example I have witnessed in an online picture dated 1929, featuring an Illinois Central Railroad policeman holding a rifle with what appears to be a Brass Multi D cell flashlight mounted under the barrel. I’m not sure how well that flashlight’s bulb and circuitry withstood the recoil of that firearm.
However, this article is meant to cover, the first flashlight designed specifically for the rigorous and rugged conditions of police work. Remember police work is very demanding that many times entails being in situations where something as serious as getting shot at is an unfortunate reality. Prior to the invention of the tactical flashlight, many cops and security guards used higher-end consumer flashlights that were constantly breaking, mostly at the worst possible time. There needed to be a better solution. The answer was a flashlight was invented by Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Deputy Donald Keller, which he began researching in the early 1960s. It was called the Kel Lite and the very first production models came on the market in 1968.
This flashlight was much more rugged than the stamped sheet metal and molded plastic flashlights previously made.
Rather it’s body was constructed of high-quality Aircraft Aluminum and with precisely fitting parts.
It was very shockproof, waterproof and even bulletproof to a degree!
Yes, there have been instances where this flashlight not only stopped a bullet but continued providing light.
The Kel Lite was designed for law enforcement and security personnel as a reliable light source that won’t break or otherwise give out in the middle of a shift for almost any reason. It was also meant to double as a baton and Donald Keller himself taught classes and wrote books about using the said flashlight as a self-defense melee weapon.
There was only one flaw in the First and Second Generation models and that was an inferior switch system.
However, even with these inferior switches, there are still Kel Lites in use today that work as well as when they were purchased in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1979, a new tactical flashlight was put on the market, known as the MagLite.
This new Maglite was an improvement of the Kel Lite because it had a superior switch system and a focusable light beam.
In 1983, the Third Generation Kel Lite was put into production and it too had a push button switch. Also around this time, Kel Lite had merged with Streamlight, which was prior to that was producing rechargeable flashlights with higher output Halogen bulbs.
Maglite had also come out with a rechargeable Halogen model around 1982, which was marketed for police use.
Then in 1985, a fairly new company called Laser Products, came out with a revolutionary idea and that was an ultra-rugged, but pocket-sized high output flashlight with a Xenon/Halogen lamp. It was run on very high capacity Lithium camera batteries. This company would soon become known as SureFire.
This was indeed revolutionary because one of these pocket-sized SureFire flashlights was equally bright as a 4 D Cell Maglite or Kel Lite.
In 1988 the Brinkmann Legend flashlights were put on the market as another one Donald Keller’s designs.
Throughout the 1990s, not many changes happened with incandescent tactical flashlights, but in 1998, the first LED flashlight was invented, although not a tactical model at all.
At some point in the 2000’s many police and security officers were all of a sudden forbidden to carry a multi-cell metal flashlight because of brutality issues, so smaller but equally bright models such as the Streamlight Stinger and various SureFire flashlights became the norm of police work. These are now what many people think when the phrase “tactical flashlight” is mentioned.
Because of this, larger Maglites and Brinkmann Legends became mostly a higher end consumer flashlight.
In the early 2010s, LEDs became more and more efficient and soon were the norm of tactical flashlights.
As of 2018, there are dozens if not hundreds of tactical LED flashlight brands to choose from worldwide. Even consumer brands such as Energizer, Rayovac, Duracell and Dorcy all have tactical lines.
Incandescents are still used in niche markets, such as the military and medical sectors, but they are getting harder and harder to find for the average consumer.
Who knows what the next fifty years will give us in the world of tactical flashlights?
I know I’ll be anxiously looking forward to whatever technology comes out.
I hope this walk down memory lane on a dark night was lit well enough by the flashlights mentioned and I hope you, the reader were enlightened as well.