When you’re shooting in the dark it’s hard to hit stuff. Not being able to see makes it hard to identify your target and hard to see your sights. And just try getting a perfect two-handed grip when you’re also juggling a flashlight – it’s not optimal. This is why many small pistol mount-able weapon lights have been designed and produced. To solve some of these tricky problems.
The biggest advantage of a weapon light mounted to a pistol is that you can keep both hands on the firearm while illuminating your target, giving you maximum recoil control, target transitioning, and a quick re-acquisitioning of your sight picture. It’s also easier to execute reloads and clear malfunctions since your support hand isn’t struggling to hold a flashlight.
There are certainly some disadvantages to using weapon-mounted lights, but those are for another article. In this one we’re just going to compare different types of illumination systems. But before we go further, I do want to say that handheld lights definitely hold their place in shooting, and have many advantages over weapon lights attached to firearms. Many shooters carry both a handheld and a weapon light affixed to their firearm.
NOTE: The prices listed below are rough estimates from market research online. They’re not MSRP rates, but rates from retailers which are usually lower than MSRP.
The APL is the slimmest weapon light on the market. Its body is made of strong polymer, and it attaches to a regular or picatinny style rail with a screw (the image on the right is the older version). It puts out a good 200 lumens for 1.5 hours. Holsters made for the APL will be the slimmest compared to holsters made for round weapon lights like the Streamlights and Surefires. It features ambidextrous paddles for activation. One tap and the light remains on. Hold the paddle down and it’s momentary. This system makes the APL extremely easy to use when shooting with one hand. The new generation APLs screw onto the rail, which can easily be done with a piece of brass. But it’s not a quick-detach system anymore.
The TLR-1 is the most popular pistol weapon light in the Streamlight series. They come in a few different types. A regular version which puts out 260 lumens (TLR-1), a strobe version (TLR-1S) which puts out the same and has a strobe option, the TLR-HL, and a rare version that puts out IR light for night vision operation. The high lumen version casts 630 lumens for 2.5 hours. The Streamlight TLR-1 is widely fielded by law enforcement because of its reliability and low cost. The light can be activated momentarily or constant with either hand. The Streamlight pistol lights feature a twist-able screw so you can unscrew it with just your fingers. Very nifty.
The TLR-2 is an upgrade of the TLR-1 that features an aiming laser which is available in red or green. The light puts out around 300 lumens. A toggle is located at the bottom of the light so you can select “light only”, “light and laser”, or “laser only” modes. Battery life depends on the mode selected. The laser can run 48 hours on its own, and the light for 2.5. The system can be activated momentarily or constant with either hand.
The TLR-3 is one of the smallest weapon lights on the market. And while it’s the cheapest option, it doesn’t sacrifice the durability that Streamlights are known for. It puts out around 170 lumens for 1.5 hours. The light can be activated momentarily or constant with either hand.
The TLR-4 is the same body as the TLR-3, but features an aiming laser, available as red or green. Holsters made for the TLR-4 are quite large even though the light itself is rather small. Like the TLR-2, a toggle switch allows you to switch between modes. The system can be activated momentarily or constant with either hand.
The Surefire X300 was an improved version of the X200 which put out 170 lumens for about 2.4 hours. It’s shorter and a little smaller then its successor the X300 Ultra. The X300 is still in use by some military units who have not had the budget to upgrade to the new Ultra version. The Surefire X300U features a quick-detach system for mounting it to the rail, but also have more permanent mounting solutions for those of you wanting something even tougher than it already is.
Surefire X300 Ultra
The Surefire X300 Ultra is probably the most popular weapon light used by American military personnel. It is extremely tough, puts out 500 lumens for 1.5 hours, and is very easy to get holsters for. The X300U is also employed on many rifles because of its durability and lightweight construction. Same mounting system as the X300.
The X300-V is the IR version of the X300 Ultra. By twisting the cap of the light the shooter can switch between a 150 lumen white light beam, or a 120 lumen IR beam that is only visible through night vision devices. This is particularly useful on handguns equipped with red dots that can be accurately used under night vision. The white light has a 1.8 hour run time, and the IR mode is 8 hours. The X300-V is a little longer than the X300 Ultra, so it won’t fit X300 Ultra holsters without some modification. Same mounting system as the X300-U.
Surefire X400 Ultra
The Surefire X400 Ultra is just like the X300 but features a laser, available as either red or green. The X400 features a toggle on the bottom of the light so you can specify “light only”, “laser only”, or “light and laser” mode. The Surefire X400-U features a twist-able screw for tightening the light to rails. It can be hand tightened, so it’s a quick-detach system.
The Surefire X400-V features white light output, IR light output, and a visible or IR laser. It’s an excellent system for folks running night vision systems. Warning: it’s expensive. Like its smaller brother the X300-V, The cap rotates to specify IR or white light output. A toggle at the bottom of the light (similar to the X400) specifies the different light/laser modes. The X400-V is a little longer than the X400 Ultra, so it won’t fit X400 Ultra holsters without some modification. Same mounting system as the X400-U.
The Surefire XC1 is one of the newest pistol lights on the market. It’s tiny, boasts 200 lumens, and runs on a single AAA battery. It only has momentary activation, and screws onto rails. So no QD attachment. We have an article here detailing some of the specifics of this light versus the Inforce APL.
Steiner DBAL-PL Class 1 laser/illuminator
The DBAL-PL is a multi-functional laser/illuminator system. It features an IR laser and illuminator and a visible laser and illuminator. Unlike the TLR-2 or X400, you can’t select whether you activate the lights or lasers separately. You just choose IR or WL output, and it puts out the laser and light together. The WL illuminator is rated at 400 lumens. The device is attached to rails via a screw, so it is not a quick-detach system. It’s interesting to note that a red dot can be purchased and mounted to a pistol for about the same price, which can also be used with night vision to great effect. However, there are some benefits of this system over red dots, but a red dot is definitely something to consider. We have an article about pistol red dots here.
The Insight weapon lights are a little outdated. They’re rather bulky, expensive, and the M3X only puts out 125 lumens at its peak. One hour battery life. There are many commercial holsters made to accommodate the Insight lights such as Safarilands, but very few custom kydex manufacturers make holsters for these lights.
The M6X features an aiming laser, and puts out 150 lumens. Like the M3X, it’s also a bit outdated and hard to get custom holsters made for. Two hour battery life.
Crimson Trace CMR-202 Rail Master
The CMR-202 is a very small weapon light. It puts out 100 lumens for 2 hours, can strobe, and it features an auto shut off after 5 minutes to preserve battery life. This is a nifty feature since it’s very easy to holster a weapon under stress with the light accidentally left on. Very few companies make holsters for these lights. The light attaches to the rail via screws, so it’s not a quick-detach system.
The X5L is a small compact weapon light boasting 224 lumens, an aiming laser, and ambidextrous activation paddles. As far as laser-light combos go, pricing is not bad. But very few holster manufacturers make holsters for these.
Weapon lights are activated by twisting, pressing, or turning switches/buttons. This is usually done with your support hand since the index finger of your strong hand is pulling the trigger (or is off the trigger at-the-ready to press if necessary). For some people, it can be tricky to activate a light with your support hand, while taking shots with your strong hand. Surefire and Streamlight offer pressure/tape switches that can be attached to their weapon lights so they activate once you get a firm grip on your weapon. There are advantages and disadvantages to these systems, but I will leave those for you to decide based on your training and operational needs. These are definitely easier to activate a light with if you’re shooting with one hand.
Weapon light technology has come a long way. They have become smaller, cheaper, and nowadays there are plenty of solutions for holsters that accommodate these lights affixed to various weapon systems. I recommend everyone attend a low-light fighting class to become more familiar with running handheld and weapon-mounted lights in defensive situations.