Walked into the hardware store yesterday to pick up a few items for the house. There on the shelf, I spotted a big display of little LED flashlights – about the length of a hand palm, about the width of a tube of lipstick. Activated by a simple tailcap clicky, on/off. No bells or whistles, just functional little lights. At 55 lumens, they weren’t as “super bright” as the packaging declared, but they were certainly bright enough for most tasks and had decent throw. Since they only cost $4 apiece, I picked up a few to toss into my camping gear and one for my range bag.
Almost a decade ago, I was chomping the bit to attend SHOT Show. Problem: didn’t have a dime to my name. Travel is tough when you have no funds. Determined to get there one way or the other, I teamed up with Doug Ritter of Equipped to Survive. (Doug still does ETS, but he’s better known these days for his excellent and highly recommended work at Knife Rights.) Doug was looking for a writer willing to write product reviews in exchange for some help with travel expenses, and that sounded like a match made in heaven to me. We shook hands on the deal – virtually, anyway, as we hadn’t yet met in person – and I set about gathering details. ETS built its reputation on thorough, technical reviews of survival gear, and they needed someone to write about flashlights.
My assignment: find every new LED light introduced at the SHOT Show. Measure each one, talk to the designer about the tech specs, and write it up. Given the size of the show and the time constraints, that was a big task ten years ago, and probably impossible for one person now.
Before we left for the show, I spent some time talking to my friends in the firearms training world. The consensus back then was that LED lights would be handy for defensive use if only they could be made bright enough. Companies were right on the cusp of getting enough brightness and throw from LEDs to make them worthwhile to carry for that use, and there was a lot of experimentation with weird lens shapes, specialized collimators, and fancy wiring to drive the LEDs just a little brighter. Of course, innovation costs money and LED lights were no exception. Only a few, high-end LEDs could be expected to reach the 65-lumen range most defense experts considered necessary at that time, and those often cost multiple hundreds of dollars.
Given those prices, LED lights were really a rich man’s toy. Most cops and defense-minded citizens carried halogen-based flashlights, or ones that used traditional bulbs. These had some significant drawbacks, the worst of which was that you could shatter a bulb if you dropped the flashlight. Not really ideal for someone who might want to use the light in active, scary, violent circumstances.
So I traipsed off to Las Vegas, and ran my feet to blisters getting to every booth. Talked myself hoarse asking questions about throw and battery life, brightness and durability, wiring and construction details. Came home from the show with an amazing little light someone had handed me as a sample. That was an LED flashlight bright enough and with enough throw to actually illuminate the top of the big pine tree in my yard, at least 30 yards from where I was standing! Astonishing! Of course it retailed for more than the trip to Vegas had cost me in total expenditures, making it far outside my means. On my own, I’d never be able to afford such a marvel.
Yesterday, I walked into a hardware store and picked up a handful of 55-lumen, $4 LED flashlights for my camping gear. Of course when I got home, I had to light up the top of the pine tree with one of them, just because I could. Those little lights reminded me how good it is to live in a capitalist society, where rich people drive the innovations that the rest of us benefit from just a few years down the road.