The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

How to Choose and Use Handheld Lights for Self-Defense


You have that friend; we all do. That guy who stares wide-eyed at you and your daily loadout like you’re some sort of paranoid nut-job. He’s the same dude who says, “Why do you need to carry a flashlight everywhere you go?” one minute and then asks to borrow it the next when he can’t find his keys in the dark.

A flashlight can save a life in more ways than one. It doesn’t just illuminate a path when the sun goes down, help with roadside repairs, or assist in search-and-rescue missions. A portable light can also be used as a highly effective self-defense tool. How? Let us count the ways:

– It can intimidate and deescalate before violence erupts.
– It can blind an attacker.
– It can be used as an impact weapon.
– It can be used as a pain compliance tool.
– It can be used for holds, locks, and takedowns.
– It can be used to break free of holds and locks.

The number of techniques are bound only by your imagination, experience, and level of training.

Another benefit of having an everyday-carry (EDC) flashlight is that it can (usually) be carried in non-permissive environments where knives and firearms aren’t allowed. Think school campuses, courthouses, and federal buildings. A discreet handheld light doesn’t attract as much attention as a knife or firearm.

1: The EDC PL 1AAA is a great mini light from 5.11 Tactical. It’s affordable, runs on one AAA battery, and can put out 55 lumens for almost four hours. The tradeoff? Your fist will swallow it up, so it’s more of a fist-load weapon than a club or kubaton.
2: The SureFire Stiletto is a groundbreaking 650-lumen flashlight that is less than 5 inches long but has a stout oval-shaped body that’s more ergonomic than most cylindrical penlights (providing a more assured grip, especially when striking a bad guy).
3: The Streamlight PolyTac X USB emits a whopping 600 lumens on high and has other modes, including strobe to disorient an attacker. Made of high-impact nylon polymer with a slightly crenulated striking bezel.

Size Dictates Tactics

Some might advocate getting the largest flashlight available to swing like a baseball bat. Makes sense from a striking standpoint. But how exactly can you EDC a 2-pound, 14-inch-long four-cell D Maglite comfortably — let alone do so without attracting unwanted attention? Remember, you’re not going to use it if you’re not going to carry it.

Conversely, choosing the smallest torch made out of paper-thin polymer will be as useful an impact weapon as, say, a TV remote. It may give a bad guy an owie but is unlikely to knock him out.

The reality is that the selection of your flashlight depends more on you than on its size. Your preferences and combatives experience will inform your selection more than anything. Just as you wouldn’t use a Swiss Army Knife to baton firewood or a 338 Lapua in close-quarters combat, you shouldn’t use certain flashlights for certain techniques.

The following is a closer look at the three most common types of handheld flashlights for personal protection.

Small Lights: Generally speaking, these types of flashlights are five inches or shorter while their diameters are determined by their fuel source.

Running on AA or AAA sized batteries, they’re slim and easily palmed, making them great as fist-load weapons. These penlights add structure, and a bit of weight, to each punch, yet are carried discreetly and take up minimal pocket real estate.

On the downside, because of their limited length, they can’t be used as a baton and they’re not as effective for hammer-fist strikes (think icepick grip but with a flashlight) — especially if you have big paws. For that same reason, certain techniques such as holds, “come-alongs,” joint-locks, and joint-lock releases aren’t always possible with these tiny torches.

If you have smaller hands and a portion of the light sticks out from your fist, you could use a small light as you’d use a kubaton for a limited range of locks or pain compliance techniques.

Medium-Sized Lights: For simplicity sake, we call models 5 to 7 inches long medium-sized — the “Goldilocks” of handheld tactical flashlights on the market today, balancing capabilities with portability.

4-7: Patrick Vuong preemptively turns on his flashlight, blinding his opponent. He closes the gap, traps the bad guy’s arm, and smashes him with a hammer-fist strike to the head. Next he strikes his opponent’s throat and wedges the handheld torch under the chin to initiate a takedown.

These mid-size models typically run on AA, CR123, or rechargeable batteries. Those powered by the latter two cells generally have a slightly greater diameter, weigh a bit more, and offer more juice in several ways: provide brighter lights, longer run times, and more blunt force with each strike.

They can be held in a forward grip with the head coming out the top of your fist (um, we don’t mean that in a dirty way, we promise!) or in reverse grip (with the head coming out the bottom of your fist).

In forward (or hammer) grip, the flashlight isn’t long enough to deliver baton-like strikes. Don’t get us wrong, those two inches of aluminum sticking out the top of your fist will do some damage on someone’s noggin, but you’re just as likely to smash your knuckles on their skull, too, given how close your swing would need to be to make contact. In this grip, you’re better off with linear, thrusting strikes or using it for joint-locks, pain-compliance holds, and pressure-point techniques.

For most people with a medium-sized flashlight, it’s the reverse grip that’s the winner. It allows you to use the tool like an icepick, as you rain down blow after blow.

Or strike up if you’re lower than your attacker. Imagine you’ve been thrown to the ground or had to take a knee momentarily. Because your elbow is the hinge, you could hammer upward into the groin or chin. This icepick grip is also ideal for all sorts of locks, holds, and come-along techniques.

Large Lights: “Big” is a relative term. For some, 8 inches is standard while other men might consider that aspirational (in more ways than one). Regardless of the length of your hardware, we’ve lumped torches that are 8 inches or longer in this category.

These typically run on multiple, larger sized primary batteries, as well as rechargeable cells. The increased fuel means a big boost not only in lumens, but also in throw, runtime, and mode options.

And, more importantly for us, these beasts deliver the most blunt force trauma. The increase in weight and length gives you more range, power, and leverage to unleash punishing hits. Think of them as batons that can blind.

A big flashlight’s dimensions open up the door to a wider range of tactics and techniques. Now with several (or many) inches of aluminum extending from your fist, you can use a hammer grip like you're swinging, well, a hammer — clubbing hands, arms, heads or anything else that gets within your extended reach. And with that reach you could also thrust into eyeballs, teeth, throats, or testicles without having to step as close to the assailant.

1-6: As his assailant wrestles for control of his flashlight, author Patrick Vuong rotates his flashlight clockwise to sink in a wristlock. Then he fires a palm strike to the face and a knee strike to the ribs before finishing with a hammer-fist to the side of the head with his flashlight.

What about in reverse grip? Sure, but why not play to your strengths (in this case, length) to keep the bad guy at bay.
A large flashlight will give you an even bigger list of grappling, compliance, and pressure-point techniques. With the longer length, you get increased leverage for pins, locks, chokes, and takedowns.

Unfortunately, the pro of a bigger light is also one of its cons: size. A large flashlight will add many ounces to your loadout, will be harder to carry discreetly, and certainly won’t be as comfortable to lug around as a smaller model.

Tactics Dictate Features

A handheld torch must turn on when you need it to and stay in one piece after multiple impacts. That means an incandescent bulb inside the thin plastic head of your granddaddy’s Eveready flashlight just won’t cut it in a life-and-death situation these days.

Light Source: The defining feature of this tool is its emitter. You’ll want to make sure it’s an LED, or light-emitting diode, and not an incandescent or halogen bulb. An LED is far more efficient, producing exponentially more lumens (all the better to blind an attacker or search for dangers in the dark) while using less battery power. Plus, it’s durable, lacking a fragile filament that’ll break upon repeated impacts.

The drawbacks? An LED costs more and generates a lot of heat. But that’s why the next feature is so important.

Body: Generally, you’ll want the flashlight’s body to be made of aluminum if you plan to use it as an impact weapon. It’s lightweight, corrosion resistant, and has high heat conductivity. It’s also incredibly sturdy — let’s just say a skull will crack long before aluminum will break. Some companies add a rubber overmold for increased traction, comfort, and heat protection. If your light’s body is made of plastic, make sure it’s tough high-impact polymer, lest it crack the first time you swing it.

7-10: Holding a large flashlight in forward grip, author Patrick Vuong uses the concept of “defanging the snake” from the bladed art of Kali by smashing the hand holding the incoming knife. He immediately follows up with a backhand strike while trapping his attacker’s wrist.

Bezel: One of the most common questions about tactical flashlights is, “Should I get the one with a crenulated bezel?” A what? It’s the pointy crown on the rim of the flashlight’s head. Some striking bezels can have subtle ridges while others look like spikes for stabbing a Transformer.

Our answer? It’s best to go the subtle route. Sure, a prickly striking bezel will definitely escalate the pain factor. And it’ll puncture skin, drawing blood that could get in the bad dude’s eyes and acting as a further distraction. But it’ll also draw unwanted attention from cops and prosecutors if you’re ever in a confrontation. And while flashlights are allowed to be carried onto planes, an individual TSA agent has the authority to confiscate it if they feel it could be used as a weapon.

Remember, folks, you’re hitting with what is essentially a metal pipe, not a toilet paper roll! It’s not like your strike won’t do damage if the flashlight has a smooth bezel.

Pocket Clip: Most small and medium flashlights have a stainless steel clip allowing positioning at the top of a pocket for quick deployment. Larger lights don’t usually have pocket clips, as it’s not always practical to shove an 8-inch light into your 5-inch pocket. In those cases, holsters or pouches are available that can be worn on a belt or attached to a pack. Whatever your setup, be sure to practice your combatives with the light in the same position as you carry it.

On/Off Switch: Larger lights give you more leverage and striking power. The tradeoff is that the power button is usually closer to the head of the light. This means you need to choke up on the handle to press the button with your thumb. Be sure to practice combatives with your hands in various positions, lest you fumble the light or fail to turn it on when the adrenaline’s pumping during the real deal.

For small and medium torches, the button is usually on the tail-cap, which is a perfect place for it if you’re using a reverse grip. Your thumb can operate the light without the need to adjust your grip, so you can blind an attacker then follow up immediately with a hammer-fist strike.

Flashlight Fighting

Like any self-defense tool, a tactical flashlight should be used as an impact weapon only when you feel like you have no other option. Since your torch has a retina-searing LED in it, you have options. Here’s a general guideline for using a flashlight in a dicey situation:

Enter Search Mode: Not every bump-in-the-night problem calls for a violent solution. After all, it could just be your drunk brother stumbling in after a night of partying. Use your handheld lamp to positively identify what’s around you first.

If you’re indoors or in a confined space and not quite sure what set off your Spidey Sense, shine your light straight up at the ceiling. This will not only diffuse the light and allow you to see more of the room, it’ll prevent backsplash off walls that could inadvertently blind you.

Light It Up: If the potential threat turns out to be of the two-legged variety, you want to concentrate all your lumens on their eyes. Overload their retinas with so much light they’re forced to shut their eyelids or turn their heads. That’s why cops always blast their duty light in your face during a nighttime traffic stop; it’s not just to see what’s in your car.

Get Vocal: The next tactic is to use your verbal weapons. Use commands such as “Stop,” “Show me your hands,” and “Don’t come any closer.” With a blinding light and a commanding voice, you may be able to deescalate a tense situation or even prevent an attack before it’s launched.

An important legal note: By using verbal commands, you’re also establishing to any nearby witnesses that you’re attempting to defuse the situation and defend yourself.

1: With a large head, 1-pound weight, and 9.53-inch length, the ProTac HL 5-X USB could easily bludgeon a predator into submission. But you might not need to, considering it could blind them with its 3,500 lumens. Perhaps not quite a daily-carry tool, it can be powered by either four CR123A batteries or its included rechargeable cells.
2: By the 1990s, it seemed like every driver kept a large Maglite in their car for more than just lighting purposes. While still physically imposing with its rugged 1.4-pound aluminum body, the 2-Cell D Flashlight has a xenon lamp that puts out a meager 27 lumens.

Strobe and Strike: If neither of the aforementioned tactics improve the situation, hit the strobe mode and unload strikes immediately after. The flashing strobe may disorient as you close the gap. (Caution: Be mindful of your surroundings and possible backsplash.)

If your torch doesn’t have a strobe mode, do your best to hide your first strike by keeping the light on their eyes as you fire off thrusts, hammer-fists, and forehand swings. You can also kick their knee, thigh, or groin — which probably won’t be seen in the dark — then follow up with flashlight strikes to the head.

If you choose the forward grip, you can swing the light in an infinity-symbol pattern (figure eight turned sideways) and cover a wide area in front of you. Note, with some subtle wrist adjustments, you can still swing it effectively in an infinity-symbol pattern or thrust straight ahead while in the reverse grip — your point of contact will just be below your fist instead of above it.


It’s as clear as day — a flashlight can be more than just an illumination tool. Don’t be a bystander or a victim. Instead carry a flashlight, learn how to use it, practice your impact weapon combatives, and be the warrior holding back the darkness. Or at least be the self-sufficient adult who helps your friend find his keys.


Whether it’s a flashlight, a tire iron, or a baseball bat, having a blunt instrument can tip the odds of survival in your favor. But there are fundamental combatives rules that should never been violated.

Mistake 1: Don’t Carry.
There’s no point in spending $200 on a tactical torch if you leave it at home. It’s even useless if it’s inside your zipped backpack. Your weapon must be in your hand, or readily deployable, if you have any hope of using it in time.

Mistake 2: Don’t Get a Grip.
If you lose your grip (or your weapon) in the middle of a fight, you could die. Rain, sweat, and blood can make your flashlight slippery. There’s no such thing as too tight; a death grip is just about right.

Mistake 3: Don’t Consider Alternatives.
Before you wind up for that big swing, make sure you’ve exhausted all your other options first. Avoidance, de-escalation, evasion — all tactics you should try first if possible. And even if you’re not arrested, the injured assailant could still play the victim card and sue you later.

Mistake 4: Don’t Train.
Even if you have an impact weapon on your person, it’s almost useless if you don’t know how to use it effectively.


Patrick Vuong is the co-founder of Tiga Tactics (a combatives training and consulting company) and the former senior editor of RECOIL Magazine and its sister publications. As a self-defense teacher since 1999, he uses his diverse knowledge of fighting methods to close the wide gap between two traditionally separate warriors: martial artists and firearms enthusiasts. He’s an instructor in several systems, including the Filipino bladed art of Pekiti-Tirsia Kali. For more information, go to

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