Let There Be (Tactical) Light! We Test Five Pistol Add-Ons
We think weapon lights from Glock, Springfield Armory, and Insight Technology have their weak spots. Surefire is a sure bet.
Long before the policeman’s belt became the hardware store it is today, the flashlight was of prime importance. Illumination determined if a room was clear or occupied, inhabited by friend or foe. Today, weapon-mounted lights are leaving the flashlight behind as increasingly popular accessories.
In this test we will evaluate five different lights designed to be attached to a rail on the dustcover, the section of the frame forward of the trigger guard directly beneath the slide. Some pistols, such as the Smith & Wesson 4013 TSW we tested in our April 2005 issue, have this rail bolted on, and others have theirs machined as part of the frame. In the case of polymer-bodied pistols used in this test, the rails were integrated into the frame mold.
For this test we chose the 4-inch-barrel Springfield Armory XD chambered for .45 GAP and the .45 ACP Glock 21C. We could have tested with lesser caliber weapons, but we felt that harder-recoiling ammunition was necessary to test endurance. The 4.6-inch barrel of the Glock 21C was ported, and muzzle flip was considerably less than that of the XD pistol, which cycled faster and kicked harder. The 21C was used to get a reading on the amount of visual interference a ported barrel might introduce. We had originally intended to retrofit a pistol that did not have an accessory rail, a Sigarms P229, but the adaptor we purchased, Insight Technology part number CFL228, did not fit as advertised.
In collecting our roster of test lights we found that a number of them were actually produced by the same company. Products by Insight Technology appear under several different brand names. With one exception, we chose to test only those products sold under the Insight name. This was the $99 X-Treme Mini Lite or, XML GE5109, which is produced exclusively for Springfield Armory. The two standard-size models from Insight Technology were the M3X ($239) and the M6X ($659), the latter of which included a laser that projected a red dot independent of the lamp. Glock produces its own in-house tactical light, the GTL10, $95. The best-known name in tactical illumination is Surefire, so we included the popular Surefire X200A, $250.
Unlike a pistol test, in which we can collect hard data such as accuracy, our evaluation of these lights was more subjective. But, at their most basic, each light had to operate as intended without fail. One pitfall was the reality of battery shelf life, and we wondered if we could rely upon battery strength like we do factory-loaded ammunition.
Brightness, too, was important, and each manufacturer save for Glock supplied us with a numerical rating in lumens. But for our purposes, we used fresh batteries and rated the illumination of each unit from weakest to strongest projection.
With the cooperation of the Top Gun indoor shooting range in Houston (www.topgunrange.com), we ventured into the darkness to test these units. Here is what we learned.
Insight Technology M6X, $659
Despite its polymer construction, the Insight M6X was the biggest and heaviest unit in our test group. This was because the M6X included a powerful light and a laser module. The laser can be used with or without the lamp being turned on. In fact the activation switch located at the bottom of the unit offered three different on positions. Rotating the switch clockwise to the first position, (which was marked VIS), turned on power to the laser. The laser appeared as long as the control lever was pushed downward and held from the left side. For hands-free constant laser projection, the left side lever was moved upward. These rotations were designed to be performed by the left-hand thumb of a right-handed shooter. The left-handed shooter must push upward for momentary use of the laser and downward for constant on. We felt this was awkward.
With the control lever in the position marked ILL, these same movements produced illumination instead of the laser dot. The last position, (which showed both the markings VIS and ILL), offered both illumination and the projection of the red laser dot. The aim of the laser was adjustable for windage and elevation. The adjusting tool was carried with the unit by screwing it into place just above the lens.
The beam produced was a bright dot surrounded by a wider circle of softer light. At a distance of 12 feet we measured the most concentrated part of the beam to be approximately 4 feet in diameter. The beam was not adjustable. We rated the intensity of the light from the M6X to be second only to the Surefire X200A.
The body of the M6X unit was labeled 1913. According to a customer service representative at Insight Technologies, this referred to Picatinny specifications. Both the M6X and M3X units were supplied with two lock bars to secure them to the accessory rail. One was for use with a 1913 (Picatinny) slot, and the other was described as an ITI design. This latter designation meant it was intended for Glock pistols and should come with the letter “G” on the side, but neither lock bar was lettered. The lock bars were interchangeable by depressing the leaf spring that provided tension from underneath and sliding the bar out through either side.
No matter which lock bar we used, we could not securely fit the M6X to our Springfield Armory XD. Although putting the light on and taking it off produced sore fingers and sweat, the unit was able to shift backward slightly, but not forward. With all the trouble we had taking the M6X off the gun, we never dreamed it would come loose. But, it did, landing on the concrete floor twice. The laser unit continued to function, but the lamp ceased operation. The only visible damage was an abrasion to the control switch. We tried fresh batteries, but to no avail.
Insight Technology M3X, $239
Unlike the M6X, the Insight M3X provided illumination only. Nonetheless, we found some advantage in this unit over the M6X. First, we didn’t have to turn on a switch in advance. Otherwise, the Insight M3X operated with momentary and constant illumination just like the more expensive M6X. Also, its two 3-volt batteries were stored side by side behind the control panel. A metal clip secured the panel, which was easy to remove so long as you had something to pry it free.
Without the laser unit, the unit cost less and weighed 0.8 ounce less than the M6X. Its sleeker overall dimensions made this unit easier to carry whether placed on a belt, in a pocket, or inside a holster designed to accommodate both weapon and light as one piece. The connection at the lock bar was the same, and the inner dimension of the rail slots were supposed to be the same on each of the Insight units. Nevertheless, connection of this unit to both the Glock and Springfield Armory pistols was even tighter than in the case of the M6X.
Insight rates the M3X as producing slightly less power than the M6X, and we would agree. We ranked the M3X third among our test products in terms of intensity. The beam pattern was slightly different as well, but we still measured the central beam to cover the same amount of area as the M6X, (about 4 feet across at a distance of 12 feet). The soft flood of light that surrounded the hot focal point of the projection was bordered by a ring of brighter light at its circumference.
Despite the stubborn fit of the M3X on our test pistols, the distance between the hands and the controls seemed to be ideal. In the case of the M3X and the M6X (while it was operational), we enjoyed the way our sights were lit up by the central portion of the beam. We also found that when firing with the left-hand thumb on the switch lever, it was possible to use the momentary On while firing without discomfort or shifting unintentionally to a constant beam. We liked this because one very good technique for scanning a room and avoiding becoming a fixed target is to dot the room with a series of bursts like a flash camera, then change position.
Due to the phenomena known as persistence of vision, the human eye is able to record what it sees and hold the image after illumination has ceased. This meant we could search with intermittent flashes of light then use the beam to illuminate our sights just long enough to get the sight picture we needed. Following the shot we could release the lever and immediately cover ourselves in darkness.
Glock GTL 10, $95
The Glock GTL 10 is to our knowledge the only weapon light made in-house by a weapon manufacturer. The polymer GTL 10 was available only in black. The surface finish was textured, but slick. As favorable as this should be for a quick draw, you might find it difficult to pick one of these units up off a table top. Other attributes in keeping with the Glock philosophy were simplicity and a streamlined, snag-free design. Our other lamps, most notably the Insight products, have their profile spoiled by the locking bars that stick out, adding to overall width. The spring-loaded bar that locked the GTL 10 into place was so unobtrusive we had to wonder if it would be difficult to remove from the rail. But we found that the two lights with the least amount of access to the release points (the Glock GTL 10 and the Surefire X200A) were actually the easiest to set and remove from our test pistols.
The battery compartment on the Glock light was a small marvel of precision molding. The lock on the battery compartment was spring loaded, and the fit was Thermos-bottle tight. The batteries rode parallel with the bore but were stacked one on top of the other, producing a tall, slim profile. Controls on the Glock GTL 10 differed from our other test lights by introducing ambidextrous operation. The control bars on each side appeared the same as on the other lamps, but no matter which side you engaged the control lever from, both sides moved downward. This movement was against a heavy spring for momentary light. Overcome the spring and the lever would click into place for constant illumination.
The beam produced by the GTL 10 was not the hot, white stream we generally associate with this type of light, but it was adjustable by turning the lens. Overall we would rate this unit as being the weakest in intensity. At its tightest setting, the GTL 10 produced a somewhat uneven dot covering about 22 inches at a distance of 12 feet. But at its widest setting, we found that the GTL 10 light would completely illuminate a 20-foot-wide wall from only 12 feet. However, the dispersion of light in wide-angle mode was presented as concentric rings that resembled an archery target, with a dark spot in the middle. This made it difficult to see our sights. Also, after our first shot, the air surrounding the point of aim was filled with smoke and the light from the 21C, and the light was doing nothing more than being reflected back at us and blocking our vision. We preferred setting the lens to a more concentrated beam. This provided us with adequate illumination in the center portion of the beam to align sights and avoid peripheral glare.
Springfield Armory XML GE5109, X-Treme Mini Lite, $99
The X-treme Mini Lite, or XML, was the smallest unit in this test and the lightest. Left-side rotation of the controls (up for a constant beam and down for momentary flash) worked well.
Only one 3-volt battery was stored vertically directly underneath the mount. This battery was the CR2, which was smaller than the model 123 batteries that powered the other lamps. Access was simplest of all by pressing down on a metallic panel and sliding off the cover. A pleasant click let you know the panel was secure. The XML is more than 1-inch shorter than the other Insight products and just slightly over square with a width and height of 1.4 inches and 1.6 inches, respectively. The lens measured little more than 0.7 inch across. Weight was a mere 1.6 ounces, making pocket carry attractive if you are sure you won’t lose it. BladeTech (www.blade-tech.comor 253-581-4357) is one holster maker that offers several models from $90 that will accommodate your pistol with any available tactical light.
Given the small size of the Springfield Armory XML, it might be best to leave this unit mounted on the gun at all times. The beam produced a central spot of light that was spool shaped, with a round canopy of softer light surrounding it. Parts of this canopy were expressed as faint rings. We measured the central spot as covering about 18 inches of target area at a distance of 12 feet, but it was adjustable for a wider field of illumination. But due to the limited amount of power, we thought the tightest setting was the most effective. Although we would rate the intensity of the XML ahead of only the Glock light, we felt this unit was eminently usable. It went on and off the pistols quickly and easily, and the central beam of light worked well in illuminating the sights. However, due to the design of the battery contact, our testing was interrupted with short blackouts upon recoil. Tension on the negative pole contact consisted of pressure from a metallic leaf spring on the underside of the battery cap. This spring must have suffered fatigue, because we could hear the battery rattling around after shooting about 50 rounds of .45 GAP in our Springfield XD. This should be a simple fix, but for now it is unacceptable.
Surefire X200A, $250
Surefire has been a leader in tactical illumination since 1984 when a company called Laser Products, headed by Dr. John Mathews, was asked to supply laser aiming devices to fit the shotguns of LAPD SWAT teams. Mathews had recently patented such a device, and the request was in anticipation of the Olympic Games being held in Los Angeles that summer. In the years that followed, research and development was in direct response to the needs of law enforcement, but production of a commercially viable weapon-mounted light came years later after many changes in design.
Today, Surefire products are widely copied, but we found several significant differences that set the X200A apart from the other units in this test. First, illumination was provided by an LED, not by a lamp, bulb or filament. Further, the Surefire X200A was the only product constructed of aluminum instead of polymer. The profile of this unit was narrow and flattest top to bottom. Both the lens and the cowl surrounding the lens were unique. The lens was thick and looked as if it could provide magnification. Instead the purpose was to produce a concentrated beam that formed a diamond shape on nearby surfaces. This is the Surefire Total Internal Refection lens with a window constructed of tempered Pyrex. The leading edge surrounding the lens was faintly teeth-like in expectation of hard contact. Indeed, Surefire and other manufacturers are now selling hand-held flashlights with impact friendly front ends to increase their value as a striking weapon. Confidence in the durability of this unit was expressed by way of a lifetime warranty.
The Surefire came with two different locking bars. One was for Picatinny rails, marked with an uppercase “P,” and another marked clearly with a “U” for universal. The X200A went on and off our pistols smoothly and held fast without fail, utilizing the piece marked for universal mounting. The batteries were locked into place with a small pin that resembled a hood release found on racing cars.
One other feature that set the Surefire apart from other models was its ambidextrous operation and the ways in which the light could be activated for momentary flash. Constant beam was achieved by rotating the control lever up or down until it stopped. But brief bursts of light were at hand by pressing forward on the control lever from either the left or right side. We found that needing only to punch the lever was faster than having to push it in an arc-like motion. At the range we found a slightly different story.
The push-button action was very good for dotting the room. The beam was white hot, brighter than all the rest. The beam, which was not adjustable, covered little more than 3 feet of target at a distance of 12 feet. At this distance the returning glare was bothersome, but when we bounced the Surefire beam off the ceiling, the room was awash with light. When it came time to align the sights, a longer duration of illumination was necessary. Maintaining illumination with the forward press until the point of ignition meant getting a painful jab of the thumb-tip upon recoil. In this case we found that pressing the control with a slight rotation solved this problem.
Firing the ported .45 ACP Glock pistol, we were able to follow our sights before, during, and after ignition despite the extra blast which shot from the ports in a “V” shape beginning at center bore. When we fired the non-ported .45 GAP XD pistol, we knew there was a great deal of smoke swirling around us, but the beam of light cut straight ahead, and we were never distracted by the reflection of peripheral light.
Overall, the Surefire X200A proved to be the easiest to apply and remove from our weapons, produced the brightest light, and offered the most variations in deployment. It also provided the least distraction to the process of aim, fire and preparation to reengage.
Gun Tests Recommends
• Insight Technology M6X, $659. Don’t Buy. The combination of penetrating illumination and a high-power laser dot is very appealing. Precise fit for rapid deployment may not be an issue, but strength of mount is. The M6X stopped working after it fell off.
• Insight Technology M3X, $239. Conditional Buy. Our unit worked flawlessly and the controls were simple, but the Surefire is only $11 more.
• Glock GTL 10, $95. Conditional Buy. The strong point of the GTL 10 was its ability to illuminate a large area, but the wider the pattern, the less illumination at its center, precisely where we needed to aim. The GTL 10 did not produce the hottest beam, but otherwise this is a well-made economical package.
• Springfield Armory X-Treme Mini Lite, XML GE5109, $99. Don’t Buy. Or, don’t buy yet. The XML may be the one light in the test that due to its size would be the easiest to live with in a concealed carry package. If the manufacturer can solve the problem of inconsistent battery contact, we would rate this unit as a Best Buy.
• Surefire X200A, $250. Our Pick. This was the only product in the test with a lifetime warranty. The X200A’s mount was fast and secure, its beam was the strongest, and the controls were precise. It operated as intended in every way.
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