Monthly Archives: February 2010

Surefire Alternatives: Solarforce and FiveMega

I love Surefire flashlights. Don’t get me wrong.

However, recently, I’ve found myself needing – perhaps wanting is a better term – stuff that Surefire doesn’t offer.

I’ve been using some of the following products for a few months now, and I’m pretty impressed with what they have to offer.

Before I get started, I should explain a few things.

Your average Surefire 6P flashlight uses two 3 volt lithium batteries, type CR123. It has a xenon, or incandescent, bulb designed to be powered with 6 volts.

There are batteries that are similar in size, but are actually 3.7 volts. These are sometimes called RCR123A or 16340. If you delve into the world of rechargeable batteries, make sure that you know what you’re buying. If you see a 5 digit number for a battery, for example, this refers to the size of the battery – 16mm wide, 34mm long. An 18650 is 18mm wide, 65mm long, etc. Some won’t fit in regular Surefire bodies

Furthermore, LED drop ins – or replacement bulbs for Surefire and other flashlights – are not necessarily designed for 6 volts. Some are designed for only 0.8-4.2v, or a single AA (1.5v), CR123 (3v), 14500 (3.7v), 16340 (3.7v), or 18650 (3.7v) battery. Others are designed for 3.2-9 volts, or one or two 16340 or 18650s or two or three CR123s. Still more work with 3-18 volts…you can do the math. If you decide on a drop in, be sure that you understand the minimum and maximum voltages.

FiveMega 1xAA

The first item is from a company called FiveMega. It’s a flashlight body, designed to take a single AA battery, that fits a Surefire P60 bulb and head – that is, the same as the Surefire 6P/6P LED.

It has an integrated switch – “forward clicky”, meaning that the light comes on in a momentary fashion before it clicks and stays on. After the click, it doesn’t matter if you press the button slightly, the light will stay on. With a “reverse clicky” light, the light doesn’t come on until after the “click”, at which point you can use the momentary function by pressing the button forward to turn the light off – but if you go too far forward and click it, it’ll stay off. I prefer “forward clicky”, but it’s not impossible to learn how to use a reverse clicky light for most situations.

Certain readers will be pleased to know that this body is made in the USA and is definitely of the highest quality. The body will fit VTAC and Vltor light mounts designed for Executive series Surefires. Not having a tailcap means that the light can be fixed very far forward in the mount, if necessary for your application, without worrying about preventing the cap from being rotated. On the other hand, not having a tailcap also means that one cannot “lock out” the tailcap for travel or other purposes, preventing it from inadvertant activation. That’s probably the biggest drawback to this body. You can use 1.2-15.v AA or 3.7v 14500 (14mm wide, 50mm long) batteries, depending on the bulb you choose – you’ll get a lot more brightness from the 14500 rechargeables, but you’ll generally get longer battery life from AAs. Figure on 25-40 minutes with a 14500, or 2-3 hours with a AA, depending on the drop in and the battery. With a Malkoff M30 and a AA battery, output is fairly similar to a G2 LED (80 lumens). With that same drop in and a 14500 battery, output is over 235 (honest) lumens.

Solarforce L2/L2m/L2i

I was driven to purchase the FiveMega product because it offered something “different” – AA compatibility - and that’s also what drove me to look into the Solarforce line of lights.

While most “tactical” lights are powered by two CR123 batteries, there are other batteries that offer longer runtimes, more light, or both. Also, I don’t always need a two cell light.

Solarforce L2

That’s where the Solarforce L2 line comes in. The standard L2 has a larger inside diameter than the G2 or 6P in order to allow the use of a 3.7v 18650 battery – 18mm wide, 65mm long. This is approximately the size of two CR123s end to end, but is wide enough that it won’t fit in the average Surefire. Why would you want an 18650-powered light? Well, a 3 volt to 9 volt LED drop in that will provide a lot of light for an hour with 2 123s will provide nearly as much light for over 2 hours with an 18650. In addition, 18650s are rechargeable, which will save you a ton of money in the long run over buying 3v lithiums.

Solarforce L2m (with optional extender tube for 2x123 or 18650)

That’s all well and good, you say, but what about the L2m and and L2i? Well, the L2m is designed for a single CR123 or 16340 cell (16mm wide, 34mm long, slightly longer than a CR123, and 3.7v). If a more compact size is what you desire, this is the ticket. I should mention that FiveMega also makes a single CR123 body. Sans head, tailcap, bulb, and battery, it retails for $35. The Solarforce lights – body, head, and tailcap, no bulb or battery – retail for $15. One is American made, the other is Chinese made. The Solarforce stuff isn’t made to the exact same standards as Surefire or FiveMega, but it is pretty high quality, and it’s miles better than some other Chinese lights. One caveat, however, is that the L2m head and tailcaps I have don’t fit my Surefire 9P – and of the 2 L2ms, one has a 19mm bore (for use with an extender and an 18650) and the other has a 17mm bore (meaning that only a CR123 or 16340 will fit).

Solarforce L2i

Finally, I come to the L2i. This body also accepts Surefire bulbs and heads, but takes three AAA batteries in an internal carrier. Its outside diameter is a little larger than a standard 6P, so it’s not a good weapon light, but it’s a great choice for people who may not have an interest in flashlights – and therefore not much interest in the various rechargeable batteries. 3 AAAs provide enough voltage for an XP-G drop in (claimed output of anywhere from 270 to 345 lumens) to run for about 40 minutes at max brightness, then slowly dim over a period of about 2 hours to about 5 lumens. After that, I swapped in a Malkoff M30 module, and it provided nearly max brightness. I was told that this module would run for a long time on “run down” Surefire CR123 batteries that wouldn’t even power a G2, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was still impressed.

One other impressive feature is that the L2i will actually accept single 14500 and 18650 batteries. It’s best to use the 14500 batteries with a spacer for some added length, but it’s nice to know that with one body, I could conceivably use three different types of batteries.

Hybrids/Frankenlights/”Legos”

If you want a runtime increase while still using as many Surefire parts as possible, the Solarforce L2 body is fully compatible with Surefire heads and tailcaps. You can use an 18650 body with an appropriate (4.2v) drop in and your Surefire switch for maximum reliability. Such drop ins include the Solarforce LC-1 (0.8-4.2v, $20), ThruNite XP-G (3.2v-9v, $33), or Malkoff M30 (1v-5.5v, $55). You’ll get the best runtime with the Malkoff or the LC-1, which will run all the way down to 1 volt and 0.8 volts, respectively. However, you’d have to be careful not to use them with 2 CR123 cells, as that would be instantly fatal to the drop in. The XP-G, on the other hand, will work with 3 CR123s, 2 CR123s, an 18650, or a 16340. It won’t run off a single 3v CR123; although it’s claimed to be a 2.7v-9v drop in, I’ve found that it needs one of the 3.7v batteries to work.

You can even use a Surefire P60 LED drop in with a single 3.7v battery, if you’re so inclined – but output is only about 50 lumens.

From Left: ThruNite XP-G, FiveMega AA with Solarforce LC-1, Malkoff M30

Solarforce Reversible Pocket Clip

I choose to carry my “big” flashlight on my left (weak) side, clipped inside my front pocket. I carry “bezel down”, or “button up”. In addition to them being necessary for this style of carry, I prefer reversible pocket clips. Why? Well, when they inevitably snag on something and are pulled away from the light, you can do a quick field repair with a set of pliers to return them to a useful state. When I did the same with a “one way” pocket clip on a knife, I had to replace the clip. I could have repaired it with help from a vise, I guess, but I don’t carry a vise around in my car.

Solarforce L2 with Surefire tailcap and Solarforce pocket clip; Surefire 9P with Solarforce tailcap

Solarforce sells such a reversible clip. It fits any light that uses a Surefire “C” head (G2/6P/etc). You can find them on EBay for $5, or buy them from a store in the States for $10. They seem to hold up pretty well to daily use over a few months time, but we’ll see how they are faring a year from now.

Conclusion

Is the FiveMega AA body of the highest quality? Yes. Does it have some drawbacks? Yes. However, if you think you might be limited to AA type batteries, or you want to use AA type batteries and 14500 rechargeables, you’d be doing yourself a favor by looking at it.

Are the Solarforce products on par with Surefire or FiveMega? No. Are they of surprising quality, given their origin? Yes.

Would you be doing yourself a favor by checking out these products? Most definitely.

I’ll be doing a more extensive writeup on the drop-ins described here as soon as I can.