Blinded By The Lights: Using A Strobe Flashlight For Self Defense

A defensive firearm only does one thing: It projects lethal force at a distance. While it’s true that sometimes, even the threat of lethal force can result in a positive outcome, the fact is a gun is not a one size fits all solution for your personal safety. You need other options as well, options that are less lethal than a firearm. One of the more common choices is a tactical flashlight. As we saw in our earlier article, the amount of power one of those lights puts out can greatly hamper an attack. Now we’re going to take a look at the effects of using a strobe flashlight for self defense.

Fast Facts: Using A Strobe Flashlight For Self Defense 

  • Additional setting on many lights
  • Activated by switch settings
  • Best if used to create confusion, rather than to blind an attacker

A strobe setting is a common feature on defensive-oriented flashlights. Thirteen of the twenty lights in our recent tactical flashlight test had this feature, However, most people don’t know what that strobe function does, or how it’s meant to be used.

The Origins of Using A Strobe Flashlight For Self Defense

The idea of using a strobe flashlight for self defense began with firearms instructor and former Navy SEAL Ken Good, who was doing force on force training with military and law enforcement teams. The scenarios he taught involved teams searching through simulated maritime vessels, looking for contraband, explosives or enemy actors. He added a store-bought disco strobe light to one scenario, and the results were dramatic. The situational awareness of the teams in his scenario evaporated once the light was turned on. 

That experience led to Good working with Surefire to create some of the very first modern defensive flashlights, and it’s been a necessary function ever since. The strobe function on a self defense flashlight is typically accessed by repeatedly pressing the activation switch located on either the side or the tail of the flashlight. How many clicks and in what order varies from light to light. In addition to this, some of the lights with strobe functions, such as most Streamlight flashlights, are user-programmable. This allows you to set up the number to switch presses it takes to activate the strobe feature to your exact preference so you can access it quickly when needed. 

Using a strobe flashlight for self defense means knowing its advantages and limitations. I talked with firearms trainer and former Green Beret Chris Cypert to get an idea of how the strobe feature is used in real-world situations. 

How It’s Used In The Field 

Blinded by the light?

A super-bright flashlight shone into your eyes can be one heck of a distraction..

“I’ve found that if you’re holed up inside a dark building and a whole bunch of people are moving through the structure using the ‘flashbulb’ technique (begin moving, illuminate light briefly, extinguish light, continue moving) it is disorienting getting hit directly or indirectly with splash at random intervals from random locations. When the same technique is used with strobing lights it’s considerably more disorienting,” Cypert said. 

“Imagine rapid CQB (Close Quarters Battle) but with dozens of people activating and extinguishing strobes as they move rapidly through the house. For a guy who’s part of the assault cell, he knows where everybody is and is going and therefore doesn’t really find his strobe or teammates strobes particularly disorienting. For the dude who just woke up in his underwear, however, it’s a different story,” Cypert added.

How Effective Is A Strobe Flashlight For Self Defense

Using rapidly shifting light to obscure your movement is one way to use a strobe flashlight for self defense. That same effect can be used to distract or disorient someone in a non-lethal encounter. A bright strobe light shone into the eyes of your attacker can give you a few precious seconds to get away from the threat and make your way to safety. 

However, sometimes you’re faced with lethal rather than non-lethal force, which is where a concealed defensive pistol comes in mighty handy. We know from a previous tactical flashlight test what a bright, 1000+ lumen light does to a person’s ability to put shots on target and situational awareness. What effect, if any, does a strobe flashlight have in this sort of self defense encounter? 

Testing Their Utility 

test setup

Testing setup for our strobe test

To answer this question, we’ll set up a test that replicates a typical real-world defensive encounter. We’ll have someone shine the strobe from a Streamlight ProTac HL USB flashlight  in our eyes for one second from a distance of seven yards, and we’ll then shoot three shots at a standard USPSA target that is also seven yards away. Our testing environment will be a suburban street at night, with a streetlight approximately 50 yards away. 

For safety reasons, we’ll be using an airsoft Glock 19 in our tests rather than live ammunition. We will measure the group size of each test run and compare them against a baseline group to see the effect that a strobe flashlight had on our accuracy. 

Test Results 

First Group: 1.21 inches
Second Group: 5.31 inches
Third Group: 6.57 inches
Baseline Group: 1.69 inches

Test results

The tightness of the first group came as quite a surprise, as it actually exceeded our baseline control group. I was expecting the strobe light to be overwhelmingly bright, as the amount of lumens that Streamlight kicks out is essentially the same as the Klarus XT11 light we used in our original tactical flashlight test. This was not the case. The strobe light was distracting, but the light didn’t cause me to flinch or express shock like having 1000+ lumens hitting my eyes all at once as it did in the original test. 

The groups in the second and third tests started to open up as the repeated testing started to affect my aim. One thing this test had in common with the previous, non-strobing test is that the power of the light made accurate, aimed fire next to impossible. I was sending rounds downrange based solely off of body index and not because I was using my sights in any meaningful way. 

What’s Your Best Bet? 

Based on these results, and the input from our experts, the strobe function on your flashlight is best used before the fight is started. Use a strobe flashlight for self defense when you want to disguise your movement and to cause distractions, not to overwhelm an opponent with light. If that’s your situation, turn your flashlight up as high as it goes and shine it right in their eyes, then take whatever action is appropriate to keep you and your loved ones out of harm’s way. 

Knowing how to use a strobe flashlight for self defense is probably a good thing to learn. However, it shouldn’t be a priority for you. Learn the principles of personal defense, learn how to spot trouble before it happens and know how to apply the rules of gun safety and pistol marksmanship. Carrying a good defensive flashlight is a part of that process, but it’s not going to solve every problem you might face. Train accordingly.