Bush Craft & Wilderness Survival Articles, Gear Reviews & Videos
The Maglite XL50 - A Flashlight All-Star
by David Graves
Portable, lightweight, non-combustible illumination in the form of an electrically powered flashlight, has only been available since just before the 20th century. For almost ninety years, the basic form and function of the flashlights one would find in a mail order catalogs or hardware stores remained unchanged with few exceptions. Better materials such as stronger plastics, cheaper manufacturing processes, more efficient batteries and brighter bulbs made flashlights affordable to the general public in the 1920's. In the mid 20th century, bulbs filled with gases, such as krypton, housings made of high strength plastics and batteries with longer run times became available, making the flashlight a much more viable tool. Although choices in brightness, shape and battery types needed were few, prices were always affordable and everyone from mechanics to hunters and fisherman carried and used them daily.
In the last decade or so, a revolution in flashlight technology occurred. The incandescent bulbs that had brightened paths for nearly a century were being replaced with an item that for many years was only used in expensive electronics: the Light Emitting Diode or what we commonly call the LED. Flashlights became more powerful with greater battery life than in the past.
Only two decades ago, many companies all over the globe trying to come up with a replacement for the over century old incandescent light bulb. Research into LEDs led to long life replacements for those old bulbs that not only used a fraction of the power but produced much more light with little to no heat compared to older designs. The manufacturers of flashlights, from high end to disposable, jumped on these newly designed LEDs as soon as they were available. Within a very short span of time they were creating flashlights that ran three times longer on a set of batteries than the older style bulbs and were up to five times as bright.
Today a person looking for a flashlight has more options than ever. One of those options that will not only fill the needs of an average user but also the person whose profession relies on a quality light on a daily basis is the Maglite XL50.
The XL50 comes from a proud lineage of high quality, bright and extremely rugged flashlights made by the Maglite company of Ontario, California. Since it began in 1979, Maglite's products quickly gained a reputation as the workhorse among those who used flashlights on a near continuous and rigorous basis. In less than five years, Maglite had cornered the market on law enforcement, firefighter and military markets as well as having strong civilian sales. Although the price was just a bit on the high end, they were still affordable by almost everyone. They had indeed set the standard that all companies would try to emulate or beat for 20 years. In the XL50, that tradition still continues.
Appearing on store shelves in 2011, the XL50 was a simpler, cheaper alternative to Maglite's innovative XL100. It is nearly five inches in length and an inch and diameter, making just about the right size for most adult hands. It weighs 3.68 ounces and is powered by 3 AAA batteries that are held in the light in a plastic "cartridge". There are three different modes available (100% power, 50% power and a very fast strobe). These modes are activated by a simple to use tail cap switch. The front lens and reflector arrangement can be turned to focus the beam from a very tight "spot" to a "flood" light quite easily. I usually leave this to the spot setting, since the light has a lot of "spill", or residual light, that funnels out like a cone and is usually enough for the light to pick up objects on the periphery of an area quite easily. The light is rated at 104 lumens of brightness, although newer models that have recently started to appear on the market are said to be rated at 149 lumens, both a pretty high rating for a light of this size. As a comparison, those bright, bluish halogen bulbs found in many cars have a brightness rating of about one hundred lumens. The body, tail cap and reflector/LED housing are milled from high strength aluminum with four sets of longitudinal grooves that provide a decent grip. Prices vary from $25 to $30, which to some may seem a bit high, but it does come with three Duracell AAA batteries in the package, saving you about $6. Unlike the MiniMag light of old it does not come with a carrying holster. There are also a number of color options available.
In my opinion, compared to LED lights of higher price points (some of which I own), the XL50 is rates right up there with those flashlights. It provides high-end performance with a reasonable price. The XL50 may not have the same feel or "cool" look to it as some other high end brands, but the performance is solid. As a matter of fact, I was once berated a bit by a dealer of high quality/high price point lights for carrying an XL50 over a light he carried that cost four times what I paid for the XL50. I am not sure how his light is holding up; but after almost two years of reliable service, my XL50 is working great. I finally had to change the original batteries out this summer after the light was starting to lose a bit of brightness.
I have used the XL50 quite a bit as my every day carry, or, EDC light. I have carried different lights on many occasions, but I seem to fall back on this one for my high powered flashlight needs.
There are several features of the XL50 that make it a great bang-for-the-buck choice:
1) Price. Around $25 for a good quality light is money well spent. If one shops around and includes online retailers such as Amazon.com, lower prices are possible. However shipping prices sometimes more than make up for any savings you may find. After using an XL50 for a while, one might look at some of the other high end brand’s prices and wonder why they charge such sums.
2) Size. I think the overall size is just about perfect. It is not too big but just big enough. This may sound strange but if you buy an XL50 you will understand. It fills the hand nicely. It is small enough to fit in the pockets of my insulated hunting coat or the orange safety vest we are legally required to wear here in Michigan during firearm deer season, yet it is big enough to be found in those pockets without too much fumbling around, especially with cold fingers. Oh, by the way, if keeping it in a pocket in cold weather, a disposable hand warmer in said pocket with the XL50 will keep the light's batteries warm, making sure you will have full power when you need it most. I have also found military surplus ALICE pack M1911 double pistol magazine pouches work dandy for a holster for the XL50.
3) Ease of use/Brightness. Point the light, hit the tail switch and one has all the light needed, more than enough for most situations. At 104 lumens, one can see a long way, illuminate a huge area and not be dazzle blinded and loose night vision. I have used 200 or more lumen rated lights in the deep dark of the north Michigan woods and the amount of light was truly overwhelming. While the 149 lumens output of the newer models of XL50 is quite a bit more, I think I could live with it without much problem. This is an easy light to use since the tail cap is easy to find by touch and the tail switch is not hard to activate, but is stiff enough so it will not turn on when stored in a pocket.
4) Overall build quality and ruggedness. Maglite products have a reputation of being tough, solid and nearly impossible to damage to the point of the light still functioning even when abused. I have seen videos of police officers smashing car windows with their 3 "D" cell Maglites with the light turned on and still shining. My XL50 rode in one of the narrow outside pockets of my cargo shorts for over a year during my stint as a parts shipping clerk for a small manufacturing company. At least twice a day, my XL50 would smack hard against the steel uprights of heavy duty shelving units as I squeezed my svelte frame through, hard enough to make those stanchions ring like a bell. My XL50 is the gunmetal gray colored version (so I could tell my XL50 and my XL100, which is black, apart) and there is slight wear on the tail cap on reflector assembly from taking so many hits. It has dropped onto the concrete after all that, it still works.
5) Easy to find batteries. Triple A batteries can be found everywhere. I have even found top end Duracels at a gas station 30 miles from the nearest town. I have use cheap store brand batteries, Ray-O-Vacs, etc. in this light just to see what ran the best after the original Duracels ran dry. The only difference was run time. The cheaper the battery, the shorter it lasts. So far Duracel has my vote, while Energizer Lithiums come in a close second. Most modern high end brand lights use the C123 lithium cell batteries. These do have a very high output and in LED lights can have a very long run time and up to a 10 year shelf life if kept in original packing. Trying to find these in Uncle Ed's general merchandise shop in middle of Wyoming might be tough. The price of the C123's can also be over two dollars a battery, a big consideration if one wants an easy to find power source.
And now some of the things I think are flaws with the XL50. Flaws? Bad features? Since nothing is perfect and this is a critique of this product, albeit one I know well, I can honestly say there are some things that I think could have been better with this light.
1) Plastic lens. As tough as the rest of this light is, the plastic lens and reflector are made of plastic. I scratched the lens the first day I owned it by trying to clean dust from it with a cotton t shirt. While the marks are not severe, it seems like tempered glass would be a better choice. I could see loose change or other objects in a pocket or pack really doing a number on this lens and reducing its full brightness potential. Of course, this would have brought the price up a bit, which is something Maglite wished to avoid. I can see why this was done but feels it cheapens the unit. As an after-market modification, the plastic lens may be replaced with a glass unit using Mag Instrument part #108-617.
2) Changing Modes. One has to be quick to change the modes on this light… quick like a cat. Push the button once and one has a powerful light. If one wants to extend the battery life they might click down to the 25% mode. However if not done correctly the light shuts off. This also occurs when switching to the strobe function. The tail switch has to be clicked twice within a half second to get to the low power mode, three for the strobe. A slightly different internal set up that allows a slower time between mode changes would have been preferable. A possible improvement is what is called a "soft click". This is just a touch of a tail cap switch, not a full click of the switch and the mode will stay active until the switch is touched again. The XL50's switch must be fully engaged to cycle trough modes, a bit of an inconvenience. One small thing to mention here is the strobe flashes much too fast. While doing some distance tests, past 150 yards, the strobe blinked so fast that it could not be perceived as flashing but looked like a continuous beam. Again, I think this switch served in keeping the price of the unit down.
3) Batteries. AAAs are easy to find and good quality ones are not too pricey. However, this light takes three, an odd number. Six packs of AAA size batteries are available, but what happens to the other three? If lost in a drawer for long they are dead and a waste of money. Most of the AAAs found in far off places are in four packs, leaving a stray behind. If one is an organized person keeping extra batteries ready is not a problem. I think most of us fall into that other category.
4) No Carry Holster. I remember my first Mini Maglite; two AA batteries, a set of different colored lenses and a black nylon belt holster in a gift package. I consider it my first real quality light. Granted, the holster was not a great design, but they were tough and the light was there when you needed it. Even Maglite's three AA cell LED versions of the Mini Maglite came with a holster and they still come do. Alas, none for the latest generation of Maglites powerful lights. It took me a while to find a decent belt pouch for the XL50.
Even with these few flaws, the XL50's positive aspects outweigh the negative ones. For the price, you could by two or three lights of lesser quality that will work... but for how long? I have owned and used those cheaper lights and have been disappointed many times. They say when you buy something of good quality, you only cry once. After having bought some high end lights for my collection, I don't think I even did that when I bought my XL50. But after two years of some rugged use, I know I have not cried about having a light that didn't work when I needed it.
Do you have your own tip to share?
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