The Military Flashlight — Dates Back to the First World War

british factory WWI military flashlights
| July 18, 2021
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Categories: Gear

If you head “across the pond” — as they say — to the UK, you might hear someone talk about needing a “torch” when it gets dark. While to Americans that could evoke images of villagers holding burning torches as they head to meet a mad scientist — they really just mean a flashlight. Torch is simply the term they use over there, much like how the “trunk” of a car is called a “boot” and how they say “chips” when we call them “fries.”

The British simply kept the name, and this applied to military versions — also called torches, or sometimes “trench torches” as these evolved from lanterns that were used along the Western Front during the First World War. It would be hard not to think that writer/director George Lucas wasn’t influenced by those early military torches when he conceived the lightsaber because those military torches certainly look the part.

Evolution of Military Flashlight Design

While the basic civilian torches remained a long cylinder with a basic phallic shape, the British Army began to update the design. Instead of the long cylinder, it evolved into a boxy device with a lamp on one side as the original LE1 (Light, Electric, No1). It was similar in profile to bicycle lamps of the era and it remained in use throughout the early stages of the Second World War.

The torch was a little bulky, however, and soon the British copied from the German “artas” lamp of the era, which resulted in the LE4 (Lamp Electric No 4). What happened to lamps two and three isn’t exactly clear, but apparently, they didn’t pass muster.

The LE4 proved to be a reliable design. It consisted of a metal box, which featured a lens, reflector, and bulb located on the top center of the front panel. It was fitted with two colored filters that could slide over the light — one in red and one in green. That was to allow for map reading at night without impacting the user’s night vision.

“As far as I am aware the design was a good one and well-liked by all who used it, as evidenced by the fact similar torches remained in service in Eastern European militaries through until the end of the Cold War,” said Ed Hallett of University of Huddersfield, who also runs the website Tales from the Supply Depot: Collecting British Empire Militaria.

“Unfortunately like most pieces of the kit, if it worked people just used it and didn’t comment on it, it was only if it was a bit useless that they put pen to paper to moan about it,” added Hallett.

Replicas of the LE4 military flashlight are being made for re-enactors, so collectors should be wary when looking for a real one.

The American Angle Head Flashlight

The United States not only went another way — first by calling the devices flashlights rather than torches — but also in that the U.S. Army developed the angle head flashlight, also known as the TL-122.

As the name suggests, the flashlight, which was developed during World War II, featured a 90-degree angle head. It was a slightly altered version of the angle-head, brass-bodied Eveready Model 2694 Industrial flashlight, which was similar in design to the No. 2697 Boy Scout flashlight that had been introduced in 1927.

It isn’t clear exactly what the “TL” stood for in U.S. military nomenclature, but various sources suggest it could be for “Torch Light.” However, it is worth noting that War Dept. Tech Bulletins of the era, which do refer to it as a “flash light,” never use the term “torch,” while there were other TL-designations for “Tool Linesman,” so it is possible the “TL” may have been for “Tool Light.”

The design was meant to be simple, and these featured a clip that allowed the flashlight to be attached to a soldier’s web-gear while the angle of the head cast light forward of the user. This allowed the soldier’s hands to remain free to carry a weapon.

The flashlights were actually fairly light for the era — albeit heavier than what we might expect today — as these were powered by two “D” cell batteries. There were actually four versions, TL-122A through TL-122D, and a number of companies produced these in all variations including USA Lite (United States Electric Mfg. Corp. of New York), Bright Star, GITS Molding Co., and Micro Lite.

military flashlights TL-122 and TL122D

Left, the original TL-122 version of the angle-head military flashlight. Right, the TL-122D version, which featured an extended base that contained lens filters in blue/red/clear as well as a spare bulb. (Private Collection)

The first featured a brass body that was painted olive drab with blackened metal screw caps. That version also fit into armored vehicle flashlight brackets. As the U.S. military began to utilize plastic during the war, the T-122B became the first plastic version and it was introduced in 1943. It was molded in OD but the early plastic formulation resulted in it producing a bad smell and also had a waxy compound on the surface.

Original T-122A and T-122B are especially rare today, and in the case of the latter one the plastics have broken down. Surviving examples are usually extremely brittle.

The TL-122C, which was issued beginning in April 1944, improved upon the design. It addressed the smell and also was considered a more “waterproof” design. The last of the World War II variants was the TL-122D, which featured an extended base that contained lens filters in blue/red/clear as well as a spare bulb. These were first issued in late 1944 and saw use in both Europe and the Pacific.

While original TL-122C/D variants can be found, plastics that are so old are still very fragile. Reproductions of all of these have also been produced, so collectors need to be wary when offered one for sale.

There is actually more interest in these flashlights than one might expect, explained Wouter Has, who runs the website Paratrooper.be, which is devoted to the study of World War II American military equipment.

“About 10 years ago, I first published my article on these TL-122 army flashlights, never expecting to receive so much feedback on it,” said Has. “Almost every month I receive emails from collectors sending photos of new variations or asking questions about the rarity or value of their flashlight, or which type they need for a particular WWII display or mannequin. I started the article to point out some differences, between the models and manufacturers and when and where each type was used, and how to recognize replicas. Over the years, the article grew and this article and others like it about jump wings and gas detection brassards keep bringing new collectors to my website, so I meet like-minded people from around the world. Sometimes I even get questions from TV producers who need details that cannot be found in reference books or online.”

The MX-99/U and MX-991/U

The TL-122D remained in use throughout the Korean War, but the basic design of the flashlight was changed slightly by the Vietnam War. An improved plastic model was introduced as the MX-99/U — and why the designation was changed is also unclear.

SGT Ronald A. Payne using angle-head military flashlight.

SGT Ronald A. Payne (Atlanta, Ga) Squad Leader, Company A, 1st Battalion, 5th Mechanized Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, checks a tunnel entrance before entering. Note he is equipped with an angle-head military flashlight. (Public Domain)

First manufactured by GT Price, it also incorporated a second lens ring housed in the base along with lens filters in blue, red, and clear; as well as a spare bulb. It was also powered by two “D” cell batteries and featured a belt/equipment clip. The biggest change over the World War II version was that it was far more rugged, as it was made of an improved, high-impact plastic.

Subsequently upgraded as the MX-991/U — which was also known under the nomenclature “FLASHLIGHT: electric, hand, 2-cell, w/lamp and lens filter, w/o batteries, type I class A (21108) MX991-U” and NSN 6230-00-264-8261. These were produced by GT Price as well as Fulton. It was updated slightly in 1973, where a switchguard was added to prevent accidental operation of on-off switches.

The basic angle-head flashlight has changed little since. However, there are additional lens filters, including in blue, green, amber, red, blackout, and diffusion, which can be used according to the conditions.

Fulton currently manufactures the flashlight for the U.S. military. It is available in Olive Drab for the U.S. Army and United States Marine Corps; ACU digital camouflage for the Army; Grey for the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Coast Guard; Khaki/Tan for the Army, Navy, and Marines; Woodland Camo for the Army, Navy, and Marines; and Black for law enforcement and military subcontractors.

military flashlight, Fulton Industries Olive Drab

Fulton Industries continues to manufacture the MX-991/U for the U.S. military. (Fulton Industries)

military flashlight, Fulton Industries Digital Camo

Fulton Industries also produces the MX-991/U in a variety of colors as well as digital camo – since that pattern uniform has been taken out of service it is unlikely these will continue to be purchased by the military. (Fulton Industries)

The MX-991/U has also been copied by other nations, though some commercial versions may not be up to the Mil-Spec requirements. However, Fulton Industries remains the only current U.S. military contractor for the flashlight.

For collectors, finding the vintage ones could be a challenge, noted Wouter Has.

“I cannot possibly afford to collect all of the existing variations myself,” he added. “For example, with the gas detection brassards, there are only a few variations, but many different stampings inside, and I was trying to determine the meaning of these codes.”

As a result he still tries to maintain a military flashlight database for collectors to share their knowledge. “With other collectors sending me the codes on their brassards, we all get a better understanding of them.”

Read more about Duty Flashlights.

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