As technology for the hunting and shooting markets continues to evolve, we are always looking for the next advantage when we settle down behind our rifle. Within the last 30 years, there have been some amazing leaps in night vision technology that have become available to the civilian market.
Thermal imaging systems have become increasingly accessible to the average shooter, and they have never been better than they are right now. If you are looking to own the night, whether you are hunting or outfitting your personal protection firearms, the best thermal scope are the next logical step in outfitting your system.
- Why a Thermal Scope?
- How to Choose a Thermal Scope?
- Our Recommendations for Thermal Scope
- 1. Sig Sauer Echo 1
- 2. Pulsar Thermion XM
- 3. Armasight Zeus 640
- 4. ATN Thor 4
- 5. ATN Thor HD 640
- 6. Pulsar Helion XQ
- 7. FLIR Thermosight Pro PTS223
- 8. FLIR Scout TK
- 9. ATN Thor LT Thermal Rifle Scope
- 10. Armasight by FLIR Predator 336
- 11. FLIR R-Series RS64 1.1-9X Riflescope
- 12. Pulsar Core RXQ30V 1.6-6.4×22 Thermal Riflescope
- 13. Pulsar Core Thermal Monocular
- 14. Armasight Zeus 336
- 15. Trijicon Teo-Reap IR Mini
- Reputable Thermal Scope Manufactures
- How Does Thermal Imaging Work?
- Cooled VS Uncooled Thermals
- Legality of Thermal Scopes
- How to Zero Your Thermal Scope?
- Thermal VS Night Vision
- Stand-Alone Scope, or Clip-On System?
- Thermal Scope or Monocular?
- Tips for Hunting with a Thermal Scope
- Thermal Scopes FAQ
- Final Verdict
Why a Thermal Scope?
As the technology has continued to evolve for thermal scopes, and thermal imaging systems in general, there are several different types and models of systems to consider. Before you make your purchase, you should consider what you plan on using your thermals for to help guide your decision.
Many hunters are turning to thermal imaging systems to help gain an edge over their game of choice. Many predators are primarily active at night, and without some way to enhance the ability of the hunter to see during times of limited illumination he or she is likely to miss out on the best times to hunt this type of game. Thermals also help hunters of wild hogs; as many states consider these animals a nuisance there are often very high bag limits and using the cover of darkness to help conceal yourself will often greatly enhance your abilities to get within range of your game.
Outfitting a tactical rifle with a thermal scope also gives you an advantage. Whether you are preparing for day without rule of law, you are looking to emulate a military rifle system, or you are an armed professional who needs an advantage over your potential adversaries in the dark you will find multiple options on what thermal device will best fit your needs. Tactical systems often become more restrictive than sporting systems as weight, size, and batteries all become a much more important factor to consider when you might find yourself on a two-way range.
Of course, budget is a concern when looking into any type of night vision or thermal device. Due to the advanced electronics required to run these systems, they do require a higher budget than most traditional rifle optics. While you are free to spend thousands of dollars on your thermal scope, there are more budget friendly options available. Make sure you do your research though, as going with a less expensive option will usually mean that some features or capabilities will be omitted to save on cost.
Whether using your thermals for sporting or professional purposes, use the following to help guide your way through what can be a bit confusing for the uninitiated. While thermal scopes are somewhat more obscure than traditional rifle optics, the manufactures are eager to get their products into your hands and there is a wealth of information available to help you find the perfect product for your needs.
How to Choose a Thermal Scope?
Thermal scopes can range in magnification power from 1x up to 16x or even higher. Consider the ranges that you plan on shooting at, and keep in mind that most thermal scopes are not going to be reliable for shooting beyond 300 yards. The further you zoom in on your target, the smaller your field of view becomes as well; this begs to reason the value of zooming in beyond 3x at that coyote 150 yards away.
The magnification on thermal scope could also be either digital or optical. Digital zoom will be likely to cause a less clear image at when used, so keep in mind that maximum power magnification might not give you the best picture as a shooter. Determine how far you plan to be shooting, and how clear you need your image when determining how far you need your thermal scope to zoom in.
The screen resolution and refresh rate might be one of the most important features of the thermal scope. No matter how great the sensors are, and how far your scope can zoom in, if the image you see is not crisp and clear your scope may not be effective for your purposes.
Higher refresh rates and increased screen resolution will help to create a crisper and clearer image for the shooter. Some thermal scopes will also have software built in that will help to smooth the pixilation caused by slower refresh rates or high levels of digital zoom. Keep in mind how clear the image presented to you will be when selecting your thermal scope.
When considering the impressive technology built into modern thermal scopes, it can be easily forgotten that you will have to carry the thing around with you in the field. A lighter weight scope will be easier to carry through the wilderness and easier to keep on target when firing off hand. Heavy scopes may be more durable and have more features built into them, so you will need to consider what is important to you as a shooter, and how you plan to use the scope. If you are looking to outfit your SWAT team, it is unlikely that you will be carrying your rifle and scope for hundreds of yards so a heavier scope might not be a concern whereas the coyote hunter could be walking over a kilometer through the forest before he gets to his vantage point.
There are a lot of thermal scopes that have a ton of extra features built into them to make your job easier when taking the shot. Laser range finders, GPS units, recording software, on-board compasses, and gyroscopes can all be used to make you a more accurate marksman. All these features usually come at a cost. If you don’t plan on taking shots at ranges beyond 150 yards due to thick vegetation where you hunt, you might not see the value in a built-in laser range finder or gyroscope. Think about the features you need VS the features you want when determining just how advanced you need your scope to be.
Our Recommendations for Thermal Scope
Jumping into thermal optics and owning the night is exciting and will give you an edge on your peers and your target, and you are ready to join the elite group of night warriors. There are still a lot of options and questions that you might have when looking through online forums and retailers; we have put together a handful of our favorite thermal devices to help you on your journey. This list is not a comprehensive catalog of all the available thermal scopes you might be interested in, but it is a list of our favorites for a variety of categories that we think will help you find what you are looking for regardless of your specific needs or desired features.
1. Sig Sauer Echo 1
The Echo 1 thermal sight from Sig Sauer is a less expensive way to get into thermal sights for your rifle or shotgun. The size and shape of the optic are somewhat unconventional in when compared to other thermal sights in the market, which is sometimes refreshing to see that a company is truly working a product from the ground up instead of ripping off their competitors. This sight has a 2x zoom and is weather resistant. The refresh rate of the screen is slightly slower than many of the other options on this list, but that helps keep the cost down.
This sight is uncooled, so you will not have the clearest possible picture on the screen, but the benefit is that there is no cool-down time for the sight to start showing an image. The optic is easy and intuitive to use and does have many of the options you would expect on a higher end model including multiple different color options for the screen to help you get the image you prefer when in the field. Due to the low cost, and ease of use, this is our highest recommended budget friendly thermal scope.
2. Pulsar Thermion XM
If you are looking to get the best bang for your buck, you get a ton of value with this Pulsar product. The scope is one of the few that resembles the size and shape of a traditional rifle scope. This means that mounting it to your rifle will be a breeze as it uses any 30mm scope rings to attach to your firearm. Not only is this scope good looking and easy to mount, but it has an excellent refresh rate, one-shot digital zeroing, and 14 different reticles for you to choose from. 8x digital zoom allows for a very comfortable magnification level for hunters and target shooters.
The scope will also connect to your smart device for recording and extra features such as picture-in-picture zoom. The scope also can record shots internally, and recording is triggered by recoil which makes for a no hassle additional feature that isn’t had on lesser models of thermal scope.
The scope uses rechargeable batteries and is IPX7 rated waterproof. It weighs less than two pounds, which is very similar to the weight of a traditional scope. This is a very versatile thermal scope that will find itself at home on any number of hunting rifle whether you are new to thermal devices, or a seasoned veteran.
3. Armasight Zeus 640
Armasight is a subsidiary company owned by FLIR, so these folks know what they are doing with thermal optics. This scope can zoom in up to 24x and has digital zoom up to 8x. The 60 Hz refresh rate is among the fastest in the industry, meaning that pixilation is completely removed in all but the most extreme zoomed in positions. Multiple color palates for the view finder mean that you can fine tune the visible image to best suit your preferences and the conditions, no matter what they might be. This scope also offers six different reticle patterns to suit your needs.
This sight is built to military grade specifications with an all-aluminum, CNC machined, one-piece body and extra tactical features, such as a shutter over the screen to prevent light backsplash onto your face. US construction, excellent warranty, and wireless remote capabilities, in-camera and remote recording capabilities, and a no-longer-than three second turn on time make this a prime candidate for extreme hunters, SWAT teams, and military grade applications. This might be the most technologically advanced piece of equipment on this list.
4. ATN Thor 4
This is another thermal scope that is similar in form factor to a traditional rifle scope, so you can use your preferred mounting system and rings for this one. One of the exciting things about the Thor 4 is the fact that the computer can calculate your ballistic solutions for you, taking all the guess work and math out of the equation for the shooter.
While many other thermal scopes are capable of recording internally and externally, ATN took things a step further and has included the ability to record directly to an SD card in HD which will take a ton of hassle out of duplicating or backing up your recordings.
A giant benefit of the Thor 4 is the low power consumption; it is advertised that this scope will give the user 16 hours of uninterrupted use before a battery swap is required, and this is almost unheard of in the world of thermal optics.
A dual core processor helps to smooth out any pixilation, and you can expect a smooth 50 frames per second refresh rate in the view finder. With all the features packed into this scope, we think hunters will love using this on their next adventure.
5. ATN Thor HD 640
This is a military style thermal scope from ATN that is marketed towards the hunting crowd. Though the target audience for this product is the hunter, we think that this scope would be right at home with SWAT teams or other armed professionals. The scope offers an integral picatinny rail mounting system and has a very intuitive button layout to offer the shooter maximum control without ever lifting his or her face from the view finder. An optional wireless remote can make adjustments when behind the scope even easier. Battery life is advertised as up to eight hours, but some users report even better performance.
This scope offers up to 50x zoom, built in range finding, automatic ballistic calculations, HD recording with SD card capability, and Wi-Fi streaming to nearby mobile devices, and even an on-board GPS. Tons of features in this scope give you the edge you want when you are in the field. Durable construction, shock and waterproof, and less than three pounds, it’s hard to believe that ATN can cram all of those features into a scope for this price point.
6. Pulsar Helion XQ
For those of you who would prefer a high quality monocular over a standalone rifle scope, Pulsar has maybe the best options available on the civilian market. For those who want a professional grade thermal device, but don’t need something attached to the rifle, this is the right product for the job. With thermal detection up to 2,000 yards away, 8 GB of onboard memory for video recording, IPX7 waterproof rating, and built in Wi-Fi capability, this imaging device is packed full of the features you need whether you are outfitting your SWAT team or scouting for wild game.
The screen on this thermal device has a super-fast refresh rate of 50 Hz, and the display is made of a frost resistant AMOLED screen. This is the same type of screen built into the highest priced smartphones, giving you the best possible picture in your thermal device making your hunt more successful even in temperatures below -25 degrees Celsius. The optic also comes with an eight-hour rechargeable battery supply to keep you in the field longer.
7. FLIR Thermosight Pro PTS223
FLIR offer some of the crispest and clearest pictures available in thermal optics today. This sight is an affordable and compact rifle scope that gives you the ability to zero in on your targets whether day or night. The ultra-fast 60 Hz refresh rate further helps to boost the image quality of this optic and cut any pixilation to nil. For deer hunting, scouting, or even professional use, this scope is well suited to the job.
Even at this price point you are still going to get up to 2.5 hours of video recording with multiple available color palates and reticle options, as well as a built-in range finder. One of the best features in this scope is the weight; at less than 1.5 pounds, this scope is lighter than some traditional scopes which will help keep you in the field longer and ready to take that shot when you don’t have time to wait for perfect conditions.
8. FLIR Scout TK
For those who want to get into a quality thermal device, but are having trouble justifying the cost, this is the product for you. The FLIR Scout makes top quality thermal vision more accessible than it has ever been before.
This is a pocket sized thermal monocular that will help you scan for game with intuitive controls, and a full range of color palate options on your screen. With a five-hour battery life, this is a simple, easy, and inexpensive way to get thermal optics for beginners.
9. ATN Thor LT Thermal Rifle Scope
If you are looking for an affordable, entry level thermal scope to get into predator hunting with, this model breaks the mold for what budget thermal scopes are supposed to be. With some of the hunter-friendly features such as a 30 mm tube size, extra-long 10-hour battery life, super lightweight, and one-shot zero this scope was built from the ground up for the hunter.
This scope will be missing some of the features you would expect in higher priced models, but ATN cut the frills on this scope to make sure you can own the night on your next hunt. With white or black hot options only, and no recording options, this scope will serve the hunter well without some of the extras.
10. Armasight by FLIR Predator 336
FLIR also offers a great, lightweight option for predator hunters. This scope gives us many of the great features we expect from FLIR products such as high-speed AMOLED screens, a full palate of color options, multiple reticle options, and fast turn-on times. This scope was designed for the hunter with its compact size and overall weight of less than 1.5 pounds.
This is an uncooled device, but FLIR states that cool-down time will be less than three seconds. The scope is also made of a single piece of CNC machined aluminum which will help give you the confidence that you can take your investment into the most rugged terrain and miserable weather without worry about whether your scope can hold up or not.
11. FLIR R-Series RS64 1.1-9X Riflescope
At this point it should be no surprise that another FLIR product makes our list. As one of the world-wide leaders in thermal technology, FLIR has created their R-series scopes with the hunter in mind. With up to 16x zoom and an ultra-crisp and clear viewfinder, you will have no trouble reaching out to pick off hogs from a safe distance where they are unlikely to even know they are being watched.
With a compact design, a simple control layout, and tons of features like multiple color palates and reticles, this scope will be right at home on any hunting rifle up to .308 caliber, so it will have no problem with the common .223 or 300 Blackout rounds. Not to mention the 10-year warranty, letting us know that FLIR is going to stand behind this product and keep you in the field for years to come.
12. Pulsar Core RXQ30V 1.6-6.4×22 Thermal Riflescope
As Pulsar makes their thermal scopes primarily for the civilian market, it should come as no surprise that they have another option that is recommended for the hunter. This scope is full of all the high-end features that Pulsar puts on their flagship models such as contrast presets, picture-in-picture zoom, external power supply capability, one-shot zeroing, and a built in laser range finder. With 8x zoom, this scope is designed to get you on target when the target has no idea you’re even there. The AMOLED screen also refreshes at 50 frames per second, keeping that target clear and crisp.
13. Pulsar Core Thermal Monocular
For those who wish to use their traditional scope during daylight hours, or even those who want to move their thermal scope between rifles, this is the optic you are looking for. The optic is IPX7 rated for water and dust proof capabilities. One of the cool features that Pulsar dropped into this scope is a group of presets for contrast to help you clear up your image depending on the terrain you are scanning.
This scope will give you the flexibility to use thermals when you want or use the device just as a monocular. Regardless of your states hunting laws, or your needs, this thermal device has a place in your system.
14. Armasight Zeus 336
Another version of the Armasight Zeus makes the list for many of the same reasons as the first. This scope for AR-15 gives the user tons of excellent features found on higher priced models including multiple color options for the screen, multiple reticles, FLIR thermal technology, optional external battery, and a CNC machined aluminum body. This scope also offers recording features and optional wireless remote-control operation.
Where this scope saves costs when compared to the 640 model is in some of the tech inside. The refresh rate of the screen is 30 Hz, which is not as fast as some of the top-end models you’ll find on this list. The thermal sensors are also uncooled in this model. These two concessions are the primary cost for the cost savings, because the scope does offer all the same options and rugged durability you will find on the 640 model.
While we stated earlier that the two cost-saving concessions will cause the user to have a less clear and crisp view, Armasight has made some strides to rectify this without increasing costs. Digital Detail Enhancement is an automatic sharpness control built into the software of this scope that corrects pixilation and distortion, allowing the user to still have a great image of their target without paying the high price tag of some other models. Here are more options for AR 15 Night Vison Scope.
15. Trijicon Teo-Reap IR Mini
If you are familiar with the military issued AN/PAS13 system, you will find yourself right at home with this product from Trijicon with a few extra features. Just like everything Trijicon seams to touch, this scope is rock solid durable and build to withstand the abuse expected in a combat zone. This scope both looks like an AN/PAS13, but the control layout is similar as well which will help users with the intuitive navigation through the options.
While you will see many options that would be expected at this higher price point like a cooled system, super-fast refresh rate, built in rangefinder, and multiple reticles, there is one feature that we haven’t seen elsewhere. A special “Edge Detect” mode will create an outline of targets you find down-range to help highlight them and cut down on eye-fatigue by not blasting your eyes with bright light when looking at a target-rich environment. If you are an armed professional or somebody looking to keep a military style rifle handy, this is the way to go.
Reputable Thermal Scope Manufactures
There are many companies on the market that are making thermal imaging systems and rifle scopes; some have been creating high quality products for decades, and others make cheap products to take advantage of the increasing popularity of thermal scopes. Due to the relatively high cost of thermal scopes, when compared to other shooting accessories, it is important that you protect your investment buying purchasing a product from a reputable manufacture. Here are some of the more popular manufactures in the market.
American Technology Network Corp ( ATN )
More popularly known as ATN, this company has been producing night vision and thermal imaging products since 1995. ATN has some of the best 4K resolution screens available in their products, and they take pride in the fact that their scopes can take on the roles required for enthusiasts, law enforcement, and military alike. It is also of note that the internal batteries they use in many of their scopes offer a battery life of over 16 hours on one charge, which is very impressive for thermal imaging scopes.
FLIR has been making thermal imaging systems for over 50 years. This company is well known in the military circles as they produce many of the imaging systems used by multiple branches of the armed forces. They also have a strong reputation working with first responders and law enforcement. This is a company that does not necessarily focus on making rifle scopes, but all things thermal imaging related including products like the FLIR One Gen 3, a thermal imaging camera that attaches to your smartphone. With over five decades of experience they have gotten very good at it.
Pulsar is a company that is dedicated to the consumer market. While they boast professional grade quality, they are more concerned with making products for the hunter, outdoorsman, or conservationist than the soldier. This means that instead of modifying or adapting military products to the consumer, they are building their products from the ground up with the hunter’s needs in mind.
While Trijicon is best known for their military grade optics, their thermal scopes are built with the consumer in mind. From a brand with as much clout as Trijicon when it comes to rugged durability and excellent quality, you would be right to expect no less from their consumer grade electronic sights. While their thermal optics are built with the consumer in mind, Trijicon claims that these products are competitive for use with today’s military.
While this is not by any means a comprehensive list of manufactures that can be trusted in the field of thermal imaging scopes, these are some of the best-known names in the industry. Don’t be afraid to research else where and check out other reviews, but if you find yourself in doubt you can rest assured that circling back to one of these brands will leave you in good hands.
How Does Thermal Imaging Work?
Every object or living being that has a temperature above absolute zero emits a certain amount of infrared radiation. This is because as molecules heat up, they vibrate against each other and create heat through friction. The warmer something is, the more infrared radiation it emits. While this infrared radiation is not detectable by the human eye, it is possible to use sensors to detect the amount of infrared radiation given off by anything with the temperature above absolute zero. While we cannot see infrared light, we can actually detect it with our skin; the heat you feel on your skin in the sunlight is actually infrared radiation from the sun.
Infrared radiation is not unlike visible light that our eyes use to tell us what colors we see every day. The difference is that infrared light is transmitted at a wavelength that we are unable to detect with our eyes. Some animals, such as certain snakes, can detect infrared radiation that allow them to be effective hunters during the night. Thermal imaging systems work in a similar way to detect this radiation.
While many thermal imaging systems might look similar to a traditional camera, they are far different in the way they work. Glass is not a good conductor of thermal radiation, so instead of glass lenses thermal imaging systems will use a lens made of an expensive metal called germanium. This metal conducts the thermal radiation to a detector, and that information is then sent to a series of sensors inside the camera. These sensors will decode the information and present it on a screen in the form of an image we can see that represents the thermal signature of the objects in front of the camera. lens of a thermal imaging system does not conduct rely on light from the visible spectrum to operate, no ambient light is required for the camera to create an image.
Cooled VS Uncooled Thermals
Cooled thermal devices offer many benefits that you will not get from their uncooled counterparts. First, they offer much greater optical clarity. Because they are able to refresh faster, they can give the view much clearer images, this especially obvious with moving images. Cooled thermal devices will also cut down greatly on the thermal noise that is seen in the screen, giving the viewer a generally clearer view of pretty much anything they may be looking at.
Cooled thermals are vital in industrial thermal devices because without cooling the sensors, they cannot be accurate enough to give accurate readings such as temperature. Because cooled thermals are more accurate and precise, this will also help the hunter in identifying targets at further ranges, or through brush.
With all the benefits of cooled thermals, one might ask why they should even consider an uncooled thermal device. There are a couple of reasons that you might want to go with uncooled. One reason is that cooled thermals have very precise moving parts that are lubricated with helium that slowly leaks out past the seals; cooled thermal devices require service every 10,000 hours of use or so. Another reason is cost. Uncooled thermal devices are generally much less expensive, and if you are just dying to get your hands on a thermal scope but don’t want to pay over $1,000 this might be the route for you.
Legality of Thermal Scopes
There is a misconception that thermal imaging systems are only for military and law enforcement use, but the truth is quite to the contrary. There are actually hundreds of commercial uses for thermal imaging systems, particularly in the trades. In fact, as of current date, there is only one state in the US that has laws banning the ownership of thermal rifle scopes; according to this law it is illegal to own any type of scope that attaches to a firearm and electronically enhances the shooter’s ability to locate targets at night. If the optic does not mount to the rifle, it is currently still legal to own and use in California.
This means that outside of California, it is perfectly legal to use thermal scopes for target shooting. Hunting legality is a whole other can of worms. There are no federal regarding the use of thermal scopes on firearms or in any hunting application, but many states do have laws against hunting with thermal or night vision scopes. Roughly half of the states in the US do allow hunting at least some game with thermal imaging systems, so do your research to ensure you are within the law before you take your thermals to the field for hunting.
While most states don’t outright let you use thermal scopes for any type of game you wish, many do allow them for predator hunting and game that is considered a nuisance. This is mostly due to the incredible advantage thermals and night vision give the hunter over the wild game. Some of the most commonly hunted animals with night vision or thermals are coyote and wild hogs; since these animals often have high or no bag limits, conservation is less of a concern for state officials responsible for managing populations and laws become less restrictive.
To be clear, there is no federal law limiting the use or ownership of thermal scopes, but you will need to check your local regulations before mounting one to your rifle or taking it to the field on your next hunt. As technology continues to advance, so do laws and regulations so stay informed and up to date so that you will remain on the right side of the law.
How to Zero Your Thermal Scope?
When you consider zeroing, or sighting in, your thermal scope you might realize that looking at a traditional target will leave scratching your head. While the visible light spectrum makes a regular paper target great for sighting in most scopes, it will simply look like a flat sheet through a thermal scope. If you have a target that has extreme contrasting colors, such as black and white, and the sun is hot enough you might be able to pick up the difference between black and white on your target but this will probably be more challenging than you really need to bother with when there are easier ways. You need a way to create a different heat signature on the target to zero your scope onto. There are a couple of different methods of doing this.
One way is to use a metallic tape. Aluminum tape can be found at most hardware stores and will hold heat differently than paper or cardboard. By placing a cross of aluminum tape on a piece of paper, cardboard, or plywood will allow the shooter to see the cross and give a specific aiming point. If you cannot find metallic tape, or you are still having trouble seeing the tape on the target, a chemical handwarmer taped to the target can give a very identifiable aiming point to zero onto.
Sighting in a Thermal Scope
If your target is attached to a dense material, such as plywood, you can also easily spot your hits on the target from your scope. The point that bullet penetrates the wood will cause a small hot spot that will be visible for several moments, and this will give you the opportunity to make adjustments to your scope without ever leaving your seat to find your impact. Depending on the reticle on your scope, and the distance you choose to zero your rifle at, you could be able to complete your zero in as little as two rounds.
Thermal VS Night Vision
While night vision may be less expensive and seem similar to thermal imaging systems, there are benefits found with thermal scopes that cannot be attained elsewhere. Thermal scopes are not reliant on the amount of ambient light available, so they will work equally well whether there is moonlight, daylight, or no light available. For those looking to justify the cost difference, the day night versatility of the thermal is one of the selling points. Even when conditions are perfect for night vision systems to work, it can be difficult to pick out targets when there is brush or fog obscuring the view. Thermal scopes do not have a problem seeing though either of these visual impairments. In fact, when searching for live targets, the targets will often stand out even more when there is smoke, fog, or brush present and obscuring the target; targets tend to almost glow through obscurations like fog, whereas they would be completely masked through night vision.
Thermal scopes also have the ability to help the shooter easily pick out most targets, even when visibility is at it’s worst. Live targets will always be emanating a certain heat signature, at non-living targets will absorb and hold heat from the sun or retain cold from the night. Even cold targets will hold a uniform heat signature that will cause them to stand out from their surroundings. The ability to change between white-hot or black-hot features will further assist the shooter in identifying targets. Night vision does not give the shooter any feedback on changing temperature conditions, and both live and non-live targets will look similar through a night vision scope. Night vision will rely heavily on shadows to differentiate objects, giving the shooter a much less dynamic picture than thermal offers unless conditions are perfect.
While night vision does rely on a certain amount of ambient light to function properly, too much light will make the system ineffective or possibly even damage some of the sensors. Since thermal imaging systems are completely based on sensors that detect heat, the amount of ambient light will have zero effect and thermal systems can be used during the day. This means that thermal systems can be used in heavy fog or smoke conditions, or even when just looking through the forest for a target. Even during daylight conditions, wild game often blends into the forest and thermal imaging will give the hunter an incredible advantage.
Thermal Sight Pros and Cons
- Day or night use
- Immune to smoke or dust
- Does not require ambient light
- High cost
- Heavier than alternatives
- High power/battery consumption
Night Vision Pros and Cons
- Less expensive
- Longer battery life
- More rugged, less fragile components
- Cannot be used during the day
- Image is obscured by smoke or dust
- Requires ambient light or IR flood light
Stand-Alone Scope, or Clip-On System?
Clip on systems are relatively new to the market when compared to a standalone thermal scope. The draw to these devices is the fact that you can keep your regular day time optic mounted and keep all the same data for long range shots that you are already used to using. Since the clip-on device mounts in front of the regular day optic, this provides the user with a best-of-both-worlds scenario where they can have their favorite scope during the day, and just add an additional attachment to continue using that same scope through the night.
The main drawback to the clip-on system is the fact that mounting any type of device immediately forward of the objective lens on a scope is very likely to throw the zero off. This was a huge problem with many of the early thermal clip-on systems, and it has been addressed and partially corrected in some of the higher end models, but even those that have claimed to have created a clip-on thermal optic with repeatable and consistent don’t claim to have perfected the science. There is also the concern of having enough usable rail space on the rifle to mount a clip-on device, and unless you are using a tactical style rifle it is unlikely that you do, as many clip on devices will require their own rail space, though some do mount directly to the end of a traditional scope.
This might make you think that the dedicated thermal scope is the way to go. When you have a dedicated gun that your thermal scope is assigned to, you know that every time you take that rifle out of the safe that the zero will be accurate. This can be a huge benefit, unless you are in conditions that don’t allow for thermal optics or in a situation where thermal optics only make sense at night. If you are using an AR platform rifle, you do have the luxury of just packing two upper receivers instead of two complete rifles; even this can be a chore though in most hunting or military applications.
You will need to determine how you plan to use your thermal scope, and what requirements you have of it before you can make the final determination between standalone and clip-on. With that said, since thermals can be used during day and night conditions equally well, if batteries or the weight carried are not a major concern, I would choose the standalone scope. Though, there are hunters who would benefit from the clip-on system as it is unlikely that most will be taking long range shots that would require accuracy to within a single MOA.
Thermal Scope or Monocular?
If you can only have one, the thermal scope is probably the superior option for you in this instance because it’s mounted to the firearm and helps you to put rounds on target in low or no light conditions. There are situations that might make the monocular either a better option for you, or maybe even an additional tool to work into your system.
The monocular is not attached to your gun, so it has the distinct disadvantage of not being of any assistance in aiming your firearm. Though, it is both safer and easier to scan the field with a monocular. When you are hunting, it is generally considered bad etiquette, if not outright dangerous, to be scanning every noise you hear in the forest with your rifle scope since fellow hunters could be walking through the woods. There is also the firearm safety rule that tells us not to point our firearm at anything we do not intend to destroy. For these reasons, a monocular can be an excellent tool to help you scan the wood line in search of game. The monocular is also much lighter and will cause less fatigue, but you should be aware that staring at any night vision device for extended periods of time will cause eye strain.
There is also the legality concern for hunters. There are many states that do not allow thermal scope attached to firearms when taking game, but they don’t outright outlaw the use of night vision devices. In these instances, it can be advantageous to use a thermal monocular to help locate game during low light conditions and using your legal rifle optic to zero in on the target.
Regardless of the benefits of the monocular, there is still the glaring issue that it is unable to help you aim your weapon at a target in the dark. For this reason, it is recommended that you use a thermal scope unless your local laws prohibit their use. Of course, if you have the option of using both, this would be the ideal situation for most shooters.
Tips for Hunting with a Thermal Scope
Just like using any new piece of equipment, it is important to train with your thermal scope and become familiar with it before taking it to the field for a hunt. There are some nuances of thermal imaging devices that you may not be accustomed to right out of the gate, so you should take note of several specifics.
- Battery life on thermal scopes is much shorter than many would prefer – While the technology continues to improve and battery life is getting better on newer models, this is a problem that has not been fully solved by the manufactures yet. You will get your best battery life when using lithium or rechargeable batteries, and it is recommended you use those from a reputable brand. Also, even when using lithium batteries, bring plenty of spares along with because they will tend to die when you need them most.
- Become familiar with warm up and cool down times on your specific model – Many thermal optics have a built-in feature that will shut down the optic automatically when no input has been received for a set amount of time as a battery saving feature. This is important to know because going from an “off” state to acquiring targets could take more than a few seconds for many thermal scopes due to the need for the optic to take a few moments to cool down before you will have a usable image on your screen. This can be nearly instantaneous, or a up to 30 seconds or so depending on your model.
- Get used to what different objects look like in your thermals – In many cases, the thermal signature of what you are looking at might be very different from what you are used to seeing. The military spends hours studying thermal images of different targets so that they will be sure of what they are seeing on the battlefield, as you should ensure you know what your intended game looks like through thermals so that you can be sure of your target before taking that shot.
Thermal Scopes FAQ
There can be a lot to take in when jumping into the world of thermal optics. Many of us have spent hour learning the nuances of highly polished glass and parallax control in traditional scopes, but these devices certainly walk a new path. If you are willing to investigate a new technological advantage, you are likely to find a whole new way to enjoy shooting or hunting.
Thermal vision gives the hunter an advantage that he or she might have never enjoyed before, and to a level that is currently unprecedented. We hope that this guide helps you find the best thermal scope for you, and you are able to find a whole new set of reasons to enjoy your shooting sport of choice in a whole new way that you might have never considered before.
Travis Mike is a firearm enthusiast and author passionate about all things guns. With 10 years of experience in the industry, Travis Mike has gained a wealth of knowledge on the subject. He is skilled in gunsmithing and tactical training. In addition to professional experience, Travis Mike is an avid hunter and shooter, regularly participating in local shooting ranges and hunting trips.