Night vision equipment is getting increasingly affordable nowadays and you can easily find great quality passive and active infrared scopes for just a few hundred dollars for all your hunting, wildlife management or tactical needs. There is another technology for night shooting though that hasn’t yet become quite as affordable as standard night vision.
Thanks to the 1987 Arnold Schwarzeneger film Predator we all think we know what thermal imaging is, where people and animals become blobs of colour indicating their heat signature; while that isn’t quite the reality of thermal imaging it’s not completely wrong and its’s potential advantages are obvious.
- Why You Need a Thermal Scope
- How Thermal Imaging Works Compared to Night Vision
- Thermal and Night Vision for Spotting or Shooting?
- What to Look For In a Thermal Scope
- Sighting in a Thermal Scope
- Top 7 Thermal Scopes - Comparison Table
- Top 7 Thermal Scope On The Market Reviews
- Best Thermal Brands
Why You Need a Thermal Scope
Lets face it a lot of people don’t need thermal imaging equipment but if you are reading this you are probably not just your average ‘plinker’. Thermal scopes are of no use on a normal range, they give you no advantage and in fact won’t work at all.
Because they ‘see’ heat, or more accurately long-infrared radiation, you won’t necessarily be able to properly distinguish a paper or steel target from its surroundings with a thermal scope and for this reason when you are zeroing your thermal scope you will need special targets; but we’ll get to that later.
Where thermal imaging equipment excels is for use on live quarry at night. The technology is also incredibly useful to emergency services and not only for law enforcement, it is used by firefighters in smoke filled buildings to spot people where they can’t be seen with the naked eye.
Your need for a thermal scope though probably relates professional wildlife management and nuisance animal control. Not even strictly ‘hunting’ as most places ban the hunting of game at night with lamps and night vision equipment.
Nuisance animal and predator control though is where thermals really shine. Those coyotes that you just can’t get during the day and which have become lamp shy, the wild hogs that dig up fields and gardens at night and then melt into the undergrowth during the day.
These are reasons for having a thermal scope, and actually if you are in that line of work they are almost essential nowadays.
How Thermal Imaging Works Compared to Night Vision
Rather than relying on what limited light is available at night to intensify an image or an infrared illuminator to light up targets in the dark a thermal scope ‘reads’ radiation in the long-infrared range and displays it in an image called a thermogram, as almost everything above a temperature of absolute zero emits infrared radiation these images can be produced without any illumination visible or infrared as the varying levels of radiation emitted by your quarry and its surroundings produce an image with contrast determined by the level of radiation being given off.
Some of these images like the one above are in colour while more basic thermograms appear in greyscale such as this video taken through a Pulsar XQ50 thermal rifle scope.
Good quality thermal scopes provide enough contrast and high quality images to hunt safely and effectively at the appropriate range and thermal imagers are also great spotting tools and in that role far outperform your average night vision equipment.
Night vision can only see what is there while a thermal imager can see through mist and a thin screen of foliage, not through walls like in the movies and oddly enough not through glass, but it can pick up the heat signature of an animal or even the heat of where they have been sitting recently with no problem at all and your quarry will literally glow as you watch it through your scope.
These thermal imaging scopes can be remarkable tools for hunting at night and consider for a moment the military applications of being able to spot and engage targets at night without needing any sort of illumination.
Thermal and Night Vision for Spotting or Shooting?
Thermal imagers are produced now that are perfectly suitable for aiming shots with, they are also very valuable as spotting tools perhaps in situations where shooting at night it illegal, in these situations using a thermal to spot your quarry before first light so you can work yourself into a position for a shot as it grows light can be game changing.
Thermal spotters are also very useful for carrying out surveys of wildlife which might not be easy to spot and count without a thermal imager. Luckily plenty of options exist both in the form of thermal and standard night vision equipment.
Do consider them if you don’t absolutely need a thermal scope as binoculars or a monocular are far more versatile and manoeuvrable. For these kind of optics, OpticsAddict.com did some great review works that I recommend you to check it out!
What to Look For In a Thermal Scope
Thermal and night vision spotters are certainly very useful but if you need a scope there is a lot more to consider than if you were just picking a spotter.
Hunting equipment doesn’t come any more advanced than a thermal scope or spotter so you do need to think carefully about the features that you will need and what will make this piece of kit easy to use and effective.
For pure spotting magnification isn’t all that important but for accurate identification at range some level of magnification is required.
Especially when you consider that as a thermal isn’t trying to gather light or illuminate targets with an infrared lamp but rather it detects the level of heat given off by your quarry and its surroundings so the range of these devices is much longer than standard night vision.
This doesn’t mean you can necessarily shoot at all the heat signatures you detect though, just because you might be able to see something with your scope doesn’t mean it’s in range or even if it is that you can see enough detail to make a humane shot.
To provide this level of detail most thermal scopes have some magnification, normally starting at around 4 power but increasing on some models up to as much as 50. Some models also feature a ‘picture in picture’ view giving you a magnified view at the top of the screen and a wider angle view simultaneously.
As important as the appropriate level of magnification is in a thermal scope you also need to ensure that the image presented to you is of good enough quality to take an aimed shot.
The thermal sensor in your scope determines the sensitivity of your scope, the range over which it can pick up a heat signature and will also determine how good and detailed a picture you get on the internal screen, because just as with a night vision scope with a thermal what you see in the scope is a picture on a screen, you are not looking through the scope like with a traditional optic.
In fact thermal imagers use an array of sensors called microbolometers which assign the heat they detect a colour or shade which will be represented on the screen of the scope showing the relative heat of the target.
Typically these sensor arrays have relatively limited resolution often no more than 320x240 but modern advancements and the pursuit by specialist manufacturers of the next advancement in technology to produce the very best of thermal hunting optics have produced sensors of up to 640x480 or even exceptionally 1024x760.
Scopes must have these higher resolutions if they are to offer a detailed enough image for an accurate, aimed shot, especially when you need to aim for a humane head, neck or chest shot.
As well as the sensitivity of the sensors you need to consider the resolution of the screen inside your scope as well. This screen is what you will be looking at when you take a shot and it will need to show enough detail to give you all the information you need to identify a target and take an aimed shot.
The screen resolution and image quality of your thermal imager is really important when selecting a thermal scope as well defined, clear, detailed images are essential to make accurate, aimed shots.
So you need to pick a scope that matches a high resolution sensor with a high resolution screen to give you the best chance of a humane shot and the most effective tool for night time pest control.
The effective range of a thermal scope is largely determined by the quality of its sensor and its ability to detect the heat, or radiation that will become the picture you look at. Magnification is also a factor in turning the heat you detect into an image that is useful.
Realistically you won’t be taking shots at beyond a couple of hundred yards at night just to be fair to your quarry and for the sake of safety but if your scope gives you enough range to spot your quarry coming, and some sensors are effective out to around a thousand yards, that gives you an advantage for spotting and scouting.
Night shooting for vermin and pests doesn’t always take place in the best of weather and even in good weather at night dew settles on everything and a scope that is waterproof is essential.
Your scope may also have to contend with dust, fog rain and maybe even rough treatment as you stalk through undergrowth and bushes. You will need to get a scope that will cope with all these adverse conditions especially when you consider the expense of a thermal imaging scope you don’t want to have a product that is going to be too fragile.
Thermal scopes like standard night vision are different from traditional optics, you are looking at a screen rather than ‘through’ a scope and because of that there is often an array of options Being high-tech, that means there are a lot of extras that can be packed into a thermal scope.
These can be the simple things like multiple reticle options all the way up to video recording, GPS, inboard compass and WiFi.
As there really aren’t any budget thermal scopes these features which might be a gimmick on other cheaper products really do work on thermal scopes, you may not need all of them but the will work and it’s up to you to decide which of them suits you and if they are worth a few extra dollars to purchase.
One important feature though which I would recommend looking for is a built in range finder. As you lose all depth perception in the dark and without the aid of a lamp, which defeats the object of using a thermal in the first place, you won’t be able to see your quarry to range it with a laser range finder, and the ability to range find with your scope will be very valuable, especially if you are pushing out to ranges past your typical zero range for a vermin control rifle of around 100 meters.
Sighting in a Thermal Scope
Before you invest in a thermal scope you need to fully understand them and that understanding needs to include a knowledge of how to zero them in.
Just because modern scopes are packed with digital features doesn’t mean you can zero them at the touch of a button and it’s not as simple as just dialling in corrections like with a standard optic. This is of course because your thermal sight sees heat not a typical image and contrasting between a normal paper target and the background is difficult or impossible.
It’s worth mentioning that Thermal scopes do work during hours of daylight, just be careful not to point them at the sun, but you should know that already.
Zeroing in day time does make the whole process easier as you can spot your hits with a spotting scope because you won’t see them through your thermal scope.
To make sure you can see your target a piece of tin foil during daylight will reflect enough heat that it should be easily distinguishable from it’s surroundings, steel targets in the sun will do the same but you want a target that you can see hits on, a small steel target is a hot or a miss without leaving you any point of reference to make your adjustments so you do need a small bullseye against the background of a larger paper target.
Other than that bit of attention you need to pay to your targets zeroing is the same as it would be for most modern digital thermal or night vision scopes. Many of the products on this list feature ‘one shot’ zeroing functions, although I would recommend taking more shots than this, trusting a single shot to make your zeroing adjustments is a bit foolhardy.
A single shot or a small group though can give you a point of reference to make your adjustments on, rather than adjusting your point of impact with a few clicks of the windage and elevation turrets of a standard scope you can make those adjustments with buttons, which may feel a little strange for those of you using digital optics for the first time.
To show you where your point of impact is before adjustments you may need to add another piece of tinfoil to show where that is as you won’t see your bullet holes through your thermal but you could make them based on observations made through a spotting scope or with the advice of a spotter who can help you get your rifle and scope zeroed.
Top 7 Thermal Scopes - Comparison Table
1.5x optical, 12x digital
Top 7 Thermal Scope On The Market Reviews
1 Pulsar Trail XQ Thermal Riflescope
Pulsar products are amongst the best on the market when it comes to digital scopes, night vision and thermal imaging and this model is one of the best out there. It works day and night so it doesn’t tie up a rifle that can then only be used at night and for those of you that will need this tool all night long the eight hour battery life will keep you effective.
It features a huge array of added features that make night shooting that little bit easier, from app compatibility so you can stream footage from your scope to your phone or tablet to Pulsars ‘PiP’ picture in picture display and many others.
This video shows one of the XQ models in action alongside an Armasight Zeus, which you will see in this list a little later, on hogs at night, you will notice some of the footage is filmed using the Pulsar’s ‘black hot’ setting, these setting; black hot, white hot and some models feature a full colour setting as well allow you to adjust to ensure maximum contrast so you can be sure of an accurate and clean shot.
You can also see the ‘picture in picture’ mode being used in this video to highlight some of the other features of Pulsar scopes.
This model, according to manufacturer’s specifications allows you to see the heat signature of an animal up to 1970 yards away.
This gives you massively increased range over even the very best active infrared night vision kit but obviously at that range you won’t be shooting live quarry and shouldn’t expect a scope picture that would allow for a safe or accurate shot. The technology though is impressive.
2 ATN ThOR HD 640
When it comes to thermal optics, there aren’t many companies to choose from, nowhere near as many as standard optics and not even as many as standard night vision either.
Let’s face it thermal scopes are very specialist pieces of kit so you can’t expect the market to be littered with them and some of those companies focus on the military market and those can be a little over built for hunting but there will be something out there for those of you who need a thermal for hunting and wildlife management.
ATN is one of those other companies who produces quality kit for night shooting, both standard night vision and thermal imagers.
The Thor is just one of those and is a great option for a compact and relatively light weight. This scope is about as close to a ‘budget’ thermal scope as you will find, it still costs around $2000 but is significantly cheaper than some others.
As well as an industry standard 640 resolution sensor with a variety of optional reticles and plenty other options and adjustability this scope features a built in range finder for accurate ranging to help you make necessary adjustments to compensate for range.
The Thor HD comes in a variety of options including this 5-50x version but slightly less powerful magnification options are available too.
This scope, as with all the scopes you will see in this list stands up to moisture, dust and shock so it won’t fail on you even in the worst conditions of rain and fog.
ATN also lead the field when it comes to extras including the range finder but also the multitude of optional reticles, a ballistic calculator and other features that help make the difficulties of night shooting where depth perception and range finding can be difficult that little bit simpler.
3 FLIR R-Series RS32 1.25-5 Riflescope
FLIR are an industry leading brand in the thermal optics market and were one of the first manufacturers to bring affordable thermal optics to the civilian market.
Most of their products are a little simpler than some of the ATN and pulsar products which are laden with extras and features which allow connectivity with mobile phones and tablets, but that does give you a product that is a little lighter and smaller and more user friendly than some of the more advanced products which take a long time to get used to and may have a lot of features that you don’t really need.
These light weight products are great for light weight carbine rifles such as AR15 platforms and are ideal for faster shooting rather than the heavier optics which might be better suited to heavier varmint style rifles.
At under 2 pounds the RS32 by FLIR is one of the most light weight options on the market and is fully waterproof, shock resistant, and includes an internal, fully sealed and rechargeable Lithium.
This optic can be mounted on a standard Picatinny rail and features a 5x maximum zoom which is great for scanning and spotting and perfectly adequate for shooting accurately at moderate ranges.
It is also compatible with an external battery for situations where you may need it for longer periods and features an innovative target alert system.
4 Armasight Predator
The Armasight Predator is manufactured by FLIR and offers a 1.6 power optical magnification with the option to zoom to 4 power using the digital zoom. If you are looking for a great thermal scope under 3000 dollars this couls be the option for you.
Like all FLIR optics, the Predator is waterproof, in fact, it is completely submersible, and is sturdy enough for rifles of most calibres. The scope it ‘self comes with a 3-year warranty and the FLIR thermal sensor array has a 10 year warranty.
It also offers multiple colours to choose from for your reticle allowing you to get the contrast you need between your reticle and the quarry. Multiple reticle options and an awesome ‘repeatable zero system’ allows you to detach your scope from your rifle and perhaps use it with a different scope during the daylight hours and re-attach it without having to re-zero it.
You can also export video from this scope and like the other FLIR products it can be used with an external battery where you might need better battery life. Rather than the fully sealed internal lithium battery of the previous FLIR product this one runs of CR batteries and you can easily carry a few spares just in case.
5 ATN ThOR 4
Many thermal scopes look very different from your average optic, which isn’t necessarily a problem but for the traditionalist out there who like the typical appearance of a hunting rifle the new Thor 4 from ATN is about the most ‘traditional’ looking optic on the market.
This traditional appearance also gives one particular, and very important advantage, it can be mounted to a rifle with traditional scope rings rather than the more ‘tactical’, but for thermal and night vision optics this has become the norm, picatinny or weaver mounts.
This allows it to be mounted closer to the axis of the bore and without the added expense of special mounts and without the need to fit an unnecessary piccatiny rail to a traditional hunting rifle.
This is great news if you want to keep the ability to switch back and forth from your thermal night shooting rig and a typical day shooting set up. It also offers fantastic value for money at a little less than $2000 new including scope covers, scope rings and cables for the 1.25-5x magnification versions. Other options are available offering magnification of up to 40 power.
The resolution of the sensor isn’t as much as some but as the product is aimed at hunters who won’t normally be taking shots over a couple of hundred yards.
Like all ATN scopes the Thor 4 can record and exports video and features a built in range finder for via an app and has the standard rangefinder that is common to all ATN optics and which is a valuable if not essential feature of night shooting optic.
6 Armasight Zeus
The Zeus is made for Armasight by FLIR and offers a great range of features and well as a fantastic warranty to protect your investment, which will be significant. This scope will set you back over $3000 but it does offer you great features, versatility and function which will be essential for night shooting.
The warranty for the scope lasts for three years and the internal thermal sensors made by FLIR are warrantied for ten years. These warranties don’t mean you can abuse your scope but it does add a degree of confidence in your product.
To make sure you can throw these things around the woods through thick cover and in the rain they are heavily armoured with plastic and rubber armour and are entirely dust and waterproof.
They also feature many colour modes, both in terms of the colour of the reticle and also the way in which the thermal image or ‘thermogram’ is displayed. This gives you options such as ‘black hot’ and ‘white hot’ as well as colour modes.
With this product as well as some of the others featured in this list though you need to be aware though that it is illegal to export it.
In fact the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) apply to this product so if you are purchasing it in the USA you must be a US citizen and agree not to export it.
A legitimate hunting trip across the border to Canada or Mexico could count as export though so be very careful.
7 Trijicon Electro-Optics Hunter
Trijicon are well known as a ground breaking manufacturer of tactical optics, but a provider of military equipment and manufacturer of some of the best optics on the market they can be a little secretive about their product.
This is in line with legislation which makes it illegal to allow a non US citizen to access the manuals and specification of this product or even look through one of these scopes. This optic might not have the video out function that some of the ATN and Pulsar products do have but this has some features which make it uniquely versatile.
Not only can it act as a stand-alone thermal scope but it can be attached to a standard optic to transform it into an effective night shooting tool rather than having to dedicate a rifle to night shooting duties this allows you to quickly adapt it for day or night.
With this product as well as some of the others featured in this list though you need to be aware though that it is illegal to export it.
In fact the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) apply to this product so if you are purchasing it in the USA you must be a US citizen and agree not to export it. A legitimate hunting trip across the border to Canada or Mexico could count as export though so be very careful.
Thermal optics, especially scopes are a very niche product which few people will need but which are very useful for certain civilian situations.
They provide a unique advantage for professional pest controllers and wildlife managers to deal with nuisance populations of hogs and other vermin. They also offer a great deal of features unique to digital optics which simply aren’t available with traditional optics.
The ability to record and stream video and pictures, built in range finding and other features add to the functionality of these optics and allow you to capture images of your hunt.
These features aren’t vital but they can be useful. This technology gives you a true advantage at night over and above even the best night vision equipment, you can really reach out and deal with vermin without alerting them to your location and can really get some effective pest control done.
Just check out this video from the UK of some really effective fox control using thermal scopes by Pulsar.
These scopes are devastatingly effective and as noted in this video it isn’t out of the question that some infrared illuminators can be detected to some degree by wildlife, I’ve seen this myself on trail camera footage and while out with my own night vision kit, maybe some IR illuminators give out a little bit of visible light but I’ve certainly seen animals react to being lit up by IR lights. Not often but it does seem to happen.
With thermal there is none of that there is no active illumination at all and as long as you are quite there is no way that you can be detected.
This gives you an enormous advantage and you will be able to do much more effective pest control with a thermal than a night vision and even more compared to a standard scope and a lamp.
The additional advantage of this type of technology is that you can scan and spot targets far beyond the effective range of your rifle and this allows you to set up for a shot when your approaching quarry comes into range or allows you to carefully stalk up on your target without ever needing to shine a light.
The modern thermal optics suitable for shooting are truly a game changing piece of equipment they are not the basic thermal cameras that can plug into a cell phone or be used to look for heat loss from buildings or for heating in electrical components they offer fantastic resolution and as you can see from the videos in this article easily provide enough resolution for an accurate aimed shot and not just at a general ‘blob’ of colour that represents an animal but you can see enough resolution to aim a shot at the head or chest and to distinguish the front leg which is typically a useful point of reference for hunters aiming a shot at the heart and lungs of medium to large game.
By the standards of traditional optics these thermal scopes are miraculous and really will give you an edge, all of the products listed here are great but is there one which is the best?
Best Thermal Brands
This is a difficult if not impossible question to answer; as there are so few manufacturers producing thermal scopes you are limited in your choice of optics.
There are no budget knock off options when it comes to thermal scopes, although there is a vast price range from relatively affordable manufacturers like ATN and Pulsar to the full military spec optics manufactured by Trijicon and FLIR.
None of these scopes are bad but for hunters the Pulsar and ATN products are hard to beat they may not be built to the same standards as the more rugged trijicon but their more reasonable price makes them a little more suitable for every day hunters and while you may never use all their features they won’t break the bank, at least not as much as some of the more expensive options. Also consider that both of these are readily available all over the world while some of the other products can’t be exported outside the US due to ITAR regulations.
The ATN and Pulsar products will serve you well but if you want the strongest most rugged, military grade kit the trijicon will be the product for you and the versatility of being able to use it as a stand-alone scope or an attachment to a standard scope makes this an incredible piece of kit.
The FLIR scopes offer a great middle ground in a package more ‘mil-spec’ and rugged than the ATN’s and pulsars but not quite as versatile as the Trijicon.
Whichever you choose you will not be disappointed.