Ammo & Gear Reviews

What You Need To Know: Night Vision Technology Vs. Thermal Imaging Technology

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Guns and Gear Contributor

By Simon Cuthbert, Target Tamers

There’s a time and place for each type of technology and which one does it best is entirely dependent on your needs.

Are you hunting?  Staking out a fugitive?  Being deployed?

We’ll help you figure out what will do it best by uses and features so you can be equipped with the right technology for your next scope.

Night Vision Technology

Let’s do a quick overview of night vision tech so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

  • Passive device that requires ambient light to perform.
  • Scopes with IIT (image intensifier tubes) cannot be exposed to bright light conditions, example: daylight.
  • Sight picture color is displayed in green or black/white.
  • There are multiple night vision technologies that include digital, Gen 1-3, and filmless/unfilmed.
  • Digital night vision scopes provide digital features and are generally cheaper than Gen 2 scopes.

Thermal Imaging Technology

Vastly different and more expensive than night vision, thermal imaging is a newer technology.

  • Active device does not require ambient light to perform.
  • IR light focuses on the target scene to gather temperature data to identify living objects from terrain, buildings, and other objects.
  • Dual use for both day and nighttime.
  • Sight picture can be displayed in multiple color variations including the traditional multi-color palette, white-hot, and black-hot.
  • Extensive detection range versus night vision.
  • May have useful digital features that can include video recording, smartphone connectivity compatibility, and rangefinder tools.

Thermal Imaging & Night Vision Scope Uses

Both thermal and night vision function in a way to allow you to see targets when your own natural vision cannot detect them.  But, what your needs are for either technology has a large role to play in which scope would do you justice in the field.

Hunting

Night vision is a popular hunting tool as you can not only detect your game at 100+ yards, you can also recognize and identify it.  Seeing key features such as facial and body parts can help determine type of animal and exactly where your kill zone is whereas thermal can’t produce this type of detail needed.

However, the best thermal scopes are excellent devices for detecting obscured game as fog, brush, and even great distances do not pose challenges to the scope that night vision will struggle with.  You can also track a blood trail of recently downed game with thermal regardless of whether it’s day or night.

Police & Military

Law enforcement and military professionals have been using night vision for decades.  Being able to not only detect but identify a target and potential threat is essential to safety and job success, and night vision identification outperforms in this over thermal.  This includes identifying targets in close proximity, such as inside a dark building.

But, if you’re looking for camo-wearing targets in environments where they’re blending in, especially if they’re standing still, night vision may fail you.  Thermal technology will detect them regardless of clothing and stationary movement.  Although thermal is new and expensive, military and police agencies are starting to employ them for use in multiple types of operations.

Surveillance

Both thermal and the top night vision scopes provide a tactical advantage in property surveillance, home defense, and SHTF conditions.  Again, you’ll need to consider whether you want extreme detection ranges (thermal does it) or the ability to identify an ally from foe (night vision all the way).

Night Vision & Thermal Imaging Features

How do you choose a rifle scope?  You buy the scope with the most appropriate features for your profession, hunting style, or shooting needs.

Price

Both types of technologies are expensive – in the thousands-of-dollars range.  Price factors include available features, quality of internal components, and brand.

Since night vision tech has been around since WWII, it’s more easily accessible and affordable to civilians compared to thermal.  Digital night vision can cost as low as $500 and go as high as $2000.  Gen 1 tech prices hover around $1000.  Gen 2 tech can cost anywhere between $2000+, and Gen 3 and 4 will easily skyrocket into the $3000-$5000 range.

Thermal is new technology and involves a costly manufacturing process when comparing it to night vision.  Consequently, it’s more expensive starting around $2000.  To get more bang for your buck, you’re likely better off buying a higher-gen night vision device with the same budget that would get you a low-end thermal.

Detection Range

Thermal imaging scopes are active devices detecting radiation and their reach is far and can be over 1000+ yards.  But, just because you can detect a living object in the distance, it doesn’t mean you know what or who it is.  While there are many factors that go into determining detection ranges and what you can essentially “see,” the general rule is if the thermal scope can detect 1.5 pixels of coverage or more, you’ll be able to see an object within the display.  6 pixels of coverage or more, and you can identify it – say, a human being from an animal.

Night vision may have a significantly shorter detection range, but you can recognize and identify targets further and easier than with thermal.  Gen 3 and 4 scopes have detection ranges above 500 yards with recognition ranges above 200 yards.  Lower gen scopes may only provide a 200-yard detection range with recognition and identification ranges at 50-100 yards.  However, these numbers will depend on ambient light conditions, use or non-use of an IR illuminator, and type of terrain.

Durability

Today, both types of scopes can be made to withstand the abuse of heavy recoil, even up to .30 caliber, which is a primary concern for both hunters and police.  Thermal devices are bulky, and the added weight can make long hunting treks, scouting missions, and maintaining prone shooting positions for a long time tiresome.

Night vision scopes tend to be lighter in weight, tougher, and can have more of a traditional style body of a daytime rifle scope.

User Interface

There’s no getting around reading the manual to use your night vision or thermal scope.  You will save time while in the hunt or a stake-out if you know how to use your scope beforehand.

There may be additional features that requires more navigation resulting in more time to learn the swing of things to shave time in the field.  How much of a learning process it will take will depend on the complexity of having additional features, how easy the buttons are to press or see in the dark, and if you’re using apps and recording devices in conjunction with the scope.

Environment & Light

If you know where and what conditions you’ll be using your scope most of the time, it will be easier to choose between thermal imaging and night vision.  Thermal will perform in fog and brush environments and can detect targets that would be obscured with night vision.  It doesn’t require ambient light to work.

However, night vision will perform in extreme cold, will function with very little ambient light, but cannot be used in daylight.

Battery Life

Thermals have a much shorter battery life, an average of 5-10 hours, versus night vision.  Generation night vision scopes can offer upwards of 50 hours on a single battery.  Digital night vision scopes are the exception as they require more power to operate.  Digital scopes are comparable to thermals.

The Right Time & Place

From what you should have gathered by now, there’s a right time and place for either thermal or night vision.  Both allow you to see in the dark, but both do it differently.  How you want to get the details you need will depend on who you are, where you’re going, and what you’re hunting – game or terrorists?

There’s always an option to get both.  If budget is limited, pair up with a buddy and buy one of each.  More sight means better results.

Simon Cuthbert is the owner of editor of TargetTamers.comClick here to visit TargetTamers.comClick here to follow Target Tamers on Facebook.

Click here to read Simon’s article Understanding First Vs Second Focal Plane.