The 8 Best Night Vision Scopes
This wiki has been updated 22 times since it was first published in November of 2018. Once the sun goes down, it's time to stop shooting, right? Not if you have one of these night vision scopes. Using either thermal imaging or active illumination technology, these optics make the night come alive, allowing you to see every animal in your surrounding area. While they're perfect for hunters, home security experts and wildlife enthusiasts will find plenty of use for them, as well. When users buy our independently chosen editorial selections, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
December 09, 2020:
For a category devoted to night vision scopes, it didn't make a lot of sense to me that we'd previously included a number of night vision monoculars, as these aren't primarily designed as shooting aids they way scopes are. So, we sent all of them packing and replaced them with some very capable choices.
One of the most important considerations in this category is whether you want your scope to be able to function in the daytime and the nighttime, or the nighttime only. The Sightmark Night Raider, for example, is an outstanding option for use in moonlit or starlit conditions, and it has infrared illumination for total darkness. But that incredible sensitivity means that exposure to daylight would actually damage its mechanisms.
Conversely, models like the TPO HD Digital Rifelscope and the ATN X-Sight 4K are built for use at any time of the day or night. Models like these and their thermal counterparts can be battery hogs, however, so keep an eye on battery type and lifespan to ensure you can simply swap out cells as needed, or that you'll have a scope that can go the distance.
November 08, 2018:
The problem with many night vision scopes is that they perform poorly in well-lit conditions, so we focused on models that function well in any environment. Several options that narrowly missed making the list suffered from poor image quality and durability concerns.
A Brief History Of Night Vision
That problem was addressed by the time the war's sequel came around, however.
Nighttime battles have been relatively rare throughout much of recorded history — because it turns out that it's hard to kill something you can't see. Fighting after the sun went down meant carrying torches or relying on the moon, neither of which were very reliable and at least one of which could burn you. As a result, most evening battles were merely the extension of a daytime fracas that had yet to be resolved.
That began to change during WWI, when illumination rounds were used to light up the battlefield. Made with magnesium pellets, these were fired into the air, brightening everything underneath them. While this made it much easier to fight in the dark, it had one big disadvantage: it allowed your enemies to see just as well as you could.
That problem was addressed by the time the war's sequel came around, however. Both Germany and the United States developed night vision systems independently of one another. The Germans had theirs mounted on Panther tanks, while the Americans equipped snipers with infrared illuminators that were mounted on their scopes.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military unveiled a new model that relied on ambient light instead of providing its own external infrared source. They worked quite well, but only if there was sufficient moonlight.
By the 1970s, thermal imaging began to replace infrared technology on state-of-the-art devices. This new gear wouldn't be really put to the test until Operation Desert Storm in 1990, where it passed with flying colors, prompting American service members to declare that they "owned the night."
Today, the technology continues to improve — not to mention become less expensive. Modern hunters can access gear that's far more advanced than what the military used a few decades earlier, and they can do so without going bankrupt in the process.
Understanding How It Works
Before we can explain how this stuff works, it's important that you realize that "night vision" usually refers to either active illumination technology or thermal imaging.
Active illumination takes existing ambient light and magnifies it.
Active illumination takes existing ambient light and magnifies it. When the light enters the lens of the scope, the photons hit a special surface called a photocathode, which turns them into electrons. These electrons are then amplified by a photomultiplier before hitting a phosphor screen inside the scope, where they create a flash. Basically, the device turns a few photons into a lot of electrons, brightening the world that you see.
Thermal imaging, on the other hand, detects the infrared light that's created when heat escapes. When an object is warmer than its surrounding environment, it creates a clear heat signal that the scope can pick up and convert into electrical impulses. These impulses are then sent to a signal-processing unit and a display, where the intensity of the impulses dictates the intensity of the heat map.
So which one is superior? That largely depends on the intended application. Thermal imaging doesn't require any light whatsoever to work, and can be effective even in inclement weather, making it a better choice for anyone testing themselves against the elements. Active illumination, on the other hand, gives you a more traditional view of the world around you, and is equally suitable for identifying your target as it is for simply acquiring it.
Regardless of which technology you prefer, using a night vision scope will open up a whole new world of things for you to shoot at. It may be enough to put you off ever hunting in daylight again.
Choosing The Right Night Vision Scope
Finding the right scope for your next night hunt can be daunting, as there are quite a few options out there, each with a different set of features — and buying the wrong one can be an expensive mistake. Before you make your purchase, there are a few things you should consider.
The first thing to think about is how far away from your quarry you expect to be. Not all scopes work at equal ranges, so you'll need a much less powerful model if you plan on being at a distance of 300 yards rather than 1,000.
The first thing to think about is how far away from your quarry you expect to be.
This will determine how much magnification you'll require. As a general rule, the higher the level of magnification a scope can provide, the more expensive it'll be — and this is especially true for night vision models. Expect to only be able to go up to 10x or so. Also, keep in mind that more magnification almost always means more weight on your rifle.
That extra heft can be taxing if you're lugging your rifle all over creation, so consider skimping on some magnification for a more lightweight (and less expensive) model. You may also want to think about using a monocular-style option rather than one that attaches directly to your weapon, as that can reduce stress on your arms, helping you to hold steady the next time you line up a shot. Or if you have a spotter, you can leave it up to them to find and track game.
Battery life is also worth keeping in mind. These scopes can chew through batteries in a hurry, which can add to your overall expense — not to mention costing you a shot at an inopportune moment. Try to find one that has enough life to last an entire hunt, or whose batteries can be easily and cheaply replaced. Many take regular AAs or the like, while others demand specialized cells that can be difficult to find and cost an arm and a leg.
Ultimately, the choice will come down to how much you're willing to spend to give you the best shot possible. If money is no object, you can find some models that give you crystal-clear pictures at incredible distances. However, you can still find cheaper versions that are perfectly fine for your intended application without putting you in the poor house.
After all, any money you save on scopes can be put towards more important things, like buying more guns.