Thermal optics used to be firmly out of reach for most of us. They belonged firmly in the realm of TV, movies, and the latest Call of Duty game. And for a long time, if you weren’t in the military, that was as close as you could get, right?
Now though, thermal imaging scopes are much more widely available for the average shooter. They don’t even cost as much as a new car anymore (though maybe as much as a used one).
Since they do still cost a lot of your hard-earned money, we wanted to put together a guide that would cover all of the best options out there and how to choose the best one to meet your needs.
Let’s dive right in.
Why Spend All That Money on a Thermal Scope?
First of all, they’re really freaking cool. Predator’s thermal vision was dope in 1987 and it’s dope now.
But is the cool factor worth a few thousand dollars? That’s something only you can decide.
I’m not gonna sugarcoat it...these things are pretty expensive. They haven’t been on the civilian market long enough to really come down in price to the point where they’re a casual, everyday purchase. They’re even a little more expensive than most standard infrared night vision scopes.
That being said, they are very, very useful for hog hunting and other night hunting scenarios. If you’re really going all out on a home defense rifle, that’s an option too. You could get a hell of a security system for that kind of money, but you do you.
The big advantage of a thermal riflescope is really the ability to hunt at night easily. Tracking heat signatures at night is vastly better than shining lights looking for game animals, and they’re even more useful than traditional night vision because they can easily highlight anything that is a different temperature than the environment.
In this case, any game animal is going to be 20 degrees (or more) warmer than the background so the thermal sight will have no problem bringing them into sharp relief.
How does that work?
At the heart of every thermal imaging rifle scope or thermal monocular is basically a really high-tech camera located at the front where the objective lens would be on a standard rifle scope
That camera turns heat into a visible image called a thermogram. This is then transmitted to a small screen that acts as a viewer, or the ocular lens on a traditional scope.
This process can’t pick up fine details like standard night vision can, but it needs absolutely no visible light in order to be effective. This makes it a little more versatile for hunting and tactical uses where target recognition when scanning a field is incredibly important.
How To Choose the Best Thermal Scope to Spend Your Kid’s College Fund On
So, if you’re sold on the idea of a thermal scope now it’s time to decide on which one to plonk down all your hard-earned cash for...but which one?
Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re choosing a thermal scope.
Magnification and Resolution
For most thermal scopes magnification and resolution are going to be two of the most important things. A higher magnification or digital zoom requires a higher thermal sensor resolution to produce a high-quality image. It will also impact your detection range. Not a huge deal on a monocular or 1x optic, but a high magnification needs a high resolution. This will also help keep your field of view from becoming too narrow.
Remember, you aren’t looking at the actual object with optical magnification like you would be with a regular scope.
You’re essentially looking at a tiny TV screen showing you a closed-circuit camera feed so too low of a resolution and you won’t have a clear image of what you’re trying to shoot...never a good thing.
In general, you want something with a resolution of 640x480 at the least to maintain good image quality.
Refresh rate, expressed in hertz(Hz) is a measurement of how many times the image on your thermal imager refreshes. This is important because a lower refresh rate can result in a blurry picture, or trouble tracking a moving target.
For hunting or tactical use, a minimum of 30hz is recommended, but 60hz is much better.
Thermal optics are no longer the size of a spotting scope, but they still aren’t particularly small or lightweight.
This isn’t as much of an issue if you’re coyote hunting and you’re set up with a tripod or a bipod calling animals to you, but it’s something to consider if you’re going to be trekking a long distance through the woods after hogs, or building a home defense setup that you’re going to maneuvering indoors with.
Be sure to check the length of your scope so you know that it’ll actually fit on your rifle. This can be an issue with standard bolt-actions in some cases. Most thermal scopes are primarily designed for tactical use so they’re mostly designed to mount to AR-style Picatinny rails.
Sure would be a shame to buy a fancy new thermal scope and then not have enough room to mount it, right?
I know I’ve said it before, but it’s worth remembering that these things are not cheap. There are some that are juuuust about cheap enough to buy for the novelty/fun factor, but you’re almost always better buying one of the smartphone thermal rifle scope adaptors at that point if you’re just looking to play around.
Cost is an important factor and while there are a number of great thermal scopes on the market today, none of them are what I would call “cheap”.
Some of these optics are affordable however, and if you’re a serious night hunter or have the money to spend on a tricked-out tactical rifle, you have a number of options with reasonable price tags.
Optional Extra Features
On top of all that, there are a few other things to look for. Some of these scopes have wi-fi uploading of video recording, Bluetooth remote control, different electronic reticle options, and of course varying battery life. Some are waterproof, some aren’t. Some have built-in range finders or even a ballistic calculator.
When it comes to video, some of these options have a recoil activated video feature that saves on SD card space by only recording a set amount of time before and after it detects a recoil impulse from a fired shot.
You also have options for different color modes. These are typically “white hot” or “black hot”, which just changes how you interpret the image with white or black being warmer than the background. Other models may have different color palettes.
Best Thermal Scopes We Reviewed
Alright, with all that of the way, let’s take a look at some scopes.
Objective Lens Diameter
Trijicon Teo Reap-IR Mini
2.5 - 20 x
ATN Thor HD 640
2.5 - 25 x
Armasight Zeus 336
5 - 20 x
Pulsar Core Thermal Monocular
FLIR Scout TK
Resolution: 640 - 480 pixels
1. Trijicon Teo Reap-IR Mini
The Trijicon Teo Reap-IR Mini, aside from having an edgy name, is a lightweight (relatively speaking) but feature-rich thermal optic. This 4.5lb scope has a 60hz refresh rate with a 1x optical magnification and 8x digital zooming. It uses a cheaper uncooled thermal sensor which helps keep cost down without sacrificing performance.
It has a 640x480 sensor making it a phenomenal hunting or tactical option and indeed it’s being looked at by multiple military forces, including the US Navy and Marine Corps.
The REAP-IR also has Trijicon’s new “easy zeroing method” that makes for much faster sighting, which is great if you’re going to be moving the optic around to different rifles. You simply put the different reticle patterns over the point of impact and adjust using the provided MOA calculations. Easy peasey.
2. ATN Thor HD 640
ATN is one of the premier names in thermal optics and night vision devices and their ATN Thor 4 HD 640 again proves their prowess in the industry. This feature-packed scope has a number of extra things going on to give you an advantage on the hunt.
It has a built-in smart rangefinder, ballistic calculator, and can stream video to a mobile device over wi-fi so you can record your hunts and evaluate your shooting as you chase that perfect one-shot kill. It also has the recoil-activated video to automatically start saving video from just before the time you take a shot.
As you probably guessed from the name, it has a 640x480 sensor. It also has a rechargeable battery pack that you can either keep topped up in the field, or you can just swap in a new one.
Overall, this is one of the best smart thermal riflescopes on the market right now, and is a great option if you want to film your action-packed night hunts. The laser rangefinder and Android/iOS compatibility make it great for that kind of thing.
There is a cheaper option in the ATN Thor HD 384 but it’s hard to recommend that one over this one because of the lower-quality sensor.
3. Armasight Zeus 336
The Armasight by FLIR Zeus 336 is the updated version of the popular FLIR Thermosight optic. This is primarily a tactical/hunting scope and it is popular with military and law enforcement shooters as well as night hunters.
You get the 640x480 sensor that we want, as well as a very smart imaging computer that can correct for contrast and visual artifacting on the fly, making for a very smooth and stable image even when moving.
It also has a remote control that helps to cycle through all of the overlays and crosshair options that you have available. And of course, as a military-focused optic, it is shock and water-resistant (IPX7) and attaches easily to any Picatinny mount.
Finally, this scope has an option for an external power supply which greatly increases the amount of time you can spend in the field on the hunt. And it means less time checking and double-checking your batteries.
4. Pulsar Core Thermal Monocular
The Pulsar Core Thermal Monocular is actually my favorite thermal scope on this list.
I have a lot of rifles with a lot of scopes, probably like many of you, so the ability to slot my $4k thermal scope onto a variety of rifles and then easily take it off again sounds absolutely fantastic.
The main draw here is that you can just mount this alongside your daytime rifle scope and then suddenly you’re good to go for night time shooting. It has a 50hz refresh rate and a 640x480 display for crisp images. The detection range is a staggering 1970 yards so this provides more than enough coverage for hunting.
Beyond that, I can’t explain how much I loved being able to slot this onto different rifles and just go shoot. There’s a quick calibration required, but being able to switch back and forth from day and night setups on the same rifle is very convenient.
5. Best Budget Thermal Scope: FLIR Scout TK
Lastly, we have our most affordable option, the FLIR Scout TK. This isn’t actually a riflescope and is more of a monocular/spotting scope.
This handheld thermal scope lets you quickly and easily scan a field or other environment for targets and at just a little over $500, it’s very affordable and accessible. It has multiple color palette options and is small enough to fit in a pocket.
It also makes a good sidekick to a thermal scope on a rifle as well because it is much, much easier to glass a field with this little guy than with a rifle-mounted scope. And beyond that, it’s good for scanning the backyard to see just what exactly made that noise.
Thermal scopes may be expensive, but they offer some really excellent benefits as well, assuming you’re willing to cough up the cash for one. Hog hunters and other (legal) night hunters can get an especially large return on investment from these types of optics, as can law enforcement and private security.
If you’re thinking about a thermal scope, be sure to keep in mind your likely uses for it, and how much it’ll actually come out of the safe. If you’ve got the money for one though, you probably won’t regret it.
What do you think of these thermal scopes? Is there one that stood out to you? Which ones might find a home on one of your rifles? Let me hear from you in the comments!