Night Vision vs Thermal Scopes – What You Need to Know

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Choosing an optic is a topic of endless debate among hunters and recreational shooters alike. There are dozens of potential factors involved in making a decision, such as what kind of game you plan on hunting and what sort of environmental or weather conditions your equipment will be operating in – including the lighting conditions.

And when you don’t have enough light, the obvious solution is either a night vision or thermal scope. But which one comes out on top in the battle of night vision vs thermal?

Let’s take a look at the technology behind each type of optic and go over their pros and cons.

What is a Night Vision Scope?

As you can probably guess from the name, a night vision scope is an optic that allows you to see in the dark. How does it work? That depends on whether it’s a traditional or digital night vision scope.

Traditional Night Vision

Night vision devices are probably older than you think – the first ones were created by the German electrical equipment manufacturer AEG, and some of their early designs even saw limited use in World War II. For many years, all night vision technology relied on the same basic principle: optoelectronic image enhancement.

night vision infrared
Night vision scopes can get surprisingly large, so don’t forget to factor in the weight of your optic

We’ll spare you the detailed science lesson, but the basic gist is this: dim visible light energy, along with a small amount of thermal energy, passes through the objective lens and into what is called the image intensifier tube.

That tube converts the light’s photons into electrons, then amplifies them before they hit a screen inside the scope that is covered in phosphors.

The phosphors light up when struck by the electrons, causing them to glow, and you see this illuminated view through the ocular lens, with magnification working just like it does on an ordinary scope.

And in case you’re wondering why the image is green: when photons are converted into electrons, the various colors of the picture are stripped away, leaving only black and white. The green glow comes from the phosphors, and green was chosen because it’s the easiest color to view in the dark for long periods without causing eye strain.

Digital Night Vision

However, most modern night vision optics, whether it’s night vision scopes or night vision goggles, use a digital imaging system instead. In a digital night vision device, the light is converted into a digital signal using technology similar to that in a digital camera. The digital image is enhanced electronically, then magnified before finally being sent to an LCD screen for viewing.

Digital NV devices quickly revolutionized the market, allowing shooters access to clear pictures, superior image detail, and better build quality at lower prices.

Is Infrared and Night Vision the Same Thing?

While night vision scopes do make use of small amounts of infrared light to produce their image, they primarily work by amplifying visible light, while the term “infrared” is typically used to refer to thermal imaging. What’s the difference? Glad you asked.

What is the Difference Between Night Vision and Thermal Imaging?

Thermal Imaging

Thermal scopes detect radiation in the form of heat, which means that they don’t require any ambient light source and can be used in both low light conditions and bright daylight. Because thermal imaging works by using infrared sensors to pick out minute differences in heat signatures, the image provides enough contrast be used over longer distances, though often at the cost of fuzzier detail.

thermal vision

It’s also worth noting that the ability to spot warm targets with ease also has a downside – the effectiveness decreases drastically when there are massive temperature differences or inclement weather conditions. Using a thermal scope in heavy rain or fog is an exercise in frustration, and in extreme temperatures it can be very difficult to pick out a target’s heat signature.

While it won’t be an issue on a cool night, when the weather dips into freezing territory, it can be tricky for thermal imaging to properly represent temperature.

Night Vision

In contrast, Night vision scopes rely on some amount of ambient light to create an image – usually, the moonlight and stars are more than enough, but in especially dark situations, these optics can make use of an IR illuminator, which functions like a flash light, though the infrared light it creates can’t be seen with the naked eye.

Night vision tech has been around a lot longer than thermal imaging, so the technology has had more time to develop, and these optics typically offer a sharper, more natural image and handle recoil and general wear a bit better than thermal scopes do.

night vision vs thermal
All night vision devices, including scopes, cameras, and goggles, require either visible light or the use of an illuminator

Night vision also has its caveats, though – while it’s an excellent option in low light situations, they are completely useless in bright light, and it can be difficult to get a clean shot at game that is camouflaged or in cover. They are also harder to use at a distance.

Pros and Cons of Thermal vs. Night Vision

Night Vision Pros

  1. Typically cheaper than thermal scopes (sometimes considerably)
  2. Crisp image quality with high detail
  3. Effective in extreme cold and heat
  4. Longer battery life

Night Vision Cons

  1. Useless in daylight
  2. Difficult to spot game that is standing motionless or hiding in cover

Thermal Pros

  1. Can be used during daylight or night
  2. Capable of target detection at a greater distance
  3. Can spot game even in thick brush

Thermal Cons

  1. More expensive
  2. Extreme temperature, rain, and fog can cause problems
  3. Less detail

Hunting Considerations

At the end of the day, the debate between night vision vs thermal mostly comes down to hunting, and the winner is going to depend on the sort of environment and conditions you expect to shoot in.

Are you hunting in thick brush or tall grass, or at extreme distance that require farther detection? Then thermal vision makes it extremely easy to track and spot your targets’ heat signatures.

Do you go hunting in places that frequently see rain, fog, or freezing temperatures? Then an NV scope will likely be a much better bet.

thermal vs night vision
It may be a beautiful sunset, but without either a thermal scope or an NV scope on your rifle, you won’t bag much game

And of course, cost is a factor – many night hunters can’t afford to shell out the kind of cash that quality thermal units go for, so there’s certainly something to be said for a budget-friendly option.

Is a Night Vision or Thermal Scope Worth It?

Is it worth investing in a thermal or night vision scope? If you’re one of the many hunters that enjoy hunting in those late dusk or pre-dawn hours like me, then absolutely! Some animals tends to be much more active at these hours, and many times you’ll stumble across game that is looking for an early meal.

Being able to more easily identify targets at distances that the human eye would miss, make accurate shots in total darkness, and track game even when they go into cover and aren’t visible at a glance are all great reasons to pick one of these optics up.

While recreational shooters may not see much benefit from them, these optics are also excellent for tactical use, and many military personnel and law enforcement officers use them on both their duty rifles and their personal weapons. Some competitive shooting events are even starting to adopt night vision stages!

Parting Shots

While it may not have settled the night vision vs thermal debate once and for all, we hope that this article gave you some useful insight into the differences between these two types of optic and the pros and cons of each.

Both thermal imaging and night vision have seen massive technological advances in recent years, and that shows no sign of stopping. That’s good news for shooters, since it means better gear at lower prices.

If you enjoy hunting at night, having an optic that has the ability to detect warm targets or spot game in crisp detail in the dead of night is definitely a game-changer, and I highly recommend trying them both out if possible to see which one you prefer based on your own specific shooting needs.

If you’re looking for some more info, then check out our 2021 review of the best night vision scopes under $1000 for a good starting point!

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