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4 Best Thermal Scopes of 2023 [All Budgets]

Looking to own the night? We walk you through a our favorite thermal scopes for your AR-15 or bolt gun to take your hunt to the next level.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re a competition shooter, a self-defense guy/gal, or a hardcore hunter…thermals rock!

    Who doesn’t like the ability to see in the dark with a gun?

    Of course, picking thermal can be daunting, thanks to the variety on the market.

    But luckily, you have your friends at Pew Pew Tactical to help you out.

    We rounded up a handful of thermals – both optic and handheld – we think we should consider when shopping.

    ATN Thermal

    While this is not a comprehensive list of ALL the thermals, we think this will serve as a good launching point.

    So, keep reading if you’re interested in nighttime fun…

    Table of Contents


    NVGs vs. Thermal

    There’s a difference between night vision and thermal.

    But the difference is pretty simple…

    ATN Thermal Hog
    A wild hog viewed through an ATN Thermal scope.

    Night vision gathers ambient light, ramping it up for you. On the other hand, thermal works off heat signatures.

    That means if you’re using night vision, your goggles or optic are dependent on things like starlight. While thermal tracks any and every bit of heat in your path.

    Daniel Defense MK18
    Night vision…peep that moonlight.

    So, what are the pros/cons of each?

    Night vision is fantastic for hunting after dark because it removes the need to use lights to scan. It also delivers nice, clear images.

    You can scan and spot feral hogs hundreds of yards out and get a great spot-and-stalk going.

    That said, night vision is impeded by tall grass and fog, among other things. If you’re hunting or in a no-light class and it’s foggy, or there’s a lot of brush in your way…well, you’re not likely to see well.

    Then there are other headaches — literally.

    LOTR headache

    If you wear night vision for too long, you’re basically guaranteed a headache. So, it’s best to take breaks to rest your eyes.

    Thermal works well for hunting because of body heat.

    Good thermal will give you a clean image of everything within your sight picture in whatever color you prefer – white-hot, black, etc. It differentiates between levels of heat within that color scale.

    ATN Thermal Shot
    ATN Thermal shot

    If you use the white-hot setting, a hog will appear bright white, while cooler objects around it will be darker.

    Since thermal works off heat and not light, it can function in settings where night vision fails.

    Thermal can even pick up hoofprints and pawprints off residual heat for varying lengths of time.

    These optics also have greater range than night vision — as in, high-end thermals can see over a thousand yards out.

    However, rain messes with thermal. Also, detail can be harder to get depending on the model.

    You know the “objects in mirror may appear closer than they are” note on the side mirror of your truck?

    Thermals are kind of like that.

    The point of aim and point of impact will vary more than you might expect. You need to learn shot placement when using them.

    Plus, they’re bulkier than night vision.

    Choosing the Right Thermal Optic

    Before we check out specific models, let’s take a second to think about what makes a good thermal.

    As you probably know, there are many options out there, none of which are truly low-priced.

    That’s because good thermal takes a lot of quality parts and solid design. But it doesn’t mean affordably priced gear can’t be good — it can.

    Cost comes first and foremost for most of us.

    Something Of a Poor

    The cooler the add-ons, the greater the cost. Decide what you just can’t live without and go from there.

    Features that bump up the cost include video recording, SD cards for storage, still-frame capabilities, and zoom.

    Some thermals also have zeroing settings that are pretty cool. But spending $6,000 or more on an optic is a bitter pill to swallow.


    Also, take use-case into consideration when selecting thermal.

    If you’ll always be hunting in close quarters, there’s no need to worry about getting one that can reach out to hundreds or thousands of yards. The same goes for if you prefer to spot-and-stalk.

    Those things also depend on the animals you’re hunting. You’ll take longer shots for coyotes, but with feral hogs, you may be up closer.

    As with any gear purchase, make sure it specifically fits your needs but also consider future needs.

    Something else to look at is the reticle and calculator system on the thermal optic.

    Some models are wildly complex, and you not only need the manual but end up requiring assistance to figure them out.


    So make sure it is a system you can live with.

    Also, determine battery life, whether it can handle the gun’s recoil and temperatures it can handle.

    Take it from me; having a thermal that eats batteries in under an hour in freezing conditions is far from ideal.

    Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at some specific models.

    Best Thermal Scopes

    1. Trijicon IR-HUNTER MK3 60MM

    Yes, we’re diving in with an upper-end thermal right off.

    The Trijicon IR-HUNTER is awesome, as is its tactical counterpart, the REAP-IR.

    It’s relatively easy to zero, features a 4.5X optical and 8X digital zoom, and opts for a 7-degree field of view.

    Trijicon IR-Hunter

    One of my favorite parts is the dual-lever mount. But it also has azimuth and elevation readouts, a stadiametric rangefinder, and a battery extender.

    This is a front-of-the-pack thermal scope.

    The IR-HUNTER’s battery extender comes in handy on hunts — it takes CR123 batteries, of course.

    Something I find cool and helpful is the Enhanced Target Recognition (ETR) image enhancement.

    Trijicon IR-Hunter LWRCI
    Trijicon IR-Hunter (Photo: Trijicon via Facebook)

    ETR can be used to bring out fine detail and works exceptionally well.

    It also offers video capability for those that want to record the hunt.

    I’ve dropped several hogs with the IR-HUNTER and REAP-IR. These are stellar thermal optics, but they have a price tag to match with an MSRP of $8,999.

    at OpticsPlanet

    Prices accurate at time of writing

    Prices accurate at time of writing

    Available Coupons

    2. Pulsar Thermion 2 XQ35 Pro

    What makes the Pulsar Thermion 2 XQ35 Pro interesting is its unique housing.

    This isn’t your standard bulky, chunky thermal. The Thermion was designed to look like a regular optic with a lighter weight to go with it.

    The Thermion optics do away with that bulk found on the scope body of most thermals.

    Features include 384×288 thermal resolution, a 17µm thermal sensor, and a stated range of 1,350 yards.

    This scope weighs in at 31.7 ounces, which beats out the 37-ounce Trijicon IR-HUNTER MK3 60mm.

    It takes 30mm rings and offers a digital zoom of 2.5-10.

    Oh, and it’s recoil-rated up to 6,000 Joules meaning you can mount it to your large-caliber rifles with no worries.

    The video system records in .jpeg and can even be streamed to a smartphone for use as a second display or control.

    If you’d prefer a classic riflescope-appearing thermal over the usual big models, this is the optic for you.

    Pulsar designed the Thermion line of thermal optics well and priced it fairly, with an MSRP starting at $2,999 for the XQ35. Additional models with higher resolution and zoom range are also available.

    at EuroOptic

    Prices accurate at time of writing

    Prices accurate at time of writing

    Available Coupons

    3. ATN ThOR 5

    Once upon a time, I competed in a coyote calling contest using an ATN ThOR scope. (No, my partner and I did not win, but we did have a blast).

    ATN recently unveiled their fifth-generation ThOR 5, which sports improved specs across the board.

    The ATN ThOR 5, as seen at SHOT Show 2023. (Photo: Guns.com)

    New 12µm sensors are standard in all models, and ATN offers various resolutions, including 320×240, 640×480, and a whopping 1280×1024. All models are 60hz to ensure a smooth picture.

    It offers video — and the exciting thing…it’s recoil-activated. As soon as you pull the trigger, it starts recording. So you can record your shot for better or worse.

    It’s Bluetooth capable, can stream to iOS and Android, and takes 4 to 64 GB of MicroSD cards.

    ATN claims to have a 10-hour battery life, but remember that extreme temperatures will drain it faster. In my experience, cold weather drains brand-new batteries at an incredible rate.

    The ThOR 5 delivers a clear picture, and the detection range spans from 820 yards on the entry-level model up to an eye-watering 4300 yards on the top-end model. They even have models available with integrated laser range-finders.

    With varying levels of zoom and resolutions available, customers can get into the ThOR 5 anywhere from a more budget-friendly price of $1,995 all the way to $7,195 for the top-of-the-line model.

    The ThOR 5 is brand new for 2023, and if they hold up as well as their previous models, they are definitely worth a look at.

    at ATN

    Prices accurate at time of writing

    Prices accurate at time of writing

    Available Coupons

    What do you think of the ATN ThOR 5? Give it a rating below.

    Readers' Ratings

    5.00/5 (741)

    Your Rating?

    4. Accufire Incendis

    Maybe you are running an LPVO or red dot and are looking for a solution that doesn’t require you to remove your existing optic or replace it with a bulky thermal scope.


    That is where a thermal clip-on like the Accufire Incendis comes in. Clip-ons allow you to clip the thermal imager on in front of your existing optic if you wish. This is a great solution for a few reasons.

    You get to keep your regular optic mounted, which allows the gun to be used in the daytime normally, and you won’t lose zero by having to change optics while also cutting down on bulk when it’s not in use.

    Additionally, this allows you to use the clip-on as a handheld thermal unit when it isn’t on the gun. No more glassing the field with a 10-pound rifle at night to spot those hogs.

    The Incendis is much shorter overall than most regular thermal optics. (Photo: Accufire)

    There are reticles to choose from which allows the unit to be used as a standalone optic as well.

    The standard Incedis ($3,149) features a 384×288 17 µm sensor, a 60hz refresh rate, 1x, 2x, and 4x magnification, 4 color palettes, and a 4-hour battery life using 4 CR123 batteries.

    Accufire Incendis Pro
    Accufire Incendis Pro

    With the new Incendis Pro ($6,199), users get a 640×480 12 µm sensor, 60hz refresh rate, 1-8x magnification, 9 color palettes, and a 6-hour battery life using an integrated rechargeable battery.

    at OpticsPlanet

    Prices accurate at time of writing

    Prices accurate at time of writing

    Available Coupons

    Although the battery life is shorter, these thermals are much more compact than a standard scope and can flex into multiple roles, which makes them appealing.

    Final Thoughts

    Thermals are a fun and useful tool to have if you intend to do any nighttime shooting – be it at the range for a class or in the woods tracking game.

    While we could go on about the various models on the market, we think you’ll be happy with any of the thermals above.

    What thermal do you prefer? Let us know in the comments below. Need more nighttime optics? Check out our Best Night Vision Scopes & Capable Optics and Best Night Vision Goggles.

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    9 Leave a Reply

    • Commenter Avatar
      Joseph Brandenburg

      Your “review” is just another trash clickbait read. The THOR 5 XD hasn’t even shipped yet. And here you are pushing it on specs alone.

      Speaking of specs, you utterly failed to mention NETD ratings for a single item. Probably the most important detail in real world use of thermals.

      May 18, 2023 7:38 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      what stock is on Kats ar rifle early in the article?

      May 16, 2023 11:02 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      Sightmark just came out with the Wraith Mini 2-16x35 Thermal Riflescope

      May 13, 2023 6:57 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      Chuck Cochran

      Would love to get either. Unfortunately, on my retiree's income, none of these are within my budget.

      May 11, 2023 6:17 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Great list, but I'd say you forgot the absolute best bang for your buck today: the bering super hogster. Check it out, it's by far today's best bet for the money

      September 16, 2021 12:01 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Although the technology used in thermal optics "scopes" is now common and cheaply had the cost of thermal optics "scopes" remain too pricey compared to the technology used.

      Of course the arguments that could be made to justify the thermal optics "scopes" pricing are many in all sorts of aspects. But the reality is every one of these in the article uses technology that can be had for less than 5% of the cost of those scopes in the article so other than a "package" (the scope body) to hold it all and some glass (which these manufacturers already (or could) have in abundance so the profit point on these must be in a very comfortable range for the manufacturer.

      September 16, 2021 10:19 am
      • Commenter Avatar

        Is there any way to get said parts? I would be happy to DIY one of these scopes, especially if it came at a lower price.

        October 24, 2022 4:03 pm
      • Commenter Avatar
        Andrew James Hodges

        You forget how modern product distribution works. Made in U.S.A. products change hands at least twice before it gets to you. Imported products even more. Even "direct from manufacturer" usually isn't. They sell it to a sister company under the same ownership that has to turn it's own profit as a retailer. At every step you get ANOTHER markup (25% is considered the minimum to turn a profit). Meaning that what the actual manufacturer sold it for is usually a tiny fraction of what you paid at retail because you are also paying EVERY company that had either legal or physical possession of it between the manufacturer and you.

        April 22, 2023 10:34 am
      • Commenter Avatar

        Reminds me of this guy I met who said the components of cars can be had for much less than the actual cost of the car: you're not wrong but I implore you to build one yourself if you think you're onto something.

        May 12, 2023 6:36 pm
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