Best Night Vision Goggles [Beginner’s Guide+Real Views]

Thinking about night vision?

We’ll cover everything you need to know if seeing in the dark is worth the steep price of admission.

Author Through White Phosphorus Night Vision
Author Through White Phosphor Night Vision

We’ll start with the different types and generations of night vision…then go into essential gear, some usage tips, and our favorite night vision goggles.

NVM14-3 with Steiner DBAL-A3
NVM14-3 with Steiner DBAL-A3

Whatever your end-use is…from low-light hunting to night shooting competitions or just because you can…this guide will get you started.

They’ll be plenty of pictures of actual tested gear…and even more video clips.

Table of Contents

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Night Vision Generations

We won’t dive into the nitty gritty of how night vision works…just now that it collects whatever little ambient light there is and amplifies it.  The important part is the image intensifier tube.

How Night Vision Works, Optics Planet
How Night Vision Works, Optics Planet

It’s has come a long way since the Vietnam war and each jump in technology is designated a different “generation”.  Here’s the gist:

  • Generation 1: Vietnam era and HUGE.  Don’t buy this for any practical usage nowadays.
Gen 1 Night Vision
Gen 1 Night Vision
  • Generation 2: From the 80’s…a newer kind of detection plate in the tube is developed (MCP) and improves resolution 150% over Gen 1.  This is what you see in more affordable night vision goggles.  Entirely usable.
  • Generation 3: 90’s tech…with a new kind of gas in the tube.  30% increase in resolution from Gen 2.  This is most of the stuff you’ll see and what we tested.  Most recommended.
Night Vision Cat
Night Vision Cat, Gen 3
  • Generation 4: 10% over the best of Gen 3.  The halo around bright objects is reduced.  But WAY more expensive.  Get it if you can afford it…and/or if your life depends on night vision.

What about this white phosphor?

Most night vision that we know is green because of the color of phosphor on the tube.  White phosphor is Gen 3 tech and gives you more defining shadows but costs more.

EOTech White Phosphor
EOTech White Phosphor

Monoculars vs Binoculars

Most of the time when you think goggles…you’re thinking of binoculars that have two tubes.

ATN PS15-3
ATN PS15-3

Or ok…the quad ones from Zero Dark Thirty.  That you can actually buy for a cool $43,000.

L3 GPNVG-18
L3 GPNVG-18

I’m sorry to burst your bubble…but for your first entry into NVGs (night vision goggles) or NODs (night observation device)…you’re probably going with a monocular.

ATN NVM14-3 with Hard Head Veterans Helmet
ATN NVM14-3 with Hard Head Veterans Helmet

They are about half the price (think $2000 vs $4000 starting).  Plus they are more versatile since you can use them in your hand, helmet, or on your gun.  You also have one eye free that preserves natural night vision.

You still only have about a 40 degree angle of view with either the monocular or binocular…so it comes down to budget and personal preference.

How to Use Night Vision Goggles

The very first thing when I turned on my Gen 3 monoculars was silence.

You don’t know how bummed I was that it didn’t have that high pitch turn-on sound.

Splinter Cell NVG
Splinter Cell NVG

Turns out…that’s only for Gen 1.  Movies/games have failed me again!

The next thing I noticed was how disoriented I was…before I figured out you have to focus to a certain distance.

I practiced for about 15 minutes each night walking around the house and trying not to trip over myself since you lose a lot of depth perception.

After a week I was able to change my newborn’s diapers with my NVGs.

Another pro for monoculars is that even if your distance is set for far away…your uncovered eye can help with close weapons manipulations…or butt-wiping.

Whatever your purpose is with night vision…it likely involves firearms.  And just having a monocular or binocular will do you no good without more gear.

Essential Night Vision Gear

We’re going to slowly work through these topics with dedicated posts…but for now these are our recommendations.

Helmets

NVM14 Head Mount
NVM14 Head Mount

Most systems will come with a strap head mount.  But if you plunked down over $2000…you’re going to make sure you look cool.

So you need a helmet.

There’s ballistic rated ones and also cheaper “bump” helmets.

The specific one I’m rocking is Hard Head Veterans with their cover.

But the main thing is to make sure you have the standard “shroud” in the front for attachments.

Ballistic Helmet with Shroud
Ballistic Helmet with Shroud

Here’s some links to popular helmets.  We’ll have some in-depth guides soon.

Then plop your NVG onto it…

Attachment System of ATN NVM14-3
Attachment System of ATN NVM14-3

The ATN model I used is commercial and comes with its own system.  While others will use a more standardized military version.

My recommendation is to go with the Wilcox Breakaway so you don’t break your neck if you snag something.

Then…adjust the distance to your eyes.

Adjusting NVM14-3
Adjusting NVM14-3

And as for which eye…most will put it opposite of your dominant eye or your non-shouldering side.  This gets it out of the way of your rifle.

Voila!

ATN NVM14-3
ATN NVM14-3

If you look good…you’ll feel good.

Looking Good with NVGs in the Desert
Looking Good with NVGs in the Desert

Illuminators

Remember when I said that night vision amplifies ambient light?

What if there is no ambient light?

You’ll need an IR (infrared) illuminator that only shows up in your NVGs.

Some models will have built-in illuminators but they are usually only good for 10 feet or so.

The ATN has an IR mode on its switch.

Switch for ATN NVM14-3
Switch for ATN NVM14-3

What if you need something more powerful?

There’s standalone IR illuminators like the Inforce WMLx (full review in Best AR-15 Flashlights).

Or combo ones with IR lasers…which brings us to…

IR Lasers

Pew pew!

It gets really difficult to look through your sights with night vision goggles.  Even if they have NV mode (much less bright so it doesn’t damage the tube).

Aimpoint PRO Night Vision Mode
Aimpoint PRO Night Vision Mode

NV enabled optics make it seem like the target is painted with a laser since your focus depth is on targets and not the dot.

Still…it’s pretty hard to use them.

So you want IR lasers that only show up in night vision and that allow you to point shoot.  Like normal lasers if you want to see the beam you’ve got to have some smoke or debris.

And here’s where the fun starts…

Now what if you combo-ed the illuminator and laser?  These are the cool-looking units you see on the front of rifles.

SureFire M600 Scout
SureFire M600 Scout with Steiner DBAL A3

The Steiner DBAL unit (dual beam aiming laser) has regular laser, IR laser, and IR illumination.

Steiner DBAL Illuminator
Steiner DBAL Illuminator

Here is the IR laser and IR illuminator (which is much more focused than the WMLx) in action.

You can check it out here:

1490
at OpticsPlanet

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Other options include the more affordable Steiner DBAL I2 and the B.E. Meyers MAWL-C1+ which is offset to the side.

Counterbalance

Your NVGs shift a lot of weight to the front of your helmet.  After a few hours your neck is going to hate you.

So I highly recommend getting some counterweights for the back of your helmet…either with lead weights or extra batteries.

Team Wendy Counterweight
Team Wendy Counterweight

And now…what you’ve been waiting for…

Best Night Vision Goggles

Side Profile of ATN NVG
Side Profile of ATN NVG

For firearms…it’s mostly been “you get what you pay for”…but it’s even more so for night vision.

You also want to “buy once, cry once” since upgrading can be a headache with reselling and taking a loss.

And lastly…I highly recommend buying straight from the manufacturers or a super well-known retailer.  You don’t want to mess around with warranties and returns with some small reseller.

1. ATN NVM14-3

This is the one I tested and the recommended model straight from ATN (one of the largest manufacturers of mil-spec and commercial NVGs).

Their commercial NVM14 model is a play on the mil-spec (military specification) PVS14 monocular.

NVM14-3 with Steiner DBAL-A3
NVM14-3 with Steiner DBAL-A3

Commercial is still plenty robust for most people but one thing to keep in mind is that you’re stuck with their mounting system.  If you already have Wilcox or other mil-spec mounts you’re out of luck.

This one is a Gen 3 and although most will be happy with a Gen 2…you might as well save up a LITTLE more and get something that will make you really happy.

Targets at Night, ATN PVS14-3
Targets at Night, ATN PVS14-3

I tried my best with my potato phone pictures but it’s really a lot clearer when actually looking through them.

Editor's Pick
2999
at ATN Corp.

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

What do you think about the PVS14-3 if price were no object?

Readers' Ratings

4.99/5 (376)

Your Rating?

2. ATN NVM14-3W

Want the extra contrast of white phosphor?  There’s a model for that.

Though I haven’t tried this exact one…if it’s the same quality as the regular Gen 3…it’s GTG.

Another thing to consider if you should up your budget a little bit (50% in this case)…this night vision thing is a slippery slope!

White Phosphor
4499
at ATN Corp.

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

3. ATN PVS14-3

Their mil-spec version they make for the government.  If you need that extra robustness and more importantly…ability to use mil-spec mounts.

Mil-Spec
3499
at ATN Corp.

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Check out the rest of ATN’s monoculars here.

4. Armasight PVS14 Gen 3

Another big player that keeps coming up too with good reviews.  A little more expensive than the ATN.

Runner-Up (Mil-Spec)
4000
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

5. ATN PS15-3

For all you ballers out there that need binoculars…

Double-Trouble
6499
at ATN Corp.

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

6. L3 EOTech BNVD

For the discerning user who is looking for white phosphor binoculars.

The video does not do it justice…they were by far the clearest.

Law enforcement or military only.

at OpticsPlanet

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

7. L3 EOTech GPNVG

Now you get 97 degrees of viewing…all for the price of a nice car.

I haven’t been able to try these out…but I imagine I’d have the same reaction.

Nice, GPNVG
Nice, GPNVG

If you need these…you probably don’t need this article!

Operators Only
42500
at OpticsPlanet

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Conclusion

Author All Geared Up with Carrier and NVG
Author (Needs More Beard & Tactical Slim-fit Pants)

I’m not yet an expert in NVGs but I hope this is a starting point for your journey.  I’m still going down it too!

If you aren’t at NVG level but still want to own the night…check out our Best AR-15 Flashlights and Best Pistol Lights.

How did we do for a beginner’s night vision guide?  Anything we missed?  Or if you could buy any of them right now…which would it be?

And if this video doesn’t make you want to get some NVGs…I don’t know what will…

8 Leave a Reply

  • Larry

    Thumbs up to all involved in this very professional video. I learned tons from your info and the products you show/recommend. Thank you all very much..

    7 months ago
    • Eric Hung

      So glad we could help you out, Larry!

      7 months ago
  • John Cantrell

    PVS-14s do hum..... it’s a high pitch sound all hours through the night sitting in that foxhole. PVSs are good for cooks and people that work for S1. Not for people engaging active targets/combatants. Don’t waste your money on these boys. You want quality but don’t feel like spending 40k? Buy a pair of PSQ-20Bs (not mentioned here) which also has thermal capabilities along with I2. You can even use them consecutively. My experience comes from being a 240 gunner in the Infantry. I hated using any PVS platform. Why you ask? They get wet or you bound and eat some rocks, hell even bump them on a tree... done for. You could treat yourself to a nice long gun and a plate carrier for what these cost.

    1 year ago
  • radarphos

    In the Active Army and combat over my years I've used both Gen 1 and Gen 3 NVGs. like you said, what works for you (anyone) depends upon your purposes and interests.. I liked Generation 1, except for the humm which is very similar to having ear tinnitus.. I didn't like the hum because it is a "sound report" should someone be behind you that you do not see. They will hear it (when real close to you) and know you are nearby. I also used it in my house completely dark and could see just fine, but it may have been primarily because of street/auto lights on the road penetrating closed curtains, and LEDs from various appliances. The most difficult visual time I experienced with a Gen. 1 was a moonless night under thick cloudy conditions, but I could still see movement; and proved it to myself by having my adult kids go outdoors and hide behind a big tree, and then both slowly (and one quickly) moved from that tree to another hiding spot under no-light conditions. The one who moved slow was hardest to see. But I could still see them because humidity in the air amplifies diffuse light. For the cost today, a Gen 1 NVBino would be plenty fine enough for a homeowner or farmer to scan his property at night.; and in a SHTF it would be fine for scanning perimeters. Anyone who thinks they may be forced to run outdoors for cover at night and during a SHTF, with a Gen.1 you will be able to see movements or light easily for up to 100 yards with the Gen 1's that I have used. But at 100 yards you will see a movement profile but very little detail. The picture quality is not as good as Gen 3s, but you can still see. And they can be especially helpful if you are in a BO and concerned about crossing an open area. You can make a rest stop and scan the perimeter of the open area for a possible ambush group, and especially if someone lights up a cigarette or turns on an illuminator of any sortm or car lights. My father was a trapper and I went with him as a kid. In the Army Field during manuevers and using a Gen 1. I could see animal movement and immediately the value of that for trappers. Ants may urinate with every step or two (or three) to mark their trail, but animals don't leave scat (poop) that often, so knowing the trails by NVBino eyesight can be helpful to the hungry who know how trap because animals pick their trails by considering them the safest way for their travels.. It can also be helpful for watching deer movement.. It could help the hunter know how the deer are moving at night, which helps knowing where to position a stand before early dawn. Another thing about Gen 1 is that if you are moving in a forest area, you can see ten feet out for where fallen trees are, or thick shrubs, low hanging branches, etc. if you are in a BO.(bug out). The value here is that any travel in a forest environment at night will likely lead to some sort of injury, unless you can see ahead of you to know what is ahead of you. When I think about daytime places I've hiked to, a person could (if traveling at night in these places with no light ) fall off a cliff, or step into a rock or hole (break a leg), or step into a marsh area and have one's whole lower leg stuck in muck, if one were running away from something fearful because they had no way to see in the dark, whether someone was chasing them, besides other hazards. I used a Gen 3 during Desert Storm, My driver would drive 35-40 mph under no-light conditions over the raw desert and in an area that was hilly with 20-foot hills. Both of us wondered if there might be drop offs on the other side of the hill similar to how some sand-dunes look during daytime, where there is a gentle slope (climbing a hill) on one side followed by what appears to be sort of a cave-in depression on the other side, So my driver drove and I Gen-3 scoped the road ahead of us in the middle of the night. As we approached each hill we slowed down, just in case. The Gen 3 that I was assigned had an illumination device. Altogether it was good enough for me to read a newspaper in my closed-up tent (under no-light conditions), that could never be done with a Gen.1 NVG.. You got to bear in mind though that any sniper with any generation and type of NVG can see the light of the illuminator when it is on; so using it poses risks to the user in a combat environment, unless one is protected by berms (mounds or sandbags, etc.).. 'A friend of mine bought a used/reconditioned Gen-1 NVBino after Desert Storm (about 1993-1994) that was supposedly Russian made for their Afgan War. It was still working 20 years later. So my conclusion to all of this is that if you like camping and hunting or trapping or even playing around with equipment outdoors at night (but not on nighttime busy roads) a Gen 1 NV device will be very affordable and give you a sense of security if you are concerned about who may be too close to your campsight, farm fields, backyard, etc. (excepting on moonless cloudy and rainy nights). If you are quiet you can spot animal movement for pre-positioning traps or a hunt site, You can know the location of anyone's presence if they turn on any type of light.. Even on a moonless clear (of clouds) night, you can still see (with a Gen.1) just by starlight and especially if there is movement.. I guess I could add that if you have kids, grandkids, etc. buying a used-reconditioned NVG will provide them a world of fun at night time, besides your own use of it for your particular interests..

    1 year ago
    • Victor

      Thank you for your In pUtah concerning 1st Gen night vision and it uses. I can not afford Gen 3 night vision but I'm hoping 1st Gen night vision will help me and mine if we have too bug out. Thank you again. Ava8harrierusmc1. Semper Fi

      1 second ago
    • Eric Hung

      Wow! Thanks for all the real world exp!

      1 year ago
  • Shawn

    OUTSTANDING...great videos and discussion. I know what I want for Chrismas this year!

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

      Thanks so much Shawn. Let me know what you end up getting!

      1 year ago
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