As soon as the sun goes down, you’re faced with an unfortunate reality.
For safety’s sake — or simply to remain on the right side of the law, depending on what you’re use case is — you have to stop shooting.
At least, you did, until night vision optics became a practical reality for recreational consumer-level shooters. These systems are cheaper, better, and easier to use than ever before, and they can make a ton of sense under the right circumstances.
The night vision marketplace can be confusing, but with our guide, you’ll be able to wade through the jargon and figure out what purchases make sense for you. Keep in mind, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive survey of the night vision optic marketplace.
That would take many thousands of words and is probably beyond the need of most shooters. Instead, we’ll look at a few practical setups you might want to run, either for hunting or tactical applications.
Why Night Vision?
This is a question every shooter has to answer for him or herself.
Are you interested in night vision optics for a theoretical tactical advantage? Are you just a shooting enthusiast who wants to experiment with different situations and use cases?
Maybe you’re a hunter who can legally take certain types of game at night. In some places, deprivation permits allow hog hunting after dark — which is an excellent time to catch wild pigs out in the open … see our guide to pig hunting here.
Or perhaps you have a rat infestation and an air gun waiting for some target opportunities in a safe setting — (you have read our 5 Best Air Guns, right?).
Whatever the case, your intended application should determine what kind of night vision optic setup you purchase, and what you’re likely going to need to spend for effective results.
There are too many possible applications to cover optics for every scenario, so we’ll look at different types of night vision technology and specific optics, along with their range of suitable applications, to help you figure out what you’ll need in the field.
What is NVD?
What are people talking about when they discuss night vision optics? There’s a long history that it’s helpful to understand as you go about making a purchasing decision.
Night vision devices, or NVDs, were developed and deployed for military applications as early as World War II. The Germans put a portable unit in the field called the ZG 1229 Vampir, an active infrared device that was mounted on Sturmgewehr 44 rifles and powered by a backpack battery.
Of course, this type of technology was set to completely change warfare, as night fighting is normally a highly risky proposition without adequate intel and illumination. The U.S. developed “zero generation” active infrared devices in parallel with the Germans, and Sniperscope infrared devices also appeared on WWII battlefields on the Allied side.
Development continued through the Korean War and Vietnam, where first generation passive devices, which rely on ambient light instead of an infrared light source, were put into use for the first time. These offered around 1,000 times light amplification levels and had an effective range out to about 100 yards.
Second generation devices used an image intensifier tube with a microchannel plate, which greatly improved night vision performance to about 10,000 times ambient light levels, or out to about 200 yards.
The third generation saw even more technological improvements, resulting in higher image resolution and greater light magnification, anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 times greater than ambient levels, offering an effective range of about 300 yards and beyond.
There’s a fourth generation of NVDs out there, sort of, though the U.S. Army went back on this classification after issues arose with the technology. But we don’t need to talk too much about this, except in terms of marketing, as the term does pop up around some devices. Suffice it to say, they aren’t necessarily superior.
I could go into the technical aspects of the technology, but for the average shooter, the result is the same: night vision optics were getting better, and were able to perform in much lower light, such as during a moonless night.
White phosphor technology, which produces a white-and-black, high-contrast image based on amplifying ambient light, is also becoming very popular.
However, for many hunters especially, infrared-sensitive optics are the best bet for hunting at night – where their use is legal, of course. Non-scope-mounted monocular units are also popular for finding game at night.
Generally, thermal imaging offers far superior capabilities in terms of detecting animals when compared to light amplification devices. Though the resolution isn’t generally as good, IR units are more than adequate for most applications, and when viewing game through an IR unit, they really stand out versus a light amplifying system.
Additionally, thermal imaging technology can be used in complete darkness, and can also be used during daylight for sighting in, whereas light amplification devices aren’t usable during the day and can be damaged if light sources are too bright.
Gen 2 and Gen 3 night vision devices are excellent, however, and can absolutely surpass thermal imaging devices in some applications, especially in terms of target identification and resolution. This is why you need to be very clear about your goals and intended use cases.
Because light amplification devices are highly versatile and offer greater resolution, they excel for navigational applications and in some tactical situations where higher resolution is paramount.
Keep in mind, however, that gen 2 and gen 3 devices will likely be extremely expensive. Most entry-level equipment is going to be gen 1. So we really can’t compare apples-to-apples in terms of image clarity unless we ignore price.
I know I keep saying this, but it’s really important: It really all comes down to your intended application. Instead of dwelling on all of the technical differences, let’s focus on what the average shooter needs to know.
Best Night Vision for Hunting
Let’s start by examining a couple of mainstream night vision and infrared units and what you can get out of them to better understand the market.
You’ll likely not be running a goggle-based night vision system for hunting — though some hog hunters trying to clear overwhelmed farmland will run goggles with IR lasers for quick shots, to eradicate pest populations — and you probably won’t need multiple accessories you’d otherwise find useful for tactical applications.
There are a ton of options available in the marketplace, so let’s look at two to get a better idea of what you might want.
This gen-1 night vision scope is more of a budget option, but it gets the job done. It’s a little bulky, and it features 3 times magnification, but for less than $300 in most cases, this scope is a good bet for those looking to enter the world of night vision-assisted shooting.
The unit features a titanium body and is thus lightweight, and the unit also includes an IR illuminator built in (as an aside, be sure to check local laws when making purchasing decisions, because, in some states, infrared illumination isn’t allowed for taking game. In some cases, however, passive units that don’t feature IR illumination are allowed).
The Firefield has red crosshairs with adjustable brightness settings and features 20 hours of battery life when the IR is active, reaching 50 hours if IR mode is off. Otherwise, this is a simple unit that is reasonably easy to use but is very careful not to use this scope in daylight. The front lens cover has a pinhole sight you can use to zero your rifle in daylight, but it isn’t especially easy to use.
While anything in the Thor line-up from ATN is going to be quality, the 2-8x magnification is a common sweet spot for hunting. However, you can get ATN thermal scopes ranging from 1.15x all the way to 40x.
Hunting at night has never been easier than with modern thermal scopes. The ability to clearly see and target game in near zero light is a powerful tool, but it doesn’t come cheap.
ATN has packed in a lot of goodies though, from computer-assisted one-shot-zero to a self-correcting BDC, plus being able to record in 60-fps!
You’ll also have lots of options in terms of sensor model and lenses.
While the Firefield is a great way to get your toe wet in night vision, sometimes it really helps to get the next rung up from the budget option. In this case that means the ATN X-Sight II HD – and the extra cash really makes a difference.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Sporting a ballistic calculator, recoil activated video, night and day vision, E-barometer, gyroscope, and E-compass – this is the scope that coyotes should fear.
And it comes in at a very reasonable price point.
Best Tactical Night Vision
Tactical setups for night shooting run the gamut, and covering every possible setup for every use case is outside the scope of this article (pun intended).
That said, most shooters will either run a full night vision scope on their rifle, or use some sort of head-mounted goggle NVD system, along with a specialized setup on their rails, with a red dot sight, iron sights, an IR laser, and some combination of illumination options, either for redundancy’s sake, or just out of personal preference.
There are far too many potential options and combinations of equipment, but be aware that as you get deeper into setting up a gun for shooting at night, more advanced IR laser systems and sights can become expensive.
The Ghost is a gen 1 monocular night vision optic with a built-in IR illuminator. It features 2x magnification, automatic shut-off when ambient light is too intense, and polymer construction to keep it lightweight.
This is a small unit, and you can use it as a hand-held, mount it directly on a rifle (with a separate mounting bracket), or integrate it into a goggle system (sold separately, obviously). All are reasonable options, depending on your setup, but from a tactical perspective, I’d guess most would opt for a goggle mount. The Ghost Hunter absolutely would serve on a rifle, though.
At around $240, this isn’t the cheapest monocular night vision setup you can get, but it’s definitely within the ballpark for those seeking entry-level equipment, and it’s versatile to boot. You can spend much more on a gen 2 or 3 unit, but for shooting within closer ranges, the Ghost should suffice.
This night vision-compatible red dot setup allows for versatility with an IR or night vision scope mounted inline. While this sort of system really isn’t optimal as the primary aiming system for a goggle-mounted night vision setup.
Because of the issues, you’ll have to try to navigate around and focus your optics at distance, all while trying to line up your red dot. In a tactical scenario, this is far from ideal.
That’s why most goggle-mounted night vision setups rely on IR lasers as their primary aiming system, with red dots and iron sights as backups. With that said, the Primary Arms’ red dot system absolutely can serve for various configurations.
It allows for precise zeroing and features over 50,000 hours of battery life on the medium intensity setting. Great for set-ups that you want to leave turned on even when they are stored away in your safe!
This red dot can provide accurate sighting in line with a night vision or IR scope, or act as a redundancy aiming system in conjunction with an IR laser aiming system. It’s built to be rugged, features a long battery life, and has most of the features for a variety of night shooting and tactical applications.
Most goggle-mounted night vision systems are going to rely on IR lasers to reliably hit targets in the dark. It’s just not practical to try to line up red dots or iron sights down the length of a barrel with goggles strapped to your head.
Again, there are tons of IR laser units available, but the civilian market is generally restricted, both in the U.S. and abroad (so be sure you can legally acquire what you’re looking to purchase), and the units tend to be on the expensive side.
On the cheaper side of high-quality, low-power, civilian-legal IR lasers designed for use with rifles. This unit offers a low profile, light weight construction, and easy functionality for use with a night vision shooting system.
Note that a lot of users report preferring to run this laser with a remote switch to temporarily activate it when ready to shoot. Additionally, some prefer to run it alongside an IR illuminator to help reduce the blooming effect the laser gives off when it hits a target.
This blooming is unavoidable, as the laser light reflects back toward your optic when it hits something, but an IR illumination can help reduce the effect.
Daytime Optic Compatibility
Use caution when paring red dot systems with night vision scopes. Make sure you’re red dot system is compatible with night vision applications because if the red dot is too bright, it’s possible for it to damage your night vision optic.
Lower power settings are available for many red dot systems, but be sure to check with the manufacturer and know how to use your equipment before you make a costly mistake.
Night Vision Enthusiasm
There are a ton of reasons to be excited about night vision shooting setups. For anyone who hunts, the opportunity to track game at night, such as predators and pest species, is a game changer — where it’s legal to use these systems, of course.
For tactical enthusiasts or those interested in self-defense, the ability to safely engage targets at night is revolutionary. It takes some knowledge and understanding, but if you have the funds and the drive to learn, a night vision setup is within your reach!
Hunt with night vision or thermals? Run tactical ops with them? Let us know in the comments! And if you’re looking for some NVGs, take a look at our best Night Vision Googles article!