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 a daunting task, 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.
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…
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.
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 significant brush in your way…well, you’re not likely to see well.
Then there are other headaches — literally.
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 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.
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 1,000-yards out.
However, rain messes with thermal. Also, detail isn’t stellar.
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.
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 a lot of 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.
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 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. Same goes for if you prefer to spot-and-stalk.
Those things also depend on the animals you’re hunting. For coyotes, you’ll take longer shots, but with feral hogs, you may be up closer.
As with any gear purchase, make sure it specifically fits your needs but do consider future needs as well.
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.
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.
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.
ETR can be used to bring out fine detail and works exceptionally well.
It also offers video for those that want to record the hunt.
I’ve dropped a number of hogs with the IR-HUNTER and REAP-IR. These are stellar thermal optics, but they do have the price tag to go with it with an MSRP of $8,999.
2. Pulsar Thermion XM30
What makes the Pulsar Thermion XM30 interesting? Its 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.
Features include 320×240 thermal resolution, a 12um thermal sensor, and a stated range of 1,450-yards.
I haven’t run it at 1,450-yards, but I’d certainly like to do so. Long-range hogs shots are the best shots.
This scope weighs in at 26.45 ounces, which is impressive compared to the 37-ounce Trijicon IR-HUNTER MK3 60mm.
It takes 30mm rings and offers a digital zoom of 3.5-14.
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 it 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 $2,799.
3. ATN ThOR-HD
Once upon a time, I competed in a coyote calling contest using this thermal. (No, my partner and I did not win, but we did have a blast).
It’s 1.7 pounds which isn’t too heavy, and it’s easy to zero.
The ThOR-HD has a 1.1-10X magnification, smart range finder, and 65mm eye relief.
It does offer video, and the interesting thing…it’s recoil-activated. As soon as you pull the trigger, video turns on. So, you can record your shot for better or worse.
It also brings MicroSD capabilities for extra storage.
Does this thermal stream? Yes, it does.
It’s Bluetooth capable, streams to iOS and Android, and takes MicroSD cards from 4 to 64 GB.
The ThOR-HD delivers a clear picture and moderately easy zeroing.
It claims to have an 8-hour battery life but try to remember that extreme temperatures will drain it faster. In my experience, cold weather drains brand-new batteries at an incredible rate.
This model takes four AAA batteries or a 1.5 V (they recommend you pony up the dough for lithium).
This is a great mid-range thermal optic, priced at $3,299.
Many shooters use ATN due to its being slightly more affordable, and I will agree it is promising.
It’s a good line of thermal and well worth considering as a steppingstone into the higher-end optics.
What do you think of the ATN ThOR? Give it a rating below.
4. Leupold LTO Tracker 2 HD
We’re getting into handheld thermal with the Leupold LTO Tracker — a device that’s had two generations so far.
When it was first launched at SHOT a couple of years ago, it was love at first sight for me. When the one I had was stolen on a hunt some months later, I was more than a little upset.
It’s an awesome product, one I cannot recommend enough.
At just 5.5-inches long and 7 ounces, the LTO Tracker 2 HD doesn’t take up much room in your pack or pockets.
Leupold’s Beacon mode is new to this model, which allows the user to easily recalibrate the device for use in the daytime.
If you’re wondering what Beacon mode could be used for, think tracking downed game in broad daylight and needing greater distinction between heat signatures.
It brings a 1.2-inch round display and a 3-second startup time.
Not to mention, it can be used in temperatures ranging from -40 degrees to 572 degrees Fahrenheit.
The thermal sensor is 320×240, while the display resolution is 390×390.
This handheld thermal introduces a variety of settings. It might be tiny, but you can still choose from color palettes. And you’ll see more than you probably expect through it.
One disclaimer: Leupold says it works out to 750-yards. Yes, it does technically detect heat that far out. It just isn’t clear enough to tell you what it is.
The LTO Tracker 2 HD is an excellent choice for, well, everyone. And, at $967, it’s well within the price range of most.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
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.