Before modern night vision technology became common and affordable the best we could do for night shooting was to use lamps and make the most of every minute of shootable light by gathering light with large objective lenses on our scopes. These methods are still very useful but the affordability of modern night vision equipment gives everyone a chance to make the most of shooting after the hours of darkness and is really a great tool to the professional pest controller who can get great results shooting vermin and troublesome predators at night. The further application of night vision optics for tactical and military applications is self-explanatory.
Why Do You Need a Night Vision Scope?
Without night vision equipment if you want to shoot at night, or in dark places such as inside buildings you need something to illuminate what you are shooting at, that might be a simple flashlight, the headlights of a vehicle a hand held lamp or perhaps on the battle field paralume artillery or mortars. The problem with these is that it reveals your position to the enemy or to your quarry in a hunting scenario.
Night vision equipment allows you to operate at night without alerting game or potential enemies to your location or even to your presence, this makes hunting at night so much easier than when using visible light as your quarry can’t grow accustomed to the light from a lamp and learn to shy away from it, proper night vision equipment opens up a whole world of opportunities for shooting at night.
How Night Vision Scopes Work
Many animals have a layer of tissue known as the tapetum lucidum in the back of the eye that reflects light back through the retina. This increases the amount of light available for it to capture, but reduces the sharpness of the focus of the image. This is found in many animals which are active most at night such as foxes, rabbits and cats and is the cause of ‘eyeshine’ when you catch those animals with your headlights or a lamp. The cells in their eyes which process light are also specifically arranged to work well in low light conditions. Humans and monkeys lack a tapetum lucidum and that special organisation of cells but we do have some limited ability to see at night.
Humans don’t see as well as some other mammals such as cats but we can see to some extent. Our eyes contain photoreceptor cells, cells specialised for seeing colour; ‘cones’, and cells specialised for seeing in dim light; ‘rods’.
Rod cells do have some use in colour vision but not as much as cones, each human retina contains about ninety two million rod cells, mostly at the edges of the retina where they are perfectly located for periphery vision. These rods contain photoreceptor proteins; a combination of rhodopsin and retinal night which are activated by light and which after a few minutes of darkness adapt to low light conditions, in darkness it’s only our rod cells, rather than our cones which are sensitive enough to respond. Once our eyes are adapted to low light it only takes a little bit of light to spoil that ‘night vision’ which is why you will see people using red filters on their torches as rhodopsin in the human rods is insensitive to longer light wavelengths of light, that means red light so those red lenses preserve what limited night vision we have.
This limited night vision isn’t enough to shoot accurately over long ranges unless our targets are illuminated though so we use technology to make up for that. To get a better image at night we have a couple of options; Thermal imaging is one of those options but it’s such a big topic that it needs a whole article dedicated to it. Other options are to intensify an image using what limited light is available or to find some way to illuminate a target without using normal visible light.
When there isn’t sufficient light to produce an image or an image that is detailed enough to be useful there is an option to enhance those images. Obviously one of the advantages of night vision is that it means we don’t have to illuminate a target with visible light as it would defeat the object of requiring night vision but we can use light that isn’t in the visible spectrum but which our night vision optics can turn into a useful image.
Infrared illumination helps us achieve this, some optics have in built illuminators or then can be mounted separately to a rifle or hand held. These provide the illumination necessary to create an image where one may not have been visible before. Using IR illumination you will see ‘eye-shine’ in mammals such as foxes and rabbits. This is what is known as active night vision where not only is light passively gathered but sent out in the form of infrared light which actively illuminates targets.
Modern night vision optics combine these two technologies to produce the very best images possible in packages which are much lighter, more portable and more capable than they have ever been before.
These two methods are often referred to as passive and active night vision; passive sends out no light of its own and instead gathers and amplifies all available light while a night vision scope with infrared illumination actively sends out light which isn’t normally visible to the naked eye to illuminate a target that can then be seen clearly through a night vision scope. You will also hear terms such as generation 1 and generation 2 in reference to night vision equipment.
Referring to night visions in terms of generation is really just a marketing ploy to try to communicate that one is a higher quality than another. Generation 1’s are the true budget option offering limited effective range of under 100 meters and images which compared to higher generation models are fairly poor. They may also use batteries very quickly and be of poorer overall quality. Most night vision equipment on the civilian market is generation 2 and in some cases bordering generation 3. Picking a night vision device based on its generation though is dangerous you’d be better of looking closely at the features and specifications and choosing based on that as the higher generation optics will always cost more but perhaps not provide the features you need and you could end up paying for a level of engineering you simply don’t need for hunting and use on the range.
For example if you only want a night vision scope for a .22lr for shooting rabbits at night and aren’t normally out for more than a couple of hours an inexpensive gen 1 scope will be ample for your needs, why break the bank with a gen 3 optic offering features that you would never need?
Also beware of people touting ‘generation 4’ night vision as there really aren’t many, if any, night vision devices out there in generation 4.
The History of Night Vision Optics
Modern night vision units are at the very cutting edge of shooting technology but night vision technology has been around for a while, it has only recently become affordable and portable enough to be useful to civilians but as early as The Second World War night vision equipment was experimented with and was used during battles on the eastern front in 1945 when Soviet soldiers reported being attacked at night by German snipers with ‘massive telescopic sights’.
The very first attempts at producing useable night vision equipment were always very heavy though, the batteries of the day were large and inefficient compared to our modern batteries and would often require a dedicated backpack specifically for the batteries, and these would then be connected to the optic or an infrared illuminator by cables. This not only made the equipment heavy but difficult to use as the cables could so easily tangle up with undergrowth and equipment.
The American M3 sniper scope was an early attempt at producing tactical night vision equipment. It is shown below as it was issued during the Korean War, mounted on an M1 carbine with the battery pack that was required to power the infrared illuminator which was used to illuminate targets with infrared light below the frequency of visible light that humans can see but which can be picked up by the scope.
Since the first early attempts at producing night vision optics during The Second World War and Korean War night vision technology has been further refined and been used to great success by the military and is now being used routinely by hunter, wildlife managers, emergency services, law enforcements agencies, and private security firms as well as the military.
Comparing the Best Night Vision Scopes
When you are in the market for a night vision optic there are a few features you need to consider in your search;
As you are looking at an image on a screen with a night vision optic you can’t get the same levels of clarity that you might with a true telescopic sight but some of the better models on the market do offer excellent image quality. Whether a scope is generation 1, 2 or 3 often refers to the quality and clarity of the image. Look for a scope that offers enough clarity to clearly identify your targets but remember the better the clarity and crispness of the image the more your scope will cost.
The clarity of the images and the sensitivity of the components inside your scope contribute to its effective range; the better the image and light gathering capability the more effective it will be at range. Some of the products listed here are effective to a hundred yards or so, while others such as the top of the range Pulsar products will be effective out to several hundred yards. Don’t expect the kind of long range image quality that you can get with expensive daytime optics though.
Battery Type & Life
Rather than the massive battery packs of old modern night vision optics will often just run of a couple of AA’s, as long as you use good quality batteries these should last for several hours depending on the model. Do be aware though that modular IR illuminators often require more specialist batteries and will eat through them quickly so choose them wisely and consider opting for rechargeable batteries.
Whatever batteries it takes though if you select a quality product it will work and carrying a few spare is always sensible even if your products is marketed as having a multi-day battery life.
Day & Night Use
The ability to use a scope both day and night is a really important factor in choosing a night vision scope, if you want something you can use whatever the light conditions and don’t mind having a big digital scope attached to your rifle during the day as well as at night. The inconvenience of having to re-zero a rifle constantly as you switch between a day and night scope is terrible so instead if you are going to use one rifle for everything consider something that will do both or find a product that will can be fitted to your standard optic to give it night vision capability.
Top 12 Night Vision Scope 2019 - Comparison Table
|Product||Day/Night Capable||Objective||Magnification||App Support||RRP||Weight (lbs)||IR illuminator included|
|Adapts a standard optical scope for night vision.||Fits a 42mm objective lens||Uses scopes own magnification||No||$2000||1.4||No|
|Armasight Nemesis6x-SD Gen 2+ Night Vision Rifle Scope||Yes||No specification given||6x||No||$1995||4.2||No|
|Yes||85||5-20 (digital zoom only)||Yes||$488||2.55||Yes (include with purchase but not integral to scope)|
|Yes||50mm||3-14x and 5-20x models available||Yes||$849||2.2||Yes|
|Yes||60||4||No||$3569||2.7||Yes (included with purchase but not integral to scope|
|Yes||N/A (adapts to existing scope)||N/A (adapts to existing scope)||No||$772||1.4||Yes|
|Yes||N/A (adapts to existing scope)||N/A (adapts to existing scope)||No||$255||No information||Yes|
Choosing a Night Vision Scope
Now that you know how they work and a little about their history you can choose the best product for your needs. Night vision optics have plenty of uses; military and tactical applications, law enforcement as well as hunting and vermin control. Unless you are going to be issued night vision optics you will have to choose your own from among the dozens of products now on the market, so which are the best products available for you to choose from?
#1 Pulsar Digital Night Vision Attachment
The greatest advantage of this night vision optic compared to many others is the fact that it can attach to your standard optic rather than needing to be attached to your rifle as a stand-alone sight. This means your rifle can be used as normal during the daytime and be adapted for use at night very simply. Most of us can’t afford to have a dedicated night shooting rifle and so the ability to switch simply to and from night vision. While this isn’t the cheapest night vision option on the market, retailing at around $2000, if the alternative is to have two rifles with one dedicated to day shooting and another for night the saving is significant.
This unit is easy to mount and dismount allowing you to use your favourite rifle no matter what the light conditions. It’s designed to fit over the objective lens of a standard scope, it is compatible with 42mm objective bells and offers no magnification but this is provided by your normal scope. At only just over a pound this adds very little weight to your overall setup compared to the several pounds that a fully featured night vision scope could offer.
#2 Armasight Nemesis6x-SD Gen 2+ Night Vision Rifle Scope
Despite the fact that sportsmen, hunters and wildlife managers find night vision so useful and in fact essential nowadays most night vision optics on the civilian market are still modelled after military and tactical products. This product from Armasight will do the trick for you though; it features 6x magnification and has fully shockproof construction and a waterproof body. This scope mounts to a standard weaver rail like many of the other products listed here and includes many features that you will be familiar with on a standard rifle scope such as an illuminated reticle and fully multicoated optics.
In contrast to the light weight pulsar adaptor this scope weighs over four pounds so you will need to be prepared for that extra weight and bulk.
Because of the advanced night vision technology used in the production of this scope exporting it to other countries requires special governmental permission from the State Department so if you choose this scope make sure you check these laws before taking it overseas.
#3 Sightmark Photon XT 4.6x42
This is optic offers probably the best value of all those listed here at under $500, it is very versatile offering functionality day or night at a fraction of the weight of some other models. As might be expected from a budget option though it doesn’t have quite the same level of performance as other models and only offers really good images out to about 120 yards. For those on a budget though this is plenty for a lot of your hunting needs and given that this scope features reticle options specifically designed for crossbows 120 yards is about the right sort of range for crossbow hunting.For added performance at night this scope has a built in infrared illuminator and at less than three pounds in weight even with the illuminator comes in at a fraction of the weight of some of the other models. This keeps your rifle light weight and manoeuvrable which is important for hunting especially in heavy undergrowth.
#4 ATN X-Sight II 5-20x/85mm Smart Day & Night Rifle Scope
This really is a product for the gadget geek’s among you, the ATN X-sight has it all; from a recoil activated camera, gps, wifi, ballistic calculator, rangefinder, electronic compass, and barometer as well as an associated app that you can use to change everything from the reticle to the level of zoom to just about any other feature.
One of the features of this scope which I have found most useful and impressive is the one shot zero capability which saves a great deal of time and ammunition when zeroing and also the ability to save the data for multiple different loads, this is particularly useful for the .300 blackout that I have my X-sight mounted on as the blackout handles high velocity and sub sonic ammunition and the zero for these can both be stored on the X-sight and you can switch between them at the touch of a button.
The 5-20x power magnification allows you to view your targets in greater detail than many of the other products in this list and the 85 mm objective lens is significantly larger than most standard optics so it gathers loads of light even before you deploy the infrared illuminator that is included in the package.
#5 Night Owl Optics NightShot Digital Night Vision Riflescope
Another budget offering this scope is at its best up to 200 meters and includes a built in infrared illuminator. It offers three times magnification but a relatively limited field of view. While it is suitable for most common small or mid-sized cartridges but you should probably avoid using this with heavier recoiling calibres as its lightweight budget friendly construction is not rated for those larger magnum calibres.
The built in illuminator will only illuminate targets up to 100 meters but you can add a high intensity illuminator to use with this scope with ease, this scope might not sound all that competitive compared to some of the other products on this list but when you consider the price at under $400 its lack of features is a sacrifice that’s worth making to for a basic functional night vision optic.
#6 ATN X-Sight 4K Pro Smart
The X-sight 4K is the latest night vision product from ATN offering improved performance from the X-sight II. Offering improved video quality from earlier models it still features the recoil activated camera and other features you will be used to if you have used earlier models but also offers advanced battery saving features which allows you to use your scope for over eighteen hours strait so a full nights shooting will be possible without having to switch your scope on and off to preserve battery life. This is a really valuable feature and if you’ve done a lot of night shooting you will know the frustration of running out of battery at a vital moment.
The large objective lens and relatively long scope tube compared to the older versions of the x-sight do make this scope a little bulky and heavy but sometimes you have to make that trade-off, a heavy scope in exchange for the very best features.
#7 Firefield FF16001 NVRS 3x 42mm Gen 1 Night Vision Riflescope
This lightweight scope from firefield is another budget option for those of you who need a night vision optic, three times magnification might not offer all the detail you might want for hunting but it’s a great option for casual use on the range. I wouldn’t trust it for heavier calibres but it’s would be great for a 5.56 rifle as long as you don’t plan on being too rough with it.
This scope has a built in rugged mount for a weaver or picatiny rail as do most of the other models in this list. This allows for easy removal of the scope for transport and the titanium body saves weight and adds strength.
#8 Bushnell 4.5X40 Equinox
When it comes to optics for sportsmen Bushnell are leaders in their field and make some of the highest-quality precision rifle scopes, binoculars and optics used by elite military and law-enforcement as well as having some great products for hunters and sportsmen.
They don’t have a huge range of night vision products but they do offer some budget options including this simple, light weight and compact scope. This scope features 4.5 power magnification and a 40mm objective lens. It is one of the night vision optics on the market but provides more magnification than some of the other options on this list.
This brightness of the IR illumination can be adjusted which is a feature than can be really useful especially for close range shooting where more powerful illuminators can wash out what you are looking at a bit. This unit also offers great battery life and also offers image capturing, video recording, can be used during day time and can easily be used a stand-alone night vision monocular for spotting and scouting.
#9 Pulsar Phantom Gen 3 4x 60mm MD Night Vision Riflescope
The massive objective lens on this product from Pulsar gives you a great field of view and plenty of light gathering ability making this scope very useful in low light conditions even before you need to resort to an infrared illuminator.
The problem with night vision optics is that they require so many more settings than your average rifle scope that being able to adjust them especially in the dark can be tricky unless the controls are very intuitive, this is one of the places that pulsar products shine, even compared to ATN as their side mounted simple controls are so easy to use, something that can’t always be said of controls mounted on the top of a unit.
This is a very rugged scope, not like some of the budget options that shouldn’t be fired on heavy recoiling magnum rifles this scope will take all the punishment you can throw at it and won’t suffer if you drag it through the bush with you on a night hunt or a long hike in to a blind or high seat.
#10 Nite Site Eagle
Rather than being a complete scope package this unit pigybags your existing scope using a camera that slots over the eyepiece of your scope and transfers that image to a screen which mounts on top of your rifle. Behind the screen facing forward is an infrared illuminator to give you clear images even in the darkest conditions.
It is relatively inexpensive and a good option if you don’t want to dedicate a system to night shooting and just need this for occasional use in the hours of darkness. Because of it’s design though you can’t mount your rifle in the usual fashion and aiming using a screen instead of looking through the scope will take some getting used to. I have also found that it doesn’t really suit heavy recoiling rifles, I found that the recoil of my Tikka T3 in .243 Winchester would dislodge the camera from the scope so would really only recommend this product on lighter recoiling rifles such as .22’s maybe up to smaller centrefire cartridges such as .223. It also trails wires and reminds me a bit of the original scopes of The Second World War and Korean War, it’s an interesting product and is great for some tasks, night shooting from a rested position but might not be great if you have to slog through the brush with it.
#11 Pulsar DigiSight N550
A cheaper offering from Pulsar than their gen 3 offering this is a full featured but slightly cheaper model that might be more accessible but it still certainly isn’t a budget scope. It will do most everything most people need from a night sight in a very sleek package, it’s slim lines disguise the fact that it has a built in infrared illuminator and this scope is really a great option for full functionality without any unnecessary weight or all the opportunities for snagging that the side or top mounted illuminators, switches and dials present.
#12 Niteowl NV-G3
Another adaptor option, rather than a stand-alone night vision optic. This offering from NightOwl adapts to your normal scope and features a stock mounted battery pack to power the camera and screen and a bank of three IR torches mounted over the objective bell of the scope. These can be used to illuminate targets but do also throw the balance of your rifle out and are a nightmare for snagging on undergrowth. With all this additional kit attached to your rifle this set up is really only practical from a stationary, rested position; you won’t be stalking through the woods with this set up, instead consider a seat in a blind where you can handle all this extra kit without snagging or dropping it.
Top night Vision Brands
There are a number of brands listed here but there are a few which really dominate the market place when it comes to night vision equipment, those are ATN and Pulsar, any products by these are guaranteed to be of high quality and up to the rigours of hunting or tactical applications. If you were looking for something of a very tight budget Bushnell would be my choice as they have the protection of a good warranty and are a well-known and reputable company. It’s not that the other products aren’t up to scratch but some are designed on a very tight budget and may not have quite the same rugged build quality or quality of lenses and sensors as the premium products.
Effective night vision optics are an incredible advancement in technology available to hunters, sportsmen, military and law enforcement alike. They offer incredible advantages that we could only dream of a few years ago. The impact they have had on management of nocturnal pests and predators such as hogs, foxes and coyotes is incredible. No more do we need to roam the countryside with massive lamps, which while it can be effective wildlife does eventually get used to it, and can stealthily and efficiently get the job done.
Among these products you will find some of the absolute best products in terms of quality, features and also for those on a budget some of the absolute cheapest products that anyone with a need for night vision capability can afford.