Story and Photos by Jason Houser
A lot of hunters are turning to thermal and night vision rifle scopes – and handhelds – for their hunting optics. This is especially true for hunters targeting hogs, coyotes, and other predators they hunt at night. But thermal scopes can serve a dual purpose and be used to hunt during the daylight hours too.
What is the difference between a thermal rifle scope/handheld and night vision?
Night vision works by reflected light. For traditional night vision, that is light in the visible spectrum – like from the moon or even stars on very sensitive models. Digital night vision is closer to thermal, as it uses IR light – but it still needs an IR projector. It picks up the Infrared light that is reflected off a target, not what is emanating from it. For this reason, night vision is more properly called light-amplification technology.
However, thermal vision uses radiation that is emitted from the target. It doesn’t need any light source to see and can see in complete darkness or the noonday sun. This is not something that either forms of light-amplification technology can do.
The thing that hunters must keep in mind though, is that these cameras only work if you have a line of sight to the object you want to see. If there is just a small tree separating you from what you want to look at, you will not see it. But, being able to locate something might be as simple as moving a couple feet in either direction, and scanning the area again.
If you are just beginning to think about purchasing a thermal or night vision scope or handheld, the biggest factor for many of us, is price. Even the cheap ones are not cheap. Units can run anywhere from a few hundred dollars, to several thousand dollars, depending on what you are looking for.
When choosing a scope or handheld – that should last for years – let’s look at some important features to consider, before your purchase. Range, magnification, picture clarity, video recording, housing construction, warranty, Wi-Fi compatible and battery life are just some of the things you need to think about before making a purchase.
Let’s take a look at a few of the features in more detail.
Unlike traditional night vision scopes, the range on thermal is pushing more than 2000 yards, on some of the best units. This is hardly necessary for most hunters, so consider the ranges you hunt and get a magnification that works. Most scopes top out around 15x with lower priced scopes at 5x or less.
Even more important than the magnification is the sensor resolution. You are not going to get a lot of megapixels with thermals, but that is not a big deal. A quality thermal will allow you to make out the animal well enough for good shot placement.
To get good shot placement, you need to be able to distinguish between the parts of an animal and you are going to need decent resolution to do that. For best results you will need a scope with 640×480 resolution. If it gets below a 320×240 you will not get the results you want, and it will leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. A picture in picture view through your riflescope will help you easily acquire your target.
Thermal Detector Sensitivity
The sensitivity of the thermal detector will determine how far away it can pick up thermal radiation. You want something farther than you plan to hunt, so you can watch the animal approach.
Some rifle scopes will have ranges up to 2000 yards while others are stuck at distances of about 350 yards. As with most things, your needs will determine your purchase.
Like most hunters, I don’t shoot long distances at night. But I use the Trail LRF XP50, from Pulsar, that allows me to see close to 2,000 yards. This is great, coupled with my Axion XM38, which I use to scan the area for game. Once the animal is located, the rifle can be shouldered, and the animal can then be viewed in the riflescope until it is time to shoot.
Battery life is a big factor. If you are going to be out hunting all night you want a battery that will last. While most batteries are rechargeable, they will last anywhere from 4 to 16 hours. A battery with a 16-hour lifespan will get you through the night, whereas a 4-hour battery might not do the trick. In this case, it is good to have a spare battery to throw in your riflescope, or handheld, when the power starts to drain.
Some companies, like Pulsar, have mobile apps (Stream Vision for Pulsar) that are compatible with their scopes and handhelds – virtually turning your smartphone or tablet into a mobile viewfinder. Photo and video recording can be initiated from your device and files can even be saved directly to your phone or tablet.
Other benefits of the Stream Vision app allow you to adjust the settings of thermal unit, use it as a motion detector (which signals the hunters of activity) and even provides a ballistic match technology. This greatly decreases sight in time, by calculating bullet drop based on your caliber and load.
Something I am asked a lot is, why do you need a handheld scanner if you already have a scope doing the same thing?
While using a good thermal handheld, you will be detecting wildlife at a very long range. Unless you are comfortable keeping your rifle shouldered and continuously looking through the scope, you will never know the animals are there. Locating more animals at long distance is what this thermal optic is designed to do. After you locate your prey, you will either be calling predators closer, or stalking in closer to hogs for a good shot.
So, what are the practical purposes for such a camera? I not only get this very question from my wife, but even from the folks I spend a lot of time with outdoors. However, after seeing the camera in action, they quickly see the practical purposes behind it.
Entering and exiting stand locations in the dark is a good way to ruin a hunting spot. With a thermal camera it is easy to spot game from a distance, and change your route as needed, to avoid bumping deer and other game animals that you might get a shot at later on.
I mainly use my camera when entering/exiting a stand location and for animal recovery. But the other possibilities include camping, trapping and hunting in areas of the country where dangerous game roam (best to see them before they see you), wild hog hunting, checking traps in the dark, predator hunting, home security, and search and rescue at land and on the water.
The list of viable uses for one of these cameras is long. Finding missing people in the dark, spotting dangerous game before they spot you, scouting, recovery, checking traps, watching wildlife, and so much more. If you haven’t tried a thermal camera yet, I recommend you do so. You don’t have to jump in feet first if you don’t want to. There are models on the market for all budgets. Find one that is right for you and give it a try.
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Sensor: 320×240 pixels at 12um uncooledFocal Length: 38mmObjective Lens: 32mmMagnification: 5.5-22Detection Range: 1,800 yardsFrame Rate: 50 HzDisplay: AMOLED 1024×768Operating Temperature Range: -13 degrees to 104 degrees (F)Dimensions (LxWxH): 5.8 x 1.6 x 2.75 inchesWeight: 9.5 OuncesMSRP: $2,859.99
Color: BlackMagnification: 1.6 – 12.8 xObjective Lens Diameter: 42 mmSensor Resolution: 640×480 pixelsRefresh Rate: 50 HzEye Relief: 2 inchesField of View, Linear: 65.4 – 48.9 ft at 100 ydsMinimum Focus Distance: 16 ftRange of Detection: 2000 ydsBattery Type: 18650Battery Life: 8 HoursOperating Temperature: -13 – 122 FahrenheitLength: 11.22 inWidth: 4.01 inHeight: 2.99 inFrame Rate: 50 HzMSRP: $6,599.99
Heat signature detection range up to 2,000 yardsIntegrated laser rangefinder accurate up to 1,100 yards640×480 resolution17 m pixel pitch core640×480 AMOLED displayBuilt-in video/sound recording
Pulsar – Sellmark Corporation(817) 225-0310www.Pulsarnv.com www.Sellmark.net
Pulsar Axion XM38 Thermal Imaging Monocular Trail LRF XP50 Thermal RiflescopeAmazon Axion XM38 Thermal Imaging Monocular Trail LRF XP50 Thermal RiflescopeOptics Planet Axion XM38 Thermal Imaging Monocular Trail LRF XP50 Thermal Riflescope
Jason Houser has been involved in the outdoors from a very young age. Growing up in an outdoor family, he has had the opportunity to spend much of his time doing what he loves. Jason has a been a fulltime freelance outdoor writer since 2008 and is currently the host of two shows, Bone Wild TV and Trapping Across America TV, both air on the Pursuit Channel.
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