For almost any prey species, the night is a time of fear because darkness brings out the predators. There is something majestic and almost mythical about the night time hunters, those that can see on pitch black, moonless nights. You can join the ranks of those most lethal hunters, all you need is the best night vision scope you can get your hands on.
If you really want the best, you are going to have to probe the world of night vision optics, the technology is complicated, made more-so by companies that hide behind numbers and lingo that are very specific to night vision optics. You can’t let this fool you into something sub-par. There are a ton of great scopes out there, you just have to separate them from all the lesser options.
So, let’s explore this captivating, confusing, but ultimately amazing technology.
- Why you need a night vision scope?
- Night Vision Scope Purchase Considerations
- Comparison Table
- Top 6 Night Vision Scope Reviews
- Top Night Vision Scope Brands
- Night Vision Generation
- Thermal Vs Night Vision
Why you need a night vision scope?
Hunters have always known the best time to take game were those times when the sun was setting or just about to rise. When light levels were just enough to see and the prey animals were getting ready for their nighttime forage. This short time of overlap in the human/animal cycle was all hunters had if they wanted the best chance for a kill.
The night was closed to hunters for most of human history. In the wild, you were as likely to be the prey as the predator. We were simply outgunned when it came to seeing in the dark. We stood no chance, well until the advent of night vision scopes that is.
Now, like those other apex predators, we can own the night. You are barred from legally hunting most species after sundown but there are a few that night is the preferred. A night vision scope is the preferred tool for hog hunting in most of the south and works great in many other locations for coyote hunting.
The most common use I have had for night vision is taking care of those annoying varmints that prowl the farm after dark. While this has included coyote, its mostly raccoons, possums, and rats. There is little more fun than busting these with a suppressed .22 rifle with a cheap night vision scope.
There are some target shooting uses for night vision if that is your personal interest. They do quite well as most targets are very reflective. This would be a mostly unexplored niche since hunting is by far the predominant sector for night vision optics.
Night Vision Scope Purchase Considerations
There are a lot of points to consider about these optics, as I said they are quite complicated. The best way to handle this information is to break it down into some basic considerations that are universal to all night vision scope brands and then follow up with some brand and type-specific advanced considerations.
Before you understand anything else about night vision devices of any nature, there are three points that are absolutely crucial to the performance of your device. These are range, gain, and image quality. The factors that determine the effects of these three points vary greatly from generation to the quality of the parts and electronics. Getting a good grasp on these three points puts you ahead of the game.
Because night vision scopes depend on infrared light, many opt to use IR projectors that are basically like a flashlight that is invisible to the naked eye. A very few still rely on ambient light alone but those are rather ineffective in most respects. Regardless of which light source they use, IR light has a very limited distance it can travel with any concentrated brightness.
The range of a night vision scope may be partly governed by how sensitive the light detection of the scope is but will mostly be a factor of how much infrared light the projector puts out. Much like a flashlight, there is a range that the light just seems to fade away to darkness. IR light does the same thing but more acutely.
This has to do with the longer wavelength of light on the red spectrum. I won’t get into the physics of light but you should have a basic grasp of how light and the light sensor on the scope interact.
Where range dealt with the external factors of light, what happens to it inside the scope’s electronics is the gain. This is what takes the very dim light reflected off a hog 50 yards down range and turns it into light bright enough for you to see. The amount of the increase is the gain. Usually, these are unpublished numbers unless you really want to go digging in the technical manuals.
Still, it’s important to know that this is a factor in how well your rifle scope will work, especially on very dark nights or on targets that reflect less IR light. Higher gain scopes will have more contrast between targets and the background.
So why not have very high gain on all scopes? Because eventually they would get so sensitive to light that they would just wash out and nothing would be visible but a bright blur. There are night time shooters that prefer all the gain they can get but I like something more modest. It helps me preserve my natural night vision while giving me the edge I need.
When we talk about image quality with a standard glass optic, it usually has to do with clarity, brightness, and contrast which all come from the overall quality of the lenses and any treatments they may have. With a night vision scope, we are talking about actual resolution. Much like an old cathode TV vs a modern HD TV, there is a huge range of resolutions possible that will affect visual quality.
Of course, image quality is also affected by both range and gain that determine the overall brightness of the image.
There are a great many things you could consider important in choosing a night vision scope. Probably more than could be reasonably covered in a single article and deal with very technical aspects of the scopes themselves. We don’t need to dig that far in. But we want to cover those topics that are vital to proper scope selection.
This is a two-pronged topic that I want to cover briefly here but will have a fuller explanation later in the article for clarity. The first of these prongs is thermal vs light amplification. The second is night vision generation.
For the purpose of this article, we are only talking about light amplification scope technology. The differences between the two technologies are far too great to put them on an even playing field. Thermal optics deserve their own article for comparison.
When it comes to generation, there are 4 actual generations of night vision but within each generation, there are a number of classifications of night vision. If you want to dig deeper, feel free to skip ahead to the section below devoted to this topic then return here.
Most night vision available to the hunter is going to be either Gen 1 or Gen 2. As the generations go up, the cost goes up exponentially. A Gen 2 optic will generally cost at least $500.00 more than a Gen 1. If you are after a Gen 3 or higher, expect to pay thousands for an optic.
Since we are most interested in quality, a Gen 2 scope is far better than a Gen1 making them sometimes worth the price. The difference is astounding. Gen 3 is less of an upgrade in quality over Gen 2 than Gen 2 is over Gen 1. I personally have never been able to see more than the slightest difference in a Gen 4 and Gen 3.
You will occasionally see higher generations listed for an optic but this is pure marketing gimmick. For all intents and purposes, there are only 4 generations of night vision.
Another factor for Gen 1 optics is the addition of CORE technology that increases brightness and clarity more in line with Gen 2.
Since it does fall into the topic of light amplification, there is a growing technology that uses something similar to a tiny security camera and view screen. The quality of these units varies heavily and they are much less robust than a true night vision scope but the image quality on some of these optics is very close to Gen 3 levels but at prices much closer to Gen 1.
This is new ground for night vision and may revolutionize the industry or fade away. It is yet to be seen.
Many night vision scopes have no magnification at all. The intended purpose of a night vision scope is to see after dark, adding high levels of magnification actually makes that harder for the device. Some few scopes will offer low levels of magnification an a very select few will have magnification ranges closer to an actual optical scope.
Most of the high magnification scopes are the digital setup discussed above and image quality can greatly suffer at high magnification just like it does with the digital camera on your phone. For the ranges you will often be able to see with a night vision scope, you should need no more than a minimum of magnification if any at all. My personal preference would be no more than a 3x scope.
There are a couple of noteworthy options you will see listed for night vision optics. The first of which and most important is an IR illuminator. Most scopes, especially Gen 1 scopes will come with an IR illuminator because its almost required for them to work correctly. For some models, most commonly digital models, you may see this as an add-on. IR illuminators are cheap but it’s a cost to consider.
The other most common option exclusive to digital night vision optics is the record feature. This can be as simple as turning on recording like you would with a standard camera or as advanced as recording that turns on when you pull the trigger by sensing the recoil. This is a fun and interesting addition but hardly required.
Top 6 Night Vision Scope Reviews
1 ATN X-Sight 4K - Very good scope for ar15
I'm not sure if its sad or impressive when you start talking about an optic like you would a modern computer but the ATN is pretty much that. Part optic, part very advanced computer, complete with a quad-core processor.
Why does this king of night vision scopes use that processing for? Well, to do most everything ever hunting optic does all packed into one. It’s a ballistic calculator, rangefinder, GPS, Compass, camcorder, and of course, day and night scope. And with its 4k sensor and display, it’s almost a television too.
This scope seriously does everything, all by its self, it can put you dead on target with all the custom calculations for your load and rifle. It can send that data, along with recorded video, to any smart device where you can dial in the optics to get a perfect hit.
That’s all before we talk about how this is an amazing scope on its own with either a 3-14x or 5-20x magnification. That’s a lot of distance you can shoot, more than you could see at night but with its very high powered illuminator and incredible resolution, you could get much farther shots than you think.
Being high-tech you do want to keep this out of the worst weather but its no pushover on toughness. Keep it out all day and all night with repetitive shooting and it will still hold zero. That’s a good thing with an astounding 18+ hour run time on a single charge. More than any other digital scope.
I have a serious love for true Gen 1 optics and have had trouble adapting to digital scopes but I can tell that in clarity, this is far better than a Gen 1 and probably better than a Gen 2. It’s a crisp, high-contrast, and bright scope that will bag you plenty of hogs and coyotes.
2 ANT X-Sight II HD
Like the original X-Sight, this is about the highest level of technology available in the shooting world. The common logic would be that the X-Sight II would be an improvement on the original but this isn’t the case. This was designed to be an alternative cheap night vision scope but to keep all of the pertinent technology there.
With a variable power between 4x and 20x with very smooth zoom in between this scope can really max out its range and see farther than you can shoot at night. Because its digital, that does allow for daytime use and it can really shine there. Like the original, this does match up with all of the other X-Sight branded technology but hardly needs it. This scope has about everything you could want for ranged shooting built in.
It may not be a 4k resolution optic but with the HD output, the only time you are likely to see any issues is on full zoom and those will be rather minor. You can stream the video output to any digital device over Wi-Fi and record all the action. It pares up with its smartphone apps for the ballistic calculations and other features.All in all, this is a high-quality scope and with its outstanding daytime range, could be a perfect scope for AR 10 rifles hunting those big southern hogs. You can really reach out to them whether its day or night. ATN is an industry leader, this may not be a budget night vision scope but it’s worth every penny
3 Sightmark Photon XT
This may not take the place as the best night vision rifle scope but to be honest, this is my top choice. Call it an editor’s pick. I love this scope and if want the real thing, a true Gen 1 night vision scope under $500.00 this is it!
Why settle for less when you can get the real thing. Sure, there are some areas that Gen 1 lacks compared to digital but the one place it excels is in durability. This scope is a tank! Plus, its closer in dimension to a standard scope and mounts with standard scope rings. This allows you to change easily between rifles, even one without rails. Night vision scope attachment has always been tricky. This simplifies it.
It may be just a 4.6x powered scope but with its visible range out to about 130 yards, you will never need more. It has an onboard IR illuminator to keep things bright and has a very clear image using its CORE technology and white phosphor display.
Still, my favorite point about this scope is the astound weight at just a hair over 2lbs. There are normal optics that weight that much. Add that to true waterproof and shockproof durability and you have a killer scope that will run forever. This is so close to the old mil-spec Gen 1 scopes and even looks much like some of the old western European models. If you want the real thing and don’t want to spend a fortune getting one, this is the scope you need.
4 Firefield NVRS
Our second true Gen 1 night vision scope is a compact and lightweight optic that makes for a great night vision scope for hunting on any of your lighter weight rifles. If you feel the allure of a true Gen 1 scope on a budget this is the scope for you. Most of the time its hard to find a true night vision scope under 1000 bucks, well this one is way under!
This scope is far better than the price reflects. The glass in the scope, being optical rather than digital, is quite good. The overall image quality is a big improvement over older Gen 1 scopes but probably not as good as the Sightmark with its CORE technology. You should have no issue with target identification or contrast but the image has some grain to it.
What doesn’t lack at all is the illumination. The Firefield has great gain and an IR illuminator that really reaches out there and makes any target pop. You may notice some blurring around the edges, that’s normal and doesn’t really interfere with the view or your shot.
Because this is an optical scope, you won’t be recording through it and there no real extra features. But its rugged as hell and runs forever on a single charge, upwards of 20 hours. Try to get that out of a digital. The body is constructed out of a high strength titanium allow and waterproofed. That makes it both light and ultra-durable. It's an investment that will last for years!
You may do better with a digital scope if you are being purely practical but this is the only chance you are ever going to get to own a real Gen 1 scope for a price like this. This is a seriously good optic and one you should be proud to own.
5 Bushnell Equinox
It's about time one of the traditional companies stepped up and with a really good night vision rifle scope. Just because this is #5 out of 6 doesn’t mean it’s a bad scope. None of these are bad. As a matter of fact, with its weight and size, this is about the perfect night vision scope for AR 15 carbines. The shorter base works really well on a flat top upper.
While I wouldn’t say there is anything optically special about this scope, it is very high quality and its 1x to 3x range magnification makes everything crystal clear on its HD display. In fact, it is quite a bit better than most digital night vision scopes.
Like most scopes of this type, you can record all the action but an added feature is the ability to snap very high res photos through the scope with a single button press. It’s a great way of preserving images of your hunt just in case you see anything interesting. You may actually find yourself using this feature more than you planned.
Though the weight of the scope is my favorite aspect at right at 2 lbs, one of the best features is the power source. No need to get expensive or rare batteries when you can just use AAs from the local market. This means you will always have power.
For a close-up varmint rig or slapped on your home defense rifle or shotgun, this is a superb option that will bring nighttime hunting into your world for a price you wouldn’t believe.
6 Night Owl Optics NightShot
To get it out of the way, there are a few things I really don’t like about the NightShot. It’s mostly plastic for one. That takes away from the durability and makes it look cheap, which it really isn’t. The second thing I don’t like is the size. This is a very long and bulky scope even though it is very lightweight.
What I do like about this scope is the image quality. Out to 150 yards or more, you will have no trouble making out a target with its high powered illumination and 3x magnification. The camera they use has been honed to perfection and the display is bright and crisp.
There are no extra modes on this scope which makes it much simpler to set up and use but its hard to pick this over one that offers all of the technology that ATN uses. Of course, this scope uses a lot less power and has better run times.
The plastic body isn’t shockproof and I would steer clear of putting this on a high powered rifle but I know it can handle both .223 and .243 very well. The lifetime is far longer on this scope than on some budget Gen 1 scopes. It's not likely to burn out and you can use it during the day.
If you are after something simple that won’t break the bank and functions very well. This is a good scope. It will get you hunting after dark for sure, even out to 200+ yards on a clear night. Fill it up with a few AA batteries and its ready to go all night.
Top Night Vision Scope Brands
Night vision optics are nowhere near a regular rifle scope. Most optics manufacturers have steered clear of them, at least for the time being. They are a highly niche market where its hard to get a foothold. Until digital night vision came on the market, there were only a handful of manufacturers, to begin with. There still aren’t many but here are some to look for.
X-Mark is the current king in the night vision market with their digital line of night vision. They combine this with a lot of other smart features like a ballistic computer to really get state of the art optics. You will never go wrong with an X-mark.
Sightmark makes true night vision optics, mostly Gen 1 with CORE technology. These are some of the best consumer grade night vision scopes, especially if you are on a budget. Sightmark has made sights for years and always done well.
Firefield is an up and comer in the night vision world. They offer very few products but what they do offer are quite good. They have only one available riflescope and it seems to rate well compared to other scopes. This scope is a true Gen 1 scope at a very low price.
Night Owl started as a camera company but moved into the digital night vision market with a fairly solid product. Their optics are somewhat heavy but seem to work well and take a beating. They are probably lower on the quality line than X-Mark but offer a lot of features to make up for it.
One of the only traditional manufacturers to move into the night vision world is Bushnell. They have a couple of options in the digital market that seem to do very well. The only one I tried was of reasonable quality and would serve well as a great hog scope.
Night Vision Generation
For non-military personnel, there are only three technologies that you need to worry about. That would be Gen 1, Gen 2, and Digital. Gen 3 is what the military is currently using and it is amazing stuff but at costs of around $6500.oo, most consumers aren’t going to be able to afford it. Gen 4 night vision was tested by the U.S. Army and found to be a poor upgrade due to its fragility. You may see some claims of Gen 5 night vision but no such designation actually exists.
In truth, most consumer grade night vision optics won’t be a generation at all but instead digital night vision that uses a low-light IR camera and small screen inside the scope. This technology is cheap and readily available. It may lack the durability of standard night vision but is very functional. In truth, it has better image quality than Gen 1 night vision and at the current time is somewhere around Gen 2.
As far as true night vision technology, Gen 1 is by far the cheapest having been around for over 50 years. The image through a true Gen 1 scope will be grainy which can be annoying to some users but it does the job very well. For most units, brightness is fairly good but contrast can suffer somewhat depending on the background.
Newer Gen 1 scopes use CORE technology that changes the glass elements in the optic to a metalized ceramic. This not only makes the scope more durable but greatly increases the clarity of the scope, brightness, and contrast. For most consumers, this is the best bet for a true night vision scope. If you are looking for a great night vision scope for the money, you probably want a Gen 1 with CORE technology.
Gen 2 night vision was a huge technological leap that greatly improved visual quality. Despite having been around for decades, Gen 2 scopes are still very expensive, easily costing thousands of dollars. If you can afford a Gen 2 optic, you will love the quality but don’t expect to get it for cheap. For a hunter, Gen 2 optics’ most impressive advancement was in range. You can often get scopes that remain visible out to 200 yards which is nearly 4 times the limit of Gen 1 models.
Currently, Gen 3 optics are the gold standard and what is used by most militaries and even some police forces. The range has been increased to 300 yards or a little better but the resolution of the image is the big gain. Contrast and brightness are far better than with Gen 2 scopes. Much of the technology that night vision runs on was changed to get to this level of quality.
A point of confusion for most people is the color of the screen. Most night vision optics are green and black but some newer models are black and white. Which is better is often down to personal preference but most people claim that white causes more eye strain. However white provides better contrast and is more effective in dim light.
This is not an effect of night vision generation. Most white image models are digital but not always. Some traditional night vision is black and white thanks to the use of white phosphor.
Thermal Vs Night Vision
While the goal of both thermal scopes and light amplification scopes are the same, the technology is vastly different. The range of both technologies is different and how they present images to the user is unique.
Starting with a brief and simple explanation of how they work may provide the best understanding. Both detect radiation in some form. For thermal scopes that radiation is in the thermal band and for light amplification the radiation is in the infrared or IR band.
When you have an optic that uses IR radiation, what you are seeing is light reflected from the target. Though this has a short range, it is farther than thermal radiation. For light amplification to work, there has to be some light, to begin with, that the target can reflect and your scope can amplify, providing you with an image.
Thermal radiation is emitted from the target, not reflected. Though thermal optics have a very short range, they can be used in total darkness or even daylight. They are unaffected by light in the visual spectrum at all. This makes them quite versatile but a thermal scope will often cost far more than a comparable light amplification model.
I will leave you with one warning: Night vision scopes are hard on your eyes. You need to take a break every so often. I say this because using one is very addictive. Once you start nighttime hog or coyote hunting (all that you can hunt after dark in my area), you will never want to stop. It is far more fun than you could ever imagine.
You do start feeling like that prowling predator. You own the night. If you have never hunted a new moon in the deep woods, its something you have to experience at least once. Thankfully, the cost of night vision has come down far enough that most anyone can afford it. Get yourself one of the best night vision scopes around and get out and give it a go!