If you have ever seen the movie Predator, I am sure you contemplated what it would be like to see in thermal vision. To be able to spot prey no matter the time of day, forest cover, or anything else they could do to hide from you. Let’s not pretend that its cheap to get access to that alien technology but with some smart decisions, you can easily get the best thermal scope for the money!
Its still going to cost, there are no cheap thermal scopes, but as long as you understand what you need and what you want from a thermal rifle scope, you can get one that suits you well and perhaps even at a price you can live with. That is provided it works well for you, they may not be cheap but you can always get a value thermal scope if you look in the right place.
To help you sort through the technological mess, let’s take it one step at a time.
Why do you need a Thermal Imaging Scope?
The truth is that most people will never need a thermal scope but there are a few select people that do use a thermal scope for hunting and it makes all the difference. You won’t be target shooting with a thermal scope, the way they work most targets wouldn’t show up. You can use one for home defense and security and they do a superb job that no other tool can do.
Like the famous alien from the movie, if you are a sportsman, using a thermal scope for coyote hunting will make you the most effective you could ever be in the dark. Living this will light up like a candle in the night. This is my preferred use where I live but many people opt for a thermal scope for hog hunting and do every bit as well as I do with coyote.
If you want to elevate yourself to the true apex predator as you should be, you have to conquer the night. Sure, you can do that with a standard night vision scope but they do not perform as well as thermal scopes. This is the pinnacle of technology when you need to see what’s hiding in the dark.
Thermal Scope Purchase Considerations
There are a lot of factors that go into deciding on a scope and ultimately, a thermal scope is likely the most advanced tool you will ever buy for hunting. But most of what happens inside the scope isn’t that important for a layperson to understand. As long as you can get the basics of what you get out of a scope, you will do fine.
Unlike traditional night vision scopes, the range on thermal is far better with sometimes more than 1000 yards on some of the best units. This is hardly necessary for most hunters but consider the ranges you hunt and get a magnification that works. Most scopes top out around 15x. Its common to see less than 5x on a budget thermal scope.
Far more important than the magnification is the sensor resolution. Think of this like camera resolution on a digital camera. You aren’t going to get anywhere near megapixel range with thermal and you don’t need it. What you are going to see is a blob of color and not detail so don’t worry about it. You are more concerned about shape.
That said, if you are a hunter you need good shot placement. To get that, you need to be able to distinguish between the parts of an animal and you are going to need decent resolution to do that. You can expect a modest to good scope to have a 640x480 resolution. If it gets below a 320x240, you are going to have trouble.
This somewhat ties into magnification but should be listed separately. The sensitivity of the thermal detector will determine how far away it can actually pick up thermal radiation. You want something farther than you plan to hunt optimally. This allows you to scout with your scope and even watch your target approach as you wait for that perfect shot.
Some rifle scopes will have ranges out past 1000 yards but a more modest scope will be in the 300-500 range. Either will usually be acceptable to most hunters. You really don’t need to shoot more than a couple hundred yards after dark anyway for safety reasons.
The overall toughness of any outdoor product should always be a factor. It will have to contend with dust, rain, fog, occasional rough treatment, and anything else the environment wants to throw at it. Getting something that will last is a paramount concern. A warranty is also a plus and comes with many units.
A thermal vision scope is a high-tech and quite sensitive piece of equipment. They will always need to be treated with some care. You aren’t going to get one that you can beat around like your grandpa’s shotgun but you can get something that will do the job in adverse conditions. Be cautious of low-end scopes and their ability to hold up over time, you need to get your money’s worth out of a thermal scope.
Being high-tech, that means there are a lot of extras that can be packed into a thermal scope. These can be the simple things like changeable reticles all the way up to video recording. Every brand has its niche and some offer very advanced options like rangefinders, inclinometers, and GPS.
Some of these are sales gimmicks but some are legitimate features. Though it may not be a concern to me, having a scope that can stream to your smart device over Wi-Fi may be something you see a value in. Judge each scope independently and don’t sacrifice overall quality for these extras. They do add to the cost so be prepared for that.
Top 5 Thermal Scope Reviews
1 ATN ThOR HD 640
When it comes to thermal optics, there are only a few companies to choose from. The one that comes up the most is made by a company that is well known for their highly advanced range of optics, ATN. Not only is the ThOR HD the best thermal scope under 5000 bucks but incorporates some of the best technology and innovations on the optical market today.
Starting with the thermal scope its self, it has the industry standard 640 resolution with a large variety of selectable reticles and plenty of pallet choices to provide you the best color scheme for any environment from two-tone to classic rainbow patterns. Even in the densest fog or heaviest rain, you can easily see any living prey. The ThOR HD comes in a variety of powers from a max 5x to a max 50x.
Even though its high tech, the ThOR is designed for hard use in adverse conditions. Its unaffected by moisture and handles shock well on any rifle up to 30 caliber. The attached lens caps keep your investment safe and the rubberized buttons make manipulations of this scope easy.
When it comes to extras is where the ThOR HD starts to shine. Not only is it an amazing thermal optic but comes equipped with a rangefinder, GPS, customizable ballistic calculator, and can even record HD video directly through your scope. It can send this video over Wi-Fi to any device (IOS or Android) so you always have a record of your hunt or have a friend spot for you in real time straight from your scopes view.
2 Pulsar Trail XQ
Pulsar is an up and coming company and the new kid on the block when it comes to thermal optics. But this doesn’t make the Trail XQ any less of a good optic, quite the opposite. This is a stellar quality scope and even more amazing since it is the first scope that Pulsar has released.
The Trail starts with a high res 640x480 AMOLED display and builds its scope out from there. With a max of 10.8x magnification and an astounding detection range just shy of 2000 yards, there is nothing that can hide from this scope. Select from 13 reticles that feature a 1 shot zero and up to three profiles for different rifles so you can mix and match.
The Pulsar is IPX7 waterproof and unaffected by fog or dust. It can handle a beating in most rifles smaller than a magnum round and run all night long. As a matter of fact, the 8 hours run time is among the best in thermal optics and actually beats out most standard night vision for runtime. It even comes with a charger and of course the all-important warranty.
Just like with the ATN, this scope revels in its options. It can stream to a smart device using the proprietary Pulsar Stream Vision app for all the benefits that entail but it also comes with a remote. Meaning you can scan with this scope using a smart device and the remote control.
It even comes with detection software to help you spot targets in the densest cover. For a new company, Pulsar is doing just about everything right.
3 FLIR RS32
FLIR has been leading the thermal optics market pretty much since its inception, the technology on most other sights was initially developed by FLIR and adopted by other companies. This has enabled them to lead in thermal optics even if they don’t offer all the extras that most companies do. However, when it comes to state of the art, lightweight thermal scopes you will find none better.
If you are after a thermal scope for AR15 rifles or similarly small platforms, the R-Series by FLIR is your best bet. No thermal optic is truly lightweight but the RS32 at just under 2 pounds is about the best on the market. It is fully waterproof, rugged, shock resistant, and comes with its own internal sealed Lithium battery that carries a 4-hour charge.
Mounted on a standard Picatinny rail, this 5x max optic is one of the best thermal imaging scopes for the money with its multiple pallets and reticle options coupled with a high res detector and target recognition software. The image through this scope, even out to 1000 yards is better than most any other scope in its range.
FLIR has focused more on the optic than the extras with the R-series. It does have video out and can be operated with an external battery pack for those times you plan to hunt for extended periods. The pallet choices are some of the most extensive of any optic and the target alert system works great. Otherwise, it is just a solid, high-quality thermal scope.
4 Armasight Predator
If you are looking for a great thermal scope under 2000 dollars, the predator is by far the best of the best. Just like the R-series, this optic is made by FLIR and no company does the thermal side of thermal optics better. It may lack on the extras but makes up for it on quality.
With a combination of 2x optical and 4x digital zoom, you can get this 640x480 scope up to an 8 power with more range than you would even need to shoot at night. With several different pallets and the latest FLIR technology, this may be the thermal scope with the best longevity ever produced with greater clarity than any other on the market short of actual military hardware.
Like all FLIR optics, the Predator is waterproof, in fact, it is completely submersible, and handles rifle recoil well for most calibers. It even comes with a 3-year warranty should anything happen to it but that’s unlikely. And if the thermal does start to burn out, that particular part has a 10-year replacement.
In addition to the selectable pallets, you also have 5 different reticles to choose from with a repeatable zero system even if you remove it from the rifle. It does have video export and can handle external power for longer hunts. It runs of CR series batteries instead of an internal so you can always carry spares.
Call this the editor’s choice but this is a personal favorite and probably the most amazing thermal rifle scope for the money that has ever been produced.
5 ATN ThOR 4
One of the major issues with thermal optics is the size and bulk. They can be a pain to mount on some older rifles. But ATN, a company best known for high tech options, has given a nod to the classic rifle scope with the ThOR 4 that mounts with standard rings and is compatible with just about any of your older rifles.
The truth is that you won’t find a thermal scope under 1000, this is about as close as you are going to get but you get a hell of a lot with that extra money. Really, for the price, you probably get more from this scope than any other scope on the market.
The resolution is more moderate than many higher end scopes at only 384x288 on the sensor. This limits the extreme ranges but most shots will occur under 200 yards after dark so you should have no worries. The sensor is among the most sensitive on the market so it picks up everything and can display it in the pallet of your choice.
Like all ATN scopes, it records and exports video via an app and has the standard rangefinder. This particular ThOR model has upped the game on the ballistic computer by providing different profiles for different loads and can even factor in angle, temperature, humidity, range, and wind to make sure you are on target every time. All of this and it can run for a solid 18 hours of use. You probably won’t need that unless you are in Alaska in the winter but it's nice to know its there if you need it.
Thermal Vs Night Vision
Many people confuse or blend the technologies of thermal optics with night vision, enough so that you will commonly see the term thermal night vision scope. This is a misnomer and does not describe thermal technology well. It is far more than 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.
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 light-amplification technology can do.
Sighting in a Thermal Scope
This is an important point that is often overlooked to the consumer's dismay. You absolutely can not sight in a thermal sight on a standard target. You need special targets that are designed to work with a thermal sight. Even then, it is a challenge because detecting bullet impacts is very difficult at best.
Get an appropriate target and take your time. If you can’t get a thermal target or are having too much trouble with them. Consider placing a halogen light on the ground behind the target shining at the back side. This may be enough to get you by and has worked for me with two separate thermal scopes.
There is something very exciting about hunting with night vision. Something that you don’t get in any other form of hunting. There is a feeling of technological superiority, you fell like that advanced hunter in the wild and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you own the night.
Anything that approaches you, it's in your sights. You see all. Night vision is a great technology but nothing in the world beats thermal!