Thermal imaging rifle scopes have been around for many years primarily being used by the military and law enforcement. As technology advanced, the costs of producing thermal scopes have come down and they quickly became popular among hunters. Night hunting no longer depends on use of night vision devices which are not as effective at spotting animals in complete darkness. High powered spotting lights that spook their intended targets have become a thing of the past as well.
If you have been looking to buy a thermal imaging scope, you probably already know that they can be costly. There are tons of features that are available from different manufacturers and the options for optics and sensors can be overwhelming. New technologies like more compact sensors have allowed for reductions in prices on various models and longer battery life. Thermal scopes also function very differently than night vision scopes and each has their pros and cons which we also discuss later in the article. Lets take a quick look at our top picks.
640x480 | 12 µm pixel pitch
Digital focus, target edge detection, video output
3 hours at 60Hz and 5 Hours at 30Hz
320 x 256 | 12 µm pixel pitch
Recoil activated video recording, USB-C connector, digital compass and ballistic calculator
320 x 240 | 12 µm pixel pitch
Video recording, real time wifi streaming to smartphone and youtube
384 x 288 | 17 µm pixel pitch
Recoil activated video recording on SD card, real time dual stream 720p video, smart range finder, one shot zero
336 × 256 | 17 µm pixel pitch
When you are shopping with a budget in mind, you have to decide what features are most important to you and your needs. Will you be hunting small animals like coyotes or foxes? Do you need to stay far away from your target? Would you like to be able to record and share your hunting adventures with your friends? Below we go in depth on these and other important questions so that you can find the best thermal scope for the money. The 6 factors that you need to keep in mind are:
While thermal scopes or thermal optics as they are sometimes called are more expensive than digital night vision scopes, you can get a quality thermal scope for less than $2,000 depending upon the optics, thermal resolution, and the features you need/want. A higher end thermal scope with high thermal resolution, long range optics, and the latest features will set you back between $3,500 and $4,500. While a premium thermal scope like the Trijicon IR Hunter MK3 will set you back over $7,000 - however it is a phenomenal scope.
Many hunters will use a thermal monocular for scanning/locating their target and then switch to the thermal optics on their rifle for taking the shot. While there is an endless debate on whether you need two thermal optics for successful hunting most of it will come down to personal preference and budget. Constantly using your rifle to scan your surroundings can become tiresome due to the weight of the rifle not to mention dangerous in certain circumstances. Also, your thermal scope is almost always going to have a narrower field of view than a dedicated thermal monocular which means it will be easier to miss targets when scanning with your scope that you would have seen with a monocular.
The counter argument to this is that when you have to switch from your monocular to your scope you may startle the animal and not be able to take any shot. Also, when you are using a spotting monocular AND a thermal scope you have to carry more equipment with you and hence more weight. You will also need to consider the terrain you will be hunting in and the distances you will typically be shooting. If you will be hunting in more open and flat terrain and not shooting far distances a thermal scope may be all you need. In heavily wooded terrain and/or places where you will be taking longer shots have a monocular and scope can be a big help.
Finally, you will need a larger budget if you are going to invest in a thermal imaging rifle scope and separate thermal monocular for spotting. If your total budget is going to be $2,500 or less it will probably make sense for you to invest in the best scope you can get as you really won't be able to get a quality scope and monocular for that price. If you have a $3,500 budget or more you may be able to buy both although we would suggest putting more into the scope as you will be using the monocular only for spotting. If you have $5,000 or more then you should look into potentially purchasing both a thermal scope and monocular.
Does it matter what the thermal resolution is in my thermal scope? Yes! It matters a lot; just as with a regular visible light camera higher resolution produces clearer images that you can enlarge without the picture getting blurry. Some of the common thermal resolutions for thermal optics are in order of quality:
As expected the higher the resolution the higher the cost of the thermal scope. Sensor resolution should be one of the areas that you spend the most time deciding on as a poor choice here will make the investment in your thermal scope worthless. You should go for the highest thermal resolution sensor that you can afford even if that means forgoing some of the other features you want especially if you plan on shooting at longer ranges. A thermal scope with poor resolution will drastically limit what targets and game you can shoot at.
If you know that you will be shooting short distances and will not have other animals or people around that could get caught in the crossfire then a lower resolution thermal scope will be adequate.
If you are planning on shooting long distances, and need to clearly identify your game and use digital zoom frequently, a high resolution sensor for your thermal optic will be a better choice.
Just as your TV or monitor produces smoother pictures with a higher refresh rate (broadcast TV is typically 25 frames per second) thermal scopes with a higher refresh rate produce a smoother image as you track your target. As an example a 9Hz refresh rate means that the camera will refresh the image 9 times per second; while a camera with a 60Hz sensor will refresh at 60 times per second. Typically, the higher the refresh rate the higher the cost of the scope.
Many scopes will also allow you to control the refresh rate which can drastically impact the battery life. Higher end thermal rifle scopes allow you to switch between 30Hz and 60Hz modes; the higher rates will drain the battery faster but give you a much smoother image which is needed when tracking moving targets.
The thermal scope shows you the target by detecting the different temperatures of the radiation/heat that your target is emitting. A thermal scope with powerful optics will allow you to positively identify the target at 1,000 yards while an entry level scope can limit you to 200 yards or less.
When choosing a thermal optic, you will find that there are many lens options available. High power quality lenses are expensive and heavy so you need to choose wisely. There are usually three numbers indicated on scopes: variable optical/digital zoom (2-16x, 8-32x, etc) and focal length (19mm, 35mm, 60mm, etc.). The first number is your adjustable optical zoom. You must pay attention to the second number as it will tell you angle of view and magnification. The longer the focal length - the higher the magnification but the narrower the angle of view. Typically, longer focal length also means a heavier lens and a more expensive scope.
You can save money if most of your hunting is done at short distances. Hunting for larger animals that aren't afraid to come closer to you will work just fine with shorter range optics.
Most scopes include digital zoom or e-zoom, ranging from 2x to 8x. It is important to note that you will also want a higher thermal resolution scope when hunting at long distances because they will provide sharper images when you use the digital zoom.
The area where you will notice the refresh rate most is if you are shooting while moving and shooting at fast moving subjects. For instance, if you are sitting in the back of a truck and targeting running boars a low refresh rate rifle scope will likely not work as the image will lag and you will have difficulty tracking and hitting your target. The same scenario with a 30Hz or 60Hz rate will be much better. If you will be shooting at fast moving targets and/or moving as you shoot, you will want a thermal scope with at least a 30Hz rate and preferably 50Hz or 60Hz as it will be much smoother. On the other hand, if you will be stationary and hunting slower moving targets then you can save money and purchase a thermal scope with a lower rate.
Nobody wants to worry about the battery dying during a hunt, so it is important to look at the average operational battery life as well as the type of batteries that a scope uses. As technology and the features included in thermal scopes have continued to increase with WiFi modules, faster processors, video recording, and higher refresh rates so have their power demands. We recommend using rechargeable batteries in your scope if it does not come with a rechargeable battery. Although rechargeable batteries cost more up front, in the long run they will save you money.
The ATN ThOR 4 uses a rechargeable battery pack that is charged via the included USB-C cable. One charge will give you over 18 hours of use. You can also purchase an external battery pack (as you can for many thermal scopes) so that you can ensure your scope never dies not matter how long your hunt is. Pulsar Trail XQ thermal scope is powered by a rechargeable 5.2A-h battery power that delivers up to 8 hours of continues use. FLIR PTS233 uses a pair of CR123A batteries while FLIR RS32 and the rest of the FLIR RS line uses built in rechargeable battery.
The latest thermal scopes have the ability to record what you are seeing through the scope making it easy to capture the best moments of your hunting. The ATN ThOR 4 has a slot for Micro SD cards (up to 64Gb capacity), making it easy to share and transfer images and videos to your PC. The Pulsar Trail line of scopes has their Stream Vision technology that allows you to stream the video from your scope to your smart phone or tablet allowing others to watch along with you. If you are a techie, you will appreciate ATN's RAV option - Recoil Activated Video which starts recording as soon as you shoot allowing everything to be caught on camera. All of ATN's ThOR line have this option. FLIR's PTS 233 also has this feature.
The Trijicon IR Hunter Mk III is one of the highest quality thermal imaging scopes on the market today along with a premium price tag. Trijicon's thermal optics are some known for their superior images. Some of the most notable features are the 60Hz refresh rate (can also be dialed back to 30Hz to save battery life) 640x480 thermal sensor and 12 micron thermal core. Many thermal scopes are still 17 or 21 microns. The smaller micron thermal cores allow for better magnification with the same size lens. This results in clearer crisper images that allow you to detect targets at further ranges. The Trijicon Mk III comes with a long range 12° FOV with 2.5x magnification.
The Mk III also has multiple reticle save options so that you can quickly and easier swap rifles without the long process of sighting in the scope with each weapon change. The IR Hunter also has a ballistic calculator.
Battery life is okay at 3.5 hours at 60Hz and 5 hours at 30Hz. The image quality of the Mk III has to be seen to be believed. If cost is not an issue you cannot find a better thermal scope on the market today.
The FLIR Theromosight Pro PTS 233 is FLIR's latest thermal rifle scope boasting the newest Boson 320x256 12 micron thermal core similar to the Trijicon's. What does all that mean? The new Boson core has a 12 micron pitch versus the regular 17 micron pitch found in most other thermal scopes. The new thermal sensor is more power efficient and more compact allowing the use of smaller optics while getting the same crystal clear HD image.
The PTS 233 thermal optic has a 19mm lens and delivers a 12 x 9.5 FOV. The PTS 233 also has on board video recording and image capture allowing you to store over 2 hours of video or 1,000 images. the video signal is also uncompressed for maximum resolution when displayed on TV's. The PTS233 also comes with the ballistic calculator and several reticle options.
The PTS233 uses two CR123A batteries with a battery life of 4 hours. While we would like a longer battery life, given the small size and super clear images we give it a pass.
We love the PTS233 because of its small size, excellent image quality and low price relative to the options and construction quality.
The Pulsar Thermion XM50 riflescope is the most powerful lens within the XM series of thermal optics and features an impressive 50mm lens. This is the lens to pick if you want to view images from a distance as evidenced by the extended 2300m heat detection range the model offers.
This XM50 model is known for its impressive features which include the instant start up functionality; the device switches on almost instantly. Quick start ups will help save energy and therefore prolong the operational lifespan of the device. The scope is powered by a lithium-ion battery which can last up to five hours.
Other features you’ll appreciate on this thermal optic include the simple user interface which makes operating this rifle scope a breeze.
The rifle scope offers 15 reticles in up to four colors namely black, red, white and green. With this device, you can perform integrated still image as well as video recording. It features 16GB of internal storage which allows you to store a sizeable number of pictures and videos for later viewing.
You have the option of connecting this device to Wi-Fi via the Pulsar’s Stream Vision app. As a result, you can perform video and image transfer functions.
Powerful lenses usually cost more than their average counterparts so you’ll have to pay more for this model. In addition, the more powerful the lens, the heavier the device is. This thermal scope weighs just under a kg making it the heaviest in its range. But nonetheless, you can still handle—and carry—it with ease.
With regards to design, you’ll appreciate the solid construction of this scope. The thermal scope mounts perfectly on standard 30mm rings much like the other models within this series. This riflescope’s base features a rugged construction so you’re guaranteed a long-lasting product if you pick this model.
The ATN Thor 4 384 has been designed and manufactured by ATN (American Technology Network) and is their newest 4th generation line of thermal optics taking the place of the ThOR HD. The ThOR 4 has several different versions with different optics perfect for everyone from entry-level thermal scope purchasers to hunting and sporting enthusiasts. ATN also has a 640 version of the ThOR 4 releasing soon for those that want even higher thermal resolution.
The ThOR 4 is equipped with a 384 x 288 thermal sensor and is powered by their new Obsidian Dual Core IV processor. The new processor along with the enhanced optics provide crystal clear images. The upgraded optics now allow detection range out to 960 meters, recognition range of 480 meters and identification to 300 meters.
Another upgrade of the ThOR 4 is the 60Hz refresh rate (up from 30Hz) which means no blurring even when tracking fast moving targets. Finally, the biggest upgrade, which will appeal to shooters who often go in groups, is dual streaming. This allows you to shoot, record and stream video via Bluetooth or WiFi at the same time allowing people to watch your hunt in real time with the ATN Obsidian app. Battery life has also been improved to over 18 hours of continuous use.
The ThOR 4 thermal imaging rifle scope comes with all of ATN's normal features such as ballistic calculator, smart range finder, (calculating wind speed and direction) geotagging, e-barometer, e-compass and gyroscope and multiple reticle options.
Don't worry ATN's Recoil Activated Video (RAV) is included as well and will start recording as soon as you pull the trigger and the video will be saved to the Micro SD card.
The ThOR 4 line is a definite upgrade from the ThOR HD and with all the features and selection of optics to chose from gets our pick for best smart thermal scope.
Are you in the market for a high-performance thermal image scope for coyote hunting? Consider this model from FLIR which utilizes the latest technology in thermal imaging. It’s ideally suited for hunting, law enforcement and military personnel. The Zeus thermal optics line has been around for while and is known for its quality and durability.
With regard to application, this thermal optic can be used as a handheld thermal imager or magnifying spotting scope. You’ll appreciate how you can use this thermal scope during the day or night.
This particular thermal scope has a 50mm lens which makes it a very powerful tool. You’re guaranteed clear images with this scope. The field of view is quite narrow but that’s to be expected with thermal scopes that have large lenses. You can zoom in on an image up to four times which allows you to view objects clearly from a distance.
Weighing only 0.8kg, this is one of the smallest and lightest models within the FLIR range. This makes handling and transportation hassle free. Starting up the device is extremely quick and easy. It only takes three seconds to switch on.
You’ll need two CR123A lithium batteries to power the model. Operating time will range between 4 and 12 hours depending upon settings.
The model comes in two versions depending on the refresh rate; 30Hz and 60Hz. This refresh rate refers to the number of frames the scope displays per second. The higher the refresh rate, the smoother the images produced.
The model features a simple and intuitive user interface which makes operation easy. You can make use of the control buttons provided to adjust a number of features such as image palette and brightness. This model allows you to detect images that are at least 1000m away. You can always make use of the magnifying function to get a clearer view of the object.
The manufacturer included a few accessories to make operation of the scope easier such as lens tissue, video cable and an advanced wireless remote control.
You’ll be happy to know that it is fog-resistant which will add to the product’s durability.This scope is covered by a three-year warranty.
Very simply a thermal scope (or any other type of thermal imager) detects infrared radiation that is emitted by all things living and nonliving and produces an image colorized according to the temperature of the radiation the objects are emitting. This means that thermal scopes/thermal imagers can work in almost all weather conditions and do not need any visible light in order to produce high-quality images for object detection. A night vision scope or monocular on the other hand has to have light in order to function, which we will discuss below.
How can everything emit light/energy even non-living things? Biological matter (people, animals) and machines emit heat energy which is detected. Additionally, rocks, trees and other material soak up thermal energy from the sun during the day and emit this energy during the night as the cycle continues.
So how is an image generated if all matter just emits heat? All materials emit heat differently so while you can touch a rock in the sun and feel that is it hot there are actually many different temperatures being emitted that we cannot distinguish which is where thermal imaging comes in. A thermal image is generated not by the temperature of the matter but by the difference in temperatures that the object is emitting. Thermal imagers are very sensitive and can detect even a 0.01C temperature difference.
Thermal imagers are also not affected by objects with the same or similar contrast. Night Vision will have a hard time showing targets that are of the same or similar contrast because they rely on reflected light and cannot detect and show the differences in temperature.
Aren’t night vision and thermal imaging the same? No, although they both help you see in conditions adverse to normal human vision they are completely different with different strengths, weaknesses, and applications.
Lets first look at the biggest difference between night vision and thermal imaging. Night vision works just like your eyes do in that they detect light that is reflected from the target. Night vision allows you to see in low light conditions because it amplifies the available light thousands of times more than your eyes can making night time seem like daylight. However, if there is no light even night vision will not generate an image, unlike thermal imaging.
A thermal scope uses a microbolometer (an uncooled thermal sensor) to detect infrared radiation with specific wavelengths that all matter emits. One of the biggest reasons that thermal imagers work so well no matter the light or weather conditions is because infrared radiation/light is emitted by all matter, unlike visible light that is reflected by all objects. The infrared radiation being emitted is detected by the microbolometer and translated into an image colorized by the different temperatures of radiation being emitted.
A Microbolometer (say that three times fast) is an uncooled thermal sensor that is made up of hundreds or thousands of individual pixels with each pixel having several layers. The top layer is the infrared absorbing material, followed by a gold contact, an electrode, and a reflector to ensure light that passes through the top layer is reflected back up to produce the best possible image. Finally, the bottom layer of the pixel is a readout circuit helping to generate the image. To ensure the infrared absorbing material is separated from the other layers of the pixel a gap is created between the IR material and the reflector using a substance that can be chemically etched away when the rest of the process is completed.
The finished pixel resembles a bridge with the IR detector being the bridge, the reflector being the water under the bridge and readout/image circuit the ground underneath the water.
As technology has continued to advance the image quality produced by microbolometers has continued to increase while the cost has also come down making thermal imaging available to many more people. Microbolometers are commonly available in 320x240 and 160x120 while lower resolution ones are cheaper they do not produce as high a quality image. For hunting, we recommend choosing at least a 320+ pixel thermal sensor ideally 640x480 especially if your targets will be at distance.
This sounds expensive! Thermal scopes do cost more than regular scopes however with the advent of the uncooled microbolometer as detection units as discussed above the costs have come way down. A cooled thermal imaging scope cost many times as much as today's thermal scopes and suffered from being very large, hard to operate and required a long amount of “cool down time” to be usable.
The aiming reticle helps provide accurate targeting making your hunt more successful. Modern thermal imaging rifle scopes have digitally controlled reticle patterns as well as reticle colors options. You might find, a Cross, Crosshair, Cross-Center Dot, Line dot, etc. Depending on conditions where you hunt and your target, you can adjust the reticle to give you optimal targeting. Reticle color options can also be important especially if you thermal rifle scope has various color patterns. Armasight Zeus provides electronic zoom reticle tracking. ATN ThOR HD on-screen reticle will guide you to optimal point of impact.
Many of the higher end thermal scopes today also include a smart rangefinder which is very helpful. While not a requirement to have for your scope it is a nice additional feature to have.
Thermal scopes on today's market gained some nice connectivity features like built-in Wifi, bluetooth, video output, and MicroSD card slots. You should look at these options as nice add-ons but not the primary factor buying a thermal rifle scope. Your thermal rifle scope is as good as the sensor and optics.
ATN ThOR running the latest Obsidian core is packed with features like built-in Wifi, bluetooth and card slot for MicroSD. If you are someone who would like to have the latest software and apps, the ATN Obsidian app allows you to control your device and view live streaming on a mobile phone. It is fun and interactive. You can also view recorded videos on the app if your thermal scope is connected via Wifi to your phone.
The AR 15 platform is very versatile and there is a reason it is one of the most popular platforms around today. Getting the best thermal scope for your AR 15 can take some time because everyone is going to have different needs and desires when it comes to what they want to do with their AR.
If your looking for an entry level thermal scope and don't want to spend a lot of money FLIR's PTS223 with its new 12 micron Boson core is a great choice providing sharp images and not breaking the bank.
Those of you who prefer more powerful optics will probably favor FLIR's RS32 with its high refresh rate and rugged construction.
If money is no object and you want the best thermal imaging scope with the latest technology then Trijicon's Mk III is your best bet; its 12 micron core and crystal clear images will help make sure you don't miss anything on your next outing.
Some thermal scopes have a "clip-on" function, meaning that you do not need to dismount your daytime scope and re-zero it. Clip on thermal scopes mount in front of any daytime scopes. If you are interested in one of these, look into Armashight Apollo thermal imaging clip on systems.They offer high-quality scopes with FLIR sensors and several lenses to choose from.
Thermal scopes are an investment and you should pay attention to the warranty length. Having a long warranty ensures that your investment will be covered in case of manufacturing defect. ATN warranty runs 3 years, while FLIR and Armasight give 3-year warranty on scope and 10 years on the thermal sensor. One of FLIR's strengths has always been their long warranty length.
Also, think about purchasing an extended protection plan if available many retailers such as Amazon offer these plans and they can make sense when buying your thermal imaging rifle scope. Be sure to read the fine print and know what they will and will not cover to ensure it is a worthwhile additional purchase.
As you can see there are many different types of thermal imaging rifle scopes at many different price points to satisfy pretty much anyone's budget and required feature set. Thermal optics have advanced greatly in the last few years making them accessible to almost all hunters.
Our reviews are a great starting point for when you are narrowing down the best thermal scope for your budget and needs. The three most important things you need to ask your self when you are deciding on your thermal are scope are:
If you are still not sure or just want to see how many different types of thermal rifle scopes there are you can use our thermal scope finder to help you decide. If you are looking for a budget thermal scope you should also check out our top budget picks.