Thermal vs Night vision – What is the difference?

Thermal imaging scopes vs night vision scopes

We have put this page together to help you choose between a thermal imaging rifle scope and a night vision rifle scope - these scopes are very different and depending upon your needs and budget you want to ensure you select the proper scope. First we will talk about the differences between night vision and thermal imaging and when you would want to use each. Additionally, we have added many more details and information about each type of scope so that you can ensure you are selecting the best scope it may even be a DIY solution which is very new to the market is a good fit.

Finally, we have also put together our top 3 thermal imaging scopes as well as top 3 night vision scopes along with some of their most popular features to help you decide which one is best.

You can use our table of contents below to quickly find the information you need.

The Difference Between the Technologies

First we need to understand what the difference is between night vision and thermal imaging. Many of people think they are the same thing however they are most definitely not. Night vision scopes and other devices amplify visible light (even if there is only a very small amount) allowing you to see in very dark environments however if there is no light then you will see nothing with a night vision scope as there has to be at least some light to amplify.

Thermal imaging on the other hand detects thermal energy or radiation that objects radiate and shows the difference in temperature variations in different colors. This allows the viewer to see animals in complete darkness. Thermal imaging will even allow you to see “through” certain objects such as dense foliage or fog and detect animals or people that may be hiding. This is one of the reasons that thermal imagers are gaining increasing popularity with law enforcement officials and security department

Pulsar Helion XQ30F Thermal Monocular, 2.5

Thermal Image

Night vision scopes will produce a clearer image which helps in recognizing the type of animal you are hunting provided there is enough light. A Thermal Imaging Scope however will allow you to spot the game much easier. While thermal imaging technology has come a long way and the imaged are much clearer night vision still holds the edge in details provided. Because of this if you are primarily hunting game from long distances and need to able to identify it then a night vision scope is your best choice.

Armasight Nemesis6x-SD Gen 2+ Night Vision Rifle Scope w/6x Magnification

Night Vision Image

You also need to be mindful of what generation of night vision technology your rifle scope is using. While night vision has been around since the time of World War 2 there have been several improvements as newer, cheaper, and better technology has lead to continued image improvement. The newer the generation of technology the more expensive your night vision scope is going to be; which is why you see some night vision scopes for less than $300 and some for more than $3,000. There are currently 3 levels of night vision available, some will argue that there are 4.

The takeaway here is the generation 1 is the least expensive and generation 3 & 4 are the most expensive although their quality is much better. The military and law enforcement primarily use Gen 3 and above. The differences between the generations is an entire page itself however the best rule of thumb is that it best to at least try to go for generation 2 as the quality is much closer to generation 3 and a huge step up from generation 1. We have also provided a side by side comparison below. As you can see in the newer generations clarity and image detail is much higher.

The different generations of night vision

Images from different night vision generations

Generation 3 and 4 are the most expensive and should be considered if you will be routinely shooting long distances (300 yards plus) and operating in very low light situations or if you are law enforcement or military.

While thermal imaging scopes in the past have not been nearly as durable as night vision scopes many people have gone with a night vision scope now however they thermal imaging scopes are as durable as night vision scopes.

What Kind Of Environment Will You Be Hunting In?

Depending upon the environment that you will be in a thermal imaging scope may make more sense than a night vision scope and vice versa. Extreme cold can make make a thermal imaging scope not function properly; additionally if you are in a shelter to stay out of the cold you will not be able to use your thermal imaging through the glass you will need to go outside of your shelter. A night vision scope makes the most sense if you will be hunting in an extremely cold environment

How Much Light Will You Have While Hunting?

Night vision scopes amplify the ambient light whereas thermal imaging scopes detect radiation or thermal heat and show the differences in temperature as an image. If you will be hunting in little to no light then a thermal imaging scope will be your best choice. If you will be hunting in a variety of light situations from daylight to night a thermal imaging scope will also be your best choice as a night vision scope can be damaged by bright light

Pulsar Apex XQ50 2.8-11.2x42 Thermal Riflescope

Thermal Vision

What is Your Budget?

While we would all like to be able to buy both a thermal imaging scope and night vision scope along with the rifle for each however most of us do not have the budget to enable us to do tha

Thermal imaging scopes are more costly than night vision scopes; excluding some of the latest generation 3 military grade night scopes. If you are springing for a thermal scope do you need or want it be show images in color? You will also need to decide if you want a scope that can store images & video directly on an SD card or if you are okay with a USB transfer wire going from your scope to a storage device. How large of a zoom do you need your scope to have? All things being equal a thermal imaging scope with the same features as a night vision scope will be more expensive.

This is one of the hardest areas to figure out what you need as it may be worth spending a couple hundred dollars over your “budget” if you will get the features you NEED and make the scope usable for your circumstances; staying within your budget and buying a scope that you never use because it does not have the features you need will only waste your money. Amazon and other retailers also offer payment options and discounts that can help ensure you don’t break the bank.

How Far Away Will Your Target Be?

While thermal imaging scopes can help you find animals hidden in cover or through dense fog at longer distances they do not have the clarity of a night vision scope. As such if you will be hunting at long ranges and need sharp images then a night vision scope will be your best choice. You will probably want to consider at least a generation 2 or if you can swing it generation 3 night vision.

Do You Need To Be Able To Identify Your Game?

This ties into the above point about thermal imaging scopes not producing the clearest images; if you are simply hunting nuisance animals such as feral hogs or prairie dogs then you may not need to explicitly identify your intended target. You must be able to identify your target though if you are hunting a deer or other animals that have strict parameters around which ones can be shot. If you need to be able to clearly identify your target before shooting then a night vision scope will be your best bet.

What If You Could Have Thermal Imaging & A Night Vision Scope?

Still cannot decide if a thermal imaging scope or night vision scope is best for you; if so then maybe you need both! Some hunters who need sharp images in the dark but also need to locate targets that typically hide in cover or in foggy conditions will use a small thermal imaging monocular to spot their target and then use their night vision scope to take their shot.

Our Top 3 Night Vision Scopes:

BEST PREMIUM NIGHT VISION SCOPE - Armasight Nemesis 6x-SD Gen 2 Night Vision Riflescope

Armasight Nemisis 6x-SD Night Vision Riflescope

 The Armasight Nemesis is our pick for best premium night vision scope. This scope is expensive however with its 6x magnification for longer distance shooting, Gen 2 image intensifier and high-grade components from FLIR this night vision scope is ideal for shooters who want a premium rifle scope and are willing to pay for it. Armasight is owned by FLIR the leader in thermal imaging and night vision technology. The Nemesis comes in many variants and this is one has their standard definition (Gen2SD) however they do have models with Improved definition (Gen2ID) and Quick Silver or White Phosphor (Gen2+QS) these are even more expensive models. The Nemesis has three accessory mounting rails that help you easily mount the long-range illuminator (which is included) and many other accessories. The Nemesis is water resistant lightweight and made from high grade aircraft aluminum.


 The ATN Gen 2 Night Arrow is our pick for best value night vision rifle scope. The ATN Night Arrow is a Gen 2 night vision scope that is designed for law enforcement and professional applications. Gen 2 night vision is more expensive that Gen 1 night vision with the main difference between Gen1 and Gen2 being the addition of the micro channel plate or MCP as it is referred to that amplifies the light many more times than Gen 1. The are many variations with different magnification and image intensifier units so you will be able to find the model that best suits your needs and budget. This Night Arrow has a 4x magnification and a resolution of 40/45 Ip/mm. The Night Arrow has automatic brightness control and bright light cut off which allows the scope to be in conditions with more light without damaging it. The Night Arrow also comes with a 2 year warranty.

BEST CHEAP NIGHT VISION SCOPE - Sightmark Photon XT Digital Night Vision Riflescope

Sightmark Photon XT Digital Night Vision Riflescope

The Sightmark Photon XT Digital Night Vision Riflescope is our pick for the best cheap night vision scope. If your looking for a night vision scope well under $1,000 but still want good quality and features this is the perfect choice. The Sightmark Photon has a 4x magnification (also available in 6x) and rage of around 150 to 175 yards. The IR illuminator has three different settings that allow you adjust the IR strength for targets that are farther away. The resolution of this model is also much better than previous ones although it will be less than the more expensive scopes above. If your looking to purchase your first night vision scope and are on a budget this is a great choice.

Our Top 3 Thermal Imaging Scopes:


FLIR RS64 thermal rifle scope for hunting

The FLIR RS64 is a premium thermal imaging scope from FLIR who the leader in thermal imaging technology is. The RS64 allows you to hunt in little to no light situations while providing extremely clear images with its 640x512 thermal sensor. The RS64 also has several reticle options and is built to withstand daily hunting trips. The active matrix LCD is crystal clear providing deep contrast and great clarity. The 30Hz refresh rate is good for moving targets and while 60Hz would be better 30Hz is more than enough for most hunters. The FLIR RS64 does not offer all the extra features of some thermal imaging scopes such as recording or built in ballistics calculator. The RS64 is instead built for the serious hunter who wants a premium thermal imaging scope without features that will are not needed for serious hunters.

BEST VALUE THERMAL IMAGING SCOPE - ATN ThOR HD 384 Smart 4.5x18 Thermal Riflescope

ATN ThOR HD 384 Smart Thermal Riflescope

The ATN ThOR 384 is our choice for best value thermal imaging scope. With many features that are usually included on premium scopes such as video recording, ability to interface with your smartphone or tablet, and a decent thermal imaging sensor, 384x288. The 384 is reasonably priced and is a good first thermal scope purchase that can be used for the long term. The 30Hz refresh rate is also fast enough for almost all hunters and types of hunting ensuing you can easily track moving targets without blurred images. The three-year warranty is also decent and ATN has been around for a while so you know you are getting a scope from an established manufacturer. The ATN 384 is a great buy for the money.

BEST OVERALL THERMAL IMAGING SCOPE - Armasight Zeus 336 3-12x30 30Hz

Armasight Zeus 336 thermal riffle scope review

The Armasight Zeus 336 is our pick for best overall thermal imaging scope. With its many features such as 30Hz refresh rate (also available in 60Hz) is 800x600 AMOLED display, 336x256 thermal detector, and ability to record video this scope is the perfect blend of premium features, rugged durability and price. The 336 uses a FLIR Tau 2 Vox microbolometer which means your thermal sensor (the most important part of the scope) is from the industry leader in thermal imaging. The sensor also has a 10-year warranty ensuing you will have many years of use. The Armasight Zeus is not the cheapest thermal scope however for the price it packs the most features and value. Read our review.

What About a DIY Night Vision Rifle Scope?

For those of you looking for the absolutely cheapest option and are willing and able to put in a little bit of assembly work there are also a couple do it yourself options for night vision scopes that are of decent quality for the money. Keep in mind these will not replace a purpose built night vision scope but for bargain hunters and those looking to really only shoot at targets 30 to 40 yards away this is a viable solution.

Our Top 2 DIY Night Vision Scopes:

BEST PREMIUM DIY NIGHT VISION SCOPE - Sightmark Photon XT Digital Night Vision Riflescope

NiteSite Wolf 330 DIY Thermal Imaging Scope

The NiteSite Wolf 330 DIY Thermal Imaging Scope is our pick for best premium DIY night vision scope. While a DIY night vision scope is never going to take the place of regular night vision scope these are very cheap and can be a great way to try night vision scopes out and see if you really want to spend serious money on a true night vision scope like the ones above. The NiteSite Wolf converts your day light scope into a night vision scope and with the built-in app and WiFi capability allows you to stream or record your hunting trips. The quality of your scope will impact how well this system works for you. For those looking to experiment with night vision scopes without spending a lot of money the NiteSite Wolf is a perfect choice.

BEST CHEAP DIY NIGHT VISION SCOPE - Bestsight DIY Rifle Night Vision Scope

Bestsight DIY Rifle Night Vision Scope

The Bestsight DIY Rifle Night Vision Scope is our pick for the cheapest DIY night vision scope if you are looking for the absolute cheapest way to try out night vision hunting then this is the perfect choice for you the Bestsight attaches to your daylight rifle scope and coverts it into a night visions scope complete with CCD and infrared flash light. This is a perfect choice if price is your number one factor and you do not want to purchase a true night vision scope.

Night & Thermal Scope FAQ's

Q. Is there a difference between night vision and infrared?

A. Yes, night vision amplifies available light as it bounces off objects to allow you to see in the dark. For night vision scopes or monoculars to work there must be at least "some" light even if very little. Infrared on the other hand detects the infrared light (thermal radiation or heat) that objects emit meaning that it will allow you to see in total darkness.

Q. How long does a night vision scope last?

A. Night vision scopes and moncoluars use a special coating on the tubes that amplify the light as the coating wears off the scope or monocular will become less effective Gen 2 devices will last 5,000 hours (208 days of continuous use) and Gen 3 devices will last at least 12,000 hours (500 days of continuous use) this translates into may years for most users.

Q. Can I use a night vision scope during the day?

A. No, because night vision amplifies what available light there is 1,000’s of times using a night vision scope during the day will result in not image being seen and will damage the light sensing tubes as daylight will overload them. Thermal scopes however can be used during the day because they detect the differences in temperature between objects and do not amplify the light.

Q. Is a night vision scope legal?

A. State regulations will vary so it is important to check your state laws. There may also be additional laws governing the hunting of certain animals with a night vision scope that you will want to make sure you check out before using or buying a night vision scope.

Q. Can you see through fog/smoke with night vision?

A. No, night vision amplifies visible light so if there is fog you will not be able to see through it. Thermal imaging scopes can see through light fog, snow, and rain as thermal imaging scopes detect temperature differences.

Still Not Sure Which Scope Is Right For You?

If you are still not sure which rifle scope is right for you and your unique situation we have put together the below quick reference  guide to help you decide.

Final Thoughts:

Whether you are looking for a thermal imaging monocular or rifle scope we have put together the comprehensive guide to help ensure you are able to find the best one for you and your budget. If you have already purchased one of these or a different one please let us know what your experience has been.

As you can see there are several options to chose from; hopefully our guide has helped you make the best decision for your unique needs.