Ever notice how most predators hunt at night? That is simply because prey is weakest in the dark. Where the wolf has excellent night vision, the deer is lacking. Though humans tend to be one of the most effective predators, we somehow got left off that night vision checklist but that’s ok. We invented our own!
Night vision is a complicated topic that is very rarely covered well. Fear not, we are going to dive right into the deep end and give you a thorough introduction into the topic. You will be able to separate the real deal from the cheap do-nothing devices. This will prevent you from falling into the trap of marketing and lies.
With that said, let’s get to the good stuff on this amazing technology!
Table of Contents
- Why Night Vision Scopes & How to Choose the Best for You?
- Best Night Vision Scope Brands
- The Best Night Vision Scopes on the Market
- Thermal vs Night Vision
- Legality Issues
- Zeroing a Night Vision Scope
Why Night Vision Scopes & How to Choose the Best for You?
There are ample reasons to own a night vision scope from personal security to hunting. There is also just the cool factor of having one. Probably the most common use personally is just to take care of varmints around the homestead.
Any time you want to improve your odds and give yourself the advantage after dark, be that for a better shot at a hog or to spot unwanted snoopers around the home, night vision is a great asset. Depending on what purpose fits you, there are some special considerations to make.
There is a lot of hoopla around night vision generations that most of us will never need to worry about. In short, night vision is really divided into 4 generations with one notable exception. Below is a brief on those generations.
This is the original night vision technology and what most consumers ended up with until very recently. It's affordable and effective in most cases. Usually this is the standard green monochrome but some models use a module that makes it appear white instead. The only light needed for these to work is a minimal star-light or moonlight. Some people will add infrared illuminators to make them more effective.
The limitations are that the image is rather grainy and the range is fairly short. They also have a shorter lifespan but its generally long enough that most consumers never burn them out. Some but not all can be burnt out by too bright a light while they are active so read closely.
With a better image, more range, and moderated brightness to improve long term use, Gen 2 night vision was a huge step up in the game. These are just now getting within the price range for most consumers. They use minimal natural light like a Gen 1 but needless and light up better.
The limitations tend to be on price more than anything. Most of the failings of Gen 1 have been addressed with Gen 2 making them a very superior option.
Gen 3 night vision is what is currently in use by most of the military. It has far superior image and range to even Gen 2. However, it is prohibitively expensive for most people with many scopes costing in excess of $10,000.00. If you can swing one, they are the ultimate in night vision able to see farther and better with a very refined image pallet.
Right now, Gen 4 night vision is rare and even more rare to find in a scope. It has not been formally adopted by the U.S. military due to some technical issues. Purportedly it is far better than any previous generation but a little more sensitive. Even the lowest end Gen 4 optics are going to cost better than $5000.00 and most are far more reaching as high as the $20,000.00 mark. Unless you are very wealthy it is unlikely you will be able to get your hands on these.
The new trend in night vision is the digital night vision. These work much like a security camera with a small video screen attached to a recorder. They are limited in range but that can be extended by adding IR illumination. The predominant light source is infrared rather than ambient light so you will have to have some form of illumination to use one.
The benefits are many with cheaper prices, better image quality, the ability to use them during daylight and many additional features. Some can record video for later use as well as broadcast that via Wi-Fi to smartphones or other devices. For most consumers, this is the way to go if you want a usable optic. If you want something mil-spec for the coolness factor, these are not a great fit.
Max Range and Magnification
Though these are really two different mechanics, they work so well in conjunction that its best to cover them together.
You need to determine upfront how far you intend to use your scope on a maximum level before you purchase. Whatever this distance is, your max visible range needs to be well past it. For many scopes this isn’t published and for digital scopes you can actually increase this range by adding more powerful illuminators. Just make sure you are covered for your intended use.
Once you know how far you want to shoot and how far you can see, you need a magnification range that matches that. To be frank, most people overdo magnification to begin with. Realistically you can easily make 400 yards with a 10x scope. Adding magnification just allows you to aim smaller for a better chance of a hit.
The takeaway should be that you want a max range that exceeds your needs by some margin and magnification that allows you to comfortably make that shot.
Image Quality and Gain
Though most night vision made today has sufficient quality, if you are going longer range you definitely want something that has good image quality. For close range work this may not matter so much but as you get farther out, it can actually be tough to make out targets if you have a bad picture.
Gain works in a similar way. This is the level of light amplification your scope offers and it can take a bit of digging to actually find an answer. You need as much gain as you can get for those really long shots where your scope is likely to have more trouble picking up faint reflected light. Close range, most any scope will have enough gain to do the job.
If you purchase a true night vision scope from one of the technology generations, your image quality and gain will be a direct result of the generation. Gen 1 is decent but things get much better as you get higher up the list.
For digital night vision, you usually won’t have to worry about the camera resolution but the screen resolution will affect your image quality. You don’t need full 1080p or anything because the screen you are looking at is tiny! A 640-pixel screen is very nice. A 320 is decent.
For gain, most digital night vision has great gain but the distance it can pick up that light is short. Having some form of IR illuminator is a great way to push your range out farther.
Best Night Vision Scope Brands
With night vision technology most of the big optics brands have stayed away. This makes selection difficult for even the experienced shooter. So, here are the brands that are notable and worth considering.
Probably the biggest name in night vision right now is ATN Corp who have been making night vision scopes for about 25 years. It isn’t that their night vision is specifically better it’s that their scopes have a ton of advanced features. Definitely one to check out!
Another company with some experience in the market Armasight is just behind ATN when it comes to those extras in a night vision optic. They make very solid scopes that are ready for action. Not one to pass up and a little more affordable in many cases than ATN.
A company that is just making its self widely known, Firefield makes some solid scopes that are quite budget-friendly. They deal in both digital and true night vision to some extent and do good work if you don’t need all the extras.
Night Optics USA
This is the only company on this list that truly specializes in true night vision of advanced generations. Their optics are costly but that comes from the quality put into them. If you want the real deal, this is the company to check out.
Much like Armasight, Pulsar makes a solid scope that is very good and very tough. They are a little behind ATN with their extras but their digital night vision is well worth the cost. They tend to be a little lighter in weight but just as robust as similar brands.
Sightmark is on here for just one reason, they make one of the most affordable true Gen 1 scopes out there. It is quite good and well worth the cost if you want the real thing. Just be aware that it is Gen 1 and what that means and you will be good to go.
The Best Night Vision Scopes on the Market
Best of the Best
When price isn’t that much of an object and you want to get the best your money can buy, we want to include a section specially dedicated to those optics. So, by generation, these are the best you will find anywhere. It should be no surprise that they are all Gen 3.
1 NIGHT OPTICS NM-P14
While there are probably Gen 4 optics out there exceeding 10k in price, they aren’t notably better than this Night Optics Beauty. This is a true Gen 3 optic that is as close to mil-spec as most consumers are every likely to see. In form and function this is easily among the best night vision optics available anywhere.
This optic is made for close range night engagements so it has no magnification. It is a simple 1x optic that is best suited to military platforms. It can easily co-witness with standard iron sights but does have a reticle for more pinpoint accuracy and quicker target acquisition.
The visual through this sight is clear and bright using a true Gen 3 intensifier tube. This has the maximum contrast for better target ID and better range overall. If you add an IR illuminator, you get even more out of this optic.
Its construction is up to military standards and can hold up to any weather with the toughest conditions and weapons around. Gen 3 night vision has a reputation for a long life and with proper care and maintenance, this optic can last for years if not a lifetime.
2 ARMASIGHT VULCAN
When it comes to top of the line Armasight is a great option and when it comes to Armasight, nothing beats the Vulcan. This is a truly stellar night vision sight that has all the features you could want out of any night time optics without any of the frivolous extras so common on other big name scopes.
At 4.5x this is a perfect mid-range optic that has a great price for true Gen 3 technology. With the included IR illuminator, you get great range depending on terrain with crisp, clear, imagery. The contrast is near perfect for easy target ID even as far out as 300 yards if the conditions are right.
This optic does have a remote control so you can adjust any aspect of the scope wirelessly without having to move your eye from the scope. Everything on this scope is brightness controlled so you get the best no matter your conditions. It even cuts off if the light gets too bright for the scope to handle.
You get an IR illuminator included and all the durability you could need. This is a mil-spec sight that works great on any military based weapons platform. If you want a little more range and a little better price, this is an awesome scope!
3 PULSAR PHANTOM
Honestly, when you think of Pulsar you usually think of the mid-range models and Gen 2 technology but this foray into the world of Gen 3 has been a rousing success. It has all of the quality of the more common Pulsar optics but supped up to a higher level. This isn’t just the image but the overall quality and durability as well.
Like most Gen 3 scopes, the Phantom tops out at 4x. This is a good match for Gen 3 technology, especially without an IR illuminator. You can always add one to extend the range but 4x magnification still works very well. Once you get out much farther, image becomes a little muddled with even the best scopes.
The Phantom uses a huge 60mm objective lens leading to the Gen 3 intensifier. This means exceptional light gathering potential creating a bright and crystal clear image. This lasts until you top out that range. Basically, if you can shoot it during the day with a 4x scope, you can use this at night in good conditions.
The durability of this product is about as good as it gets. It uses a rubberized armor and is completely water and dust proof. Best of all is the price. This is one of the most affordable Gen 3 scopes available anywhere. It may fall just behind some of the other Gen 3s out there but if you want this technology at a great price, the Phantom is the best bet!
Best Under $2000.00
1 ATN ARES
Not only is ATN a company known for quality but it is a company that has pushed the boundaries of the current technology as far as they can be pushed. If there are better scopes than an ATN on the market, they are rare and very costly. For the consumer, this is the best you can get!
Though ATN is best known for their digital rifle scopes, The Ares is a true Gen II night vision optic and it is absolutely the best available for the money. At 4x it is a little lower on power and best used for AR-15 series rifles or something with less effective range. Larger calibers with longer ranges will want a little more magnification.
That said, as a Gen II sight the Ares has exceptional light amplification and the ability to see great distances after dark. It is a perfect choice for coyote hunting but still works very well for hog hunting. Anything you could reasonably hit with a 4x scope will be easily visible with the ability to spot targets much farther away making it good for scouting as well.
Much like the best regular scopes on the market, the Ares uses superior multi-coated glass and is nitrogen purged for a 100% waterproof seal. This is one amazing scope. The best quote about the Ares comes straight from the company stating that it uses “the purest grades of heavy glass and computer-aided optical designs to create multi-element, high-speed, multi-coated lenses for ultra-fast light transmission and resolution beyond current military standards.” This is spot on!
2 NIGHT OPTICS SPARTAN 520
While Night Optics doesn’t possess the line up of great scopes that ATN does, they do have a very specific pedigree. The optics they do produce are highly favored and surely have the quality needed to function well for the lifetime of the scope. There are no corners cut, its just pure quality!
The Spartan is their mid-line scope made for lower caliber rounds or as a backup for your rifle in those cases where you need to expand it for night time use. This can be used as a front mounted optic or in a standard position as needed. The power is a lower 2.5x meaning it works best for extending range after dark to a couple hundred meters and probably no farther.
Finding a niche for such a lower powered optic can be tough but it actually makes a great option for Ruger 10/22 rifles and similar firearms due to its light weight and smaller size. You can effectively use this for varmint hunting and it makes a great option for rats around the homestead. This can be one of the most fun uses for a night vision scope.
Though you won’t be going long range with this scope, it works great for scouting longer distances. The visual through the prime glass with the Spartan image intensifier is simply amazing. Use one for crossbow hunting or just around the farm. Or better yet, add it to your arsenal for indoor home security. That is a role it is perfectly suited for!
3 ATN NIGHT ARROW
So, we go back to ATN for one more optic. But where the Ares was the high-end full-featured option, the Night Arrow is a quick, light scope for those who don’t need the complexity or want the weight. It is a perfect option for the varmint hunter and those who want to explore night vision as a home security option. Slap this on a lightweight rifle and you have an amazing setup!
The Night Arrow is a 6 power true Gen 2 scope with an amazing image intensifier and built-in IR illumination. This means that at close and mid ranges, it really lights up the night. Nothing is likely to escape with this equipped. The higher power also lends its self well to higher powered firearms making a good choice for M1A rifles and the venerable AK-47.
Further, the Night Arrow is built on a solid 1 piece tube and uses a simple 1 input control setup. This makes it exceptionally easy to use and very difficult to damage. It will work in any weather and can stand up to the abuse of real field use. Though it may be far from cheap, this actually makes it a great option for an entry-level night vision scope.
If you want solid, simple, lightweight, and effective all in one package the Night Arrow is probably the most recommended scope on the internet. It leads sales for true night vision with every major retailer. It is simply an amazing product from an amazing company and will be hard to beat for years to come. With the price of Gen 3 still very high and not likely to come down, this is a great option for a better price.
Best Under $1000.00
1 ATN X-SIGHT II HD
With yet another fine offering, ATN shows how it has conquered the night vision market. This, like the superior 4k model above is a digital scope and one that comes with all of the amazing features you could expect from ATN but at a little more friendly price.
With a smaller size, this is perfect for air rifle hunters or those who don’t want to invest a ton in an optic. It has more than enough power to really get out there with a max of 20x but you can scale that back all the way to 5x when needed. This is a very versatile range that can cover the lowest calibers up to the highest calibers with ease.
Like other ATN smart scopes it has built in ranging and ballistic calculations for your specific caliber and load. It records and streams video. Everything is integrated and works together to give you the best chance at a clean shot at any range with most any caliber.
The only downside is that this is only a 1080p optic. While this is more than sufficient for most people, it falls behind the 4K option. Realistically this is still more resolution than you need unless you are going to be displaying footage on your 4K TV. The resolution is up to you but if you can get by with less, this optic runs a good bit less expensive.
Best Under $500.00
1 ARMASIGHT ORION
Armasight is one of the original producers of consumer level night vision and makes several notable models. However, if you want the real deal night vision on a budget, this is it. A true Gen 1 night vision for under $500.00 bucks is a rare deal and one that shouldn’t be passed up.
At 5x magnification, this is fairly standard for Gen 1 scopes. The added IR illuminator means that at any range you are willing to shoot, you will get a crisp, clear image. It is also worth noting that this is what is often referred to as Gen 1+ which is upgraded with better resolution and a longer life than standard Gen 1 scopes.
There aren’t any added features since it is true night vision but it is built like an absolute tank. The full scope is sealed and rubberized to prevent moisture intrusion and any damage from minor bangs and scrapes. It is covered by a full two-year warranty which is something you rarely see on night vision optics.
So, if you are after the real deal. You want the real thing and not the digital stuff. If you are collector or enthusiast, this is the best value you can ever hope to find. There are not many good night vision scopes that are not digital and cost less.
2 NIGHT OWL OPTICS NIGHTSHOT
When going with the best in affordable digital night vision, you can’t pass up Night Owl. This is the only scope they make and it may fall a little short compared to the ATN models but it is a very successful and very affordable night vision optic. All it really lacks are those extras.
Firstly, this is not an option for high-powered magnum optics. If you are using anything more than a .308, this will not stand up to the recoil. For something small bore like an AR-15 this is a fine choice. This works out well as it is only a 3x optic anyway.
Since we are working with shorter ranges anyway, the visible distance with this scope caps out between 100 and 200 yards. This is perfect for around the home varmint hunting and places like the eastern woodlands where distances are often short due to foliage.
While this may not be the latest and greatest, it is a perfectly usable night vision scope on smaller calibers. Slap this on a .22 for some great fun. Add a suppressor and you really have a perfect after-dark setup! Can also be used for daytime shooting.
3 FIREFIELD NVRS
With night vision technology growing, it would only make sense that the low-generation stuff got cheaper but, in most cases, even that has stayed high priced. This is because most companies have worked to expand the technology. Firefield has done the opposite. They have taken that classic Gen 1 technology and used it in a modern scope to great effect!
So, this is a true Gen 1 optic that is as affordable as you will ever find. It does have all of the issues of Gen 1 technology so limited range, low contrast, and the rest. However, for a 3x scope this works very well. It has that classic green/black view that we all came to appreciate back in the 1980s but it is priced for less than it ever has been.
All in all, the Firefield NVRS (Night Vision Rifle Scope) is a solid piece of equipment. Made of titanium with solid components and very little that can break, it should last you for years. Since it works off ambient light, you can use it with no additional lighting but it does have an IR illuminator which improves the view and contrast considerably.
While the Armasight Orion is the better scope, this is the most affordable Gen 1 out there. You will not find a true night vision scope of any quality anywhere that costs less. That said, this is a good scope all around. It isn’t a cheap option but a quality budget-friendly product. For the price, this is something most gun enthusiasts should own even if they have a better option for serious use.
Thermal vs Night Vision
This is a common comparison because at a glance a thermal scope does the same job as night vision. This is really not true. Thermal often has better range and can see through smoke, fog, and rain far better. Thermal can be used the same in daylight as in the dark though it is a little less effective if it’s a hot day.
Thermal is really the superior technology for most applications. The problem lies mostly in cost with thermal optics costing far more than night vision. Even a cheap thermal scope can cost multiple thousands of dollars. Thermal can also be a little less durable and a little more sensitive than many night vision scopes.
There seems to be a lot of concern about the legality of night vision. At the time of the writing of this article, I am not aware of any state or local laws that prevent ownership of night vision optics. The legal issues arise in using them for hunting and there are simply too many options or factors to go into here. You do need to be aware of any state or local laws, there is a good list available here.
Zeroing a Night Vision Scope
Though in most cases you can zero a night vision scope very much like a standard scope, most brands come with their own method to zero quickly. Usually the manual will detail zeroing instructions for that scope, especially if it has mode such as ‘one shot zero’ or ‘quick zero’. For comparison, this video shows the method for zeroing an ATN sight:
If you want to own the night and hunt like the true predators, you need the ability to see in the dark. No technology gives this to you as well as night vision. Whether you are interested in the true generation level or the newer digital technology, all will accomplish the same goal. The best night vision scope will elevate you from the standard predator to one who owns the night.