Nightvision Buyer's Guide

Nightvision and Thermal Imaging Optics

Understand which nightvision unit best suits your needs

Nuclear energy and radar weren’t the only technologies to originate during WWII. Germany had developed primitive nightvision capabilities just before the war and the Allies quickly developed their own devices to keep pace. Such technology proved to be so bulky and cumbersome, it had to be mounted on the bed of a truck for field use – an easy target during battle. Today, nightvision riflescopes, monoculars and goggles have revolutionized modern warfare to the point where night has become a more advantageous battlefield than the day.

Through the years, nightvision technology has gradually priced itself into affordability for anyone wanting to add a game-changing element to their outdoor experience. Watching deer feeding undisturbed in a back pasture. Navigating out of the woods after dark. Lining up the crosshairs on a coyote trotting in to a distress call under the cover of darkness. These are all legitimate and fun uses for nightvision that more and more people every year experience thanks to the decreasing cost and increasing quality of nightvision optics.

To best understand nightvision technology, you should familiarize yourself with the two prevalent systems currently in use – infrared and image intensifier.

Infrared nightvision (FLIR)

Flir Thermal Rifle Scope
Flir Thermosight Thermal Rifle Scope

Anyone who has watched the movie “Predator” has seen the principle of infrared or thermal imaging. Most animals, plants and objects give off a heat signature. Infrared devices detect and brighten these signatures when viewed against a comparatively cooler backdrop. The warmer the signature, the brighter it glows. Time of day doesn’t matter for this technology. Such devices can be useful to spot concealed game animals during the day and witness their movements at night. Infrared proves advantageous when used in the darkest scenarios, such as a cloudy night, when almost no light is available. Check out FLIR's Thermosight Thermal Imaging Riflescope right here!

Image-intensifier nightvision (I2)

Traditional image-intensifier nightvision works by collecting minute particles of light and focusing them into an image intensifier. The image intensifier converts them to electrons which are then multiplied and projected onto a phosphorescent screen. When this intensified electron image strikes the phosphor screen, it causes the screen to emit green light that is visible to the naked eye. Why green? Because that’s the color human eyes favor best for contrast and for extended viewing without causing fatigue.

Image-intensifier nightvision optics have been around for more than 60 years and have gone through many changes. These changes are called "generations" (GEN). With each Generation, the end picture quality, range and light-gathering ability has improved. These differences, combined with the overall size, weight and technical features, dictate the price.


ATN Bino-X Nightvision Binoculars
ATN BinoX Day/Night Binoculars

First-Generation Night Optics

GEN I optics were developed in the 1960s and are still used today. They need some visible light to operate and do not function well in extremely dark environments. But for general use with the aid of stars and/or moonlight, combined with extra infrared illumination, they work well for most applications. The biggest advantage to GEN I optics is price. GEN I optics can be had for a fraction of what GEN II and GEN III models cost.

Second-Generation Night Optics

GEN II optics were developed in the 1970s. They have a significantly longer life span than GEN I and do not require visible light to operate, which allows them to work in extremely dark conditions. They also offer a better resolution than GEN I optics and are a good choice for night hunting optics. 

Third-Generation Optics

Currently the state of the art in nightvision, GEN III optics have a longer life span and a greatly increased amount of light-gaining ability and resolution (clarity) over all other forms of nightvision. Some devices can amplify available light up to 50,000 times. For night hunting applications they work extremely well, offering excellent detail and range. The only disadvantage of GEN III optics is the advancing price. 

Let your budget and end use determine your selection of nightvision technology. Casual users who want explore or navigate without needing much detail can choose more affordable devices. As your interest level and need for detail in hunting applications increase, you’ll want to view the world through the best set of nightvision available in your price range. If you want to view warm-blooded animals with more color and contrast, choose infrared nightvision. If you want to view your surroundings in more detail, choose an image-intensifier device.

Choosing the Right Nightvision Device

Nightvision Monoculars and Binoculars

Excelling at both hunting and nonhunting applications, nightvision monoculars and binoculars give you the quick-viewing capabilities to both spot concealed game and navigate the woods after dark. Modern devices easily fit in a pack – or even a pocket in some cases – for quick access. A nightvision monocular or pair of binoculars partner well with a nightvision riflescope for varmint hunting at night.

ATN Thor Thermal Scope
ATN Thor-HD 640 Thermal Rifle Scope

Nightvision Riflescopes 

Nightvision serves many purposes, but where it really shines is night varmint-hunting applications. Regulations on night hunting for varmints vary from state to state, but where it is allowed, those who have done it will agree it’s a thrilling way to spend a night outdoors. Using a spotlight can be cumbersome and often takes two people to effectively use. Even with a red lens in place, coyotes can spook when the light is turned on and there is always the possibility of drawing undue attention to yourself from area residents or law-enforcement officers. It can be really inconvenient explaining what you’re doing is legal to every individual who sees a red light fanning through the night sky. For these reasons, high-quality nightvision optics are the best option for calling evening song dogs. Cabela’s offers several excellent units for this purpose, but under no circumstances condones the use of these products in areas where it is illegal or for harvesting big game.

Modern nightvision should be viewed as a versatile tool by hikers, backpackers and hunters. Available models fit almost any need and budget. Don’t risk getting lost or stranded in the dark or miss out on an exciting chance to view the world through a powerful new set of eyes.