Thermal scopes are a complicated and advanced piece of equipment, there is no doubt about that. There is no product that can do what they do. They aren’t night vision but something else entirely and, in many ways, better. Before we go too far, let's answer some common questions about thermal optics.
What does a thermal scope do?
Where night vision amplifies existing light, a thermal scope needs no light to see. Without some kind of booster on the sight, a night vision scope would be as blind as any other scope. Thermal would still see as well in that complete darkness.
This is because thermal relies on the heat that is radiated from a target. Most thermal scopes can pick this heat up at very long distances. No matter light levels, time of day, terrain, and even soft cover, thermal will still see its target.
They have far more range than night vision in general. Even the best night vision will be out-ranged by a budget thermal scope. This is not to say that night vision is pointless, just different. Both have their uses.
Can you use thermal scope during the day?
One of the primary advantages of a thermal scope overnight vision is that it works the same during the day as it does in complete darkness. Even if temperatures are hotter than the target you are shooting, they can still be effective. You are looking for differences in heat rather than the hottest thing out there.
How much is a thermal scope?
Thermal scopes aren’t cheap with such advanced technology behind them. You would be hard pressed to ever find a thermal scope that cost less than a thousand dollars. Some go much higher and can reach prices in the $8,000 range.
Most of your most popular weapon based thermal scopes are in the $2000-$3000 dollar range. This is still very costly but just 15 years ago, these were selling at new car prices. If you are willing and able to make this investment, you will have one of the coolest pieces of shooting gear imaginable.
Is Thermal better than night vision?
As briefly discussed above, there is no clear winner to this question. Both have some advantages but generally for hunting, thermal is more popular when it can be afforded. Here are some bonuses of each:
- Far More Affordable
- More Available
- Shows Terrain Better
- Shoes Living Targets Better
- More Range
- Can be Used in Daylight
I like both technologies personally. If I had to choose just one for hunting it would be thermal. I am more familiar with it and find it easier to hunt with. This is a personal opinion but one that I will stand by.
As an aside, Night Vision scopes are far easier to sight in. No one ever tells you that you need special targets to sight in a thermal scope. It needs to have some method of generating thermal radiation to work with the scope. Night vision doesn’t use a standard target either but they are far easier to get targets for than thermal.
What brands are considered the top tier optics for thermal?
There are several brands of thermal optics on the market. Very few companies have made the full investment into being able to manufacture something so costly and in such a niche market. Hopefully, this will change soon and drive prices down.
FLIR is one of the most prominent companies making thermal scopes. Most of their products are used for industrial purposes but they have turned out several optics for hunters. I would consider this to be the premier brand of thermal optics if you can afford their higher prices.
ATN is another great company with a long reputation for producing night vision scopes. They have turned their hands to making thermal optics as well and made several scopes that are very nice. I would consider them to be the midrange and most popular models.
Both Pulsar and Armasight make good products. They are not as widely used or as popular but they are likely to become so. They are on par with the other two brands in most respects but have not been as proven. They need a few more years of fieldwork before they can be considered the equal of FLIR and ATN.
Should you buy a cheap thermal scope?
If you find someone selling a thermal new for less than two grand, you should be very suspicious. Sometimes older models can be marked down from the above four manufacturers. You may not find them under two grand but you can get close.
If it were me, I would stay far away from anyone offering a thermal for less than $2000.00. The money you spend on even a budget thermal would be a huge investment. I would want to wait till I knew I was getting a quality product worthy of that kind of investment before I shelled out the money.
Hopefully, in the next 10 years, prices will drop far more. They have dropped thousands in the last decade. Maybe by the end of the next, a thousand dollar thermal will be available that is really worth spending a thousand dollars on.
Best Thermal Scopes – Recommendations and Reviews
1. ATN ThOR HD 640
The Thor HD 640 is probably the current number one scope on the market when everything is said and done. There isn’t a huge difference in the resolution, it is the standard 640 that almost all thermal use. It does come with a very large selection of reticles and color schemes. You can choose the classic rainbow or a two-tone that is becoming more preferred.
This scope is capable of powers up to 50x which is insane! Most of the magnification is digital which can be a problem but you will find this on most thermal scopes. Optically it is otherwise very clear and stable. The image has no flicker and is crisp and clean.
For a high tech device, the ThOR HD is very rugged and can stand up to normal abuse and most weather. It can handle up to 30 caliber rounds and everything is sealed up and dust proof. When it comes to a scope meant for use, there are none better.
Most thermal scopes have some extras and this one is no exception. It has a built-in rangefinder, GPS, and ballistic calculator. It can even record footage directly through the scope and transmit it via Wi-Fi. It’s the extras that really pull this scope ahead of the competition.
2. Pulsar Trail XQ
While a somewhat newer brand on the market, Pulsar is making some very good products. Their 12 model is a standard 640 AMOLED display that is very clear even at zoom. The outstanding feature of this scope is the 2000 yard detection range. At over a mile, you can still pick up heat signatures!
You can select between a large number of reticle patterns and heat displays for any hunting situation. It features a one-shot zero mode and up to three different profiles for different loads or even different rifles.
Runtime is always an issue on any night vision or thermal optic but the Pulsar Trail gives you a solid 8 hours. All the while it is fully IPX 7 Waterproof and unaffected by dust, fog, or pretty much anything else. This is a scope you can confidently take into the field without fear of breaking. If it does, Pulsar is known for their warranty.
The magnification on the pulsar is only 10x on the max end but it is a clear magnification. Like the ATN above, this scope is feature loaded with it can stream video for recording wirelessly and even has a remote control. Top that off with software to help you detect targets and you have one amazing scope.
3. FLIR RS32
It may be strange to see what I consider the best company this far down but FLIR lacks the extras that most of these scopes revel in. They instead provide only the best in detection and overall image quality. If the extras aren’t for you, this is the best scope on the list hands down.
The RS series by FLIR are standard 640 resolution scope with a 5x optical magnification. This makes the images far clearer than you will ever get with a digital zoom scope. When you look through this scope, it's almost like looking through just a glass optic but with heat signatures.
The FLIR does have multiple pallets and several reticle options so it isn’t without features at all. It also has target recognition software which can be very handy when shooting at range. Most importantly, the FLIR scope has the highest res detector in an optic in its price range. This is very nice when hunting smaller game.
You will also get a 4-hour charge on a lithium battery with an optional external pack for more power. Everything in this scope is sealed so it's watertight, shockproof, and very rugged. This is all packed into a scope that weighs about 2 pounds which makes it perfect for smaller platform rifles.
4. Armasight Predator
That magic number with thermal scopes is 2000 dollars. It's very hard to find one that falls below that point. The Armasight is one of the few and it is an all-around decent scope with good quality a decent selection of features. On a budget, this is as cheap as you are likely to find quality.
The Predator has a combination of 2x optical zoom and 4x digital which will get you a total of 8x. It is reasonably clear and operates on a 640 OLED display and a thermal core made by FLIR which is great quality and high res.
You will get the reticle options and different pallets that are standard on most thermal scopes. The view is very clear through the 8x magnification and you can expect to get decent shots off out to 400 to 500 yards. Hits at that range are actually fairly easy thanks to a repeatable zero system.
The overall outstanding features of this scope are in durability. It is waterproof, sealed, and handles recoil well. It comes with a three-year warranty on the scope but the thermal element has a ten-year warranty that offers a free replacement. As far as durability goes, this is top notch. With the warranties, it is a solid bet!
5. ATN ThOR 4
This is an optic I truly love for one reason. Most thermal optics are bulky and overly large. They look like a camera and not a scope. ATN has remedied that with one of the best lightweight optics available and for a rather reasonable price.
This scope mounts with standard rings and costs under that 2 grand mark. You get a lot for that money but you will lose a little for the more budget model scope you are getting. The notable loss is in resolution. This scope has a 384-bit resolution which is the lowest I think you could go.
Beyond that everything is quite good. It has a very sensitive sensor that picks up heat well and can display it in multiple pallets just like the other ATN. It has selectable reticles and really excels at shots more in the 200-300 yard range with its 1-5x magnification.
It does do video and can connect on Wi-Fi but that isn’t the shining star. The one thing to truly love about this scope is its ballistic computer. It has modes to account for different loads and can factor in temperature, altitude, range, wind, and angle to get a perfect shot. Not to mention it is quite durable and has an astounding 18 hour run time!
The scopes above are easily on the top of the food chain when it comes to thermal optics. Whether you want a thermal scope for AR15 rifles or something a little larger, one of those is likely to do what you need it to do. Be cautious of cheaper scope and those that are unproven. This will give you an idea of what’s on the market and what you can expect to pay to get a decent thermal scope.