A Guide to Selecting a Thermal Imaging Scope
You’ll notice that there are three types of rifle scopes. There are simple scopes that just provide magnification but won’t allow for hunting in low illumination. Then there are two types of scopes that are able to work around situations of low illumination: night vision scopes, and thermal imaging scopes. Night vision scopes require some residual light in the area. They use special amplifiers to enhance that light and allow you to see. And then there are thermal imaging scopes, which are able to pick up the heat radiated by an object, by detecting infrared radiation. They can give you an image where the hottest objects are white on a dark background, black on a white background, or in different colors, with red being the hottest. A thermal scope can allow you to see in pitch-black darkness, and even allow you to see through crops or fog.
You’ll also notice that thermal imaging scopes will be considerably more expensive than a regular night vision scope that works solely on light amplification. Depending on the model, they’ll also have special features to adjust the ballistics to correct for environmental conditions, or a rangefinder to get the exact distance to your target. Some also allow streaming the action to your smartphone or recording it on a memory card.
We’ll go over some of the options in the Best Reviews Guide’s list of thermal imaging scopes. You’ll be amazed at the accuracy you can achieve, hunting for animals in totally dark conditions!
What types of thermal imaging scopes are there?
There are two main types of thermal imaging scopes: handheld and mounted. Handheld thermal imaging scopes are small and portable, making them ideal for use in a variety of settings. Mounted thermal imaging scopes are larger and more expensive, but offer a higher level of performance.
Do I need an infrared illuminator with my thermal imaging scope?
There are scopes that are intended to be used with infrared illuminator, which is essentially an infrared flashlight that sends IR radiation to a distance of as much as 350 yards. The night-vision scope then “sees” the invisible infrared light, which essentially lights up the view for you.
But these thermal imaging scopes are much more expensive, being equipped with sensors that can pick up infrared light at distances of 2 kilometers, or 2187 yards! Also, a heat-emitting object will give off infrared, and that can be seen through fog, rain, or foliage. A thermal imaging scope will be able to see the target clearly, whether it’s a deer, wild hog, or rodent pest.
Types of Thermal Imaging Scopes
Thermal imaging scopes will differ in a number of features, including the quality of their sensor, resolution, battery life, and more. But we can group them between those that use your rifle’s Picatinny or Weaver rail mount, and clip-on units:
Mount on Picatinny or Weaver Rail Mounts: There are thermal imaging scopes that attach to your rifle’s Picatinny or Weaver rail mount. An example is the Bering Optics Hogster Stimulus Thermal Weapon Sight. It is capable of magnifying your target from 2.3 to 4.6 times.
Bering Optics Hogster Stimulus Thermal Weapon Sight
Clip-on: One easy-to-use clip-on thermal imaging scope is the Burris BTC 35 USM Thermal Vision Scope. You have the choice of using it as a handheld tracker or clipping it onto any existing riflescope to give you thermal night vision. It allows you to view objects with a 1x, 2x, or 4x zoom, and has a 400 x 300-pixel resolution.
Burris BTC 35 USM Thermal Vision Scope
What reviewers say
We went over some customers’ impressions of the thermal imaging scope that they bought:
Short-range vs. long-range scopes: One customer who used the ATN Thor LT Thermal Rifle Scope was amazed when he looked at his backyard through his scope for the first time. He was looking at his dog, but then was amazed to have picked up a perfectly-camouflaged rabbit that was off in the corner! However, other customers say that it is a short-range thermal scope, since you can’t get a definitive idea of what the target is at further distances that are more than 75 yards away. It just looks like a “4-legged blob”.
Good to be able to switch the color: People are very pleased with the options on some scopes to change the colors of the view, such as the somewhat pricey Pulsar Trail 2 LRF Thermal Riflescope. They allow toggling between hot objects being white, or black, or a rainbow of colors, with red being the hottest, then orange, then yellow, etc. And it has a “Picture-in-Picture Mode”, where the center of the target is magnified even further, so that you can verify what it is!
The Pulsar Trail 2 LRF Thermal Riflescope's "Picture-in-Picture" mode
Here are some tips and features of thermal imaging scopes, which may help you make a decision when shopping:
One-shot zero: Many scopes have a “one-shot zero” function. Let’s say you take a single shot, and you see that it was off-center. You then zero in on where your first shot landed, and save the coordinates in your scope. The next time you zero in on the bullseye of your sight’s crosshairs, it will correct for the previous discrepancy. This ensures that you hit the center of the bullseye the second time!
Lightweight: With all of these special electronics features, you’d think that these scopes will be heavy. However, the Bering Optics Hogster Thermal Weapon Sight is just a little over 1 lb, at 16.6 ounces.
Battery life: Many of these scopes use rechargeable Li-ion batteries, and will have a battery life of 18 hours. If you’ll need more than that, many provide an extra power pack that you hook up with a magnetic mount, that can add an extra 13 hours of service.
Magnification: You’ll notice that thermal imaging scopes will state that they have a range of magnifications. For example, the ATN THor 4 Thermal Rifle Scope can magnify from 1.25x to 5x. Some scopes require that you press a button several times to adjust magnification, which is called “step zoom”. People tend to lose their focus by using a step zoom, so it’s better to buy a scope with a “smooth zoom”, which focuses on the target with a single continuous press of a button.
Recoil Activated Video: You’ll see that there are scopes that can stream your hunting trips to your cellphone or tablet via WiFi, or store them on an internal SD card. But, in the event that you forget to turn on your video storage option, you may miss some footage that you’d like to save. So some scopes allow you to select “recoil activated video”, which starts recording when you take a shot. That ensures that you won’t miss a thing!
Rangefinder feature: Not all thermal imaging scopes offer a rangefinder feature, so it’s something to look for. The rangefinder will tell you the distance to your target. You first center on the top of your target (for example, the back of a wild boar) and the bottom of your target, entering both readings into your scope. The scope then calculates that distance by triangulation. That helps you get a sense of whether the target is in range.
We went through some features of the best thermal imaging scopes available nowadays. The best products with the greatest sensitivity will be definitely expensive, but they will give you a lot of satisfaction in their durability and accuracy. You can be sure that you’ll have much fewer wasted shots, especially in situations where you don’t get a second chance!