You may be familiar with a scene from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which the troupe is asked several questions before they are allowed to cross a bridge. One of the questions is this: What is your quest? None of them answer, “To find the best night vision hunting scope,” but since that’s our “holy grail” here, it’s the question we’ll ask and try to answer.
It’s not an easy question to answer right off the bat because there is a lot of information to understand and to sort out before we can come to a possible solution in answer to the question. We’ll take the time to do so though, so that in the end we should have a reasonable selection of night vision hunting scopes that could claim the honor of “best”, even if we can’t narrow the field down to just one.
Note: I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.
I’ll be looking briefly at these 4 models. If you want to quickly check pricing and availability at Amazon, click one of the links in the list.
Should you want to skip to a section that looks interesting, you can use the table below. Otherwise, you can simply continue reading the full article.
- 1 Gen 1? Gen 3? What’s All the Fuss?
- 2 What Other Night Vision Devices Can Help on My Quest?
- 3 Are Night Vision Scopes Legal for Hunting in the United States?
- 4 Night Vision vs Thermal Scope: Which Should I Choose?
- 5 Do I Need Infrared Illumination?
- 6 Which Is the Best Gen 3 Night Vision Hunting Scope?
- 7 The Problem: What Night Vision Scope to Buy
Gen 1? Gen 3? What’s All the Fuss?
When you start looking for a night vision optics, you will undoubtedly come across references to Gen 1, Gen 3, and possibly Gen 2 and Gen 4 (Gen being short for Generation) devices. These night vision generations are bound to be confusing until you learn what is meant by each of these terms.
I will briefly describe each generation here and then point you to an article that lays out the differences in more detail yet very plainly.
- Gen 1 optics, night vision devices and others, have been around for many decades. They are the most basic and therefore least expensive pieces of night vision equipment around.
- Gen 2 represents a large increase in the quality of night vision scopes, etc. It’s not the newest or the best, but it’s pretty close.
- Gen 3 is state of the art, military grade night vision optics. It is currently the best of the best.
- Gen 4, according to the military, doesn’t really exist yet. Equipment that was supposed to be Gen 4 night vision didn’t pass military specifications and so has be relegated to Gen 3.
As promised, for more details, take a look at what the good folks at Night Vision 4 Less have put together here.
What Other Night Vision Devices Can Help on My Quest?
Besides night vision scopes for your rifle, there are several other kinds of devices that I’ll just mention briefly because they are really beyond the scope (no pun intended) of this article.
You can find high quality night vision monoculars, which you could generally describe as a rifle sight that you don’t attach to your gun. It is a handheld gadget that looks much like the scope on a rifle. It performs much the same function as your tube but obviously can be used even when you’re not hunting. Some hunters will use an actual scope this way too.
There are also night vision goggles and binoculars. One of the main differences here is obviously that these are intended for both eyes and can thus give more of a feeling of depth as you look through them.
Each of these optics has its place and purpose. I won’t go into any more depth on any of them here though. You can find other articles here at the Owl about them.
Are Night Vision Scopes Legal for Hunting in the United States?
Determining the legality of night vision scopes can be a tricky proposition.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I will only be reporting here what I have learned elsewhere from those who purport to know more about this topic.
You probably already know that all 50 states forbid hunting game animals, such as deer, elk, moose, turkey, etc., at night. Beyond that general statement, your limitations depend on which state you are talking about.
At High-Tech Red-Neck, there is an article that tries to summarize the rules state by state. As noted there, laws can change over time, so don’t take this descriptive list as the final word. Your best option is to check with those in charge in the state in which you intend to hunt, so you get the most recent and accurate information.
Night Vision vs Thermal Scope: Which Should I Choose?
This is another tough question to answer. Both regular night vision scopes and thermal (heat detecting) sights have good points, if you get quality versions of each.
Some recommend that for thermal scopes you should get at least an FPA (focal plane array) format of 336 and a resolution of 640×480 to really see what such a device can do.
Generally, you’ll find that for your money a better night vision scope will be worth more to you over time than a thermal device. That said, you may find thermal more useful in a hog hunt situation or anytime you want to quickly fire multiple shots.
Do I Need Infrared Illumination?
Infrared (IR) illumination is included by default in Gen 1 scopes. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to see much using such a sight.
Gen 2 (and above) equipment is at least 1000 times better at amplifying light, so you may not need IR illumination. Gen 2 scopes that include it have on/off switches so you can toggle the light depending on your situation. There are times when you’ll be able to practically double the capacity of your tube with IR turned on.
Also worth mentioning here are day/night systems for the objective end of your scope and the PVS 14 for the eyepiece end. These are night vision attachments that can turn your normal daytime scope into a night vision scope when added to the appropriate end of the sight.
Obviously, when you don’t need them, you can simply remove them from your rifle and go back to normal viewing. These are two more options you may wish to consider, depending on your situation.
Which Is the Best Gen 3 Night Vision Hunting Scope?
There are a handful of makers of night vision equipment that often come up in conversation. There certainly are more than the few we’ll look at here, and I apologize if I leave out your favorite.
We’ll look at a couple of models from ATN and Armasight. One will be thermal, and the other just regular night vision.
All of them will be at the high end of the manufacturer’s lines and all are Gen 3 (or better). There are several models in each line that are below the price points of the models described below. If you are looking for something less expensive, feel free to examine them as well. The models shown here are not for everybody.
ATN ARES 6-4
The ARES 6-4 is definitely ATN’s top of the line. ATN calls it a Gen 4 scope (thus the 4 at the end of the model name) but see the note above about generation distinctions. This scope will mount to any standard Weaver rail. (Side note: A scope that will fit Weaver will also fit Picatinny, but not necessarily the other way around.)
The 6 in the model name means that you get 6x magnification and a 5-degree field of view (FOV). All ARES scopes come with the Total Darkness Infrared Illuminator, which is, as you might have guessed, especially useful in total darkness – deep in the woods at night, for example.
Take the “Gen 4” in the picture above with a grain of salt. As of this writing, there is no official military designation equal to Gen 4.
ATN THOR-HD 640 5-50x
If you need a thermal scope, ATN’s best is the ThOR-HD 640. This model is quite expensive, but as we all know, you get what you pay for.
The ThOR can detect heat-emitting objects to about 2500 meters (just over a mile and a half). You can begin to recognize objects at about 1100 meters (roughly 1200 yards) and identify them at up to 600 meters (about 650 yards).
With all that the manufacturer claims the built-in Obsidian calculator can do, it almost seems unfair to use it while hunting.
Armasight Vulcan 8X Gen 3 Ghost
This too is a top of the line model from Armasight (now FLIR). It will fit on either Weaver or Picatinny mounts.
The manufacturer claims that it will not unbalance your rifle because the mount is adjustable. I take that to mean that you can move it forward or backward along the barrel to a point where your gun is in balance as it was before you attached the scope. This might take a little work the first time, but after that, you’ll know exactly where it fits best – assuming you took notes the first time.
You can detach the extra long range IR unit from the main body of the scope for those times you know you’re not going to need it.
Armasight Zeus-Pro 640 4-32×100
The Zeus-Pro 640 is a thermal scope from Armasight. At this price point, it should be top notch in every respect, and it is. It even has a wireless 5-button remote control.
A few of its newer features include geotagging, target direction, and elevation all of which are handy for knowing exactly where you spotted that game. Coming back to the same spot on your next outing won’t be nearly so difficult, especially if there are few landmarks to go by.
The Problem: What Night Vision Scope to Buy
Let’s assume for now that you’ve narrowed your choices down to the four night vision spotting scopes mentioned above (or one of their less expensive siblings).
Here again is the list with links to Amazon.
You can cut that number in half by determining whether or not you want thermal imaging to be among your scope’s capabilities.
The very brief look I gave you for each of the scopes here is probably not enough for you to be able to narrow your options down to just one lone scope. There are just too many variables, including one of the most important which is your own specific hunting needs.
You will want to dig deeper into the specifics of these scopes and probably see if you can find comments from other owners about their likes and dislikes. Putting all that information together will hopefully give you a good handle on which night vision scope to buy.