How Night Vision Monoculars Work
Night vision monoculars are single image tube designs that are lightweight and capable of creating a bright sight picture.
Night vision monoculars do this through image enhancement with the use of technology that amplifies both visible and invisible infrared light. This creates a sight picture that cuts through the darkness like a machete through the brush.
Night vision monoculars create a visible and bright sight picture that allows you to see, navigate, and surveil at your convenience, even in the darkest of nights.
One of the biggest considerations for choosing a monocular is the generation. Night vision technology typically spans three to four generations, and these are mainly based on the internal intensifier. If you want a full rundown on the different generations, check our night vision gear guide.
Generation 1 monoculars and digital monoculars are the most affordable option. They are limited by their low effective range and lack of clarity. Generation 1 optics can be quite affordable if you want a hobbyist level of clarity.
For under 200 dollars you can get a plastic-cased kit that will serve you well as long as you are just casually observing, playing airsoft, or experimenting. These optics are not known for their weather or drop resistance.
- Amplify ambient light up to 900 times
- Infrared illuminator will most likely be a necessity
- Short battery lifespan
- Short Life Expectancy
- Max range of 75 yards
- Casual use and observation
- Night hunting with little overcast and bright moonlight
- Good choice for the airsoft crowd
Generation 2 optics represent a massive increase in the recognition and detection range of a monocular. They are also much clearer and at the same time affordable.
At Generation 2 you get into optics that are designed for serious use; many high-quality Gen 2+ models are used by law enforcement. The jump from Gen 1 to Gen 2 was the biggest jump in night vision technology yet.
Generation 2 optics can be both hobbyist and professional grade optics. Generation 2 monoculars are very capable devices that are often housed in aluminum and durable polymer housings for increased strength and weather resistance.
- Amplify ambient light up to 30,000 times
- Infrared Illuminator only necessary for indoors use or cloudy nights
- Decent battery life
- Limited Law enforcement use
Generation 3 gives excellent clarity, recognition, and detection range but it all comes at a high price. It works much better in low light situations than the generations before them. These optics do everything pretty darn well.
If I wanted to use night vision for security or for tactical applications, I won’t take anything less than a Generation 3 model.
I used a Gen 3 device in various conditions and situations throughout my Marine Corps career and found it to be a well-made and solid piece of gear. Because of their high price, these units are housed in strong (often weatherproof) housings.
- Standard military issue technology
- Longest battery Life
- Features gain control
- Indoor use
- Hunting and observation
- Security and tactical applications
Generation 4 optics are rare, and Gen 4 isn’t necessarily an official designation. The Generations come from military designations, and there has never been a Generation 4 optic declared by the military.
Gen 4 is a loose definition that typically means it uses a filmless and gated image intensifier. Gen 4 monoculars are somewhat rare as the technology hasn’t fully caught on. They are extremely expensive but work much better with magnification.
- Extremely clear and sharp images
- Works well with magnification
- Extremely expensive
- Surveillance work
- Tactical use
- Wanting to show rich you are
Night Vision Monocular Price Tiers
Like all night vision devices, monoculars and the quality of their image will depend on their generation. The generations are numbered 1 through 4, and as the generation gets higher, the image quality increases along with the price.
A hobbyist pair of night vision can be found for under 200 dollars, and these optics are typically sold for less than 250 dollars. For under 250 dollars, you are going to get a pair of optics that need lots of light to properly function.
You will be limited to about 100 yards of effective visibility. You can find generation 1 optics for a higher price, and these are typically built better and will withstand abuse better than cheap hobby optics.
Generation 2 and 2+ optics are going to be in the $1,000 dollar and up range. These units have a massive increase in quality over Gen 1 devices. Generation 2 and 2+ optics are built to be used by professionals or serious hunters. These devices give you much more range, including a higher recognition range which will allow you to see in greater detail.
Generation 3 optics is what the military uses. The increase of quality is better than Gen 2 devices and allows you to see further, and to see clearer with less light. Generation 3 optics will give you massive amounts of clarity and allow you to make out fine facial features at extended ranges. Prices are going to start in the $2,500 dollar range and go up from there.
Gen 4 devices offer a bit more clarity and a higher recognition range. Gen 4 devices are uncommon and extremely expensive. You are looking at a $4,000 dollar price tag to just start.
Considerations Based on Purpose
Tactical and Hunting
If you are looking for a night vision monocular for hunting, tactical use, or to play airsoft, you need one that can be attached to a helmet or a HALO mounting system.
This allows you to use both hands or keep them on your weapon. It enables you to navigate the night with ease while utilizing your night vision device. When paired with an IR laser, they make it easy to take down a target.
You can always equip the monocular in front of your optic to aim, but it’s difficult to navigate in that way. A high-quality system needs to be clear enough for you to navigate what’s ahead of you so that you can avoid falling, tripping, and making yourself look like an idiot.
This means you’ll likely need a Gen 2 or Gen 3 device. An IR illuminator is advised for those nights where the moon is basically gone or those situations where you are hunting in heavy brush.
Observation and Surveillance
If you intend to use these systems to observe an area or target, it’s beneficial to be able to attach the monocular to a tripod. This is a serious consideration for any long-term viewing, as holding the device can quickly become bothersome.
For animal observation, you can get away with a simple Gen 1 device, but this is more for nature lovers than it is for hunters, who may need a more capable night vision device. Gen 1+ may work, but if I was a hunter, I’d consider a Gen 2 device.
For law enforcement and military surveillance, Gen 3 devices are optimum, but Gen 2 can work. With the price of Gen 3 optics, it’s difficult for many to afford them. If you are in private security, I’d advise a Gen 3 device as well, but if a Gen 2 is all you can afford, it will serve you well.
Weight and Size
The weight and size of the monocular are incredibly important if you intend to use it with a head mount. A large unit is uncomfortable to wear, while a heavy one can cause strain to your neck and head. If you’re using a tripod, these factors are not major issues.
Extra Features to Look for
An auto-gating unit is handy. It increases the overall function of a unit through a different degree of light. It immediately compensates for sudden bright light interference, like someone shining a headlamp on your eyes. This is invaluable.
It also prevents the night vision unit from being damaged by sudden bright lights. An auto-getting unit will be a high-end model, likely a Gen 3 device. Auto-gating is an invaluable feature for high-end optics and works well to protect your overall investment. Auto-gating is a feature that should be standard on any professional grade optics.
Some tubes can accept a threaded magnifier adapter that can provide a small extra amount of power. This is handy for turning a wearable monocular into a more observable unit.
These magnifiers are often called doublers, because they add a 2x level of magnification. To use a magnifier you need to have an internal threading on your tube. Since most devices can utilize tripods, the presence of a magnifier is an excellent addition.
This is an exceptionally handy tool for those using their monocular as an observation device. This video output allows users to observe their target more comfortably. Looking at a screen is often more comfortable than looking through a small output.
It also gives multiple users an option to watch a screen and observe everything in real time. There is also the ability to record, which for police forces is invaluable when it comes to evidence collection.
Another important consideration is your monocular’s compatibility with an IR Illuminator. Standard night vision devices are always compatible with actual IR light, but their compatibility with the external illuminator can be questionable.
Does your monocular allow for attachment to an external illuminator? There are some night vision monoculars that come with a built-in illuminator, which can make a massive range and clarity difference and can be absolutely necessary when using lower generation devices.
If you cannot mount an IR illuminator, there are some handheld options out there that give you a wide berth when it comes to size and power levels. With some the size of flashlights and others the size of small spotlights, you are covered regardless of the power level you need.
These can be quite handy for every role night vision is used for, and the lower quality the night vision, the more likely it will need an IR Illuminator.
Night vision monoculars often do as much as possible to reduce weight and bulk, and many will be powered by a single AA battery or two CR123 batteries. Even though they are small they can suck through batteries fast. I remember swapping to a new battery prior to every night patrol mission because a single AA wouldn’t last for two patrols.
There are some companies producing power units that pack more juice for a longer period of time. These external battery packs come in a variety of sizes and are attached to rifles or even helmet systems.
These add size and bulk and can also be quite expensive. They are not available for all models either. They can be quite valuable and some can power monoculars up to 22 hours.
Can night vision monoculars be used in daylight?
In general no, not really. Exposure during the day can damage traditional night vision immensely and render them useless. Digital night vision, however, can be used safely during the day.
How can I attach a NV monocular to a scope?
This is largely going to depend on the monocular and the optic. Some units can thread onto an optic, others will merely sit in front of the scope. It will largely be dependent on your individual set-up. You may need an adapter, a scope mount, and more. Consult your optic’s manual for the manufacturer’s recommended attachment system.
Or you can also buy a dedicated NV scope for that purpose.
NV monoculars are one of the versatile options for night vision optics. They can be mounted behind a day scope, can be worn for natural movement, and can be used for surveillance and observation.
They are often the most affordable option for night vision because they are a single unit, unlike binoculars and goggles which require multiple tubes and lenses. If you intend to have a single night vision device, I recommend a monocular.
Other resources you might be interested in:
Real Tree – Night vision preparation tips.
Wired – “Inside the Freaky World of Next-Gen Night Vision”