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How Thermals Work
Everything in the world emits heat, or at least has a temperature. That heat emits a light wave you can’t see. However, through the power of science, we can take that light and make it visible and extremely useful.
At the heart of every thermal scope is a thermal camera that through an extremely complicated process turns heat into a visible spectrum.
Thermographic cameras have non-glass lenses, and for every pixel, a thermal camera has one of these small heat-capturing devices. The combination of lenses and heat detecting devices creates a thermogram, which is essentially a picture made of the light that heat creates.
The thermogram is turned into electronic impulses and is sent into a signal processing unit. This signal processing unit translates the electronic impulses into a picture.
This picture is then displayed on the user’s screen. These devices are so evolved and well-made that they do this in 1/30th of a second.
Thermal optics are extremely complicated but have shrunk to the point where they are actually useful for the average citizen. Thermal scopes, in particular, have grown in popularity for hunting and of course tactical use.
Thermal vs. Night Vision Scopes
Are thermal scopes better than night vision scopes? That’s a hard question to answer. They have different purposes but are used mostly at night.
They each have their place, and one is not necessarily better than the other regarding the concept. Individual units will vary in quality.
Both have strengths, and both have weaknesses. Night vision devices offer more overall detail, at least when the ambient light is right.
With proper moon and starlight, you can see very vivid details with high-end night vision. You can see facial features, read text, and see the fine details of the world around you.
Thermal optics can’t see the fine details like night vision, but you can’t hide from thermals. If you are in front of them, they can likely see you.
You can’t hide in the dark or maintain your stealth through standing still. Thermal optics will find you, as long as you don’t have a wall between you and them.
Thermal optics can be used during the day safely and effectively. Additionally, thermal optics do not require ambient light to function. Just turn them on and go.
If you are hunting, thermal optics are better suited on guns. If you are walking around and trying to navigate, a night vision optic is better. Both have their place.
How to Choose
How do you choose one optic over the other? Good question, but unfortunately I can’t answer it for you. You’ll have to answer it, but I can give you the guidelines to finding your answer. The first thing you need to consider is your budget
Thermal optics are quite expensive. Even affordable optics can cost a thousand dollars, and very few fall under a grand in price.
A few smaller units fall below that price range, and when they do, they are often bare bones optics with little to no magnification.
This doesn’t make them bad optics, however—it just means that they are limited in their use. For instance, they are perfect for home defense and short range shooting.
Most thermals, regardless of price, are quality optics. The business of making optics and thermals is technologically rigorous and the products are hard to import, so no one gets into the business just to make crappy optics.
At the under a grand price you can still get a well-made, and useful optic when it is applied to the right situations.
At the higher price range you are going to start packing features into the design. This includes magnification, different color modes, reticles, and more. This makes the scope more versatile and easier to accurately use.
So establish your baseline budget realistically.
Next, what are you using it for? If you just want to have fun with thermals, that’s understandable. Who doesn’t want to pretend to be the predator on occasion?
However, when establishing your budget you’ll have to look at how much these optics cost and what you plan to do with them. This will affect their use and cost.
If you want to hunt, you’ll likely want an optic with a good target range, as well as a high resolution. Additionally, powerful magnification may be a requirement.
This allows you to zoom in on your target and confirm exactly what it is. Is it a big dog? Or that 200 pound sow that will make delicious bacon? Hard to tell without the proper magnification.
At the same time, all that magnification doesn’t matter if the resolution is too low. Without a great resolution, all magnification does is turn a blob into a slightly bigger blob.
Resolution is incredibly important, because it is imperative that you always have 100% positive identification on what you are shooting. If you don’t, you are violating one of the most important rules of gun safety.
If you want to go tactical, you may want a broader display to get a wider field of view. Optics with a wide field of view and a high refresh rate makes it easy to track a moving target.
There are thermal optics with little or no magnification and large display screens. These work more like red dots than traditional scopes and are much better for close-range shooting.
These are especially handy for indoors use and allow a shooter to clear rooms and fight in CQB in the dark.
As we mentioned above, resolution is how crisp and clear the picture is. Thermal optics are not like normal scopes. When looking through the scope, you aren’t technically seeing the actual image, but rather a display showing it.
Kind of like watching a security camera. It’s all real time, but not in the same way a day scope works.
The image being shown will have a different resolution based on the quality of the optic. The better the resolution, the easier it will be to see long range, recognize detail of your target, and be able to track movement.
Resolution is directly tied to the amount of pixels per unit of area. More pixels mean better temperature detection and accuracy.
The refresh rate is expressed in Hz. The average is 30 Hz, and high quality is 60 Hz. These refresh rates represent how fast the optic turns heat into an image.
This is why you may experience a slight delay when rapidly moving the optic with a lower refresh rate. The higher the rating, the greater the clarity of the optic will be.
All of this needs to be considered, as does the typical weight, mounting capability, and length. These are the factors that exist outside the integral technology of the optic.
It’s still a very important consideration you’ll have to make. You need to make sure it will fit your rifle, or you’ll be making an expensive mistake.
The need for magnification will depend on your chosen hobby or use. When it comes to thermal optics and magnification, there are generally a few rules to follow.
First off, the higher the magnification, the higher resolution your optic will need for a clearer picture.
A 30Hz resolution and a 10-power optic are going to give you a pixelated image that will make finer details hard to see. Also, the more magnification, the larger the optic is. This accounts for both weight and length.
A longer magnification will make it easier to do the most important thing in shooting a living creature, and that’s aim with precision.
When hunting, you need to be able to put a creature down fast and humanely—and to do that, you need to hit a vital organ. These organs are not large, so you need to be precise when taking your shot.
Magnification allows you to zoom in past the rest of the world and focus on that fist-sized kill zone.
The same goes for tactical use. Your concern here is your own life. You want to put an attacker down as quickly and possible, and that means targeting a vital organ to do so. Thermal optics with good magnification allow you to do that.
Of course, the more magnification the optic has, the harder it will be to use the gun up close. The majority of thermal optics will have a fixed magnification.
Variable magnification is not uncommon, but this magnification is digital magnification. Unlike traditional magnification, all it does is simply make the picture appear closer. This limits the effective magnification and causes pixelation issues.
I prefer a 3- to 4-power fixed picture, but I certainly see merit in optics that go up to 16x for shooting small targets. Balance your needs, your target, and your effective range to isolate the appropriate amount of magnification for you.
Thermal technology is still relatively new, so it hasn’t shrunk as much as say your average camera. Thermal technology is still relatively large, especially when you start introducing more magnification, larger objective lenses, and higher battery capacity.
A heavy optic isn’t an issue if you plan to rest your rifle on a bipod or tripod and wait for your prey to come to you. However, if you plan to be moving a lot, a heavy optic makes for a heavy rifle.
From experience, I can tell you a heavy gun is a real pain to tote and shoot. It’s harder to hold to hold up for long periods of time, and this can affect accuracy.
Your tactics from hunting to actual tactical use will play a large role in how large your optic can be. A three-pound optic doesn’t sound bad until you try to hold it and your eight-pound rifle up and take a precise shot.
Rifles like the AR 15 and AR 10 have nice, long scope rails, and a lot of scope manufacturers have grown accustomed to them. This can be great if you have an AR but bad if you have something like a traditional bolt action rifle.
These rifles often have short scope mounts, and some longer optics may not fit on them easily.
Paying attention to the mounting surface length is an important factor to consider.
How does the rifle mount to your gun? Another side-effect of the AR industry is the rapid expansion of the use of picatinny rails. This has led to the vast majority of thermal scopes using a picatinny mount system.
If your rifle isn’t equipped with a picatinny mount, you made need to find a different optic, or a different means to mount the optic to your gun.
This may require you to swap your rail, purchase an adapter, or other means. Nothing is more frustrating than spending a ton of money on an optic that simply won’t mount.
ATN makes tons of different night vision and thermal devices, including binoculars, spotting scopes, and scopes in general. The ATN brand is synonymous with quality as well as modern technology.
ATN infuses their optics with a variety of different features that include everything from rangefinders to compasses. ATN likes to push boundaries, and they do it very well.
Their optics vary greatly and can be used in a variety of roles, including hunting and tactical use. Specifically hunting is often their main focus.
The ATN brand even has some very affordable optics, at least as far thermal optics go. They are a great brand to go with if you are new to thermal optics, or are shopping on a budget.
ATN’s selection is often one of their strongest selling points. They offer a ton of different optics for different situations in a variety of configurations. For example, the Thor 4 series is eight different optics with different features. ATN allows you to be as picky as you want to be.
Trijicon is a company that is notably connected to the tactical world. Their famed ACOG optic is one of the best optics ever created for combat purposes.
Trijicon optics of all kinds are issued inside the military. Their entry in the thermal scope world has been well received, and their thermal optics are as well made as their day optics.
Trijicon only produces four thermal optics, each with a dedicated purpose. This includes options in both the tactical and hunting realm.
These are serious optics that are designed to be utilized in life-and-death scenarios—or at least they can be depended on in life and death scenarios. Trijicon’s optics are well designed and are expensive. Very, very expensive.
These optics will deliver extreme performance and its performance that represents its cost. Trijicon thermal optics are perfect for hardcore users and those who want an optic that never quits.
Trijicon’s reputation with the tactical market and daylight optics has translated over to the thermal realm very well.
Flir is an old-school thermal optics company. They are dedicated (or at least seem to be dedicated) to pushing thermal technology forward. Flir is a company known for making high-resolution optics that deliver crisp and clear images.
They are also shrinking the technology and making it smaller, lighter, and easier to handle. Flir makes all things thermal, from the scopes we discussed here, to industrial grade thermal units designed for safety.
Flir optics are always the highest of quality and can be used in tactical scenarios, and they often are. Flir optics have powerful designs that can be used to spot humans, animals, and other creatures hiding in the night.
Flir optics are perfect for detecting and even eliminating threats. Flir optics are brilliant pieces of gear, and their prices reflect that. Their optics are high end, and you get what you pay for.
These expensive optics are well made and designed for serious use. They aren’t toys. They are great for hunting and will make it easy to thin out a hog herd across your property.
See in the Dark
Thermal scopes are awesome pieces of gear and can change the way you see through the night. These scopes are high-tech hunters that can give you the world if you want it. They are expensive and high tech, but well worth their price.
After you have picked out your favorite thermal scope, learn how to zero it.