Night vision scopes are designed to act just like regular scopes. They are aiming devices that give the user an advantage over traditional iron sight. Night vision just happens to be able to do that when the sun falls. Night vision scopes offer both magnified and unmagnified variants. Because night vision is a little more complicated than traditional day scopes you can’t achieve the same high levels of magnification as a day scope.
Rifle Optics World recommended night vision optics:
- 1 Magnification
- 2 Field of View
- 3 Weight and Size
- 4 Clarity and LP/MM
- 5 Signal to Noise Ratio
- 6 Detection and Recognition Range
- 7 Luminance Gain
- 8 Batteries
- 9 Generations
- 10 Digital Night Vision
- 11 Uses of Night Vision Scopes
- 12 Night Vision
In general, if you want magnification with your night vision optic you’ll be able to usually go up to 10x. The greater the magnification the larger the scope will be. Night vision at higher magnifications can be handy in a few applications, but the size and cost make it prohibitive. Magnifications levels of 3 to 5 are often the more affordable option and smaller option for most shooters.
Some scopes do not have magnification and are used for more traditional shooting. These non-magnified optics are smaller and much more affordable. They are also designed for closer range shooting and are a great option for general use.
Field of View
Field of view refers to how wide of a field you can see at a set distance. With optics this distance is commonly 100 yards. So a field of view may be 22 feet at 100 yards. This means when you look through your optic your view will be 22 feet wide at 100 yards. As you increase your scope’s magnification your field of view will decrease. So 22 feet at 2x could become 10 feet at 6x. In general, you scan at low magnifications for movement, and zoom in to clarify what the movement is.
Field of view is an important consideration for hunters and sportsmen in general. If they are hunting at night, the scope needs to have a wide field of view for easy observation. The ability to observe a wide field of view is also important for tactical considerations. The more you can see the more likely you’ll be able spot movement of intruders, or of your chosen game.
Weight and Size
Night vision optics are often larger and heavier than day optics. The weight they add to a rifle only increase as the magnification increases. Issues may arise with fatigue is a shooter is going to be carrying a rifle and optic for long periods of time. In this case they may prefer a lighter, smaller optic. Making off hand, standing shots, or having to observe for an extended period may be difficult with a heavy optic.
Still hunters may not have this issue at all since they are in an isolated environment and not walking or taking off hand shots.
In terms of size it is important to ensure the scope rail you have is long enough to accommodate the optic. If the rail is too short, it will likely be a poor fit for a large optic. AR 15s running monolithic rails are often excellent choices for large optics.
Clarity and LP/MM
LP/MM stands for Lines Per Millimeter. That might not mean much now, but is one of the most critical factors when choosing a night vision optic. LP/MM is directly tied to how clear an optic is. Night vision optics are like any other optic, they need to present a clear and consistent view of the world around you. LP/MM is a simple measurement of clarity. The higher the number of LP/MM the clearer your optic will be. A high end night vision scope will have a LP/MM of anywhere from 60 to 70 LP/MM.
LP/MM is not the final call on clarity. A buyer should factor in any potential levels of distortion. Distortion is caused by the materials used to create the lens you are looking through. Distortion will affect clarity and cause issues with making out specific features of a target.
Devices using high end glass lenses are likely to present the least amount of distortion. Glass made in Vietnam and Japan is genuinely high quality. Poorer quality glasses will cause more distortion, as will plastic lenses. Plastic or polymer lenses of any type present higher levels of distortion. Distortion isn’t a big deal at close or even moderate ranges unless you are looking at a small target. Distortion becomes a bigger issue at longer ranges.
Signal to Noise Ratio
If you’ve ever even seen the use of night vision on television or seen pictures taken with night vision you are probably aware of the static like effect that is present. Even the highest definition night vision has this so distortion. This is like TV static. This is snow, which is called Noise. Signal is the amount of light your eyes actually see. Signal to noise ratio is the amount of light you see divided by the noise that’s present. So the signal to noise ratio is a way to gauge the snow effect versus visibility. This is another clarity rating that should be taken into consideration.
Detection and Recognition Range
The effective range of night vision is not as simple as you can see this far. Night vision may allow you to see something moving, but what is it? This is your detection range. You can detect something. That is where recognition range comes into play. Recognition range is the range you can actually recognize a target for what it is. Recognition and detection range depend on an optics generation, it’s magnification, and its objective lens size.
Recognition and detection range is an important factor when choosing your scope. You need to choose an optic that allows you to see and shoot at the range you’ll be using it at.
Luminance gain, or simple system gain is another important factor in night vision scopes. The further you want to observe the more gain you’ll require. The higher the gain the clearer and further you can see. Gain is what amplifies ambient light to see at longer ranges. Gain is two measurements. There is system gain and tube gain. System gain is what you get when you take the light input and light output and divide them. Yeah, math even rears its head in night vision. Tube gain is what’s related to the lenses you use, and if it’s too low the picture will suck. If it’s too high the noise will crowd the picture.
Tactics win battles, but logistics win wars. The type and amount of batteries your optic uses are a major consideration. First off if the optics gives a weight without batteries and it takes six double As then you know the weight isn’t accurate. If it uses some rare, and expensive 3-volt battery that requires the use of Unicorn tears for power I’d stay away from it. Also make sure you pay attention to just how long those batteries last. Buying an expensive battery every so often isn’t bad, buying one that only two hours is a hassle. An expensive hassle at that.
Night vision is a generational system. Now it most generational system the newest generation quickly makes the older generation obsolete. However, due to the high costs of night vision earlier generations are still prevalent and widely available. There are currently 4 generations of night vision on the civilian market.
A generation 0 does exist, but these models are certainly not sold. They were about as big as the guns they were mounted on and required a backpack power source and a literal IR spotlight. Generations are typically defined at Generation 1 through 4, but along the way the + generation snuck in. The plus takes a normal generation, like gen 2, and puts features and parts from gen 3 in it. This makes it a Gen 2+. This happens with gens 1 through 3, and these generations provide better clarity and range.
There is also digital night vision, which is its own thing entirely, but we’ll cover it at the bottom.
The first mass produced systems were gen 1 night vision scopes. They saw limited use in Korea, and a lot of use in Vietnam. The early Starlight scopes were limited, but became a pain for North Vietnamese guerillas.
Generation 1 devices need lots of ambient light to function correctly. This is most commonly star and moon light. That or an IR device to create infrared light. Without any of these Gen 1 night vision is basically impossible to use.
Gen 1+ optics have made massive shrugs and are highly desirable over Gen 1 scopes. Gen 1+ would be the absolute minimum I’d use for hunting. It would still be difficult, and you’d need a solid IR illuminator. Gen 1+ scopes are pretty common and priced between 300 and 700 dollars on average.
Gen optics made a big jump from Gen 1 devices. Gen 2 scopes are not only clearer, but they have a longer effective viewing range. Gen 2 optics are often best compromise between clarity and cost. They are much smaller than Gen 1 optics, and when paired with good ambient light or an IR illuminator remarkably clear. Clear enough to make out facial features on a human at a moderate range.
Generation 2 devices are one of the best choices for hunting. A good generation 2 optic can work on less light than a gen 1 while providing superior range. Gen 2+ optics are even better. At Gen 2+ you start stepping into the tactical and security realm of night vision. For tactical use I wouldn’t step below a Gen 2+ optic. A good Gen 2+ optic will give you 70 lp/mm easily.
Gen 3 scopes are something else altogether. The modified design uses an ion film barrier to extend the optics life. A chemical known as gallium arsenide that is applied to the photocathode. That’s a whole lot of syllables to simply say gen 3 optics provide a clearer picture, a higher resolution, and a great signal to noise ratio.
This is the generation that’s currently used by the United States military. Gen 3 optics weren’t a massive jump from Gen 2, but enough so to see a difference. Gen 3 optics have a very low amount of noise and when properly tuned are clear enough to read small text. They need less light than standard night vision scopes and can still provide an impressive amount of clarity.
When paired with an IR illuminator you are close to getting high definition out of a night vision scope. For tactical use you could identify at individual at much longer ranges than Gen 2 or even gen 2+ scopes. These are the scopes that are perfect for long term surveillance of a subject.
Generation 4 night vision scopes are the latest generation of night vision scopes. They are extremely expensive, but insanely clear. The ion fil barrier is removed and the optic is gated. This results in a clarity improvement of at least 20 percent. The optics almost completely remove noise from the system. The crystal clear picture provided to the user needs less ambient light, and has a much higher gain than Gen 3 optics.
There is a trade off to these systems though. Because the ion film barrier is removed the system has a shorter service life. There is also an extremely high price tag associated with these optics, and they are somewhat rare and hard to find.
Digital Night Vision
Digital night vision is similar to standard night vision in the fact that it does amplify the night. The difference is that digital night vision takes light and turns it into a signal. This signal is then displayed onto a screen. This works very similar to a camera. Digital night vision presents a good clear picture, but has limited range.
Digital night vision is roughly equivalent to Gen 1+ night vision. In my opinion it’s clearer and it has the advantage of longer battery life, lower weight, smaller size, and some scopes can take photos and film video. Some scopes can connect to cameras as well. Digital night vision is unique, but functions well.
Uses of Night Vision Scopes
So what is the purpose of your night vision scope? There are three main purposes for night vision scopes, hunting, tactical and security. Some scopes are put on rifles, others are handheld units, or mounted to a tripod. How you plan to use the optic determines a lot about the optic you should choose.
Hunting optics should be generally at least Gen 1+ or digital night vision. Standard Gen 1 optics leave a lot to be desired. Gen 1+ or even better a Gen 2 optic relieves some safety issues with shooting at night. When using lower level generations do not expect to hunt at any extended ranges. Hunting at extended ranges with Gen 1+ optics is unsafe because you may not be able to correctly identify your target.
Generation 2+ is absolutely perfect for hunting. With Gen 2+ you can hunt animals at longer ranges and make better use of magnified optics. Gen 2+ optics also allow you to easily differentiate between animals. It also gives you a view well past the animal to make sure your shot is sure and is safe.
The rise of action shooting sports has brought to light night time competitions. These competitions tend to be fast paced and tend to stress distance and speed with accuracy. Since these competitions are usually highly regulated safety is rarely a serious issue. No one is going to be downrange when the shooting starts.
With this in mind you don’t need an expensive optic to compete, but you’ll need one to win. You could go into target shooting with nothing more than gen 1 device, but a Gen 2, 2+, or even a generation 3 device are going to give you a massive advantage when bullets start hitting targets.
Tactical and Home Security
Tactical and security use of night vision typically demands the highest quality optics. These are optics that are at the very least Gen 2+ optics. Generation 3 is what I’d suggest if I was in a police or military role. Private security and home security users will likely be fine with gen 2+ optics.
These users need great clarity at extended ranges to identify people and potentially targets. These scopes need to be good enough too recon a potential target and identify them from a variety of people. These scopes also must be precise if someone could potentially use them to take a defensive shot.
Night vision sounds complicated. Compared to day scopes they are, but it’s not difficult to understand. Sure there is a lot to understand, but it’s not difficult. Focus on what your goal is, and use the above information you help you make an educated decision. Night vision isn’t cheap, so buying it should be a very educated decision.