Thermal Scope vs Night Vision

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thermal scope vs night vision

The right choice for scope is an essential consideration for hunters. What scope you want to pick depends on what you will do with that scope and in what conditions you plan your hunting trip. Both night vision optics and thermal scopes are night vision devices. They help to detect objects in darkness. There are differences in their technology, their working, and thus applications. This article contains all the details about night vision vs thermal scopes. 

Night vision vs thermal scope: Working 

The primary difference between a night vision optic and a thermal scope is the way they work. To know how a night vision optic works, you should recall what you have studied in your science class about the working of an eye. Your eyes see an object when the light falls on that particular object and bounce it off to your eye. Similarly, cameras also need light to capture an image of any object. It is because of this that you cannot see or take a picture in complete darkness. Night vision optics works with ambient light; they collect whatever little light is available around an object and enhance that light with image enhancement technology. 

Thermal scopes are different because they don’t work with light. Instead, they detect heat energy that an object in view emits and then create an image. All things around us, whether living or dead, emit some amount of heat. Oddly enough, even the ice gives it off. The intensity of that heat depends upon the temperature of that particular thing. A hotter thing will emit more energy. Thermal imaging technology detects that heat and processes it to form a visible image presented on display. It also sees the difference between the heat energy of an object from its surroundings. It can detect temperature differences as low as 0.01 degrees to as high as 2000 degrees. 

So, a comparison between the two would suggest that thermal optics are better than night vision because they can work in complete darkness. 

Digital night vision:

One significant mention here is of the digital night vision. Digital night vision is the latest night vision optics. Unlike traditional night vision, digital night vision uses a coupler device instead of the conventional intensifier tube for image enhancement. Its displayed image is black and white, which is more precise than traditional night vision. You can use them during the day as well. 

Where do Infrared Illuminators play a part?

Let’s be very clear that a night vision device cannot work in complete darkness. Even the most advanced of night vision devices need some amount of light. Night vision devices use infrared illuminators or more commonly known as IR illuminators. These illuminators generate light in the field of view or on the target and give a clear picture. This light is not visible to the naked eye. 

These infrared illuminators can be in three forms: integral, attached, and handheld. What we use with night vision scopes are detachable IR illuminators. In this case, there is a separate space for attaching an infrared illuminator, and such devices also use different batteries. 

Thermal Imaging vs Night Vision: The Technology

The difference in the working of a night vision scope and a thermal scope suggests the difference in their technology. 

Night vision

The night vision works with image intensifier tubes. A night vision device uses an objective lens to collect light that bounces off of an object. The intensifier tube present in the device receives that light enhances it, and sends it into the eyepiece. The image it produces is greenish.

Thermal scope

The working technology of thermal imaging is different from night vision. The infrared detector fixed in the thermal scope has an optic lens that focuses the emitted energy onto an infrared sensor. The scope also has a phased arrangement of infrared-detector elements that scans the focused light captured by the lens. These infrared-detector elements form a temperature pattern called a thermogram. This created thermogram gets converted into electric impulses. These impulses then move to the signal processing unit. The signal processing unit is a circuit board that converts the signals into data. This data is then sent to the display by the processing unit, and there the display presents the image. The final image is either in black and white format or in a different color range. 

Thermal Scope Advantages

Function in complete darkness and bright light

The most significant advantage of a thermal scope is that it does not require any light to function. As thermal imaging devices read heat signatures rather than visible light, they can work in complete darkness. Hence a hunter can use it for shooting nocturnal animals such as hogs. More so, bright light does not make a thermal scope ineffective in any way. They are equally efficient in the day as well. Also, no color contrast can affect the efficacy of a thermal scope. 

Can detect through bushes

Thermal imaging devices can also see through tall bushes and detect animals that are sleeping or bedded. Also, farmers can catch the hogs that destroy their farms using a thermal imaging device. 

Suitable for extreme weather and smoke 

Thermal imagers can also detect through dense fog, making it suitable for extreme weather conditions. It can also see through smoke, and firefighters can rescue victims from thick, dense smoke.

Work for long distances

Long-distance does not affect the working of thermal imaging devices. Hunters can detect animals through their heat signatures at a long distance. 

Can resist abuse

Due to thermal imaging technology, thermal optics can resist abuse, which is why the military and police use them.

Thermal Scope Disadvantages

Cannot identify target

One disadvantage of using a thermal scope is that it can only detect the target. It cannot recognize and identify it. If you are hunting animals at a considerable distance with a thermal scope, you would know that there is a target but could not comprehend what the target is. Thermal imaging only creates a thermographic image of the object in view but gives no details. Hence, recognition and identification are a limitation of a thermal scope. 

Cannot recognize people

One more drawback to using thermal optics with the rifle is that it cannot identify people; it can only give an idea that somebody is standing in front of you but cannot tell if that is a friend or an enemy. But if somebody is hiding behind the trees, a night vision scope or a device will not detect it, but a thermal scope will. 

Thermal imaging is difficult to read

Moreover, It is also difficult for a layperson to study and understand the thermogram image that a thermal scope creates. You need some training for reading that. 

Night Vision Advantages

It can identify the target

The advantage of a night vision scope is that it detects the target and identifies it. Unlike a thermal scope, a night vision scope will be able to tell you if your target is a hog or a deer. Their identification capability also makes them suitable for critical military operations.

Easy to interpret

A night vision device gives a more natural and easy interpretation of the image.

Night Vision Disadvantages

Do not work in complete darkness

When it comes to night vision devices, they require some form of light to function. They cannot work in complete darkness. They need IR illumination for properly functioning in total darkness.

It cannot work in bright light

Night vision can not work in bright light as excessive light can damage the enhancer tube on which it works. Also, night vision needs a good color contrast for better performance. 

Night vision vs Thermal: A comparison of range, magnification, durability, and price

Range, magnification, durability, and price are essential features to consider in deciding between thermal scopes and night vision optics. 

Both thermal imaging devices and night vision scopes come in a variety of magnification ranges. The magnification range of a thermal scope is 16x or more, and that of a night vision is 20x. However, the image that thermal imaging devices portray at higher magnification gets blurry. The detection range of most night vision scopes is approximately 200 yards, and that of a thermal scope is as high as 1000 yards or more. 

Night vision optics have been here since World War 2 and have become affordable and accessible with time. You will find a night vision device for several hundred dollars. However, the more advanced quality night vision scopes are pricey. Gen 1 is more affordable than the more advanced Gen 2 and 3. But, Gen 2 and 3 require less ambient light and give a clearer image.

Contrary to this, thermal imaging devices are still in the process of development. Also, they have complicated technology. Thus they are much more expensive in comparison to a night vision device. 

When it comes to durability, both thermal optics and night vision optics do not disappoint. Thermal scopes and as well night vision can resist recoil up to .30 caliber.

What should you pick?

Both thermal scopes and night vision optics have the same primary purpose: providing vision in the dark. For the buyer to choose between the two depends on his use of the device. If you want to shoot targets at long yards, then you should prefer a thermal scope. Also, use a thermal scope if you’re going to hunt in dense forests or tall bushes. 

Your choice also depends on the environment in which you are about to shoot. If you plan to use your scope in a foggy area, you should prefer a thermal scope. However, the thermal scope does not work well in icy conditions, so use a night vision device for such a situation. And, if the price is your primary concern, then night vision optics are your choice. So, your conditions will determine whether you should go night vision or thermal.


To conclude, both night vision devices and thermal scopes are beneficial for nighttime shooting. A night vision works with ambient light, while a thermal scope reads the differences between the temperature of an object from its surroundings and detects it. Due to this, thermal scopes can work in complete darkness while night vision cannot. But when it comes to image identification and recognition, thermal scopes fall behind night vision. Thus, thermal scopes and night vision have pros and cons, which the user needs to understand when choosing between them. 


Why is it hard to detect a cold-blooded animal with a thermal imaging device?

Thermal imaging devices detect the difference in the heat energy between the target object and its surroundings. Cold-blooded animals such as snakes adjust their body temperature according to their environment. It is harder to detect their difference.

What is the difference between night vision and thermal imaging?

The difference between thermal imaging devices and night vision is that thermal imaging devices read the difference in heat energy of an object from its surroundings to detect that object. Night vision works with ambient light to create an image of the target object. 

Can one use a thermal scope in daylight?

A thermal scope works as efficiently in daylight as it works during the night. Also, no amount of bright light affects the efficacy of a thermal scope. 

What is the difference between IR and thermal imaging?

The IR system illuminates the field of view or the target. IR illuminators enhance the night vision optics for better image capturing. In comparison, thermal imaging works with heat energy rather than visible light. It detects objects by reading their radiations. 

Is it legal to use night vision?

Night vision devices are legal to use in the United States.

What’s better for coyote hunting thermal or night vision?

You can use both night vision thermal technology and night vision devices for coyote hunting. However, both have their limitations. A thermal scope detects better but cannot identify. Contrary to this, a night vision device needs some form of light to detect a target, but once detected, it can also identify the target.

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Hannah Anderson is a gun enthusiast. She developed a knack for guns and ammunition when as a teenager she started accompanying her grandfather to his hunting ventures. Now, she shares her passion and immense knowledge on the subject with the readers.

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