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Published Mar. 21, 2022

Hollywood would have you believe that thermal scopes impart superhuman vision to anyone who possesses one, leaving you vulnerable only to Austrian bodybuilders covered in mud. The crazy thing is that, unlike giant fireballs from grenades or magazines that never run out of ammunition, thermal scopes are actually crazier in real life than they seem in the movies.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that thermal optics are the less-useful little cousin to night vision. The two are more different than alike, and thermal technology can offer a tremendous tactical advantage. For starters, they’re just as effective during daylight as they are after dark. Digital internals can allow displays to include compass readings, distance as measured by a laser rangefinder, and heat images custom-tailored to your needs. Some can even tag targets and share them across other devices.

Thermal scopes have proven their worth in the military for decades. Law enforcement officers use them for everything from search and rescue operations to engagements with hostile suspects. Hunters use them to get an edge in pursuit of predator species and invasive hogs. Whatever your purpose is, prepare to have your mind blown by how valuable thermal imaging can be. There’s a lot to learn before you invest in a thermal scope of your own, so allow us to recommend a few of our favorites and provide some background information for context.

The Pulsar Thermion 2 XP50 is our pick for hunting and precision shooting. Its premium components check all the boxes and blow most of the competition out of the water, which is evident from one glance at the spec sheet.

We find it odd and hilarious that Amazon lists the Thermion XP50 as both a hunting and airsoft scope. Sure, it’s possible to use this for airsoft, but it’s nothing short of a hardcore hunting optic built to the highest standards. The 640 by 480 thermal core is sensitive enough to detect temperature differences smaller than 25 millikelvin, which results in breathtaking detail in the excellent 1024 by 768 AMOLED display.

With this thermal scope, you’ll be able to detect targets up to 2,000 yards away, giving you plenty of time to observe and identify them. The all-metal body is recoil-rated up to .375 H&H and 12 gauge and carries an impressive IXP7 waterproof rating. The display provides digital zoom, five-zero profiles, a 10-percent magnified picture-in-picture view, and multiple reticles that can be shown in different colors to work with your chosen color scheme.

At just under $5,000, the Thermion 2 XP50 strikes a happy medium between more affordable thermal scopes and heavy-duty options built for military and law enforcement use. It’s a surprisingly good value that can knock your nighttime hunting trips out of the park. If you want to drop hogs and predator species at longer distances, it’s an easy choice.

It’s also apparently great if you want to massively, massively flex at your next airsoft match.

Product Specs
  • Configuration: Rifle scope
  • Thermal core: 640 x 480
  • Display: 1024 x 768 AMOLED
  • Pixel pitch: 17 microns
  • Refresh rate: 50 hertz
PROS

Recoil-rated for most rifles

Capable of detecting targets up to 2,000 yards away

Premium detail and clarity

Fits standard 30-millimeter scope rings

CONS

Extra batteries are very expensive

Mastery will take considerable training time

Too expensive for recreational shooting

Best Value

We’re not entirely sure how ATN managed to make the Thor 4 so affordable, but it’s a fantastic way to build a high-quality thermal shooting setup without breaking the bank. If you’re the kind of person who built your own rifle to get the most value out of every penny, this is the thermal scope for you.

The spec sheet can show you where the premium alternatives exceed the Thor 4’s components, but choosing the right thermal scope isn’t as straightforward as using the more-is-better approach. Sure, the 384-by-288-pixel thermal core is smaller than what you’d get from Pulsar or Trijicon, but it’s no slouch. The display’s 17-micron pixel pitch may be on par with the tiny 12-micron alternatives, but your eyes probably won’t know the difference without comparing back-to-back, anyway. The 60-hertz refresh rate is as fast as your eyes can detect.

ATN products are known for their impressive features and straightforward user experience. Choose from an array of reticles and color schemes. Take advantage of the one-shot zero feature and save multiple zeroes for different loads of ammo. Record HD video manually or let the recoil-activated feature save the action automatically. One of our favorite features of ATN optics is the ability to tag targets and share them with other users on their devices’ digital displays.

This probably wouldn’t be our choice for defense contractors flying off to protect U.S. assets in a bad-guy country, but it’s a ton of value for the money for anyone who wants to take their hunting into the future with cutting-edge technology. Pick out your favorite camouflage pattern and snag this deal before it’s gone.

Product Specs
  • Configuration: Rifle scope
  • Thermal core: 384 x 288
  • Display: 1280 x 720 (type not available)
  • Pixel pitch: 17 microns
  • Refresh rate: 60 hertz
PROS

Reticle automatically adjusts as you zoom

Option to upgrade the sensor and eyepiece

Share information with other users

Three camouflage options available

CONS

Limited range compared to premium alternatives

Water-resistant, not waterproof

Information on display type is not readily available

Editor’s Choice

Anyone with experience serving with (or shopping for) military equipment will be familiar with Trijicon. The manufacturer provides everything from iron sights and red dots to advanced electro-optics to military, law enforcement, and civilian audiences. The brand’s REAP-IR thermal scope is a rugged powerhouse that’s tough enough for the battlefield.

Inside the REAP-IR, a 640 by 480 thermal core detects heat signatures with excellent detail. The 12-micron OLED display runs at a refresh rate of 60 hertz, which is faster than your eyes can detect, so everything you see will look as realistic as possible. Objective lenses are available in 24-, 35-, or 60-millimeter diameters. For most applications, the 24-millimeter option will probably be the best compromise between cost and performance.

Like most American-made military optics, the REAP-IR is built to take a beating in the form of impacts and exposure to water and extreme temperatures. It doesn’t pack the same kind of digital customization options as our other picks, but it’s the one to have in austere environments. One thing to keep in mind is battery consumption. Two CR123 batteries will only power this thermal scope for four hours, so you’ll want to keep extras on hand. The upside is that the batteries are cheaper and more readily available than the proprietary batteries that power scopes like the Pulsar Thermion 2 XP50.

Even at a starting price of $7,000, the REAP-IR isn’t going to dazzle you with features and technology. It’s built to a very high standard, though, and protects all its high-end components with battle-ready housing. It’s one thermal scope we’d be happy to use in any climate and place.

Product Specs
  • Configuration: Rifle scope
  • Thermal core: 640 x 480
  • Display: (size not available) OLED
  • Pixel pitch: 12 microns
  • Refresh rate: 60 hertz
PROS

Premium OLED display is very desirable

Relatively compact and light

Satisfies the MIL-STD-810G durability standard

Three objective lens sizes available

CONS

Only four hours of battery life

Limited selection of reticles and color schemes

Menu and controls seem clunky

Best Handheld Thermal Scope

As great as thermal rifle scopes are, there are times when you want to visually identify a person or animal without flagging them with your weapon. The Teledyne FLIR Scion OTM is our choice for recreational use, search and rescue, and wildlife observation.

The view through the Scion OTM is excellent, thanks to the 640 by 480 thermal core. The processor feeds that information to a 12-micron, 1280-by-960 high-definition display to provide excellent image quality at a blazing fast 60-hertz refresh rate. The 18-millimeter object lens variation, which is what we recommend for most users, can also be had with a much less expensive nine-hertz refresh rate in the OTM260, but the feed will be noticeably choppy and we think it’s worth stepping up to the mid-level OTM266.

Six thermal color palettes let you optimize your view to a given setting, and the simple controls make adjustments easy to make by feel. The monocular focuses automatically, so you can keep your attention where it belongs rather than fiddling with settings constantly. This is a great option for hobbyists or people who want to spot game animals at a distance for a shooter using night vision. Our only word of caution would be to keep an eye on battery life. The Scion OTM266 will need six fresh CR123 batteries every 4.5 hours, so packing extra is key.

If you want to take advantage of thermal technology without involving a weapon, this is the way to go. The Scion OTM series has a proven track record in professional settings, and it’s one piece of gear we’d love to add to our own loadout.

Product Specs
  • Configuration: Monocular
  • Thermal core: 640 x 480
  • Display: 1280 x 960 (type not available)
  • Pixel pitch: 12 microns
  • Refresh rate: 60 hertz
PROS

Premium display quality in a portable monocular

Durable and IP67 waterproof-rated

Stream live video via Wi-Fi

Comes with six color schemes

CONS

Very expensive for a monocular thermal device

Most affordable version uses a very slow refresh rate

Consumes batteries six at a time

Best Clip-On Thermal Sight

One type of thermal device that can get overlooked is the clip-on sight — and that’s a shame. The Pulsar Proton FXQ has some drawbacks compared to dedicated thermal scopes, but it can also make shooting with a thermal optic much more accessible and budget-friendly, despite the hefty price tag.

The compact Proton FXQ packs all the features of many larger thermal scopes. The 384 by 288 sensor is more than adequate. The 17-micron, 1024-by-768 AMOLED display is nothing short of impressive and goes a long way in the pursuit of early target identification. As you should expect from Pulsar, it also offers a slew of color options and reticles and wraps everything in a rugged, IPX7 waterproof housing.

So, if the features are comparable to thermal scopes like the ATN Thor 4 at a higher price, where does the Proton FXQ have an advantage? Unlike the other thermal scopes on this list, this one doesn’t turn your rifle into a thermal-only weapon system. The adapter clips to your traditional scope to provide thermal capability, much like adding a PVS-14 in front of your ACOG or RCO. It can also be configured as a monocular for handheld use.

We love the flexibility this thermal clip-on sight offers. It’s a quality product that can be used on a weapon or freehand. It has all the features you might want and the protection you need. It’s not the best at any one thing, but it’s a solid contender that could work for just about anyone.

Product Specs
  • Configuration: Clip-on sight
  • Thermal core: 384 x 288
  • Display: 1024 x 768 AMOLED
  • Pixel pitch: 17 microns
  • Refresh rate: 50 hertz
PROS

Add thermal capabilities to your existing setup

Extremely sensitive thermal core detects tiny variations in temperature

Satisfies IPX7 waterproof standards

Magnesium alloy body is light and strong

CONS

Adds more weight than a dedicated thermal scope

Relatively bulky when combined with your existing scope

Adapter must fit your current objective lens

Why you should trust us

Our quest to bring you the best gear available has resulted in expert gear guides on everything from shooting accessories to the latest fitness equipment. We take extra pride in encouraging responsible firearm ownership, and that includes taking pride in your marksmanship. We’re here to help you achieve accurate shooting with gear guides on the best scopes, red dots, and iron sights. Once you’ve made your choice, we found bore sights to make dialing your system of choice a breeze. A thermal scope is a much bigger investment — probably more than the rifle you’re mounting it to — so we made sure to seek out only the best products worthy of your money.

Types of thermal scopes

On the surface, there are basically thermal optics that are designed for handheld use and thermal scopes that can be mounted to a firearm. Both styles have their place and both include entry-level options all the way up to top-shelf products. Your first step is to determine how you plan to use your fancy new thermal scope. Then, you can get into the technical features. 

Handheld thermal scopes

The simplest way to get a thermal view of the world is with a handheld monocular that isn’t designed as a rifle scope. These devices use the same technology to create a heat-based image, but don’t need to incorporate a reticle or mounting system. Optics like the Teledyne FLIR Scion OTM have a proven track record of success in the military, law enforcement, and civilian arenas.

The biggest advantage of owning this kind of thermal optic is the ability to use it without pointing a weapon. That can be key during a search for a missing person, an attempt to identify a subject who has recently fled the scene of a crime, or when you need to track down game animals in the brush. With proper training, it can potentially be used to identify weapons and body armor under clothing. You may be able to determine whether an approaching person is male or female, and even visualize physical exertion in the form of increased body temperature.

Standard thermal scopes

Thermal imaging presents a massive tactical advantage when mounted to a firearm. Scopes like the Pulsar Thermion 2 XP50 and Trijicon REAP-IR offer impressive capabilities in hunting and tactical environments. Because these systems are digital, you can change your reticle and color scheme on the fly. Some even have a one-shot-zero feature and can save profiles for multiple weapons or ammunition. The amount of customization in a quality thermal scope is astounding.

Unlike night vision, thermal imaging requires no light to function, resulting in a distinct advantage in dense vegetation, under cloud cover, and during moonless nights. One important thing to remember is that the real world is not a shooting range — target identification may be the biggest challenge you face. Thermal scopes have three effective ranges: detection, recognition, and identification. While you may be able to see a person or animal nearly 2,000 yards away, being able to tell the difference between a hog and a calf or spot a weapon is another story entirely.

Clip-on thermal sights

If you aren’t ready to dedicate a rifle to thermal use, a clip-on sight can be a great solution. These optics aren’t much cheaper than a thermal scope, but they can be combined with your existing scope when you need thermal capabilities and removed when you don’t. A clip-on thermal sight like the Pulsar Proton FXQ can turn your existing rifle setup into a technological marvel in no time.

The downside of adding a clip-on thermal sight to your rifle is added complexity. You’ll have two optics to control instead of one, and reaching your thermal sight might be a stretch. It will also be heavier than using a dedicated thermal scope. Either approach is viable and both have devoted followers.

Vehicle-mounted

We’ll go out on a limb and guess that you’re not shopping for the kind of thermal optics they mount on attack helicopters or C-130J gunships. Still, they exist and — we imagine — have capabilities far beyond what’s made public.

Key features of thermal scopes 

The first time you get your hands on a thermal scope, you’re probably going to feel like you discovered alien technology — and you’ll probably feel a little overwhelmed. Allow us to reduce the initial shock with a walk-through of thermal scope basics, and check out The Late Night Vision Show if you really want to dive into the rabbit hole of thermal optics.

One thing to keep in mind is that, because thermal optics are digital, technology progresses much faster than what you’d see in traditional scopes, red dot or holographic sights, or even analog night vision optics. Unlike the 20-year-old technology in a Gen 3 PVS-14 that’s still relevant today, a thermal optic that’s four to five years old will be showing its age considerably.

Thermal core

Thermal imaging starts with the thermal core. This component is an image sensor like the ones you’d find in digital cameras, except it detects thermal energy rather than visible light. A higher-quality thermal core will produce a higher quality image as long as the rest of the components are able to keep up. The more sensitive a thermal core is, the more detailed information you’ll receive. This is measured in a tiny temperature unit called a millikelvin. Most modern thermal scopes have a thermal sensitivity of 50 millikelvin, with some of the best achieving 35 millikelvin.

Standard thermal cores measure somewhere between 320 and 384 pixels on the horizontal axis. The best thermal cores available right now measure 640 pixels wide and 480 pixels high and create incredibly detailed images. Both are usable, but a premium core can be very nice to have. After thermal information is received, it gets passed on to the device’s processor. The scope’s internal computer converts it into visible light that your eyes can understand.

Display

The visible representation of the thermal information gets delivered via a display inside the optic, and the materials used to build displays can vary. Originally, thermal scopes used light-emitting diode displays. You can still find LED examples today, but they’re considered obsolete and should generally be avoided. Mainstream, competitive thermal optics use liquid crystals on silicon or ferroelectric liquid crystals on silicon. These LCOS and FLCOS displays produce much better images and are considered the current standard. At the top end of thermal devices are organic light-emitting diode and active-matrix organic light-emitting diode displays. These OLED and AMOLED displays offer benefits like richer colors, lower battery consumption, and superior brightness compared to the alternatives. 

Display quality is also affected by “pixel pitch,” or the distance between pixels measured in microns from center to center. The lower the number, the better the image quality. Early thermal scope displays had a pixel pitch of 25 microns. Today, 17 microns is considered by many to be the industry standard. The consensus seems to be that 12-micron displays are the current hotness — and about as small as the human eye can detect.

Refresh rate

Because thermal scopes use digital displays, you’re effectively watching a live video feed when you use one. Think of refresh rate as the frames per second used to describe conventional video. Most thermal imaging devices have a refresh rate of 30 hertz, meaning you get a new image 30 times per second. That’s more than adequate for use on foot, but if you use your thermal scope in a moving vehicle, you may notice lag. In that case, an optic with a faster refresh rate might be worth paying more for. Some are rated at 50 hertz and others are rated at 60 hertz, but both rates are faster than the human eye can detect and will produce the same effective results.

In addition to producing a fresh image 30 to 60 times per second, thermal optics must occasionally clear the core to prevent images from being burned in and appearing as a ghost image later. This process is called a non-uniformity correction. When this happens, you may see the display lock up momentarily and there may be an audible click — your scope isn’t broken, that’s normal and necessary. Your thermal scope will likely perform a NUC automatically at predetermined intervals. Manual control may also be available, allowing you to avoid being interrupted at the wrong moment. Some optics require a manual NUC with the lens cap in place. Your user manual will outline the process for whichever thermal scope you choose.

Objective lens

Whether you shoot a rifle or a camera, you’ve probably been conditioned to associate objective lens size with quality. When dealing with visible light, that’s often true, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way with thermal imaging.

For starters, the amount of magnification a scope provides will have an effect. To create two scopes with an identical field of view at different magnification levels, the scope with greater magnification will require a larger objective lens. You may also be surprised to know that thermal optics don’t use glass objective lenses. Glass does a poor job of transferring heat, so thermal devices use lenses made from germanium instead. Grades of germanium can vary, so getting quality lenses is important. Remember to consider the bigger picture before comparing optics based on their objective lenses.

Eyepiece

One component that commonly gets overlooked is the eyepiece. It’s an important piece, no doubt, but perhaps not as critical as the thermal core, digital display, and objective lens. As a result, it’s often the first component on the chopping block when a manufacturer needs to cut costs. If you see two thermal scopes that seem similar on the spec sheet but have a significant price difference, one probably has a more expensive eyepiece.

Benefits of thermal scopes

Being able to see heat is a pretty awesome tactical advantage. Because thermal scopes are digital, you’ll also get some pretty wild perks that you may not have anticipated. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to customize everything from your zero to your display’s appearance. You can also record the action and review it for training purposes or share an epic hog hunting trip with your friends.

Smart integration with your weapon

As with any scope, you’ll have to sight in your thermal scope and establish a zero before you can use it effectively. This is much easier than sighting in a traditional optic, and there’s no need to fire a series of groups and walk them onto the target with incremental adjustments. You’ll probably be able to set an accurate zero with a single shot with a thermal scope. Many of our picks even allow you to save multiple presets, so you can have precise zeroes for different loads of ammunition at your fingertips.

Digital displays also allow you to change reticles on the fly. Want to switch from mil-dot to a bullet-drop compensator or change the color of your reticle? Go right ahead. You’ll be free to combine the reticle style and color with the image you see to get the best results possible.

Multiple color schemes

Depending on your environment, the typical white-hot or black-hot thermal display might not be ideal. A good thermal scope will allow you to switch between the two and adjust the contrast. That’s one of the reasons older LED displays aren’t desirable; diodes are never completely off, so the display can’t create true black and the result is a grayed image.

Furthermore, modern thermal scopes offer a selection of color palettes to choose from. The Pulsar Thermion 2 XP50 includes eight color schemes that excel in different situations, allowing you to prioritize detection, accuracy, or reduced eye fatigue. Part of getting to know your thermal scope is familiarizing yourself with these options and learning to recognize when to use each one.

Record what you see

Thermal scopes use digital sensors and computer processors, so adding the ability to record photos and videos is low-hanging fruit for manufacturers. In most cases, it’s as simple as pressing a button to take a photo and holding it to record video.

Hunters use this feature to share their experiences. Guides find it especially useful for showing prospective clients what they can expect and getting them up to speed on thermal scopes if they don’t have one of their own. In a tactical setting, this can be an invaluable training tool. You can revisit your shooting during a hot wash or use a handheld thermal optic to record your team’s movements for them to review later.

Thermal scope pricing 

Budget

Thermal optics rely on seriously advanced technology, which unfortunately means that products we recommend start around $2,000. You can get thermal imaging for less, and it might be fine for casual use. If you want to keep tabs on your dogs when they’re off-leash or just learn a new skill, something more basic might be just what you need.

The ATN OTS LT, for example, keeps costs down with basic color schemes and inexpensive internals. The 1280-by-960 display is appealing, but note that it’s being fed by a very small 160-by-120 thermal core and image quality is nowhere near what our picks for this list offer. If that doesn’t bother you, save a bundle and pick this up for $899 (at press time). Otherwise, keep looking.

Mid-range

You probably noticed that our value pick checks in at just shy of $2,000. That’s a significant chunk of change, but the benefits compared to a budget thermal scope make upgrading a no-brainer for anyone who plans on shooting with their thermal scope. 

Between there and the $5,000 Pulsar Thermion XP50, you’ll be able to safely browse products with thermal imaging sensors at least 300 pixels wide, quality displays, fast refresh rates, and crystal clear germanium objective lenses. Reticles and color schemes will be changeable on the fly and you can expect a healthy range of user-friendly features like video recording and one-shot zero capabilities.

Premium

Once you spend more than $5,000, you’re likely entering the world of advanced professional equipment. These thermal scopes offer far beyond what most users will ever need. They’re intended for hunting guides, law enforcement agencies, and military units. 

The Trijicon REAP-IR is one example. Every single component is top-shelf, and the compounding effects result in an extremely capable thermal scope that we’d trust to have our back anywhere. Prices start at $7,000 and go up to $9,500 depending on which options you choose, but we can’t argue with the performance. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

How we chose our top picks

Buying a thermal scope should be about adding capability to your arsenal, not checking a box with a receipt. That’s why we immediately ruled out anything that uses inferior or outdated technology. To be considered, all devices had to pass our minimum requirements of a thermal core measuring at least 300 pixels on the horizontal axis, an LCOS display or better, and 17-micron pixel pitch. That left us with only quality products, and we were free to narrow down the selection based on user-friendliness and unique characteristics.

FAQs on thermal scopes

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: What thermal scope does the U.S. military use?

A: We’re sure there are other optics in use around the world, but the PAS-13 is what most service members are likely to encounter. This thermal scope was developed by Raytheon and the U.S. Army.

Q: How long does a thermal scope last?

A: Thermal scopes do not suffer from the same kind of degradation experienced by analog night vision devices. You’re much more likely to trade up for a newer model than you are to experience a system failure.

Q: How far can you shoot with a thermal scope?

A: In this case, range has far more to do with target identification than controlling your point of impact. Can you land rounds several hundred yards out? Sure. Can you tell what you’re destroying? Probably not. Our resident machine-gunner, Travis Pike, remembers a time when he couldn’t identify whether an approaching person was armed until they came within 100 yards.  

Q: Can thermal rifle scopes be used in daylight?

A: Absolutely. Thermal imaging devices have been used by the military, law enforcement, and hunters for all kinds of daytime applications. 

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