We are currently living in the Golden Age of Technology, and the hunting and shooting industries have benefited from major technological advancements. Modern shooters now have access to night vision optics that are basically specialized computers we can mount right on our rifles. However, finding the best thermal scope to mount on your firearm is no easy feat, especially for those unfamiliar with the technology.
That’s why we’ve compiled this useful guide. Use it to help you find the right thermal optic for your shooting needs. Whether you need a scope for tactical situations, nighttime hog hunting, or just plain fun, we’ve got all the information you need to find the best quality optic for your rifle.
How Thermal Imaging Works?
Many people confuse thermal imaging with night vision technology. While both help you see in the dark, they use very different technology to accomplish that goal.
Night vision technology relies on ambient light to help you see at night. It gathers available light and amplifies it so you can see images in the dark. Usually, the light from the moon and stars is enough. However, if there isn’t enough natural light, night vision scopes use an IR (infrared) illuminator to help you see.
In contrast, thermal scopes don’t use ambient light. Instead, they pick up thermal patterns. All-natural and manmade objects emit infrared energy as heat. Humans and animals generate significantly more heat than their surroundings, making them easy to detect with a thermal scope.
Thermal imaging technology detects the subtle differences in temperature and then creates a detailed temperature pattern called a thermogram. It only takes a fraction of a second for an array of sensors to gather temperature information in the device’s field of view (FOV) to generate the thermogram.
The software in the scope then translates the thermogram into electrical impulses. The impulses travel as data to a digital display. That display projects an image composed of various colors (or shades of gray) that correspond to the intensity of the object’s infrared emission.
If all of that sounds complicated and high-tech, it’s because it is. The important thing to understand is that a thermal scope picks up the heat signatures of objects and uses them to make an image you can see, even in the pitch dark.
Why Use a Thermal Scope?
As the technology has become more accessible to civilian shooters, thermal scopes have increased in popularity. No longer relegated to military use, thermal imaging can be used for a variety of shooting applications.
Thermal riflescopes are a popular choice for hunters. While they are an obvious choice for hunting nocturnal animals like feral hogs, coyotes, and other predators, they are also useful for detecting game through dense fog or thick brush.
Thermal optics are also a favorite choice for tactical shooters. Whether you are military or law enforcement personnel (or you just want to emulate the tactical rigs of those professionals), a thermal scope will help you identify live targets even in the dark.
Things to Consider When Choosing Thermal Scopes
Before you make a considerable financial investment in an expensive thermal optic, here are some important points to consider.
Thermal imaging technology is expensive. Advanced thermal optics can push five figures, and you definitely won’t find one priced under $1000.
While that may seem pricey, the cost has dropped considerably in just a few short years. As the technology becomes mainstream, we should expect to see these devices become more affordable. In the meantime, be prepared to budget at least a thousand dollars for a thermal scope.
Size and Weight
Modern thermal scopes carry a ton of internal technology, so it should come as no surprise that they generally weigh more than a traditional scope. If you need to lug your rifle (and a mounted optic) long distances over rough terrain or through dense woods, the size and weight of your thermal optic become a serious consideration.
Some thermal models are more compact and weigh less than others, which is a major asset when hiking miles through the wilderness or trying to balance your rifle for difficult off-hand shots.
A reticle is the pattern of fine lines and markings inside a scope that help you aim accurately. Reticle designs range from simple crosshairs and center dots to elaborate MIL-Dot configurations.
Many high-end thermal scopes have several pre-programmed reticles, so you can choose a design that fits your personal preferences or best suits the shooting task at hand.
Some scopes only have a single reticle or none at all. Whether you need a thermal scope for tactical shooting or hunting nocturnal predators, be sure the reticle is appropriate for your shooting needs.
Some thermal scopes have no magnification. Others may offer up to 16x or more. The level of magnification you need depends on your shooting pursuits.
The magnification on a thermal scope will be either optical or digital.
Optical magnification is relatively low-tech and lets you get up close and personal with your target using actual lens adjustments. A thermal scope with optical magnification will have better image quality when you zoom in to the highest magnification level.
Digital Zoom uses software to enlarge an in-camera image. Digitally magnified images will be less clear at maximum power.
This is the range your device can adequately detect the infrared heat signatures of objects and animals in the FOV. Different devices have different detection ranges. Thermal imaging technology has a relatively short detection range, so the effective range of your rifle will usually exceed the effective range of your optic.
Thermal scopes aren’t like your grandfather’s old hunting scope. Unlike traditional rifle scopes, thermal scopes use digital technology to create a viewable image projected on a digital display.
Screen resolution is the most important factor in determining how clear the images will appear. No matter how great the scope’s sensor, if you have a low-resolution screen, you’ll have difficulty making out target details, especially on maximum zoom.
Some thermal imaging scopes feature built-in software that helps smooth pixelation to produce more detailed images.
Our suggestion is to invest in a thermal scope with the highest resolution you can afford. While thermal imaging makes it quick and easy to spot living targets, the technology often lacks the detail of standard night vision. This lack of detail can make precision shooting problematic, especially for hunters. The higher your device’s resolution, the easier it will be to make effective nighttime shots for quick, humane kills.
When most people think of thermal imaging, they imagine the bright reds and oranges of the alien vision in the popular 1987 film, Predator.
While many modern scopes feature vibrantly colored images, many also offer black and white options. Rather than shades of red and yellow, these thermal optics display heat signatures as darker or lighter on the gray scale. Monochromatic images may not be as exciting, but they are easier on the eyes, especially in pitch-black, target-rich environments.
Some models offer several color settings, giving you the option to choose whatever strikes your fancy. You may opt for bright colors for easier target identification, or switch to black and white when you have a whole passel of hogs coming to your bait station.
Most thermal imaging scopes come with a ton of extra bells and whistles (which is a good thing when you consider the price tags on some of the fancier models). Some additional features to look for include laser rangefinders, ballistic calculators, GPS location, digital compasses, recoil-activated video recording, and Wi-Fi streaming.
Best Thermal Scope on the Market Review
Still feeling overwhelmed by all the options? Here is a list of our top picks to help point you in the right direction.
1. Pulsar Thermion XM30 3-13x Thermal Riflescope
The Pulsar Thermion XM30 allows you to spot heat signatures up to an astounding 1000 yards away. One of the things we love most about this thermal optic is that it provides cutting-edge thermal technology in a traditional-style design.
The Thermion XM30 is built of tough aircraft-grade aluminum. It is also IPX7 waterproof-rated for protection from external moisture, heavy rain, ice, and snow. This rugged scope is also designed to withstand heavy recoil, and it works well with rifles chambered for heavy-hitting cartridges like .375 H&H and 12-gauge slugs.
Other notable features include a generous magnification range, built-in recoil-activated recording, wireless streaming, a stadiametric rangefinder, and a high-resolution AMOLED video display.
It also comes with a Picatinny rail mount, making it perfect for AR-15 and other modern sporting rifles.
2. Pulsar Trail 2 LRF XP50 Thermal Riflescope
Pulsar makes some of the best digital night vision and thermal scopes in production today. Catering to the nocturnal hunter, all Pulsar optics are great for hog hunting, and the Trail 2 is near perfect for popping feral swine.
The Trail LRF provides precision heat detection on targets up to 1475 yards away. It combines a sensitive 384 x288 sensor with a practical 2.1-8.4x magnification range. The combo produces a high-contrast field of view and rapid acquisition of moving targets.
With an integrated laser rangefinder, the Trail 2 is perfect for deer hunting or coyote hunting.
The Trail 2 is completely waterproof and has an IPX7 rating. This means you could completely submerge the optic in three feet of water for up to 30 minutes without damaging the scope’s electronic components.
3. Pulsar Core RXQ30V
The Pulsar Core is easily one of the best long-distance thermal scopes on the market. High-quality germanium optics and a cutting-edge thermal imaging sensor combine to provide an extreme detection range of 985 yards, even in total darkness.
The Core features Pulsar’s patented Image Boost Technology, designed to increase image clarity for a sharper, more detailed FOV, making it much easier to identify targets. Even at long range, the images viewed through this thermal optic are sharp enough that you can actually count the hairs on a broadside buck.
For even more enhanced viewing, you can choose from a green sapphire palette or simple white-hot for target-rich environments. The Pulsar Core even offers digital recording that allows you to store hours of video or thousands of still images.
Built with a rugged, lightweight all-metal housing, this is the perfect thermal scope for coyote hunting. Made to hold up in wet weather and rough hunting conditions, the Pulsar Core works as either a rifle-mounted or handheld optic.
4. AGM Rattler TS25-384
The AGM Rattler is a surprisingly affordable and refreshingly compact thermal scope. Perfect for long hunts and tactical maneuvers, the Rattler provides 24-hour operation, even in the roughest environments.
This optic features a sensitive thermal detector and a high-resolution OLED monitor, which provides crisp, clear images through fog, smoke, dust, rain, snow, and total darkness.
The Rattler runs on two CR123 batteries and offers up to 4.5 hours of continuous power. However, the device also comes with an external 5V power bank, which connects easily to a USB connector for increased operating time.
With an onboard Wi-Fi module, the Rattler provides live video streaming and video/image recording. It also comes with adjustable color palettes, which can be a major asset in changing environments.
Super lightweight (less than a pound and a half), this compact optic is surprisingly rugged. Designed with a durable aircraft-grade aluminum alloy body, the Rattler is tough enough to withstand bumps, bangs, and drops in the field and never skip a beat.
5. AGM Secutor TS25-384 Compact Thermal Imaging Riflescope
This lightweight, American-made thermal riflescope is waterproof, shockproof, and provides incredible clarity and reliability. Made from high-quality materials, the AGM Secutor was designed for 24-hour operation in any weather or environmental condition. It is also sturdy enough for rough use in the field.
The Secutor runs on two standard CR123A batteries that provide up to 5 hours of continuous work. The optic can also connect to an external power supply via an included micro-USB cord.
Shooters will also enjoy the scope’s easy-to-use controls, high-resolution display, and picture-in-picture mode with 2x digital zoom. For a truly customized experience, users can choose from several reticle designs and colors.
Other notable features include a stadiametric rangefinder, up to five zeroing profiles to match different loads or weapons, and an optional external Wi-Fi module and video recorder.
The AGM Secutor easily mounts to any mil-spec 1913 Picatinny rail.
6. ATN ThOR 4
Although the ATN ThOR 4 has the classic look of a traditional riflescope, it is jam-packed with modern high-tech features. With an internal dual-core processor that reduces image pixelation and increases thermal sensitivity, this scope produces high-resolution images with sharp contrast, even in total darkness.
The ThOR 4 also features a ballistic calculator that reads temperature and humidity. It also instantly calculates angle to target adjustments. You can leave all the difficult math computation to your device. You won’t need a separate calculator, pen and paper.
The scope even stores multiple weapon profiles for the most precise readings every single time, no matter which weapon you’re shooting. It even works perfectly on those tough long-range shots or one of the best-rated crossbow scope for night hunting.
As an added bonus, the ThOR 4 records video internally and also gives you the option to stream high-resolution video to your mobile device while simultaneously storing it on an SD card.
This scope is durable enough for rough hunting or tactical conditions. It has an ultra-low profile and a surprisingly long battery life. And although some shooters might balk at the price tag, the ATN ThOR 4 is easily the best thermal scope under $5000 we’ve ever seen.
7. Armasight Apollo Pro 1x50mm Thermal Scope
The Armasight Apollo Pro mounts to your daytime scope to instantly create a high-tech thermal imaging device. It comes with a QR mount for easy attachment, flips on and off easily, and does not require re-zeroing of your primary optic. This scope is perfect for both predator hunting and after-dark tactical maneuvers.
The Apollo Pro is a completely digital optic powered by a FLIR Tau 2 thermal core. It also features a high-definition (HD) AMOLED SVGA display that provides a bright, vivid sight picture in any environment.
More than just a thermal riflescope, the Apollo Pro also features an onboard digital compass and an inclinometer that instantly calculates exact distances and angles of incline to your intended target.
8. theOpticGuru Thor LT Thermal Scope
If you are just getting started in thermal optics, the price tags on these high-tech devices can be pretty scary. Needless to say, we were pretty skeptical when we found a thermal scope priced well under $2000. However, this riflescope from theOpticGuru does a nice job of breaking the price barrier for beginners and budget-conscious shooters.
While this thermal scope lacks some high-end features, like Wi-Fi streaming and ballistic calculations, it does a fine job of focusing on what really matters – detecting body heat through dense vegetation, fog, smoke, and total darkness.
Rugged, durable, and dependable, this refreshingly affordable optic is constructed of a hardened aluminum alloy, and is recoil-resistant to higher caliber weapons. When it comes to thermal technology, theOpticGuru Thor LT is definitely the best value for the money.
9. Trijicon Electro Optics IR-HUNTER Type 2
As the name implies, the Trijicon Electro Optics IR-Hunter was built for a single purpose – successful hunting. This modern optic is jam-packed with high-tech features tailored specifically for hunters.
One of our favorite features is the Enhanced Target Recognition (ETR). This feature allows you to select specific areas within your field of view for closer inspection. ETR increases color contrast and provides enhanced image detail.
With premium GASIR thermal optics and top-notch glass, the IR-Hunter provides some of the best thermal image quality in the industry.
The IR-Hunter is built like a tank. Made from 6061-T6 aluminum and tested to military standards, this optic is ready for anything you or Mother Nature throws its way.
Thermal imaging scopes are fantastic tools for identifying live targets, especially after the sun goes down. These high-tech gadgets give you a tactical advantage in the field, help you hunt nocturnal game, and are just plain fun to use. If you want to give yourself a technological edge, a thermal scope is one great way to do it.
While not every thermal optic will work for every shooter, we hope the information in this article helps you find the best thermal scope for your shooting needs.