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Exploring Night Vision Options | Backdoor Survival

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This post is a collaboration between Matt and Samantha Biggers. For those that don’t already know Matt Biggers, he is my husband and best friend of 15 years!  He does all the original photos for all the posts of mine you have read over the past few years.  I am grateful for all the hard work and research he put into this post and for knowing how to gently get my Vietnam veteran father to talk about some of the tough stuff he has a hard time telling a daughter.

Best wishes, Samantha

Things that go bump in the night and our inability to see into the darkness has long kept people at the dark hours huddled around whatever light source they had.

Technology has changed that.

Having the ability to see through the veil of darkness changes operating at night from a risk to a real advantage and leaves an opponent without it effectively blind to the hazards of the night.

History of Night Vision

Night Vision technology was first developed right before World War II.  The first systems were too large for a man to move and were used as sights for anti-aircraft guns or mounted on vehicles. By the end of the war, both sides had developed night vision systems that were small enough to be attached to an infantry rifle. Most of the first systems were “active” meaning they used infrared light to illuminate the area in front of the night vision sensor.  These first systems that cannot work without illumination are referred to as “Gen 0” night vision.

When my father in law Alvin served in Vietnam “Starlight Scopes”  were being used frequently. These scopes had good enough light amplification to work without using a light making them one of the first of the “passive” systems.

The biggest problem was that they were still large systems and they were very expensive to produce, so the military was picky about who got to use them and where.

The scope Alvin was issued was mounted on an M-14 rifle, and they must have weighed about 15 pounds together. While these Starlight Scopes were an improvement, they still needed some ambient light to function and would not work well on cloudy nights or indoors. The early night vision sensors are called “Gen 1” systems.

Modernized more compact versions of these early optics are available starting at around $200 for a monocular. While first generation night vision will work to some degree without infrared illumination at close range, these systems all need illumination to properly identify objects at longer distances.

The illuminators themselves pose some problems the biggest one is that the infrared light from them is not entirely invisible when the bulb glows visibly. It’s not much to the unaided human eye, but for someone with night vision or some nocturnal predators, an infrared illuminator shines like a spotlight, and that can make all the difference during a major situation.

By the late 1980s, the, US military had developed an improved version of their passive system. These “Gen 2” scopes offer a much clearer picture and with less distortion around the edges and good enough light amplification to work indoors or on starless nights. An improved light tube also gives a longer lifespan.  Second generation night vision typically costs over $1,000.

Armasight Vampire 3X Night Vision Rifle Scope (CORE IIT, 60-70 lp/mm)

The Vampire is an impressive night vision scope for your dollar. When we took it out around our homestead, it was pretty amazing how well we could see details from one end of our property to another. For example, it would have been fairly easy to aim at anything creeping around at a hundred yards away. The level of detail was pretty good as well. In fact, you could even see the details of the bark still hanging on the locust end posts in the vineyard at 75-100 yards.

 

For those that want a basic but very high-quality pair of night vision binoculars, this is a more affordable option at under $700. The high magnification this pair of binoculars offers means you can zoom in on things with ease. If you want something for night scouting for security, binocular style night vision is easy to get used to and more comfortable for many than using a monocular style unit.

This system has a lot of advantages, and at around $1,600, it is mid-priced. I like that this can be worn on your head and is made for being able to move quickly and efficiently in indoor and outdoor spaces. This would be useful if you found yourself needing to check out a building during SHTF or if you are just scouting out an area.

Hands-free is a very nice option to have if you need to get something done at night.

This is a good multi-purpose unit that offers some hands-free options thanks to the included detachable tripod. The handles on the side deserve attention. If someone is investing nearly $2,000 in a night vision system, having a solid way to hold, it becomes pretty important. While these are made tough, it is never good for any optic to be dropped.

For general observation or staying in place and observing for long periods of time, this unit is made for comfort and stability. If you wanted to stay in place for a few days to assess a situation or if you had an observation post in place at your prepper compound to watch for marauders during SHTF, this is an option to consider.

Generation 3 Night Vision Options

Gen 3 and 3+  is the current generation in use by the US armed services.  These systems offer a large improvement in performance and life span of the image tube. One important feature is the addition of “autogating”  which is a system to automatically adjust light levels, useful in light polluted urban environments and when moving rapidly between lit and unlit areas.  One disadvantage of Gen 3 is that it uses more power, so it has a shorter battery life than Gen 2. Third generation night vision equipment usually starts around $3,000.

If you are willing to invest just under $3,000, this system offers a lot of versatility. Not many night vision systems are labeled for use as a weapon mounted, handheld, or helmet mounted unit. This shows confidence in the durability and impact resistant characteristics of this monocular.

It is noticeable that this monocular is also listed as being submersible. A lot of the night vision out there is listed as being waterproof or resistant. If you plan on using your night vision regularly in wet conditions or simply live in a wet climate, waterproof features may be something you want to look more closely at when choosing a night vision system.

Pulsar has an outstanding reputation in the world of night vision. For the quality, you get the price is reasonable in the world of 3rd generation night vision.  That being said, this is a lot of scope for the average person but people’s goals for night vision and needs differ. If you are going to use it a lot and want a serious scope, then go for it, but if you just want some basic night vision for occasional use or for close range, this is overkill.

Digital Night Vision

There is a new class of “digital” night vision. These consumer grade systems use microchips and small LCD screens like those in digital cameras instead of a glass optical tube.  This gives the advantage of being able to work in the day as well as at night without risking damage. They often include features like a Bluetooth link to a smartphone and built-in cameras. However, this comes at the cost of lower resolution and higher power consumption. They vary in price and performance, but most are comparable to Gen 1 or 2 systems, starting at about $300 and going up to over $2000.

This is fairly new technology, so time will tell how well this style holds up over the years. So far they seem to get very positive feedback. Considering how competitive the market is and the nature of the product, it stands out when there are that many people happy with a product. So far so good.

Another winning scope from Pulsar. At around $1,500, this scope offers high quality, but it is half the cost of the nondigital Pulsar Phantom. This particular model has been discontinued by the manufacturer, but there are still some new ones for sale on Amazon and other sites. Of course, Pulsar has plenty of other digisight models to choose from if you can’t get one of these.

Thermal imaging is an alternative to traditional night vision.

Thermal imaging detects the radiation emitted by heat sources instead of having light amplification tubes like night vision. This means thermal can be used at any light level from daylight to absolute darkness. But it also means thermal cannot “see” any details of objects that are uniform in temperature.

Thermal only shows temperature contrasts; this makes thermal better than traditional night vision for spotting something like a coyote hiding in the bushes. But thermal imaging is less useful than night vision when you are trying to walk through the woods at night.

Thermal units often offer a much shorter detection distance than traditional night vision products where you can see details at 500 feet or more. The LCD screen takes a lot of battery so if the 5 hour viewing time is a problem you can always take along a small battery bank as you would use for cell phone charging in an emergency.

While Leupold is known for quality optics, the battery life is really low on this unit. Also, it appears that this battery life can vary a bit based on the operating temperature. While this unit allows for detection at up to 750 yards, one must ask if there are many places where they want to use thermal detection where they have a line of sight that far away? Considering the additional cost and battery life, most of us would be better off with the less expensive but more range limited FLIR Scout described previously.

So which is best for you?
With night vision the major factors to consider and questions to ask include the following:

What are you planning on using it for?

Are you worried about protecting your home, family, and property? Is this just to put back in case of SHTF? Do you plan on using it to hunt with or eliminate predators that are dangerous to your livestock and pets?

Will you be using your night vision for observation close up or are you concerned about distance?

A magnified riflescope with night vision has too much magnification to be good for close up situations. Night vision or thermal imaging monoculars normally cannot be used on rifles because they cannot take the recoil. Magnification ability varies based on what you buy.

How much are you prepared to spend?

Night vision is never cheap. Although the price has come down substantially, it is still a significant investment for optics that you might not use that often. Night vision scopes for rifles often cost substantially more because they have to be made more rugged so they can absorb shock and stand up to the abuse of hunting in the bush.

Most people are going to want to compromise on price versus performance.  But if you live in an area with lots of light pollution investing in an auto-gated system to avoid damaging your optics or looking into getting a quality digital system.

Surplus or refurbished night vision units can sometimes be found at discounts of 50% or more over there new price.  Used units come at the price of a shortened life span.  Be clear on how old or how much use a system has seen before agreeing to purchase.

When using night vision, especially the lower end systems, it is important to have realistic expectations. No system is capable of turning night into day, they are all a green monochrome color, and they all have some amount of distortion around the edges of the lens.  It is also important to keep in mind that while these systems amplify light, they can only do so much if you let your eyes adjust to darkness for 30 minutes before you turn them on you will be able to see more through them.

Size and weight of the optic is another consideration. Night vision scopes are large and heavier than standard scopes. If you want smaller, then in many cases, the cost goes up a lot.

Export restrictions outside of USA are something to consider.

Export of some night vision products outside of the United States of America is not allowed and is controlled by the US Department of State so if you live in another country, you should double check before ordering any night vision from the USA. The idea is that the US Department of State doesn’t want to help out other countries when it comes to procuring affordable and more advanced night vision. Who knows how effective this really is? Regardless, the rules are there.

Do you have night vision? Please share any positive or negative experiences in the comments below. Unfortunately, due to cost, a lot of us have to totally rely on the reviews and experiences of others when making a purchase decision. Any honest feedback about any brands or models is very helpful! Also please share any tips about using night vision you might have.

Matthew and Samantha Biggers can be reached at

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