Top 8 Best Budget Night Vision and Thermal Scopes

Best budget thermal scopes

As we’ve evolved through the ages, humans have not developed a strong ability to see in darkness. For us to see something in the darkness, that object either has to emit light or reflect light. In the darkness, our pupils are unable to use the small amount of light available to recognize those images.

Many species, such as owls, felines, and opossums, have evolved to the point where they have extremely large pupils in their eyes, which enables them to process what little light is available, and gives them extraordinary night vision.

Humans, fortunately, or unfortunately, are left to use technology to improve their night vision capabilities. In this article, we will talk about rifle scopes that improve night vision capability.

OUR PERSONAL BEST CHOICE

Below is a summarization of our choices:

Best Overall Model

Sightmark SM 18008 Photon

Best Overall Runer Up Model

Night Owl Night Shot NVS

Best Performance Model

Optic Guru Thor LT Thermal

Best Performance Runer Up Model

ATN X-Sight II HD-5-20

Best Value Model

Firefield FF1600l NV

Best Value Runer Up Model

Sightmark SM18015 Photon

The scopes we will review here are based on two different technologies – light amplification, or night vision, and thermal imaging recognition. Let’s take a look at the night vision technology first.

The history of night vision devices (NVDs) can be traced back to World War I, when a Hungarian scientist developed an infrared system to help warn the British of incoming enemy aircraft.

In the 1930s, Germany began experimentation with NVDs and installed them on their tank fleet in the 1940s during World War II. Infrared NVDs were used by American snipers late in that war, and also in the Korean Conflict during the 1950s.

NVDs generally fall into three categories – scopes, cameras, and night vision goggles. Scopes are typically monocular, designed for handheld use, or mounted to rifles. Goggles are night vision binocular, using both eyes, and used in many search and rescue and military applications.

Thermal imaging cameras are a hybrid, using the technology of night vision and a camera to see and record images. Our focus here will be on the monocular application, in particular, rifle scopes.

Let’s look at how the technology works in an NVD using light amplification technology.

How night vision works

Night vision devices boost a dim, dark scene in a series of simple steps:

  • Night Vision Devices (NVDs) employ devices called Intensifier Tubes. As the name suggests, they intensify light that passes through them.

  • Electric signals are the only things we can intensify directly. The trick, therefore, is to convert light into electrical signals. The signals can then be amplified and re-converted back to light.

  • Voila, you have intensified light!

  • The Intensifier tube converts received light (photons) into electrons (Electric signals). A photomultiplier then amplifies the signals.

  • The amplified electric signals are then blasted onto the goggles phosphorous screen. The screen converts the signals back to the light.

  • The result is a far brighter image observed through the device.

In addition to the military, security, and law enforcement applications, night vision devices can also be used for hunting, wildlife watching, human surveillance, navigation, and detecting hidden objects.

They are also used in many game applications, such as paintball. Because of the military-grade technology in several of these models, they are not eligible for export.

Some states also have bans on night vision devices, and these typically are related to a gun mounted NVDs. If there are questions about use or applicability, please check with the appropriate regulatory agency.

Technology improvements improved performance and reduced costs, and, beginning in the 1990s, thermal imaging devices found their way into civilian applications. Many were the same as those noted above, and they are also used to include medical imaging and diagnosis, environmental control, and automobile guidance systems.

Like the other NVDs, exports may be strictly controlled, because of their potential use in sensitive military applications.

A thermal device will detect infrared energy, which emanates from a different part of the light spectrum. As temperatures rise, more infrared energy is emitted, which is captured as black body radiation.

This can be captured even in total darkness, which is an indication of why these devices are so important in search and rescue operations. See below for an example of how a thermal image might be displayed:

If you are interested in more information about thermal imaging technology, please watch this short video:

So, to recap, our focus in this article will be on budget-priced best night vision scopes. Some of these will use thermal imaging technology, and some will use light amplification technology. Both offer the same benefit – enhanced ability to see in the dark.

We’ve selected eight different budget-priced scopes from the Amazon.com web site for review here. As we go through that process, we’ll give you a high-level overview of the eight units, and then spend some time recapping key features and specifications that may impact your purchasing decision.

After that, we’ll move into a detailed review of each scope, including first impressions, key features and specifications, and the pros and cons of using that scope. Following that, we’ll wrap up with some recommendations on these best night vision scopes.

The scopes in the table below are sorted by their ratings on the Amazon site. If the ratings are the same between two products, the more expensive of the pair will be listed second. Prices shown are for the base unit only, with no additional options, such as extended warranties, included.

Product Best Features Rating Price Range View on Amazon

Sightmark SM 18008 Photon

Sightmark SM 18008 Photon

  • medium range detection,
  • lighter weight than many,
  • longer battery life,
  • night vision technology.

4.2 out of 5

$376

View on Amazon

Night Owl Night Shift Digital

Night Owl Night Shift Digital

  • medium range detection,
  • high resolution,
  • night vision technology,
  • 3X magnification.

4.0 out of 5

$399

View on Amazon

Firefield FF1600l NV

Firefield FF1600l NV

  • night vision technology,
  • titanium body,
  • built-in IR illuminator.

3.9 out of 5

$227

View on Amazon

ATN X-Sight II HD-5-20

ATN X-Sight II HD-5-20

  • day/night use,
  • built-in range finder,
  • video recording, and photos.

3.9 out of 5

$530

View on Amazon

Optic Guru Thor LT Thermal

Optic Guru Thor LT Thermal

  • thermal technology,
  • lightweight,
  • extended battery use,
  • HD display.

3.9 out of 5

$1200

View on Amazon

Sightmark SM18015 Photon

Sightmark SM18015 Photon

  • night vision technology,
  • video, and sound recording,
  • 2X zoom,
  • IR illuminator.

3.7 out of 5

$429

View on Amazon

ATN X-Sight 4K Pro

ATN X-Sight 4K Pro

  • Day/night operation,
  • video recording,
  • ultra- long battery life,
  • on-board ballistic calculator.

3.6 out of 5

$737

View on Amazon

Bestsight DIY Digital NV

Bestsight DIY Digital NV

  • day/night capability,
  • 5” display screen,
  • IR illuminator,
  • night vision technology.

3.5 out of 5

$150

View on Amazon

BUYING GUIDE

As part of making the most informed buying decision, it’s good to make sure you have a complete understanding of all the available features and specifications on these night vision devices. Detailed comparisons may be necessary; the same specification may have wide levels of variation from one scope to the next.

After you go through this section, what we recommend as a next step is making a list of each of the features or specifications discussed here. Then go through and rate the importance of that feature for your intended application.

Typically, features will fall into three categories:

  • must have (would not buy the product without it),
  • nice to have (not mandatory, but a nice add on I would use),
  • for want of a better term, bells, and whistles (features I don’t need and have no relevance to my planned usage of the scope).

When you’ve looked at it from that perspective, you should get a pretty good sense of where the best values are based on your needs and budget.

Before we move to the next part of this article, let’s take a quick look at how a clip-on night vision device is typically used. Most of these images can also be used as night vision monoculars, a hand-held unit. Primarily, however (and our focus here), is their use as a night vision scope when clipped to a rifle, and used in conjunction with the standard, day vision scope of that rifle.

Typically, the day vision scope will provide the magnification, although some of these night visions scopes have magnification capability also.

So, the purpose of these scopes is to take the magnification capability of a standard scope and enhance that with night vision capabilities.

Below is an example of a typical clip-on combination scope assembly:

Scope assembly

The standard day scope is toward the back, or right in the picture, of the rifle, and the night vision device is clipped to the rifle immediately in front of that scope. So now, on to the buying guide:

Range of view

Range of view

Range of view, or viewing distance, will tell you the effective range of the scope. It’s a measurement of how near you must be to the object to conduct thermal sensing and imaging. As you would expect, the greater the distance, the lower the clarity of the image.

Within the range of view, there are three important sub-sections – detection, recognition, and identification (DRI).

Detection refers to the ability to detect an object from its background – I see something out there.

Recognition phase is when you can identify its class – It’s some kind of animal. Identification is the ability to describe the details – it’s a deer, or man carrying a gun.

Obviously, as the range is closer, identification is easier.

Range finder

Range finder

Several of these scopes have the ability to calculate and show you the distances between you and the object in your sights. This is important in improving your ability to take a clean shot.

Photo/video capability

Photo/video capability

Some of these models have the ability to take and store photos and videos of your target information. This can be done by on-device storage, storage to an SD card, and, in some cases, built-in wi-fi transmission to a smartphone or similar device.

Memory storage

Memory storage

If your device does have the photo and/or video capability, the amount of memory storage available to you will be important. As noted, this may be on-device, through a supplemental storage medium like an SD card, or transmission to a different device entirely.

Objective lens

Objective lens

The objective lens is the part of the scope that collects and intensifies the thermal images in a light amplification scope.

The larger the lens, the more it will be able to collect the light and enhance the night vision of the object.

You may also see this referred to as the objective aperture. See the diagram and explanation of the use of the objective lens on pages one and two of this article.

Magnification level

Magnification level

In most cases, the magnification level will be determined within the normal, daylight scope of the rifle; however, many of these scopes have magnification capability on their own. This would typically be accessed while using the scope as a monocular, or hand-held, device. It can, however, be used in conjunction with the normal scope.

You will see magnification expressed like a multiplier – 2X, 5X, 8X, etc. in the specifications.

As an example of how this works, an object 50 yards away, viewed with a 5X magnification level, would appear as if it were 10 yards away (50 yards divided by 5 = 10 yards). In the same example, a 10X magnification would make the object appear 5 yards away (50 divided by 10 = 5).
Optics

Optics

Optics will be expressed as a combination of the magnification level (shown as a multiplier), and the size of the objective lens (expressed in millimeters). So, an optical rating of 2X50 would indicate a magnification level of two times, and an objective lens size of 50 mm. The larger the objective lens, the greater its ability to capture and amplify ambient lighting.

Infrared (IR) illumination

Infrared (IR) illumination

Some of these scopes have the ability to generate additional infrared illumination capability. While some are passive, and only reflect the IR they gather, others are active and emit their own IR light. There are three general types of IR illumination devices – lasers, filtered incandescent lamps, and IR light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Lasers are a very high-end application but will be found in scopes, and filtered lamps are typically too bulky for scope applications. Most IR illuminators used in the scope sector are LED-based.

Operating temperature range

Operating temperature range

Whether being used in hunting, military, or search and rescue operations, these scopes may be exposed to temperature extremes. Most standard specifications will indicate a temperature range, from low to high, in degrees Celsius, where the scope will operate properly.

Durability

Durability

In addition to operating in extreme temperature conditions, these scopes may also require a high level of durability to perform in specific circumstances. From the recoil of a gun to potentially being dropped from a height, these scopes try to form a perfect blend of durability and lightweight. You will see materials of construction ranging from advanced thermoplastics to titanium to accomplish this.

Measure of accuracy (MOA)

Measure of accuracy (MOA)

MOA measures the accuracy of the shot you take, factoring in the distance of the shot.
For practical purposes, every 100 yards additional distance of the shot will add 1 inch of inaccuracy. Some of these thermal scopes are factory calibrated to achieve even greater than 1 MOA accuracy.

Day/night use

Day/night use

Because of the sophisticated electronics in the light amplification functionalities, some of these scopes are only suitable for use at night, or with limited light. Others, typically through the use of specialized filters, can be used in either day or night applications. In some cases, exposure to strong light may actually ruin the optics of a night vision scope.

Weight

Weight

Since you will be adding the weight of this scope to a gun barrel, with another scope already on it, the additive weight may be a key consideration for you. Bear in mind that weight can also factor into the overall durability of the scope (see above).

Screen resolution

One of these models actually has a viewing screen, but all of them will need to project the viewed image back to you. Screen resolution defines the sharpness of the recorded/viewed images. The resolution will be expressed in terms of pixels, with the greater number of pixels resulting in a sharper, clearer image. It will typically be expressed as 320×240 pixels or 7,680 total pixels.

Field of view

Field of view

As you look through the scope, without moving the rifle, you will get a very specific field of view (FOV). This is the visible area you can see, normally expressed as a range of degrees from the centerline.

You may also see it expressed as X feet wide at a distance of, for example, 500 yards.

Almost all scopes will specify the horizontal field of view; some will also specify a vertical field of view.
Water resistance

Water resistance

As noted earlier, during a normal course of operation, these scopes may be subjected to a wide range of environmental considerations, including getting wet. To measure water resistance, there is an International Protection code which measures water resistance in various devices. These measures are expressed in an IPX format, followed by a number, such as IPX-5.

The higher the number, the greater the water resistance. IPX-4, for example, is water-resistant, while IPX-7 ratings indicate that the device can actually be submerged in up to one meter of water without damage to the operation.

Image refresh rate

Image refresh rate

As the images you view are sending either reflected light or IR heat images back to the scope, these images will need to be refreshed on a real-time basis.

The image refresh rate represents the number of cycles per second that the image is refreshed, expressed in the measure HZ, or hertz.
The more refreshes, expressed by higher numbers, the sharper, more realistic, and more real-time the image will be.

Power source/life

Power source/life

All of these scopes need ancillary power sources to operate. This is normally in the form of batteries, although some will also accept power packs to extend life. Typically, batteries will be standard alkaline batteries or lithium-ion batteries, in either single-use or rechargeable form.

Color palette

Color palette

Many of these models offer multiple color palettes, and, in some cases, customizable color palettes. The color palette allows the user to select the color schema that will be used to contrast the image from the other items around the image; for instance, to contrast a feral hog from the grass and trees where it is grazing.

Warranty/technical support

Warranty/technical support

Warranty coverage will normally be expressed in two parts. There will be a shorter warranty, typically one to three years, for the body and other parts, and a longer warranty, sometimes as long as ten years, for the electronics. The majority of these are US-made scopes, so technical support will typically be domestically based, but it is always wise to verify.

Options

Options

Several of these scopes have options available, ranging from extended warranties to enhanced memory storage capability, so specific programs and apps like ballistic calculators and one-shot zeroing. As mentioned earlier, the prices shown in the comparison table are for base models only and do not include any options.

Price

Price

Last, but certainly not least, is a discussion around the price of these best night vision scopes. In the end, pretty much all of us will have a budget for a purchase like this, and our budget may change what we really want into what we can really afford.

The basic units here run from about $150 to almost $1200. In the end, though, it is not just the price that’s relevant. The combination of the price, the features, and the specifications that match your wants and needs most closely will determine the best value unit for you.

If a unit doesn’t contribute a good value, you are probably better off waiting than buying something that will not meet your expectations.

PRODUCT REVIEWS

Before we start in on the item by item product reviews, let’s look back and clarify that there are two different technologies in night vision being utilized by these best night vision scopes. One replies on infrared rays being used to differentiate heat patterns between the target and the background.

The other relies on amplification of existing light, such as moonlight or starlight, to be able to see the target. Below is an example of each type of technology:

Light amplification vs Infrared light


Sightmark SM18008 Photon – Best Overall

This night vision scope is the best rated of the eight we will review, and utilizes light amplification technology. The scope has its own magnification capability, rated at 4.6 X 42. This is a lighter weight NVS, at 1-1/2 pounds, designed for medium-range shooting.

It claims 33% longer battery life than similar models. It has video recording capability but needs a separate target device to hold them. It’s adaptable to both rifles and crossbows.

Sightmark SM18008 Photon

Features and specifications:

- optics are 1X27, coated lens, with a 40<sup>o</sup> field of view

- automatic brightness control, bright light cut-off, and shut-off systems

- weight is 1.5 pounds, with a two-year warranty from the manufacturer

Check Price!

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Pros
  • The lower end of the scaled pricing for a highly rated model
  • Six reticle combinations (the sighting cross, as in the first picture above) based on application
  • Special filters for daytime use, but they do impact image quality
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Cons
  • Advertised as shockproof and waterproof, but no IPX ratings available as confirmation
  • Reviewers either love it or hate it; 84% of all reviews are 4 or 5 stars, however


Night Owl Night Shot Digital – Best Overall Runner Up

This light amplification device has an operating range of 100 -200 yards in typical nighttime applications. High resolution, 640×480 pixels display gives good clarity and contrast. It’s produced from engineered thermoplastics for the lighter weight of 1.3# yet good durability. The 52mm objective lens has 3X magnification capability.

Night Owl Night Shot Digital

Features and specifications:

- NVS has adjustable windage and elevation capability

- 5.6o lateral field of vision

- operates on 4xAA or lithium batteries, with an estimated life of three hours

- three different reticle configurations based on application

- built-in IR illuminator

Check Price!

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Pros
  • Lightweight and durable, weatherproof unit
  • Suitable for use as monocular, or in crossbow application
  • Suitable for day and night use
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Cons
  • Not suitable for guns over .30 caliber
  • Changing of batteries requires a scope to be removed from the gun, which then requires re-sighting when reattached


Firefield FF16001 NVS – Best Value

This is another light amplification scope, constructed with a titanium body for durability, but also resulting in a somewhat hefty 31 ounces. It’s day/night rated, but users claim daytime use is difficult and not very clear.

It has a brightness adjustment for the reticles and has a high-powered IR illuminator standard. The optics are 3X42 for higher light-gathering capability.

Firefield FF1600l NV

Features and specifications:

range of 75 – 100 yards in the moonlight with good clarity vision

IPX-6 waterproofing rating

20-hour battery life with IR operating, 50-hour without using 2xAA batteries

Check Price!

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Pros
  • A solid 3.9 rating combined with the second-lowest price at $229
  • Users rate the night vision optics very positively
  • Rated for high accuracy once sighted-in
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Cons
  • Many complaints about the stability of the mount and locking mechanism
  • Battery life not up to stated specifications


ATN X-Sight II HD5-20 – Best Performance Runner Up

With this model, we’re starting to move into some of the “nice to have” and “bells and whistles” features; however, at $530, the price is moving up too. Starting with 1080 pixels video and photo recording, with wi-fi streaming, to HD resolution in the day or night applications, to ballistic calculators and range finders, this is a full feature NVS.

ATN X-Sight II HD5-20

Features and specifications:

- hight vision is rated “very functional” at the 150-yard range, and high ratings for accuracy

- operates with 4xAA batteries for about six hours, and an optional power pack is also available

- high-density display for crisp, clear images in both day and night usage

- clear, wide, 240-feet FOV at 1000 yards, 85mm objective lens

Check Price!

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Pros
  • Some nice to have functionality, specifically around improving shot accuracy and range calculations
  • Recoil activated video recording automatically starts upon firing
  • Several available options from manufacturer to enhance battery life, ballistics calculations, and IR illumination
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Cons
  • A little pricy unless you really want the additional features
  • Many complaints in customer reviews about service and support
  • Complaints around the stability of mount and holding “zero” after recoils


Optic Guru Thor LT Thermal NVS – Best Performance

This scope is a thermal, or IR sensing, night vision scope. A couple cautions here. This is the most expensive scope on the list, at $1200, and the 3.9 ratings are based on only five customer reviews at Amazon.

There is also very little detail on the Amazon site, so some of this information here has come from other sources. This is a lightweight, 1.4# scope, advertising ultra-low battery consumption. Operating at both day and night, it claims a detection range of 400 yards and identification at 150 yards.

Optic Guru Thor LT Thermal NVS

Features and specifications:

- magnification goes up to 6X, although clarity decreases as magnification increases

- advanced detection capability to see through smoke, fog, etc.

- hardened aluminum alloy construction for durability and lightweight

- ten-hour battery life with 3xCR123A batteries, with optional power pack available to extend life further

Check Price!

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Pros
  • One-shot sighting. Shoot, move the reticle to the impact point, then center for one-shot sighting
  • Good range and optics; detection limits are very favorable
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Cons
  • One complaint (of five reviews) about the durability of scope because of rifle recoil
  • Very limited information is available on specifications or performance


Sightmark SM18015 Photon – Best Value Runner Up

A lot of functionality in this night vision scope, with a fairly reasonable price and rating. It has wi-fi streaming capability, built-in video and sound recording, 8 GB onboard storage, and one-shot zero functionality. High-powered IR illuminator gives up to 220 yards range in full darkness.

Sightmark SM18015 Photon

Features and specifications:

- 640 x 480 pixels LCD display

- 6 reticle options with four colors

- 4.5X and 9X magnification

- shockproof and IPX-5 waterproof

Check Price!

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Pros
  • This unit has much of the same functionality as other units costing several hundred dollars more
  • Quick change battery pack, using 4xAA batteries
  • JPEG file format, approximately five hours of memory capability
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Cons
  • Some complaints about the ability of scope to hold zero after shooting
  • Only 25 customer reviews, so fairly easily swayed by overly positive or negative reviews


ATN X-Sight 4K Pro

This scope has the second-highest price of the list, and, somewhat surprisingly, the second-lowest rating. This scope uses light amplification technology and features 4K clarity in the optics. It operates in both day and night modes and has a ton of new and varied features, including dual-stream video recording and wi-fi.

ATN X-Sight 4K Pro

Features and specifications:

- ultra-low battery consumption, offering 18 hours life from 2xCR123A batteries

- recoil activated video, and dual, simultaneous streaming to a mobile device and to an SD card for data storage

- compatible with several ATN options, including battery pack, laser range finder, and remote control

- built-in ballistic calculator with the range finder

Check Price!

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Pros
  • All the bells and whistles you’d want, including 4K optics
  • iOS and Android app compatible
  • Built-in IR lighting
  • Very good reviews on distance identification capabilities
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Cons
  • Combination of higher price and low rating is worrisome
  • Most complaints center around software applications; several patches out which may correct them
  • Customer service and support complaints noted


Bestsight DIY Digital NVS

This is another light amplification scope and is the lowest priced, and lowest-rated, scope on the list. It can be used in day and night applications and offers color images during daylight operation. Unique from this list in that it comes with a 5” display screen for image viewing, rather than only through the eyepiece.

Bestsight DIY Digital NVS

Features and specifications:

- operates on 4xAA batteries. The display screen has separate battery requirements

- camera capability, 3 megapixels, with USB connection for downloading images

built-in IR illuminator

Check Price!

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Pros
  • Good value for the price, but recommend reading through the reviews to set expectations before purchase
  • Reviews on night vision capability are quite good, but the limitation is the illuminator
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Cons
  • Chinese manufactured, and some issues noted about service and support
  • Illuminator not very powerful. Most reviewers recommend purchasing a stronger illuminator

CONCLUSION

Just to get everything in one place, let’s take a look at our “best of” compilation, based on the price, ratings, features, specifications, and pros and cons of the reviewed budget night vision and thermal scopes:

Best Overall Model

Sightmark SM 18008 Photon

Best Overall Runer Up Model

Night Owl Night Shot NVS

These two scopes were very close overall, and you really would not go wrong with either. The differentiator was the difficulty in changing the batteries on the Night Owl; other than that, they are virtually identical in features, price, and performance.

Best Performance Model

Optic Guru Thor LT Thermal

Best Performance Runer Up Model

ATN X-Sight II HD-5-20

This one warrants a small yellow flag. The Optic Guru did get strong reviews and recommendations for performance on Amazon and other sites, but the actual number of reviews was fairly small, only five on Amazon.

There are really no qualms in recommending this unit, but we would recommend some additional buyer research based on the borderline “budget” price. The ATN is a solid unit, offering similar levels of performance, at about half the price.

Best Value Model

Firefield FF1600l NV

Best Value Runer Up Model

Sightmark SM18015 Photon

The Firefield unit wins this category by virtue of the lower price and slightly higher rating. Both of these units are dependable and priced reasonably for the features and specifications delivered.

If you are considering the purchase of a thermal or light amplification night vision scope any time soon, hopefully, this article and review will give you some guidance and save you some time and research. As we noted earlier, however, we do recommend you look at your own requirements, and apply them against the performance and features of these units as part of making your purchase decision.

Finally, it’s relevant to point out that the technology around thermal imaging and light amplification is still fairly new, only a couple decades old. As such, it is rapidly developing and changing.

As advancements are made, and new applications developed, such as self-driven cars and personal security, the price of the technology will likely drop as development and supply improve. Make sure that the purchase today does not become a garage sale item tomorrow.

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