It’s no secret that one of the best parts of being in the military is playing with the government’s cool science projects. One of these projects is the night vision scope.
In the Marines, I wasn’t issued a scope, instead, the Corps hooked me up with a night vision monocular, the PVS-14. The underlying technology is the same, but with a monocular, you need some additional gear to actually hit anything in the dark. Nowadays, most infantry guys are issued a PEQ-15 that has a built-in infrared laser system. You can also mount a monocular on the rail system of your rifle and use it in conjunction with another optic like a red dot sight.
In this guide, we’ll be locking in on best night vision scopes and a couple of my favorite monocular units. I’ll explain how this human sensory augmenting technology works and we’ll even dive a little into the history of NV.
After you understand the technology behind NV, we can begin shopping! I’ll review my personal favorites and show you exactly where to find the best deals!
- Quick Answer: Here Are Best Night Vision Scopes (Listed by Price)
- 1. FireField FF16001 NVRS Gen 1
- 2. Bushnell Equinox Z Digital Night Vision Gen 1
- 3. Night Owl Optics NightShot Digital Night Vision Gen 1
- 4. Sightmark Photon RT Digital Night Vision
- 5. ATN X-Sight Pro Smart Day/Night Rifle Scope
- 6. Armasight Nemesis Gen 2 Plus
- 7. Armasight PVS14 Gen 3 Night Vision Monocular
Introduction to Night Vision: Understand the Jargon
To even start talking about this futuristic space-age technology, we first must understand all the jargon. NV stands for night vision while NVD indicates a night vision device. Not all NVDs are created equally and there is a wide range of different NV capable products such as goggles (NVG), scopes, telescopes, cameras, binoculars, monoculars, and sensors.
Night vision gadgets are classified as an optoelectronic device which means its capable of producing images in extremely low light conditions, near total darkness. NVDs are typically considered passive NVDs which means they can convert invisible (to humans) light into visible displays using only the available light spectrum. NVDs that are used in tandem with an infrared (IR) illuminator are called active NVDs.
NVDs are most often used by law enforcement and military personnel in several countries around the world, however, this technology is becoming increasingly available to consumers and has become popular with hunters, people searching for home defense systems, and the entertainment industry.
Some NV scopes are firearm mounted monoculars and can be taken off the firearm and mounted with headgear or on a tripod.
How Does Night Vision Work?
Naturally equipped with roughly 120 million rods and 6 million cones, the human eye is certainly a marvel of biology, however, it isn’t the best equipped visualizing machine when it comes to low light situations. In this category, many creatures have a massive advantage with larger pupils that contain far more light collecting rods than the human eye does. Some of these critters, like our furry feline friends come equipped from the factory with handy dandy tapetum which is essentially a natural mirror that reflects light out of the eye, bouncing these beams off of incoming light twice over and increasing its visibility.
Humans don’t have a tapetum, but we do have brains capable of augmenting our reality with technology and in the mid-1930s the Germans created the first Night Vision for use in World War II. Alongside the Germans, American scientists weren’t far behind and also developed NV to be used in WWII and later implementing this technology further in the Korean War.
Night Vision was made possible by implementing almost the same idea as a guitar amplifier. The same technology ideology that took the pluck of a string and amplified it to fill entire stadiums.
First and foremost, optics to pull in light are required. We already had that technology, though, and we even know how to magnify it, but the limitations of optics end there. Going further, we require an amplifier and some electricity to overcome our low light deficiencies.
NV scopes essentially take in light through the front-facing lens and then amplify it into a strong current of electricity. This is possible because light is made of photons. These photons are recorded across a light-sensitive surface called a photocathode (think solar panel). This panels main job is to convert all these colorful photons into electrons.
After we gather all these electrons in one spot, a photomultiplier is enabled which amplifies each electron entering the unit, resulting in a massive multiplier in the total amount of electrons available.
These magnified electrons are then released across a phosphor screen and when they hit, they create tiny flashes of light. These electrons work together to paint us a picture of what we’re looking at but can’t quite make sense of under low light conditions.
Without light at all, NV works just as well as the human eye, which is null. NV cannot function without at least trace amounts of light available. Since NV’s job is to intensify and magnify the available light and paint a picture based on what its technology can muster, there MUST be at least some light available. If you need visual aid in situations where there is absolutely no light present whatsoever, you’ll need to use infrared technology.
Image Enhancement vs Heat Signature
Night Vision can only produce image enhancement and does not have the ability, on its own, to detect heat signatures. While NV can detect lower portions of the light spectrum than the human eye, it cannot detect and amplify energy itself.
The difference between NV and IR is that while NV is busy magnifying the available light it collects, IR is focusing on the energy itself that is radiated from almost all objects in the universe. Since nearly all objects radiate heat in some form of energy, IR scopes use advanced technology to detect light so high on the spectrum that humans and NV cannot visualize, thus creating a picture of what our eyes cannot see, even in daylight.
If you need optical solutions during no light situations, never fear! I’ve covered IR scopes too, so go ahead and check those out on this site as well! (INSERT IR SCOPES PAGE)
A Sea of Green
The image displayed by most NV headsets and scopes on today’s market will produce an image in a green hue. That, of course, isn’t what your NV is seeing but what it is presenting to you on your end of the scope. Instead, light of all colors enters the NV as it would a typical scope. Unfortunately, technological limitations are at play here and we haven’t quite figured out how to keep the color spectrum intact while amplifying and converting photons into electrons.
We could choose to use NV in white and black, however, the human eye is far more sensitive to movement in the spectrum of light that green sits in, which means a green display is far more effective than a black and white display. We achieve this green colored display by choosing a special phosphor within the screen.
It is possible to find NV in other colors, such as grayscale and even blue, however, green is tried and true and continues to be the industry standard in NV screens.
White Phosphor technology has started to gain traction and is typically only available in high-resolution Generation 3 NVDs. Law enforcement and military personnel are starting to implement this technology more often due to their natural display appearance. These NVDs have white and black images as opposed to the traditional green and black imaging.
Growing Pains: Differences Between the Generations of Night Vision
Shopping for NVDs may be a bit confusing due to the several varying generations available. NVD has come along way since its inception in WWII and the technology is constantly improving.
You probably won’t ever come across one of these unless you’re a historian, but these are what paved the way for the NV technology we have today. Generation 0 NVDs were popular among tankers using goggles to guide the way in the dead of night and even in sniper scopes.
Generation 0 was first introduced in 1939 and was used by just about all major parties involved in WWII. After the war, Vladimir K. Zworykin developed the first commercial use NVDs which was dubbed the “black light”. It was terrible, and it was far too heavy and costly for anyone to implement effectively. They also had awful durations of lifespan and were difficult to use without incredibly bright illuminators.
First generation passive NVDs were introduced during the Vietnam War and were patented exclusively by the US Army. These were upgraded Generation 0 platforms which utilized ambient light more effectively instead of infrared light sources. These used an S-20 photocathode and amplified images to up to 1000x. These, however, were still incredibly bulky and difficult to use without a great deal of moonlight available.
These are by far the most affordable units available and will offer basic nighttime activity capabilities. The image resolution will certainly be subpar, but hey, some night vision is better than no night vision, right? Its maximum useful range is roughly 75 yards and has no ability to operate passively. They rely on IR illuminators which are always hard at work, sapping your battery life and giving your entire face a green aurora.
NVDs now came equipped with more advanced image intensifying tubes which used microchannel plates (MCP) with a greatly improved S-25 photocathode. This resulted in much brighter images during even lower light situations and greatly increased the overall resolution of the finished image.
Generation 2 NVDs were among the first devices to be usable without the aid of the moon and amplified light to roughly 20000x.
Generation 2+ was a slight upgrade upon these new tube designs which were called SUPERGEN tubes. These had slightly improved resolution levels over the base generation 2 NVDs and had more tactical characteristics such as impact resistance, signal noise reductions, and prolonged battery life.
Generation 2 NVDs are a massive step up from Generation 1 and in most cases are well worth the additional funds. Their useful range is roughly 200 yards and they contain a much higher level of resolution than their older counterparts. These also have the ability to operate passively, reducing the need for an IR illuminator constantly being on. These also boast attractive battery life improvements and generally have triple the life expectancy of Generation 1 NVDs.
Using an improved ion barrier MCP from Generation 2 NVDs, Generation 3 NVDs were capable of implementing photocathodes that consisted of gallium arsenide. This means they could produce significantly higher image resolution.
The new ion barrier coating on the MCP caused a few issues, though. It greatly improved the life of the tube, but it decreased the total amount of electrons that could pass through, resulting in a halo effect around bright spots. Light amplification was improved to roughly 30000 – 50000 but NVDs were still difficult to use and power consumption became even higher than Generation 2 NVDs which is a major constraint, even in NVDs today.
Like generation 2 NVDs, generation 3 NVDs also got a special boost shortly after becoming available dubbed Generation 3+. There is a little miscommunication here, though, as the US military calls these “Generation 3 autogated tubes” (GEN-III OMNI-VII).
These come with automatic gated power supply systems that self-regulate the photocathode voltage. This boosted power efficiency as well as made it possible for the NVD to adjust to varying light sources. Along with this upgrade also came a significantly thinner ion barrier, fixing the issue of the ion barrier depleting electron flow. You can thank the US Army Research Labs for these advancements!
Generation 3 NVDs are where the chumps leave the pro’s to play. These are generally what the US military and special forces are implementing on the battlefield. Of course, there are several different Generation 3 products with varying degrees of features and enhancements which makes this category range quite a bit. Generally, you’ll find effective ranges to be in the 300-yard area with unmatched resolution quality. These are nearly completely passive night vision optics and the go-to NVDs for covert operations.
Technically, there is no generation 4 just yet. The US Military initially released technology that was due to be the next generation of NV technology, however, it barely missed the mark and didn’t live up to the strict expectations set before the technology was developed and delivered. Since the reliability, resolution, and lifespan missed the mark, the military simply decided against naming newer NVDs “generation 4” and have stuck them in the generation 3 category.
This hasn’t stopped private companies from naming their night vision capable products as Generation 4, though, for (arguably shady) marketing purposes. This is quite confusing and makes shopping for NV products a bit difficult. If “top of the line” and “state of the art” are words you live and die by, look for “filmless gen 3” or “unfilmed gen 3” NVDs.
You can purchase said “generation 4” NVDs but in reality, they are just varied versions of generation 3 NVDs which are generally more expensive.
Night vision capable devices are constantly changing and now that NVD is becoming popular with consumers around the world you can expect this technology to be expanded and improved upon by a plethora of private companies.
There are experimental NVDs capable of panoramic night vision that boost vision up to 95 degrees! These are currently only used on the A-10 Thunderbolt, MC-130s, and AC-130U.
Night vision capable devices are constantly growing and no longer are the days of the US Army solely developing these changes. A manufacturer called ITT is currently developing thermal NVDs which combines NVD and IR technologies. Another newbie to the space is NV by Armasight which implements Ceramic Optical Ruggedized Engines (CORE).
Legalities: You Want to See in the Dark Not Time in the Pen
Night vision isn’t always a legal option so please consult with your local laws to ensure you are wont end up in the pen for having some tacticool fun. Countries such as Germany and Hungary do not allow NVDs to be paired with firearms whatsoever. Other countries such as the Netherlands have no regulations regarding NVDs mounted on firearms but require special permits to actually hunt with them.
In the great US of A, the states hold the power which of course means the legality of NVD usage is an incredibly complex web of red tape and confusion. California, of course, slaps you with an automatic misdemeanor if you possess an NVD that “could” be mounted on a firearm, but this only covers Gen 0 and not subsequent generations according to my sources.
Hunting and even just firing your firearms at night may not even be legal in your area, rendering a night vision scope pretty much useless, so before you go spending dough (and you will most definitely spend some dough on NV), make sure you have the permits and permission for your nightly pew pew sessions!
In any situation, these laws are subject to change and it is solely your responsibility to ensure you are operating within the correct corresponding legal restraints. Do your research! The last thing you want is to end up with your expensive NV scopes (and perhaps firearms) confiscated and the only traces of it left are found on your criminal records.
Even if using NVDs to hunt in your area is legally acceptable, it may not be ethically acceptable. Many sportsmen generally consider hunting an honorable sport. When using technology such as night vision or thermal optics to actually kill game, many hunters consider this cheating and a breach of ethics. Using a monocular to identify game and then using regular optics to take them down seems to be acceptable, though, and using a night vision monocular to track game after a shot has been taken is A-Okay as well!
Pew Pew Pew Even In the Dead Of Night
Alright, this is probably where most of the hunters and gun enthusiasts want to skip to if they just want to figure out which NVD should be sitting on their pride and joy boomsticks.
There are two main types of night vision scopes.
The first operates similarly to a regular rifle scope in that it sits on its mount and offers a similar look and feel to a traditional scope alongside the benefits of night vision capabilities. A night vision scope is perfect for a rifle whose sole purpose is to be operated in low light condition.
The second is a standalone unit that is used in tandem with your rifle scope and typically sits in front of the scope. Similarly, to the EOTech holographic sight and magnifier combo, these can be flipped in or out depending on the situation you find yourself in. These are called day/night systems and although they offer a fantastic range of capabilities, they lack the same level of quality and precision as a dedicated night vision scope.
Night Vision Tips And Tricks
Using night vision is a bit different than using traditional optics. Among the first things you’ll notice is an odd sense of depth perception or rather a lack thereof. Through traditional lenses, you can obtain a decent feel of perspective because you can visually see depth, shadows, etc. When using NV you won’t be privy to that information and depth perception becomes incredibly challenging to judge. The picture you’re receiving is a flat representation of what the NVD is picking up which can take users a little time to adjust for.
Using NVDs to operate a firearm, especially at night, is incredibly dangerous for those who aren’t trained properly. It’s difficult to see what may be behind the target you’re shooting at and not everything is always illuminated perfectly. Mixed with low resolution and lack of depth perception, this makes ensuring the area is safe very difficult. Best practice would be to survey the area you’ll be operating in during the daytime so that you have a better grasp as to what you’re shooting into.
Batteries with NVDs can range widely and may include rechargeable batteries. If you like to outfit your kit with what the military uses, though, you may find it troubling to find the proper batteries and you may even be shocked at their price once you find them. The military often has special use batteries for their gear that are not always available to the general public.
Speaking of batteries, NVDs are certainly not known for impeccable battery life so its imperative that you always have a spare set on hand!
If you’re purchasing night vision to use on a general use sporting rifle, you may want to opt for a day and night unit. These units are almost always more expensive, but they offer capabilities in nearly any lighting setting. Most of these can switch between the two with the flip of a switch but your fancy Cadillac versions can often determine the perfect setting to use automatically!
Reticles are often an important tool for shooters to judge distance and adjust their targeting for bullet drop, windage, etc. Night vision capable scopes, however, typically lack reticles that are of help in this category leaving you with a beaded reticle or simple duplex reticle. Since Night vision scopes aren’t capable of extremely far ranges anyways, this issue typically doesn’t discern most shooters. Of course, if you’re using a tandem designed unit, you can pair your NV scope with whatever reticle you have on your optical unit!
Aside from everything else, expect your night vision scopes to be significantly heavier and a bit bulkier than traditional scopes. Some people I know don’t even like attaching their NVDs until they’re ready to shoot because of the weight making the rifle a bit awkward to carry and handle.
You’re probably wondering which generation of NVDs you should be searching for. Generally, Gen 1 and 2 will fulfill just about any need a general civilian would have a need for. Some Gen 3 and “Gen 4” devices are much more difficult to find and the highest end optics in those categories are generally military and law enforcement use only.
Shopping Guide: Night Edition
Time to discuss the best night vision capable scopes on the market! In this list, I’ll order my favorites by their cost starting with the lowest budget options and I’ll give a brief review of my experience! As always, I haven’t used every single product in this niche and of course, this technology is being developed and introduced further each and every season. If you find something I’ve missed or something new comes out after the release of this article, don’t be afraid to share with us in the comments! If I can get my hands on it, I’ll gladly add it to the list!
Budget Bin: Best Night Vision Scopes Under $500
It’s tough to call something that requires several Benjamins to obtain a “budget bin” option, however, if you’re in the market for night vision then you better prepare yourself to buck up, even for the cheapos.
Quick Answer: Here Are Best Night Vision Scopes (Listed by Price)
1. FireField FF16001 NVRS Gen 1
Price Range: Under $500
My review: As far as budgeting goes, this is probably the lowest priced night vision that is worth buying. It has a decent amount of magnification that more than matches the range capabilities of night vision for a gen 1 device. It also comes with a very nice construction consisting of titanium which allows this gen 1 to be incredibly lightweight (as far as gen 1 devices go) and durable.
It is a gen 1 device and personally, I’d prefer to buck up the cash for a gen 2 as the gen 1 has a plethora of black dots and residual impurities in the display. As always, you get what you pay for. This is an excellent started NV scope for those of you who more or less are buying an NV scope to be tacticool and have some casual fun in the dark with it.
- 3×42 magnification
- 70mm lens focus
- 14-degree field of view
- 45mm eye relief
- Diopter adjustment +- 4
- 6mm exit pupil
- Built-in IR illuminator
- Titanium construction
- 20-hour battery life
- Quick detach weaver rail mount
- Adjustable reticle brightness
The only cons I see:
- Low resolution and display dots
- Only capable of roughly 100 yards
2. Bushnell Equinox Z Digital Night Vision Gen 1
Price Range: Around $400
My review: The Bushnell Equinox Z is certainly my best value winner in that it has Gen3+ qualities for Gen 1 pricing. Firstly, the Equinox is more of a handheld unit than it is a scope. Fortunately for us, we can get pretty good performance using it as a monocular or a scope by pairing this with a red dot and using an enhanced IR illuminator. When first testing this product one of the first things you’ll notice is how efficient the unit is at automatically adjusting to various light intensities. This is especially important when using the recording function as you’ll get much smoother frames without much light splash.
- 4.5×40 magnification
- Adjustable IR brightness
- Image and video capture
- Daytime color adjustment
- Tripod mounting capability
- Compatible tandem use with NV setting optics
- Rubberized ergonomics
- Effective range of 100 yards
The only cons I see:
- Doesn’t work well as a standalone unit and would only perform well when paired with nice optics
- Eyepiece glare during direct sunlight makes the unit incredibly hard to see through
3. Night Owl Optics NightShot Digital Night Vision Gen 1
Price Range: Around $400 to $500
My review: Perfect for those of you who want barebones NV capabilities at a very low price. The NightShot is built with simplicity in mind and has been light by implementing a plastic body, which may or may not be a pro depending on your preferences. It’s lighter and has more effective range than most other gen 1 NV scopes but I’d say its considerably less durable and less waterproof than most others as well. To me, this doesn’t seem like a horrible trade-off and makes this particular scope attractive to someone who shoots for fun at night and doesn’t need to worry about getting caught in a storm. The other sacrifice you have to make for this bargain to happen is having awful battery life. This thing kills four AAs in roughly 3 hours which is by far one of the lowest performing models on the market. So long as you carry a bunch of AA batteries with you, this won’t be an issue and since you saved a ton of money by buying this, you should have plenty left over for a big box of AA batteries.
- 3x magnification
- 40mm aperture
- 640×480 resolution
- 2.7” of eye relief
- Adjustable elevation and windage
- Weaver or Picatinny rail mounting
- Selection of 3 reticles
- 200-yard effective range
- 3-5 hour battery life powered by four AA batteries
- IR Illuminator built-in
- 3 reticles available in either black or white color configurations
The only cons I see
- Only built to withstand mounting on calibers of .30 or lower
- Cheap plastic body
Mid-Grade: Best Night Vision Rifle Scopes Under $1000
I’d assume these are what most people are looking for and I think finding night vision scopes under $1000 should offer plenty of performance and features for just about everybody. You probably won’t find a bunch of Gen 3 and Gen 3+ units here but let’s face it, for general civilian usage you don’t really need a top of the line unit.
4. Sightmark Photon RT Digital Night Vision
Price Range: Under $1000
My review: The Sightmark Photon RT is a family of NV capable scopes and the one being reviewed here is the cheapest one. The main difference in these scopes is the magnification so before buying consider the magnification you’ll need and choose a model accordingly. The others range in the $600-$700 range.
The first thing you’ll notice about this family of scopes is the emphasis on media creation. The stream vision app is easy to use and works very well. I was impressed with the ability to watch in real time via smartphone. I’d say the overall resolution is okay but not incredible. The battery life is also a huge detractor as these things will eat through sets of four AAs in just a few hours.
- 4.5-9x magnification via step zoom
- One shot zero function
- 6 reticle options with 4 color configurations
- 640×480 resolution in LCD
- Built-in video, image, and sound recording capabilities
- Download videos and images via USB cord or wireless download
- Wifi remote view via pulsar steam vision app
- 8GB built-in memory
- IP55 water resistant
- Weaver rail mount built in which allows the use of power banks and additional
The only cons I see
- Poor battery life
- Takes up a lot of rail space
5. ATN X-Sight Pro Smart Day/Night Rifle Scope
Price Range: Under 1000 dollars
My review: The ATN X-Sight is a feature packed scope that has the feel of a little mini rifle mounted computer. Looking through this thing is like peering through the HUD display of a fighter jet. With on-screen wind speed, humidity, temperature, ballistics, range, etc you will be completely clued in to take the perfect shot whether its day or night. Alongside these features comes some pretty incredible battery life capabilities and some smartphone apps that come in quite handy when using the recording functions. The scope comes with an attachable 20000mAh battery pack and an X-Trac remote control and is mounted via an ATN quick detach mount that is all included in this package.
- HD 4k Sensor with Obsidian 4 dual-core processor
- Simultaneous mobile device streaming and SD capture recording
- Recoil activated video (RAV) technology
- 120fps video recording
- Built-in rangefinder
- Ballistic calculator
- E-Compass and barometer
- 18+ hour battery life
- Built-in IR illuminator
The only cons I see
- The software has some bugs that need to be worked out
- The scope has a freezing issue from time to time
Top of the Line: Best Night Vision Systems $1000+
The bells, the whistles, mil-spec durability, and a fat price tag to match it all. Buy once, cry once!
6. Armasight Nemesis Gen 2 Plus
Price range: Under $2000
My Review: If you have the extra funds on hand, opting for a nice Gen 2+ NV from Armasight is definitely a steady investment. With significantly better resolution and much further effective range, this is the scope all serious hunters need that find themselves in low light situations. It’s big and it’s heavy but it also has a very ruggedized design that feels sturdy and can definitely handle some inclement weather. Overall, this is one of the best NV scopes you’ll find that is still within a reasonable price range.
- 6x magnification
- 6.5-degree FOV
- 46mm eye relief
- Windage and elevation adjustments ½ MOA
- Integrated shock protection
- Aircraft aluminum construction
- Automatic brightness adjustment
- Illuminated center red cross reticle with variable brightness settings
- Waterproof design
- Three accessory rails
- Detachable IR illuminator
- Multi-Alkali photocathode
- 60-hour battery life via CR123A
The only con I see:
- Heavy and bulky
7. Armasight PVS14 Gen 3 Night Vision Monocular
Price range: $4000+
My Review: In the late 90s, the PVS-14 was issued to the USMC and NATO forces and continues to this day to be the most battle proven NV system available. Armasight has taken the original PVS-14 design and improved it considerably, creating a multi-use NV system with both civilian and military capabilities. It is by far one of the lightest and most rugged NV systems on the market that is fully capable of rendering high-resolution NV imaging.
If you have the money and you know you’ll be relying heavily on NV, this would be the “buy once cry once” option.
- 1x magnification
- Combat ready design including a waterproof, shockproof, rugged design.
- Thin film GaAs photocathode
- 50-hour battery life on 1 AA 1.5V battery
- Automatic shutoff system
- Built-in IR illuminator and flood lens
- F1.2 lens system with proprietary light enhancement film
- Multi-use capable including firearm mounted, helmet, handheld, camera mounted, etc.
The only con I see:
- Incredibly expensive
NV is a fantastic technology that has been around since WWII. It is used across the world and comes in many different shapes and sizes. This article should have shed some light on which generation NV device should fit your needs and I hope my recommendations have helped guide you find the best night vision scope for your needs! Although getting an NVD is thrilling, please remember to use them responsibly and consult with the laws and ethics of your area accordingly.
As always, I cannot possibly review every product on the market so if you have something not found on this list, don’t hesitate to share your experience with it in the comments section!
If this list helped match you up with the perfect NV system, let me know! I’d love to hear from my readers as it helps me to continue providing content and continuously increase the quality of content I bring to this site!
Corporal Wabo is a former Infantry Squad Leader with 3rd Bn 4th Marines that specialized in Mortars. As an outdoor enthusiast, he has been testing outdoor and tactical style gear for over 20 years. He started this website while transitioning out of the Marines, and since has recruited several other Marines to help him work on the Marine Approved website. We are currently looking for former Marines that like to talk tactical gear, survival gear, hiking supplies, etc. For more information about us or to join the team, check out the “About Us” tab.