7 Best Budget Thermal Scopes for Tactical Use and Hunting

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If you’re looking for a succinct list of the best budget thermal scopes, for tactical use and hunting, then you’ve come to the right place. In this article I’m going to review some of the basics of thermal optics, and discuss the features that really matter to the end user. After all, you can spend hours reading online reviews, and come no closer to finding the best optic for your particular needs. Keep reading to find your best option.

Before we get directly to the list of scopes, we need to discuss the basics of thermal or infrared (IR) optics. My first exposure to these types of optics was in the Marine Corps, and I can say that after more than a decade of use they can be a great tool, however they’re certainly not without their drawbacks.

Similarly, there are certain features that really matter for particular users, and other features that you really couldn’t care less about. Let’s review the basics of a thermal imagining scope. After that we’ll get to the details of the 7 best budget thermal scopes.

The Basics of Thermal Imagery

Unlike standard night vision scopes, of which I wrote about in a previous article, thermal optics use thermal radiation to form a picture. They do not require any ambient light to function, and they can be used in complete darkness. The term thermal radiation is another way of saying heat differences. Thermal optics are just fancy devices that can detect minute differences in heat signature.

The optic then coverts these temperature differences into a viewable picture via its software. This has many benefits as it allows you to see in truly dark environments. Most importantly for tactical use and hunters, it allows you to see through camouflage, foliage, and other atmospheric conditions like fog or dust. Now let’s talk about some key features that we need to understand to choose the right optic.

Key Features of Thermal Optics

When considering between the best budget thermal scopes, there are a few key features that you need to understand so you can make the right choice. Most importantly, understanding these extra features will keep you from wasting money on things you don’t need.

The most important decision to make is how much resolution do you need to see. Thermal imaging devices have five common sensor resolutions. These sensors, called microbolometers, are the actual pieces of hardware that detect thermal differences. Here are the following most common resolutions.

Common Thermal Optic Resolutions

  • 160 x 120 entry level thermal resolution ($800-1400)
  • 320 x 240 mid range thermal resolution ($1100-2000)
  • 384 x 288 mid to high thermal resolution ($1600-3000)
  • 640 x 480 high thermal resolution ($300-6000)
  • 1024 x 768 high definition thermal resolution ($17000+)

You’ll see a few slight variations of these resolutions, but these are the most common. The higher the resolution the more detail that is physically captured by the unit. If you plan on using your optic at close range, then you don’t really need super high resolution, and you can purchase a cheap thermal scope. If you’re shooting at hundreds of yards, then you’ll need all the resolution you can afford.

The other important feature to keep in mind is the display screens refresh rate. This is expressed in Hertz (Hz). One Hz is 1 display per second. The higher the display the smoother it appears to our eye. Most of the entry level optics display at 30 Hz, where as the better quality optics display at 60hz.

If you’re using your optic to hunt fast moving game, then you need go for higher refresh rate choices. Otherwise the picture lags behind as you track a moving target. Next let’s talk about some practical features you need to consider.

Practical Features for the Best Budget Thermal Scopes

We can nerd out about refresh rates, and resolutions all we want, but we also need to consider how we will actually use it. If you plan on being out in the bush for long periods of time, then I recommend you pay attention to the battery life. Some of these optics have a 1 hour battery life, where as others have up to 10+ hours.

Similarly, you need to consider the environment where the optic will be used. If you plan on operating in a very wet environment, and your optic gets dunked in a stream, I hope you purchased a waterproof unit! Moreover, you need to make sure that your optic can withstand the recoil from your weapon system.

These days just about every optic on this list will have no problem with the recoil, but some are purposefully tested with heavy recoiling rounds. These will be more durable because they’re rated for that level of abuse.

The other practical decision you need to make is whether or not you need a stand alone thermal riflescope, or a clip on unit. If you plan on using a specific rifle, and thermal scope in a dedicated set up, then a standard thermal scope is your best choice.

If you do mostly day time operations, and you already have a solid rifle, and day time scope, then a clip on unit is probably your best bet. These units mount in front of your day time scope, and allow you to use all the same holds, and data you’ve built on the gun, with perhaps a few minor adjustments in zero on the clip on unit itself.

It’s clear that thermal optics can be very useful, but they do have their drawbacks, which is what we’ll cover in this next section.

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The Drawbacks of Thermal Imagery

The biggest drawback to thermal imagery is that it doesn’t allow you to see behind things with thermal barriers. For example, you cannot see through a wall, or through a pane of glass, as they both have their own temperatures. There are also certain times of the day, called thermal crossover, where the temperature of the environment is very similar and it can wash out the display.

I can also tell you that as awesome as a thermal imager is, it isn’t appropriate for every use case. If you plan on doing a lot of high round count hunting for varmints such as hogs, you might find that your optic becomes washed out from the heat of your gun.

As we all know your rifle will heat up as you fire it. This is especially true if you’re using a suppressor. This heat can become so intense that you cannot see past it. It would be like shinning a flashlight into your day scope. It’s important to point out that this isn’t going to happen unless you’re firing a lot, in rapid succession.

Now that we’ve covered the basics of the best budget thermal scopes, as well as what they can, and can’t do, let’s get to the list of our optics. As you’ll see, I’ve broken this portion of the article into different sections for entry level, mid range, and top of the range optics.

The 7 Best Budget Thermal Scopes

There are only a few different factors we need to consider when purchasing the best thermal scope for your particular application. The first consideration is how much resolution do you need for your intended purpose. Obviously, if you’re using it at close range, then less resolution is ok. If you’re a sniper, and plan on shooting at a thousand yards, then you need all the resolution you can afford.

The second consideration is whether or not you need a stand alone scope, or if you’re looking for something that clips on in front of your current optic. If you plan you using the gun at night exclusively then you can buy a stand a lone unit. If you don’t plan on using the thermal scope all the time then a clip on version would work best.

Lastly, you need to consider how rugged the optic needs to be. If you’re a Navy SEAL and you have to swim underwater with the optic, then you’ll need something that can stand up to that type of abuse. If you plan on hunting in good weather conditions with it, then you don’t need to pay for something with this level of ruggedness. Here is a list of the 7 best budget thermal scopes

The 7 Best Budget Thermal Scopes: List

  • ATN ThOR LT 4-8x50mm Thermal Rifle Scope
  • ATN OPMOD Thor LT 320
  • SIG SAUER ECHO3 1-6x23mm Thermal Reflex Thermal Sight
  • AGM Global Vision Rattler TC50-640 Clip On
  • Pulsar 2-16x Thermion 2 LRF XP50 Pro
  • N-Vision Optics NOX-18 1-8x18mm Thermal Monocular
  • EOTech Clip IR Long Range Thermal Scope

Entry Level Thermal Scopes

These optics are going to be best for enthusiast hunters who need something that will allow them to see at night and through brush, out to a reasonable distance. These optics generally start around $900 – 1100, and have a variety of features that are aimed at night hunters.

They will also have lower resolution sensors, which will limit their detection range for things like animals. As you’ll see from the videos, they can be quite effective. Now let’s get to our first budget thermal scopes.

ATN OPMOD Exclusive ThOR LT 4-8x50mm

The ATN OPMOD ThOR LT is a great entry level thermal device, and is the most affordable thermal scope on the list. It’s a digital device, and comes in at a great price point. As of this writing it goes for right around $1100. You can see that the thermal imagery is sufficient for hunting, but it’s not as good as the more expensive optics you’ll see listed below.

This optic would work well for sporting use and has several features that make it attractive for non tactical use. This optic features a sensor resolution of 160×120 pixels, and a battery life of 10 hours, which is quite a long time, compared to the other options on this list.

This is a standalone device which means that it will most likely be dedicated on a certain rifle. However, it does feature a one shot zero system, where by you fire a shot and then move the reticle onto the impact. Theoretically you could take it off and on, but I find that most folks will just leave it mounted permanently.

While this is a great entry level option from ATN, let’s see another option from them, with a little higher quality features.

ATN OPMOD Thor LT 320

The ATN OPMOD Thor LT 320 is probably the best value thermal scope on this list. As of this writing it sells for $1600, including the scope mount. It also has some excellent features that make this a stand out. Just like the previous ATN offering, this scope features 10 hours of continuous use, as well as the one shot zero feature. It also has several different reticle options. Here’s a great video highlighting some features of the scope.

The most notable feature of this scope is the increased resolution. The LT features 320×240 resolution, which is double the resolution of the previous scope. This means you can identify a man sized target at 290 yards. This is a realistic distance for most hunters. If you’re hunting very small game you might be limited to 150 yards or so.

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It also features different color palettes, namely white hot and black hot. If you’re a night hunter, then this is probably your best option, unless you need something a little more compact.

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Sig Sauer Echo 3 Thermal Optic

The Sig Sauer Echo 3 is a great compact thermal scope. It has some interesting, and innovative features that you won’t see on some of the other options. It features recoil activated video recording, as well as image recording. It also has an amazing 11 different color palettes for those that want more than black hot or white hot. Check this video out below.

This thermal weapon sight features 1-6x digital zoom, and a good quality 320×240 image resolution. While the other offerings in this budget section have a 60hz refresh rate, this optic features only 30hz. Remember that the refresh rate is the rate at which the image is updated on the screen every second. A higher refresh rate allows you to track moving targets more easily, as it looks smoother to the human eye.

As of this writing, this optic retails for around $2250, which puts it right at the top end of the budget picks. In the next section we’ll cover the mid range optics, and as you’ll see, the price only goes up from here.

Mid Range Thermal Scopes

These optics are for those that need high quality devices, with high resolution and great durability. You’ll also note that one of these options is a clip on device. To my mind this is actually a very good feature that can save you money in the long run.

If you’re a serious hunter or tactical user, you already have a quality rifle optic for day time use. You most likely don’t want to remove this optic because you have a lot of data on your optic, load, and rifle set up. This is where clip on optics shine. You can simply mount it in front of your scope, verify your zero, and you’re off to the races.

The other option is quite interesting, and comes with a built in laser range finder, which is very important for hunting at long distances. It can can be particularly hard to gauge distance at night. Let’s get to the optics.

AGM Global Vision Rattler TC50-640 Clip On

The AGM Global Vision Rattler TC50 is a very high quality scope at a reasonable price. It has a very high refresh rate, making it a great choice for hunting fast moving game. It also comes with a high resolution sensor which delivers a crisp image. Check this video out to see a slightly smaller clip on from AGM. Of note AGM also makes the AGM Rattler TS which is a dedicated scope with the same hardware and thermal sensor.

Because this is a clip on device, it can be mounted in front of your current optic setup. It can also be used as a handheld monocular if you don’t need to use it for shooting. The TC50 features a 50hz refresh rate, and an excellent 640×512 resolution sensor.

If you watch the video, you can see that it projects a very high resolution image to your eye. The only downside that I’ve noticed is the 4.5 hour runtime. They do say that you can use an external battery pack if you need more run time than that, but I imagine there is a reason for this short run time.

This optic also features a built in wifi module which allows live streaming of videos or images to your phone, or directly to the internet. This feature could also be used to show your spotter what your seeing, which can certainly help your engagement accuracy. As of this writing the AGM TC50 goes for $4300.

Pulsar 2-16x Thermion 2 LRF XP50 Pro

The Pulsar 2-16x Thermion 2 LRF XP50 is a mouth full to say, but it is the only optic on this list that features a laser range finder built into the unit. The Pulsar Thermion is a high resolution scope, combined with a laser range finder. In my opinion this makes it one of the best choices for long range shooting.

The Thermion features quite the range of digital image magnification. It can get away with this higher range of magnification because it has high 640×480 resolution hardware. It’s also completely waterproof and built to withstand the extreme shock of very large caliber rifle rounds.

It has a 50hz refresh rate, and features 10 hours of battery life. Given the specs on this unit, I think it makes the most sense for professional hunters, or those that spend a great deal of time outdoors at night.

It should also do well for tactical use, but it will most likely stay mounted on the rifle since it’s a scope and not a clip on device. As of this writing it goes for $5990. I hate to say it but given the laser range finder and other specs, it’s a good thermal scope for the money.

High End Thermal Optics

There’s no getting around it, the price tag of these optics will probably make you cry. This is why I’ve only included two of them on the list. These optics are best for professional hunters, search and rescue teams, and tactical users who need the most dependable, highest resolution optics.

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N-Vision Optics NOX-18 1-8x18mm Thermal Monocular

The N-Vision Optics NOX 18 is a very versatile piece of kit. It is designed to pull double duty as a monocular, that can be mounted to a normal NVG mount, or it can be mounted on your rifle as a stand alone thermal scope. As of this writing it goes for around $6200. How bad do your kids need to go to college anyway?

You can see from the weird cow video that this optic has high resolution. It features a 640×480 pixels with a 60hz refresh rate. It’s also fairly light weight, coming in around 16 ounces. This is great for those that don’t want to carry large heavy optics on a long hunt, or carry it on long tactical movements.

You can run this unit on a single CR123 batter for about an hour, or use an external batter pack for up to 8 hours of run time. It’s fully waterproof and provides a lot of flexibility, given that it can be mounted on a helmet or rifle. I think this is the best option for tactical users that don’t always need a dedicated thermal scope, but will often need to use it as a monocular. Next, let’s get to the most expensive unit on the list.

EOTech Clip IR Long Range Thermal Clip on Scope

The EOTech Clip IR Long Range scope is one of the best thermal scopes for users who need a rugged, high quality optic for long range shooting. It provides very high resolution and can be used to engage targets hundreds of yards away. Because it’s a thermal, it has the added benefit of not requiring ambient illumination or something like an infrared light.

This type of optic would work very well for high end hog or coyote hunting, on rifles with day scopes with 6-10x power scopes. It is a clip on device, so it will allow you to mount it in front of whatever you like, without a zero shift.

It has a 640×480 sensor, just as others in this price range, and it has proprietary software to clean up the image even more. This optic is a good choice for professional users. It’s very rugged, and as clear as you could ask for. Now time for the bad news. This optic retails for around $12900 at the time of this writing. While you’re considering selling your truck, don’t forget to join the email list, so you don’t miss anymore awesome articles!

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If you’re done crying about these top of the range optics, then we should probably wrap this article up. In the next section I’ll give you my final thoughts, and few pieces of advice that might make finding the best budget thermal scopes for your use, a little bit easier.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

We’ve covered a lot of information about the best budget thermal scopes. We’ve reviewed everything from screen resolution to refresh rates. I’ve also given you quite a wide range of thermal optics to choose from. I encourage you to make your decision practically. The vast majority of readers will be well served with the cheapest optics in this list.

Sure, they have lower resolution, but as long as you can positively identify your targets, at your expected ranges, then what more do you need? There’s nothing wrong with dropping big bucks on what the pros use, but it probably won’t make that big of a difference to your shooting performance at night.

If you plan on shooting at longer distances, and need higher resolution to aim precisely, then you need to move up to the mid range optics. Remember, no optics on this list have higher than 640 resolution, so you really aren’t getting a clearer image once you hit that level.

The pricier options are giving you other features, like durability, or a more rugged design. Ruggedness can certainly matter, especially for tactical operations, where gear tends to be used harshly.

I can still recall a training exercise, early in my Marine Corps days, where I was sitting in fighting hole in the middle of the night, during a simulated night attack. As I heard the enemy crashing through the woods, I stood up and lost my balance. It felt like I was standing on something like a medium sized rock.

Afterwards I realized I was standing on a thermal optic that cost $40,000. The good news was that it still worked, but the bad news was that I had to clean all the boot mud off of it, before I turned it back in! Tactical operations need rugged optics.

If you have any comments or questions, put them in the comments section below, and I’ll get you an answer. Now get out there and get training!

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>