It doesn’t matter if you’re a competition shooter, a self-defense guy/gal, or a hardcore hunter…thermals rock!
Who doesn’t like the ability to see in the dark with a gun?
Of course, picking thermal can be daunting, thanks to the variety on the market.
But luckily, you have your friends at Pew Pew Tactical to help you out.
We rounded up a handful of thermals – both optic and handheld – we think we should consider when shopping.
While this is not a comprehensive list of ALL the thermals, we think this will serve as a good launching point.
So, keep reading if you’re interested in nighttime fun…
NVGs vs. Thermal
There’s a difference between night vision and thermal.
But the difference is pretty simple…
Night vision gathers ambient light, ramping it up for you. On the other hand, thermal works off heat signatures.
That means if you’re using night vision, your goggles or optic are dependent on things like starlight. While thermal tracks any and every bit of heat in your path.
So, what are the pros/cons of each?
Night vision is fantastic for hunting after dark because it removes the need to use lights to scan. It also delivers nice, clear images.
You can scan and spot feral hogs hundreds of yards out and get a great spot-and-stalk going.
That said, night vision is impeded by tall grass and fog, among other things. If you’re hunting or in a no-light class and it’s foggy, or there’s a lot of brush in your way…well, you’re not likely to see well.
Then there are other headaches — literally.
If you wear night vision for too long, you’re basically guaranteed a headache. So, it’s best to take breaks to rest your eyes.
Thermal works well for hunting because of body heat.
Good thermal will give you a clean image of everything within your sight picture in whatever color you prefer – white-hot, black, etc. It differentiates between levels of heat within that color scale.
If you use the white-hot setting, a hog will appear bright white, while cooler objects around it will be darker.
Since thermal works off heat and not light, it can function in settings where night vision fails.
Thermal can even pick up hoofprints and pawprints off residual heat for varying lengths of time.
These optics also have greater range than night vision — as in, high-end thermals can see over a thousand yards out.
However, rain messes with thermal. Also, detail can be harder to get depending on the model.
You know the “objects in mirror may appear closer than they are” note on the side mirror of your truck?
Thermals are kind of like that.
The point of aim and point of impact will vary more than you might expect. You need to learn shot placement when using them.
Plus, they’re bulkier than night vision.
Choosing the Right Thermal Optic
Before we check out specific models, let’s take a second to think about what makes a good thermal.
As you probably know, there are many options out there, none of which are truly low-priced.
That’s because good thermal takes a lot of quality parts and solid design. But it doesn’t mean affordably priced gear can’t be good — it can.
Cost comes first and foremost for most of us.
The cooler the add-ons, the greater the cost. Decide what you just can’t live without and go from there.
Features that bump up the cost include video recording, SD cards for storage, still-frame capabilities, and zoom.
Some thermals also have zeroing settings that are pretty cool. But spending $6,000 or more on an optic is a bitter pill to swallow.
Also, take use-case into consideration when selecting thermal.
If you’ll always be hunting in close quarters, there’s no need to worry about getting one that can reach out to hundreds or thousands of yards. The same goes for if you prefer to spot-and-stalk.
Those things also depend on the animals you’re hunting. You’ll take longer shots for coyotes, but with feral hogs, you may be up closer.
As with any gear purchase, make sure it specifically fits your needs but also consider future needs.
Something else to look at is the reticle and calculator system on the thermal optic.
Some models are wildly complex, and you not only need the manual but end up requiring assistance to figure them out.
So make sure it is a system you can live with.
Also, determine battery life, whether it can handle the gun’s recoil and temperatures it can handle.
Take it from me; having a thermal that eats batteries in under an hour in freezing conditions is far from ideal.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at some specific models.
Best Thermal Scopes
1. Trijicon IR-HUNTER MK3 60MM
Yes, we’re diving in with an upper-end thermal right off.
The Trijicon IR-HUNTER is awesome, as is its tactical counterpart, the REAP-IR.
It’s relatively easy to zero, features a 4.5X optical and 8X digital zoom, and opts for a 7-degree field of view.
One of my favorite parts is the dual-lever mount. But it also has azimuth and elevation readouts, a stadiametric rangefinder, and a battery extender.
This is a front-of-the-pack thermal scope.
The IR-HUNTER’s battery extender comes in handy on hunts — it takes CR123 batteries, of course.
Something I find cool and helpful is the Enhanced Target Recognition (ETR) image enhancement.
ETR can be used to bring out fine detail and works exceptionally well.
It also offers video capability for those that want to record the hunt.
I’ve dropped several hogs with the IR-HUNTER and REAP-IR. These are stellar thermal optics, but they have a price tag to match with an MSRP of $8,999.
2. Pulsar Thermion 2 XQ35 Pro
What makes the Pulsar Thermion 2 XQ35 Pro interesting is its unique housing.
This isn’t your standard bulky, chunky thermal. The Thermion was designed to look like a regular optic with a lighter weight to go with it.
Features include 384×288 thermal resolution, a 17µm thermal sensor, and a stated range of 1,350 yards.
This scope weighs in at 31.7 ounces, which beats out the 37-ounce Trijicon IR-HUNTER MK3 60mm.
It takes 30mm rings and offers a digital zoom of 2.5-10.
Oh, and it’s recoil-rated up to 6,000 Joules meaning you can mount it to your large-caliber rifles with no worries.
The video system records in .jpeg and can even be streamed to a smartphone for use as a second display or control.
If you’d prefer a classic riflescope-appearing thermal over the usual big models, this is the optic for you.
Pulsar designed the Thermion line of thermal optics well and priced it fairly, with an MSRP starting at $2,999 for the XQ35. Additional models with higher resolution and zoom range are also available.
3. ATN ThOR 5
Once upon a time, I competed in a coyote calling contest using an ATN ThOR scope. (No, my partner and I did not win, but we did have a blast).
ATN recently unveiled their fifth-generation ThOR 5, which sports improved specs across the board.
New 12µm sensors are standard in all models, and ATN offers various resolutions, including 320×240, 640×480, and a whopping 1280×1024. All models are 60hz to ensure a smooth picture.
It offers video — and the exciting thing…it’s recoil-activated. As soon as you pull the trigger, it starts recording. So you can record your shot for better or worse.
It’s Bluetooth capable, can stream to iOS and Android, and takes 4 to 64 GB of MicroSD cards.
ATN claims to have a 10-hour battery life, but remember that extreme temperatures will drain it faster. In my experience, cold weather drains brand-new batteries at an incredible rate.
The ThOR 5 delivers a clear picture, and the detection range spans from 820 yards on the entry-level model up to an eye-watering 4300 yards on the top-end model. They even have models available with integrated laser range-finders.
With varying levels of zoom and resolutions available, customers can get into the ThOR 5 anywhere from a more budget-friendly price of $1,995 all the way to $7,195 for the top-of-the-line model.
The ThOR 5 is brand new for 2023, and if they hold up as well as their previous models, they are definitely worth a look at.
What do you think of the ATN ThOR 5? Give it a rating below.
4. Accufire Incendis
Maybe you are running an LPVO or red dot and are looking for a solution that doesn’t require you to remove your existing optic or replace it with a bulky thermal scope.
That is where a thermal clip-on like the Accufire Incendis comes in. Clip-ons allow you to clip the thermal imager on in front of your existing optic if you wish. This is a great solution for a few reasons.
You get to keep your regular optic mounted, which allows the gun to be used in the daytime normally, and you won’t lose zero by having to change optics while also cutting down on bulk when it’s not in use.
Additionally, this allows you to use the clip-on as a handheld thermal unit when it isn’t on the gun. No more glassing the field with a 10-pound rifle at night to spot those hogs.
There are reticles to choose from which allows the unit to be used as a standalone optic as well.
The standard Incedis ($3,149) features a 384×288 17 µm sensor, a 60hz refresh rate, 1x, 2x, and 4x magnification, 4 color palettes, and a 4-hour battery life using 4 CR123 batteries.
With the new Incendis Pro ($6,199), users get a 640×480 12 µm sensor, 60hz refresh rate, 1-8x magnification, 9 color palettes, and a 6-hour battery life using an integrated rechargeable battery.
Although the battery life is shorter, these thermals are much more compact than a standard scope and can flex into multiple roles, which makes them appealing.
Thermals are a fun and useful tool to have if you intend to do any nighttime shooting – be it at the range for a class or in the woods tracking game.
While we could go on about the various models on the market, we think you’ll be happy with any of the thermals above.
What thermal do you prefer? Let us know in the comments below. Need more nighttime optics? Check out our Best Night Vision Scopes & Capable Optics and Best Night Vision Goggles.