Thermal cameras for military use have been around since the 1930s when the British Air Defense used a prototype system to detect aircraft heat signatures. The US military used infrared imaging cameras in their spy planes in the 1940s and 50s, but it was still photography, and each image took up to an hour to process.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras became technologically viable, and thermal imaging took off from there, being used in multiple commercial industries and military applications.
Table of Contents
- How do thermal cameras and scopes work?
- Best thermal scopes for your money.
- Best thermal scopes/imagers for hunting.
- Store your guns and attachments in a Liberty Safe
For tactical team members and especially hunters who shoot at night (hog or coyote hunting is a big market), thermal scopes that mount directly on rifles have become extremely popular, and the prices are coming down to the point where they are within reach of most dedicated enthusiasts. Since these devices still function as FLIR cameras, many offer wireless video recording/broadcasting and even sound recording capabilities, along with customizable reticles, WiFi/Bluetooth, different color palettes, electronic gizmos like electronic compasses, and much more.
We will run down the best thermal scopes for tactical and sporting use, particularly those that give you the best bang for the buck.
Video: Night Vision Versus Thermal
How do thermal cameras and scopes work?
All thermal cameras include a lens, a thermal sensor, various processing electronics, and mechanical housing. For rifle-mounted thermal scopes, today, there are both tube-type and non-tube-type models available. (The tube-type thermal scopes look very similar to standard hunting rifle scopes, while the non-tube-type usually are squarish in overall profile and might look like a compact video camera.) The front lens focuses infrared energy (heat) onto the particular sensor, which can detect minimal differences in the heat signature of objects and animals, as little as 0.01°C (about 0.018°F). Depending on the camera or scope, the thermal sensor can come in multiple pixel configurations from 80×60 to 1280×1024 pixels, with pixel sizes from around 12 microns to 18 microns (currently). This is how you determine the resolution of the scope/camera, and the more pixels, and the smaller the pixels, the better.
Video: Thermal Vision 101
This level of resolution might seem pitifully small to you if you’re familiar with 4K streaming services and even today’s smartphones with 3840x2160 pixel displays and 108-200 megapixel cameras. Still, you must remember that regular digital cameras and sensors detect visible light waves, which have much shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies than infrared/heat waves. The larger the wavelength, the larger each sensor element needs to be, which is why thermal cameras and scopes have lower resolution and fewer pixels than typical digital cameras of the same size.
However, remember that rifle shooters look with one eye through a relatively small optical eyepiece onto the display, so even 200-300 pixel resolution is often more than sufficient for clearly identifying and targeting objects, animals, and targets. More resolution is always better (and you’ll pay for it), but most hunters find the now-common 384-pixel resolution thermal scopes perfectly serviceable for practical purposes. It helps keep costs low, or at least lower. Good thermal scopes aren’t cheap.
Best thermal scopes for your money
Let’s be frank here; thermal scopes are not inexpensive. The technology is complicated and the nature of the thermal display and viewing monitor, essentially a video camera-type eyepiece rather than a purely ocular lens setup as with traditional scopes, means that you have to pay to play in this space. Building these electronic devices robustly enough for use on powerful hunting rifles requires time, design, and materials that push the prices for most models well over the thousand-dollar mark, and the sky’s the limit from there.
However, some brands and models stand out as reputable ones to consider and have shown themselves worthy of our list of best thermal scopes for the money. Let’s look at a few of our favorites.
AGM Global Vision Adder
Image: AGM Adder TS35-384
AGM’s new Adder line is very impressive for the price, and for people who want their thermal optics to mount and look like traditional hunting scopes, the Adder is one of the few models out there that satisfy that need. The Adder is a tubular-type scope with a 30mm diameter main tube body, which is a common size for standard telescopic sights today.
For most people, our recommendation would be the TS35-384. 35 designates the diameter of the objective lens, and 384x288 is the pixel resolution of the thermal sensor, which sells for about $2,495. It is also available with a 50mm objective lens and a 4X base magnification for a street price of around $2,995.
Image: AGM Adder TS50-384
AGM also offers two 640x512 pixel resolution Adder models for those who favor the higher resolution and improved zoom capabilities they offer, but you’ll pay more for the sharper picture. The TS35-640 comes with a 2X base magnification for about $3,995 street price, and the TS50-640 with a 2.5X base magnification and a 50mm objective lens sells for $4,495. All Adders come with 8X digital zoom in addition to the base optical magnification.
The Adders come with an American Defense Recon QD mount included, and all of the Adders record video AND audio. The Adders are built with dual 15-hour internal rechargeable batteries, but also have provision for an external CR123 battery that gives you another 1-1.5 hours of emergency battery life to finish out your hunt.
AGM offers a full 5-year warranty on their products, which is a good bit more than you get with super-cheap thermal scopes that aren’t really up to the task of real hunting or tactical use. AGM is known for good customer service as well.
Video: How-To Zero an AGM Thermal Scope
AGM Global Vision Rattler and Varmint
AGM’s Rattler line has been their bread and butter for several years, and many, many pigs and coyotes have been taken by hunters using this thermal optic. One of our favorites for the money is the Rattler TS25-384 (25mm objective lens, 384x288 pixel resolution) which lists for about $2,200 but sells at reputable online retailers such as Outdoor Legacy Gear for under two grand. With a proper 1.5-12X magnification range, easily swappable CR123 batteries (not a super-long operating life at around 4.5 hours constant-on but very cheap to replace), and provision for an external plug-in power source, the Rattler TS25-384 gives you good resolution, intuitive top-mounted button controls, video recording, WiFi capability, and long-lasting durability at a pretty reasonable price. If you’re pinching pennies, the Rattler TS19-256 sells for just under a thousand dollars but uses the now-outdated 256-pixel sensor. If you can save money, the 384-resolution models are worth the sacrifice.
Image: AGM Rattler TS35-384
AGM also offers their Varmint line of thermal scopes, which have the same basic profile as their Rattler scopes but with the addition of a laser rangefinder on top. AGM Varmints sell for between about $3k and $5,500, depending on the resolution you prefer.
Pulsar Thermion 2 XQ35 PRO
Pulsar’s Thermion 2 XQ35 Pro is not an entry-level scope, and they make cheaper models, but if it were our money, we’d start here with the Pulsars. This thermal optic features a useful and versatile 384x288 pixel thermal sensor, 17-micron pixel pitch, and 1024x768 display resolution. The 2.5-10X 30mm-diameter tube-type scope is suitable for both day and nighttime hunting and is built in a durable magnesium-alloy scope body.
Image: Pulsar Thermion 2 XQ35 PRO
The Thermion 2 boasts an impressive 10-hour battery life from Pulsar’s internal, proprietary rechargeable battery and their APS2 replaceable battery in the top turret, and you can get a larger APS3 turret/compartment that you can swap out easily if you want an even longer battery life. The optic has a 35mm objective lens, intuitive top-mounted button controls (on the rear of the optic where the ocular lens would be on a standard scope), additional, simple push-button controls on the left side, a rotating menu turret, as well as video and audio recording, 10 reticle options, 8 color palette options, and WiFi capability. You can also run this thermal scope off an external battery pack.
Of note is this scope’s high recoil rating of up to .375 H&H magnum and 12 gauge shotgun, which is higher than many other scopes.
Note: since the scrolling/menu select wheel is on the left side of the scope body, left-handed shooters might not be too fond of that ergonomically. For wrong-handers who want an excellent tube-type scope with ambidextrous controls, see the InfiRay Bolt TH50C below.
MSRP for the Pulsar XQ35 Pro is $3,929, but you can actually get this excellent thermal scope at just under $3 grand from places like Outdoor Legacy Gear and Optics Planet. Pulsar provides a 3-year warranty on its thermal optics and is known for good customer service.
Bering Optics Hogster Vibe
Bering Optics makes a good range of thermal scopes for hog and coyote hunting, and one of our favorites for the money is the Hogster Vibe. This super-compact thermal optic weighs just over one pound, less than half of some competitors, but it is still rated up to .308 Winchester recoil levels. It has a 1.4X base magnification, suitable for hogs and predator control at close-to-medium distances (but also has digital zoom). The Vibe has switchable image polarity between white hot/black hot/red hot/colored hot, eight reticle patterns including three BDC (bullet-drop-compensating) options with four color options for each reticle, a picture-in-picture display with the 2X magnification image on top, 4-hour battery life (and the option to use rechargeable 3.7V, external power option via a USB C port), standby mode, 16Gb internal memory for video, built-in internal recording function, WiFi capability. It comes with a quick-detach Picatinny rail mount and a 4-year warranty.
At around $2,295 from online retailers, the Hogster Vibe is a good choice, mainly if you prioritize lightness and compactness in your thermal optic. (Don’t try using Bering Optics’ website; it’s terrible.)
InfiRay Bolt TH50C
A best bang for the buck thermal scope that lists for around $5,500 may seem like crazy talk, but hear us out. InfiRay’s Bolt TH50C experience is far and away better at longer ranges than other thermal scopes in this price range, primarily due to its manually focused 50mm front objective lens, adjustable-focus rear eyepiece, and its one-of-a-kind circular 2560x2560 AMOLED ultra HD 1+ inch display. The base magnification is 3.5X, with digital magnification up to 14X, so it’s a scope to consider for coyotes or hunting where you may be stretching the distances a bit.
Image: InfiRay’s Bolt TH50C V2
The tube-type, traditional riflescope layout is attractive, the controls are intuitive, and the buttons are mounted on top of the scope for a truly ambidextrous ergonomic experience. The first time you look through the TH50C, you’ll be amazed at how detailed and precise a 640-pixel sensor can be. We’re unsure if it’s the large, high-def display or InfiRay’s proprietary MATRIX III algorithm that creates an image visually superior to optics with similar specifications. Still, whatever it is, it will spoil you for other 640-pixel scopes. Dual internal 18650 batteries and an optional auxiliary add-on battery provide 10+ hours of run time. The BOLT also comes standard with 16 Gb of internal memory for hours of video capture.
ATN ThOR LT 320 2X-4X
Thermal scopes are available for under $1,000, but we wouldn’t recommend them for anything but novelty use. Others may disagree, but we feel that if you’re looking for a thermal optic for hunting or potentially home-defense use, it should be of sufficient quality and resolution to make accurate target assessments and hold up to recoil. The lower-priced optics don’t make the cut. However, for around $1,200, the ATN ThOR LT line is one to consider. Available in multiple camo patterns and the helpful magnification range of 2X-4X (higher magnification models are available for a higher price), the ThOR LT is a sort of hybrid tube-type design with a squared-off electronics box in the center, between the 30mm scope rings (not included).
Image: ATN THOR LT 320
This optic features a generous 3 inch eye relief, a 1280x720 pixel optical display, top-mounted buttons, black-hot or white-hot modes, multiple reticles, and a 320x240 pixel 12-micron thermal sensor. The ThOR LT is lighter than many other thermal optics at 1.4 pounds, so if your night hunting style has you moving around a lot, that can be a huge plus.
Video: ATN ThOR LT Series
Best thermal scopes/imagers for hunting (if the price is no object)
We covered our picks for some of the best bang for the buck thermal scopes above, and most buyers will likely be shopping in that ~$1,200-$2,500 range for their first serious thermal optic. However, if you’re a buy-once, cry-once kind of person, whip out your Amex Black card and look at these beauties.
InfiRay Outdoor RICO HD RS75
At an MSRP of $17,999, the InfiRay RICO HD is the first high definition thermal hunting scope on the market and puts out truly impressive performance to match its breathtaking price. Its thermal sensor is an industry-first 1280x1024 with a 12-micron pixel size, and its base magnification is 2X, so even at 4X magnification, you still have 680p resolution—more than many other popular scopes’ baseline image resolution. This truly is a game-changer, and until you experience it, you might not believe what a difference it makes.
Image: InfiRay RICO HD 1280 2X 75mm
For coyotes or other longer-range hunting, the up to 16X digital zoom combined with the 1280p resolution means you can identify targets beyond 500-600 yards or more. If you’re a capable shot with a capable rifle, you can make hits as far as you can shoot accurately. The RS75 retains InfiRay’s standard RICO family features, including a simple, top-mounted 4-button layout, similar software style and menu functions, and high-speed germanium objective optics. However, the RS75 includes 128 GB of internal storage space (which is needed due to the increased resolution and required memory of videos on this platform), the upgraded 2560x2560 AMOLED high-def display that makes the Bolt such a joy to use, an enhanced microphone, and a spring-loaded, recoil mitigating mount for increased durability.
The RICO HD records crystal-clear onboard audio to complement the high-def captured videos. The increased audio clarity over previous RICO generations allows you to capture whispers of conversation before the shot or even the sound of a bullet impact hundreds of yards away.
Video: Hunter Attempts Impossible Shot with InfiRay Outdoor RICO HD RS75
The RS75’s orthoscopic eyepiece has also been redesigned with premium components specifically selected to achieve low distortion and high edge-to-edge clarity. The new RICO HD offers a more forgiving eye box with 60mm eye relief for a comfortable cheek weld in a broader selection of rifles.
You also get a rail-mounted laser rangefinder, a custom reticle generator, and all the internal electronic goodies you would expect at this top-of-the-line price point. Hopefully, the price will come down eventually, but if you can’t wait, take a look, and you might find it’s worth the money.
ATN CORP Xtreme Definition ThOR 5 XD
Image: ATN ThOR 5 XD 2-20x
ATN announced their entry into the 1280x1024 pixel resolution thermal optic market at SHOT Show 2023 with the upcoming ThOR 5 XD. Depending on when you read this, it may or may not be available for sale yet. It could be the best buy at a projected retail price of around $5,500 if you want true 1280p thermal resolution clarity. The ThOR 5 XD is a tube-type scope that uses standard 30mm scope rings and features the brand’s well-liked top-mounted button interface, along with a host of extras including an available 1,000-yard laser rangefinder, ballistic calculator, multiple reticles including user-customizable options, WiFi, Bluetooth, sound recording, 3D gyroscope and accelerometer, electronic compass, radar/group hunting synchronization functionality, recoil-activated video, smooth zoom, one-shot zero, and an included 30mm quick-detach scope mount. 1280p is truly the next generation of thermal optics resolution, and we’re happy to see more companies in this market.
Image: Trijicon IR-HUNTER 60 mm
Trijicon is known for hard-use, duty-quality optics; its line of thermal scopes and monoculars is no exception. Though their thermal sensor resolution is currently limited to a still-impressive 640 pixels, the housings, mounts, controls, and durability of the Trijicon are head-and-shoulders above some of the more, shall we say, budget-friendly thermal scopes out there. However, as with everything, you pay for the increased durability. At about $6,700 MSRP, Trijicon’s IR-HUNTER 1.2x base magnification thermal scope is not inexpensive. Still, the rugged Trijicon design features intuitive rotary knobs for adjusting the point of impact, a top-loading battery compartment (takes CR123 batteries), an inline analog video adaptor plus USB-C connectivity, quick-release Q-LOK mount, multiple reticle choices including MRAD, MOA, and 5.56/.223, 7.62/.308, and 300 Blackout bullet-drop compensating reticles.
Video: Trijicon IR-HUNTER
If you want more magnification (3x base) and a larger 60mm objective lens, the REAP-IR is available for $9,784. Pricey for sure, but if we were going into battle and wanted a commercially available thermal scope we could bet our life on, Trijicon would be the one.
Store your guns and attachments in a Liberty Safe
Obviously, your thermal hunting or tactical rig is going to be worth quite a bit of money, so be sure to keep it safe from theft and unauthorized access in a USA-made Liberty safe. We offer a wide variety of models, prices, and styles, so be sure to check out our online gun safe catalog or visit a Liberty dealer showroom near you.