Thermal scopes use various heat signature imaging technologies to help you acquire and shoot targets in low light or nighttime conditions. What was once the stuff of only the most elite tactical units around the world is now available for us to purchase on the consumer market. Here, we’re going to walk you through what we think are the best thermal scopes out there today. Aside from looking at scopes that use thermal imaging technology, we’ll also make some comments on what we think the best thermal optic on the market is when you’re thinking about making a purchase.
Thermal scopes are generally expensive, but they can be had for a variety of price points. Thus, we’re doing categories of cheap thermal scopes under $2000, under $3000, and over and giving you five from each that we think are excellent for one reason or another. To be clear, at the lower price points, you might not get actual thermal imaging technology and instead will use more conventional night vision.
How do Thermal Scopes Work
In technical terms, thermal scopes are called Forward-Looking Infrared, or FLIR scopes. Thus, to get a little more accurate, what we usually call thermal scopes are infrared scopes, sometimes spelled incorrectly as inferred or inferred scopes. All of these refer to the same general technology that takes advantage of animal biology to make them work.
Infrared, or IR, scopes are optical devices that measure heat radiation. Mammals, which are typically the kinds of animals that we hunt as game, are exothermic. This means that they generate heat, which makes them the opposite of endothermic animals, such as lizards, which take in heat from the outside.
When mammals, including deer, hogs, etc. emit heat, this is done as radiation which is a form of energy like visible light, although it is not visible to the human eye: it’s the same general principle as the sun. Where something like the sun generates other forms of radiation that we can, in fact, see with the naked eye, you can also feel the heat from a great distance. Thermal imaging, thusly, helps you see in a different spectrum of light than you normally do, which aids in shooting at night.
Thermal scopes are built to see in the heat spectrum of light, thus, when you point it at a source of heat, that heat source will glow. This makes thermal scopes ideal for hunting at night. There is one drawback, though: if the game animal is the same temperature as the environment, the scope will not see the animal very well. So, for example, if it’s about 100 degrees, and so is the surface temperature of the animal, you won’t see much.
A really contemporary thermal riflescope may well also come with the ability to connect via wi fi to a computer or streaming service. With that wi fi connection, you’ll be able to broadcast or save your nighr hunts to share with others or to improve your own shooting by reviewing them later.
Best Thermal Scope – Our Top Pick
For our pick on the best thermal scopes, we’re aiming at a thermal rifle scope that takes advantage of thermal imaging technologies, and lets you use a thermal scope with a good refresh rate, long detection range, and is the overall best scope on the market also considering value. While there’s no such thing as a cheap thermal scope as such, we think that it’s possible to get a thermal weapon sight that has good image quality, a high refresh rate, and does well in thermal scope reviews.
Sig Sauer Echo 3
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For us, the best thermal rifle scope is the Sig Sauer Echo 3. We think that this is the best thermal sight in terms of relative value, taking advantage of true thermal imaging technology, and overall build qual as reported in reviews. While there are other, more expensive options, we like this thermal scope because it has a lot of the features we want, without being the most expensive option out there that takes advantage of thermal imaging technology. This thermal rifle scope, in our mind, is about the best thermal optic on the market for average folks who don’t have the budget of a small government behind them.
Where most of the optics on this list focus on long-range targeting, the Sig Sauer Echo3 looks to help you light up closer ranges at night. This optic is a small reflex sight that would be ideal for anyone who is looking to build a night-fighting gun for home defense.
But, since it does have the ability to dial up the magnification, you can certainly use it outside, where the small form factor will be appreciated when you have to move long distances or over obstacles with your rifle.
Because the Echo 3 is a reflex sight, it means you don’t have to be so close to the optics to see the image, but can sit a little further back for more comfort and ease of shooting.
See the Echo 3 in Action:
There’s also a great video by a group who went hog hunting in Texas with the Echo 3 thermal scope and a suppressed rifle. Hogs are legal to shoot year round in Texas due to their overpopulation and destruction to the environment. The Sig Echo 3 is perfect for hog hunting because they are most active at night. With a thermal sight, you can spot them clear as day and easily ensure an accurate shot.
Best Thermal Scope Under $1000
BEST CHEAP THERMAL SCOPE
ATN Thor LT
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Starting off with the cheaper end of the list, we have the ATN Thor LT. This one is meant to sit at an intersection of features, quality, and affordability that we really enjoy. This optic can be had for a relative bargain compared to others and gives you 3-6x zoom and over 10 hours of battery life. We think the Thor LT gives you a lot of bang for the buck.
While the Thor LT lacks somewhat in magnification compared to more expensive models, that also means that this model is a little bit lighter weight, which we always appreciate on hunting rifles, as it means less fatigue on our backs and knees. It can be a bit longer than some other thermal scopes, especially once you put the eye piece on the back.
As you’ll see over the course of this list, we reference ATN multiple times in various price brackets from the cheapest option to some of the most expensive ones available. American Technologies Network, Corp. (ATN) is based in San Francisco and is known to make some excellent products.
We got a chance to test out the ATN Thor LT in person for a few weeks. You can read more about our thoughts here:
ATN Thor LT: Mossy Oak Edition
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As a special pick aside from the ATN Thor 4 or LT, we did want to include the fact that the LT model comes in a special edition made in collaboration with Mossy Oak, the makers of camouflage. While this piece focuses mostly on finding the best thermal rifle scope in terms of their features in comparison to night vision scopes, we think considering camouflage is important here.
Given that a lot of other game animals can see in low light conditions much better than we can, it’s worth considering masking your thermal imaging device if you can. After all, the best thermal scope in the world does you no good if the hog spots the black shape of the scope and runs off. With that in mind, we don’t love the idea of doing a DIY camo job on an optic that costs more than our first car. With that in mind, the ATN Thor LT is already a contender for the best thermal scope, so having it come from the factory with a professional camo pattern applied is something that distinctly appeals to us.
Best Thermal Scope Under $2000
ATN Thor 4 Thermal Scope With Video
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For a relatively low price for a thermal optic, the ATN Thor 4 is feature-packed. This optic, which is in the running to be considered our best thermal scope, has a long battery life, adjustable settings to dial it into your preferences, and allows for easy range-finding. The sheer list of features, from a reasonably good refresh rate, multiple vision settings, and the digital features make this a competitor for best thermal scope in not only this price range but overall.
Taking advantage of some features well above this price range, the ATN Thor 4 also allows you to share video via either wi fi or Bluetooth, meaning that with this scope, you can also share your hunting experiences with others. For a relatively affordable thermal scope, the ATN Thor 4 is feature-rich, though we imagine it might slightly sacrifice in zoom and durability to maintain a reasonably low price point.
Pulsar Core RXQ30V
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At the higher end of this price bracket is the Pulsar Core RXQ30V. This is an optic that has been built to work in rugged environments, and from here on up, a lot of the price is in sheer build quality.
One thing that we really like about this optic is the eyepiece: you’re meant to shoot with this one directly contacting the rubber gasket to your eye so that no light from the screen leaks out. If stealth is something that matters a lot to you, light security like this optic provides can make a real difference and makes it worth considering in our book. For this price, you’re now moving beyond night vision into true thermal imaging. There’s nothing wrong with a night vision scope per se, but be aware that they use different imaging technologies than thermal imaging, and thus, work differently than thermal scopes.
AGM Ratler TS384
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For some seriously cool tech, our pick here is the AGM Ratler TS384. This model is compact, which is in and of itself nice, but the features list is impressive. Beyond the internal battery, it’s also possible to hook it up to batteries via USB, making longer observations possible. While we don’t think it’s the best scope on the market, the WI FI broadcasting capability, high image quality, and more than adequate detection range put it well on our list.
In a very cool addition, it’s also possible for you to stream your scope’s footage via WI FI to another device, making it possible for you to record all of your missions or make a game hunting video channel with this as the main camera. All in all, it is very possible to get an excellent scope at this price range. This thermal weapon sight gives you a lot of capabilities beyond standard rifle scopes, and we think it would ideal for applications such as hog hunting at night.
Best Thermal Scope Under $3000
Burris BTS 50
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Moving up into our next pricing bracket is the Burris BTS 50. This sight is meant for folks who want great quality in thermal imaging and are willing to pay for a rugged option that has a lot of excellent features. As the price goes up in these rifle scopes, so does detection range, image quality, and features that make it worth your time to use a thermal scope.
One of the things that attract us to this scope is how customizable it is. Like most thermal optics, this one has the ability to change between color mods with the touch of a button. Unlike most, especially at this price range, you can also choose between seven reticles and nearly a dozen color pallets. This not only allows you to customize things for the sake of your aesthetic preferences, but also to help you see targets better based on your eyes, conditions in the field, and targets you may be looking for.
One nice advantage of the Burris BTS 50 is its relatively compact size. You can see it here when we compared it against the ATN Thor 4, that it makes for a much smaller package (and this is without the eye piece attached to the Thor 4 which would make it even longer).
Finally, attaching this scope is dead simple, as it bolts onto any standard 1913 rail section. Overall, we’d recommend this scope for someone who knows that they want to make use of a high-quality thermal scope that will last them a lifetime but is intending to do so at moderate ranges, so there’s no real need to spend several thousand dollars more on something that will be good out to a mile or more.
ATN Thor HD384
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The ATN Thor HD 384 is, in effect, a more fully-featured version of the other ATN model that we recommended in the slightly cheaper segment of this piece. For the extra money on this one, you also get a ballistic calculator and a rangefinder. These two features can go a long way to ensuring accuracy and removing the guess work in every circumstance to help you achieve the perfect shot every time.
In effect, this optic is meant for people who want to do long-range, repeatable shooting in the dark without having to bring along a second piece of kit as a rangefinder or ballistic computer.
Pulsar Talion XQ38
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This is a brand new product by Pulsar and they are currently taking pre-orders (as of writing this article) – it should be released soon.
For those who prefer a more traditional scope appearance, the Pulsar Talion is the scope for you. On the outside, it looks like your old scope, but it’s nothing like it on the inside. The relative lack of bulk is one of the things that we like most about this scope, but don’t mistake its trim appearance for a lack of features
This scope integrates a lot of awesome technical tricks, such as the ability to save fifty different zeroes for changing conditions, as well as thirteen reticles and a bunch of different color palates such that you can make it work well for you and your rifle. For serious hunters, this thermal scope is one more than worth considering if you want a lifetime thermal optic.
For the folks who like to learn from their shooting mistakes, there’s also the ability to stream video via WiFi to a laptop nearby. While this might not be an option for everyone, we think this could be either an excellent training tool or a way to make some interesting content out of nighttime hunting from a blind or another kind of fixed position.
To give you more flexibility, there’s also the option to dial the magnification all the way down to 2.5x or up to 10x: because of this, we’d also consider it for a home defense gun. Overall, the Pulsar Thermion is one of the best thermal optics in this price range.
Pard SA 19
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To be fair, the Pard SA 19 very slightly stretches this budget category, but prices on things do vary a bit over time, so we want to consider this one here.
This optic has a little smaller footprint in terms of bulk than many of the other ones on this list, which we always appreciate. Another feature we very much appreciate here is that the battery compartment can be accessed without tools, so you can replace it in the field when it goes dead without having to take it off of the rifle and risk losing the zero you’d set earlier.
Best High-End Thermal Scope Over $3000
BEST CLIP-ON THERMAL SCOPE
Armasight CO Mini (Clip On)
If a little bit smaller optic is what you’re looking for, the Armasight CO Mini is an excellent option for you. Effectively, this is a secondary optic that clips onto an existing rail section and mount that allows you to use your normal daytime scope at night.
A lot of folks who use high-quality tactical rifles already have a favorite scope and reticle that they love during the day. The problem is that, at night, that scope becomes much less useful. Having the ability to equip night vision sometime later without losing zero on your optic. While that is a specialized role, for those who need to do it, a tool like this one is invaluable.
The first time you set up this kind of optic, it will likely take some messing around with the rail sections, potential risers, and the like to make sure you have a good sight picture. From there, you can safely keep the Armasight CO Mini in your range back or somewhere on your tactical rig, and attach it when you need it for nighttime use.
We would recommend this for two kinds of users. First are tactical response teams who need to be ready for everything, but only have one duty rifle with which to respond. Second, this would be great for people who were intending on, for instance, going on a hog hunt at dusk that may well turn into some night hunting.
Trijicon Electro IR Hunter
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When you’re looking over the $3000 mark for a scope, there are a lot of excellent ones, such as the Trijicon Electro IR Hunter. I would not be surprised in the least to see this optic on rifles in armories used by special operations types all over the world.
The major benefit of this one is that its resolution is about double that of most other scopes on the market, making fine-grained target identification, even at distance, more possible than with previous technologies. Additionally, you can run it off of a USB-c battery in case your operations are of the all-night sort.
ATN Thor 4 640 4-40x
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The ATN Thor 4-640 is the most fully-featured and accurate member of the Thor lineup we have thus far presented. Where this one innovates over the others in the product line is increased resolution, battery life, and build quality.
We featured the lower resolution version of this scope above, but the great thing about the ATN Thor 4 is that it comes in such a huge price range depending on what size zoom and resolution you want.
One thing we love about this line of scopes is that they include a ballistic calculator: that means that you never need to take your eyes off of the scope in order to make repeated, accurate shots at long distances. An optic like this one would be suited for someone who does a lot of shooting in the dark and wants the absolute best gear.
AGM Rattler TS50
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For an optic that is a little more moderate in size than some of the others on this list, the AGM Rattler TS50 is an excellent choice. While the resolution won’t be as high as some of the other options in this price range, the lightweight on this one makes it a lot more reasonable for a rifle that you plan on doing a lot of walking with.
We’d use this one, for instance, if our task was to patrol an area at night, or we were hog hunting on foot for several hours.
Steiner NightHunter S35
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If money is truly no object, or you have somehow stumbled into a part of the Department of Defense’s budget, the Steiner Nighthunter is a truly excellent scope. Steiner is a global name in optics for all kinds of things, they don’t only make thermal imaging optics, and those guys have devoted all of their efforts to making the highest quality and most durable product possible. In fact, they’ve been making optics for military use since 1947, when thermal optics were just barely becoming technically possible.
Assuming that you need accurate shots, in the dark, at distance and need not worry if your optic is fragile, this one is a great call. The sheer build quality on this one alone is almost hard to comprehend. We would be more than happy to own the Steiner NightHunter.
In terms of applications, anything that you would need to do with a thermal optic, you could do with this one. Specifically, tactical operators who would need to shoot in extremely adverse conditions, and those shots need to land thanks to national security interests, would find a great use for these. Aside from that, folks who are professional hunters and guides who need both quality optics, and can write them off as business expenses, would do well to take a serious look at Steiner’s offerings. These are great, rugged optics that will perform in nearly any conditions you can think of.
Thermal Scope Buying Guide
Thermal scopes are fairly complex and are capable of some remarkable technical feats. With that said, it can be a little daunting to buy them, so we’ve put together a little buying guide ot try and keep things relatively simple and consistent when comparing different scopes, before making a purchase decision.
Just like your phone, monitor, or television screen, the resolution of the scope matters a great deal. The resolution refers to the number of pixels that are displayed to you in the viewfinder, and the more you have, the more detail that can theoretically be rendered in that viewfinder. But, as you go with higher resolutions, you also increase costs of the scope, so finding a balance is vital to getting a scope that works well for you, in your budget. Tied to this, some people want to have a possible wi fi connection for their scopes. If, for instance, you want to record your hog hunting adventures, being able to hook your thermal riflescope up to wifi makes sense.
Magnification refers to the degree to which the lenses and cameras in the scope can magnify the image before it is displayed to you. Ideally, you’ll go with a primarily optical means of magnification, as digital magnification often comes with a sharp reduction in quality. The longer the range you want to shoot, the higher magnification that you will need, and a lot of folks will go with scopes that have variable levels of magnification.
The refresh rate refers to how often the image displayed in the viewfinder is refreshed by the computer inside of the scope. A higher refresh rate is generally better, especially if you’re trying to track a moving target, but a high refresh rate also comes with a decrease in battery life, all other things in the scope being held equal.
Related to magnification, any thermal scope can only detect heat at a certain distance. This distance will dictate the maximum effective range of the scope, so we recommend looking for this first and foremost, then worrying about magnification after that.
One of the awesome things about thermal scopes is that they have fairly sophisticated computers inside of them. This means that on most of them, you can choose between a variety of different reticles intended for different circumstances. When shopping for an optic, pic one that has a reticle, or set of reticles, that you like to use.
Of course, none of this fancy technology works very well without electricity. With that said, the battery life of the optic is of utmost importance to keeping the system as a whole up and running. The longer the battery will last, the better. Some optics also have the ability to hook up to an external power source, which we think is an excellent idea.
Uses of Thermal Scopes & Optics
One of the ways most civilians will want one of these optics is for hunting. Assuming it’s legal in your part of the world, any of the options we list here give you a lot more options in terms of encountering nocturnal game animals.
Even during low-light day conditions, a thermal sight could come in seriously handy if, for instance, you were hog hunting in fog or brush: the ability to see the animal even when it can’t be seen with the naked eye is an awesome capability to add to your arsenal.
For self-defense, some of the smaller optics also would make a highly compelling option. For example, if you’re in the midst of a home invasion at night, you turning the hallway light on will also tell the intruder exactly where you are. Thus, being able to avoid that is a major plus. In cases like that one, we would also combine your thermal sight with a suppressor so that you don’t blind yourself with the first shot.
Overall, thermal imaging scopes add a whole new dimension of possibilities to shooting and, if you have the budget, it’s a fascinating part of the shooting world that civilians are finally starting to get some access to.
Differences Between Thermal Scopes and Night Vision Scopes
Thermal scopes, as we noted previously, see in a spectrum of light that is not normally visible to the human eye, rendering heat visible to us through the use of a camera and a computer to aid our vision without visible light.
A thermal scope, thusly, will work in an environment that is utterly dark to the human eye, so long as there is some thermal energy being emitted.
Night vision scopes, on the other hand, do require visible light. Night vision relies on the same spectrum of visible light as human beings to see, and they act as a means to amplify that light.
These scopes take advantage of the light that you can already see, but amplify it and often translate it to a different color, often green, to make it easier to see by using the scope. In a totally dark room, a night vision scope will not work.
The advantage of night vision is that it does not require a temperature differential between objects to work well. The downside here is that game animals will not glow in the scope’s field of view, meaning you’ll have to sort out things like shadow and shape in a way that is often a little confusing to the normal human eye, which makes heavy use of differences in color and depth perception, both of which are lacking in most night vision scopes.
Buying any thermal optic is more than a little bit of an investment. Keeping these features in mind, it’s a good idea to think through exactly what you plan on doing with the optic. Buying one that works for you will mean striking a balance between all of them in order to achieve your shooting goals when out in the field.
What’s the best thermal scope for coyote hunting?
For coyotes, we’d recommend going with the cheapest option available such as the ATN Thor LT. Now, if you were being paid by a rich rancher to keep his land clear of coyotes, then something in the $3000 range would be a great option. Really, it all comes down to how much you’re willing to spend and the sky is the limit here.
How long do thermal scopes last?
Thermal scopes can last a lifetime if cared for properly. You get what you pay for. At the highest end of the range, expect lifetime warranties and a customer service number where you can talk to a real human being should a problem arise. Most of the companies making the highest-end ones are also military contractors, which helps a great deal in terms of optics quality.
How much is a thermal scope?
Thermal scopes range in price from $900 – $5000 or more depending on quality and features. Since these are technologies that are just now trickling their way into the civilian world, you can expect them to be extremely expensive for years to come. Ideally, in about another decade these will come down in the same way that daytime optics have in the last decade or so. Overall, these are a fairly serious investment at this point in time.
How far can you shoot with a thermal scope?
A thermal scope can detect heat signatures from 1000 yards away. Beyond this distance, most thermal scopes’ effectiveness in detecting heat tends to fade. Of course, this doesn’t effect the range of your rifle, just how well you can pick out hot targets.
George has been an avid shooter for twenty years. He began shooting when he was gifted a Browning SA-22 for target practice. Now, as an academic, he combines his love of firearms and knowledge of history to write for firearms blogs and is still a frequent sight at the local range.