Sitting in an elevated hide filled with rat bones and owl feathers for three hours put our intrepid hunter in the perfect mood to kill something. As the light faded from afterglow to moonrise, I clamped the pre-zeroed Insight LWTS clip-on thermal weapon sight to the rail of his 300 BLK-chambered AR just ahead of the EOTech Vudu 1-6x optic. He powered up the Insight, and the blackness turned to an inky gray world of lightly swaying grass in a 20-acre, lightly rolling, west Texas clearing.
Rolling through the LWTS viewing options, he settled on black-hot and watched a handful of deer-shaped blobs graze about 50 yards away. Black bird shapes slid across the sky, and black rabbit shapes hopped through the field. Coyotes yelped and howled in a few directions, close but out of sight. He pulled a PVS-14 image intensifier (I2) night vision monocular out of his pack and used it to scan for movement as well.
After about an hour of shifting between the I2 and thermal, the LWTS displayed a low power warning. “Hmm …” he thought, “did I forget to put new batteries in the unit before I left on the trip?” Luckily, Rob brought along a dozen AAs that he figured would get him through the weekend. He shut it down, loaded four fresh AAs in the battery holder, and figured the problem was solved. He kept an eye on the battery meter and noticed within 30 minutes the battery level was at the halfway mark with a mixture of scanning and standby power-saving mode. He shut it down, hoping the voltage meter was incorrect and that resetting the unit would sort it out. After 10 minutes, he powered up and the unit displayed full bars. But within another five minutes it was back down to one-quarter power. He turned it off again and resolved to use his ears and the PVS-14 to scan the landscape, powering up the LWTS only when a hog or coyote seemed to be afoot. The unit takes a few seconds to power up, so it wasn’t ideal, but a far cry from early thermal units that required 10 minutes of warm up. He figured he’d have enough time to set up once he spotted game.
Scanning with I2 and powering up the thermal for target interrogation worked, but he ended up replacing the AAs again after a few hours. By 2130, Rob had air-gunned about four out-of-season deer and dozens of rabbits while scanning for hogs. In the corner of the clearing, about 150 yards out, a handful of shapes came into view. The I2 picture showed movement, but after 20 seconds of boot up, the LWTS revealed the shape. Coyotes. He confirmed the elevation setting, settled into a stable position and watched the animals through the thermals for about 30 seconds to ensure they were permitted game. He noticed the battery meter on the LWTS ticked from half to a quarter as he lined up the shot. With his reticle just behind the shoulder blade of the largest coyote, he took a breath, exhaled, and as he drew the millimeter of pretravel out of the AR Gold trigger, the LWTS flashed the low-power warning. The time it took to see and consciously register the warning was milliseconds, but he was already committed to the shot.
The monitor went blank somewhere in the time between the sear release and the primer strike. Whether he was distracted by the power warning or simply boned the shot, Rob would never know. It took a moment to grab the PVS-14 and check if he hit anything. There was nothing out there. He put the last fresh set of AAs in the TWS and scanned again. Nothing. He climbed down and walked out to inspect the ground. No blood. Rob walked back, clambered back into the hide, and spent another hour listening to coyotes laughing in the distance.
Hunting is a challenging and rewarding endeavor. Many kids (and the not-so-young too) these days seem to think that meat magically appears at the supermarket, wrapped in glistening plastic wrap and Styrofoam. A simple tap on Apple Pay, and dinner is served. If only more would unplug for a moment, get in touch with nature, and truly appreciate the circle of life.
Hunting is hard enough during the light of day. But doing it at night brings a whole new set of challenges and joys to the party. Humans aren’t nocturnal creatures. We can’t see particularly well at night, we can’t hear too well, and our sense of smell is pretty limited — at least compared to our four-legged friends. In fact, let a typical city dweller loose in the woods, and there’s a good chance he’ll clomp around like a drunken fraternity pledge and scare all the game away. But we humans are pretty clever and inventive, and this is an area where gear and technology can make a tremendous difference. Yet as always, the old adage about the Indian and his arrow holds true — so in this article we’ll discuss different types of night vision gear, but we’ll also touch on considerations for employing them effectively. We had to get our hands dirty, so our staff trekked out to the family owned Wilson Ranch in Frio Town, Texas, to shake gear out in the field with our friends at Frio County Hunts.
Overused, perhaps, but the phrase “mission drives gear” certainly applies to hunting at night. What type of game are you hunting? What are the expected distances that you might engage targets? Will you be mobile or hunting out of a blind? And unfortunately, another important consideration is the size of your budget. Night vision gear can be used for observation, aiming, or both. While night vision gear continues to drop in price, it’s hardly cheap, especially with all the other attendant costs of a hunt.
For instance, depending on the terrain and setup of your hunting grounds, you might be going after hogs, either stalking on foot or working from a vehicle of some kind. So you’ll want to be able to move swiftly and quietly. Bryan Wilson, former enlisted Marine and owner of Frio County Hunts, relates that hogs can’t see too well, have OK hearing, and have a great sense of smell. “If you’re downwind of a hog with some good cover sound, you might be able to get within 20 yards of them. Especially if they’re busy rooting around in the mud, their sense of smell will be impaired.” You might be working from a hide with an electronic or mouth call for varmints. Coyotes and bobcats, for instance, have great hearing, sight, and sense of smell. And if you call them in, they won’t stay long. Wilson says, “They can detect humans faster than you can detect them. Unless you’re using thermals.”
As an outfitter, he’s seeing more guys showing up with night vision gear than before as pricing has started to come down, though it’s still not that common. “White-collar guys are starting to get night vision goggles and scopes, more often weapon mounted. Starting to see more thermals too. Some former military guys will use night observation devices (NODs) while walking, but we don’t get too many other guys with goggles.” Without the benefit of night vision gear, guides often use red light. With the main beam aimed a bit off target, “we look for reflection from their eyes,” says Wilson.
It may go without saying, but be sure to also check your local regulations on hunting your desired game and the use of night vision gear.
View All Night Vision Image Intensifier models: View All Available Image Intensifier Scopes
Image intensifying (I2) devices work by gathering small amounts of infrared and visible light (such as from the moon and stars) and amplifying them, so you can view your surroundings with your naked eye. Monocular setups are most common, either mounted on the weapon in conjunction with a NV-capable optic or attached to headgear or a helmet in front of one eye. You can also go with a dual, binocular configuration for both eyes — though that comes at the expense of weight, cost, some situational awareness, and any hope of natural night vision with either eye. If weapon-mounted, you don’t need to worry about zero shift or switching optics, but it can be cumbersome to scan with and you’ll muzzle everything you’re looking at. However, this kind of setup can work well for those on a budget and working primarily from a static position.
Kyle Lamb, owner of Viking Tactics, a retired Sergeant Major of 1st-SFOD-D, and avid hunter, has sage advice for those intending to hunt at night: “Every night for 10 days prior to your hunt, put on your NODs and go for a walk in the woods. Depth perception can be really off, so get used to it. Practice walking quietly, and look at animals. Use a handheld IR illuminator if you have one; you’ll be surprised what you see — raccoons, possums. Also practice walking in the woods using available light.” This is a very good idea — on the second night while stalking with NODs, yours truly stepped in a hole and twisted an ankle. Note that Lamb prefers running a single head-mounted NV monocular while hunting, retaining normal night vision with his other eye. During our stalk, we found this worked well, reserving one eye for use with NODs and a handheld thermal and the other for normal vision. It can be disorientating, though, so Lamb’s advice to spend a lot of time behind them to get accustomed is spot on.
A Generation 3 military-grade PVS-14 will cost you north of $3,000. Chip Lasky is Director of Operations for Tactical Night Vision Company (TNVC), a leading provider of night vision solutions, and advises that a Generation 2 tube can save you around $1,000. However, compared to a Gen 3, their clarity and light amplification capabilities are noticeably diminished, compromising effective range and positive identification. They also have around half the life span and aren’t auto-gated. But if you’ve never used higher-grade night vision before, they’ll be a revelation, especially with decent ambient light.
ABOVE : Supplied by TNVC, PVS-14s (former attached to the helmet) help turn night into day. A Generation 2 tube is attached to the helmet, the other is a Gen 3. The MTEK Flux Carbon-V helmet ($629) features handy M-LOK rails and is light at 2 pounds. The PVS-14 is attached via a Wilcox L4 G11 mount ($463) and a Mil-spec J-arm ($89). Also shown on the Gen 3 is the low-profile TNVC TM14 Mk3 mount ($89) that attaches to an Aimpoint twist mount base, making it easy to swap your PVS-14 back and forth between a helmet and weapon mount.
IR illuminators are just like flashlights, except they project infrared light that’s only visible with night vision. In particularly dark areas or when trying to see farther away, they’re a tremendous asset to use with your I2 device. They also improve contrast and can clearly illuminate specific areas for closer examination.
The first night in Texas, two of us set up in a blind about 75 yards from a feeder. We enjoyed the crisp night air as we scanned all around with our PVS-14s. After over an hour, we thought we saw some movement at the far end of the clearing, perhaps 150 yards away. Squinting through our NODs, our pulses began to race as we thought we had hogs inbound. Little blurry specks moved toward us, and we brought our weapons up to bear. Then we remembered the SureFire X300V mounted on the Freedom Ordnance belt-fed 9mm. (Yes, we brought a belt-fed 9mm. Why? Because it’s belt-fed.) Flicking on the SureFire threw 120 milliwatts of IR downrange, clearly illuminating a group of out-of-season deer — we were bummed by that, but the difference was, forgive the expression, like night and day. As the evening dragged on, we began chasing shadows with the NODs, thinking we saw something. A quick blast of the illuminator would make clear that we were just slowly going insane in our murky green world.
Lamb advises that flooding the target with IR illuminators is a great technique; even better if your hunting partner can pitch in at the same time with another illuminator — this helps alleviate a common mistake of shooting at shadows rather than the actual target.
Many companies make various types of IR illuminators, most offering the ability to switch between white light and infrared depending on your needs. The X300V, M300V, and M600V units shown here are from SureFire’s V-series, which switch easily and intuitively between white and infrared light by pulling outward on and twisting the head. We ran them on several different weapon systems, and they worked perfectly.
View All Laser Aiming models: View All Available Laser Aiming Sights
Laser aiming devices project a narrow beam of light out to the target, and those designed for use with night vision do so in the infrared spectrum. Therefore, they’re invisible to the naked eye, but highly visible through NODs. Just point and shoot, simple as that.
Civilian-legal versions of the military issue Insight ATPIAL and Steiner DBAL that everyone’s seen on the news are available with lower-powered FDA-approved Class 1 IR lasers (restricted full-power variants are shown here). Badass as those battle-proven lasers are, if your wallet isn’t that fat and you don’t need a device that can withstand a push on Fallujah, more affordable options are also available.
ABOVE : Civilian versions of the devices shown are available with less powerful lasers. The Insight ATPIAL-C retails for $1,329 and the Steiner DBAL-I2 for $919.
One of our crew affixed the compact LaserMax UNI IR laser on his AK. It’s much less robust and lacks the co-witnessed visible laser that the big boys offer. But it also retails for just $279 ($329 for the rifle kit with a switch). And it got the job done, achieving a clean first round hit on a rabbit while on the move, contributing to a tasty midnight snack.
Lamb suggests gluing a small piece of glint tape to a target to zero your laser. Co-witness with your day optic, then aim at the glint tape with your laser and break a shot to confirm your zero. Remember also that a bullet fired from your rifle travels upward above your point of aim then back down again, whereas a laser shines exactly straight. So, it’ll be offset both vertically because of the trajectory of the bullet, as well as horizontally if the laser isn’t exactly aligned with the bore. Lamb reminds that users should mount the laser at the same height or above the bore because of the bullet’s trajectory. Overall though, for typical hunting purposes, one needn’t worry too much about offsets.
ABOVE : The compact LaserMax UNI IR laser retails for just $279.
Lamb also sees a lot of shooters who utilize different shooting positions when employing systems like NODs and lasers than they usually do during the day (e.g. shooting from the hip with a laser). He recommends maintaining consistency — mount the rifle similarly and don’t lose awareness of your muzzle.
View All Thermal Imaging models: View All Available FLIR & Thermal Sights
Thermal imagers are comprised of infrared imaging systems that detect infrared radiation, deduce the temperature of objects in view, and produce images of it. The warmer an object, the more radiation it emits — thus a thermal imager allows you to see temperature variations. As a result, warm-blooded animals (whether the multi-legged or two-legged kind) are easily viewed through the imager and appear quite distinct against the surrounding environment, which usually has a different thermal signature.
What you see through a thermal imager is differences and variations in temperature. We humans are not accustomed to viewing the world like this, so it takes time to get comfortable with interpreting what you’re seeing. You can “get lost” in thermals — and end up misinterpreting distances, objects, and animals (or people). Jim Smith, owner of Spartan Tactical and a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force, trains military, law enforcement, and civilians. “In general, end users should train or practice at least 15 to 30 hours with thermals before using them for an armed engagement or a hunt,” advises Smith. He describes students in his night hunting courses losing perspective of distance and size, thinking a jackrabbit up close is a hog farther away. Or worse, mistaking a deer or a cow for a hog — taking the wrong game could be very bad news (legally and financially), so don’t take this lightly. Lasky stresses the need for positive target identification, and sees end users who can be more prone to mistakes with thermals. He’s a big fan of utilizing thermals and I2 in conjunction.
Also, keep in mind that thermal imagers have more in common with digital video cameras than traditional riflescopes or binoculars. Whereas a traditional scope has a number of lens elements through which you view your target, thermal imagers have lens elements in front of a sensor and a display presenting the image from the sensor — just like your Handycam. These are digital systems, where the image data is read from the sensor and shown on the display.
The two largest hogs we took at night fell victim to dedicated thermal riflescopes — FLIR RS32s mounted on an LWRCI and a Kel-Tec RDB, both pushing 55-grain Barnes TSX pills. At ranges of about 50 and 30 yards, respectively, they racked up one-shot kills. The RS32 is FLIR’s midrange consumer thermal scope, with a sensor resolution of 336 by 256. This, combined with the low optical magnification of the particular models we had on hand, made longer-range engagements more challenging.
Wilson was guiding one of our guys and spotted what looked like a bobcat over 100 yards away. Armed with just the RS32, the shooter wasn’t able to make sense of the indistinct blobs in the viewfinder quickly enough and missed the opportunity. The FLIR units also have integral batteries recharged via a USB port — a feature that perhaps sounded good on paper, but less so in the field. We had more wires snaking around than a college dorm room, with FLIRs plugged into wall outlets at base camp, cigarette lighter adapters in the truck, and portable USB battery packs in the field. But results are results, and the smoked backstrap that we enjoyed was delicious.
IR Defense manufactures a line of thermal scopes and devices. We had one of their IR Hunter Mark II scopes on hand. While we didn’t get any kills with it, we were impressed by its performance, clarity, and user interface.
ABOVE : Pulsar Quantum XD50S (above) and Insight AN/PAS-13G(V)1 Light Weapon Thermal Sight (LWTS) mounted in front of a day optic (right).
We also had a thermal clip-on, the Insight AN/PAS-13G(V)1 Light Weapon Thermal Sight (LWTS). Clip-ons are designed to attach in front of a regular day scope to provide thermal capabilities only when needed. They can also often be used as stand-alone thermal scopes or handheld units when detached. They offer more versatility but are more costly. As related in our opening passage, the LWTS was a tremendous battery hog. It came without batteries, so we used alkalines we had on hand for the hunt. Later, we were advised that lithium AAs would have performed better. It’s a $13,499 piece of military-issue hardware, so what’s a few more bucks on fancy batteries?
Additionally, we gave our guide a Pulsar Quantum XD50S handheld thermal unit ($6,000) to carry and scan for game. We had to pry it away from him when we were leaving.
A few shooters were equipped with SureFire SOCOM suppressors and were the envy of everyone else in the hunting party. As much as night vision is a tremendous advantage for hunting, so too is running suppressed. Without a can, you can get really stingy about breaking a shot because a regular gunshot can ruin a field for possibly a whole day, depending on the conditions and number of animals in the area. Animals can get very confused after a suppressed shot, which buys you more time. So if you can, run a can. And make sure to check your local laws about hunting with them.
Our night hunt was a real blast — the singular thrill of a stalk, the return to the primal nature of human as predator, the camaraderie of chowing down on fresh meat while sitting around a campfire with good friends. So much better than packaged meat from the grocery store. We tried all types of night vision gear, discovering what a huge impact it makes on hunting at night. Lasky advised that night hunting is bringing in a new generation of hunters. We believe it; a couple folks in our group hadn’t hunted before and are now hooked for good.
Even if you don’t use night vision gear as an actual aiming device, they’re tremendously useful for observation and stalking. You can begin to dip your toe in the water with some high-quality, versatile, and effective gear. Pricing continues on a downward trend, bringing this once-mythical capability within reach. Yes, it’s still expensive, but take a look around your house or your safe … how much money do you have tied up in stuff you don’t really need or use? After our trip, we’re taking a hard look ourselves.