Last Updated on February 12, 2021
If you’re looking to take your hunting to the next level, you might want to consider a thermal scope.
Thermal scopes are specially designed pieces of tech that use infrared technology to develop images based-off of heat signatures. These can become especially handy when hunting at night—even better than actual night vision scopes and goggles.
But there are a ton of thermal scopes available, each with its own advantages and disadvantages—making it very difficult to decide which one is right for you.
That’s why we’ve created a list of our 5 best thermal scopes and buyer’s guide. Hopefully, through this information, you’ll be able to confidently and accurately choose the best thermal scope for your particular needs.
|Best Overall||ATN Thermal Rifle Scope||
|Best Value||Athlon Optics Argos BTR Illuminated Riflescope||
|Premium Choice||ATN ThOR 4 Thermal Rifle Scope||
|theOpticGuru Thor LT Thermal Rifle Scope||
|Pulsar Thermion XM Thermal Riflescope||
If you’re new to thermal scopes, there’s one model we’d recommend above every other one to get started: the ATN Thermal Rifle Scope. Right off the bat, we love just how light it is. At just over a pound, it won’t add too much extra weight onto your rifle. And while a pound does seem like a lot of weight, you’ll definitely be able to feel when you’re lining up your shot.
Next, it comes in a traditional 30 mm tube design. And, you know what that means? There are thousands of available mounting rings you can get that will fit this scope. Some thermals can be very bulky, awkwardly mounted, or require specialty rings designed for that model alone. The ATN also has a special One Shot Zero function to prevent you from wasting ammo just to rezero.
Did we mention it’s an extremely affordable entry into true thermal optics?
If you ask us what’s the best thermal scope for the money, the first we’d recommend is the Athlon Optics Argos BTR Illuminated Riflescope. Now, we get that this isn’t a true thermal scope. There’s no battery-powered heat-seeking infrared. It’s just a standard precision scope with some extra special light-catching glass. But here’s why it’s on this list.
Because if you’re looking for a good value and cheap price for low light situations, you’re probably not going to find what you’re looking for with an actual thermal scope. Thermal scopes can get super expensive. And if you’re only going to be using it during dusk or dawn, you may as well get a solid tool that will get the job done without breaking your bank.
If you’re that person who loves to have the premium option, this is the pick for you. The ATN ThOR 4 is one of the best thermal scopes out there. It’s got an ultra-crisp resolution capable of providing a sharp image at some of the furthest ranges of any thermal scope. And it’s not going to give out on you either with its 18+ hour continuous battery life.
The ThOR 4 comes equipped with a dual-stream video recording capacity that stores video right on the installed SD card. And if you’re shooting long range, you don’t need to worry about lugging around your dope cards as the optic has a built-in ballistics calculator. There are only two things really holding back this scope. First, it’s heavy. At 2.2 pounds, it can definitely wear down some shooters. And second—the price tag.
The Thor LT provides a very solid balance of practicality, quality, and affordability when it comes to thermal scopes. It comes with a standard 30 mm tube and a lithium-ion battery that lasts 10+ hours of continuous use. While it’s not the lightest scope on our list, it is pretty close, weighing in at 1.4 pounds. This makes it much easier to carry and only changes your rifle’s balance minimally.
However, if you’re already used to more complex and fully loaded thermal scopes, you might want to pass on this one as it will only leave you wanting more. Plus, you’re going to need to get used to the magnification. It’s either 4x or 8x—no in-between. Also, the One Shot Zero function doesn’t seem to work as well as we’d like.
If our premium choice wasn’t enough for you, then this Pulsar was made for you. This scope takes everything to the next level. For example, it has a 2,500-yard detection range with a 320×240 resolution. This means that the Pulsar Thermion can detect targets at over a mile away and do so with crystal clear quality.
It also has some great extras such as picture-in-picture digital zoom that can be controlled via a smart device, built-in recording with recoil activation, one-shot zeroing, and even 13 variable electronic reticles. And that’s just the beginning. However, if you’re looking for the best, you need to be prepared for the sticker shock (and potential buyer’s remorse) that comes with it.
Purchasing a thermal scope is no easy decision. And it can be particularly daunting given the cost of some of these scopes. You need to make sure that you are buying the best one for your needs.
But what factors should you consider when shopping for one?
To ensure that you get your money’s worth, we’ve put together a buyer’s guide consisting of 10 different criteria to help you zero in on the right thermal scope for you.
It should go without saying, but be sure to find a thermal scope that’s within your budget. A good rule of thumb when purchasing a traditional scope for your rifle is: your scope should cost about as much as your rifle itself.
However, this normally isn’t the case with thermal optics. And that’s because thermals cost much more than standard scopes. So, it’s best to pick a price point that accommodates your wallet. This being said, you might not be able to pick up the best thermal scope on the market.
True entry-level thermal scopes are probably going to run you over $1,000 a piece. So, be prepared to spend some money.
When selecting your new thermal scope, the dimensions of the scope are going to be extremely important. While you generally can’t go wrong with smaller options, be careful when selecting larger scopes. A scope might not seem bulky or unwieldy when held in the hand, but once mounted onto your rifle, you may find yourself shooting uncomfortably.
Plus, the heavier the scope is, the heavier your gun will be. And trekking through the brush with a heavy rifle isn’t a ton of fun.
Also, you need to keep in mind mounting considerations. Are you going to be able to actually mount the scope onto your rifle? Or are you going to need special gear?
Most thermals will mount easily onto any rifle’s Picatinny rail. However, if your rifle is only equipped with dovetails, you’re first going to need to install a mounting base with rail segmentation. And then you’ll need to look into procuring scope rings with the correct mounting height to ensure that you’re at least getting proper clearance
Thermal scopes operate on battery power. And, typically, the more advanced your scope is, the faster its battery is going to deplete due to extra load. You’ll want to investigate how long a single charge will last on each prospective thermal scope you’re going to buy.
Normally, a quality thermal scope battery will last around 8 hours, which is normally sufficient for a single hunting trip. However, if you plan on spending a few days out in the woods, you’re going to want to bring a spare battery, to say the least.
Fortunately, most thermal scopes use lithium-ion batteries that are easy to replace and charge. And some scopes even come with spare batteries for longer excursions.
Most thermal scopes don’t just offer heat vision. They also offer magnification capabilities. This will allow you to further zoom in on your target. However, thermal magnification is a little bit different than other precision scopes.
With a quality precision scope, you’ll maintain target clarity as you zoom in through the glass. However, thermal scopes have a tendency to distort or pixelate as you zoom in. And that’s due to the electronic nature of developing a heat map. That’s why you’ll find that most thermal scopes don’t have as high of a magnification power as true glass.
Also, when examining your potential scope’s magnification, you should inspect the method zoom. Is it digital, optical, or a combination of the two?
Digital zoom is similar to that of the camera you’ll find on your phone. They work great for nearer targets; however, once you cross a certain threshold, you’ll see a dramatic decrease in resolution.
Optical zooms are much more precise and much better for long-range targets. This is because the focusing is often done through an actual lens to deliver a sharper image. Unfortunately, this is not as quick or convenient as a digital zoom.
There are plenty of options available that have a combination of both digital and optical zoom features. This makes for a much more multifaceted optics system and delivers some of the best of both worlds.
When it comes to choosing the best thermal scope, the output resolution is absolutely critical. Resolution is the measure of your scope’s ability to produce a clear, crisp image. The higher the resolution, the clearer images will appear through your scope.
Now, this is important for most scopes in general. But it’s especially important for thermal scopes. And that’s because the image you see will be already distorted due to heat mapping. So, it’s crucial to find a scope with good resolution to minimize the amount of additional distortion and pixelation.
The detection range of a thermal scope is its sensitivity to picking up the infrared heat signatures of different objects and animals at a particular distance. Most thermal scopes won’t have a super-high detection range.
That’s just the limitation of the technology. However, it should be able to pick up heat signatures at a sufficient hunting range.
You’ll also need to be careful when aiming through your thermal because of this. Your rifle will have a much greater effective range of fire than your thermal scope will have detecting heat signatures. So, be sure that you’re absolutely positive you are firing in a safe direction when hunting with your thermal scope.
While refresh rate seems like a simple concept, it’s actually very important to consider when choosing a thermal scope. The refresh rate is the rate at which your scope will refresh the view you are seeing.
On stationary objects, refresh rate has a negligible effect on your view. But, it’s absolutely pivotal when it comes to moving targets. If your target is moving too fast for your scope’s refresh rate, you’ll see your target jump or “teleport” from the lag your scope will experience.
Thermal scopes typically come in two refresh rates: 30 Hz or 60 Hz. 60 Hz is the best of the two options providing a faster refresh rate and the most accurate image. It’s perfect for hunting nimble game and pests such as deer or coyote. However, it is generally the more expensive option.
If you’re hunting larger or less coordinated game such as boar or moose, a 30 Hz refresh rate may be all that you need.
When you imagine heat mapping from infrared, you probably think of bright colors and varying shades of reds, pinks, and purples. And you’d be correct. That’s exactly what a thermal color scope does. These color scopes assign a heat value to different objects and areas which then get assigned a color for your view feed.
However, did you know that there are monochromatic thermal scopes as well? These scopes instead work upon a grayscale that displays warmer objects as a brighter gray or white against a cooler gray or black background.
Although a colored scope can be easier to differentiate minute details, many hunters actually prefer a monochromatic thermal scope. And that’s because they are less harsh on your eyes, perform almost as effectively, and are much cheaper than color gradient scopes.
Reticle selection is another thing you should at least look at when shopping for your scope. A reticle is the “crosshair” pattern that you’ll see when looking through your scope.
And there are tons of different reticles out there! They can be as simple as a standard crosshair or as complex patterns that resemble Christmas trees complete with Mil or MOA (minute of angle) tick measurements.
Each person has their own reticle preference, so check out and see if your favorite reticle display is available for a potential thermal scope purchase.
Once you’ve taken a look at all the aforementioned criteria, you may want to check and see if there are any bonus features associated with your potential thermal scope.
Some scopes come equipped with Bluetooth technology, Wi-Fi streaming, laser rangefinders, GPS, compasses, ballistic calculators, and even video recording capabilities.
While these features can be pretty awesome, they’re not necessary for quality operation. But if you can’t decide between two different thermal scopes, these can be a good tie-breaker.
As you can see, a lot of work and careful deliberation goes into selecting the right thermal scope for your needs. However, it’s a necessary evil as these scopes can literally cost thousands of dollars. You need to ensure that you’re getting exactly what you require and the value for your money.
Our personal favorite scope is the ATN Thermal Rifle Scope. It’s a great entry-level scope for anyone looking to start hunting with thermals as it’s cost-effective and super easy to use. If you’re on a real budget crunch, check out our best value model—the Athlon Optics Argos BTR Illuminated Riflescope. While it’s not a true thermal scope, it does wonders in low-light situations such as dusk and dawn.
Hopefully, through this guide, we’ve been able to point you in the right direction when shopping for your new thermal scope.
Featured image credit: MikeWildadventure, Pixabay
Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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