Thermal Optics For Tactical And Hunting Applications

How practical are thermal optics for hunting and tactical operations? Do they work as advertised? We’ll come up with some answers for you here!

At The Outset

Back in the early 1990s, I was in one of my agency’s first sniper classes. Things were just getting started, and we didn’t have a lot of equipment. And what we had was rather…basic. We had no high-tech gear to use to our advantage.

Our rifles consisted of the Remington 700 PSS in .308, topped with Leupold Tactical 3.5-10x40mm scopes. Very adequate for our needs, but very basic. Incidentally, the FBI snipers whom we sometimes trained with were armed with similar weaponry at that point in time.

There were no laser rangefinders for us. We were just beginning to explore night vision. Thermal optics was something that the Navy SEALs and other special ops guys used; our budget didn’t allow for such extravagances.

It sort of reminds me of the movie, “The Rock,” where Sean Connery mentions, “Back in my day, we did it all with a snorkel and fins.” Yep, we were working with the bare-bones basics. As a matter of fact, we bought most of our support gear with our own money!

These days, the commercial market is filled with all sorts of goodies and electronics that we can buy right off the shelves. This would include thermal optics of all sorts. Some are monoculars, others are rifle scopes. Some cost under $1,000, while others cost…well, use your imagination. How much cash do you have? Because the sky is the limit.

It goes without saying that a thermal scope is going to be far and above what a normal rifle scope will cost.

What does a thermal optic do?

Each scope or monocular has a camera that turns heat into a visible image called a thermogram. That image is then transmitted to a small screen where it can be seen. Basically on the scope, that acts like the ocular lens. That’s an oversimplification, but being a simple guy, it works for me.

Image from a thermal sight.
Hog hunters love thermal scopes to stalk their quarry. Here we see the thermogram in color. (Photo: Optics Planet)

Thermal Optic Features

Here are some of the features to consider when shopping for a thermal optic.

Resolution And Magnification

Two important factors in thermal scopes are resolution and magnification. A high magnification or zoom necessitates a high thermal sensor resolution in order to produce a high-quality image. In short, high magnification requires high resolution.

It’s important to know that we’re not looking at an actual object as we would be with a regular scope; we’re looking at a computer-generated image on a tiny television screen. If the resolution is not high, we will not get a clear image. And considering that we’re planning on possibly shooting what’s on our image screen, it’s important for us to have good clarity to Positively Identify the target.

Refresh Rate

The refresh rate is a measurement of how rapidly an image on our thermal imager refreshes. If the refresh rate is slow, then we won’t see a sharp picture and we’ll have problems following a moving target.


Like everything else, the electronics for thermal scopes are shrinking as technology advances. They started out massive, but are shrinking all the time. At present, they are still heavier than standard scopes, with many weighing in at over five pounds. This is a consideration for hunting, military, or tactical operations. For those lugging them around, the lighter, the better (as it is for all equipment).

Thermal scope mounted to a rifle.
Thermal scopes are typically not small. And they weigh considerably more than standard rifle scopes. (Photo courtesy of


As with many gadgets these days, the more money we have at our disposal, the more options open up for us. Built-in rangefinders, wi-fi links for video recording, Bluetooth remote control, rechargeable batteries, and various electronic reticles are just a few features we can look for. Some units are even water-resistant. On some scopes, there’s a feature that senses recoil, which will record a certain amount of video before and after the scope senses recoil, so it saves space on the SD card.

Scopes interpret colors in various ways: black hot and white hot are a few options. The black areas will be hotter, or the white areas will be hotter, respectively. Those are just two, there are more options on the market, with some options being a wide range of colors.


Monoculars typically cost a lot less than dedicated rifle scopes, so there is a cost savings factor there. Plus, they can be used as stand-alone devices. If you have a night vision scope, you can locate targets with your thermal monocular and then zero in on the target with the rifle’s night vision scope.

Uses for Thermal Optics

Thermal optics prove useful in several applications.


One of the most popular uses for thermal scopes today seems to be in the pursuit of hunting hogs, which is often conducted at night. As well, coyote hunters sometimes operate at night.

One caveat is that target identification is more difficult with thermal than with night vision. If using thermal, you’ll want to be able to say with confidence that you have a hog in your sights as opposed to a neighbor’s dog.


Because thermal images are not as detailed as night vision, you’ll be able to tell that you have a person in your sight. However, you likely will not be able to differentiate which person you have in your sight, so target ID with thermal is not optimal. And when you’re about to drop the hammer on a live person, identification becomes rather paramount.

However, you’ll be able to see through shadows and camouflage with thermal. With standard night vision, you may not be able to do that.

Hostage Rescue Teams and other tactical units do use these types of sights currently.


If you have a perimeter set up and you’re simply trying to defend against the enemy infiltrating, thermal is just about perfect. Anyone outside your perimeter is probably the enemy, so you don’t really need facial-recognition-type clarity. You just need to see if someone is coming in. And you can do it through the fog and other impediments.

ATN's Thor 2.5-25X thermal sight.
ATN’s Thor 2.5-25X50mm thermal rifle scope is packed with neat features! Photo: GunMag Warehouse.

A current thermal sight for the US Military is the AN/PAS-13B. The Medium version has a 5x magnification and the Heavy version has 10x magnification. The scopes weigh 5 and 5.5 pounds respectively, so they are not light units. Nor are they small units, being over 15 and 18 inches long respectively.

Other Uses — Fire, EMS, SAR

Fire Departments and EMS use thermal sights for finding victims in rescues. They can see if there are victims inside a structure that is risky to enter without having to go in and search a dangerous area or vehicle. If a victim is found, they can better see what location the victim is in so an extrication can be planned.

Also, search & rescue units sometimes use thermal because of its advantages over night vision. An entire field or area can be searched in seconds, drastically cutting search time and exposing personnel to fewer risks.

A Few Pros & Cons of Thermal Optics

A thermal optic can’t pick up tiny details like a night vision scope can, but it requires no visible light in order to work. This makes it more versatile than standard night vision. They can be used in daylight and the dark. Also, they can see through smoke, fog, and dust.

Another aspect is that with night vision, a target can hide behind concealment and be invisible. With thermal, a target can be seen behind cover because of the temperature difference. The thermal sight picks up anything warmer than its background. This makes living things stick out like a sore thumb.

On the other hand, night vision scopes are more durable than thermal scopes at this time. One of the downsides of thermal is that cold weather can adversely affect the quality of the image that we see.

A Few of the Sights

We’ve already mentioned the AN/PAS-13 above that the military uses. Many others are out on the market, and they’re too numerous to mention here in one article. We’ll just look at a couple to initiate the reader’s thirst for searching.

ATN ThOR 4 640 Smart HD 2.5-25x50mm Thermal 30mm Rifle Scope

This unit has a rechargeable battery that allows up to 16 hours of run time. The next-gen sensor provides 60Hz and 25mK of thermal imaging. There are three modes to choose from (White Hot, Black Hot, and Color Mode). It is BlueTooth compatible and also has live-stream capabilities and will record video up to 60FPS. It is SD card compatible and has an onboard ballistic calculator.

ATN’s Thor 2.5-25X50mm thermal rifle scope is packed with neat features! (Photo: GunMag Warehouse)

There are other features, but I don’t want to bog us down in all of them. Suffice to say that this scope will do a lot for the user, and do it pretty well.  At the time of writing, this scope’s price is $3,699.99.

ATN ThOR-LT 160 3-6X Thermal 30mm Rifle Scope.

This scope provides 60 HZ of thermal imaging and has either black-hot or white-hot modes. The rechargeable lithium battery has up to 10 hours of battery life. While this scope has fewer features than the one above, it also has a much smaller price tag (at the time of writing, it costs $899.99.

ATN’s Thor 3-6X scope has slightly fewer features but at a lower price point. (Photo: GunMag Warehouse)

ATN OTS – XLT 160 2-8X Thermal Monocular

This is a stand-alone, hand-held monocular with 60HZ of thermal imaging. The user controls the brightness settings, as well as White Hot, Black Hot, and Color modes. It can take videos as well as capture pictures. The lithium battery is rechargeable and lasts up to 10 hours. As this is written, the price is $599.99. These type of units are more affordable for more people, obviously.

ATN OTS-XLT 160 2-8X Thermal Monocular
ATN OTS-XLT 160 2-8X Thermal Monocular.

These are just a couple, but there are many more out there. GunMag Warehouse is a good site to peruse if you’re looking to seriously purchase an optic.

Final Thoughts

We see that there are a number of uses for this technology in today’s world. Police, Fire, SAR Units, Tactical Teams, Military, and Hunters/Private Citizens can all find splendid uses for this equipment.

It’s constantly being updated, just like night vision technology, so look for amazing advancements in the future. At present time, it’s pretty darn cool. It’ll stay darn cool, but just get smaller. And likely imaging will improve as things move along.

How practical are these scopes? It all depends on your wallet and your operational needs, really. Although they have some drawbacks, they also offer advantages, both of which need to be weighed out for the user.

We’d love to hear from readers who have experience with this technology, so feel free to leave a comment!

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities. He is a dedicated Christian and attributes any skills that he has to the glory of God.

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