Thermal scopes are the highest costing gun scopes on the market today. But that hasn’t slowed their sales, worldwide IR optics are growing over 11% a year.
Ever wondered why? Keep reading.
Why Are Thermal Scopes So Expensive
A brief check of rifle scope prices shows one of the most expensive ones is a thermal scope at close to $10,000. Compare that to a Steiner, one of the world’s best rifle scopes, at $5,000.
This begs the question: Why are thermal scopes so expensive?
In a word: technology. The tech and lenses inside thermal imaging cameras and scopes drive prices up.
Did you know that thermal imaging technology dates back to 1929? The first crude thermal camera was created by Hungarian physicist Kalman Tihany, after the discovery of infrared light. Thermal rifle scopes started in the military in WWII, but technology finally caught up with the civilian market in the past 20 years.
Even so, making the parts is an expensive process; unfortunately, few companies make the necessary components. A major expense is germanium, a metallic element that coats the lens sensor in infrared cameras, which helps catch infrared radiation.
Germanium is considered a precious metal. In the US, 60% of germanium goes into optics.
Thermal Scopes vs Thermal Cameras
While the technology is the same, the differences between thermal scopes and thermal cameras can be obvious and subtle.
Starting with subtle, if you don’t pay close attention, you might think this Flir product is a thermal scope.
But in fact, it’s a thermal camera. It’s not a rifle scope as it can’t easily be mounted to a gun, nor does it have a reticle. Essentially, it’s a heat vision camera shaped like an odd-looking telescope.
Some other subtle differences between the thermal cameras and scope are:
Recording – Some optics record and some don’t.
Size – A smaller telescope-style thermal camera is shorter than a rifle scope.
Features – Top-end imagers come with added capabilities like Bluetooth, WiFi, and ballistics calculators to better dial in your shot, and some allow you to track GPS tags.
Some thermal rifle scopes may look like a video camera instead of a scope. If it has a picatinny rail for mounting to a gun, it’s a rifle scope.
Now for some obvious differences.
Some thermal rifle scopes look a lot like traditional scopes. You have to look closely to realize it’s a thermal scope. But there’s no mistaking these for a camera-only optic.
Now, some thermal cameras look like small digital cameras in that they’re flat and have a rectangular screen on the back, looking like a box with a handle, kind of like a radar gun.
This kind is commonly used by public safety departments like the fire department and police department. These usually have a large screen and high resolution to let the user see as much detail as possible.
Both provide a thermal image on a screen and use a lens to gather and focus the infrared light from a heat source. (1)
The rifle scope can be used for tracking, but it’s unwieldy having to hold the gun up to your shoulder to look through the lens to gain a thermographic view.
On the other hand, thermal imaging cameras have a wider area of use. In medical settings, they’re used to find hot spots on a body that can indicate infection or another problem. Search and rescue use handheld thermal cameras to find people.
Even construction companies use these cameras to look at a house, using the detector to show where more insulation material is needed. Research labs use these devices to track and monitor heat… and there are many more examples you probably haven’t realized.
Are Thermal Scopes Worth the Money?
Thermal scopes are worth the money for the right person, based on the following factors.
Infrared devices cost a lot compared to traditional optics. Ask these two questions to start:
- Is it affordable and within the budget you set?
- Is there a cheaper alternative?
How often will you actually use the scope, and what for? If you plan to shoot with it only a few times a year, that is a lot of money to spend on something that gets little use.
If you plan to do a lot of night hunts, it can be a good investment.
For example, if you live in or near a place with a hog problem, then night hunts regularly can be something you do. A good night optic will keep you in the chase all year long (where allowed), put meat in the freezer, and help farmers and other wildlife. (2)
What we mean by compatible is whether the scope can stand up to your rifle’s recoil and reach the distances you are comfortable shooting.
High-performance scopes will stand up to the recoil of a .300 WinMag. Some are even rated as high as the .375 H&H, which is enough for dangerous game. All thermal rifle scopes made today will handle the recoil of guns up to the .30-06.
Distance is a factor too. Rifle scopes have the longest reach. Even so, only the best detector can pick up a heat source at 2,000 yards.
To accurately identify heat sources, for a man or deer-sized target, the distance is halved or less. Many scopes with a 2,000-yard detector range need to be within 800 yards to clearly identify a 225-pound target, whether that be a human, bear, deer, or wolf. Smaller targets must be closer still.
Thermal Imaging Alternatives That Are Cheaper
If a thermal imager is too expensive, you have two choices for night hunts.
A spotlight is the cheapest option, but it’s not always legal. If it’s legal, it may have power restrictions. Georgia, for instance, limits night hunting spotlights to 6 volts and less. However, this is plenty of power for most hunters.
If you use a spotlight, consider one with a red filter. Red light is not visible to most nocturnal animals, so the red filtered light will not spook your target.
Night vision devices, also called infrared, IR or NV, are still used, but most hunters prefer thermal imagers. IR requires some visible light, either from the moon or an infrared light used with the device.
However, IR cannot be used during the day as ambient light from the sun will damage the internal sensors. NV’s range is much shorter than heat vision scopes.
IR devices cost less than thermal cameras and, with the proper care, will last as long as the other. (3)
Thermal Optics for AR-15
Though expensive, thermal imaging has seen an explosion in use over the past decades. Thermal optics being used with AR-15s has become particularly popular, as it allows you to hunt large quantities of hogs at the same time. Make sure to check out our full article on the topic if this interests you.
Are ATN thermal scopes any good?
Yes, ATN thermal scopes are good quality. ATN products used to be subpar, but the company has stepped up quality control in recent years and now makes quality optics. The customer service department also gets high marks from customers in forums online.
Will thermal scopes get cheaper?
Thermal optics probably won’t get cheaper. Why? The materials and production costs, for one. They’re expensive to make, which means demand is low. Few companies make these scopes because of the low demand compared to visible light optics. Milling a lens is cheap, but the rest of the manufacturing is not.
Another factor is the general rising cost of everything: fuel, labor, raw materials, and so forth.
- HowStuffWorks, How Thermal Imaging Works, retrieved from https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/thermal-imaging.htm
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Little-Known Threat to Wild Turkeys, retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/04/04/little-known-threat-wild-turkeys
- Optics Planet, Thermal Imaging vs. Night Vision Devices, retrieved from https://www.opticsplanet.com/howto/how-to-thermal-imaging-vs-night-vision-devices.html
I have been writing firearms and outdoor material for over 50 years to date. I have hunted across the world, including Russia, and a great deal of time professional hunting in Australia. I currently live in the American West and hunt all across the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Big Horn Mountains. I have specialized much of my work as a load developer in shotguns and rifles. I have run a small company that builds suppressor barrels of my design and load tests for writing purposes and consulting. My commercial names include Ballistics Research & Development / Metro Gun Systems TM.
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