A Beginner's Guide to Night Vision Riflescopes


Shooting with a night vision riflescope is a wonderful experience, as you can make excellent shots using it. This device will defend you from unwanted hazards, as well.

Before buying any night vision scope for rifles, you should know the most important features of the equipment. As a beginner, it’s also recommended to learn the basics of these device. That’s what we’re here to cover, particularly for those new to firearms and optics generally. It’s easy for many of us to forget the learning curve to took to get here when educating new shooters. This guide is here to give the basics and help kickstart your research so you can pick the perfect rifle scope.

Basic question, right? A night vision scope is a device that enhances your vision at night for hunting and shooting purposes. They’re widely used in law enforcement and military application as well and operate on several well-established optical principles.

What Is A Night Vision Scope?

Basic question, right? A night vision scope is a device that enhances your vision at night for hunting and shooting purposes. They’re widely used in law enforcement and military application as well and operate on several well-established optical principles.

Like a typical scope, they are mounted on a rifle and provide long-distance viewing for targets at range. The viewable are can be magnified based on your requirements in the field.

Technologies Behind The Night Vision

Night vision technologies can be broadly classified into three main categories: image enhancement, active illumination, and thermal imaging. If you want to pick the best night vision rifle scope, you should know how each of these technologies work.

Image Enhancement

This is the traditional technology that largely relies on natural light sources like moonlight or starlight. The objective lens receives ambient light as well as some IR light as photons from these sources. Then, this light is converted into electrons through the image intensifier tube component named photo-cathode.

The image intensifier tube starts with a vacuum tube-based device. After that, electrons are multiplied in the micro-channel-plate. Finally, these electrons hit the screen of phosphor allowing the viewer to see green or white images.

Naturally, the output image is brighter than the source image, hence the terms “image enhancement” or “image intensification” for the technology. The devices that use image enhancement technology are widely known as night vision devices (NVDs), and most night vision devices use this technology.

Active Illumination

In this technology, the image intensification technology is coupled with an active illumination source. The illuminator’s spectral band works in the shortwave or in the near-infrared (700 to 1000 nm) band that combines with CCD cameras. The combination of technologies provides higher resolution images than other technologies.

Thermal Imaging

Thermal imaging detects heat radiation from objects. While the other two technologies can fail to resolve targets in fog, smoke, rain, or in the darkest situations, thermal imaging technology will still work. This technology is widely used for security, aircraft, and firefighting purposes. You might hear about the FLIR (forward-looking infrared), which is actually applied thermal imaging technology.

The Generations of Night Vision

Night vision optics evolved through several generations typically referred to as Gen 0, Gen 1, Gen 2, Gen 3, and Gen 4.

Gen 0 devices represent the various devices originating during the research phase of NVDs prior to World War II. All are difficult to find and completely obsolete compared to anything on the market nowadays. These devices used powerful IR illuminators, anode, and S-1 photocathode.

Gen 1 NVDs introduced passive IR light and are sometimes called “starlight” scopes for obvious reasons. First used in the Vietnam War, these devices worked up to an amazing 75 yards in the dark but image distortion was almost the same as the earlier-generation devices.

Gen 2, developed in the 1970s, represented the arrival of night vision devices that we’d recognize today. The main improvement in this generation was introducing the micro-channel-plate (MCP) with the help of an S-25 photocathode. Output image quality and battery life were greatly improved, and these devices became quite useful for hunting and shooting.

Gen 3 brought further improvements with a gallium arsenide (GaAs) photocathode and ion-barrier in the MCP. This was the main development in this generation, resulting in devices perfectly usable for tactical applications, both firearm- and helmet-mounted.

Gen 4 is defined mainly by the elimination of the ion-barrier and automatic adjustment to the ambient light. They are the latest NVDs but don’t have recognition of the United States army yet. These devices are superb functional but more expensive than other generation units.

What to Look For When Choosing A Night Vision Riflescope

With that knowledge of night vision technologies and generations laid out, let’s have a look at the important features that you must consider while buying the night vision scope for rifles.

General Optic Specs

When you first look at any scope, you find it designated by two numbers. If you’re new to optics, you might be wondering what do they mean. If you’re used to shooting, this will seem pretty basic, but it’s always someone’s first time learning about these things, so bear with us.

If you take a scope showing 5-18x40mm, the first part (5-18) before the X indicates magnification. This scope would have a magnification range of between 5x and 18x what you’d see with the naked eye. The second number (40) denotes the objective lens diameter.

Let’s say you spot a deer 100 yards away with the naked eye and want to pick it up through the scope. By opting for magnification of 10x, you can see the deer as if it were only 10 yards away (100 divided by 10). Optics really are amazing!


The drawback to magnification is that the higher you set it, the smaller the field of view will be. This means you might lose that deer because you can only see a small area of the area in front of you. So, don’t use unnecessary magnification. Naturally, long-range shooters typically prefer larger-magnification optics.

Magnification of NVDs might be fixed or variable, meaning there might be a single number in its specs or a range. Typically, the variable option is the more convenient choice and gives you more flexibility.

Objective Lens

This is another important feature for optical devices that might not be apparent to new shooters. A bigger objective lens captures more light than a small diameter lens. This is why you will get brighter images from larger diameter scopes. Scopes size is largely dictated by lens dimensions. So, bigger is always better.

Normally, a 25mm diameter works pretty well for short-range engagement, i.e., out to 100 yards or so. A 50mm or greater diameter lens is the preferred size for a long-range shooter.

Fully Multi-Coated Lens

Because the performance of an NVD is often even more light-dependent than a typical scope, lens coating is another important spec that directly affects image quality. Different coatings are available on the market, but a multi-coated lens is typically the most advantageous option, offering a sharp, high-resolution image. Generally, later generation devices will have superior coatings and hence better image output.


Night vision scopes are sophisticated electronic devices that tend to be less sturdy than the standard optics. More components plus electronics means more things that can break. Depending on your intended use, you’ll want to keep durability features in mind. It’s also more than just impact resistance since you should pick a model that can withstand harsh weather. Most of quality NVDs have water, rain, and fog resistance features.


How much range night vision can cover? This is one of the most frequent questions for beginners. NVDs can’t compete with day-vision scopes for maximum range, so adjust your expectations accordingly. However, top-notch night vision scopes can function well out to approximately 300 yards. That said, the price of the scope will increase with its range.


There’s no getting around that most night vision devices are expensive. As you’d expect, their prices increase with generations with final prices coming in anywhere between $500 and $40000. If you are looking for an affordable unit, there’s no shortage of information out there, but for my two cents, I’ve had great luck with the Pulsar digital NVD.

Without a doubt, night vision scopes will completely change your hunting or shooting experience. You should balance among the above-mentioned features while buying the riflescope. As a first-timer, choose the best-fitted scope according to your research. If you’re just starting down this road, I hope we’ve made your task will be easier after reading this article. Have a great night shooting with NVD!

For more content on night vision hunting, check out this video we did with Team JP member Nathan Payne all about his coyote hunting experience and recommendations:

Perfecting Your Coyote Hunt w/ Nathan Payne


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