Nightvision Q&A Session

While I continue to slog away on the NVG videos, I’ve had some really good back and forths with other shooters interested in working in the dark. This is a Q&A session that originally took place forumside…

Q: I’ve read that thermals have a useful lifespan before something or other inside wears/burns out?

A: Not so! Thermal cores run forever unless you point them at the sun and leave them there. They manufacturers warranty them for a decade.

That’s image intensifier tubes you’re thinking of that have a lifespan.

Different people generally peg an I2 tubes life at 10,000 hours runtime. That means if you were using them for 5 hours a night every single night, that’s 5 and a half years life on that tube.

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Q: What are your thoughts on a black and white image vs the traditional green? Some have told me that the contrast is not much different and is there a “wow” factor difference between FOM 1600-1799 vs 1800-2000? I guess what I am asking is it worth the $1500.00 difference. Thank you

A: The White Phosphor versus traditional Green Phosphor isn’t exceptionally meaningful. It’s just an alternate tone, not a distinct advantage. Anyone telling you that WP tubes have better contrast or are better in sync with your eye’s evolution have bought into the marketing.

There’s nothing wrong with WP. I’ve got one and I like it. But there’s no serious advantage either.

I’d say the higher figure of merits are noticeable only if you’ve looked through a lot of NVGs and spent more than 5 minutes continually looking through one. But they are noticeable. Personally I think $1500 is a lot of money for a little upgrade, but if you’re gunning for the best why not get the best?

Q: I am finally in a spot to get myself a nice expensive weapon sight that can allow me to see in the dark. I know that I will be spending 5 -10 grand. I have done some research on night vision products. I know little about thermal imaging however. What’s the best bang for your buck? What’s a more useful tool or is it situation based? I like the fact that thermal can see through fog.

Also do you recommend a weapon, hand or head mounted unit?
-Nate

A: I wrote parts of this article when I worked at Scout Basecamp, a company which sold night vision and thermal. I don’t work there any more and from what I understand their night vision offerings are no long so robust, but they are a major place to get thermal. If you’re looking for NV in Canada there are a few Canadian companies who retail stuff and one major mil-spec manufacturer: GSCI.

From a technological standpoint there are very different things happening when you use thermals compared to running an NVD. But there’s also some decisions to be made about what might work best for you, depending on what you are asking your equipment to do.

Night vision intensifiers are amplifying the existing light. This means that the tube inside of them is enhancing light that is barely there and filtering it through a series of photon replicating micro channel plates to your eye. There’s a lot more going on in there, but the key idea is that an NVD takes the light already present and makes more of it.

Thermal imagers on the other hand use a microbolometer to detect the infrared radiation emitted by objects around you. When infrared radiation is focused onto the uncooled detector, the heat absorbed causes changes to the electrical properties of the detector material. These changes can be compared to a base value and used to create a thermal image. The key advantage here is that thermals will highlight and differentiate the environment regardless of light. Rather than brightening the image, they are reading the radiation which produces a spectrum of different heat levels.

Most western militaries issue their soldiers with NVGs of some kind, as the ability to conduct operations at night has proven a major advantage in all recent conflicts. Thermal units have come down dramatically in price, more than 50% in the past ten years to the point that they are similarily priced to night vision units.

Those expensive long distance thermal units do have the benefit of reaching further than any hand held night vision device. A decent FLIR unit can effectively detect a man sized signature well past 500 meters, while most night vision scopes are only 3X or 5X magnification. There’s nothing in the lineup of traditional nightvision devices that will do long range like the BTS units with their telephoto lenses.

*This is the important part* Night vision devices are better for close range awareness and navigation though. Because all these units are sensitive to IR light you can use a variety of tools like beacons, strobes, friendly indicators, and IR lasers that are only visible to people wearing nightvision. Thermal units only identify heat, so they don’t care which uniform your wearing, but they can pick out a camouflaged person from their surrounding instantly. They are ideal for detection, but limited when it comes to identification.

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FLIR units are also easier to pickup and use. Make sure they’re charged, and that’s pretty much all the maintenance they need. There’s no finicky focusing like the first two generations of NVDs, and no light restrictions at all. This means they also aren’t constrained to night-time activities. As an outdoorsman, FLIR can have multiple roles in your pack: As a scanning tool, as a confirmation tool, and as a night navigation unit.

Some thoughts: No matter what you pick, the biggest limitation will be your nationality, not your wallet. If we were in Texas I’d encourage you to spend $8,000 and get yourself a decent PVS-14 and a Thermosight RS. That would give you everything you’d want all at once. But we’re in Canada, so you’re going to have to make do with what you can find available here.

Some key questions you have to answer for yourself are:
Do I want to move under NVGs, or observe a scene from a static position?
Do I need my low-light solution to be integrated with a firearm?
What will my primary use for this device be? What auxiliary uses might it have?

Q: First thanks for the great response, I can tell you I will be picking your brain for a while. In a nutshell I answered your questions above. Any chance you could recommend a few rigs from the high high end of equipment to what will get you by?

Do I want to move under NVGs, or observe a scene from a static position?

-Most like from a static position. I see a equal value tho in moving, so both!

Do I need my low-light solution to be integrated with a firearm?

-Yes

What will my primary use for this device be? What auxiliary uses might it have?

-Navigation
-Target Identification
-Destroying Threats

Regards,

Nate

A: Nate, the next question for you is: What kind of range do you need to shoot at?

If you’re under 100 yards, I’d suggest a helmet mounted monocular and an IR laser. If you’re over a hundred yards, I’d recommend a helmet mounted monocular and a semi-permanent night optic on your rifle. Something like a fixed 4x or 5x, or a clip on system if you’ve got the rail space. Clip ons require more real estate and are heavier, but also have the big advantage of not interfering with your zero, cheek weld, eye relief, etc.

For the navigation side of things a helmet mounted monocular really is the best solution. But remember that phrase has two other words in front of monocular! You’ll need to find a helmet and a mount.

So lets build an affordable kit:

Protec Bravo Helmet: $89
GSCI GS-14 Gen 2 dovetail mount: $2699
Armasight 4x Orion with IR Illuminator: $649
Dovetail Arm: $70
Helmet shroud and Flip Up Mount: $200 new, but you can find them at lots of military surplus stores for less. Best deal I ever got on one was $15

So that’s put you at just over $3700 with two fully functioning devices if I’ve done my math right. However you might find that dovetails not as stable as you’d like, and that the Orion really need regular assistance from that IR illuminator to be worth anything. And maybe the GS-14 isn’t a true 40 degree field of view, which can make life just a little bit harder when you’re moving around.

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Protip: when night vision is working well, really well, then it feels like a spotlight only you can see. The rest of the world is still there, but you move this “illuminated point” over it by moving your head around. That’s what integration is supposed to feel like.

Now lets build an expensive (but not gucci) kit:

Ops-Core Bump Helmet: $300
A pair of PVS-14 Monoculars: $7000
Dual Bridge Mount: $600
Wilcox Flip Up Mount: $400
DBAL with IR: $1500
CO-MR Clip On: $2195

So there you’re right at $12K, and you’ve got 3 top notch night vision devices in a very solid setup.

Beyond that, you get into Horta territory where you’re building fusion devices and spending astronomical sums of money. He’s a crazy guy.

If you haven’t, you should spend an hour or two looking around TNVC’s web store just to get an idea of how much good stuff is out there. But do so with the understanding that they will never, ever ship to you. They take ITAR very seriously.

That’s it for now! If you have any questions yourself don’t hesistate to get in touch with me.

  • ACR

    Great read, what a way to use your resources to be able to give people an insight on something that most people could not put together! And hey from ActionCloseReviews!