Best Thermal Scope for Your AR – With Todd Huey

Best Thermal Scope
Editor’s note: this article was updated in January 2019 to include a new thermal scope…scroll to the bottom of this page for that important update.

What is the best thermal scope for your AR for hunting or general usage?  What’s the best night vision for the cost?  ARBuildJunkie recently sat down with professional depredation hunter Todd Huey of Lone Star Boars and Huey Outdoors to discuss the bottom line when it comes to weapons-mounted night vision and thermal scopes.

We get a lot of questions on the topic of “Best Thermal Scope”, and who better than the man who is in the field, day in, day out with these devices?  He’s used them all at length, where they have assisted him with many of his almost 7,000 hogs eliminated. 

Also, just in case you missed our earlier article with Todd about what is the best cartridge for hog hunting, please click here.

Best Thermal Scope

Q:  Todd, can we start off with just a bit of background on Huey Outdoors, and the advantage of reaching out to you for this information about the best thermal scope and night vision?

A:  The advantage to Huey Outdoors is, I guess…me.  You have lots of people who sell night vision and thermal.  Everybody is getting into it.  But these stores, they have no idea. Most of them have never even turned on a unit. You can call them up…They can tell you the price and they can tell you what it says on the outside of the box, but as far as how to use it or what it looks like in the field, most of them have no clue.

I use every unit before I put it on my page.  I’ve been out in the field with it for an extended time.  Most of the thermals that are out there, I ran the prototypes of and gave feedback on them to the companies to get them where they are.

World-Class Support

The support is another benefit.  When you call my store number, if I’m not at the office, it will ring on my cell phone.  If you’re out doing your hunt, I’m generally hunting as well.  If my phone rings, I’ll answer it and I walk you through it. Also, I can help you find the solution that is right for the individual.  I’m not going to tell you something is the best thing going just because I have ten of them sitting on the shelf.  You’re not going to get that from me.

Best Thermal Scope

Q:  So, before we get into what is the best thermal scope, why exactly do you need thermal or night vision for hog hunting?

A:  Feral hogs, they’re not really that nocturnal.  They used to be out in the day timeThe first thousand pigs I killed were all in the day time. But due to the pressure that has been put on them and them being smart, they have almost all gone nocturnal.  You’ll see some in the day time every once in a while, but for the most part, if you want to hunt hogs you have to hunt at night time.

Best Thermal Scope
Photo via Todd’s Facebook page.  

Q:  Some would say, “well just shine some lights on them”…can you talk about using lights for this purpose?

A:  Lights are really not that effective.  You can kill hogs with lights.  People do it all the time.  That said, hogs may not run off from lights the first time because they don’t know what it is…but once they get shot at from a light source, they are never going to sit still again.

I’ve hunted with people before that say “I kill hogs all the time with lights and they don’t run off.”  I’ll go with them and I have thermal and I show them the amount of hogs they are actually missing that are running off they never, ever saw…because their lights didn’t go that far…or the hogs saw them way off.

Best Night Vision Scope

Q:  Before we get into what the best thermal scope is, can we briefly talk about what to look at as far as night vision?

A:  As far as night vision goes, a helmet mounted PVS-14 is the workhorse.  If you’re just hunting from a stand and watching a feeder, it may not be necessary.  But if you are going to either drive an ATV looking for them or walk and stalk, then a helmet mounted PVS-14 is really nice to have because you are able to see the animals while you are walking…watching, you are able to see holes and navigate and move without falling down and running into things.   You can also use a PVS-14 with an IR laser illuminator mounted to your rifle to aim with.

best thermal scope
“As far as night vision goes, a helmet mounted PVS-14 is the workhorse.”

Alternatively, you can mount it to a rifle.  Now, a PVS-14 is only rated up to 5.56, which is light for hogs, but you can mount it on a rifle behind a night-vision safe optic like certain EOTechs, Aimpoints or Trijicon sights.  So you can use it that way as well.  It’s kind of the jack of all trades.

Digital Night Vision Scope

Best Thermal Scope
Photon RT Digital Night Vision

To cheaply get into the night hunting game, there is also digital night vision.  Stuff like the Photon RT, which is a digital night vision device, works a lot like a digital camera does.

Any digital camera that you use can see the IR spectrum, which is what night vision sees.  But they put a filter in your standard Canon or Nikon digital camera that filters out that light so your pictures come out looking right.  For digital night vision, they use that same digital sensor in there, but they remove that filter and then it can see at night with the aid of an IR illuminator.

Limits of Digital Night Vision

I have not seen any digital night vision that will see on a dark night without IR illumination added to it, but you’re talking about a price range around 500 dollars and some change for the Photon RT.  You’re not going to be able to see thru grass, but you can see hogs out in a pasture, provided it’s a black hog against green grass.

One thing to note though is vegetation reflects IR light very well.  So, if a hog gets back in some trees or something like that, with digital night vision and  IR illumination…imagine shining a flashlight at a mirror.  It blinds you because that light is coming back at you…so you really have to have open fields for this method to work effectively.

Q:  What about thermal?  What’s the bottom line?  There’s a lot of options…they are expensive and it gets confusing.  Can you break it down for us, give is the ‘why’ and the ‘what’?

A:  Simply put, thermal trumps night vision like crazy.  For example, this weekend there was no moon. It was kind of raining.  So, like I said previously, when a black hog gets up on a tree line, if they are in a plowed field with black dirt, they are almost impossible to see.

Thermal doesn’t use any light.  It detects heat.  So, when you look with thermal, there’s no hiding. They’re not camouflaged up against that tree line.

Night Vision vs. Thermal

We had another hog this weekend that was in some tall grass. With the night vision, you could not see the hog, but with thermal we could see him back there in the grass and we were able to kill him.  We would never have been able to see him in the daytime, much less at night time with night vision.

Best Thermal Scope – Avoid the Low-End

There are some low-end thermal weapon sights out there.  These low-end thermals are in the 2,000-dollar range.  There’s a couple that are even below the 2,000-dollar range.  They don’t have focus…they don’t have a lot of features.  They are mostly set to be focused at 50 yards.  I advise skipping.

Todd’s recommended thermal scopes in action.

Best Thermal Scope – Entry Level:  Pulsar Apex

If we’re looking at what the best thermal scope is, really the first affordable one that will really work for you is probably the Pulsar Apex series…the XQ38 or XQ50.  Now, they are still bare bones.  They don’t have battery packs.  They don’t have recording…You have to hook those externally to them, but they have a very good image.  They are also focusable.

Best Thermal Scope
Pulsar Apex XQ50

Most of the farmers I work with, this is what they’re buying because they don’t care about internal video.  They just want to go out and kill stuff.  So, to get into the thermal game you’re talking about 2,400 dollars and up for one that really works.

Best Thermal Scope – A Step Up: Pulsar Trail

Best Thermal Scope
Pulsar XP50 Trail

The bottom line that I consider acceptable is the Pulsar Apex’s.  From there, you go up to the Pulsar Trails, which are really nice weapons sights.  They have a good image. They have an onboard battery pack…onboard video recording so you can share it with your friends on social media or just go back and review what happened…Like, if you think you hit it and the hog ran off, you can go back and watch and see what happened.  You can review and correct yourself and learn from your mistakes. They have Wi-Fi where if you are out hunting with your kid, you can actually watch on your phone what they are looking at, which is kind of cool.

Best Thermal Scope – The Top Choice: Trijicon Reap-IR

Then up from the Pulsars, you have the Trijicon. These are then creme of the crop…the best thermal scope, and the one I’d recommend over everything else.  They have the best image, they are built very tough.  But they are the most expensive.

Todd give an overview of the differnce between 60, 35 and 20mm scopes on the Trijicon.

Q:  Todd…so beyond the Pulsar and the Trijicon, any others you’d say to look at, or perhaps avoid, in your experience?

Todd speaks about a product not mentioned in this article he’d not recommend in his experience.  

A:  FLIR used to be the top dog for thermal optics but they’ve kind of fallen behind.  They don’t even have a current 640 unit out.  Their customer service is more aligned to government contracts than civilians.  They are rather anti-hunting.  So, I do sell them in the store because people want FLIR because FLIR is synonymous with thermal. Some people want that because that’s what they know.

But really, the only real things out at this point in time that I would consider buying if I was buying thermal would be Pulsar or Trijicon.

(Editors note:  We will be updating this article as is needed.  November 2018)

Best Thermal Scope – Cost Considerations

For farmers, it’s a no brainer.  I just left a cattle ranch, Mount Pleasant Beef Company, where they grow 100% grass fed beef.  Being 100% grass fed, any damage to the fields out there is going to directly impact how much feed they have for the cows.  Not to mention the diseases and stuff…Even a small corn farmer I know estimates he loses between 30-60,000 dollars a year to hog damage on his corn crop.  I hunt another cattle ranch that does Waygu beef that feeds protein.  They estimate that 30-40 percent of their feed is getting consumed by the hogs.  That gets expensive when you are talking about thousands of cattle. 

Best Thermal Scope – Taking Your Hobby Seriously

For the average hobbyist or person that wants to go out…I hear people say wow that’s expensive, and then they go out and buy a 15-20,000-dollar Harley-Davidson.  It depends on what your hobby is.  For me, it was a hobby before it became a job.  For me getting out into the woods and being quiet and relaxed and even if I was just looking at the stars with the night vision, and the different animals…it was a get-away for me.  It was relaxing.  Not to mention its fun getting to use all of the latest stuff.

But if it’s your hobby, it’s not so expensive, in my opinion.  My decked-out Polaris Ranger ATV…the list price on it with all of the accessories is $28,000 dollars.  People take those out twice a year to go to those off-road parks.  So, people that say its too expensive are people that aren’t ever going to buy it.  

It’s expensive, but it in the long term, if you’re going to get out there and use it, its worth it.  Also, most people approach these thermals like they would a car.  You buy it and use it for five to ten years then trade it in for the upgraded model.  They’re not something you buy and then you have to buy another one the next year.  Generally, it’s a long-term purchase.

Important January 2019 Update:

We’ll be doing more on this optic very soon, but for now, watch this video on the N-Vision Halo LR.


Thanks to Todd Huey for taking the time to share his opinion on the best thermal scope.  If you have any questions, be sure to hit him up over at Huey Outdoors.

Best Thermal Scope

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Henry Jackson
5 years ago

I needed this article, packed with valuable info. I was wondering about which night vision scope is the best, like value for your money and built quality. I read a review about the ATN X-Sight 4K Pro being the best choice for a pro ( I definitely agree with you James that it’s a long term purchase and that if it’s a hobby and you’re going to spend a lot of time with it then the investment is worthwhile. What advice do you have? Many thanks!

4 years ago

Hi, I appreciate every bit of your efforts to let us know about Hunting tools. In fact, we’re going to study and research it as part of a half-yearly initiative supported by our websites Rangerexpert and group of partners.

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