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Thermal or Night Vision? Pick the Right Optic for the Job

To say I was excited to get back out and hunt is an understatement. With work as it was, travel heavy… and then heavier, when I made it back to my desk, the gap of time since my last hunt seemed to have widened to Grand Canyon proportions. Honestly, the oppressive summer heat did much to keep my mind off of hunting anyway, but now, the desire to hunt gnawed at me like the kind of itch you just can’t scratch. Fortunately, just a few hours later, as the sun sank below the horizon, scratching had begun—we were on the hunt and, most of us armed with Helion XP50 thermal monoculars and Trail thermal riflescopes—one hunter employed an older Pulsar Digiforce digital night vision monocular and Digisight Ultra N355 Digital Night Vision Riflescope—found ourselves stopped along the side of a farm road, lights off, observing a sounder of pigs along a tree line roughly 500 yards away. It was go-time.

The Perfect Hunt?

Under the cloak of darkness, we slid out of the truck, slipped our rifles out of our cases, locked and loaded, made safe, then began our single-file stalk into the crop field. With the moon phase squarely on new moon, the stalk was slow, dependent alone on the lead’s use of his thermal monocular to close the distance. The rest of us did our level best to eke out the silhouette of the person in front of us no more than just a few feet away. Of course, walking uneven ground in such darkness also was no small feat. Fortunately, the ground was soft so potential ankle-turning obstacles were, for the most part, crushed under our boots, and the lead’s use of thermal ensured our navigation was across the least taxing terrain.

When we finally reached our setup point, the lead quietly directed the rest of us to fan out into a firing line and make ready. Four of us fanned out. The last in our squad was a non-hunting team member armed with a second Helion thermal monocular (we often rotate this role among us.) Along with the lead, he focused on ensuring no one trailed behind on the stalk and then helped us fan out to safe positions on the firing line, remembering that at times on night hunts, we really can’t see the people on either side of us.

Once I was in line with the other hunters, I set up in a tight kneeling position—the others had set up shooting sticks and were standing. In my kneeling position, I found the sounder of pigs on my Trail’s display, made quick imaging adjustments and then focused on relaxing my breathing. Soon after, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“You ready?”

I whispered back and could hear him moving down to the person next to me for the same confirmation and so on. A few seconds later, our guide was back between us.

“Here we go, counting down. On one.”

With his confirmation, I pushed the safety selector switch on my AR to fire, found the trigger and waited.

“Three, two, one…”

At one, I sent a round through the largest hog closest to my side of the firing line and dropped him. Two other hogs also fell from other shooters and another half-dozen split and scattered in opposite directions. I focused on one of the three on the right. After a couple of shots, he bulldozed and soon after another on the right was hit by another hunter and rolled to a stop. The third made it out unscathed. One other pig on the left side of the field was dropped. Out of nine pigs, we took seven—a near-perfect hunt in the world of hog hunting and we had hours of pursuits in front of us, or so we thought.

With a truckload of swine and hopes of adding to the stack, we continued to scan cut crop fields. For the next couple of hours, with the night sky black but clear, we observed fields teeming with other wildlife but no hogs. Then IT happened.

Houston, We Have a Problem…

They say if you don’t like the weather in Texas, wait 10 minutes. The wind shifted, pressure changed and stifling humidity filled the truck and along with it, the familiar scent of moisture in the air. Checking the night sky with Helion thermal monoculars, we could see the cloud line rushing in overhead… and then, we couldn’t see much of anything. With thermal sensors inhibited by blocking humidity, followed by rain, image quality degraded quickly. In a matter of minutes, what started out as a perfect night of hog hunting turned ugly. Not only would we contend with muddy fields, but we were also essentially running blind.

For the next couple of hours, thermal imagers were effectively useless—the view, simply a fog-like blank screen; even the edge of the field was obscured from our thermal view; of course, things were slightly different for our digital night vision hunter. While his imaging wasn’t great, he could see certainly see well enough to detect movement and most assuredly, glowing eyes, even much further out. Still, with thermals, we were completely blind. To some extent, horrible weather can be an Achilles heel for thermal; however, night vision can continue to run, especially with IR, much like illuminating with a flashlight—vision isn’t ever optimum in foul weather but often, with help of a flashlight, you can still see well enough. The same can be said of generational and digital night vision.

So, for the last few hours of the hunt, the one guy in our party with the least expensive optics became our eyes; in fact, he shot two more lone boars on his own while we waited in the truck. To add a bit of humor here, on the drive back to our original rendezvous point, the weather cleared. Thermal imaging progressively returned as the storm moved out. By the time we made it back to our trucks, the sky was clear again and a final scan revealed thousands of yards of landscape—far off tree lines, a water tower, distant homes and more.

While we had a great hunt early on, it wasn’t nearly as epic as we thought it would be. The weather certainly whittled away opportunities but left us with a poignant takeaway. Even the best optics don’t always make the best tools. Like the kinds of firearms (or bows,) ammunition and other gear you choose for a hunt, your choices are often dictated (or should be) by the environment. Where and how you’re hunting, weather including wind direction and temperature, and other factors should always play into preparation and strategy—yes, optics included. This is why, in the end, our hunt was compromised; of course, one of us, simply because he couldn’t afford thermal, came out with wins while the rest rode blindly into the night, never firing another shot.

More disappointing than weather shutting down our thermal hunt was the later realization that the storm had been forecasted—none of us had checked. Being so accustomed to hunting successfully with thermal, even in less than perfect weather where imaging was still attainable, left us ill-prepared. This wasn’t a thermal failure, per se, thermal technology is what it is; however, it certainly does mean, given the forecasted conditions, there was a more suitable optic option… and only one of us had it.

The Right Stuff

Getting charmed by thermal imaging is easy. Lay out five rifles with thermal optics and one with night vision, traditional or digital, for 5 hunters and 99-percent of the time, the rig with night vision is the only one left. While thermal target identification is exponentially more recognizable MOST of the time, it’s not always the right choice. Like the rest of your gear, pick the right optic for your hunt.

Since this mess of a hunt, the Pulsar Digisight Ultra N355 Digital Night Vision Riflescope has been updated to the N455 and features an improved sensor, greater detection range and even better imaging. Like Pulsar’s Trail, Thermion, Helion and Axion (XM models,) the feature-rich Digisight Ultra N455 includes onboard still-photo and video recording capability, adjustable brightness and contrast, picture-in-picture and other practical features. Also like Trail, Helion and Accolade thermals, the N455 accommodates Pulsar’s ultra-popular 8-hour rechargeable battery pack.

The Digisight Ultra N455 also features a 1280×720 CMOS sensor, high-resolution 1024×768 AMOLED display, over 10 reticle black and white reticle options with red and green aiming dots, nitrogen-purged IP67 waterproof construction, magnification range of 4.5-18x, continuous digital zoom of 1-4x and stepped zoom of 2-4x and a detection range of 550 yards. The N455 also includes a 940nm IR LED illuminator and is recoil rated up to 375 H&H. To learn more about the Pulsar Digisight Ultra N455 Digital Night Vision Riflescope, visit

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