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I See You! Affordable Night Vision Options Part I

I think we can all agree that being able to see in the dark is a huge tactical advantage. It’s even more of an advantage when your opponent cannot. For years, we struggled to operate in the dark and practiced by keeping our shooting eye closed when around a light to better see in the dark. We tried to not silhouette ourselves against a lighter background and hoped the enemy wasn’t paying attention. We designed military maps with colours that were easier to read under low (red) light. We did all those things because there wasn’t a better option.

Then came night vision.

Near the end of WW2 the Germans came out with a system they called “Vampyre”. The US followed with their own development, which mounted a huge IR (infrared) spotlight on top of a scope that viewed in the IR spectrum. The scope and spotlight were powered by something akin to a motorcycle battery.

The Soviets even tried a hand at the NV game. They mounted IR scopes on their PPSh41 SMGs; but instead of encumbering the soldier with an IR light and battery; they positioned even larger IR spotlights at the edge of their lines. As the Soviet solder advanced all he had to do was look through his NV scope and the battlefield was illuminated for him. By today’s standards it was akin to fighting with a sharpened stick; but it was Night Vision.

Generations

Those early night vision units are classified as Generation Zero. They are considered “active” units because they require an IR light source to “light up” the dark. Think of it as using a flashlight when your power goes out; except its a flashlight no one can see without a NV scope. It also means anyone with a NV can see your light.

Generation One units through today’s Gen 3+ units are “passive”. Passive NV magnifies available light (like starlight). Passive night vision also means you aren’t waving a “light saber” in front of you for everyone with NV to see. It also means when you go into a building there’s no starlight to amplify. Moonless nights and cloud cover severely degrade passive night vision capability. Many (most) modern night vision units have a small IR light built in for especially completely dark situations. The built in IR is typically fairly dim so as not to “flag” the user. 

Passive Night Vision

Since the introduction of passive night vision, (almost) military and law enforcement units use passive units exclusively. Passive units are generally considered superior to active units in every category except cost.

Typically, a PVS 14 monocular costs about $2500. Occasionally cheaper units can be found in the $1500 to $2000 range; but use caution as these are often “found” units. They may or may not work at peak performance and they definitely can not be sent back to the manufacturer for repairs; at least not without expecting the stolen unit to be seized. 

So what could go wrong with your super deal? Well let’s remember with NV is an electronic device. Then let’s factor in guys who get issued expensive equipment that didn’t cost them a cent aren’t always as careful with it as the guy who skipped lunch for a month to buy his own. Think of it like a rental car. Sure you try to be careful but…

Next, passive units are susceptible to “burn out” if exposed to a bright light for too long. The light is amplified to the extent that it burns a spot on the electronic lens.

Amping Things Up

Now, if a single PVS14 monocular runs about $2500- a set of “duals” (two PVS 14’s on a bridge mount) will easily be $4000+. For you guys who spent too much time on video games, a set of quads (picture four units arranged in a semi circle in front of your face for full side to side vision) run $40K. 

It’s those kind of prices that keep most citizens from owning night vision; but there are some options.

On a Budget

One option is surplus (Soviet) scopes and binoculars. Thankfully most of the actual Soviet gear that hit the market after the fall of the Berlin Wall are now regarded as relic. Post Soviet gear was rumored to be less than safe by Western standards. Besides actual Soviet military stuff, there was an influx of suspect civilian gear. I generally try to avoid anything of that sort.

If we accept that active night vision is better than NO night vision; then there are some civilian options in the sub $1000 range. Think of a modern active night vision device as a box with a camera in front of a television screen. The camera sees whats in front of it and passes the picture to the TV screen. If there’s some light it tries to show it; but when you add a IR light, the picture becomes clear. The “brighter” the light source and the more the light is focused the further you can see.

Yes, anybody with active OR passive NV can see the light; but chances are they can also see you, anyway. Short of a full power failure lasting days, there will be plenty of IR light pollution. Doorbell cameras and burglar alarms use IR light. Your TV remote uses IR light and so does your cellphone. Ultimately it’s a coin flip, $2500 for military grade passive PVS14’s or $500 for a civilian active unit. 

Modern “active” NV is referred to as “Digital NV”. It’s still the camera in front of a screen but it no longer requires a motorcycle battery to power it. Typically, they run on AA batteries, maybe CR123’s or rechargeable flat camera batteries. Some units can be powered by an external battery pack. Run time varies by the screen brightness setting and also with the use of the onboard IR light. Separate IR flashlights can also be used, moving the “shoot me” target away from your head.

A search of eBay will produce pages of digital PVS14 style units (PV-1011) in the $300 range. These are functional NV devices that allow you to see in the dark. They aren’t Tier One or even Tier 2 or 3; but they work.

Two better options are the cameras from Sionyx and the Sightmark Wraith 4K Mini. The Sionyx Aurora is a camera originally designed to be a GoPro alternative with the ability to film at night. The basic Aurora sells for less than $600. It also has a colour TV screen where most passive and active units see in a green/black view. Full colour makes understanding what you see much easier.

The Sightmark Wraith is perhaps the best digital NV rifle scope for under $1000. If considering the Wraith to use as a helmet mount, be sure to opt for the “Mini” version. The Mini adds cost over the larger unit which was designed as a rifle scope. The smaller size will be appreciated when helmet mounted. The Wraith Mini and the Aurora compare well with each having their own pros and cons.

Personally I prefer the Aurora; but the Wraith Mini is a good unit.

Doing Digital

An often stated drawback of digital NV devises is referred to as lag. The camera results in (micro second) delay before it appears on the screen. The amount of delay depends on the settings. Even though its measured in micro seconds; it can be noticeable. Finding a balance between the view quality and least delay is easily done. If you adjust the settings for the least delay, then the unit works fine for a our purposes at a significantly lower price than milspec devices A major advantage of digital NV, is that bright light will not damage it (unlike milspec light magnifying passive units), so digital units can be used (left on) during daylight without damage.

The digital devices (as well as actual) PVS14’s have standard camera thread mounts for tripods or helmet J arms. Most of the eBay units include both a J arm and a picatinny weapon mount. Night vision can be hand held, weapon mounted, or helmet mounted. For field use helmet mounted or a “Night Cap” soft mount allows hands free viewing.

There’s no doubt military grade passive units are the BEST option. If you can afford Mil Spec night vision you should buy it without considering anything else. Military grade NV is the Rolex of the night vision world where digital NV is a Timex.

Choosing not to buy any night vision is like choosing to walk to work because you can’t afford a Ferrari.

Digital NV is an entry into the night vision world. Digital units give you sight in the dark. In a full on government/military conflict, digital units will be akin to fighting with a flintlock in a full auto combat zone. Conversely in a Scenario X conflict, having any night vision when your opponents have none gives you superior options.

Wrapping Up

My younger friends being GWOT combatants, who cut their teeth with modern military grade night vision equipment regard the (much) cheaper digital units unsatisfactorily. They grew up with Rolex’s and can’t imagine being forced to wear a Timex; but they fail to acknowledge that any NV is better than none.

As for me, having used both and having purchased both; yes I do prefer milspec; but I see the virtue of being able to purchase the digital units and still make my car and house payments. Buying the digital units also means I can equip multiple family members. 

During a recent power failure which lasted for days, I was able to watch from the shadows with my NV as neighbors moved through the area. No they weren’t looters; but I did overhear a groups say “We gotta find some gas”. Were they just upset because the nearby station was closed, or were they planning a Mad Max scavenge trip? I’ll never know but; I do know I saw them without them ever knowing I was there.

Next time, we’ll talk about how to move and shoot with night vision.

Picture of Pieter

Pieter

I've been in one uniform or another for most of my adult life. I started in the Army as a MP. I was an instructor at the MP School for a while, then worked a Protective Assignment (Bodyguard) for the Commanding General in the Middle East. My war footing started in the 80s, waiting for the Soviets to come crashing through the Fulda Gap. After the Army I worked as a Bodyguard for business executives before becoming a Police Officer for another 20 years. During that time I became a paramedic and studied for the Bar Exam, because I got bored on the midnight shift. My family dates back to the earliest settlers in South Africa. I've lived and worked in the US, Europe, and Africa.

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2 Comments
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Jake
Jake
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Really nice read, been dabling in idea of getting an NV for myself, but can’t decide between just getting NV scope/red dot or a full on NV setup. Doubt I can do both in a while, especially considering I’ve been trying to kit my new AR15 build…

Btw, do you have any good articles on low-light scopes? I know some major names in the market are ATN, Nightforce and AGMGlobal, but it’s hella confusing to just look at specs sometimes…
Currently thinking about getting an NX8 Nightforce from https://gritroutdoors.com/nightforce/ (1.8gran sounds alright, but still kinda pricy…)

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