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Heat of the night

by Bryan Hendricks | November 29, 2022 at 8:00 a.m.

Thermal and infrared lights are the most dynamic innovations in hunting optics, opening new frontiers in hog and predator hunting.

As their technology evolves and demand increases, high-quality digital optics are more affordable and more accessible than ever, said Kevin Reese, senior media relations specialist for Sellmark, which markets the popular Pulsar and Sightmark brands of digital optics.

"Technology has come a long way," Reese said. "It was pretty conceivable that thermal imaging 10 to 15 years ago was probably going to run you $15,000 to $20,000, and sometimes $30,000. Now it's affordable."

Feral pigs are most active at night but passive day scopes are useless in the dark. Thermal and infrared optics employ electronic imaging to display a target. Infrared scopes route reflected photons through electrodes and a digital processor reproduces the image on a screen. A thermal optic emits an infrared ray that returns data to the unit's internal sensor. The processor interprets that information to create a thermogram that appears on the device's screen.

Infrared and thermal imaging are not the same thing, Reese said. "Night vision" refers to infrared because it enables a user to see a target's actual image. A thermal optic displays a target's heat signature.

Educating a customer about the differences is initially a hurdle for a sales associate, but it is also a trust-building exercise, said Josh Hunter, the digital optics specialist at Fort Thompson Sporting Goods in Sherwood.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is that everyone thinks of these as scopes," Hunter said. "You have to stop thinking of it as a scope and think of it as a digital camera that happens to have a reticle in it."

Night vision, or infrared, generally shows more detail, allowing a user to positively identify a target. Thermal units generally only reveal a heat source but many units don't show enough detail to identify the source. At a distance, you might not be able to distinguish between a feral pig, a deer, a cow or a horse.

Better resolution costs more. Pulsar's Thermion LRF XP50 Pro, a high-end unit, provides clear resolution for about $6,600.

"A lot of times people will mislabel thermal imaging as night vision," Reese said. "They're not the same things. Thermal will run 24 hours a day. It doesn't care what time of day it is as long as there are heat signatures out there.

"Digital night vision, or generational night vision, is specifically designed to run at nighttime and take light particles and pull those light particles in, to explode them into infinitely more light particles that are then represented on your screen," Reese added.

Because an infrared optic amplifies ambient infrared light, it does not work in darkness. It needs additional light to illuminate a target's infrared profile. Most infrared units have integral illuminators but they don't project sufficient light to illuminate an image at long range. That requires an additional illuminator, usually a large green light.

"If you're looking at it here under all these florescent lights, they're pumping out a ton of IR, so these optics look amazing!" Hunter said. "But when you get out in the woods, all of a sudden you ain't got no florescent lights pumping out a bunch of IR and you don't have any image source."

That brings the customer back to buy an additional illuminator and he might not be happy about it.

"I tell people that in the store," Hunter said. "I would say 70% of the time, they listen to me. About 30% of the time, they're back looking for a high-end illuminator because their unit just does not have the juice to get them as much distance as they expected."

A thermal optic, on the other hand, works without an additional light source. It is truly is a plug-and-play device.

Digital optics are a gear geek's dream. They have video capability so you can video your shots in real time. You can also route the image to a smartphone or stream it.

Sighting in a digital optic is a one-shot process. Aim at the bullseye and shoot. With the reticle still on the bullseye, open a menu and push buttons to move the reticle digitally to the actual point of impact.

As with all optics, digital optics have introductory, intermediate and advanced tiers. The average hunter can't tell the difference between a traditional $200 scope and a $2,000 traditional model. With digital, and especially with thermal, the difference is obvious. For that reason, Josh Hunter said, buyers should buy the best they can afford at the outset.

"Generally speaking, you're going to spend about three grand for a thermal unit to get the level of image quality that's going to make you feel comfortable about pulling a trigger," Hunter said.

Fortunately, the price of high-quality digital optics is increasingly affordable. Levi Miller, a sales representative for Sellmark, said Pulsar's XQ-38 Talion bridges the gap between entry-level and intermediate-level quality for about $2,500.

"It's the best entry-level thermal we've ever come out with," Miller said. "It comes with everything Pulsar offers, picture mode, eight color palettes, onboard wifi and a single battery that gives you about nine hours of operation."

The Talion XP38 also has a 1,500-yard detection range. Comparatively, an ordinary digital night vision scope has a detection range of 300-400 yards. Higher-end models go to 500-600 yards.

Unlike computers and smartphones, the digital optic you buy today will still be current a year from now. Pulsar and ATN, for example, allow you to download firmware updates.

The uses for thermal optics are vast. They are very helpful in finding dead game, especially in the dark. Firefighters use them to search for hidden hotspots inside burning or smoldering structures and also for victims. Boaters use them at night to detect boats running without lights.

"My wife used it to detect some insulation issues around our windows and doors so she gave me a little honey-do list," Reese said.

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