What To Know About Night Vision

Learn more about night vision technology and field applications from the author, whose experiences yield solid insights and information.

What To Know About Night Vision

Through night vision, a coyote’s eyes will blaze like white-hot coals upon exposure to infra-red. Clear any nearby vegetation to prevent reflective interference (per the lone strand in the foreground).

Delayed by knee-deep snow, we reached our blind with only minutes to spare before sunset. Mercifully though, the propane heater fired up buying time to uncase rifles, night-vision and gear. Next, a check through binos revealed a maze of fresh coyote tracks around our bait-pile located ninety yards beyond the blind. With clear skies and temperatures falling through the teens, conditions seemed perfect for some nighttime action.

As daylight faded, a brilliant full moon rose to our rear and began flooding the bait-site with light. While my sidekick, Mike, covered the area with his scoped bolt-action rifle, I broke out a 3rd Gen PVS-14 night-vision monocular. Although procured for hand-held surveillance, we sometimes adapted one to our agency’s AR-15s using a QD ring and base. When mounted behind a dot-sight with low-intensity NV settings (to eliminate “blooming” or flaring), the combination provided an effective system that didn’t shift zero. However, during some unofficial extra “training” we found the lack of magnification challenging on smaller, four-legged targets – which lead to some tinkering.

We fashioned a Rube Goldberg scope-adapter from a short chunk of PVC plumbing. The low-tech adapter slipped over the ocular housing a 3 to 9X scope, and the NV-monocular plugged into its rear. Everything was then secured by a jumbo elastic band. Ridiculous? Absolutely! The assembly was overly long, but it worked thanks to thick clothing and low-recoiling .223 loads in a varmint-weight AR-15. Zero remained spot-on, too. 

Now, in full darkness, I switched on the coupled monocular and adjusted the scope to 5X, gaining optimum resolution. With the NV system rigged for action, we began scanning the area through binoculars. Two hours later, the dark silhouette of a coyote emerged from the woods. As it cautiously circled the bait, Mike killed the hissing heater. Meanwhile, I carefully opened my window and grabbed the AR. Powering up the NV, every detail of the coyote was clearly visible through the scope at eighty yards. When the crosshairs settled, I squeezed off a shot. Immediately, it pirouetted, and the lights went out — for me! Being auto-gated, the NV unit briefly dimmed from the dazzling flash of my bare muzzle. Fortunately, the image returned just as the coyote regained its footing, whereupon it was flattened by a second shot. 

That all happened back in 2010. The magnified imagery improved targeting, but muzzle-flash was problematic. And with expensive equipment on “loan,” it was time to explore personal NV options that wouldn’t empty our wallets. Since thermal and digital systems were still emerging, our research centered on night-vision.

Winter Stake-out Strategy

Like some other northern U.S. regions, Maine’s winters are notorious for deep snow and sub-zero lows. Our corresponding special coyote night-season affords intriguing opportunities for action, but hunts can be more like tests of endurance. Heated blinds and bait sites have thus become a popular solution. 

Blinds must be snow-resistant structures capable of retaining heat, so sliding windows are a common feature. Baits are usually located within 100 yards; partly due to our forested terrain, but also because much farther is a stretch at night.These setups result in ultra-wary coyotes but, as deep snow and cold set in, secluded bait-sites will eventually become irresistible. Even then, though, most action will be nocturnal, requiring some specialized equipment. 

The overall strategy is no doubt familiar to hog hunters, an exception being extreme cold. Function and battery life can suffer when the mercury plunges toward zero. Some night technologies are also incompatible with glazing, which can limit their effectiveness. Conditions vary regionally and what follows works for ours. 

Night-Shift Technologies

Actually, a good scope can work during the brightest lunar phases with snowy backgrounds. But clear weather isn’t certain and, for that matter, neither is snow. Although illuminated reticles help, even with premium optics, opportunities can be limited. One popular solution is a varmint light. However, although highly effective on the move, visible beams will eventually educate coyotes from stationary locations. The expedient fix is some type of night vision geared toward firearm use. 

Thermal aiming systems work off heat emissions 24/7, and some offer amazing clarity, typically commensurate with pricing. This technology offers real advantages including function in fog and detection of live or downed animals within cover. However, positive target ID comes at relatively high cost — and thermal won’t work through transparent barriers. 

The latest digital NV scopes, being a spin-off of digital cameras, offer some savings. Day and night function is also possible; the latter supported through infra-red. Tech-minded shooters will appreciate features such as image-sharing, etc., but concerns involve durability, low-temperature battery life, programming glitches and the requisite IR’s incompatibility with glazing. 

So, my choice is conventional night vision; a well-established technology that works even through window panes. I’ve been peering through these systems since 1969. Our early 1st Gen military versions were huge, expensive and subject to image-blooming from lights or tracers. Since then, NV technology has vastly improved on all fronts from size to performance. Today, we’re into Gen IV, although Gen I, Gen II and Gen III are more common. They all collect and intensify ambient light through sophisticated tube-based electronics. Durability and performance relate to cost with Gen III easily topping $3,000. Gen I often sells well below $1,000. Gen II bridges the gap at either side of $2,000, depending on proprietary sub-gradings.

PVS-14 monoculars lack a reticle, so some hunters combine a head-mount with a rifle-mounted IR laser (an NV magnifier is also available). Others mount one behind an NV-compatible dot-sight or a conventional scope, which often maintains zero. The monocular’s small integral IR is visible beside the after-market mounting-ring, attached for use with a dot-sight.
PVS-14 monoculars lack a reticle, so some hunters combine a head-mount with a rifle-mounted IR laser (an NV magnifier is also available). Others mount one behind an NV-compatible dot-sight or a conventional scope, which often maintains zero. The monocular’s small integral IR is visible beside the after-market mounting-ring, attached for use with a dot-sight.

When narrowing options, ready access to Gen III provides a basis for comparison. Less expensive 1st Gen scopes I’ve used had wandering zeros and grainy images. But, several 2nd Gen versions performed well enough to justify a personal Gen 2+ NV scope. Although large and heavy, its turrets and illuminated crosshairs permit simple nighttime zeroing on a standard bullseye target. It came with an extra pressure-pad switch, and ran for weeks off a single Lithium CR-123 battery. The included IR illuminator, although more power-hungry, provided a highly effective boost on moonless nights. The $1,500 price was bearable, so soon I had two more, all of which are still in use despite seven tough winters.Mine is mounted each fall and its QD mount provides repeatable 100-yard zeros.

Although an external power pack is unnecessary, these units still run large. Also (typical of tube-based systems), daytime performance is marginal at best. My scopes have rubber lens covers with small apertures that channel just enough light to resolve a grainy daytime image. But these devices are “gated” for a reason. Think “Dracula.” Sunlight is your enemy and it can damage or destroy the unit! I have done daytime zero-checks on cloudy days, but I’d rather wait until dark. And during prime dawn or dusk periods, imagery can suffer to the point where an extra scoped rifle is worthwhile.

Compatible Firearms

Although various rifles will work, a Modern Sporting Rifle offers advantages beyond fast extra shots. Many NV systems are designed for this platform, which also accommodates IR illuminators, lights and lasers. Essential spare batteries can be stashed in grips or stocks. Telescoping types can accommodate thick clothing, making them handy within tight blinds. Same for shorter barrels, to a point.

During darkness, a paramount concern is muzzle flash, which can create temporary blindness with or without NV! Short barreled .223s are notoriously bright. Fortunately though, most Modern Sporting Rifles have threaded muzzles for attaching effective flash- hiders. Loads that generate spectacular nighttime flash from a bare-muzzle .223 produce almost no signature with these devices; much less than a military A-2 cage! Taken to the next level, beyond the advantages of noise reduction, a suppressor can virtually eliminate flash. 

If your rig lacks such features, shop for law-enforcement loads formulated to minimize muzzle flash. Many are also better stoppers. As I discovered, not all .223 loads are capable of anchoring big coyotes. Although less of an issue during full daylight, recovery can pose challenges after sunset, especially with thick cover only several leaps away. 

The Magic of Infra-red 

Since night vision requires ambient light, performance suffers during new moon phases – particularly on bare ground. The solution is an infra-red illuminator. Although similar to a tactical light, an IR’s beam is normally invisible. But with NV, even the darkest night turns into day! And, of greatest benefit, all targets are clearly identifiable — a serious nocturnal concern.

Most IRs easily mount to an equipment rail where the beam can be focused as necessary. Regarding output, with thick woods being the norm, I worry less about effective range than interference from IR reflections. The surfaces of forends, suppressors or nearby brush can create severe glare. Fog, mist or snow can cause a total white-out, which is guaranteed through glazing! 

When using heated blinds, I typically limit IR surveillance to brief open-window checks of brushy cover. Unlike thermal, IR won’t register heat, but a coyote’s eyes will blaze like hot coals through NV. A related trick involves trail cameras incorporating IR flash. Beyond gathering valuable intel, they can double as a trip-flares when positioned to cover approach routes. Activations resemble brilliant lightning flashes through NV – assuming it’s in use.

Trouble is, spotting coyotes at night requires non-stop scanning. Hand-held optics are thus preferable to gun-mounted systems, especially within cramped blinds. Fortunately, quality binos can reveal coyotes in surprisingly dim conditions – again, on snow. They’ll sometimes materialize as dark apparitions floating on invisible legs. Beyond their convenience, binos also won’t temporarily impair your vision, unlike NV imagery.

Today’s Options

Older NV scopes have essentially disappeared, but similar versions still exist. Dual-use “clip-on” types have evolved and can serve as hand-held monoculars or be mounted ahead of standard scopes. Eye-relief issues are thus eliminated and – being collimated for such use — zero usually won’t shift. Normal scope use is thus possible during daylight, followed by an easy switch to NV with its rail-mount. Another option involves direct scope attachment via special adapters. 

As for magnification, some is desirable with 4X being a useful minimum. Distances are deceiving after dark, and targets often seem farther than they actually are. However, if fast-paced action is anticipated, a NV/dot-sight combination offers a nimble alternative. A further option is an NV head-mount and rifle-mounted IR laser.

Regarding cost, a $200 (or less) IR illuminator can enhance Gen II imagery to the point where Gen III is probably unnecessary for many sporting purposes. You could spring for a laser, (or dual-capability IR AN/PEQ-15 device), but opportunities are often fleeting and each extra activation takes time. Once positive target ID is established, the surer bet is often to take the shot.

Nowadays, the most affordable night vision option is a digital optic with day and night function. Although IR dependent, good binos could circumvent blind-related glazing limitations, particularly on snow. For those with deep pockets, especially where snow is less common, a highly effective combination is a handheld Gen III NV monocular and a rifle-mounted thermal sight. 

Again, the above choices are geared toward fixed locations. On foot, with prices coming down, thermal is a viable alternative.  

Closing Concerns

First, a caution: Laws vary greatly regarding legal hunting hours, baiting and equipment, so check before proceeding! 

And, regardless of technique, ambient light should be considered. You won’t want the moon in your face any more than sunlight. Low-angle reflections off snow can raise hell with NV optics. A good source for sun and moon data is the U.S. Naval Observatory website. By plugging in a date and location, all pertinent information becomes instantly available, including the percentage of visible moon. Given the realities of work and sleep, you can then concentrate on optimum cycles. 

Since we play a waiting game, our sites can factor in light. We may spot a coyote during twilight but, if not, the hunt can continue after dark. Although the vigil can be a grind, it’s easier than wading through snow. Deer will also struggle less with fewer coyotes on their tails!

 

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