What is a Thermal Scope?

No matter why you shoot, whether it’s for hunting, home, or self-defense, or just for fun if you shoot at night or in low- or zero-light conditions, a thermal scope may be perfect. If you’ve never heard of thermal scopes, strap in, we’re going to give you a crash course.

What is a Thermal Scope?

A thermal scope, also sometimes called a thermal imaging scope, is a high-tech piece of imaging equipment, generally used on firearms to boost visibility in low-light conditions. The basic premise of a thermal scope is that it detects the heat radiation given off by living things, and creates a visual image from it.


Thermal scopes are not the same technology as night vision and work differently. A thermal scope can allow shooters to “see” in complete darkness, without even the aid of starlight.


For hunting, this can create a significant advantage both for hunting and for surveillance. It can also be indispensable in tactical situations, where lighting may be able to be controlled and eliminated, giving those with thermal imaging equipment a distinct advantage over those without.

How Do Thermal Imaging Scopes Work?

The science behind a thermal scope involves detecting infrared radiation, or heat, and converting that data into a usable image. All objects emit some form of heat, which a thermal scope uses to create images or thermograms (which is why it is also called an infrared scope or IR scope). Since living objects like people, animals, and running vehicles emit much more heat than ambient objects like buildings, plants, and objects, thermal imaging shows likely targets much brighter than surrounding areas.


The time that it takes the infrared detector to gather the needed data and then transform it into a picture is only a fraction of a second. This makes thermal imaging scopes specifically adept at distinguishing these objects from one another in absolute darkness, even lack of starlight.

Thermal Imaging vs Night Vision Scopes

The difference between thermal imaging and night vision is particularly confusing to many people. Both thermal scopes and night vision scopes serve the same purpose, which is enhanced visibility, but that’s where the common ground ends.


The biggest difference between the two, and the factor that determines their ultimate usefulness, is the technology that each uses to perform its function.


Night vision scopes take existing light, no matter how tiny, and amplify it. This can be moonlight, starlight, or even a single LED status light on an appliance or outdoor fixture. They’re great for low light, but not absolute darkness, and they can be affected by smoke, fog, or even too much light.


On the other hand, thermal scopes read the heat signature of each object in the detection field and are unaffected by lighting conditions, fog, and standard smoke. They can operate in complete pitch-dark, and through some light obstacles that thwart night vision. However, thermal scopes generally have shorter ranges, since they struggle to provide the same level of detail as night vision, making long-distance target differentiation difficult.

Best thermal scopes

AGM Varmint LRF TS35-384

The AGM Varmint LRF TS35-384 stands out as one of the leading thermal scopes available today for its impressive features, and even more impressive compact size. This thermal scope has a 384x288 sensor, bringing crisp imagery in times of total darkness.


The built-in laser rangefinder helps provide accurate distances ranging up to 1,000m, which can dramatically increase shooting synergy with the scope. It also allows the user to record the shooting session to review or share later. Four color palettes to choose from make it an attractive and flexible option for shooters of all types.

Atn Thor-Lt 3-6x Thermal Scope

The ATN Thor-Lt thermal scope brings a welcome blend of affordability and quality. The lightweight and relatively ergonomic design of the Thor-Lt makes it easy to mount on any traditional scope platform. While the 160x120 sensor isn’t the highest resolution on the market, it’s able to provide a crisp, clear picture on a budget. The one shot zero feature saves time, frustration, and ammo, while the battery gives sufficient time in the field.

AGM Rattler TS19-256

The AGM Rattler is a compact thermal scope that brings a very high level of quality and performance to the table. The high-end 256x192 infrared sensor and 12mm objective lens bring a clear image and wide field of view and give the sensor the best chance to create a clear image.


The built-in Wi-Fi allows real-time streaming and control via a tablet or smartphone. The 50Hz refresh rate offers smooth, lag-free imaging, and the rugged design means you can take it into some of the most challenging environments. If you’re thinking about streaming your hunts, this is the scope to get.

Atn Ots-xlt 2.5-10x Thermal Viewer

The ATN Ots is an incredibly versatile, top-tier thermal scope. Not only does it have a massive 640x480 thermal sensor resolution, but it also offers 2.5-10x magnification, making it one of the best thermal scopes for longer-range operation.


It also features the ability to function as a handheld monocular for spotting or surveillance, as well as a mounted scope, bringing another level of flexibility. Additionally, the Ots includes a built-in laser pointer and a highly durable design, making it overall an excellent addition to any shooter’s toolkit.


Thermal scopes have revolutionized the way we see and shoot in the dark, offering capabilities that night vision scopes could never achieve. They detect individual heat signatures, provide visibility in fog, smoke, and even through some light obstacles, and bring other unique digital features to the shoot.


Finding the right thermal scope for your needs is key, though. Whether it’s the laser rangefinder on the AGM Varmint, or the super-affordable ATN Thor-Lt, the compact AGM Rattler, or the adaptable ATN Ots, each one has unique features, benefits, and potential drawbacks that should be considered. No matter what you choose, a thermal scope will add excellent vision enhancement to your firearm of choice.


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