Home » Gun Scopes » Tips & Tutorials » Thermal Scope vs Night Vision: What’s The Difference?

Thermal Scope vs Night Vision: What’s The Difference?

This post contains affiliate links. If you click and buy we may make a commission, at no additional charge to you. Please see our disclosure policy for more details.

When it comes to night shooting, regular scopes will not help because they cannot enhance infrared light just like the eyes, so you won’t be able to see your target in the dark. Most predator hunting and home defense shooting occur at night, and you need a scope that will help you see your target even in the darkness.

The two popular types of night shooting scopes are night vision and thermal scopes. The availability of options is a good thing as you can choose the one that best suits your needs, but it can also pose a problem as people struggle to choose between the two.

At night, there is minimal light from the moon or artificial light reflecting on the surface of things. Because regular scope cannot see this small amount of light, they cannot help you. Thermal scopes and night vision may have different working principles, but they all help you see your target at night while still doing the duties of a scope.

If you’re a fan of night shooting, you’ll find this article quite interesting as we dissect the two most popular night scopes, touching on their working principles and how they differ from each other.

What is a Thermal Scope?

thermal scope

Even though it is dark at night, a small amount of infrared light reflects off surfaces; objects also emit heat, albeit at varying intensities. This infrared radiation on objects can be felt as heat, and this is what a thermal scope does. It converts the infrared radiation from these objects to heat and a heat map of whatever you’re aiming at.

As the name implies, thermal scope deals with heat. It reads the heat energy emitted from your target and helps you get an image (heat map) of the target. This type of scope reads the heat emission of everything in the range of your scope, assigns different shades to the varying heat intensities, so you easily differentiate an object from another.

The thermal scope does not require light to work since it reads heat that all surfaces produce at varying intensities. It also works in all weather conditions, which is a huge plus for people in regions with extreme weather conditions.

What is a Night Vision Scope?

night vision scope

Night vision and thermal scope can both be used at night, but their working principles differ significantly. Before we talk about night vision, let us re-establish a fact earlier stated. Remember, small amounts of infrared radiation reflect off objects in the dark.

While the naked eye cannot see this infrared light, a night vision can. In fact, it does more than just see this light, it enhances this light so you can see the image it is reflecting from when you look through a night vision scope.

Traditional night vision electrically enhances the image into a glowing green display, while a more advanced digital night vision would digitally enhance the image to produce a full-color display.

Typically, there needs to be a small amount of light before you can see through night vision at night. Night vision enhances the light available; there’ll be nothing to enhance to give you the image you seek when there is no light.

Thermal Scope vs Night Vision: The Real Difference

 Difference Between Thermal Scope and Night Vision

Now that we’re on the same page and you know how thermal scope and night vision works, the next step is differentiating the two scope types. Even though they are both helpful for your night shooting, they possess different abilities, as evident in their working mechanisms explained above.

This section will further explain what these scopes are and highlight distinct features of the two-night scopes and which scenarios are best for them. This way, you can select the best type according to your specific needs.

Time of the Day

What time of the day can these scopes be used? Even though they are predominantly for night shooting, you may be wondering if they can also be used at other times of the day.

Thermal vision can be used at any time of the day, including the daytime, as it reads heat and heat is not affected by the time of the day. It can still pick off heat signatures from surfaces even during the day. This is a huge plus for this scope as you’re not limited to a particular time of the day.

On the other hand, night vision can only be used at night because too much light into the intensifier tube can damage it. This is why the night vision scope cannot be used during the day. Unlike the thermal scope, it is limited in this regard.


The clarity a scope can produce is quite important as it makes your aiming better. Which of the two scopes produces a clearer image?

Because thermal scopes read heat and produce heat maps, its visibility is poor with distinctions between objects. The image it produces is not so clear, as you only see a little more than the shape and intensity of the object. Because of this, precision is poor, and shooting where there are similar objects with your target might pose a problem.

Night vision scopes produce better image clarity and help you to see your target clearly as it electronically enhances the image and in more advanced night vision scopes, digitally enhances the image for even better clarity. With night vision, you can see your target and differentiate between it and other similar objects. More advanced night vision scopes can even provide colored images.

Aiming Distance

What is the ideal distance for these scopes, and at what distance would their effectiveness start to wane? These are questions you may be asking so you can understand which would best suit your needs.

Thermal scope working with the heat signature emitted from surfaces can sense objects far away as long as they are in its line of sight. Its working principles enable it to be the scope for long-distance night shooting.

Night vision requires at least a small amount of light at night to work and, as such, is limited by distance. At farther distances, it’ll not be able to pick up the infrared light in that region to enhance it to produce the slowing green image you need.


Is light necessary for either of these scopes to work at night? Will you be able to use the scope even if the night is pitch dark without moonlight?

Thermal scopes do not require any light to produce their images. They work by reading heat emitted from the surfaces of objects and providing distinct heat shades so you can easily spot your target. Thermal scopes can be used even when it is pitch dark.

Night vision needs some amount of light to produce its image. This is because its working principle enhances already available light and turns it into a glowing green image. When there is no light at all, as in the case of a pitch-black night, you will find it difficult to see through a night vision scope. However, some night vision scopes can produce their own infrared light through IR illuminators so they can pick up the image.


The temperature of your shooting area can affect the type of night scope you can use with your rifle. Knowing the typical weather condition of where you’ll be shooting can help you make a better choice between these two scope types.

Thermal scopes can detect targets covered by bush or when the weather is foggy. This type of scope can still pick up the heat signatures of your target in these weather conditions. They, however, will struggle when the weather condition is freezing. They also cannot see through glass.

Night vision scopes may struggle to pick up objects hidden in a bush or foggy weather conditions, but they are ideal for freezing weather conditions.


These scopes are not free, and you have to pay for them. The price of a gadget is important and determines the value alongside its other features. How does the price of these two scope types vary?

Thermal scopes are generally quite expensive. They are more expensive than night vision scopes seeing that they are more modern with a lot of expensive features added.

Night vision scopes, on the other hand, are more affordable. A quality night vision scope is one-fourth the price of a thermal scope. This shows the price difference. This scope would not require huge capital investment from you.


After seeing the differences between thermal scopes and night vision, you’re left with a huge decision to make. You cannot outrightly say one is better than the other as they both have their strong points and condition in which they shine. Which should you buy considering your needs?

Thermal scopes are ideal for long-distance targeting and night aiming in foggy areas or where your target may be hidden in a bush. This scope may be pretty expensive, but it is more recent with lots of modern features.

Night vision is ideal when clear identification is required and in freezing weather conditions. It is also quite affordable to purchase, but it requires some amount of light to show you any image at night.

About Author

James Towndrow, a NRA-certified Firearms Instructor. During a career of 18 years had won several shooting competition including major leagues. Taking all those experience down the road, is now a successful Shooting Instructor in Texas, US.