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Best Thermal Spotting Scope 2021: Reviews and Buying Guide

Shopping for a Thermal spotting scope?

You've come to the right place.

Due to the progress of military tech, hunters today are not limited by time of the day, weather, or visibility.

For the most part, this is due to the advent of the thermal rifle scope

Essentially a specialized computer plus infrared sensor mounted on top your rifle, a thermal scope detects temperature differences at range between the background and your target to paint picture you can see clearly despite poor conditions. 

There are many choices of thermal scopes out there today, ranging from a few hundred to over $10,000 - and model changes are frequent - so finding a suitable one for your budget can be hard. 

The task is even more challenging if you are new to the technology.

This guide was designed with the first-time thermal scope buyer in mind.   

Who Should Buy a Thermal Spotting Scope?

If you like to hunt at dusk or your favorite prey loves misty wet conditions, then a thermal scope can really help. 

Hogs, deer, and coyotes emit body heat that is invisible to the human eye but can be easily detected using thermal spotting optics.

This is especially true during traditional hunting seasons, when the background temperature is much cooler than body temps.

A thermal scope is also just about the only legal way to successfully hunt at night in most states.

In addition to hunting in poor visibility, the extended vision that a thermal scope offers makes it a useful product for law enforcement and recreational shooters, too.


What's In This Buying Guide

Whether you are interested in a thermal spotting scope for professional work, nighttime hunting or target shooting, this buying guide covers everything you need to know - and recommends a top-rated product for your need.

If you don’t have time to go through all the details, take a look at our list of the best thermal spotting scopes listed below. A comparison table follows to give you a quick view of how these scopes compare before we move on to reviewing each one in detail.

After the reviews we provide a buying guide that discusses the types of thermal scopes available today, how they work, the limitations of using one - and the features to consider when buying one.

Finally, we answer some of the most commonly asked questions about thermal spotting scopes.

I hope this guide helps you find the right thermal scope for your needs.  If not, then please drop a question below in the comments. 


Best Thermal Spotting Scopes

  1. 1
    Best Overall: Pulsar Thermion XM50
  2. 2
    Best Features: ATN Thor 4 HD 640 x 480, 1-10x
  3. 3
    Most Affordable: ATN Thor LT Thermal Rifle Scope
  4. 4
    Best for Beginners: Pulsar Core RXQ30V

what is the best spotting scope
  • Pulsar XM50 Thermion

  • Best Overall

  • Weight
    2 pounds

  • Zoom Type
    Digital

  • Detection Range
    2400 yards

  • Customizable Reticle
    Yes

best spotting scopes
  • ATN Thor 4 HD640 x 480, 1-10x

  • Best Additional Features

  • Weight
    2.2 pounds

  • Zoom Type
    Dynamic (Both Digital and Optical)

  • Detection Range
    1000 yards

  • Customizable Reticle
    Yes

best mid range spotting scope
  • ATN Thor LT Thermal Rifle Scope

  • Best Affordable

  • Weight
    1.4 pounds

  • Zoom Type
    Digital

  • Detection Range
    475 yards

  • Customizable Reticle
    Yes

best thermal rifle scope under $2000
  • Pulsar Core RXQ30V

  • Best for Beginners

  • Weight
    0.75 pounds

  • Zoom Type
    Dynamic (Both Digital and Optical)

  • Detection Range
    985 yards

  • Customizable Reticle
    Yes


1. Best Overall: Pulsar Thermion XM50 

best compact spotting scope

If you need a thermal scope to seamlessly pair with more than one rifle - including 30 mm ring rifles - the Pulsar Thermion XM50 is your answer.

It will work in just about any hunting situation and is a pleasure to use.

The only catch is the hefty price tag.

Pros

  • Four color settings: red, green, black, white
  • 15 reticle options
  • Rated IPX7 waterproof
  • Long detection range of 2400 yards
  • Video recording and streaming
  • 8 GB storage

Cons

  • Quite expensive

Our Review

The Pulsar XM50 is an advanced thermal scope, best suited for serious hunters and professionals.

You can mount this scope on any 30 mm ring. It is easily attached to the rifle and has an excellent refresh rate. It also allows one-time digital zeroing. 

With a whopping 15 different reticles in up to 4 color settings – red, green, black, and white – and 8x digital zoom, the scope ensures a fully adjustable image.

The long detection range of 2,400 yards is yet another notable feature.

The image resolution of 320x240 pixels and a 12-um pixel pitch core make this one stand out against every competitor.

The sight comes with a standard built-in recording system with a stream vision app that connects your smart device to the scope. (You can also make use of picture-in-picture zoom with this system. )

Trigger activation will automatically record and store your shots and even stream them live to any connected smart device over a Wi-Fi connection.

The product has a respectable 16 GB of memory on board, so storage won't be a concern.

The Pulsar XM50 is rated IPX7 waterproof. The rating means you no longer worry about exposing your scope to moisture: be it heavy rain or snow, this product can survive it all.

Pulsar says the XM50 can be dropped into 3 feet of water and still work perfectly.

Issues and Limitations

This is one product we couldn’t fault even despite trying.

Well, the scope is a bit heavy at 2.2 pounds, but if we are being honest, that is only a spec on paper.

When you mount the scope on a rifle, the weight is barely noticeable.


best spotting scopes

This is one of the most feature-rich thermal scopes on the market. 

With its solid core specs and unbeatable value proposition, the ATN Thor 4 HD is an extremely powerful thermal spotting scope.

Naturally, it is also priced towards the higher end.

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Built-in ballistic calculator for precise shooting
  • High-resolution, high-definition display
  • Wi-Fi streaming
  • Video recording and recoil-activated video
  • Built-in smart rangefinder

Cons

  • It consumes a lot of power

Our Review

The ATN Thor 4 HD thermal rifle scope is extremely popular with hunting enthusiasts across the globe, and for a good reason.

Seriously, this scope provides all the features of a thermal scope twice its price.

For starters, it has a 25 mm diameter that's ideal for the majority of hunting rifles currently used.

The lens has a superb 1x to 10x magnification range so scoring big game even from long distances is now possible.

You also get a Gen 4 Ultra-Sensitive 640x480 sensor that captures clear images at great distances. The images have smooth color enhancement, high sensitivity, and improved resolution - even in pitch-black settings.

One of the smartest features in this thermal spotting scope is the dual-stream video recording. You can record video to your SD card or stream it live via Wi-Fi connection to your mobile device - all in HD resolution.

For accurate shots, the laser rangefinder identifies your target. It sends data to the ballistic finder to adjust your POI sights, which makes it easier for you to hit targets as it determines the correct ballistic settings for long-range shots. 

You can select from different ballistic profiles for different loads such as wind, angle, humidity, range, and temperature, so you can be certain you are aiming correctly.

Some other features include GPS pinpointing, automatic recording of your fires, and a choice of viewing angle.

Issues and Limitations

The only limitation we can complain of in this feature-rich scope is that these features consume a lot of energy.

This can sometimes cause the battery to drain faster than you would like. 

However, that is nothing to fret over, as all you need to get your scope up and running again is 4 more AAA batteries. Just carry them in your hunting bag and replace as needed.

Alternatively, you can upgrade to a compatible battery pack or just recharge your device once the battery is exhausted.

Upgrades

All firmware in this thermal scope is upgradeable.

You can also replace the lens, add a battery pack, pair your scope with a tactical remote access controller, and upgrade the smart rangefinder and ballistic calculator.

All of these upgrades cost only a small amount yet offer high value.

The ATN Quick Detach Mount system is also available to help you quickly move the thermal spotting scope from platform to platform.


best value spotting scope

In spite of its basic features and a few shortcomings, the ATN Thor LT Thermal Rifle Scope is an excellent choice for novice shooters who don’t want to spend a fortune on their shooting gear.

Pros

  • Ergonomic design
  • Consistent performance
  • 5x magnification
  • Long battery life
  • Excellent value for money

Cons

  • Low resolution
  • Entry-level specifications

Our Review

ATN stands as one of the undisputed leaders of the hunting gear industry, and their exceptional value is why .

While the ATN Thor LT 320 3-6x Thermal Rifle Scope is an entry-level product, it offers unmatched value for money.

It has a maximum magnification power of 5x, yet it does the job a thermal spotting scope is intended to do.

The detection range is also 475 yards, so you can expect the scope to work well for short-medium distances.

The aluminum body is extremely lightweight at just 1.4 pounds, making it convenient for rough terrains or dense forests in inclement weather.

However, it is the affordable price that really makes the LT320 stand out.

This is an excellent entry-level product by one of the best thermal gear manufacturers in the world, priced for beginners on a budget. 

This scope is exceptionally ergonomic, has a lightweight design, offers multiple reticle options, and a refresh rate of 60 Hz to spot moving targets easily.

Add to this an impressive battery life of 10 hours, and you have yourself a very capable thermal spotting scope perfect for a variety of hunting scenarios.

Issues and Limitations

Given the remarkably low price, it is no surprise that the specs will leave some wanting. 

For example the low sensor resolution of 340-240 pixels means that the image gets pixelated when you zoom on the target, making you lose image quality.


4. Best for Beginners: Pulsar Core RXQ30V

what is the best spotting scope

The Pulsar RXQ30V is a relatively high-end thermal spotting scope with a 50 Hz refresh rate and a sapphire green display.

It is rated IPX7, and sells for a significantly lower price than comparable models. 

Overall, it's a great affordable way to start hunting at night.

Pros

  • Long detection range of 985 yards
  • One-shot zeroing
  • Green sapphire display
  • Adaptable external power supply

Cons

  • No video output
  • No focus ring

Our Review

Do you want to track your moving target faster than you have ever done before?

Pulsar’s Core RXQ30V, offers the latest thermal technology without breaking the bank.

The spotting scope’s highly tinted green sapphire allows it to identify its target more precisely than other scopes in its price category. That is because a green display is far easier on the eye compared to traditional red and yellow displays. 

Green displays help you scan for longer periods without your eyes getting fatigued or a headache setting in.

Likewise, the green display beats black-and-white NV displays because the vibrant color provides greater contrast and detail.

Moreover, while the base magnification of this model is just 1.6x, you can expand it up to 6.4x. 

This scope accomplishes that with three digital zoom settings: 2x, 3x, and 4x. Use the last setting coupled with the base magnification, and you get an impressive maximum magnification power of 6.4x.

The Pulsar Core RXQ30V is not just for spotting slow-moving or stationary targets. Instead, it allows you to identify and recognize fast moving targets just as easily – all thanks to its refresh rate of 50 Hz.

This scope comes with a quick-mount mechanism that facilitates easy mounting and easy removal. 

It also has three rifle profiles, which means that three different people can use the scope with their own settings saved for each user.

This makes it a great choice for families and hunting groups who would prefer to split the cost of the optics.

Issues and Limitations

The only issue we found with this otherwise excellent thermal scope is its lack of a focus ring. Since this eliminates the option of manual adjusting, it can be a major downside for some. 

However, given the price of the scope this is justified. The focus-to-infinity feature of the scope works just fine on all distances, anyway.

Upgrades

If you have a more generous budget and want an upgrade to the Pulsar RXQ30V, consider the Pulsar Trail XQ.

It has the same impressive 985-yard range and freeze function for one-shot zeroing, further complemented with IRIS technology to take your shooting game to the next level.


Thermal Spotting Scope Buying Guide

best mid range spotting scope

What is a Thermal Spotting Scope & How Does it Work?

Thermal imaging technology is similar to night vision technology in many ways, and the two are often confused with one another.

There is one key distinction, though: both thermal imaging and night vision enable you to see in the dark; however, the way they accomplish this is very different.

Night vision technology amplifies ambient light to help you see in the dark. In simpler terms, a night vision optic collects all available light - typically, natural light from the stars or the moon - and digitally amplifies it before sending it into the reticle. The sensors will then use that light to produce an observable image on the screen of your scope.

Night vision optics can work in very low-light conditions, but if the scene has absolutely no natural light to work with, you won't be able to see anything. 

In cases like these, an infrared illuminator is used in conjunction with the night vision scope. The illuminator provides the source of light that the scope needs to start working with. 

In contrast, thermal spotting scopes don’t rely on existing light sources. They detect heat signals, instead.

All objects, whether manmade or natural, emit heat. However, certain objects, like animals, emit significantly larger amounts of heat compared to their inanimate surroundings. This contrast in heat makes animals easily detectable by thermal optics.

Thermal spotting scopes are sensitive enough to detect very subtle differences in temperature between a target and its surroundings.

The lens of the scope scans the heat patterns and then creates a heat map using those patterns. The heat map is called a thermogram.

The process seems painstakingly long when we describe it as such. However, it takes less than a second for a competent thermal spotting scope to generate a thermogram.

The software of the scope then converts the thermogram into a digital display. As a result, an image made up of various colors is displayed on the screen.

The color intensity corresponds to heat intensity; for example, a darker red depicts an area with more heat emission.

If all of this sounds complex and difficult to make sense of, that’s because it is.

The only important thing for you to know is that a thermal scope uses heat emissions from targets to create an observable thermal image for you.

This is why thermal scopes function even in pitch-dark settings, unlike night vision scopes that need a light source to start with.

This feature puts thermal imaging a step ahead of night vision technology and makes thermal scopes the choice of a spotting scope for hunters and shooters.

Why Should You Buy a Thermal Spotting Scope?

You Can Use Them in a Variety of Situations:

best affordable spotting scope

Today, thermal imaging is used for a variety of applications, with recreational hunting and shooting on top of the list. Thermal spotting scopes are an ideal choice for both daytime and nighttime hunters. 

They are not only an obvious pick for hunting nocturnal targets like coyotes and feral hogs, but they also help spot game through thick brush, smoky haze, and dense fog.

Thermal spotting scopes are also the leading choice among tactical shooters. Whether you are law enforcement, military professional, or just a hobbyist shooter trying to perfect your tactical shots, a thermal scope should be your choice of optic. 

The right thermal spotting scope will let you spot live targets no matter how dark the scene is.

They Outdo Night Vision Scopes:

Yet another reason you should add a thermal spotting scope to your hunting paraphernalia is that these really are the best choice you have for nighttime hunting. The alternative is a night vision optic, and thermal scopes outdo night vision scopes by a large margin. 

Thermal imaging generally has more range than night vision – so much so that even a budget thermal scope can out-range a high-end night vision scope.

Moreover, thermal optics work perfectly in pitch dark, while night vision needs some amount of light to work with. An argument often pitched in response to this is that night vision optics come with built-in IR illuminators, so the absence of natural light is no problem.

Our response, in favor of thermal imagery, is that IR illuminators on night vision sights often end up alerting the target and encouraging it to move away from the shooter. 

In contrast, a thermal scope poses no such disadvantage. However, this is not to say that night vision is pointless because each technology has its uses.

What to Look for When Buying a Thermal spotting scope

best budget spotting scope

Let’s be honest; thermal spotting scopes are no cheap thing. Advanced thermal sights can even enter the five-figure price range. Let’s just say; you are fairly unlikely to find a competitive thermal spotting scope for less than $1000.

So, before you invest a considerable amount of money in a pricey thermal optic, make sure it’s the right one for you. Here are a few important points you should consider to push yourself in the right direction.

Weight and Size

When you are carrying your shooting equipment over long, rough terrain, the weight of the equipment becomes a matter of concern.

Similarly, the weight makes a difference when you are struggling to balance your rifle for an off-hand shot.

Therefore, we recommend looking for a lightweight and compact thermal scope that is portable and easily manageable.

Magnification

Some thermal optics offer no magnification, while others offer as much as 16x. The magnification power you require depends on the kind of shooting you are doing.

To help you figure out what you need, we will first explain the concept of magnification in a thermal optic. Thermal scopes have two kinds of magnification: digital or optical.

Digital magnification uses advanced software to enlarge the image. Digitally zoomed images are blurry at maximum power.

Optical magnification is comparatively low-tech. It requires you to manually adjust the lens as needed. Optically magnified images have better image quality, clarity, and sharpness when zoomed in to the max.

Resolution

Screen resolution is a critical factor and will dictate how clear the images from your thermal spotting scope will be. 

Regardless of how high-end the scope’s sensors are, if the screen is low-resolution, you will not be able to see detailed images.

The image sharpness and clarity get especially worse on low-resolution screens when viewing at maximum magnification.

Some thermal spotting scopes have built-in software to help smoothen pixelated images. As a result, more detailed images are produced.

Given how important resolution is, we recommend investing in a scope offering the highest resolution in your budget.

The enhanced, detailed images will aid precision shooting: the higher your device’s resolution, the more likely you are to make effective, quick, and humane kills.

Color Options

best cheap spotting scope

Think of thermal imaging, and you are likely to think of bright shades of red and orange. 

While the vivid imagery is true for many modern thermal spotting scopes, some variants also offer black and white coloring.

Instead of bright reds and oranges, black and white thermal optics show heat patterns as darker or lighter shades on a grayscale. 

These monochromatic images may not be as exciting as their more colorful counterparts, but they are easier to observe. This factor becomes even more important in target-rich settings when a lot of observation is needed.

To give you the best of both worlds, some models offer multiple color settings. You may choose black and white when you have an entire passel of hogs arriving at your bait station or switch to bright colors for easier target recognition.

Reticle Options

The pattern of markings and fine lines inside a spotting scope makes up the reticle. These are designed to help you aim accurately.

Reticle designs range from complex MIL-Dot configurations to simple center dots and crosshairs. Several high-end thermal spotting scopes have multiple pre-programmed reticles, so you can opt for a design that strikes your fancy or best suits the shooting job at hand.

If you travel down the price spectrum, there are scopes that have only one reticle or none at all. Depending on whether you want a thermal spotting scope for nocturnal hunts or tactical shooting, make sure the reticle meets your shooting needs.

Detection Range

The detection range of a thermal spotting scope determines how far the device can adequately infrared heat signatures from. Thermal imaging technology usually has a short detection range.

Again, depending on the nature of shooting you do, pick a thermal scope with an adequate detection range.

Other Features

Most thermal spotting scopes have a myriad of additional features, which is a great thing, considering the hefty price tags on some of the models. 

Look for helpful features like laser rangefinders, GPS location, recoil-activated video recording, ballistic calculators, digital compasses, and Wi-Fi streaming.

Final Verdict: Which is the Best Thermal Spotting Scope and Why

We think the Pulsar Thermion Thermal Riflescope is the best thermal spotting scope for most hunters because of its superior value proposition. With a 2400-yard detection range, 320x240 resolution, four color settings, 15 reticle settings, and a waterproof body, this device leaves nothing to be desired.