Best thermals? No, we’re not talking woolly undies, just scopes, and Rich Saunders takes a look at some of the top choices
With winter upon us and the nights drawing in, hunting for most means going out after dark. In my book, that’s a good thing. However, although many airgun species are more active at night, hunting them is likely to involve an investment in specialist gear.
Last month we looked at some of the best infrared (IR) scopes on the market. In this issue we’re examining thermal scopes. Although prices are slowly coming down, it’s fair to say that in general, thermal technology demands deeper pockets.
Many will argue that going thermal is unnecessary and that IR scopes are more than up to the task when it comes to airgun hunting. Having spent many hours with the products in last month’s test, I’d have to acknowledge there being some truth to that argument. But then again, I’m sure dedicated lampers would argue that IR is a needless expense too.
There’s no denying the fact that a thermal image, even in a top-end product, takes a bit of getting used to. However, unlike IR, a thermal scope will home in on anything with a pulse, even when it’s hidden by light undergrowth. The simple fact is that if you can’t see anything through your thermal, there’s probably nothing to be seen.
It’s no surprise that many of the big names in IR are also players in the thermal space. Highland Outdoors has loaned us an ATN Mars 4 4.5-18x which retails at £4,080. And another name familiar to those who shoot in the dark, Pulsar, has sent us a Thermion XQ38 via UK distributor Thomas Jacks, which it sells for £2,649.95.
We’ve also got products from a couple of relatively new kids on the block. Optical Solutions has sent us a SAIM SCP19 which retails for £1,400, and Sportsman Gun Centre has entrusted us with a PARD SA 19 LRF, which will set you back £2,669.99.
ATN MARS 4 4.5-18x
ATN’s X-Sight is a favourite with airgunners and at first glance the Mars 4 looks identical, with the same layout, magnification wheel and focus adjustments. It sits on the 30mm scope rings and has 90mm eye relief.
Of course it’s when you switch the power button on you notice the difference. Accessed via chunky buttons on the top, which also perform functions such as taking photos and video, there are five main menus.
The thermal menu allows you to fine-tune the display for contrast and colour palette – there are nine to choose from – as well as determine the sensitivity level of the thermal sensor.
The photo/video menu switches the microphone on and off, formats your SD card, which you need to record and perform firmware updates, and enables the recoil-activated video feature – something of more use to powder-burners.
Settings for brightness, language and sleep mode are in the display menu, along with seven reticle styles in seven colours. The profile menu takes care of tasks such as zeroing, achieved by shooting a group, moving a second reticle to the point of impact and then hitting save. You can set up multiple profiles for different rifles, zero distances and ammunition.
Judging distance at night with a thermal is as hard as it is with an IR scope. The Mars 4 has a built-in stadiametric rangefinder feature, but ATN has designed its Auxiliary Ballistic Laser (ABL) rangefinder, which costs up to £466.99, to work with the Mars 4 in the same way as it does with the infrared X-Sight 4K Pro.
It reads the distance to your target, and by enabling the scope’s ballistic calculator function and entering some basic ballistic information, will alter your point of aim so you don’t have to factor in holdover.
The Mars 4 comes into its own in the dark. However, that’s not to say it cannot be used in low light or even daylight; you will lose the definition of your surroundings, but the heat signature of your quarry will stand out just as clearly.
The SAIM SCP19 may be an entry level product from Optical Solutions and doesn’t have the arsenal of features and functions of other thermal scopes, but it covers more than the basics and at a fraction of the price.
Measuring at just 180mm long, including the rubber eye cup, and tipping the scales at 373g without the mounts, ‘compact’ just doesn’t do the scope justice.
One of the reasons for the SAIM SCP19’s svelte form is the fact that power is provided by two rechargeable li-ion RCR123A batteries which give a claimed eight hours of operation, which to my mind seems optimistic, so I’d take a spare set just to be safe.
A good quality steel mount provides the shooter plenty of room to secure the scope to a Picatinny rail and achieve proper eye relief. Once you’ve got that sorted, you can then adjust the screen image, which includes a compass
and inclinometer display via a dioptre adjustment, and the target image via a collar on the objective lens – both are chunky to handle and feel very smooth to operate.
In keeping with the SAIM SC19’s straightforward design, there are just three buttons which stand proud of the scope’s body, making them easy to navigate in the dark.
The middle button accesses the menus to select different colour palettes, reticle styles and colours, with four options for each.
The SAIM SC19’s 2.3-4.6x magnification range is activated with a quick press of the power button. Thanks to a 388×288 17µm thermal sensor, the image is crisp at lower magnification, and though a little grainy it’s still more than usable when you zoom in.
Whilst there is no in-built capacity to take photos or record video, you can attach a separate recording device via a mini USB port. You can also store four different profiles to accommodate different pellets or make it easy to swap the SAIM SC19 to other rifles.
Pulsar Thermion XQ38
There was a time when thermal scopes were boxy, cumbersome and weighed a ton. And then Pulsar launched the Thermion – a range designed to look just like regular day scopes.
The XQ38 is the ‘cheapest’ of the five products in the line-up, but with a detection range of 1,350 metres and 2.5-10x magnification range, it covers every airgun need and represents value for money.
The Thermion XQ38 is 394mm long and weighs 850g, ensuring it will work with just about any air rifle. There are focus adjustments at both ends and a good quality flip-up lens cover at the front.
A nifty dual battery system comprises an in-built APS2 battery and a rechargeable APS3 pack that fits in a turret where you’d normally expect elevation adjustment. Although they will run the Thermion independently, combined they give around seven hours of use.
Removing a cap on the right side turret reveals a mini USB port to download images and video recorded on the Thermion’s 16GB internal memory.
The button on the left-hand turret reveals a menu for a range of options including settings for environments, brightness and contrast, as well as eight thermal palettes and 10 reticles, each of which is available in 11 different colours. Used with Pulsar’s Stream Vision App, the wifi function connects the scope to a smartphone or tablet.
The zeroing menu is simple; a freeze option fixes the reticle over your point of aim so you can move a red cross to cover where your pellets hit before saving.
The array of buttons and menus is intimidating, however, Pulsar has drawn on its years of experience to develop an intuitive layout. Nothing exemplifies this more than the three buttons that sit atop the ocular lens to switch on and off, record video or take pictures, and zoom.
Any scope is only as good as the image you see through it. The Thermion XQ38 has a 384×288 17 µm thermal sensor. From using the scope at night and during the day the image is bright and crisp, making it easy to spot different quarry species, especially with the picture-in-picture (PiP) mode enabled.
PARD SA19 LRF
There’s no denying that with its NV007 and NV008 products, PARD Technologies shook the infrared establishment. With a range of eight scopes, it is looking to do the same in the thermal market.
Sold and distributed in the UK by Sportsman Gun Centre, the entry level SA19 costs just £2,336.99, although the laser rangefinder SA19 LRF version costs another £330.
Open the box and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been sent the wrong product; the SA19 LRF looks just like its NV008 infrared cousin.
Indeed, all the products have a distinct similarity about them and at just 147mm long and just 350g, the SA19 LRF is as light and compact as its siblings. It is sturdy and well-made from aluminium, carrying an IP67 waterproof rating.
Power comes from a supplied rechargeable 18650 li-ion battery and will provide, according to PARD, eight hours of use, which again seems a bit optimistic, so take a spare with you. A button for a laser red dot function, though disabled for the UK market, still results in a red asterisk icon and floating red mini-reticle in the display.
The other three buttons control magnification through the 1.5-4.5x range, the constant read out laser rangefinder, and the main menu which covers everything from language and unit settings to a picture-in-picture mode and options for five reticle styles and five thermal colour palettes.
Some of the buttons have a double function not immediately obvious; holding down the menu button accesses a menu to scroll through the reticle styles and colours as well as zero to your desired range.
The SA19 LRF is ready within a couple of seconds and once you’ve adjusted the dioptre and objective focus rings, the picture is crisp at lower magnification ranges, if a little grainy at 4.5x. PARD says it is possible to hook up a recording device and is working on an integrated solution which it plans to introduce in the future.
It’s more than made up for by the fact that you can attach a flip-out five inch display screen via a short Picatinny rail. Yet to be priced for the UK, it enables you to more easily scan for targets whilst aiming through the scope as normal when it comes to taking a shot.
Turn up the heat
Thermal spotters have become increasingly popular with airgun hunters in recent years. Unlike infrared technology, thermal cuts through light brush and other obstacles and means quarry has nowhere to hide.
No matter whether you are stalking, ambushing or peering into trees for squirrels, pigeons or corvids, thermal technology will pick out quarry more efficiently than infrared; many’s the time I’ve dismissed a hedgerow only to realise there’s a rabbit or two lurking just beyond the naked eye.
Of course, thermal scopes have the added benefit of not only helping to spot your quarry but being able to target them as well. In the dark they give a surreal, almost video game-like quality to your shooting.
As with any night-time shooting, gauging distance is a constant challenge. With thermal technology you will need to get the right balance of palette, contrast and brightness in order to pick up enough of the background to give you any kind of visual reference.
As a result, you either need to know your permission extremely well, map out some distance markers in daylight or opt for a model that has a rangefinding capability.
The elephant in the room is of course cost. Prices are coming down and although I have no research to prove the point, my sense is that thermal scopes have reached the point we were at a few years ago with infrared scopes in terms of cost. Let’s hope they follow the same trend and prices continue to head down further.
|ATN MARS 4
|PULSAR THERMION XQ38
|PARD SA19 LRF
|DIMENSIONS IN MM
|351 x 76 x 76
|394 x 78 x 80
|180 x 60 x 60
|147 x 75 x 66
|WEIGHT IN Grams
|BATTERY / LIFE
|4.5 – 18 x
|2.5 – 10 x
|2.3 – 4.6 x
|1.5 – 4.5 x
|SENSOR / FRAME RATE
|Gen 4 384×288, 60hz
|384×288 17µm, 50hz
|388×288 17µm, 50hz
|384×288 px, 17μm, 50hz
|Seven in seven colours
|10 in 11 colours
|Four in four colours
|Five in four colours
|Stadimetric. Laser with ABL accessory
|With separate device