Richard Saunders gets hot, but not bothered as he tests four thermal imagers
Not so long ago, thermal imaging was the stuff of James Bond films. Today, thanks to advances in manufacturing and technology, they are very much a part of the airgun hunter’s bag of tricks. Perhaps more than any other piece of airgun shooting equipment, the price and complexity of thermal imagers varies enormously. You can spend upwards of £10,000 or as little as £250. But, as with many things, the question that has to be asked is: do you really need one, or do you just want one?
We’ve been managing for years without thermal imagers, so how vital can they be? I remember pestering my dad to buy me a 4×32 scope when I was a kid. To him, they were a gimmick, and the metal open sights he’d used as a boy were more than up to the job. To an extent, he was right – but look how much more efficient the addition of a scope makes an air rifle. The same could be said about rangefinders and night vision equipment: you can get by without them, estimating distances and using a lamp, but it’s so much better if you can afford the kit.
I’d never used a thermal imager before, so when the task came through to review some, I couldn’t wait to try them in the field. Products that combine a thermal sensor with a smartphone app really keep down the costs and are available from £250. However, for our test we have focused on four options costing up to £1,200.
At the top end of our budget is the Pulsar Quantum Lite XQ23V, while at the bottom is the Seek Thermal Reveal XR – both provided by Uttings of Norwich. Priced in-between is the Leupold LTO-Tracker, which is distributed in the UK by Viking Arms, and the Flir Scout TK Compact Monocular.
All four thermal imagers were tested on both daytime and night-time hunting trips.
FLIR Mark 4 2.5-8×36
The Scout TK is the first of our monocular thermal imagers, and the second-cheapest. That’s not to say there is anything low-cost about the product: it looks, feels, and indeed is, a high-quality product.
The body is encased in a rubberised green finish that provides IP67 waterproof protection and a one-metre drop test guarantee. There are four buttons and a covered USB port for charging the Scout TK to a claimed five hours of continuous use, and for accessing its video and photo capabilities. To the left of the soft rubber eyepiece is a dioptre dial for focusing.
Shaped like a little green bomb, the Scout is extremely tactile; everything falls naturally to hand when the device is at your eye. Weighing just 170g, it is also the lightest product on test, and at 150mm long, it will fit easily into your pocket.
Like the Seek Thermal Reveal XR, the Scout TK does not offer a zoom capability. However, with a maximum range of 130 metres for a man-sized target, and a little less for airgunning scenarios, this isn’t an issue. What is more important is the clarity of image – a strong point for the Scout TK in both day and night conditions, thanks to the 160 x 120 VOx microbolometer thermal sensor and the company’s Digital Detail Enhancement technology.
The on/off button accesses a menu to set features such as the clock and auto shut-off. I liked the fact that the eight-colour palette is operated by a single button, as is the ability to adjust brightness. The fourth button allows you to take pictures and record video.
I field-tested the Scout TK on a freezing cold night-time ratting trip. The Scout TK let me scan my surroundings constantly, rather than every once in a while with some NV kit. I was able to hone in on the few rats that presented themselves thanks to the easily accessible brightness/contrast button.
“Flir has poured all its expertise into the Scout TK and produced a product that is perfect for the airgun hunter. It is simple to use, extremely effective at airgunning ranges and well-made.”
Resembling a small torch, or perhaps a scope that has been chopped in half, the Leupold LTO-Tracker slips easily into a pocket; measuring 142mm long and weighing 212g, you’ll hardly notice it’s there. Excellent ergonomics make it very comfortable to use one-handed, although a wrist lanyard to prevent dropping it accidentally would be a good addition. It is waterproof and solidly made. The non-reflective matt black finish on the aluminium body won’t give you away in the field.
The LTO-Tracker has just three buttons. Holding the right-hand button down switches the unit on. Double-clicking brings up a reticle and pressing the button down again switches the device off, although it will shut down automatically after 15 minutes if you forget.
The middle button zooms the image up to 6x digital magnification through the round 30mm viewing window. The left-hand button enables you to both zoom out and scroll through six colour options. With a 206 x 156 thermal sensor, Leupold claims a maximum detection range of 550 metres.
Although you can just about detect potential heat sources at that range, it’s impossible to determine what they belong to. At more modest distances, the 21 degree field of view and 240 x 204 pixel resolution is more than sufficient to identify targets in daylight.
To test its performance during the day, I used the LTO Tracker to spot pigeons sitting in trees. With so few leaves at the time, I could probably have found them through my scope.
However, with the thermal imager I could scan the trees much more easily, and with less disturbance, pinpointing the pigeons easily. During its night-time ratting test, I found the image quality on the LTO-Tracker’s small screen deteriorated somewhat, especially when magnified.
“While its performance drops off in the dark, there’s no denying that during the day this well-made and easy-to-use thermal imager performs well.”
PULSAR QUANTUM LITE XQ23V THERMAL
The Pulsar Quantum Lite XQ23V Thermal – let’s just call it the Quantum Lite – is the most expensive product on test, though in the broader context of thermal imagers it’s still at the bottom end of the fiscal spectrum. The build quality is apparent immediately. At 350g, 200mm long and 90mm wide, it resembles a small video camera and is the bulkiest product on test.
That said, it will still fit easily into a jacket pocket. The 384×288 17µm thermal imager is much more efficient than those on the other products, and the image is crisper in daylight out to a claimed range of 800 metres, thanks also to the 50Hz frame refresh rate.
Helped by the ability to adjust brightness and contrast, the image at night is excellent over short- to mid-range distances. I was easily able to spot rats at distances beyond which I felt comfortable taking a shot, especially as the Quantum Lite has seven colour options in addition to being able to invert the black-and-white setting.
Unlike the other products, zooming up to a maximum of 7.2x did not significantly deteriorate the image at range. As a monocular, you have to hold the Quantum Lite right up to your eye. Doing so gives you a huge field of vision, but at night my eye took several seconds to adjust back to natural ambient light again. The Quantum Lite has so many options that listing them would read like a catalogue.
The most useful for an airgun hunter may be the rangefinder, which computes distances based on three height references – rabbit, hog and deer. With a potential target located, you adjust a digital cursor around it, press a button and the device calculates a distance for each quarry.
“The higher price commanded by the Quantum Lite XQ23V Thermal is more than justified by its outstanding performance, even in the dark, and a comprehensive range of features.”
SEEK THERMAL REVEAL XR CAMO
Despite being not only the cheapest thermal imager in our Supertest, but one of the cheapest on sale anywhere, other than adapted smartphone products, there’s a lot to like about the Seek Thermal Reveal XR.
This mobile phone-sized product is available in both black and camouflage finishes to the curved, rugged plastic body. At 125mm long and weighing just 187g, you’ll barely notice the addition of the Thermal Reveal XR to your hunting gear. The 40 x 55mm colour screen means you can scan the landscape by holding the device at just about any level and see what’s going on.
There are three buttons at the top of the screen. The centre one switches the Thermal Reveal XR on and enables access to a series of sub-menus which you can scroll through using the other two buttons.
The left button also runs through seven different palettes. Clicking the right-hand button captures an image of whatever you are looking on a supplied microSD card which you can then transfer to your computer – a feature that is no doubt more useful for DIY and home security purposes. Transferring images requires the provided USB cable, which also charges the 3.7V lithium battery from a PC, for performance that is claimed to last 10 hours of continuous use.
With a 206×156 thermal sensor, 9Hz frame rate and 20-degree field of vision, the Thermal Reveal XR performs well during daylight. Seek claims a detection range of just over 90 metres, which is fine given the lack of any zoom capability, and although I only used it to spot rabbits 30 metres away, I can believe it.
On the same night-time ratting trip the Leupold LTO-Tracker was subjected to, I found the Seek Thermal Reveal XR slightly easier to use, thanks to the bigger screen. Once again, the image quality dropped away in the dark.
“The Seek Thermal Reveal XR is well-designed and full of features. It performs as well, if not better, than more expensive alternatives and is a great budget choice for airgun hunters.”
RED-HOT PULSAR QUANTUM LITE STANDS OUT
To say I was sceptical about the benefits of a thermal imager is an understatement. If I’m honest, I’d dismissed them in the past as a gimmick and just didn’t think they’d work well enough at affordable prices. If you’re of the same opinion, prepare yourself for the kind of epiphany I experienced.
All the products tested here will give you an edge in the field, helping you to spot quarry that would otherwise remain hidden. Some give you enough of a hint to make closer investigation worthwhile, while others scream ‘There’s a rabbit’.
In daylight, all four thermal imagers worked well, picking out potential quarry at reasonable distances, with the added benefit of ‘seeing’ through leaves and light brush. The Seek Thermal Reveal XR and Leupold LTO-
Tracker are the easiest to use, as you do not have to hold them right up to your eye. The Seek is the best in this regard: you can hold it out in front of you as you walk and scan.
Though they will give you an edge during the day, it’s at night that thermal imagers really tip things in your favour. Despite having to hold them right up to your eye, which will compromise your night vision for a few minutes, the Flir and Pulsar come out top, although they are more awkward to use on the move.
“In essence, airgun hunting is a simple sport. Purists will say that all you need to be successful is a rifle and a pocket full of pellets. And they are right. But many more would argue that technology makes us more efficient. The Pulsar Quantum Lite XQ234V Thermal is a clear winner here. It is the most expensive, but personally I would save a little harder to get one.”