Best thermal and IR spotters w/ Richard Saunders

The rabbits and rats hide, and Rich Saunders seeks with the help of some of the best thermal and IR spotters on the market.

I have to admit to being instinctively dubious of most new things. For good or bad, “what a waste of money” and “I can’t see the point in that” are thoughts that are never far from my mind. 

Several years ago, I was loaned a Pulsar Helion thermal spotter to test, and with a price tag north of £2,000 my natural prejudices came to the fore. And then I actually switched it on and put it to my eye. Epiphany.

I hung on to that review sample for as long as I could, making increasingly weak excuses to explain why I hadn’t sent it back. Eventually though, after selling a couple of rifles, I bought one of my own. I take it with me every time I go shooting, day and night, and wouldn’t be without it.

The simple truth is that a spotter will enable you to see quarry you would otherwise miss. Thermals are a lot more expensive, but will work whether it’s day or night, uncovering rabbits partially covered in undergrowth and squirrels too far away to see with the naked eye. Infrared spotters work almost as well, but only in the dark, although they are much cheaper.

So, with my wallet trembling, I’m taking a look at the Optical Solutions UK Eye E3n which costs £1,200 and the SiOnyx Aurora Pro, which Scott Country International sells for £999.99.

Fellow night vision specialist Thomas Jacks has loaned us a Pulsar Axion Key XM30 which retails for £1,159.95, while Pard’s UK distributor, Sportsman Gun Centre, has entrusted us with a Pard NV019 that will set you back £268.99.

Optical Solutions UK Eye E3N

“Performance on a budget”

Price: £1,200

Optical Solutions UK is a relatively new entrant to the UK airgunning scene and although it offers high-end products as well, it is quickly building a reputation for producing budget end thermal optics that punch above their weight when it comes to performance.

The second cheapest of no less than 14 different thermal spotters, the bomb-shaped Eye E3n weighs just 320g and measures an easy-in-the-hand 160mm long by 62mm at its widest point. The two-tone green and black rubberised finish is both rugged and tactile, and the rubber eye cup is extremely comfortable.

A resolution of 384×288 combined with 17um pixel size, 12um thermal sensor and a 50Hz frame rate combine to provide a clear image both in daylight and at night that can be refined with a small focus wheel. 

The field of view is not the biggest in the world, and magnification is limited to 2-4x, however especially at night I found neither a hindrance,
and the E3n was the equal of more expensive products when it came to detecting rabbit-sized heat sources worth a closer inspection out to nearly 200 metres.

The four top-mounted buttons are chunky and operate with distinct clicks. The charge port for the lithium-ion battery, which provides its user a claimed 15-hour run time, is raised to help your fingers navigate in the dark.

It’s fair to say that compared with the other products on review, the Eye E3n has fewer functions – there’s no picture or video function for example, and no rangefinder or wi-fi. That said, some will see such features as unnecessary gimmicks that push up cost, and will instead focus on the fact that the Eye E3n covers the basics that most airgun hunters are looking for.

The lack of functionality also means the Eye E3n is very simple to use. In addition to the power button, there are three other buttons – one each to scroll through the five colour palettes, magnification and brightness levels – no double presses or long presses to access additional menus.

The Airgun Shooter verdict

“By shedding some of the ‘nice to have’ features, the Eye E3n concentrates on delivering the “need to have” functions that make it an extremely effective and very easy to use affordable spotter.”

SiOnyx Aurora Pro

“Much more than a spotter”

Price: £999.99

If only you could buy a spotter that could also take colour photos and video like a regular camera during the day. Suddenly that expensive piece of kit would have a lot more uses.

Enter the SiOnyx Aurora Pro night vision camera. Thanks to technology that enhances light sensitivity to near infrared wavelengths, the Aurora Pro’s performance in very low light conditions – think moon and starlight – is staggering. 

Categorising the Aurora Pro is a little tricky. I’d say it falls a little short of a standard camcorder for those holiday memories, but at night it really comes into its own, providing a clear, full colour panoramic image.

At just 119mm long and 279g, the Aurora Pro slips easily into a jacket pocket. A dial on the left switches it on and scrolls through settings including recording modes, playback, wi-fi and menu.

A thumb wheel focuses the viewing screen and a collar at the front refines the image. A second collar adjusts the Aurora Pro’s settings to maximise performance for daylight, twilight and at night.

Though most hunters only use it occasionally, the record button is easy to locate. Forward of it is a D-pad which operates the menu function and zooms in and out through the 3x magnification range.

The on/off chime can be turned off via the settings, but that means accidentally switching the camera on when putting it in your pocket would go unnoticed. 

And although the Aurora Pro enables close to daylight vision in the dark, it lacks the ability of a full-on IR spotter to pick up eye shine, although an optional 940nm IR illuminator add-on does the trick.

Charged via a USB port, SiOnyx claims a battery run time of just two hours, although two batteries are provided and extras are cheap. 

The whole package, which also includes a 32 GB micro SD card – which is the largest the Aurora Pro will take – lanyard and Picatinny mount is presented in a high-quality black plastic case.

The Airgun Shooter verdict

“Night vision spotters are expensive items and the fact that the Aurora Pro has many more uses makes it an attractive proposition, especially for hunters who only shoot at night occasionally. Although it’s a little bit of a compromise on a dedicated spotter at longer distances, it has many other benefits.”

Pulsar Axion Key XM30

“Affordable Pulsar quality”

Price: £1,159.95

As Bic and Hoover are to pens and vacuum cleaners, Pulsar is quickly becoming synonymous with thermal technology. And for good reason, as the company’s products are of consistent high quality and now, with the Axion range, they are more affordable as well.

Although it is one of Pulsar’s cheapest thermal spotters, the Axion Key XM30 does not stint on performance. 

The magnesium shell is IPX7 fully waterproof, is 149mm long and weighs just over 300g. The 320×240 thermal sensor with a 12µm pixel pitch provides a clear thermal image out to a claimed 1,200-metre range that can be refined by turning a collar on the objective lens. In the field it identified rabbits beyond 100 metres with ease.

In addition to the power button, three others scroll through functions that include eight colour palettes and settings for different environments such as mountainous and wooded terrain. A dioptre adjustment helps you focus the screen image.

The second button from the front scrolls through 2.5, 5 and 10x magnification, though I stick to 2.5x for the clearest image. Holding it down activates the picture-in-picture mode that operates at 5x and 10x. 

A long press of the menu accesses additional settings for date, time and units, while a short press opens a separate menu for brightness and contrast. 

The Axion Key XM30’s stadiametric rangefinder is, in all honesty, too fiddly to use in the field as it requires you to frame your target in a pair of cursors. An algorithm then uses three different quarry species references – a deer, boar and rabbit – to calculate the distance. 

The Axion Key XM30 is missing a few functions found on more expensive products – mainly the ability to take photos, record video and stream to another device via wi-fi –  though personally I rate such things as “nice to haves” rather than essentials. 

At a claimed four hours, the APS3 battery life is a little short, although you can buy spares for £39.95. Holding down the power button activates a display off mode which will extend run time. A quick press instantly wakes the Axion Key XM30 up again. 

The Airgun Shooter verdict

“The Axion Key XM30 delivers the features and functions that you need and forgoes those that satisfy more specialist needs. It is rugged, compact and light, and will make a huge difference to your night-time hunting.”

PARD NV019 Night Vision Monocular

“Great value and does the job”

Price: £268.99

If you’ve used an IR scope at night, you’ll know how good they are for picking out quarry. But you’ll also know how difficult it is to hold your rifle to your eye and search for a target.

An IR spotter makes the task easier. Another tick is compared with thermal products, infrared monoculars are cheaper. Formed just over three years ago, PARD’s NV007 and NV008 products have become a favourite with hunters. Less known is the NV019 infrared monocular spotter. 

Measuring 200mm, it’s bigger than the other products on review, but still very manageable at just 379g. And although it’s significantly cheaper, the NV019 has features including a video/still record function, wi-fi connectivity and HDMI output so you can connect it to a monitor.

Like other PARD products, the NV019 is simple to use with four buttons. The furthest from your eye switches the unit on and off, and a short press takes photos. Below that, the zoom button scrolls through the 3x digital magnification range which is augmented by 6x optical magnification. Next is the menu button that also activates the 1920x1080p record function which requires a mini SD card.

The button closest to the ocular lens switches between day colour and night monochrome modes, and turns on the beam-adjustable integrated IR illuminator which has three intensity levels. It’s powerful enough for spotting rabbits at well over 100 metres.

Power comes from a rechargeable 18650 battery which, says PARD, lasts up to eight hours. Still, if you expect to be out all night, take a spare.

The NV019 is comfortable to use thanks to the hand strap which ensures you have it the right way round. You’ll need a large pocket although there are mounting points for a neck strap. 

There are two dials to the left of the lens that allow you to focus and operate the 6x optical zoom. There’s no adjusting the ocular focus on the 800×600 pixel LCD view screen. 

I had to hold the NV019 up to a foot away to focus the image, which results in a cropped picture, and a change in magnification requires refocusing, so I would pick a level of magnification and focus, then stick with it.

The Airgun Shooter verdict

“Price and performance make the PARD NV019 very attractive, and if thermal is too much of an extravagance then an IR spotter is a great alternative. You may have to look a little harder, but there’s no doubt this product will boost your night-time success rate.”

Master of the night

One of the reasons we hunt is the challenge of pitting our skills against the ability of our quarry to avoid us. At night that means trying to get the better of rats and rabbits whose senses have been honed by a need to keep away from just about everything else that wants to eat them. 

Our quarry has the benefit of thousands of years of evolution, whereas we, despite the hunting instinct being deep within our DNA, usually prefer to nip down to Tesco’s when we’re feeling a bit peckish.

Technology helps bridge the gap, but even the best air rifle with the most skilled shooter behind it will struggle if he or she cannot find any quarry. I shoot a lot at night and my thermal spotter is essential; for me it is simply the difference between success and failure.

There’s no denying that its ability to light up quarry, even at extreme distances, no matter if it is obscured by grass or undergrowth, means that thermal is better than infrared in my opinion.

IR spotters are fine at short and medium distances, but you are largely reliant on prey animals facing you and revealing themselves through eye shine. IR will also be affected by obstructions like any kind of structure or undergrowth.

Ultimately, the route you go is likely to be most influenced by your budget. Both thermal and IR will give you an edge at night and for many, IR will deliver exactly what they need.

Be aware though that there are plenty of cheap thermal products out there, and my advice is to try them first as a good quality IR spotter is likely to be better than a cheap thermal that costs the same.

TypeThermalUltra low light / infraredThermalInfrared
Magnification2.5-10x3x2-4x1-6 optical and 3x digital
Sensor320×240 12µmEnhanced ultra-low light CMOS384×288 17µmNot specified
Frame rate50Hz60 per second50HzN/A
Field of view7.8 degreesNot given19.5×14.7 degrees120 degrees
Claimed range1,300mNot given739m200m
Video/cameraNoYesNoMP4 recording
Claimed battery run time4 hours2 hours15 hours8 hours
Waterproof ratingIPX7IP67IP66Not specified

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