Rich Saunders ventures out after dark and wraps up warm to brave the cold in order to put four thermal scopes to the test
After is well and truly here, and without doubt it is my favourite and most productive time of the year for hunting rabbits and rats.
Thousands of years of evolution has given pest species superpowers to help avoid predators at night and although our senses become heightened in the dark thanks to our ancient DNA, we are still woefully under-equipped – unless you are fortunate enough to be able to bridge the gap with technology of course.
Last month we looked at a range of infrared scopes that work as well during the day as they do at night.
In this issue, we’ve put some of the best thermal scopes through their paces. And whilst they can be used during the day, it’s at night when they really come into their own, picking up heat signatures and turning them into images that we can target.
RUAG Ammotec has loaned us the venerable ATN Mars 4 which, priced at £3,240, has been around for a while but is still hard to beat. Highland Outdoors stocks the entire Saim range and has sent us the SCT35 model which carries a price tag of £2,499.99.
And thanks to night vision specialist Thomas Jacks, we’ve also got the Thermion XM30 (£2,149.95) and Guide TS425 (£1,999.95) on the test bench.
ATN Mars 4 4.5 – 18x
If you’ve used ATN’s X-Sight infrared scope, the Mars 4 will look familiar in terms of the layout of buttons as well as the fact that it will sit in 30mm scope rings and requires 90mm of eye relief.
The image from the Gen 4 384×288, 60hz sensor is superb in all nine colour palettes, though the white hot option was a clear favourite for me. A large dial on the left scrolls through the magnification range. In addition to the 4.5-18x review scope, the Mars 4 range includes models ranging from 1.25-5x up to 4-40x.
Accessed and navigated via chunky buttons on the top, there are five menus. The thermal menu allows you to determine the sensitivity of the sensor and tweak the contrast. The display menu settings include screen brightness, language and the ability to choose from seven reticles in seven different colours.
The reticle options are very useful, but I always thought so many colours was something of a gimmick until I chatted to a shooting buddy who told me he is severely colour blind.
Zeroing is achieved by accessing the profile menu, which allows you to save to several.
profiles for distances, ammunition and rifles. Once you’ve found something warm to aim at, simply shoot a group then move the zeroing reticle to cover your point of impact and hit save.
The ATN Mars 4 will record video at a resolution of 1280×960 @60fps. The photo/video menu powers the microphone, and formats the SD card (4–64Gb) that you will need to perform firmware updates as well as record onto.
The Mars 4 rangefinder was geared towards centrefire use. Fortunately ATN’s Auxiliary Ballistic Laser (ABL) provides a distance reading and will enable you to use the ballistic calculator function; with basic information about your set up, it will adjust your point of aim.
InfiRay Saim SCT35
InfiRay’s Saim SCP19 model is just about the cheapest thermal on sale at a shade under £1,200. However, we’ve got the SCT35 model on test, which costs a fair bit more, but is adorned with plenty of features.
The main shell is made from a high-quality polymer. Whilst those used to aircraft grade aluminium might get a little sniffy, it’s tough and light, weighing less than 600g even with the sturdy alloy reach-back Picatinny mount attached. It’s compact too at only 195mm in length.
The SCT35 has a 35mm objective lens protected by a snap-on cap. Behind is an image focus ring and three rubberised buttons on top. The middle button accesses the menu. The top button switches the scope on and off and the bottom button operates video and photo.
A long press opens a range of options including the zero function with four profile settings, wifi and picture-in-picture mode. A short press provides access to settings such as magnification, brightness and image adjustment.
The menu is intuitive and the image from the 1280×960 LCOS display clear thanks to a dioptre focus collar. There’s an ‘Ultraclear’ feature for inclement weather. The base magnification is 2.85x which, with a 1-4 digital zoom, delivers a range of 2.85-11.4x. Although there is some pixelation at the top end, I found the black hot option gave the best definition.
The Saim SCT35 is powered by two CR123 batteries that fit into a cavity on the left. They give a claimed 3.5 hours of run time which is fine if you have a separate spotter. If you plan on using the scope to spot as well, carry a spare set. A menu option allows you to specify 3.7v rechargeable batteries or 3v disposable.
Video and images are captured on a 16GB memory which you can download to a computer with the provided cable.
Pulsar Thermion XM30
The Pulsar brand has become synonymous with night vision. The Thermion XM30 is the company’s entry level product and one of five in the Thermion range. Don’t for a second think that means compromise on quality.
At 750g and 387mm long, the magnesium alloy body takes regular 30mm mounts. A press of a blue rubberised button turns on the XM30. The 320×240 12 µm thermal sensor interprets heat signatures and relays them to a 1024×768 HD AMOLED display.
The combination results in a crisp and well-defined image, especially at the lower end of the 3.5-14x magnification range which is controlled by pressing the “+” button on the eye bell.
The record button next to it captures footage and stills on the 16GB of internal memory. To download you’ll need to insert the provided cable into a micro USB port that is incorporated into the windage “turret”. Alternatively, you can use a tablet or smartphone thanks to the wifi function and Stream Vision App.
Pressing the left-hand turret accesses the main menu, which includes eight colour palettes, picture-in-picture (PiP) mode, a one-shot zero function with five profiles and nine reticle styles in 11 colours. A short press gives instant access to brightness and contrast, as well as the stadiametric rangefinder, but I found this too fiddly to use in the heat of the moment.
Like its stablemates, the Thermion XM30 uses a dual-power system. An internal battery is augmented by an external APS2 battery.
The setup is designed to use the external battery first and delivers a claimed seven hours run time that can be increased to around 10 hours by upgrading to a longer-life ASP3 battery.
At 660g and 230mm long, the Guide TS425 is chunky but light. This entry level model has a reassuringly solid feel about it.
With a 50Hz frame rate, the 400×300 17 µm thermal sensor delivers a well-defined thermal image via a large 1024×768 HD OLED display.
Holding down a red button on the left side turns the TS425 on, although it does take 20 seconds for everything to boot up – bear this in mind if you only switch the scope on when you’re ready to shoot.
Next to it is a small knurled dial. Pushing it accesses a single menu and a second push leads to sub menus. The set-up is simple and clear.
There are seven thermal palettes, 10 reticle styles in either black or white, brightness and contrast settings, a picture-in-picture (PiP) mode and a hot track option. The ‘Ranging’ function accesses a stadiametric system which is easy to operate.
The zero function only gives options to save settings at 25, 50 or 100 metres, which is likely fine for those shooting flatter trajectory centrefire rifles, but will require airgunners to work out their holdover and holdunder aim points.
Rotating the dial scrolls through the TS425’s 1.6-6.4x magnification range which comprises 1.6x optical magnification with 4x digital zoom.
A rechargeable 3.7v 18650 battery is provided and inserted into an aperture located above the ocular lens.
Guide says you can expect up to five hours of run time, and spare batteries are cheap to buy and take just a few seconds to swap out.
There’s no onboard video function, so I wasn’t able to capture a thermal image through the lens.
Too hot to handle?
There’s no getting away from the enormous elephant in the room when it comes to thermal scopes – and that’s the cost. Let’s face it, although prices are coming down, you could buy a couple of decent PCP rifles for the cost of even the cheapest thermal scope.
The technology is staggering though and will certainly help you spot potential targets that even infrared will sometimes miss. There are a couple of things to consider though.
Unlike IR, thermal will cut through light undergrowth to spot that rabbit hiding in the brambles. That sounds great, but you could be deceived into thinking you have a clear shot.
Species identification is also something to consider. Although all the products we’ve reviewed here deliver crisp images, thermal tech, especially at lower prices, is not as defined as IR. When it moves, identifying quarry is easy. But when it stands still you need to be sure that the rabbit is a rabbit and not the farmer’s cat.
I very nearly had an unfortunate incident with a goat and a thermal scope. I know that sounds like the start of a rather dodgy joke, but bear with me. I was shooting rats in a barn, and I was lining up my sights on what I felt sure was a rat halfway up a wall.
Something didn’t seem quite right though, so rather than simply shoot, I switched on my torch to check, and realised the rat turned out to be the muzzle of a goat poking through a hole. Lesson learned.