What happened when we went airgun hunting with a thermal imager

Richard Saunders
gets his thermal on for some night sport with the Pulsar Trail XP50

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Anything with the word ‘thermal’ in it is going to cost a few quid. Add ‘scope’ and you’re talking serious money. There’s no easy way of saying this: the Pulsar Trail XP50 costs £4,469.95. But don’t worry, there is a cheaper version: the XP38, at £4,059.95.

I’m being facetious. Of course, specialist pieces of equipment like thermal scopes are not made with airgun shooters in mind. The fact that the XP50 has a range of 1,800 metres tells you all you need to know about who it’s really aimed at.

But what if? What if you had a few thousand pounds that needed spending? Would a thermal scope work as well on bunnies at 30 metres as it would at wild boar at 300? Thanks to Thomas Jacks, Pulsar’s UK distributor, I had the opportunity to find out…

Set up and zeroing

Take the XP50 out of the box, and the first thing to hit you is its size. It looks too bulky and heavy to be anything other than a hindrance on a gun. But in fact, it’s 10cm shorter than the Hawke Airmax it replaced, and 140 grammes lighter at 620g. In addition, although it looks a little odd, the unit needs to be attached as far back as the mounts will allow, meaning that any weight is transferred to the butt.

Like all scopes, the XP50 needs to be zeroed. But that is where any similarity ends. For starters, in daylight, we’re used to putting a conventional scope to our eye and seeing a beautifully crisp, magnified image. With a thermal scope, all you can see is a slightly blurry digital representation in which anything warm shows up black or white, depending on the setting you have chosen.

As paper targets don’t throw off any heat, they are almost invisible through the XP50. I got over this by heating a drawing pin in the middle of a piece of A4 paper with a lighter to provide an aim point.

You’ll also need a pair of binoculars to spot where your pellets hit. From there, with the zeroing menu option chosen, you simply move the digital crosshairs to where the pellets hit and hold a button down to save. The menu allows you to save up to 15 zero points for different distances. In the field you can either scroll through to find the aim point you need, or you can stick to one and use the mildots.

Hunting trip

Of course, thermal scopes are not meant for the range, but for the field. So, having saved aim points at 20, 30 and 40 metres, I planned a night ratting and rabbiting trip.

My chosen venue was the free-range egg farm that’s my permission. Arriving one evening, my plan was to use the last hour or so of daylight to have a scout about, and select somewhere to lie in wait for the bunnies to show themselves.

When I’m planning an ambush session, I like rabbits to see me from a couple of hundred metres away. My thinking is that if they amble into their burrows unalarmed, but as a precaution, they are more likely to come out again soon – whereas if I try to creep into position and get spotted from 50 metres away, they’ll disappear in the blink of an eye and stay underground for the rest of the day.

On this particular evening, I could see half a dozen or so on the far side of the field. They’d clearly read the script and hopped into the hedgerow while I was still some distance away. Ten minutes later, I was in position, lying parallel to the hedgerow due to the prevailing wind direction and waiting about 25 metres from where I hoped the rabbits would reappear.

The grass had been cut a few weeks before. While it was short enough not to get in the way of any shots, it offered little in the way of cover, meaning I had to rely on my camouflage, lack of movement and the gathering dusk for cover.

With my Weihrauch HW 100S mounted on a bipod, I switched on the Pulsar Trail XP50, and a green, monochrome world flickered into view. At the press of a button, I opted to have any thermal signatures, should they occur, show up in white.

Magnification and rangefinding

The XP50 will zoom between 1.6x and 12.8x. Lying by the rabbit warren, I put the XP50 on 4x, which was more than adequate, especially as a neat picture-in-picture feature provides a zoomed-in close-up of the centre of the reticle.

It didn’t take long for my usual rangefinder to struggle in the dwindling light. Fortunately, the XP50 has a built-in rangefinder, which is based on three predetermined quarry species references: a hare, a boar and a deer. The buttons on the top of the unit move a cursor to frame whatever it is you’re aiming at. Then simply press a button and you are given three distance measurements for the reference species.

It was while I was playing around with the rangefinder that the first rabbit of the evening appeared. Actually, ‘appeared’ is the wrong word, as it implies a sense of instant materialisation. In fact, I noticed flashes of white movement deep in the undergrowth that stopped and started before fully emerging as a ghostly, full-sized bunny. Using the Pulsar’s rangefinder, I confirmed the distance as 25 metres, placed the reticle (one of 10 you can choose), and dropped the rabbit with a clean headshot.

As I got used to the XP50, it was like being taken to another dimension. All of a sudden, I could see the movement of rabbits and other creatures of the night as they scurried and crept through the light bush.

I tracked a trio of rabbits as they made their way through the undergrowth, stopped, turned back, started and stopped again. Eventually one separated from its colleagues and emerged from the grassy tangle onto the edge of the field, where another Air Arms Diabolo pellet bowled it over with a clean shot.

It was by now fully dark, and the temptation to stay on the rabbits was strong. However, I knew the farmer would be doing his final check of the yard and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to show him how I was delivering on my pest control duties. Besides, the rats would be waiting for me.

Rat attack

Back at the yard, I cleaned the rabbits and prepared for part two of the XP50’s test. I’ve been hitting the rats on the farm pretty hard, but whenever have a quiet couple of weeks and think we have them on the run, the numbers pick up again.

One of the reasons I love ratting so much is that it can be done in relative comfort. With the rats used to the comings and going of a busy yard, they’re not too bothered about movement and voices. My approach is no more sophisticated than sitting in a camping chair behind my shooting sticks, cup of tea at my side, and waiting for the rodents to show themselves.

With magnification on the XP50 dialled down to just 2x and with the picture-in-picture mode activated, I selected my 20-metre aim point from the menu, knowing it would also be good for 10 metres. I’d set myself up facing one of the chicken sheds, knowing from experience that the rats would emerge under the cover of some steps, about 14 metres away. Scanning the rest of the yard was simply a case of standing up and swivelling my gun on my Trigger Sticks.

The NiteSite Viper is my usual choice of kit for this kind of shooting. However, in what might possibly be the most over-equipped and technologically advanced night’s rat shooting in the history of airgunning, the Pulsar Trail XP50 performed magnificently. Once again it picked rats out and showed them up in brilliant white, in contrast to the green background. Even when they hid behind pieces of farmyard debris and equipment, the rats needed only to poke out a toe to give themselves away.

So there you have it. If you’ve been worrying what to do with that four-and-a-half grand that’s been getting in the way, then a thermal scope has to be the ultimate airgunning toy. Is it overkill? Yes, of course it is. But is using the Pulsar Trail XP50, especially at night, an incredible experience? You betcha. 

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Posted in Features, Hunting, Reviews

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