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Is Night Vision Really Worth It?

by Paul-Martin Foss

If you’ve immersed yourself in gun culture, or survival culture, you’ve probably come across mention of night vision. Sooner or later, many shooters decide that they want to be able to shoot at night, and invest money in night vision equipment. But the cost of night vision can be exorbitant for many. A full night-vision setup with helmets and accessories can easily reach into five figures. Is night vision really worth the money?

What Is Night Vision?

When most people refer to night vision, they’re referring to image intensifying tubes that take the small amounts of moonlight or starlight that may be present at night and intensify it so that it’s visible to the naked eye. This normally takes the form of monoculars or binoculars worn over the eye(s) that then display either a green-tinted or white-tinted image of the area in view.

Types of Night Vision

Gen 1

M3 Carbine; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Generation 1 (Gen 1) night vision is the earliest type of night vision generally available on markets today. Prices are generally pretty cheap, but performance often leaves a lot to be desired. Gen 1 night vision devices are reliant on some sort of source of infrared (IR) light, generally an IR flashlight of some sort, in order to see in the dark. Just remember the M3 carbine version of the M1 carbine.

That means that anyone operating with night vision capability will be able to see your IR light and see where you are. While that may be fine for hunting animals, it will give away your position if you’re the one being hunted by two-legged predators who also have night vision. Prices for Gen 1 night vision generally start at a few hundred dollars.

Gen 2

Generation 2 is the next generation of night vision, with significant improvements over Gen 1. An IR light source is no longer required to see in the dark, and modern Gen 2 systems can get pretty close to Gen 3 performance. Expect about 5,000 hours of performance from a Gen 2 tube, and expect to be able to see to a maximum of 200 yards. For a Gen 2 monocular, expect prices to start at around $1,800.

Gen 3

Generation 3 is the latest generation of night vision, improving upon Gen 2. Tube life is often twice as great as Gen 2, and you can generally see out to 300 yards or more. The downside, obviously, is the cost, as Gen 3 monoculars generally start out at around $3,500.

Thermal Vision

Thermal vision allows the viewer to see at night, but only by viewing the heat given off by various objects. If you’re familiar with the movie “Predator”, you’ll know what a thermal image looks like. More modern thermal vision devices are often coupled with image intensifying tubes for military and police use, although the cost for those systems can range up to $50,000. Cost for consumer-grade thermal vision devices range from around $450 for small handheld thermal devices up to several thousand dollars for quality monoculars, binoculars, and rifle scopes.

Digital Night Vision

Conventional image intensification tubes are analog, and they still work well. But advantages in digital sensors are allowing digital night vision to make a run for its money. Modern digital night vision devices can in some cases produce images equivalent to Gen 2 analog devices. They’re often good to use in urban and suburban environments where there is plentiful ambient light, and outdoors with sufficient moonlight and starlight. They’ll be inferior to Gen 2 and Gen 3 devices in low light or no-light conditions, and will require some sort of IR light source under those conditions.

Digital night vision devices also often experience lags that analog night vision doesn’t, as it’s essentially looking at a screen that is interpreting what the lens is seeing. Still, they’re superior to Gen 1 night vision, but still only cost a few hundred dollars. For someone just looking to get their feet wet, they could offer a good entry into night vision. But it will probably be several years, if not decades, before digital night vision is able to offer superior performance to analog night vision across the board.

Advantages of Night Vision


For those who live in areas where they are allowed to hunt at night, night vision is indispensable. Those who hunt feral pigs, in particular, get great advantages from having night vision. In fact, night vision is almost a requirement nowadays if you want to have any success hunting hogs at night.

Self Defense

Being able to see in the dark inside your house can make a great difference if you ever find yourself having to defend yourself at night. Rather than taking a stab (or shot) at something in the dark, having night vision can help you positively identify your target. And since your adversaries likely won’t have night vision, you’ll have a major advantage over them.


In a grid down scenario or after a natural disaster, cities and towns will go dark. There won’t be streetlights, houselights, or probably even car lights. Nights will be pitch black, except for moonlight and starlight. Having night vision can help you move and operate at night, as wells as detect threats to you and your family well before you’d be able to see them with the naked eye.

Disadvantages of Night Vision


Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. And if you want better quality, you’re going to have to pay for it. While you can get into night vision on the cheap, the quality won’t be near what you can get with quality Gen 3 tubes.

If you want to go whole hog and outfit yourself with Gen 3 PVS-14 binoculars, helmets and mounts, IR illuminators and lasers, etc., you’re likely going to be talking $10,000-15,000 out of pocket. Is that worth the money? Well, it all depends on what you intend to use if for. If you think your life will depend on it at some point, it may be worth the outlay.


Too many gun owners think that just because they own an AR-15 or a battle rifle and have stocked up on ammunition and magazines, that they’re all set. They may get a little time on a static range, shoot tiny groups off a bench, and think they know everything they need to about shooting. But once they start having to use their rifles in real life, shooting on the move, shooting at moving targets, and using improvised rests in the field, they realize just how much they don’t know.

Shooting with night vision adds an extra level of complexity. While there are red dot and holographic sights that are compatible with night vision equipment, in most cases you’re not going to be leaning your PVS-14-clad eyes over top of your rifle. You’re most likely going to be pointing your zeroed laser at a target, aiming the laser, and firing. That means you’ll need to be able to practice in low light or no-light conditions, be able to zero your laser, and then practice shooting at night. For many people that just isn’t possible.

If you expect to walk around or drive with night vision, that again is something that you’ll have to practice. And please don’t practice driving with night vision on public roads. That’s just asking to have an accident. If you want to invest the money into getting night vision, you’ll have to invest the time into practicing with it too.

All in all, it’s better to have any sort of night vision than to have nothing. Not being able to see or move at night is a severe hindrance, and in certain cases could even be fatal. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to determine how much night vision you’re able to afford.

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