Night Vision Buyer’s Guide
The inspiration for this guide comes from /u/Raven_Of_Chernobyl on Reddit. If you are looking into dropping the large amount of money required to get into night vision (NVGs), I hope this guide helps. Note: This is a beginner’s guide. I will be writing separate articles on higher level devices and lasers/illuminators down the line. If you like these articles, check out the rest of the site and follow us on Instagram @themenwithgreeneyes.
With the recent rise of interest in night vision attributed to the war in UKR and gunfluencers on the internet; I wanted to give an overview of where to look and what to look for when considering an investment in NVGs. This article specifically addresses housings, tubes, helmets, specifications, and mounts. There are always going to be people out there who know more than me or disagree with my opinions and I always welcome input and new information. The information presented in this guide has come from months of research I did prior to purchasing an NVG set-up myself. You should expect to spend anywhere from $1,500-$5,000 for a monocular with major differences depending on what you spend.
Where Should You Start?
The question of where to start is to first determine what you want to use night vision for. Are you using this for a SHTF scenario, LARPing, hiking or airsoft? If you are considering night vision for any of these scenarios, keep reading. If your intended use is hunting or astronomy, then there are other resources that may be better suited to your needs. For hunting, you can get a usable device that projects a major infrared (IR) signature for far less money than the devices I will be discussing in this article. My primary focus here is on helmet mounted devices for SHTF, LARPing, hiking or airsoft.
Your standard helmet-mounted NVG is comprised of a housing, glass, and an image intensifier tube. The housing is something with a name you are likely familiar with – e.g., PVS-7, PVS-14, PVS-31, etc. The glass is an important factor because cheap glass can lead to image distortions and varying levels of weight. The tube is a separate item from the housing and accounts for most of the cost of an NVG system. I am not completely familiar with the fabrication process but do know they are constructed in a vacuum-sealed environment with various coatings that allow them to amplify light at an almost magical level. Just because you have a modern housing does not mean you have modern tubes and the most important part of NVGs is the tubes.
NVGs can be broadly separated into six classifications known as:
- Gen 0 - came into play with the German Army as early as 1939 and persisted into the cold war. At the time the system was known by "Vampir" These have very grainy images and rely on an infrared light source to function. You can find some old ComBloc sets for cheap such as the PNV / PNW 57.
Gen 1 – These units have been used primarily for civilian hunting and in some very old military set-ups. The technology provides better quality images and rely more on ambient light than Gen 0 but still rely heavily on outside IR illumination. These units tend to provide users with a “fisheye effect”
Gen 2 – Units within this category are considered to be outdated military technology. They are available for civilian use and are newer/better than Gen 1 sets, Gen 2 equipment gets rid of the “fisheye” effect and amplifies ambient light much better than previous generations.
Digital Night Vision – This is mainly civilian technology for hunting scopes or recently helmet mounted. Some can reach Gen 2 level and technology has been advancing rapidly. I will cover this section in more depth in a later article.
- Gen 3 – Current conventional military technology that does a great job of amplifying ambient light without the need for IR illumination in most circumstances. You will most likely need some supplemental IR if there is no ambient light in the environment you find yourself.
Fusion – I am not very knowledgeable here, but the newest iteration of night vision displays have built-in thermals over Gen 3 night vision to provide better object identification. The least expensive civilian fusion set-up will run around $17k for a monocular e.g. PSQ-20 ENVG. There is a way to get a similar effect at lower cost with clip-on devices, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this article.
Gen 2 and 3 devices are both quality light-enhancers which take in ambient light and amplify it to produce a usable image. Anyone with a Gen 1 device will need outside IR illumination which can broadcast their location to anyone else with NVGs. The major difference between Gen 2 and Gen 3 is a chemical in the tubes called Gallium Arsenide and increases the quality of the image as well as the level of light amplification. Gen 3 also introduced a technology known as “autogating” which protects the tubes from being burned out if exposed to bright lights along with a white phosphor (WP) variant instead of green phosphor (GP). There is an exception to this being Photonis Tubes which are a newer version of Gen 2 that comes in WP. GP is still available usually for cheaper, but white reduces eye strain and helps with contrast for better detail recognition.
note: A good flashlight is typically better than Gen 0 or Gen 1 devices.
The most important part of your NVG is the tube inside of it. There are two viable tube generations (II and III), and many differentiations within these generations.
I will go over the major tube manufacturers below but there are also "OMNI" tubes which refers to what government contract they were purchased under. These tend to be cheaper and do not come with specification sheets, but can be a solid option.
Here is a breakdown of the major tube manufacturers from least to most expensive:
- Photonis – Technically these are Gen 2. These tubes do not contain Gallium Arsenide but can perform at Gen 3 levels due to other technological advancements that I am not familiar with enough to discuss. I have read they perform better in areas with lots of ambient light (city streets, bright moonlight), but poorly in darker areas (the woods). For modern devices, these will be the least expensive white phosphor options that are serviceable.
- Elbit Systems – A solid choice and recently their quality has almost caught up with units produced by L3 Harris. These tubes tend to be slightly less expensive, and from what I have seen for sale and in use, they typically cannot reach specifications as high as some of the L3 Harris tubes.
- L3 Harris – These are simply best tubes you can get at the highest levels of clarity.
Due to the process in which tubes are manufactured, you are almost always going to have some small spots (known as “blems”. These imperfections generally are not a problem unless they are found in zone 1 (in the middle), but you should always try and get the cleanest tubes you can find within your budget. Most reputable sellers furnish a chart of notable blems in the tube that they are selling - make sure to ask for pictures through the tubes before purchasing or read the spec sheet and determine if you are comfortable.
Prices ranges for various devices are shown below. Price disparity typically is associated with the type of tube.
There are a wide variety of mountable housings currently on the market. Housings are what hold the intensifier tube and can generally be rated based on their glass quality, weight, and feature set. I will cover the PVS-7, PVS-14, and Tanto as viable beginner’s Gen III sets which can be found in the $1500-$4000 range depending on quality, specifications, and attached tube.
PVS-7: The PVS-7 is an outdated bi-ocular. The goggle takes a single Gen 3 or 2 tube, and outputs the image to both of your eyes. Due to the configuration of this device, depth perception through this set-up is no better than having a singular monocular. It also hinders weapon use and navigation due to the tube being in the middle of the device and is much bulkier than more modern units. It does, however, fit Gen 3 tubes and is typically significantly cheaper than the more popular options with used units going for $1,100 - $1,600.
PVS-14: The PVS-14 is the most common NVG you will see on the market. It also has compatibility with most night vision accessories, including a variety of filters and lenses. It has an onboard IR illuminator that can be used for administration tasks such as reading maps but adds unnecessary weight and the consensus among users is it is not needed. You can find these new for around $3,000-$4,500 and used for $2,200-$3500.
Tanto: Is a newer lightweight version of a PVS-14 (I know that is not technically true but is essentially what it is). This would be my choice if you can justify spending a couple extra bucks. It is characterized by a low profile and comes standard with push button operations vs the PVS-14 turn knob. These units sell for $3,400-4,500 new.
Used Green Duals: Honorable mention to budget NVGs would be used GP duals, typically ANVIS – 9 devices that can be found for $3,500-$5,000 on GAFS (R/gunaccessoriesforsale), ARFCOM (AR15.com), or the night vision Facebook pages. The ANVIS are aviation grade devices that are not as designed for ground use and are known to be more fragile than other common devices. These utilize an indent ball mount which will not fit common helmet mounts.
At the end of this article, I will list a (non-exhaustive list of reputable dealers)
There are really two major companies that make reputable helmets. I am sure there are others but not something I bothered looking into as the top two are battle tested and have good quality specifications. Team Wendy Exfil and Opscore (Gentex) FAST are solid field-grade units. Either bump or ballistic style can be used. If you are really buying on a budget, I have heard the PTS MTEK Flux is OK but I have no experience or research knowledge about this unit.
Mountings which are used to attach your NVGs to your helmet are relatively straightforward. There are quite a few options, and they are insanely expensive because (other than quality) the producers have government contracts and are not motivated by civilian sales. The best example of this is a Wilcox G24 used by armed forces around the world. This is the stereotypical helmet mount which costs ~$500 on the civilian market. If you want to save some money, you can look into the older U.S. contract Norotos Rhino which you can find for ~$350. If you do not want to spend even that kind of money, look at some of the reproduction G24s. I have heard of some QC issues, but most people who run them do not have any issues after tightening down the screws. (Note: You should do this anyway, but if you are running a reproduction mount, a lanyard (bungee that velcros to your helmet) is critical).
Digital NVGs are a relatively new category of device. They have a unique set of pros and cons - given the messages I have received, I will write a separate article that goes into more detail on these devices.
For the purposes of this article I am going to only briefly touch on these units. There are two options that are fairly suitable but lack in most areas.
- Sionyx (Aurora or Opsin)
- Sightmark Wraith Monocular
These are appealing because they are under $1000 (except for the Opsin). If this is all your budget allows, please do some more research. I believe T.Rex has a video on the Sionyx and BargainbinTactical has a good video on the Wraith.
I put this at the end because it is pretty technical and wanted you to keep reading. The two most important specifications to look at (in most cases) are SNR and FOM.
-SNR (Signal to Noise Ratio) – This term is hard to breakdown, but essentially it indicates how well a particular unit performs in low light. The military specification (Milspec) I believe is 25 but I have seen it go as high as 40 (mostly tubes used by astronomers).
-Resolution – This term refers to center clarity. It is strongly recommended to get 64 or higher or you risk being disappointed. Anything higher than 64 most likely will not have perceptible difference at 1x magnification.
-FOM (Figure of Merit) - FOM is a calculated number using resolution (res) multiplied by the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). In other words, FOM = Res x SNR. It is probably the most widely used specification for determining tube quality. Generally, you will want above 1,900 if you are getting a Gen 3 tube. This is a major factor in the overall price of the device. It is important to note that the difference between ~2,000-~2,300 most likely won’t be perceptible to the human eye.
-Photocathode Sensitivity- This aspect determines how well a tube converts light that is delivered to your eyes. For modern tubes, look for ~2,000, but this is by no means a make or break specification.
-EBI- EBI determines how well the tube can form an image in low light. Lower values on this specification are better but there is a range of variability here that will still work well. An EBI under one is great, under two will be fine 9 out of 10 times.
-Halo- The halo is how big of a reflection and “bloom” lights will give off. The lower the value here, the better. Again, under one is great, under two is fine.
Reputable Dealer List (by no means all reputable dealers):
Check out the Facebook buy and sell groups too.
- Night Vision Solutions, Buy, Sell, Trade
- Night Vision Users Group 2.0
Paypal G&S and ask for vouches.