from Fieldsports Channel's Fieldtester in association with Scott Country

It’s been said before, but thermal technology really has transformed stalking and pest control, day or night.

Whether you’re looking for foxes in the dark, spotting squirrels in the trees or counting deer, a thermal gives you a massive edge, saving time and allowing you to spot quarry that you might easily have missed. You’ll still need all your fieldcraft to get close enough for a shot, of course, but that’s hunting!

There’s a huge range of makes and models on the market, and the descriptions can be bewildering. Prices range from a few £100s to £5,000 and beyond. How can you decide which one is right for you?

Plus there’s a steep learning curve when you first use thermal. In some ways it’s like night vision – like NV it lets you see quarry in the dark. But the image is different, because it’s made up of heat not light.

To begin with, you may find it difficult to identify the heat ‘blobs’ that you see through thermal. It won’t show a typical bushy tail on a fox, for instance, because it’s mostly made of hair that isn’t warm. But with practice you’ll get the hang of it. You can tell a lot by the way an animal behaves, and how it moves.

To help you make the most of thermal, we’ve put together this handy video guide to the technology with the help of the experts at Scott Country, the UK’s leading retailer of thermal and night vision gear. Read, watch and learn.

Is night vision dead?

Night vision spotters and scopes revolutionised night-time pest control, but do they still have a place now that thermal is here? Very much so, says Paul Stewart from Scott Country in this video. The latest day/night scopes allow you to shoot 24/7, giving a great daytime picture, and many people feel they have the edge over thermal for quarry identification. Plus the most popular combination for night-time pest control is still a thermal spotter and an IR night vision scope. 

Entry level thermal and night vision kit

You can still shoot foxes with a simple lamp and a day scope. What would it cost to move up to the world of night vision? In this video, Tim Dean from Scott Country says that for £850 you can kit out with a dedicated infrared night vision scope and a thermal spotter. Will that do the job, and what kind of performance can you expect? What’s the next step up?

Thermal terminology jargon-buster

Thermal brings a whole new area of technology to shooting and hunting, and with it a whole new language. If someone points to a .243 with a 3-15×56 scope, you might understand the numbers, but what about the numbers in thermal? Here it is all about sensor size, resolution in microns, sensitivity in milliKelvins, and more. Watch the video to hear Scott Country’s Paul Stewart explain what it all means in practice.

Thermal names explained

The world of thermal scopes and spotters is awash with letters and numbers. X, Q, G, 38, 50 – they might look meaningless, but if you crack the code the model name tells you a lot about its specifications. Scott Country’s Paul Stewart explains how to tell at a glance that an XP50 has a 640×480 sensor and a 50mm objective lens. 

Do I need a dedicated rifle for thermal?

Unce-upon-a-time, shooters had one rifle for day and another for night shooting. Those days are over, says Tim Dean of Scott Country. He uses a Tube TD50L and a Thermion 2 Pro, on quick release mounts that he can quickly swap to any of his rifles, from an air rifle to a .243. Each rifle has its own profile programmed in to the scope. “I have absolute faith I can put that on a different rifle, flick a switch to set the correct profile, and it will be bang on zero every time,” he says.

The rise of the ‘tube’ thermal rifle scope

Early thermal scopes were large, box-shaped items that sat high above the rifle barrel. In recent months we’ve seen the rise of thermal scopes that look like traditional day scopes. “The Pulsar Thermion was the first to go with a traditional day scope design,” says Scott Country’s Paul Stewart. “It looks sleek and traditional, but the best thing about it is it fits in your existing 30mm rings. You don’t have to buy expensive new mounts. Things have evolved, we’ve moved on, and it’s better.”

Can I get a decent thermal unit for £1000?

There are lots of thermal units around the £1,000 mark, and for that money you can now get tech that will perform well. Scott Country’s best selling thermal imager is currently the Pulsar Axion XM 30F at just over £1,000. There are other options in this price range, such as the HIK Micro range of units are well worth a look for instance. Paul Stewart from Scott Country makes his recommendations.

How can I zero my thermal scope?

You can’t just use a simple paper target to zero your thermal scope in the dark – you need an aiming mark that shows up by being hotter or cooler than its surroundings. People use all kinds of tricks, from ice cubes to hand warmer pads to heated nails. Scott Country has a neat solution. It sells Thermal Target Patches measuring 20mm square. There’s even a life-size fox made of the same material, but it’s not cheap. Scott Country’s Tim Dean runs through the options and reveals what he uses.

Does my thermal need a firmware update?

If you own a thermal imager, sooner or later you’ll get a notification of a firmware update. So what is that, and is it important? Basically it’s like your mobile phone asking for an update, offering you a new and better version of the software that runs the unit. Your thermal will continue to work as before without it, but the update will generally add new features, bug fixes and the like. It’s worth taking the trouble to do. Ian Naysmith explains all in this video.

Why does my thermal image freeze?

When you look through a thermal, the image will ‘freeze’ periodically before coming back. What’s going on there? Scott Country’s Ian Naysmith explains it’s the device recalibrating itself – clearing the sensor of any residual image that’s built up to give itself a ‘blank canvas’. It’s not a fault, it’s just part of how thermal works, and you quickly get used to it.

Does weather affect my thermal unit?

The simple answer is yes. Air temperature plays a big part in the image you see through a thermal, explains Scott Country’s Ian Naysmith. If you’re out in December, it’s -6º and a fox walks out, it will shine like a beacon because of the temperature difference. On a mild autumn evening, however, the surroundings will be an even temperature and you may struggle to pick out detail in the background. The thermal is still effective, but you need to adjust your expectations. 

Why won’t my thermal scope hold zero?

People sometimes have trouble getting a good group with older thermal scopes, but it’s rarely a problem with the unit itself, says Scott Country’s Ian Naysmith. More likely it’s down to the mount not being suited to the scope rail on the gun. A Picatinny mount will go on some scope rails if you screw it down tight enough – but it won’t be properly secure, and the scope will shift over time, giving you inconsistent groups. Watch the video to learn how to avoid the problem.

What’s the best thermal to film through?

Fieldsports Channel cameraman David Wright sometimes struggles to get decent thermal footage. He wants to know which devices will give the best quality image. Scott Country’s Paul Stewart explains it’s largely down to the sensor size and resolution. Just like a digital camera picture, the more pixels making up the image, the more detailed it will look. Paul supplies thermal gear for BBC camera crews and says: “For filming, my choice would be the Pulsar Helion 2 Pro. It’s really sharp, you’ll get really good definition from it.”

Click here to watch our Fieldtester reviews of the top thermal gear,
and see our experts using thermal in the field.
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