It’s amazing when you trace the history of night vision technology and see not only how effective has become, but how small night vision units are these days. Early German night vision needed a backpack to power it, but modern night vision is small enough to attach to a helmet and wear in front of your eyes—or simply hold in your hand.
The devices I’m talking about are called night vision monoculars, and they have revolutionized the night vision industry.
They are the norm with military forces and have become popular with hog hunters, preppers, and police officers.
Today we are going to explore why the night vision monocular has become such a force multiplier. We’ll detail what a monocular does, and give you some of our favorite models.
The 8 Top Infrared Monoculars of 2020: Outdoor Empire Reviews
These are our top recommendations for night vision monoculars in 2020:
- Best for the money #1: Armasight Spark CORE
- Best for the money #2: ATN NVM14-2
- Best under $300: Night Owl Optics M4X Marine
- Best digital: ATN OTS-HD 640
- Best cheap #1: Firefield 5×50 Nightfall 2
- Best cheap #2: Bushnell Equinox Z
- Best overall #1: ATN PVS14-3
- Best overall #2: ATN NVM14-WPT
*Looking for a specific feature? Check out our quick-reference chart below:
The Money #1
|Resolution||36 lp/mm||60-70 lp/mm||64 lp/mm|
|Angular Field of View||28°||30°||40°|
|Weight||0.93 lbs||0.8 lbs||0.78 lbs|
|Battery Life||N/A||40 hours||50 hours|
|Cost||Check Price||Check Price||Check Price|
1. Best NV Monoculars for the Money #1: Armasight Spark CORE
If you’re aiming for a monocular that gives a clear picture at a particular budget, you’ll be thankful for the Armasight Spark CORE.
If you’ve never shopped for an NV monocular, this model may seem expensive. But it is actually affordable especially given that this model is produced by a well-known and well-respected brand.
This is a first generation (Gen 1) optic so it still has some limitations of the technology. It needs significant ambient light, and an IR illuminator is an absolute must for overcast nights.
Armasight resolved this by building an integral IR illuminator in the unit. They improved the Gen 1 design with their CORE (Ceramic Optical Ruggedized Engine) technology. CORE intensifier tubes take Gen 1 tubes to the peak of their performance.
The Spark CORE performs better than other Gen 1 devices.
- It produces one of the highest resolutions possible for a Gen 1 device.
- Edge distortion is almost eliminated, but not completely.
- It is versatile and can be used as a handheld unit, mounted on a helmet, or behind a rifle scope to turn a day scope into a night scope.
- Resolution: 60-70 lp/mm
- Magnification: 1x standard (3x to 5x optional)
- Angular FOV: 35 degrees
- Weight: 14.4 oz
2. Best Monocular for the Money #2: ATN NVM14-2
As we start nearing professional-grade optics, we hit Gen 2+ models. This Gen 2+ monocular gives users a 54 lp/mm resolution that is perfect for hunting, navigating, and limited duty. It’s also clear enough for close quarters use.
These models are an excellent compromise between performance and cost. Night vision is expensive, but not impossible to obtain. The ATN NVM 14-2 proves that. It’s priced at half the average price of a Gen 3 device and offers comparable performance!
This model is by far the best monocular for the money. It’s not the cheapest, but it’s one of the most affordable in the age of night vision. Especially when you compare apples to apples. Overall, the ATN NVM14-2 is a wonderful choice and gets you right at peak or professional grade.
- Designed to be worn on a helmet, head, or weapon mount
- Built-in IR illuminator
- Runs for 60 hours on a single CR123A battery
- Water-resistant but not waterproof
- Resolution – 54 lp/mm
- Magnification – 1X
- FOV – 40 degrees
- Weight – 1.54 pounds
3. Best Monoculars Under $300: Night Owl Optics M4X Marine
If $500 is a bit too much, you can go cheaper. This Gen 1 device is limited but can be useful. It is a fun unit for casual use and for nighttime exploration.
The Night Owl Optics M4X Marine is the perfect optic for recreational use. Right off the bat, I’ll be honest and say it is not the best for tactical or for dynamic hunting, but it’s great for hunting small pests.
- It is rated as IP67, the same rating as the iPhone 7 (this means it is fully protected from dust and is capable of being submerged up to 3 feet for half an hour)
- Designed to float so it really won’t sink unless weighed down
- Resolution is increased by using a high-quality camera glass
- Has an integrated IR illuminator
- Low resolution
- Low detection
- Low recognition range
- Lacks an attachment system (the biggest downside, in my opinion)
The 4 in M4X stands for four power, so you have an acceptable magnification range that doesn’t have much bearing on image quality. It produces 35 lp/mm and has a manual focus.
- Resolution: 35 lp/mm
- Magnification: 4x
- Angular FOV: 14 degrees
- Weight: 14.5 oz
This is impressive for a night vision device. The M4X is perfect as a beginner monocular. It is also affordable enough for most people to own.
4. Best Digital NV Monoculars: ATN OTS-HD 640
ATN’s OTS-HD 640 is a digital night-vision monocular that contains all the bells and whistles you could want from such a device.
It has a thermal sensor with 640-by-480-pixel resolution to give you night vision without an infrared illuminator. It can display this image in red-hot, black-hot, or white-hot modes, depending on your preference.
Note that the sensor is 640 by 480, but the display resolution is 1280 by 720.
The OTS-HD series comes in four varieties: 1x-10x, 1.5x-15x, 2.5x-25x, and 5x-50x zoom. Only the base magnification level is a natural image, though. The higher zooms are digital, so you’ll get some pixilation in the image. It’s a smooth zoom, though, without steps.
The OTS-HD series can take an SD card, so you can save pictures and videos. There’s also built-in Wi-Fi, so you can stream the image to an iOS or Android device. There’s even a microphone!
- Compass and geotagging
- Gyroscope stabilizes image
- Thermal vision (no infrared illuminator required)
- Clumsy manual interface
- Digital zoom makes higher magnifications look pixelated
The ATN OTS-HD 640 night-vision monocular is a powerful digital thermal-imaging device that can be used in complete darkness without needing an infrared illuminator, making it a great option for hunters who need long-range night vision.
5. Best Cheap Monocular #1: Firefield 5×50 Nightfall 2
You should be able to shake off your fear of the dark no matter what budget you have! The Firefield 5×50 Nightfall 2 is an excellent way to own the night without spending thousands or even hundreds of dollars.
This Firefield is a great optic for new night vision users and those experimenting with night vision. Keep in mind this is a Gen 1 design, so the resolution on the recognition range is low—and that gets doubled on low light nights.
If you keep your expectations realistic, you’ll be quite happy with the Nightfall 2. Of course, the more light you have from the moon and stars, the better. This night vision optic is simple, cheap, effective, and fun. Perfect for the casual user.
- 5-power magnification
- 50mm objective lens
- Coated by a fully weather resistant rubber armor
- Easy grip texture
- Built-in IR illuminator
- Resolution – 36 lp/mm
- Magnification – 5x
- FOV – 15 degrees
- Weight – 15.2 ounces
6. Best Cheap Monocular #2 – Bushnell Equinox Z Digital Night Vision Monocular
Bushnell made their bones in the traditional optics market, but over time they’ve moved further and further into the technological market. The Equinox Z is their entry into the digital night vision monocular space, and they were able to make it affordable. Overall, this Bushnell night vision monocular is a compact and magnified unit.
During the day, it’s just a magnified monocular. At night, the IR kicks on and you can see the world around you! This optic can be mounted to a gun through a Picatinny rail attachment. It can also mount to a tripod.
The Equinox Z has a built-in IR Illuminator as well, and this creates a viewing distance of up to 500 feet. This Bushnell unit has fully multi-coated glass and rugged, water-resistant housing. The unit runs on 4 AA batteries and is clearer than it has a right to be. This is an impressive optic at a very hard to beat price.
- Sports 1-3x magnification
- 30mm objective lens
- Digital for use in both day and night modes
- Video output allows you to watch what the Equinox Z sees on a television or other large screen
- Resolution – 36 lp/mm
- Magnification – 1-3x
- FOV – Variable
- Weight – 22 ounces
7. Best Overall Monocular #1 – ATN PVS14-3
The ATN PVS 14s are some of my favorite night vision monoculars of all time. This was actually the exact model I used during my Marine Corps career. It served me well in over 11 different countries and during hundreds of training ops.
The PVS 14 gives a bright and clear picture that allowed me to navigate terrain and identify threats. With an IR laser system, it is insanely easy to engage a target at night in both defense and hunting.
The ATN PVS 14s are very small and easy to use, not to mention the controls are easy to reach while wearing the unit. The PVS14s can be attached to a helmet or headset, but you can also mount them to weapons or simply hold them in your hand.
Additionally, they give a great resolution up to 64 lp/mm. From personal use, I can say that the resolution is clear enough to read maps, text, and small facial features. If you are a police officer or security professional, these are the optics you need for extended use!
- Lasts 50 hours on a single battery
- Remarkably lightweight.
- Feature a built-in IR floodlight
- Excellent clarity
- Carries a generation 3 price tag
- Resolution – 64 lp/mm
- Magnification – 1x
- FOV – 40 degrees
- Weight – .78 pounds
8. Best Overall Monocular #2: ATN NVM14-WPT
The NVM14-WPT is the white phosphor version of ATN’s beloved NVM14 night-vision monocular.
White phosphor provides a more natural looking black-and-white image, as opposed to the green-and-black color scheme typical of other night-vision devices. Black-and-white images make it easier to discern details, even with the same amount of illumination.
The NVM14-WPT has a built-in infrared illuminator that can be used for additional brightness, so you can see even on the darkest night. It can be used as a throw or flood light, so you can choose between seeing further or having a wider illuminated field of view. The IR illumintor throws light up to 100 yards away.
Naturally, you can turn the IR illuminator off if there’s enough ambient light.
The NVM14-WPT has a multifunction design. It can be used independently as a monocular. It can also be attached to a headset or helmet for hands-free use, or attached to a firearm as a 1x night-vision scope.
Automatic brightness control and a bright-light cutoff turns off the NVM14-WPT if the image would hurt your eyes. The device is powered by one 3-volt lithium battery for up to 50 hours or by one AA battery for less time.
- Complies with MIL-STD-810 for durability
- Long battery life
- Multifunction use
- No magnification
The ATN NVM14-WPT is a multifunction night-vision monocular that provides a clear black-and-white image but lacks any magnification, so it’s best for short-range hunting.
How Night Vision Monoculars Work
Night vision monoculars are single image tube designs that are lightweight and capable of creating a bright sight picture.
Night vision monoculars do this through image enhancement with the use of technology that amplifies both visible and invisible infrared light. This creates a sight picture that cuts through the darkness like a machete through the brush.
Night vision monoculars create a visible and bright sight picture that allows you to see, navigate, and surveil at your convenience, even in the darkest of nights.
One of the biggest considerations for choosing a monocular is the generation. Night vision technology typically spans three to four generations, and these are mainly based on the internal intensifier. If you want a full rundown on the different generations, check our night vision gear guide.
Generation 1 monoculars and digital monoculars are the most affordable option. They are limited by their low effective range and lack of clarity. Generation 1 optics can be quite affordable if you want a hobbyist level of clarity.
For under 200 dollars you can get a plastic-cased kit that will serve you well as long as you are just casually observing, playing airsoft, or experimenting. These optics are not known for their weather or drop resistance.
- Amplify ambient light up to 900 times
- Infrared illuminator will most likely be a necessity
- Short battery lifespan
- Short Life Expectancy
- Max range of 75 yards
- Casual use and observation
- Night hunting with little overcast and bright moonlight
- Good choice for the airsoft crowd
Generation 2 optics represent a massive increase in the recognition and detection range of a monocular. They are also much clearer and at the same time affordable.
At Generation 2 you get into optics that are designed for serious use; many high-quality Gen 2+ models are used by law enforcement. The jump from Gen 1 to Gen 2 was the biggest jump in night vision technology yet.
Generation 2 optics can be both hobbyist and professional grade optics. Generation 2 monoculars are very capable devices that are often housed in aluminum and durable polymer housings for increased strength and weather resistance.
- Amplify ambient light up to 30,000 times
- Infrared Illuminator only necessary for indoors use or cloudy nights
- Decent battery life
- Limited Law enforcement use
Generation 3 gives excellent clarity, recognition, and detection range but it all comes at a high price. It works much better in low light situations than the generations before them. These optics do everything pretty darn well.
If I wanted to use night vision for security or for tactical applications, I won’t take anything less than a Generation 3 model.
I used a Gen 3 device in various conditions and situations throughout my Marine Corps career and found it to be a well-made and solid piece of gear. Because of their high price, these units are housed in strong (often weatherproof) housings.
- Standard military issue technology
- Longest battery Life
- Features gain control
- Indoor use
- Hunting and observation
- Security and tactical applications
Generation 4 optics are rare, and Gen 4 isn’t necessarily an official designation. The Generations come from military designations, and there has never been a Generation 4 optic declared by the military.
Gen 4 is a loose definition that typically means it uses a filmless and gated image intensifier. Gen 4 monoculars are somewhat rare as the technology hasn’t fully caught on. They are extremely expensive but work much better with magnification.
- Extremely clear and sharp images
- Works well with magnification
- Extremely expensive
- Surveillance work
- Tactical use
- Wanting to show rich you are
Night Vision Monocular Price Tiers
Like all night vision devices, monoculars and the quality of their image will depend on their generation. The generations are numbered 1 through 4, and as the generation gets higher, the image quality increases along with the price.
A hobbyist pair of night vision can be found for under 200 dollars, and these optics are typically sold for less than 250 dollars. For under 250 dollars, you are going to get a pair of optics that need lots of light to properly function.
You will be limited to about 100 yards of effective visibility. You can find generation 1 optics for a higher price, and these are typically built better and will withstand abuse better than cheap hobby optics.
Generation 2 and 2+ optics are going to be in the $1,000 dollar and up range. These units have a massive increase in quality over Gen 1 devices. Generation 2 and 2+ optics are built to be used by professionals or serious hunters. These devices give you much more range, including a higher recognition range which will allow you to see in greater detail.
Generation 3 optics is what the military uses. The increase of quality is better than Gen 2 devices and allows you to see further, and to see clearer with less light. Generation 3 optics will give you massive amounts of clarity and allow you to make out fine facial features at extended ranges. Prices are going to start in the $2,500 dollar range and go up from there.
Gen 4 devices offer a bit more clarity and a higher recognition range. Gen 4 devices are uncommon and extremely expensive. You are looking at a $4,000 dollar price tag to just start.
Considerations Based on Purpose
Tactical and Hunting
If you are looking for a night vision monocular for hunting, tactical use, or to play airsoft, you need one that can be attached to a helmet or a HALO mounting system.
This allows you to use both hands or keep them on your weapon. It enables you to navigate the night with ease while utilizing your night vision device. When paired with an IR laser, they make it easy to take down a target.
You can always equip the monocular in front of your optic to aim, but it’s difficult to navigate in that way. A high-quality system needs to be clear enough for you to navigate what’s ahead of you so that you can avoid falling, tripping, and making yourself look like an idiot.
This means you’ll likely need a Gen 2 or Gen 3 device. An IR illuminator is advised for those nights where the moon is basically gone or those situations where you are hunting in heavy brush.
Observation and Surveillance
If you intend to use these systems to observe an area or target, it’s beneficial to be able to attach the monocular to a tripod. This is a serious consideration for any long-term viewing, as holding the device can quickly become bothersome.
For animal observation, you can get away with a simple Gen 1 device, but this is more for nature lovers than it is for hunters, who may need a more capable night vision device. Gen 1+ may work, but if I was a hunter, I’d consider a Gen 2 device.
For law enforcement and military surveillance, Gen 3 devices are optimum, but Gen 2 can work. With the price of Gen 3 optics, it’s difficult for many to afford them. If you are in private security, I’d advise a Gen 3 device as well, but if a Gen 2 is all you can afford, it will serve you well.
Weight and Size
The weight and size of the monocular are incredibly important if you intend to use it with a head mount. A large unit is uncomfortable to wear, while a heavy one can cause strain to your neck and head. If you’re using a tripod, these factors are not major issues.
Extra Features to Look for
An auto-gating unit is handy. It increases the overall function of a unit through a different degree of light. It immediately compensates for sudden bright light interference, like someone shining a headlamp on your eyes. This is invaluable.
It also prevents the night vision unit from being damaged by sudden bright lights. An auto-getting unit will be a high-end model, likely a Gen 3 device. Auto-gating is an invaluable feature for high-end optics and works well to protect your overall investment. Auto-gating is a feature that should be standard on any professional grade optics.
Some tubes can accept a threaded magnifier adapter that can provide a small extra amount of power. This is handy for turning a wearable monocular into a more observable unit.
These magnifiers are often called doublers, because they add a 2x level of magnification. To use a magnifier you need to have an internal threading on your tube. Since most devices can utilize tripods, the presence of a magnifier is an excellent addition.
This is an exceptionally handy tool for those using their monocular as an observation device. This video output allows users to observe their target more comfortably. Looking at a screen is often more comfortable than looking through a small output.
It also gives multiple users an option to watch a screen and observe everything in real time. There is also the ability to record, which for police forces is invaluable when it comes to evidence collection.
Another important consideration is your monocular’s compatibility with an IR Illuminator. Standard night vision devices are always compatible with actual IR light, but their compatibility with the external illuminator can be questionable.
Does your monocular allow for attachment to an external illuminator? There are some night vision monoculars that come with a built-in illuminator, which can make a massive range and clarity difference and can be absolutely necessary when using lower generation devices.
If you cannot mount an IR illuminator, there are some handheld options out there that give you a wide berth when it comes to size and power levels. With some the size of flashlights and others the size of small spotlights, you are covered regardless of the power level you need.
These can be quite handy for every role night vision is used for, and the lower quality the night vision, the more likely it will need an IR Illuminator.
Night vision monoculars often do as much as possible to reduce weight and bulk, and many will be powered by a single AA battery or two CR123 batteries. Even though they are small they can suck through batteries fast. I remember swapping to a new battery prior to every night patrol mission because a single AA wouldn’t last for two patrols.
There are some companies producing power units that pack more juice for a longer period of time. These external battery packs come in a variety of sizes and are attached to rifles or even helmet systems.
These add size and bulk and can also be quite expensive. They are not available for all models either. They can be quite valuable and some can power monoculars up to 22 hours.
Can night vision monoculars be used in daylight?
In general no, not really. Exposure during the day can damage traditional night vision immensely and render them useless. Digital night vision, however, can be used safely during the day.
How can I attach a NV monocular to a scope?
This is largely going to depend on the monocular and the optic. Some units can thread onto an optic, others will merely sit in front of the scope. It will largely be dependent on your individual set-up. You may need an adapter, a scope mount, and more. Consult your optic’s manual for the manufacturer’s recommended attachment system.
Or you can also buy a dedicated NV scope for that purpose.
NV monoculars are one of the versatile options for night vision optics. They can be mounted behind a day scope, can be worn for natural movement, and can be used for surveillance and observation.
They are often the most affordable option for night vision because they are a single unit, unlike binoculars and goggles which require multiple tubes and lenses. If you intend to have a single night vision device, I recommend a monocular.
Other resources you might be interested in:
Real Tree – Night vision preparation tips.
Wired – “Inside the Freaky World of Next-Gen Night Vision”