It had been three days since the power went out, and no one had any idea of what disaster had befallen their quiet, little suburb. Lights and automobiles had just quit functioning, and any radios that worked just had the sound of static and dead air.
During the day, the occupants of this small neighborhood would venture out to see if anyone had heard any news about what was happening; but at night, each family huddled in the darkness of their homes. The only light was coming from distant fires burning somewhere in the city, a mere 10 miles away.
It was the fourth day when Henry noticed the house at the end of the street had been vandalized. A few windows were shattered, and the front door was wide open. That very night, he heard Doug, his next door neighbor, opening his garage door to pull out a mountain bike with a small, attached trailer. Henry had always thought Doug was a little strange; even so, taking a bike ride after dark and under these conditions just didn’t make sense. He had no idea that he would never see Doug again.
It was only an hour or so later that Henry heard the sounds of someone outside. Thinking that Doug might have returned and that he might have gathered some information about the current state of affairs, Henry opened his front door. He stood on his porch, silhouetted by the light from a single candle burning in his living room as he peered into the darkness.
His family would never know if Henry felt the pellets entering his body. Did he feel the pain before he saw the muzzle flash and heard the sound of the shotgun being fired?
FICTION AND REALITY
This account might only be a few paragraphs of fiction, but we can still gather tidbits of truth if we read between the lines. First, no one really knows what might happen tomorrow or when we might be forced to face a drastic change in our lifestyles. The scenario depicted (as well as many others) could transcend from fiction to fact at any moment.
Nevertheless, Henry is a perfect example of most of mankind. Take away his electric lights, and he can only really function during sunlight hours. At night, he must retreat to the confines of his home reminiscent of early man hiding in his cave. Our intellect, as well as our ability to make and use tools, has propelled mankind to the top of the food chain. But after the sun goes down, we are simply prey to the two- and four-legged predators of the night.
If you are wondering what happened to Doug, his story ended on a more optimistic note: His mountain bike and trailer enabled him to ride safely to a retreat he had prepared years before. The fact that he had obtained a night vision device (NVD) allowed him to travel under the cover of darkness and avoid the potential perils of the trip. Doug might have been the “odd duck” of the neighborhood, but he was prepared to provide for his own safety.
It was this same desire to be prepared that started me on an 18-month adventure investigating the various night vision options available to the average citizen. I must admit that I took advantage of my position as a writer for our sister publication, World of Firepower. Over the past year and a half, I have arranged to review, test and evaluate various NVDs from some of the major companies in the market. My findings have been printed in the past issues of the magazine, and it is not my purpose here to recount the various reviews.
However, several people have asked me what products I would choose for my own personal needs, and they thought this information might be useful to the readers of American Survival Guide.
It only took a short period of time for me to learn two basic factors about night vision: It can be very useful and very expensive. My personal shopping list would be much longer if I were given an unlimited budget. However, my last name isn’t Trump, and I don’t drive a Mercedes, so I was forced to work with the realistic budget of an average middle-class husband and father.
At the same time, even though I consider myself to be king of my realm and master of my own castle, my wife’s approval of any expenditure is vital. I can happily report that she also tried the products during the testing and saw their usefulness; in fact, it was my wife who announced when it was time to make a purchase.
NIGHT VISION VS. THERMAL
Currently, there are two major categories of NVDs. The first is labeled “night vision” and works on the principle of magnifying ambient light. These devices can take mere starlight and magnify it to the point of duplicating sunlight. Just about all of us have seen these products depicted in movies and television programs, and most of them have a classic green tinge to the image.
The second is “thermal imaging,” which separates objects by the amount of heat each emits. The image shown can be in various shades of gray, with the hottest objects showing up as black—or in reverse, with the hottest objects showing as white. Many thermal units even offer the choice of viewing objects in shades of red or other colors.
After using both, I have found that for general viewing and clarity, night vision is more natural to viewers. However, if you want the best to spot an object such as a game animal, thermal has an edge. The body heat generated by a human or animal will make it pop out in comparison to its surroundings, even at a distance, but to make proper identification, night vision is more valuable.
It should be noted that night vision will not work with a total absence of light. Good units will work with just starlight (even the light behind clouds) and really “shine” when used under any form of moonlight. Thermal does not require light to operate, because even in total darkness, objects still emit heat.
If I were using these tools strictly for hunting, I would opt for a good thermal device, but because I wanted to have the option of multiple uses, my choice was night vision.
Just to make things a bit more complicated: Night vision comes in various “generations,” or levels. The original night vision could be called the “0” generation, because it was manufactured before the various generation labels were applied to night vision. The 0 generation is no longer made, and we can totally forget about it. The remainder of the night vision devices is labeled first, second and third generation.
Each generation represents a major improvement in the ability to magnify existing light. This is the point at which I might offend, but keep in mind that this entire feature is based on my own opinions. On the other hand, I could never be considered a “PC” type of guy, and I really don’t worry about hurting someone’s self-esteem. Buck up and handle it.
First-generation night vision can now be considered nothing but a toy. There was a time when it was the best out there and your only choice, but those days are long gone. Yes, they are the least expensive units made, but if you want any satisfaction at all, I would suggest ignoring the temptation of a low price. I have seen these units priced from a couple of hundred dollars up to close to one thousand dollars. In my eyes, the only difference in price between these units is simply the amount of money you want to waste.
Second- and third-generation units represent a major improvement in image quality. A simple ballpark amount for second-gen units could be about $1,500, and third-gen units start close to $3,000. Of course, these prices are just ballpark and can vary a few hundred dollars in both directions and from company to company.
If I had never used a third-gen unit, I might have been happy with a good second-gen model. Alas, I tested both and chose to save a little more money before making a purchase. I also had the pleasure of using a couple of IR (infrared) “illuminators” (a fancy name for an IR flashlight) while using both second- and third-gen units. These illuminators brought the level of a second-gen unit up close to that of a third-gen unit and made the third-gen units pure magic.
During these last 18 months, I tried products from several different companies and noticed a similarity in their products. I also discovered that only a few companies make intensifier tubes, which are the heart of night vision devices, and that all other companies use the tubes from these few manufacturers.
I will admit that although I could easily tell the difference between different generations of tubes, I could not tell a noticeable difference between tube manufacturers. I am sure there are people with a much higher understanding of intensifier tubes than I have, and you might want to research this aspect more before you make your purchase—or, you might be like me and find a unit you’re happy with and go for it.
NVDs also come in various styles—monoculars, binoculars and dedicated weapon scopes. The monoculars were the lightest and easiest to use. You simply turn the on/off switch and hold it up to your eye. Some of the binoculars were nothing more than two monoculars mounted together, while others were more of a standard binocular pattern.
The dedicated night vision scopes were the largest units and basically oversized versions of daylight rifle scopes. Many companies offer models that look almost identical, because they use housings that are surplus, contract overruns or newly manufactured versions of designs used by our military.
Another aspect of the various units is their power supply. They are all battery operated, and I have noticed that the battery type can vary from model to model; and, in some cases, you might find a model that is available with different battery types. Take into account the availability and price of various batteries when making your purchase.
PUTTING MY MONEY WHERE MY MOUTH IS
After all this, you might wonder what I chose and why. Again, with an unlimited budget, I would pick a monocular for my general viewing, a binocular for my wife and a dedicated weapon scope for mounting on a dedicated nighttime AR-15. Just for jollies, I would also pick up a handheld thermal unit to match the thermal scope for a second rifle. (If any of you happen to bump into “The Donald,” please let him know I am up for adoption.)
The bottom line? I selected what is known as a PVS-14 with a third-generation intensifier tube. This is a monocular that operates off a single AA battery. The same model can be purchased with a second-gen tube—with a major savings. This unit is small, compact and offers the greatest versatility.
I live out in the middle of nowhere; at night, my wife and I often sit on my deck, watching the wildlife. My NVD monocular has a simple on/off control, as well as a simple twist focus, if needed. In fact, my wife has thoroughly enjoyed using it almost every night.
Unlike some units, it does not have any magnification of the image. Nevertheless, it is still useful out to 100-plus yards. Several companies offer the same model, but I chose to go with Tactical Night Vision Company (TNVC) for my purchase for one major reason: This company offers a five-year warranty.
Once I had this basic unit (patterned after the military version), I was able to start expanding its usefulness by adding to my “night vision kit.” This is also where I was able to go cheap on a few accessories.
The basic unit came from TNVC with what is known as a “J” mount, which is nothing more than a mounting arm that allows the unit to be used with either a helmet (with a helmet mount) or a headband (which has garnered the nickname, “skull-crusher”). I will admit that I look a little foolish with the headband in place, but it does position the PVS-14 perfectly in front of my right eye and allows my left eye to maintain its night vision—a handsfree solution. It does take a bit of practice to get used to riding my ATV after dark, and I’ve noticed that my depth perception is more limited.
For my hunting, defensive and offensive needs, the PVS-14 can be mounted behind a red-dot or holographic sight, enabling nighttime use of your rifle. Because it is located behind the sight, it can be attached and removed without affecting the sight-in of your optic. This was one reason I did not opt for a night vision scope.
You can also remove the scope and use it as a handheld unit. However, it would be somewhat bulky, and you would never be assured of an exact repeatable sight-in. There are several mounts available from various sources for mounting the PVS-14 to the Picatinny rail of your rifle, but the cheapest option is to buy a military surplus mount from a site such as eBay. My optic-of-choice was an Aimpoint PRO that had a night vision setting, as well as true red-dot settings.
The battery life for this optic is measured in years instead of hours. Never use a red-dot sight that does not have night vision capability listed as one of its features. The night vision will see the dot of a standard red-dot sight, but having that light in front of your NVD will eventually burn in the dot on your tube.
Another item I purchased ended up not being the value I thought it would be. This was a 3x magnifier that would fit on the front of the PVS-14. It worked but diminished the brightness of the unit, and I really didn’t find it a great benefit. As is, without the 3x unit attached, anything within the “effective” range of an AR-15 can be targeted.
My last purchase was an IR illuminator by Streamlight. It is seldom needed with the third-gen tube, but it does light up the countryside. However, there are times when it could be useful: One aspect of using an illuminator is that it becomes a beacon to your location should someone else be wearing night vision. A major value of night vision is being able to see after dark without you being seen. As our military has proven, there is a substantial tactical value involved with the use of NVDs.
FACT AND FICTION
The learning curve involved with night vision really isn’t that long, but it does exist. As with your weapons, you should train regularly to obtain the best value from your purchase.
For those who might wonder why I did not mention the use of an IR laser with night vision, I will admit that I did test it. However, lasers are not legal for hunting in my home state, and I would never use a laser on anyone, unless I were prepared to pull the trigger.
I will say that with the PVS-14 mounted to a helmet or used with the headband, an IR laser does allow for a shoulder-mounted version of “point shooting.” If you have thought about using an optic to aim with the night vision head mounted, realize that it is a slow and clumsy effort.
If Henry had owned an NVD, he could have scanned his neighborhood and used the darkness to his advantage. At least Doug was able to ride off to a happy end. By leaving at night and using his NVD, he avoided the masses of people he would encounter during the day. Additionally, few were even aware he was passing by.
At the moment, I am totally satisfied with my purchases. Nevertheless, as time passes and I replenish my funds, I might be able to add to my night vision kit.
› DIMENSIONS: 4.5 inches (L) x 2.0 inches
(W) x 2.25 inches (H)
› WEIGHT: 12.4 ounces
› POWER: One (1) standard AA battery
› BATTERY LIFE: Approximately 50 hours
at room temperature
› WATERPROOF: 60 feet for two hours
› WARRANTY: Five-year warranty
J TACTICAL NIGHT VISION COMPANY (TNVC)
J STREAMLIGHT, INC.
Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of ASG.