An affordable thermal sight? Maybe not affordable, but ATN is getting there with the ThOR line: remember how computers and digital cameras fell in price? The same market laws are starting to affect thermal sights, which is good news for hog and varmint hunters who stalk at night.
It was huge, looked like not just a ray gun but what you'd envision a 1950s Soviet ray gun to look like. Rather than being just the scope, it was the complete kit in the original metal transit chest with all the tools and spares, brand new.
It, too, was expensive and really none too practical. For me, though, it was love at first sight and I bought it on the spot. It took a bit to rig up a power source for it but when it sparkled to life, it was a grand thing.
Today that hulking piece of Soviet-era night vision is a relic. I still like it, and occasionally drag it out on the AK-74 it's zeroed to. However, time moves on, and the night vision devices available today leave that old Soviet scope in the dust. Units like the PVS-14 are a fraction of the size and weight, and are considerably more flexible and user-friendly.
When it comes to Gen 3 night vision, the PVS-14 has basically become the standard by which most units are judged today. The popularity of the PVS-14 is due to a combination of factors. This includes its excellent performance, wide availability of spare parts and accessories and a price putting it within reach of many.
As much as I respect the PVS-14 and passive night vision devices in general, there are some applications where a different technology, namely thermal imaging, would be a better option. While passive night vision devices allow you to see in the dark, things can still hide from you.
With thermal imaging, though, the body heat of an animal makes it jump right out from the background. The downside to thermal sights, though, has always been their size and cost. Let's face it, thermal sights are much too expensive for anyone but government agencies, right?
Well, while this used to be true, prices have dropped dramatically in recent years. Just as the units themselves have gotten smaller, they have also come down in cost. While certainly not cheap, certain thermal sights are starting to at least be within reach of many. More importantly, for some it is actually the better choice than a traditional Gen 3 passive night vision device.
Currently American Technologies Network Corp. offers an array of thermal sights in their ThOR line that run from a low of $5,699 all the way up to $13,699. That's a pretty big spread, and $5,699 is certainly not cheap.
However it shows this technology is indeed coming down in price. To find out more I contacted James Munn, president of ATN. Asking him about the company he stated it's a small growing company almost 20 years old. They specialize in electro-optics and offer Gen 1-3 night vision as well as thermal units.
Currently they have approximately 50 employees with R&D here in the US. However unlike their night vision, ATN's thermal line is completely made in the USA. When I asked him about this he stated, "We wanted full U.S. content and to make it here. We wanted to hire U.S. workers and expand manufacturing. Our vision is to bring a quality product to market at a great price. As the world goes digital, technology is taking things in a whole new direction. We launched this line about one year ago and feedback has been very positive. We knew there was a market for this type of device and we were right. End-users love it."
While I wanted one of their basic models. I received one of their Mini ThOR 640-2.5x 30 Hz Thermal Weapon Sights in for review. This sight retails for $12.199, so it is by no means inexpensive. For that much coin the unit should look good, and this one did. It appeared nicely made and had an attractive gray finish.
The unit itself measured 8.2 inches long, 2.7 inches wide and about 2.7 inches tall. My scale showed it to weigh 33.5 ounces without the rubber eyecup. Examining it, I noted it features an adjustable diopter at the rear and a focus ring towards the front of the body behind the 50mm objective.
What looks like a round knob on the left hand side is actually a battery box that holds three 3-volt CR 123 batteries. An ARMS QD mount is fitted to the bottom to allow easy mounting on MIL STD 1913 rails. The controls consist of a power button, an enter button and four arrow buttons. Mounted onto the right side of the body was a short rail section for mounting accessories.
Once the unit is powered up, different features can be easily accessed by simply pushing a couple buttons and making selections on the display. The display brightness has 10 levels and can be set to display white hot or black hot polarity.
Or it has 10 color palettes you can choose from to best fit your terrain and needs. The color palettes give it a bit of a "Predator" flair. Digital magnification of this unit consists of 1X, 2X, 4X and 8X.
You can also choose between five reticle types and four different reticle colors (red, green, white and black). These buttons are also utilized when zeroing for windage and elevation corrections. Due to the amount of features available it initially took me a couple minutes to figure everything out.
But it's a straightforward design that is simple to use. The only issue I encountered was accidentally pressing the Power button when I was trying to hit the Up arrow button. This is simply due to how close they are.
The device is designed to be utilized as either a hand held-viewing device or as a weapon sight. I utilized it mostly as a hand held viewing device in a variety of light conditions with an eye towards hunting.
Both passive and thermal units are very popular with pig hunters and coyote hunters in states where they are legal. It didn't take very long for me to notice an advantage thermal has over, say, a PVS-14. Using the unit as a handheld viewer on a dark night. I was able to spot animals at distances I would never have seen them using a PVS-14.
The first time I took the ThOR out, I spotted a possum slowly meandering along some 200 yards away crossing my freshly tilled garden. With the ThOR he not only easily stood out but was also easy to identify.
On another night I noticed a heat signature in a tree some 100 yards distant. Walking towards it, I could see through the ThOR that something was there but couldn't identify it. At 25 yards I put a white light on it and saw just the two eyes and nose of a raccoon staring at me from between the of a tree. Obviously the fiend stealing the cat food off the porch at night.
Resolution of the unit at IX was very good and quite crisp. However the image does degrade the more magnification you add. It was still very good at 2X with no complaints on my part. At 4X, I wanted to fiddle with the focus at different distances to try to make it as sharp as possible. On this magnification though, the image had become a bit grainy. On 8X no matter how much you fiddle with the focus ring, the image will still be soft. So I used it almost entirely on IX, 2X and 4X.
I found ATN's ThOR to be a highly useful tool for certain applications. It would certainly be very useful on a pig hunt where legal. However, just as with passive night vision sights, there is a bit of a learning curve with thermals. They take a bit to get used to as your mind works to process what it is seeing. It's not a steep learning curve, but different than what you are used to if you have never utilized them before.
I think the most exciting part of ATN's ThOR line is what they represent, the coming of affordable thermal sights. Is $5,600 affordable? Well, not for most. However prices are coming down as technology advances and production grows. When lasers for firearms first appeared they were huge and expensive. Today they are tiny and inexpensive.
Down the road we'll see the same thing happen, perhaps to a lesser degree, with thermal technology. However, if you are a die-hard pig hunter and have the cash, then you might want to consider one of ATN's ThOR units today.
Passive and thermal
A quick look at how they work
Let's take a quick look at passive night vision and thermal imaging technology for those who might be unfamiliar with them. Modern passive image enhancement night vision operates by taking the small amount of available light (such as from moonlight or starlight) and converting the light energy (protons) into electrical energy (electrons).
These electrons then go through a thin plate containing millions of channels. As the electrons travel through, they strike the walls of the channels, releasing thousands of more electrons. These multiplied electrons then bounce off of a phosphor screen which converts the electrons back into photons. This provides an image to the ocular allowing you to see in the dark. Simple, right?
Well, the important thing to understand is that all modern passive night vision devices require some ambient light to amplify in order to see.
If you were sealed in a dark room with no light, the best passive night vision available would be blind. So the performance of any NVD is directly related to the amount of ambient light available. As examples, viewing a snow-covered field on a cloudless night with full moon and stars (optimum), or being in the woods on an overcast night with no moon or stars visible (poor conditions).
Also, as night vision is very responsive to reflective ambient light, light reflecting off of fog or heavy rain may also seriously degrade performance. Performance is also directly related to the type of NVD in question. In this regard NVDs are classified by generations. The higher the generation, the more sophisticated the night vision technology.
Thermal imaging is different. It works by detecting very subtle temperature differences of everything in view. Keep in mind, all objects, both natural and manmade, emit infrared energy as heat, thermal imaging technology simply reveals what otherwise would be invisible to the naked eye. Not only that, but since it doesn't rely on amplifying ambient light, it functions in complete darkness and challenging weather conditions.
The roots of this technology reach back to Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel. He was a bit of an amazing character who wore the hats of an astronomer, composer and man of science. What makes him important to us, though, is the simple fact he discovered the existence of infrared radiation.
He accomplished this by passing sunlight through a prism and holding a thermometer just past the red end of the visible spectrum. When the thermometer read higher than the ambient temperature in the room, he realized there was a form of light invisible to the naked eye. Not bad for having just a prism and thermometer. Herschel made this discovery on February 11. 1800 and set the stage for everything which followed.
Men like Leopoldo Nobili, Macedonio Melloni and Samuel Langley all made contributions to understanding and harnessing infrared radiation. Langley's bolometer, invented in 1878, actually had the capability to detect a cow's radiation from 400 meters away.
Later, the technology was examined for the detection of icebergs on the high seas. The first true thermographic cameras began with the development of the first infrared line scanner. This was created in 1947 by the U.S. military and Texas Instruments.
As you would expect, this device was comparatively primitive and took an hour to produce a single image. The U.S. military pushed the development of this technology into practical form.
How do modern thermal imagers work? The first thing to remember is thermal-IR, unlike mid and near-IR, is emitted by an object instead of reflected from it. Since the unit in question is from ATN, what follows is their description of how it functions:
"A special lens focuses the infrared light emitted by the objects in view. The focused light is then scanned by a phased array of infrared-detector elements. The detector elements create a very detailed temperature pattern called a thermogram. It only takes about one-thirtieth of a second for the detector array to obtain the temperature information to make the thermogram. This information is obtained from several thousand points in the field of view of the detector array. The thermogram created by the detector elements is then translated into electric impulses. The impulses are sent to a signal-processing unit, a circuit board with a dedicated chip that translates the information from the elements into data for the display. The signal-processing unit sends the information to the display, where it appears as various colors depending on the intensity of the infrared emission. The combination of all the impulses from all of the elements creates the image."
A soldier's thoughts on passive vs. thermals
I spoke with SFC Dillard Johnson (Ret.) to get his thoughts on thermal sights and passive night vision. Johnson has extensive combat experience with both types of devices during eight years spent in Iraq. He is a recipient of the Silver Star, Bronze Star with 'V' Device, Bronze Star and four Purple Hearts. Here are his thoughts on the two:
Fortier: Would you mind sharing your thoughts on thermal sights and passive night vision?
Johnson: Sure, as you know both work off different light spectrums. Passive simply amplifies whatever light is available, thermals work off heat. It doesn't amplify it; it just identifies it, what you would not normally see
Fortier: Your thoughts on passive night vision?
Johnson: I would prefer passive for anything relatively close or where I needed to recognize friend from foe, camo patterns, uniforms etc. Plus for recoil work where I needed to be able to discern distinct details, read signs, see features inside a room. Or to work on things. These are passive's positive features.
Negatives include a limited range. Plus it trying to amplify existing light. So it doesn't work where there is no light. Plus you can hide from passive sights. By breaking your outline up you can blend into the environment, if you are not moving, and defeat passive.
Fortier: What about thermal sights?
Johnson: With thermals you can ID heat sources at long range. Plus you can do this in wooded or urban terrain. Things with a heat signature, people, animals, and vehicles you might not see with passive jump out at you with thermals. They can even be used for tracking. Afresh blood trail is easy to see for instance. Or if someone leans up against a car or piece of metal, their body heat will leave a thermal signature you can see for a time. Plus you can see your impacts with thermals. Firing the coaxial on the Bradley you'd be able to see what we called "heat splash: where the rounds hit and adjust your fire.
Downside? You can't see through windows or into heated buildings with thermals. Plus large heat sources can cause thermal washout. As an example, during one engagement an Iraqi fuel tanker was hit and set on fire right in front of us. In this case the intense light from the fire washed out passive night vision and the intense heat washed out thermals.
At times during the 2003 engagement at the laager there were so many troop transports burning it was washing the thermals out so you couldn't see what was beyond the burning vehicles. You had to wait until the next wave moved up in front of the wrecks so you could detect them. Then, after you destroyed those 10 or 20 troop transports you had moved the wall you couldn't see past a bit closer.
Fortier: While they both have strengths and weaknesses do you prefer one over the other?
Johnson: Although a passive device like a PVS-14 is a grew tool, I really like thermals. For hunting pigs or coyotes at night where that is legal, thermals would be my pick. You can easily detect animals which would be hard or impossible to spot with a PVS-14.
Thermals have a lot of uses. The downside has always been their size and price. As technology has advanced though, we've seen thermal devices which are not only smaller hut also less expensive. Cheap? No. But they are much less expensive than they used to be and they will be even more affordable five and 10 years from now. If you have only ever used a Gen 2 or 3 night vision device then a quality thermal device will surprise you. Is it a perfect do-all gadget? No, but it is a very effective tool.
For more information on the exploits of SFC Dillard Johnson (Ret.), his Bradley the Carnivore and the troopers of the 3/7th Cay check out the recently released book titled Carnivore written by James Tarr and Dillard Johnson.
800-910-2862 / www.atncorp.com
MINI ThOR 640-2.5x 30 Hz THERMAL. WEAPON SIGHT--Specifications
Sensor (microbolometer): 640x480
Material: Vanadium oxide (VOx)
Image Size (output resolution): 800x600
Frame rate: 30 Hz
Video output: Digital HTSC / PAL
Display: Color OLED matrix, SVGA< 800x600, color background + color reticle
Thermal Sensitivity, mK: <50mK
Spectral Response,?m: 7-14
Focal length of the lens: 50
Field of View: (H x V), deg 12.5x9.7
Eye Relief, mm: 28
Optical Magnification: 2.5X
E-Zoom: 5X. 10X, 20X
Diameter of exit pupil, mm: 14
Distance of the human detection, m (w/o zoom): 1500
Distance of the human recognition, m: 600
Polarity control: White hot/Black hot/Multiple Color Modes
Start up time, sec: <3
Battery type: 3xCR123A
Battery Life, h: 8+
Weight, grams: 850
Dimensions (LxWxH), mm: 203x69x73 (without bracket)
Text and Photography By David M. Fortier
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|Author:||Fortier, David M.|
|Date:||Jul 20, 2013|
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