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Night Vision Gear
We have been testing and evaluating a number of night vision devices over the last few years in order to make sense of what is going on in this aspect of the survival world and shooting industry. At this point, I do not feel qualified as an expert in the use of this equipment, but I have gained considerable experience with it and can offer an educated opinion on what is out there.
The great majority of night vision equipment on the open market right now is of marginal value to the survivalist given the cost to benefit ratio of other equipment. That said, there are a smaller number of devices that have tremendous potential for the survivor to the point that they may even be more beneficial than supplementary weapons. What I have discovered at this point is that night vision (NV for short) gear breaks from the tradition of "you get what you pay for". There are definitely bargains and rip-offs on the NV gear market and a shopper needs to be very careful about this stuff since you can easily be taken for twice what the particular device is actually worth. So few people actually know their way around the equipment that bargains can be represented as rip-offs and vice versa, with "experts" hotly disputing which is which. Add to that deceptive advertising and the nature of the players involved and you find out the NV gear market can be pretty interesting.
A typical "tube sheet" from ITT denoting the performance levels of a particular tube used in the construction of a night vision device. In this case, it was a D740 riflescope. Most people who are marginally knowledgeable about night vision equipment know about resolution, this unit showing "64" meaning 64LPI which is fairly good, but it is only one of several criteria used to rate a tube. Signal to noise ratio is important because it basically is a measure of how dark of an environment the device can operate in. The higher the ratio, the darker the environment you still get an image before going to static. The Yes/no rating on weapon sight denotes whether or not the tube has any spots near the center of the image that would interfere with the crosshair on a riflescope. The date of manufacture, 18 APR 2005 is relevant to predicting the remaining service life of the tube. This is an official tube sheet provided to the manufacturer when they bought the tube from ITT, but its relevance diminishes over time because the tube sheets are fairly easy to forge and one can only determine the truth of it by taking the NV device apart, verifying the serial number on the tube, and then putting it in a test machine that will produce a new tube sheet. Many night vision distributors and vendors will produce their own "tube sheets" upon inspecting devices through their own criteria largely to avoid the process of disassembling the device to double check the data provided on the card.
Used gear can be a real crap shoot because warranty service on the better gear is marginal at best and the crappiest stuff often has the best warranty service. Litton is arguably the best manufacturer of NV gear but they will openly deny or restrict warranty service to anyone other than military or law enforcement. AMT/ATN makes some of the worst NV equipment around but has by far the best warranty service and customer relations policies. Basically, you buy something from them or of theirs and you have lifetime service. Within a year, they replace the stuff for free, and after that, nearly for free or at nominal charge. The best manufacturers like Litton and NAIT will quite often not even return calls to private buyers and free warranty service is almost unheard of from them. If and when you can get them to work on anything, their service bills will often be higher than the replacement cost of the used device.
Military use of night vision equipment dates to late in WWII and there were not significantly improved until late in the Vietnam war. Up to that point, nearly all night vision scopes required fairly strong infrared light sources in order to be effective. These scopes, like the AN PVS-2 were considered the first generation of starlight capable scopes.
The Soviet Union was far behind US development by the late 1980s when US war fighting doctrine embraced an "own the night" concept. Under the "own the night" concept, the widespread use of advanced night vision equipment would give US forces a tremendous advantage when fighting at night against a less advanced foe. US operation Just Cause in Panama demonstrated the wisdom of the "own the night" concept. The Russians then rapidly attempted to catch up in the field of tactical night vision but their efforts were cut short by the fall of the Soviet Union and revolutions in several former satellite states. A private individual typically had to pay upwards of $3,000 for what was then state of the art second generation gear. It was also this point where night vision goggles began to replace weapon sights as the NV device of choice for armed forces use.
It was this period when early Russian night vision gear was dumped on the open market at bargain basement prices. Performance was marginal compared to American gear, but far better than what had been affordable before its introduction on the market. Unfortunately, much of the gear was overpriced for its performance and for those who desired real performance in night vision gear, Russian equipment was sorely lacking and mostly a waste of money when the typical device cost around $450. That was my first foray into privately purchased night vision equipment. The failure rate of the devices was close to 50% but it was so much cheaper than the alternative US gear that I considered it worthwhile. The older Russian gear is still very durable and decent entry level stuff for those who want to begin training with NV equipment. The durability, collector value, and relatively cheap prices on the used market make some of the older Russian gear a good buy. One example is the handheld unit shown here. They typically trade hands around $100 and can function reasonably well with a strong IR light source. In my opinion, one should almost never pay more than $200 for any used Russian NV gear and at that, it should be the Russian/Soviet GI stuff with the heavy metal housings and conversion kits to take US batteries.
The reality is that night vision devices need to be second generation (Gen2) or better to be taken seriously as tactical equipment. You can sometimes find used Gen2 units as low as $500, but something new or in decent shape is going to be $750 to $1800. Third generation (Gen3) is definitely state of the art 'own the night' technology, but expect to spend at least $2,000 to get anything Gen3. There is advanced stuff available in the Gen3 performance field that can run upwards of $4500. The package to the right shows an M4 style rifle with a Gen2 night vision goggle called the Recon2. The package gives good serviceable night shooting capability without being a major budget breaker. Using a visible laser as the aiming point and an IR filter on the sure fire flashligh, this outfit gives the used the ability to reliably hit 5" targets at 100 yards in total darkness. While accuracy can be maintained at greater ranges, 200 yards is about the limit for any serious target identification with Gen2 optics. Some newer Gen3 technology is coming on the market from Photonis and DEP in Europe which is better than the Russian stuff and only slightly below the US made ITT stuff in performance. It will likely dominate the US market into the later part of this decade since ITT and Northrop Grumman, the primary US military contractors, seem to be taking more steps to limit sales of their technology outside of US government agencies by simply pricing themselves out of the market. If they can hose the taxpayers on large scale purchases, then they have little incentive to deal with a high maintenance private customer market.
My personal opinion after testing a number of devices is that it is important for a serious survivor to get into the night vision game, but most of us are well served with Gen2 equipment. This is consistent with what was US military issue up to Desert Storm and the rather limited availability of Gen3 equipment makes it still unlikely that you will be outclassed by any likely opponent at night. Image clarity and light sensitivity is pretty good but not good enough to read by. Gen2 devices usually have a self adjusting feature that shuts down sensitivity if the unit is overloaded with light. As comparisons on price go, you can expect to get a decent device for about the cost of a good assault rifle.
If you have the funds, you are not hurting yourself by stepping up to Gen3 gear as this puts you in a world class league once you have it dialed in and you have some practice with the stuff. The main advantage of Gen3 over gen2 is that the image has better clarity and the devices automatically adjust to light much faster and only where it is needed. That way, the image is much less likely to be blinded out by a light source. Gen3 is likely to remain state of the art for several years and will only really be outclassed when compact lightweight thermal imagers are developed. The optic to the right comes with a gen2 or a gen3 tube, with the gen3 unit costing nearly 50% more. Even the "cheaper" model is superior to the AN-PVS4 military issue night scope in terms of image clarity, service life, weight and weapon compatibility. A dedicated Gen3 unit such as this when mounted on a good rifle can give serious accuracy and target recognition out to 300 yards with usable accuracy to 800. My personal experience with first generation night vision rifle scopes is that they are rarely worth buying. You must have something second generation or better if you are going with a rifle scope. I would also recommend against using a night vision scope on a rifle that has heavy recoil, and would never use one on a handgun.
The technology is not for everyone, but there are now some lower cost alternatives to higher grade gear which allow the average survivor to try out the technology without sinking several hundred dollars into something they may have little use for. I have finally come across a first generation device that is low cost, yet takes advantage of recent technological advancements in miniaturization and versatility. The device is called the ELF. It is made in Russia. It is very compact, fairly rugged and versatile. A first generation device will not normally have any auto adjust feature and can be blinded out by strong light sources, but when used within its limitations, it can be better than nothing. Personally, I would not advise spending over $200 on any Gen1 device since so many are little better than squinting your eyes real hard in the dark unless you have a fairly strong IR light. Prices on the Elf range from $150 to $250. This is low-end night vision gear, but priced appropriately and fairly useful if you back it up with an IR filter on a common flashlight.
Contrary to popular belief, all night vision gear benefits from the use of infrared light. This light is not readily visible to the naked eye but can be picked up by the super sensitive night vision equipment. IR is necessary to get much use out of Gen1 gear. IR filters are fairly easy to make and can be attached to normal flashlights. The light is not visible to the naked eye, but if you look directly into the light when the IR filter is on, you will see a dark red glow. Looking through any NV device, the IR light will be very bright. In fact, even a fairly small flashlight with an IR filter will fully illuminate a large area in total darkness. A powerful compact light like the Tac-Star, Sure Fire or Pelican will light things up like a car headlight on high beam.
Since night vision gear is often so sensitive to light, getting the most from it has a lot to do with how you handle it in light. Never remove the lens caps from a night vision device in full sunlight, especially if the unit is turned on. When using one of these at night, you will have better performance if you are looking out from a shadow than if you are looking out from a lighted area. Some older night vision equipment can be "blinded out" by an overload of light, even from something like a small flashlight or the striking of a match. This effect is usually temporary, with the effect lasting longer on the lower end gear. Third generation units adjust so quickly that light blinding is practically irrelevant.
It used to be that nearly all Gen2 and Gen3 night vision gear on the market was made in the US or the UK, while nearly all Gen1 gear was made in Russia. There have been persistent rumors going around that the Russian gear, especially the older Gen1 stuff, emits harmful radiation through the eyepiece. As the story goes, the Russians cut corners on the lens coatings and other steps in the manufacturing process in order to make their light intensification tubes cheaper. So instead of containing the radiation, the devices send a lot of it through the CRT in the eyepiece and in the words of an FBI SWAT guy "they X-ray your head". I have heard the same story from a number of NV gear distributors, but one thing they all have in common is that they are marketing partners for ITT and or Litton, the two major US makers of Night vision tubes. In talking to representatives of ATN, a company that regularly used Russian tubes, the X-Ray problem is not significant on newer equipment. Others disagree and this remains a hot point of contention in the night vision gear industry.
Using NV gear as a survivor
There are four basic kinds of NV devices that a survivor is going to consider.
Handheld viewers and pocket scopes: Often the least expensive of their kind since they don't include any special mounting or reticule systems. Basically an intensifier tube in a housing with a power supply (usually batteries, but sometimes a small generator that is activated by squeezing a lever or rocking the unit). They can usually fit in a large gear pocket and are reasonably convenient for close range viewing but usually do not have (or need) much magnification. Handheld scopes range from the cheapest Russian units starting at $150 to the advanced ANPVS-14 that runs upwards of $4,000. Better models usually have adapters available so the pocket scope can be mounted on a firearm or head mounted as sort of monocular goggle. The advantage of the monocular mounting is that it leaves one eye open for natural vision and the user still gets some color vision through the brain's ability to blend images from both eyes, that being the one which remains regular vision and the eye with the electronically enhanced night vision. Weapon mounting requires the use of another device for aiming. Traditionally, this is a red-dot scope like the Aimpoint or an IR laser. You may also use a visible laser. If you use a red-dot scope to aim when using a pocket scope, find one that has adjustable reticule brightness with very low settings, not a simple on and off. Advanced sights like some variants of the Eotech Holosight have specific settings for use with night vision equipment. Another advantage of several of the pocket scopes is that they are camera adaptable. A pocket scope is by far the most versatile of all NV devices and a good choice for the survivor. My only complaint is that many of these have a fairly narrow field of view and the images while very sharp, can be darker than through other NV gear of equal resolution.
Night Vision Binoculars: The great majority of NV binoculars on the market are Gen1 units. They are larger and heavier than the pocket scopes and are not nearly as versatile. Advantages include wide field of vision and better magnification. A Gen1 set of binoculars that are dialed in right can be nearly as good as a Gen2 pocket scope but you have to live with the weight and bulk. NV binoculars are also less fatiguing to look through for longer periods of time, thus they are more popular with boaters. NV binoculars are best for Search and Rescue, boating and stationary observation. They are not commonly used as tactical equipment but highly recommended for survivors who have a larger boat as their survival vehicle. The Russians and East European trained military personnel prize NV binoculars more than those of us in the West. Personally, I like the binoculars, but don't love them and the bulk is not so great for moving fast and light by foot. This is good gear to keep on a boat.
Night Vision Riflescopes: Probably the most limited and specialized of the NV devices. They tend to be larger and heavier than the pocket scopes but the better models are very good for their intended purpose. Quality and prices vary widely with performance, but be warned, you do not always get what you pay for. You should expect to pay $800 and up to get anything worth actually using. Prices for the really good stuff which allows both day and night use can reach up to $8,000. The great majority of NV riflescopes are useful only at night and thus you will have to set up a specific night use rifle to go with the scope. My personal experience with lower grade NV scopes is that they frequently have "wandering zero" problems and even the AN PVS4 often suffers from this. Consider a NV riflescope to still be a relatively short range option. One advantage of the NV scopes is that they tend to have a larger and clearer image than comparable pocket scopes. The American Eagle model shown here is a top grade unit, but I personally don't see a lot of use for it unless you are carrying the rifle, thus to have any NV capability, you have to bring the rifle and that is not the best course of action for every situation where NV gear can be an advantage. While NV riflescopes are good to own, my opinion is to avoid making one your only piece of NV gear.
Night Vision Goggles: Next to the pocket scope, goggles are among the most useful NV devices you can get. I personally think they are a first choice for the survivor but a tight race for best when compared to a pocket scope. My personal favorite is the AN PVS-5 as a balance of cost and utility. The standard these days is the PVS-7 but they are pricey buggers. The growing distribution of them in the military, law enforcement, and professional security fields is bringing more PVS-7s on the market both new and used and sometimes there are good deals on them. Expect normal pricing to be $2,500 to $3,500 for a decent one but you can get lucky and find used units in decent shape for as low as $1500. Unfortunately, those who shop strictly on the baseline of $1500 for a PVS-7 stand a pretty high chance of getting burned with a substandard unit or a rip-off. Russian NV goggles start in the $350 range and once in a while you find one that is actually pretty good for what it is. It seems that the Russians are putting their best into the manufacture of the Gen1 NV goggles and are getting the most out of the technology that they can. You can also occasionally find bargains on used NV goggles. A disadvantage of the goggles is they can be delicate and require special care in storage and handling. This often means fairly bulky protective cases. The big advantage of the goggles is that you can use them hands free while doing other tasks. Once you practice tasks with the goggles on, you realize that you can lots of activities "in the dark" which would normally require a lot of attention getting artificial light. Driving and shooting with NV goggles is a matter of practice. Shooting with the goggles means point shooting or some sort of lighted scope. You may also do aimed shooting with goggles on if you use a laser sight. Military personnel tent to prefer IR lasers for sighting while using NV goggles, but visible lasers work too. I most highly recommend NV goggles in Gen2 or better if you can at all afford them and place a higher priority on getting decent Gen2 goggles than over specialized supplementary weapons of equal cost.
In comparing the above listed types of NV devices, all of them have some value to the survivor and a well heeled survival group is going to have some of everything. Personally, I see a decent mid-range pocket scope as being the most versatile and cost effective of the bunch for survival, but the goggles are my personal favorite for most activities. Adapting the pocket scope to a headset will give you that "Borg" look along with most of the advantages of goggles and fewer of the drawbacks. That is why the US army is shifting to the PVS-14 as the general issue NVD for infantry units. The PVS-14 is a costly step for most survivalists but those who are serious about the tactical side of the game consider it a must have item. Advantages include fairly ready availability of accessories through military surplus and a healthy anticipated service life. I used to highly recommend PVS-5s, but now there are some issues to contend with the remaining service life of those sets that are currently still in circulation with a finite number of spare parts available as even some third world armies are phasing out of them in favor of PVS-7s and similar devices.
NV goggles and monocular rarely, if ever, focus in such a way that you can use them in conjunction with gun sights. There are three ways to effectively deal with this. The first works at shorter ranges. Basically, instinctive point shooting. Practice point shooting with the unit on in order to get used to any distortion you might encounter from the positioning of the NV unit. The second way to deal with aiming through a NV device is to use a red-dot sight like the Aimpoint or excellent Bushnell Holosight (also the Eotech). These devices usually have power settings low enough that they will work well with NV goggles. The last way is to use a laser for sighting. Lasers come in two types, visible and infrared. Visible lasers will work well through NV, but they are visible to everyone in the area. IR lasers are only visible through the NV devices and have proven popular in the military special operations. An added benefit is that a rifle equipped with an IR laser can also be equipped with a high magnification conventional rifle scope for use in the daytime and dusk. The rifle in the picture above has both visible and IR lasers installed. This allows the user to switch between sighting with the naked eye and using NV equipment. Leave the visible laser on the rifle and you have the means to align additional sights, scopes and lasers. IE, it effectively acts as a built-in bore sight.
Most overrated for utility is the NV riflescope, but lots of SF operators and survivors think they are the only thing a person should need. Granted, I see the value in having a specialized night rifle for hunting and combat. Such a rifle if equipped with a silencer and firing subsonic ammo would probably make poaching and combat much less risky and if I saw a high likelihood of higher threat level scenarios, I would probably put such a package together. What I don't see is much utility for the specialized night rifle in lower threat level scenarios and activities. It is a matter of personal opinion and lots of qualified individuals think differently.
Using NV Equipment
NV Equipment is most useful when stealth is an issue. It also uses less energy to power NV equipment than it does to illuminate an area to an equal level. For example a Gen3 NV device powered by two AA batteries will give you vision over an area that otherwise would require several thousand watts of power to illuminate. A Gen2 Device will bring things up to the point that it is about equal to using a powerful floodlight on an area. Thus, a small group using NV goggles could move into an area and set up a camp with little or no artificial lights. One way to fully illuminate a camp for users of Gen1 or Gen2 NV gear would be to string the smaller Christmas tree lights in the area. The colors being irrelevant to the NV gear, but it would be tidier to use just one color. The picture here illustrates how "eye relief" becomes tricky when using a scope with night vision goggles. This almost always will mean a red-dot type of optic that has very low power settings in order to be night vision compatible. As shown in this example, the excellent C-More sight on an AR15 will work with most night vision goggles, but you will usually want scopes which mount forward, or at least have a forward mounted view screen in order to clear the extra space taken up by the night vision device between the scope and the shooter's eye.
Always attempt to shade NV gear from extra light. Just because a light does not show up in the image on the screen does not mean it is not effecting the image. The light detectors on a lot NV gear will trigger off of ambient light coming in from the side of the image and reflecting off the walls of the lenses and tube. That shuts down the safety device on the intensifier and your image, or part of your image, will go darker. Your eyeballs do exactly the same thing and that is one reason you can see better if you are standing in the dark looking into the light as opposed to standing in the light and looking into the dark. This plays a major role when using NV rifle scopes. Your attention will be focused downrange while you may be positioned in an area out of the shadow and thus not getting the best image from your scope.
Nearly all NV equipment is water resistant, so it is not a problem to use it in rain and snow, but the stuff can be temperature sensitive. While IR light has little to do with ambient temperatures, the electronics in the scopes and haze you get from high temperatures play a role in the clarity of images you see at night. Basically, cool mountain climates are great for NV gear, but hot and humid or hazy places are not normally so great. Snow cover is fantastic for NV gear because it reflects ambient ultraviolet starlight and fills in shadows. The prism effect of snowflakes and ice will break any available light up into spectrums that the NV gear can detect. Freezing temperatures will kill the batteries quickly and can give you static in the image. High humidity will give something of a fog in the image because of the prism effect of water vapor on ambient light. This is normal regardless of the quality of gear you are using, but polarized filters help reduce the problem.
I have noticed that temperature shifts and extremes can also really mess with how you use the NV gear. Cold and rainy environments make it so your body heat fogs up the eye pieces when you get close to the lenses or take them to or from the outdoors (like getting into or out of a car with the goggles on). Anti-fog coating help a little, but they can streak the lenses and leave residue of their own. You can also fog up NV goggle lenses when you are doing strenuous physical activity. That means you have to occasionally take the goggles off to wipe the lenses. Some goggles are not easy at all to quickly put on and take off so you end up spending time messing with goggles a lot when you wear them. PVS-7s and their clones have a quick detach feature on the head harness so you can take them off and put them on very quickly without messing up the adjustments on the head harness. I like the PVS-5s for having a light and simple head harness, but re-setting the adjustment every ten minutes or so can be quite inconvenient. The Russian goggle harnesses can be even more irritating because so many involve the use of a mask like arrangement that gets sticky and itchy if you are wearing camo facepaint.
Gen 2 and Gen3 gear self adjusts to light so it does not get blinded out by artificial light. That said, the self adjusting features deteriorate as the batteries age. If your NV device flickers instead of adjusting smoothly, replace the batteries. I found that my PVS-5s will more readily flicker with worn down AA batteries than with the original GI batteries even though the GI batteries are now several years past their printed shelf life. Gen1 gear varies a lot from unit to unit on how much it gets blinded out by bright light. Some of the Russian military gear is pretty decent in the way it reacts to light. It will blind out as opposed to adjusting like the Gen2 or Gen3 gear, but it recovers fairly quickly from light overload.
Driving "blackout" means that you can move around by vehicle without being easily noticed or your activities easily monitored. In practicing this, I have noticed several things. Never use Gen1 gear for driving where there might be any traffic, as oncoming car headlights will blind it out. This is where the monocular Gen2 and Gen3 units work out well because you have one eye open for natural vision. Contrary to popular belief, Gen2 and Gen3 NV goggles and monoculars are still useful when you are using car headlights because you get light enhancement well beyond the normal throw of the beams. Occasionally turning off the lights will give you a larger panoramic view of the area when the goggles adjust. Most civilian vehicles have internal lights of various sorts that light up the interior too much when you are using NVGs. I found that if I lean forward so the dash lights are out of the field of view of the goggles, the view outside gets a lot better. Note that it is illegal to drive "blackout" on public roads, but there is no law I know of against it on private property, including private roads driveways and parking lots. The NV units will tend to hurt your eyes after a while and it is necessary to take occasional breaks from wearing them so longer trip planning with the goggles has to take this into account.
Riding a motorcycle or ATV while wearing night vision goggles is difficult, but possible. I found that while the issues with depth perception can be overcome, there are other issues which will challenge a motorcyclist. The goggles give a visual point of reference which leads to the illusion that your eyes are six inches in front of where they actually are. Since your brain uses some visual stimulus in determining balance and other movement when riding a motorcycle, you end up with a strange sense of balance and direction which makes riding the bike around corners or obstacles very difficult. This is less of a factor when riding an ATV, but the narrow field of vision can still be an issue to the ATV rider who is riding off road and needs to be able to respond quickly to obstacles. A PVS-14 or similar one eye goggle will probably work better for a driver or biker who is moving at night.
Flying aircraft will often require either the use of a monocular or dual tube unit that has one eye focused on the horizon, and one eye focused for the instruments. Even at that, I would that both the pilot and a passenger or copilot take an active role in navigating the aircraft. The pilot, copilot and passengers if possible should communication in case any of them identifies obstacles or possible threat aircraft depending on the situation. This is much less of an issue at 10,000 feet than it would be if you are flying low and fast over uneven terrain.
More to come later
More night vision pictures