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Thermal Optics Are Turning Up the Heat on the Shooting Market

Story by Brad Fitzpatrick, Photos by Brad Fitzpatrick and the Manufacturers

I’ve taken several courses at the Gunsite Academy in Arizona, but this particular shoot was like nothing else I’d ever experienced. Instead of shooting in a traditional range with established targets, I was working my way down a twisted, steep-walled canyon that the team at Gunsite calls the Donga.

“From helmet-mounted cameras to handhelds to rifle (and helicopter) mounted optics, thermal imaging is changing hunting, defensive shooting and combat.”

The course follows a dried-up riverbed, and it includes several twists and turns that conceal objects until you are very close. I turned one corner and, through my thermal scope, I saw a coyote. I pressed the trigger of the Ruger rifle and heard the distinct ping of steel.

“Hit.”

The coyote was not, of course, a real coyote (they don’t come with steel plates affixed to them as far as I know) but rather a specialized target that, when tilted up toward the sun, heat up to mimic live animals through thermal. The reason that this course even exists is because so many shooters are now switching to thermal optics and a group of gun writers had gathered to test FLIR’s newest thermal imaging equipment.

And scopes are far from the only thermal option. From helmet-mounted cameras to handhelds to rifle (and helicopter) mounted optics, thermal imaging is changing hunting, defensive shooting and combat.

A shooter locks onto a target with FLIR’s PTS233.

How Thermal Works

Thermal imaging seems high-tech, and indeed it is. To obtain clear images even in low-light conditions, a thermal imager uses a special lens that focuses infrared light and sends the image to a detector in the unit. The thermal detector then creates an image based on the infrared light called a thermogram, and that is turned into electric impulses that are sent to a processing unit, which is then transitioned by a signal processing unit onto the display.

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“ …  in recent years that certain events like riots and natural disasters bring opportunists into the streets. In those cases, a thermal is your best defense because it … increases situational awareness.”

The whole process seems lengthy and cumbersome, but in reality, the image appears a fraction of a second after the lens picks up the thermal energy. This technology was so advanced (and expensive) that military and law enforcement agencies were the only practical customers for advanced thermal imaging technology for quite some time. Today, however, that has all changed.

As cores have become more affordable and smaller, handheld thermals and thermal scopes are not only available but relatively affordable. Consider that the FLIR ONE, which plugs into your cell phone and turns your phone into a thermal camera, costs just $199 and fits in the palm of your hand. Just over a decade ago that same technology would have cost tens of thousands of dollars.

High-tech thermal imaging is available—and affordable—to more hunters and shooters than ever before.

The author was one of several writers who had the chance to test FLIR’s newest thermal imaging equipment at Gunsite.

Why Thermal Works for Shooters

It’s no exaggeration to say that I use a thermal monocular every day. If I do nothing else with a thermal unit, I always scan around the perimeter of my house and my farm before turning in for the night. My wife calls it “FLIRing,” the first time to my knowledge that the acronym Forward Looking Infrared has ever been turned into a verb.

“High-tech thermal imaging is available—and affordable—to more hunters and shooters than ever before.”

In my mind, a thermal is an absolute necessity for personal and home defense. With units costing as low as $600 (or $200 if you convert your phone to a thermal imager with FLIR ONE technology) there’s no reason why your personal defense kit doesn’t include a thermal camera. Unfortunately, we’ve learned in recent years that certain events like riots and natural disasters bring opportunists into the streets. In those cases, a thermal is your best defense because it turns night into day and dramatically increases situational awareness.

Read the full story in our current issue.