Originally posted on Badlands Fieldcraft. We cover this in the upcoming Carbine Course as well, which is going to be the last open enrollment carbine course this year. Got training? -NCS
I recently received a question from a reader pertaining to night vision and I will do my best to respond, although I’m not an engineer and don’t consider myself a guru when it comes to night vision.
So, I know next to nothing about NV other than it’s expensive. I’ve read about it some on HHV site and the NVG site. I’d like to add that capability to my setup. I enjoyed your review and I checked out the links in your article, but nothing else. So with all of that said, where is the first place I should start and what do I need to look for?
I always try to advise people to try to determine their needs, not anyone else’s, when selecting gear. Night vision is no different. I’m not familiar with the sites you mentioned, but I’m going to assume you would like night vision for the following uses:
- Observation of your property or perimeter at night in order to detect threats
- Night time navigation, either by foot or by vehicle
- Used in conjunction with a firearm to defend yourself or your property from those using the darkness to hide
Assuming I am correct about your intended uses, a PVS-14 fits the bill very well. I get it, night vision is expensive. Let me rephrase that, good night vision is expensive. There’s less expensive options, and none of them are really suitable, at least as a primary unit. Perhaps as some sort of supplement, maybe. But the PVS-14 should be your go to unit. By the time you buy the cheaper alternatives and all the extra BS to try to get them to do what a PVS-14 does, they still won’t be close to a PVS-14. We’re talking about protecting our families here, not playing air soft.
So to make things a bit more complicated, there are many manufacturers of PVS-14’s. And to make things even more confusing, not every PVS-14 performs to the same standard.
As far as I understand it, most of the components are basically the same, but there’s one in particular that can vary quite a bit. That’s the image intensifier tube. These are where majority of the cost comes from, and why good night vision is expensive. This is the component that grabs whatever ambient IR light is available and amplifies it to produce an image.
To put it simply, the better the tube, the higher the price.
So that’s all fine and dandy if you’re a plastic surgeon and can just cut a check for the latest and greatest, but not everyone can do that. When it comes to gear you’re going to stake your life on, I advise to get the best you can afford. That being said, sometimes the best gear for the job isn’t automatically the most expensive.
When I started to shop for night vision, I knew I wanted to be able to do the above tasks, and I was willing to spend a pretty penny to get there if necessary. Luckily I was shown that you don’t have to spend your life savings to get there, if you aren’t looking for the absolute best.
While the cost isn’t necessarily going down, a PVS-14 will run any where from about $3-$4K, I think the quality of the image intensifier tubes is going up. This means you’re getting more bang for your buck.
For instance I recently had the opportunity to compare my Photonis Echo unit, a unit that costs about $3,000 (if you decide to go this route you can pick one up for a couple hundred less if you use code “Badlands” at check out), to an L3 aviation grade unit, which costs closer to $4,500. The L3 was better, being noticeably brighter. This would be important if you were working under thick overhead foliage with very little ambient light.
PVS-14’s have adjustable gain, which means you can manually adjust how bright the image is. The L3 at 3/4 gain looked the same as my unit at full gain. That being said, the L3 at full gain was too bright and hurt my eyes, and there were no more details available to see at that higher gain.
So was the L3 $1,500 better? Not to my eye at the time. The clarity and sharpness were no different, just more light magnification. If we were in a jungle with very little ambient light I might change my mind. But I don’t live anywhere near a jungle, so I just choose the tool that fits my needs. That $1,500 savings is a big chunk of change that I can utilize in better ways.
So there’s a completely unscientific comparison of two very differently priced units. When shopping for a device, an important term to understand is Figure Of Merit (FOM). FOM is a numerical quantity based on one or more characteristics of a system or device that represents a measure of efficiency or effectiveness. For night vision, FOM is a number used to quickly assess the quality of an image intensifier tube.
Every tube is tested at the lab where it’s built, and there are numerous different factors that are tested. Each tube is different, giving slightly different numbers. Rather than try to decipher which tube is better by the data sheet, the industry just takes two important factors, Signal to noise ratio and resolution, and multiplies them to get the FOM.
Now when you are shopping for a device, they should give you a minimum FOM, that way you know what you are getting out of the box. Typically, as the FOM goes up so does the price. If they don’t display a minimum FOM, take your hard earned money else where.
One thing I really like about my Photonis Echo is the really good FOM. While they are advertised as minimum 1800, which is mil spec, the Echo units typically come out much higher because of the better manufacturing processes used. Mine is a 2186. Two other people I know personally have FOM’s that are about the same as mine, with one in the 2200’s.
The next thing you should know about is white phosphor. As far as I know, night vision was always green. This is a product of the type of materials used in the image intensifier tube. Then one day, someone figured out a different way to make them and it created a more black and white image. At first, you might be thinking, who cares?
The reason this is important is that there aren’t as many shades of green and black as there are of black and white. This means you can see finer details through an image composed of a black to white gradient instead of a green to black gradient. In other words: white phosphor is better. Coming from using all green phosphor night vision, I wasn’t sure the hype was worth it. Now that I own one and have time under it, I totally agree with the hype.
So the PVS-14 is a monocular, being about the same size as a can of Coke. It’s actually smaller, but anywhere you can put a can of Coke a PVS-14 will fit. If stationary, you can hold it in your hand and look around like any other monocular. But for walking and shooting you’re going to want to wear it on your head.
The way I do this is with a Crye Nightcap. I purchased mine for about $80. This is a device that resembles a baseball cap with the bill cut off. On the forehead there’s a plate of carbon fiber that your night vision helmet mount bolts to. It’s to this helmet mount that your swing arm mounts to on one end, and your device on the other.
I’m not a fan of helmets, and I don’t see any need to ever buy one. I like the nightcap because it stores easily and doesn’t weigh anything.
Speaking of mounts, there are a multitude of different mounting options out there and I’m sure they’re all lovely. I use a Rhino II, which is a surplus military model. I purchased it brand new and complete off eBay for about $100, including shipping from Fayettevile, NC. Compare that to the latest cool guy mounts that can run upwards of $500. I guess it all depends on how cool you’re trying to look on YouTube…
Finally you need an IR laser to shoot with. I use a Zenitco Perst-4. It’s a Russian made unit with an IR and visible laser slaved together, this makes it nice to zero the IR laser in the day. I’ve only had it a couple months, but I don’t see any reason to doubt its ability. It’s a military grade unit, built like a brick. But it’s lightweight and easy to use. I think it’s the best value in IR lasers out there, giving you full power when lasers made for sale in the US have been neutered.
I hope all that is helpful, let me know if there’s any other questions you may have, take care!