Let’s look at the best night vision goggles available in 2020.
There are mainly three types – monocular (one tube), binocular (two tubes), and panoramic (four tubes). There’s also “biocular” which is one tube with two eyepieces.
These are often referred to as NODs (Night Optics/Observation Devices) or NVGs (Night Vision Goggles.)
We’ll review all these options.
Shown here is a 4 tube NVG setup that provides a panoramic view (wide field of view). This is what is known as a PNVG – for Panoramic Night Vision Goggles.
Let’s look at some of the common hardware that is in use.
Most of these are pretty darn expensive.
Binocular (dual tube) systems range from $10K – $20K.
Prices for PNVGs are in the low to high $40K range, and are available only to government and law enforcement in many cases.
Here’s some of the night vision devices we’ll look at in this article.
How do Night Vision Goggles work?
In a nutshell, NVGs use special hardware to accomplish “Light Intensification”.
They take whatever minimal amount of light that is available and amplify it to a level that is useful to the human eye.
Here’s a simplified view. Special Image Intensification Tubes (IIT) amplify the available light sources (photons) and in combination with a Micro Channel Plate (MCP) an image is created on a phosphor display.
The phosphor screen gives night vision the green (or white) glow you’ve seen in the movies.
Are Night Vision Goggles Legal in the United States?
There is no law in the United States that prevents a US citizen from owning and using Night Vision Goggles, in general.
And that includes the most advanced Generation III Image Intensifier Tube technology.
However, these high tech devices are considered very sensitive technology and some vendors will only sell to government agencies and law enforcement – especially the most advanced devices.
This is for two reasons – to help prevent the illegal export of advanced technology, but also to ensure there is enough inventory to fulfill US government needs as a priority.
Hunting game animals with night vision goggles is usually prohibited though.
Lastly, these devices do fall under International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) restrictions – they cannot be exported outside of the country without US State Department approval- and that includes for temporary travel purposes.
Do not take Night Vision devices with you on international travel.
Lastly, you are not allowed to let non-US citizens have access to the devices, to look through them, or to possess or read the operating manuals.
The ITAR restrictions apply to the newer Gen III technology and above.
How are Night Vision Devices Used?
Night vision devices can be hand-held, helmet-mounted, or weapon mounted.
For tactical purposes, most of these devices are goggles, but some can be flexibly used hand-held or weapon mounted.
Panoramic Night Vision Goggles for Aviators – PNVG ANVIS 10
The only thing cooler than Night Vision Goggles (NVG) are Panoramic Night Vision Goggles (PNVG).
These are quad tube panoramic night vision goggles.
These are meant for use by pilots – in aircraft with compatible cockpit lighting.
ANVIS stands for Aviator’s Night Vision Imaging System.
They use the available ambient light (moonlight, etc.) to provide vision. The hardware does what is known as “light intensification”. That means these won’t work in total darkness, but they can use available ambient light and near IR light to provide an image.
How much “intensification” can they provide? They can intensify the available light up to 10,000 times.
Therefore this type of device is known as an Image Intensification (I2 or I2) device.
This also means these are a passive device. They use the already available light – nothing is projected to provide the night vision capability. Compare this to “night vision” on many game trail cameras – that require a projected IR light – that would be an “active” device.
The quad tube arrangement ensures a wide Field Of View (FOV), in this case 97 degrees.
The wide field of view gives you better peripheral vision.
NVGs that only have dual tubes typically have a FOV of about 40 degrees – so the quad tube arrangement gives over 2x the field of view.
Specifically, it uses four 16mm Gen III Image Intensifier Tubes (IIT).
Generation III intensifier technology utilizes improved microchannel plate (MCP) and galium arsenide photocathode detectors.
The prior generation of devices (Gen II) required a minimum of quarter moon and clear skies. Gen III technology will work with star light and overcast conditions.
It provides no magnification (1x only). Generally speaking, NVGs never provide magnification – they are to increase illumination, not to enhance image size.
These have auto-gain (amplification gain). This means if exposed to excessive light, this feature activates automatically reducing the level of light intensification as a means of protecting the system from over light saturation.
This particular device weights in at 27 ounces, and is meant to be attached to a flight helmet.
Here’s a video, so you can see them in action (not my video, but embedded from YouTube):
Used Night Vision Goggles For Sale?
Used Night Vision Goggles might be for sale on the market – but remember that the Image Intensification Tubes wear out over time.
The more you use them the quicker they wear out.
There’s no easy way to tell how much lifespan is left on a tube.
For serious purposes, we recommend buying new.
GPNVG – Ground Panoramic Night Vision Goggles
Night vision devices for aviators are great, but ground troops have different requirements.
The GPNVG (or Ground Panoramic Night Vision Goggle) is made for tactical use.
These are the same NVGs used by US Navy Seals, and other special ops forces..
It has a similar quad tube layout and also have 97 degree field of view (FOV).
That wider field of view is extremely useful for situational awareness in tactical (combat) situations.
Here’s a computer rendering of the optics view of this device – you can see easily how this provides stellar FOV. Compare this to a monocular – which would typically give you 40 degrees FOV only.
Additionally, a Ground PNVG is ruggedized for use in the field.
Here’s another neat feature – the individual monoculars can be detached from the system and powered with an included power adapter to provide a low profile handheld night vision monocular.
These are Gen III tubes, but 18mm in size.
For power, it takes four 3-Volt CR123A batteries that should run the unit for about thirty hours total.
The batteries are in a remote power pack that connects to the headset via a power cable.
There are two models available – for the ANVIS helmet mount (shown previously) or for the BNVIS mount, as shown below.
In either case, these are hands down the best night vision goggles currently available.
And, also the most expensive.
Night Vision : Gen 2 Image Intensifiers vs Gen 3 Image Intensifiers
As we’ve mentioned, the latest night vision devices utilize Gen III (Gen 3) Image Intensification Tubes.
What’s the difference between Gen II and Gen III technology?
Gen III uses newer hardware.
Gen II devices use multi-alkali photocathodes that are sensitive in the visible and near-IR bandwidths.
In contrast, Gen III devices use galium arsenide (GaAs) photocathodes that are much more sensitive.
The performance of Image Intensification devices can be quantified in 3 ways: Sensitivity, Signal to Noise Ratio, and Resolution.
Gen III devices excel in all 3 areas.
Regarding sensitivity, Gen II requires more ambient light – these devices are generally limited to a minimum of quarter moon or clear sky illumination.
Gen III devices can be used with only star light, or in overcast conditions.
Gen III offers greater clarity and detail with brighter images and less distortion.
The visual acuity or clarity of these devices can be measured as the Resolution.
Gen III devices typically provide 64 lp/mm (“line pairs per millimeter) resolutions.
Most Gen II devices have a 40-45 lp/mm resolution.
Also important is that the newer technology has better Signal to Noise ratios – meaning less distortion overall.
Here’s some other considerations.
Image Intensifier Tubes have a finite lifespan – they wear out with use, and will inevitably have to be replaced.
Gen III tubes have a longer life span as compared to Gen II.
Having said all that, it’s important to note that Gen II technology was greatly improved over it’s lifespan. The latest Gen II devices (sometimes called Gen II+ or Gen 2+) still provide great performance – and usually at significantly less cost.
There are also Gen I devices – this technology, while quite dated, is very inexpensive. It would not be recommended for serious professional usage, but would be ok for recreational use and hobbyists.
You might also be wondering – doesn’t my trail camera or home security camera have night vision? How is it so cheap?
Those devices uses digital night vision – it’s not amplifying ambient light – it’s using a very short range IR illuminator and digital circuitry to display an image. Digital night vision has been available in consumer devices like video cameras since the 90s.
It’s not nearly as capable as true I2 tech.
It’s also not stealthy at all.
What is an IR Illuminator?
OK, so we know the best night vision devices use nothing besides the ambient light to provide vision.
But in some situations, using an IR illuminator is an option.
This involves projecting near Infra Red light (which is invisible to the naked eye) to help the night vision devices work better.
This option is especially prevalent with Gen I and Gen II technologies. For those products, look to see if an “IR Illuminator” is included.
What’s the downside to this?
It’s not very stealthy – you’ll stand out to anyone else using night vision devices – they’ll see the IR light from where it’s being projected.
There are short range IR illuminators – that have about 3 meters range – these are good for reading maps, performing vehicle repairs, etc.
Longer range IR illuminators are available too.
Just remember – you’ll stand out like a sore thumb to anyone and everyone else with night vision devices…
White Phosphor vs Green Phosphor for Night Vision
White or green? What’s best?
Historically, green phosphor is most commonly used for night vision devices.
Phosphor is a key element to night vision – it’s what gives you the image of that multiplied light from the incoming photons.
But, now we see white or green as an option in many cases.
In general, white phosphor produces better contrast – and therefore makes night vision more useful.
White phosphor makes object recognition easier, and seeing night time scenes in “black and white” feels more natural.
So, if you have a choice – go for white phosphor over green.
It is usually more expensive though.
IR Reflective Patches
Did you know there are IR Reflective patches available?
These patches are made from special materials that are especially reflective of Infrared (IR) lightwaves.
Why would you want this?
They help to identify friend vs foe.
Many night vision devices use a projected IR light beam to enhance their usefulness – and these special patches will show up well.
There’s also the concept of clothing and gear that is minimally IR reflective…. after all it depends on WHO is using those night vision devices…
- Infrared Reflective(reflective only under IR)
- Size: 2" x 3 1/2" (5x8.5 cm)
- Multicam CORDURA Fabric Laser Cut
- with Hook and Loop
Another option for this “IFF” (Identification Friend or Foe) are IR strobes.
Do Night Vision Googles Work in Fog or Rain?
All of the gear we are describing here require some ambient light – moonlight, starlight, etc.
And how well these NVGs work will depend on the amount of light available.
NVGs will not work as well in conditions of rain, fog, snow, sleet, or smoke.
They also won’t work as well when viewing into shadowed areas.
Also – too much light is not good for these devices and can damage them. Never turn them on during the day without the eyecap protective covers on – and even then limit how often you do this.
Binocular Night Vision Goggles – AN/AVS-6 NVG
There are other types of NVG.
Before the invention of Panoramic NVGs, binocular devices using two tubes were the norm, for piloting aircraft.
The two tubes offer stereoscopic vision and some amount of depth perception, but have a relatively small Field Of View (About 40 degrees typically).
Shown here is the AN/AVS-6 Night Vision Goggle.
This is a helmet-mounted, light intensification device.
It uses Gen III technology.
The smaller field of view means less situational awareness, and a lot more head movement is required. Pilots are trained specifically to account for this – to avoid “tunnel vision.”
Here’s a schematic showing the helmet mount adjustments that are possible with this, and similar NVGs.
These devices are significantly cheaper than PNVGs, and are lighter as well, because there is less hardware involved.
What Are The Best Night Vision Goggles?
We’ve given you a high level overview of Night Vision (NV) technology, and the devices.
The best night vision goggles would include:
- A wide Field Of View (FOV). In the current models, that means Panoramic Night Vision Goggles – with 4 tubes
- Utilizing Generation III Image Intensifier Tube (IIT) technology – for the utmost in image quality (resolution), sensitivity, and maximum Signal to Noise ratio
- Form factor that works for the intended application
- Ergonomics and comfort for the user (i.e. lighter weight, etc.)
- Good battery life
If you are looking at Gen I or Gen II devices – an IR Illuminator is a must as well.
You’ve also seen that the best NVGs are also the most expensive NVGs. This is advanced technology we are dealing with.
Cheap Night Vision Goggles are available, but these are typically based on Gen I technology – which is very dated.
Having said that, if it works for what you need – then it might be the right solution.
What Can You Do With Night Vision Goggles?
The hands free nature of Night Vision Goggles makes them very useful.
NVGs have many practical uses:
- Military and tactical applications
- Law Enforcement (LE) usage
- Surveillance (Private Investigators, etc.)
- Hunting (specifically for nuisance and non-game animals, where allowed)
- Recreational use – such as AirSoft, LARPing, etc.
You might not need goggles though – a hand held Night Vision monocular or binoculars might be all that you need.
Monocular Night Vision Goggles
Ok, those are some very nice options we look at, but also very expensive.
For some situations, a monocular (single tube) setup is desirable.
Having only a single Image Intensification Tube (IIT) reduces the cost – and weight of the unit.
These units that have a single optic but two eyepieces are technically known as bioculars (not binoculars).
Battery life is probably going to be better as well – there’s just less electronics to power.
These are the ATN PVS 7 Gen 3 Night Vision Tactical Goggles that are identical to the mil-spec equipment used by the US Army.
Goggles with one tube won’t offer much in the way of depth perception, but they are significantly cheaper.
These are also based on Gen III tube technology – so the image quality is great.
And while they only use a single tube, there are still two eyepieces.
These can be used mounted to a helmet, or hand held.
These are definitely your most affordable, hands free Gen III night vision googles.
If you don’t have the budget for Gen III technology, you can look at Gen II.
These ATN PVS7-2 Night Vision Goggle are based on Gen II technology.
That means, it’s cheaper.
But, the resolution is not nearly as good, it’s only 40-45 lp/mm (Line Pairs/mm).
It also requires the use of an included IR illuminator – this means it is an “active” device and not “passive”.
(Remember that these Image Intensifiers can pick up visible light as well as near infra-red light.
You could be exposing yourself to detection when using active devices.
Having said all that, these are still pretty nice. And Gen II night vision is still way better than no night vision!
PVS-14 Style Night Vision Devices
Let’s look at PVS-14 style devices.
We’ll start on the high end.
PVS-14 style devices can be hand-held, helmet-mountable or weapon-mountable, and they usually include an IR illuminator.
These typically offer a 40 degree field of view – which is good.
The N-Vision Optics PVS-14 Night Vision Monocular Gen 3 is a high quality unit – it’s using Generation III technology so it offers over 64 lp/mm detail and clarity.
This particular unit is also available with White phosphor – but that increases the cost quite a bit.
Here’s an example of what this looks like mounted to a PASGT helmet.
You can also add a 3x (or 5x!) magnification lens to this device – this would be great for using this NVD for hand-held surveillance.
If that is too rich for you – check this out:
Another very affordable night vision option is a PVS-14 style monocular using “Gen2+” technology.
The PRG Defense P-14 1x24mm Night Vision Monocular is one example.
It’s a monocular – so that will help keep cost down.
And it’s based on the latest Gen II technology, hence the “Gen2+” designation.
All this means it’s going to be very affordable.
One reviewer calls it “night vision for the masses.”
This unit can be used handheld, helmet, or weapon mounted.
It includes an IR illuminator – as most Gen 2 devices do. Gen 2 technology (and that includes Gen 2+) really work best with extra illumination.
It uses easy to procure CR123A batteries.
One last night on the PVS-14 style monoculars – it is possible to pair up two of these devices to get a “binocular” effect.
Using two monoculars versus one binocular device usually means more weight – but it’s a lower price to get started.
This is because you can start with one monocular and a bridging device and add the second later – or use two dissimilar monocular devices even.
Shooting with Night Vision Goggles
Once you have Night Vision Goggles, you probably want to consider an IR Laser / IR Illuminator sight like the Holosun LS321-R.
This unit has it all:
- Coaxial visible RED laser
- IR laser
- IR illuminator
The IR Laser is, of course, very easy to see with the NVGs – that’s the whole point.
The IR laser is a very concentrated, pinpoint beam of light visible with the googles.
The IR illuminator is more of a “flood light” – remember the purpose is to provide illumination that your NVGs can pick up.
Here’s a video (not mine, but from Youtube):
Use the visible laser in daylight, use the IR Laser and the IR illuminator in darkness with NVGs – to get the drop on your opponent.
If your budget is bigger, we’d recommend the EOTech ATPIAL AN/PEQ-15 Laser/IR Laser/IR Illuminator.
ATPIAL stands for Advanced Target Pointer/ Illuminator/ Aiming Laser.
This is a significantly better piece of equipment – made in the USA.
Same functions though – a visible day laser, and an invisible IR laser for use with NVGs. It also has the general IR illuminator you can use to improve your NVGs performance (The NVGs will pick up on the near-IR projected.)
How To Mount NVGs Without a Helmet
But if you want to use these without a helmet, check out the Nightcap NVG Mount Cap (Buy on Amazon) from Crye Precision.
Crye Precision makes quality stuff – but it is expensive.
Shown here in Multicam pattern.
Night Vision Goggles – In Summary
Night Vision has come a long way since the 1960s era Generation I technology.
The gear has become smaller, more affordable, and most importantly offers much greater clarity and detail.
Determine which NVG device fits your budget and needs – monocular, binonocular, and quad tube are all available.
Gen III technology will be a viable option (provided you are a US citizen in domestic borders).
But, if not Gen II (or Gen2+) technology is very advanced – and not under US government restrictions.
2. Night Vision Googles – Good basic overview of the technology and it’s history.
6. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (“ITAR,” 22 CFR 120-130). These implement the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) – this is a long read, but interesting.
Some photos are property of the respective manufacturers.
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Last update on 2021-09-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API