Volume 26, Number 2 February/March 2018

The thermal optics market is expanding rapidly. Don’t get left behind

It was just after midnight, near Corpus Christie, Texas, when our pickup truck rolled to a silent stop. Our guide/driver leaned out of his window to get a better look, and in a low voice said, “We got hogs. Up ahead on the left.”

“How far away?” I asked.“at least 300 yards,” he answered. “We’ll walk from here.”

It was a clear night, a few stars overhead, but we couldn’t see 30 yards with the naked eye, much less 300 yards. Our advantage for this night hunt? New thermal monoculars from Trijicon, plus Trijicon’s new REAP-IR Mini Thermal Scope mounted on my MSR. These thermal units allowed us to spot hogs and coyotes hundreds of yards away in the black Texas night.

thermal optics

Pulsar’s APEX XD-50 Thermal Sight, featuring a built-in rangefinder, helped the author bag this feral hog.

We got out of the truck as quietly as we could and put a short stalk on the half-dozen hogs. Once we got to within approximately 75 yards, we set up our shooting sticks, picked our targets, and opened fire. Twenty seconds later, I had two hogs on the ground.

I’ve been hunting at night with thermal optics for more than five years now, and in that time I’ve seen a world of change in all things thermal. Today, hunters and tactical shooters have more thermal options than ever before. Prices have dropped steadily, and there’s more interest in and knowledge about thermal optics.

What hasn’t changed? Night hunting with thermal optics for hogs, coyotes, and varmints is still a rush. Thermal optics products are a great way to expand hunting opportunities, especially as more states legalize night hunting for problem species such as hogs and coyotes. As our shooting sports become ever more high-tech, thermal may well be the next big thing to grow your customer base.

Natural Fit

“Our customers want and need a full line of aiming solutions,” says Chuck Wahr, vice president of sales and marketing for Trijicon, when I ask why the optics maker began offering thermal units. “Actually, they have been suggesting we enter the thermal market for some time. In particular, our military and law enforcement customers have highlighted the desirability of the technology, and after we took a good look at it, we knew it was a natural fit for Trijicon and our customers.”

“This is a very young industry—in its infancy, really, especially at the hunter-consumer level,” says Tom Frane, director of global sales at FLIR, arguably the largest player in the thermal game for many years. “Military and law enforcement have had thermal units for years, but the average person hasn’t been able to get their hands on these units—literally. That’s changing fast, and the independent retailer is in a great position to get into this market and do very well.”

The market for thermal optics is on a definite upswing. Pulsar, of Mans-field, Texas, for example, debuted its first thermal units in 2012. Today, it has a full lineup of thermal monoculars and riflescopes. At the 2017 SHOT Show, Pulsar introduced its new Trail scopes and Helion monoculars, both with customer-friendly price points, and they immediately sold out.

“Our first orders of Trail and Helion units have gone out to our dealers, but we are already back-ordered for many thousands of additional thermal units,” says James Sellers, president of Pulsar. “We’ve seen demand for thermal increase significantly every year, and we’re expecting that only to continue.”

thermal optics

Since thermal technology detects heat, units like this entry-level FLIR Scout can be used to look for game by day.

At the Core

Actually, thermal optics are not true optics at all. The term “optic” is a common shorthand simply because the units look so much like traditional riflescopes and monoculars. In reality, they are digital cameras with sensors, or “cores,” that detect infrared or heat waves; an onboard signal processor then translates those waves into images for the shooter or spotter.

Another key distinction: Thermal optics technology is not “night vision,” though the two are frequently lumped together, especially on the internet. True night-vision technology uses any ambient light available—usually from stars, the moon, or infrared lasers—to illuminate when it is dark outside. Night vision works well, as long as there is some sort of light source to draw from. Thermal’s advantage is that is relies on heat to find targets, heat that is transmitted even when the night skies are overcast or during weather events like rain.

Depending on the thermal brand and model being used, a person can spot a human-sized object anywhere from 150 yards (with entry-level thermal) all the way out to 2,000 yards with top-of-the-line thermals. However, maximum spotting range and shooting range are different. While you may be able to see a white blob out to 2,000 yards with your thermal scope or monocular, you will likely have to get within several hundred yards to accurately identify the blob. With a thermal scope, you will probably have to move within 300 yards or so for the shot.

But getting closer usually isn’t a problem. After all, in most cases you’re hunting at night. Just keep in mind that though the quarry may not be able to see you, it can sure smell you.

Most thermal units operate via a digital “menu.” A menu lets you select such things as palette colors (white for hot, for example, or red for hot), brightness, contrast, and magnification (if available). For riflescopes, reticle options are selected via the menu operation, which also has the adjustments necessary for zeroing in the unit.

Many of these thermal units have wifi capability, and can take photos and download them via wifi. They also can store and use ballistics data.

Thermal scopes and monoculars are not exactly new, but the extremely high price points—often more than $10,000 for a single unit—and a general lack of marketing to civilians initially kept thermal units off retail shelves. But prices have dropped by many thousands of dollars per unit. At the same time, the word has gotten out to shooting sports consumers that thermal works, is becoming more affordable, and is, above all, a lot of fun to use.

Thermal units themselves have also gotten smaller and more effective, increasing their appeal to the general consumer. They are more flexible, too, with most companies now making “clip-on” models that can be attached in front of a riflescope or used as a handheld monocular.

As an indication of the potential growth of this market, Leupold debuted its new LTO (Leupold Thermal Optics) line at the 2017 SHOT Show. The LTO-Tracker is a small, handheld thermal monocular. Shortly afterward, Leupold also introduced the Quest. The Quest has additional features versus the LTO, including a precise temperature reading of the object being scanned (the temp is displayed on the screen), plus a built-in flashlight and a camera that can capture and store as many as 2,000 images.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the thermal optics market and felt it was a natural fit for Leupold,” says trade marketing manager Shane Meisel. “A large percentage of our market is focused on hunting, and thermal handhelds like the Tracker and the Quest have so many hunting uses.”

Leupold’s LTO and Quest can be used to find and follow blood trails and scout for game animals. They also are handy for scanning an area before a hunter heads in. The latter should be a big selling point for deer hunters in particular. No more need for them to scare off a big buck on their way to the deer stand. They simply do a quick scan with the LTO or Quest (or other thermal units, for that matter) and see what may or may not be bedded down between them and their destination.

thermal optics

Live fire with a FLIR RS Scope mounted on an MSR. Using MSRs to hunt hogs at night is gaining ground in many states.

Into the Game

Thermal manufacturers are focusing hard on what they see as their core users: predator, varmint, and wild hog hunters. Hogs and coyotes are increasingly seen as problem species in many states. So, hunting regulations now often allow year-round night hunting of these animals with no bag limits.

Now retailers are getting into the game. Mike Blackwell owns and operates Big Boys Guns, Ammo and Range (bigboysgunsandammo.com) in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Blackwell began offering thermal units in 2006, and admits the initial reaction to these products was tepid.

“The thermal that was available at the time was very expensive—I think it started at right around $6,000—and, frankly, it just didn’t work all that well,” he says. “The images were often pretty grainy. You had to use a USB cable to download any photos or video you took because they didn’t have wifi capability, and the tech could be hit or miss on those downloads.”

Since then, Blackwell says, his customer base has become much more interested in thermal. He credits the increased interest to better thermal units, lower prices overall, solid entry-level units—and feral hogs.

As has happened in many states, Oklahoma has seen a population explosion in wild hogs and a big jump in agricultural damage as the hungry porkers root up crop fields and destroy pasture lands. So, Oklahoma lawmakers recently made night hunting for hogs legal for state landowners on private property (or a designee with written permission from the landowner).

“Once they could hunt hogs after dark, my customers got very interested in thermal,” Blackwell says. “Right now, they are buying the entry-level units like the Leupold LTO-Tracker and the Sig Sauer ECHO1 Thermal Sight.”

For $700, Blackwell’s customers can get into thermal with the LTO-Tracker. The Echo1 is a rifle-mounted sight with 1X to 2X magnification and a spotting range of approximately 1,000 yards and a targeting range of right around 300 yards. It sells for $1,749.

Big Boys also stocks a number of other thermal monoculars and scopes from top manufacturers, and can and does order just about any other thermal units customers want. Profit margins? Not as high as with traditional optics, Blackwell says, but easily twice the margins he sees on firearms.

Seeing Is Believing

So, the $64,000 question: How do you move thermal products in your store? Seeing is believing—and education is a key to those first sales.

“The products sell themselves,” says Trijicon’s Wahr. “Find a way to demonstrate the products. Many retailers use video to demonstrate the product in use, but nothing replaces having a unit on the shelf that customers can look through and compare to other options.”

Blackwell agrees. His sales staff makes sure they hand over the thermal units so customers can scan the store area. Since thermal technology detects heat, the units work fine during the day, too, and people, lights, and other objects will jump out. Customers are usually pretty impressed with the visual example of what thermal can do, says Blackwell.

Another “ooh-and-aah” experience for customers can be achieved by varying the color palettes of the thermal units (a feature in most scopes and monoculars). Start with white for hot, and then switch to black or (if available) red or even green. Consider showing the potential customer a YouTube video of a night hog or coyote hunt. The various thermal manufacturers have such videos on their websites and Facebook pages.

All of which adds yet another reason for customers to like thermal. As Blackwell notes, “It’s the cool factor. It’s cool to have and use this technology. And cool certainly sells.”

Of course, educating your customers means first training your sales staff. Help is available for this, too.

“We’ve made a huge commitment to our retailers, to help educate them and their staffs about thermal in general and our products specifically,” said Pulsar’s Sellers. “We’ll come to their store and train staff.”

Wahr adds, “Our sales staff is more than willing to help provide the right training and materials to make the sales process easier.”

Retailers who “see the light” about these products stand to reap a nice benefit, especially through the recruitment of younger customers.

Thermal Optics Manufacturers

thermal optics

Thermal imaging changes the way you see the world. Here, a red fox was detected and photographed with a FLIR Scout monocular.

ATN ATN’s thermal products line includes binoculars and monoculars, but it is probably best known for the THOR riflescopes. With eight different variations, THOR units range in price from just under $2,000 to $5,999. (atncorp.com/thermal-night-vision)

FLIR The thermal leader for more than a decade, the FLIR product line includes the pocket-portable Scout monocular, long-range riflescopes, clip-on models, and units to attach to helmets and head rigs. SRPs run from $599 to $8,000. (flir.com)

Leupold Leupold’s thermal products lineup includes the LTO-Tracker and Quest, both small enough to hold in your hand. SRPs run $649.99 to $909.99. (leupold.com)

Pulsar Pulsar thermal brands include the Helion and Quantum monoculars, the new Trail riflescopes, and Apex riflescopes with built-in rangefinders. Pulsar also makes thermal clip-ons that allow a shooter to use his day scope at night. SRPs range from from $2,089 to $5,499. (pulsar-ny.com)

Sig Sauer Sig Sauer’s thermal products line includes the Echo1 monocular. SRP: $2,399.99. (sigsauer.com)

Trijicon A new entrant into the thermal game, Trijicon rolled out a full line of riflescopes, clip-on optics, and monoculars in 2017, with price points ranging from $6,000 to $10,000. The REAP-IR Mini Thermal Scope is a real gem for the night hog and predator hunter.  (trijiconeo.com/products)

 —Brian McCombie