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Thermal vs. Infrared Scopes: What’s the Difference?  

L.p. Brezny | Updated February 25, 2024 | Why You Should Trust Us | How We Earn Money
cover photo of thermal vs infrared scope

When searching for the best scopes for night hunting, you may come across some products that say “thermal scope” and others that say “infrared scope.” However, since both terms have to do with heat signatures, you may ask yourself, “what’s the difference between the two?”

Realistically, there is no difference, but technically, there is. Let’s break down thermal vs. infrared scopes to understand how they’re related.

Thermal vs. Infrared (IR) Scopes

Both thermal imaging and infrared imaging translate heat energy into visible light. So, instead of seeing items as you would with your eyes, you see gradients of colors ranging from black (cold) to bright red and yellow (warm).

For the purpose of buying scopes for your rifle, there’s no real difference between thermal and infrared. So, you don’t have to wonder if one option is inherently “better” than the other.

That said, there is a technical difference:

Essentially, thermal radiation refers to an object’s temperature, which can emit light in a wide range of wavelengths. If an object is hot enough, it will start to appear red, orange, or white as its temperature emits specific wavelengths. So, super hot objects (i.e., coals or a stovetop coil) will appear the same in a thermal scope as they would to your eyes.

Infrared radiation, however, refers to a specific set of wavelengths, which is between 0.7 and 300 micrometers (ms).

Simply put, all infrared scopes are thermal, but not all thermal scopes may operate within the infrared wavelength range. Again, though, when comparing different scopes, this difference is negligible and shouldn’t affect your purchase decision. (1) (2)

Are Thermal and Infrared Cameras the Same?

Given the technical differences between the two terms, it’s safe to say that thermal and infrared cameras are slightly different. However, if you’re just trying to get something to see the heat signatures of your target, then these terms are basically interchangeable.

Thermal vs. Night Vision Scopes

Both thermal and night vision scopes are perfect for hunting at night, but there’s a critical difference between the two.

What thermal scopes do is capture heat signatures from objects and illustrate them using a color gradient. Because it only pays attention to heat, no light is required to work. So, you could use a thermal scope in a pitch-black room.

Night vision, however, amplifies existing light and converts it into green-tinted light waves. So, if there’s no light, you can’t use night vision.

Night Vision or Thermal

It is a common discussion as to whether night vision or thermal is better for hunting. If you’re interested in our opinion, take a look at our full article on the topic.


What is the difference between a infrared and thermal scope?

There is no difference between an infrared and thermal scope. There is a technical difference between infrared and thermal energy, however the products are the same for the consumer market.

Is thermal or IR better?

Technically, thermal is better than IR because it doesn’t require light, and it can register heat signatures outside of the range of infrared.

Are infrared and thermal the same?

Infrared and thermal are the same for purposes of buying a scope. However, if you’re looking to buy a camera or other recording equipment, the slight difference may matter.

Reference Section

  1. Stack Exchange, What is the difference between thermal and infrared imaging, retrieved from https://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/6869/what-is-the-difference-between-thermal-and-infrared-imaging
  2. What is the difference between active IR and thermal imaging, retrieved from https://www.flir.com/support-center/oem/what-is-the-difference-between-active-ir-and-thermal-imaging

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