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When Were Thermal Scopes Invented: All You Need to Know

L.p. Brezny | Updated February 25, 2024 | Why You Should Trust Us | How We Earn Money
Image showing a rifle scope mounted on a rifle with the logo and title of the article

As you likely know, we’re big fans of thermal scopes on this site. However, because this technology seems so advanced, it got us thinking – when were thermal scopes invented? How long have they been used for hunting and warfare? 

The answer may surprise you – it certainly got us thinking. If you’re a history buff, you’ll appreciate the story of thermal scopes and how they’ve evolved over the decades. Let’s dive in.

When Was Thermal Imaging Invented?

The first infrared (thermal) imaging dates back to 1929 when a Hungarian physicist developed a thermographic camera. This camera could detect heat signatures and capture still images that could be printed and displayed. 

However, the first American thermographic camera didn’t exist until 1947.

History of Thermal Imaging

It may surprise you to know that humans first discovered infrared waves all the way back in 1800, thanks to the work of a scientist named Sir William Herschel. However, while Herschel knew of these waves, it took years before anyone invented a way to detect them. Even then, these early detectors didn’t include lenses or visual elements.

But the first thermographic camera that could take still images of infrared radiation dates back to 1929 through the work of a Hungarian physicist named Kalman Tihanyi. Tihanyi was developing the technology to act as an anti-aircraft defense system that could detect enemy planes at night and allow guns to target them with pinpoint accuracy. (1)

As you might’ve noticed, this development illustrates just how linked thermal imaging and military technology have always been. Being able to see enemy combatants and vehicles at night is a massive advantage and could be enough to turn the tide of a battle or even an entire war.

When Were Thermal Scopes Invented?

While a camera can take still images and show where heat signatures are, it’s much too slow to develop the film. In a military engagement, soldiers need to be able to see in real-time. So, the first thermal “scope” was the Sniperscope, which was used in tandem with infrared searchlights to give an early version of night vision.

Image of historical WW2 thermal scope

What Was the First Thermal Scope?

The Sniperscope was the first true thermal scope, developed in 1940 to utilize near-infrared waves to see in darkness, unlike the thermal scopes we have now that can detect heat (far-infrared waves). But, unfortunately, it wasn’t very useful in combat. 

Issues that plagued the scope’s abilities included massive batteries, a substantial infrared searchlight to see anything, and the scope itself was heavy and cumbersome. To top it off, the range of the Sniperscope was only about 100 yards, making it suitable for perimeter sweeps and little else.

Did Thermal Scopes Exist in WW2?

Yes, the Allies and Germans used an early form of thermal scope in WW2, more accurately, an infrared night vision device. (2)

The Allies had the Sniperscope, and the Germans had the Zielgerat 1229, also known as the Vampir. This scope could be mounted to a Sturmgewehr 44 automatic rifle.

Like the Sniperscope, the Vampir required a spotlight and a heavy battery, but it was much more mobile. Still, troops had trouble using the scope, and the batteries would die in the field, exposing soldiers to the enemy.

Overall, thermal technology was still in its infancy in World War 2, so these early developments only paved the way for later military usage.

Thermal Scope Attachment for the AR-15

Now with modern technology there have been many new inventions of thermal scopes. The most notable perhaps being the various thermal scope attachments for AR-15 rifles. Make sure to check out our article for more.


Were Infrared Scopes Used in WW2?

Yes, infrared scopes were used in limited capacities during WW2. However, these early devices were too heavy and cumbersome to be a deadly asset in the field.

Who Invented Thermal Scopes?

Kalman Tihanyi invented the first thermographic camera, but it’s hard to say who “invented” the first thermal scope to be used with weaponry in combat. Both the Allies and Germans developed their own technology during World War 2, but no individuals are credited with the invention.

When Did the Military Start Using Thermal Imaging?

World War 2 was the first time the military started using thermal scopes, but the first time thermal imaging was helpful in combat was during the Vietnam War. 

During the 60s and early 70s, scopes were mainly used separately from rifles, meaning there would be a spotter and a shooter. However, these scopes were ideal for scouting, not hunting.

When Were Thermal Scopes Used by the Military?

1940 marks the first time that military forces used thermal scopes. The Sniperscope was the first gadget developed for warfare, but it wasn’t mounted to a gun. The Germans were the first to use a gun-mounted thermal scope called the Zielgerat 1229, aka the Vampir.

Do Thermal Sniper Scopes Exist?

These days, thermal scopes are relatively easy to install and use on a sniper rifle. These scopes make it much easier for snipers to identify targets in low-light or nighttime conditions.

What is the Difference Between FLIR and Thermal?

There used to not be a difference between the terms FLIR and thermal. In fact, FLIR stands for Forward Looking InfraRed, and the acronym was used to cover all thermal scopes and cameras. However, these days, there’s a company called FLIR Systems, so the term now primarily refers to specific products made by that brand.

Whereas when we talk about thermal in this context, we’re referring to thermal scopes or cameras in general that detect changes in heat and reflect them as different shades within the scope.

Why is it Called FLIR?

Thermal devices used to be referred to as FLIR, standing for Forward Looking InfraRed, and that included any thermal imaging technology, including both scopes and cameras. Then, FLIR Systems was founded in 1978, and the company eventually took over the acronym. So, these days, FLIR primarily refers to products made by this brand, not generic thermal scopes.

Do Special Forces Use Thermal Scopes?

Yes, special forces and essentially all military branches use either night vision or thermal imaging. This technology is too valuable in nighttime combat situations to be ignored.

Can Thermal Scopes See IR?

Thermal scopes can see IR (infrared), but infrared itself can be categorized into different groups. So, the short answer is yes; thermal scopes can see IR. However, what thermal scopes tend to sense is far-infrared energy, which is the energy heat gives off.


  1. BBC, The man who makes you see the invisible, retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170614-thermal-imaging-reveals-the-hidden-heat-lost-from-your-home
  2. FLIR, What’s The Difference between Thermal Imaging and Night Vision, retrieved from https://www.flir.com/discover/ots/thermal-vs-night-vision/

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