Night vision devices are essential tools for military personnel on patrols. In fact, a small monocular device called the PVS-14 is the workhorse of the U.S. military and for good reason.
It is small, lightweight, and can be mounted to a harness and worn in front of an eye, mounted to a camera for observation or recording, or mounted to a rifle and used behind a scope or red dot optic.
There are other monocular devices on the market but the PVS-14 offers the best combination of size, cost and available accessories.
So what should you look for in night vision goggles when you’re on a tight budget? Here are a few considerations.
Traditional light amplification technology falls into three categories: generation one, two and three.
Modern night vision is categorized as generation one, generation two and generation three depending on the internal systems used. All three generations use a photocathode that converts photons into electrons. These electrons are then converted into a visible image on a screen inside the device.
The very early night vision scopes introduced around WWII were active systems. This means they required an active infrared searchlight to illuminate the target. These systems were massive affairs that required a backpack full of batteries.
They also were fairly fragile and, being active systems, were detectable by anyone using a similar device. These early systems are now commonly called “generation zero” because they did not amplify ambient light like modern devices.
The first modern systems came about in the 1960s with the Starlight rifle scopes used in Vietnam.
These generation one scopes worked well but are bulky and have a limited viewing range compared to later technology. These devices can be inexpensive but, due to limited light amplification, are probably not suitable for law enforcement use.
Generation two devices use a microchannel plate to multiply the number of electrons emitted by the photocathode before creating the visible image. Generation two was abandoned by the U.S. military in favor of generation three, but generation two devices continue to be developed and improved by several European countries.
Generation three is the current U.S. military standard and offers the best in light amplification and clarity because the photocathode is more sensitive and more efficient in converting photons to electrons. Generation three also is more costly to manufacture and therefore more expensive to purchase.
There are several key points to consider when comparing generation two and generation three optics.
First, there is the cost savings that can be significant when choosing generation two technology.
For example, a PVS-14 with a new European generation two image tube can be $1,000 less than a generation three and compares fairly well to our current standard depending on the amount of ambient light.
In fact, the current European generation two technology will hold its own until the dark of night or when working in dark buildings or other unlit spaces. Even in these environments, the user may need some type of infrared illuminator regardless of the device used.
But, generation two can have more "image noise" when in use. A good way to describe this is comparing a standard definition (SD) video to a high definition (HD) video. SD is fine in most cases and, like the generation two, with realistic expectations, will certainly provide good clarity in most applications.
Lifespan and Durability
Generation two tubes can yield half the approximate lifespan of generation three (5,000 hours versus 10,000 hours) but generation two image tubes are less susceptible to damage from recoil.
When creating generation three, engineers refined and thinned internal dimensions to maximize light transmission.
These tighter tolerances mean delicate parts can "crash" against each other under the rapid acceleration of recoil. While this isn't a concern for observation, it is a key point to keep in mind if the device will spend any amount of time on anything bigger than a 223 Remington.
There are a number of companies currently selling generation two devices at very reasonable prices but not all companies have the same warranty or reputation for service after the sale. Research the least expensive device that meets your needs, but also research the seller as much as the optic.