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Night Vision Device | Gen 0 to Gen 3+ | How It Works

GEN-3-night-vision

There are many uses for a night vision device (NVD). Military, law enforcement, security, surveillance, search and rescue, hunting, wildlife observation, navigation, hobby, SHTF, and more.

A night vision device can be an expensive investment. But it could prove itself invaluable under some circumstances.

Here’s information on how night vision devices work. The differences in technology of the various generations (GEN-0,1,2,3,..). And a recommended resource for getting your own NVD.

First though, if you’re researching to purchase a night vision device, I highly recommend that you speak with Bob Griswold at ReadyMadeResources.com (this is where I purchase). More on that later.

How Night Vision Works

A night vision device is an electro-optical image enhancement technology system that enhances vision.

Night Vision Devices include Image Intensifier (I2 ) technology that enhances vision with very little light or levels of light approaching total darkness.

A lens captures ambient light (and some near-infrared light). The Image-intensifier tube (I2 technology) gathers and AMPLIFIES the light.

The image-intensifier tube has a photocathode which converts the photons of light into electrons.

As the electrons pass through the tube, they are amplified by a factor of thousands.

At the end of the image-intensifier tube, the electrons hit a screen coated with phosphors (which provides the image) and is viewable via another lens. These phosphors create the green image that has come to characterize night vision. Newer NVDs are now available with white phosphor (some advantages over green).

The AA-size or CR-123 type battery provide power for most most current night vision devices.

Night Vision Devices (NVDs) have been around for more than 40 years and are categorized by generation (GEN). Each substantial change in night vision device technology establishes a new generation.

Generation-0 (GEN 0) Night Vision

GEN-0 The original night-vision system created by the United States Army and used in World War II and the Korean War. These NVDs use active infrared as a light source.

An IR (Infrared) Illuminator is attached to the NVD. It projects out a beam of infrared light, similar to the beam of a normal flashlight. This infrared light is invisible to the naked eye. But this beam reflects off objects and bounces back to the lens of the NVD.

These original systems (tubes) use an ‘anode’ and a ‘cathode’ to accelerate the electrons. One problem with that approach is the acceleration of the electrons distorting the image and greatly decreasing tube life. There was another major problem with this technology… Hostile nations quickly duplicated it. This allowed enemy soldiers to use their own NVDs to see the infrared beam being projected by the device from “the other side”.

Generation-1 (GEN 1) Night Vision

GEN-1 The next generation of NVDs moved away from ACTIVE infrared, using PASSIVE infrared instead. Once dubbed “Starlight” by the U.S. Army, these NVDs use ambient (infrared) light from the moon and stars. This enhanced the reflected infrared in the given environment.

A GEN-1 NVD did not require a source of projected infrared light. This also means that they do not work very well on cloudy or moonless nights. Generation-1 NVDs use the same image-intensifier tube technology as Generation 0, with both cathode and anode. So image distortion and short tube life are still a problem.

Generation-2 (GEN 2) Night Vision

GEN-2 Major improvements in image-intensifier tubes resulted in Generation-2 NVDs. They offer improved resolution and performance over Generation-1 devices, and are considerably more reliable.

The biggest gain in Generation 2 is the ability to see in extremely low light conditions. A moonless night, for example. This increased sensitivity is due to the addition of a ‘microchannel’ plate to the image-intensifier tube. This plate actually increases the number of electrons instead of just accelerating the original electrons. Therefore the images are significantly less distorted and brighter than earlier-generation NVDs.

Generation-3 (GEN 3) Night Vision

GEN-3 Currently used by the U.S. military. There are no major changes in the underlying technology from Generation 2. However these NVDs have even better RESOLUTION and SENSITIVITY.

The biggest GEN-3 change here is the photocathode composition. Gallium Arsenide. This is very efficient at converting photons to electrons, providing better resolution and sensitivity. Additionally, the micro-channel plate is coated with an ion barrier. This dramatically increases the life of the tube.

Generation-4 (GEN 3+) Night Vision

GEN-4 The military dropped the term, GEN 4, and instead refers to the technology as GEN 3+ with “filmless” and “gated” (autogated) tubes. GEN3+ are currently used in the US Military, particularly by special operators. The technology shows significant overall improvement in both low- and high-level light environments.

The ion barrier that was added to the micro-channel plate in the previous generation was removed. This reduces the background noise and enhances the signal to noise ratio. Removing the ion film also allows more electrons to reach the amplification stage. The result are brighter images with significantly less distortion.

The addition of an automatic gated power supply system allows the photocathode voltage to switch on and off rapidly. This enables the NVD to respond to a fluctuation in lighting conditions in an instant. This capability is a critical advance in NVD systems. It allows the NVD user to quickly move from high-light to low-light (or low-light to high-light) environments without any halting effects. For example, when bright light suddenly enters the field of view, the gated power feature eliminates a negative impact. The improved NVD will respond immediately to the lighting change.

Which is best for you?

 
Many of the “bargain” night-vision devices use GEN 0 or GEN 1 technology. These may be disappointing if you expect the sensitivity of the devices used by professional operators.

GEN 2, GEN 3 and GEN 3+ NVDs are increasingly expensive to purchase, but “you get what you pay for”.

The night vision device is designed in two basic packages; a monocular or a binocular. Naturally, a binocular NVD will cost lots more. But they do enable a depth of field which you can’t get from a single monocular.

Some monocular NVDs are rated to withstand the G-forces of a given rifle and can be attached to some platforms. Check the specs.

Where to get night vision devices

A long time sponsor here on Modern Survival Blog is Bob Griswold over at Ready Made Resources. He particularly specializes in night vision devices. He is very knowledgeable in this area and has lots of real world operator experience.

You can check them out for yourself:
Night Vision and Thermal Optics

Contact him with any of your specific questions! He also welcomes anyone to stop by to check out his night vision devices at his walk-in store (Tennessee).

 Continue reading: Nighttime Security Night Vision | A Force Multiplier

Human Night Vision | How to See in the Dark

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32 Comments

  1. Another “list” item for me. I would like to have a nice NVD Gen-2 or 3, and will probably do so within a year, but like many of us it’s about the $$$$$ a LOT of things are still needed. I know that a good Gen One would cost as little as a few hundred $$$ but if I’m going to get something I would go with a top good quality Gen Two.
    Thanks for the good info Ken, you see I always figured the Gen-0, Gen-1, so-on, was the number of Zeros on the price tag….. And I’m probably not that far off hehehe.
    NRP

  2. Dh had the cheap night vision you can purchase at any gun store, they were ok but you are correct $$ makes the difference in what you are purchasing.

    When I saw the picture you used for this article the first thought that went through my brain was, it is a BORG, let me assimilate you into the collective. :-)

    Good article, this is something I know we need.

  3. I remember the sappers (North Vietnamese Army special forces)would smear green stuff all over their bodies As stated above everything looked green through the scopes. One of their tactics was to walk behind water buffaloes. We quickly learned to count the legs! Six legged water buffaloes had a very low survival rate.

  4. How long will a NVD last if stored in a sealed box/amo can?????
    Does their function degrade over time????

    1. Keep the batteries out of them and the answer is almost forever. The batteries corrode the NV and cause issues.

  5. Buying an AN/PVS-14 is the way to go… Anything less is a waste of money.

    The Russians stuff is basically junk. The Tube life on the AN/PVS-14 is rated at 12,500 hrs. If you have one you will own the night for 300m around you.

    It is most effective if the scope is mounted on a Mich helmet with an infrared laser on the rifle…..

  6. I used the PVS-7D’s back when I was in. The damn thing was so clear you could read a book with them. I’m due for a midlife crisis pretty soon; maybe I’ll pick up a pair.

      1. Mmmmmmm…looks like them. Want! I don’t think I could sell that price tag on the wife though.

        1. – Several months ago, getting ready for feral hog hunt, DW commented that I needed a thermal scope for my Remington .308. (We had been watching TV program comparing and contrasting NV, and thermal rifle sights. I have used them in the past, unfortunately not my own.) I told her, yes, they would be nice to have, then I shot myself in the foot by telling her what they cost!

          Using a 3X9 dialed all the way down (mine has a 44mm objective) gives at least minimal non-electronic night vision, backed up by a cheap Russian gen 1 monocular (1.2 power) for scanning an area. A reticle that is visible in low light, but usable in daylight, is the hardest thing to locate.

          If you are going to spend the money for the very best, thermal is definitely the way to go.

          – Papa S.

          1. – I have watched a rat in a field eating grain from the stalk at 100 yards with a 10-power thermal scope. I have used night vision Gen 0 through what was then called Gen 4, but I do not have any such stories for any of them. That should tell you the difference right there.

            – Papa

  7. Ok, here’s a question for y-all. I’m seriously thinking a Gen 3 soon, BUT I’m having a hard time deciding on doing a rifle scope, set of Bino’s, or a Mono.
    How about some suggestions and why. Other than the obvious cost differences.
    Strongly thinking Bino’s but……… would like some input and ideas
    NRP

    1. Hey NRP, not sure what you plan on using it for mostly, so its hard to give a suggestion. From our experience we had bought a Gen 1 binoculars many years ago, and I think I would prefer them over a monocular for the depth perception. Since most of its use for us is surveillance and or watching for night critters, it works for us. I’m not sure about the scope, unless you are planning some late night hunting of the two legged variety. If you plan on a watch post, then the binoculars are likely to get the most use. That’s just my opinion.

      1. @ Peanut Gallery
        I’m kinda leaning that way also, maybe go to the Gen 2 though, or if I can scrape up the cash maybe Gen3 Binoc’s, looks like I could get a nice set for around $3-3.5K.
        Thanks for the response.
        NRP

    2. Monocular gives the most flexibility, you can use it in a helmet mount, on a weapon mount, handheld, hell, you can even use the skull crusher if you don’t have a helmet…my opinion, take it for what it is…

    3. NRP, We chose binos for the variety of services they provide for us. While a scope would be a wonderful 2nd item for us, we’ll probably go with a mono. The 2nd unit is not high on our list of necessaries, btw…not at this point.

      1. Kevin H & Modern Throwback:
        Thank you for the responce.
        I have some more thinking on the subject from 3 years ago and am leaning toward IR vision.
        Would LOVE to see Ken do an Article comparing NV & IR.

  8. Good article Ken. In the future I’d like to see an article on thermal optics and/or a comparison of thermals to night vision. I went back and forth on which to purchase first. I finally decided on a thermal scope w/ up to 8x magnification. Specifically, I bought a Pulsar Apex XD50 and mounted it on a .308 AR10. This is an awesome combo for night hog hunting. The main reason I went with thermals is its range. A man sized target can easily be identified at 1400 yards. There is no need for an inferred illuminator so you can’t be “ghosted” by someone looking through night vision and detecting your inferred illuminator. The one down side to thermals is they can’t see through glass. Unless the target is touching the glass, their thermal image is insulated from view of thermal optics. I am currently in the market for some simple night vision 1X binoculars w/headgear. If the need ever arises, I want a way to bug out driving with no external lights. Since traditional night vision can see through glass (windshield), this seems to be the way to go for this purpose.

  9. Agree you get what you pay for and if you are looking for a night vision scope then do not waste your $$ on Gen 1 as you will be disappointed. My view is buy what you can afford based on what you intend to use it. Feral hog hunting is a very popular sport that benefits farmers to help eradicate these varmints. Do your research ATN and Pulsar makes excellent night optics but there are plenty others available.

  10. Anyone have a suggestion about wearing night vision goggles? I have both the helmet mount and the head mount and both feel like they are slipping down so I have to adjust constantly

  11. Mike have you looked at the counter balances for the helmet? The store batteries and tools and counter balance the weight in a pouch on the backside of the helmet.

  12. This is where I’m going to wholeheartedly disagree with most on here. Buy the best you can and train with it. Get the best IR laser for your weapon you can too. They go hand in hand when it comes to the killing.
    I think the reason is because I didn’t start with the best. I started in the Army with Starlight and progressed to gen 3 over the 20years.
    We managed just fine though the upgrades are awesome. I’m not here to impress the boys at the club and this ain’t high school so the tacticoolness of my gear is none of your concern.
    If you haven’t got branch marks on your face and didn’t “park” your vehicle in a deeper than you thought ditch then you aren’t training hard enough lol

  13. Personally I like Thermal Sights on a rifle. IR allows you to see better at night but a Ghillie Suit can still hide an attacker. Doesn’t work on Thermals though. Today I would not use a rifle scope to survey the area but SHTF, just like in the Sandbox I would.

    If you have limited Night Vision a Laser can be used to direct the attention and firepower of your group to the unwelcome visitors area. Train for fire control as not to empty their weapons blindly into the night.

    Get the best you can afford AFTER getting the other basics covered. Cheap assistance in securing an area is ankle high smooth wires, planting thorny wait a minute bushes like Blackberries (Bonus food and Hunting attractants) as Matt mentioned you cannot see all that well wearing Night Vision and someone stumbling in the dark might give you an advantage.

    Why smooth wire? While razor wire and barbed wire injures night stalkers your Livestock and yourself don’t have unlimited medical Medevac to heal up from rusty wire cuts.

    Guard animals are useful. Dogs of course but professionals know how to make them less effective. Even just the “Cry Wolf” trick of triggering your electronics and or Dogs over and over with nothing to “See” makes them less effective. Some meat with simple poisons takes them out. I prefer Geese as my primary guard animals. Works well guarding Nuclear sites in Europe, China and Russia so they do work.

  14. I hear marine signal flares work quite well to light stuff up and negate NV,
    Just sayin is all,,,,,

    1. NVG $3600-$4600 on up,,
      Plastic flare gun and 36 pack of white signal flares, under $400 depending on source
      Sorry, im cheap, what can i say

      1. I did buy some of the IR adhesive backed chemlights through the link. This will help us during convoys and hopefully help keep that safe distance especially on dirt roads. I haven’t seen them since retiring.

        Kulafarmer
        That is true but for around $500 you can get the chinese setup mono that goes on your rifle or headset/helmet and a laser. I watched my neighbor at 126yds smoke a cigarette and could make out his face (NV only not on the gun). The only issue I’ve had with the rifle mount it came with was that the IR built in illuminator will throw some light splashback if mounted behind a red dot if it isn’t turned down. It would require a separate illuminator for some things. It’s very good on the helmet though. I’m hoping I can afford better eventually. I’m also hoping I can just let the force pass if anything is past 100-150yds. I’m not trying to start the Mog mile shootout if I can help it.
        You also don’t set things on fire. It’s the biggest downfall of flares here in Oklahoma because of the dry material and the wind. As you stated flares do negate NV for a moment or longer depending on the training of the wearer. 1/2 cant seem to find the flip up button under stress or remember to shut one eye with the monocular.
        The cheap setup isn’t near as good as the high dollar or the thermal but it does work. I also think you should have both flares or a high powered off grid lighting setup and NV with buying the very best you can afford.

        1. Yup,,
          Was more tongue in cheek as they say, this case maybe Copenhagen between the cheek n gum,,,,
          They all have points, FLIR, thermo, NV
          FLIR scout with a good PVS weapons mounted unit or a IR laser,
          The only thing i dont like about the IR laser is the orher guys can Find you, dont matter for deer or hogs though,
          What you think theres more chance of?
          Enemy ID hidey hole because of IR laser? Or eradicating some problem beasties in the night?

          At this juncture who knows, options are good

  15. Great article Ken! I would definitely love to have any type of NV’s or IR equipment at this point. This kind of equipment is on my list but the reality of owning said equipment is a few years away. But when that day comes, I would prefer to own binocular NV or IR. I’m way out in the country surrounded by woods so for my security, I would prefer to see people coming from as far out as I can.

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