Night Vision Gear for Those on a Tight Budget, by Robert C.

Prepping on a budget is quite important to my family as I am sure it is to many avid readers of this fine blog.  I have purchased the book, “How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It: Tactics, Techniques, and Technologies for Uncertain Times” and am following it to the best of my ability and financial means.

However one aspect that is woefully lacking is my nighttime surveillance capability.  Sure I have strong LED flashlights with rechargeable batteries, solar panels ready to recharge those batteries at a moments notice, and enough batteries to last a lifetime.  I have solar powered motion sensitive lighting on each corner of my house just like any good Prepper.

However in many instances that I can envision, I would want the capability see what is going on in and around my area of operations (AO) without alerting what I am attempting to observe that I am attempting to observe it.  Whether it is shooting that feral hog out of the garden, observing the deer that are eating my grapes, or seeing what that two legged predator is doing walking my fence line on the back of my property.

I have been looking and reviewing various night vision scopes and binoculars, however of the ones that I reviewed, none that were in my price range seemed worth owning and the ones that were barely in my price range had marginal reviews. 

With money being so tight just to make ends meet, let alone prep, I simply could not afford to roll the dice and take the chance that a particular night vision scope would fulfill my purpose.  And, even if it did, with the” two is one and one is none” philosophy; I certainly couldn’t afford multiples of any of the scopes that I had seen.Not only that, but even if I could find an affordable (to me) night vision scope and I could afford to get multiples of that scope, I would need one that could fit multiple uses as well.

For example, I would need one that I could fit as a head-mounted unit to use as a hands free unit that would allow me to keep my hands free for other things and still see good enough to scout.  I would want a handheld one that I could have on me at all times just in case I get caught out after dark.  I would want one that I could mount behind the iron sights or scope of my ARs.  And, to make it all worse, I would want several of each to allow each member of my family and group to have the same capabilities.

With all of these things on my checklist, it certainly appeared that I was going to have to sacrifice and either have one that I squeezed into many roles, or spend more money than I could really justify on trying to cover all of the roles that I needed to.

Then Christmas rolled around and I went shopping for my children.  As I was walking down the toy aisle of my local big box retailer, I came upon a infrared binocular toy from Spy Net that had been marked down.  So I took $20 out of my prepping budget and made the purchase.  With the caveat that if I didn’t like what I was seeing through them in a test, it would still make a cool Christmas present for a 10 year old boy.

Now I might lose some readers here, but please bear with me.

This night vision toy functions only as an IR viewer–it does not have an light amplification intensifier tube.  It uses any ambient light source and two built in infrared lights (if there is no sufficient ambient light source) to light the way.  Instead of an intensifier tube, it uses a tiny CMOS camera that transmits to a small LCD screen.  The upside to the CMOS camera is that it will not be damaged by a sudden bright light source like some early intensifier tube night vision equipment, and can still function during the day.  The downside is that they are not as durable as intensifier tube night vision devices and they rely on a lot of circuitry to operate.

When I brought it home and test it as soon as it was dark, outside. The first thing that I noticed is that it does an amazing job of using any ambient light source.  The small CMOS camera and screen showed decent detail and I could mostly identify people at a decent distance (25 to 30 yards), not just as people, but also some facial features allowing recognition. 

The second thing that I noticed is that the two built in infrared lights were woefully inadequate at lighting anything beyond 15 feet.  The good news is that I was only looking for the first thing, because I had no intention of using the built in lights anyway since they had no control to turn them off if they were not needed (or desired).

I had purchased this with the specific intention of taking it apart and modifying it to increase its capability and increase its durability several fold.

As I took it apart, it amazed me on how compact and small the actual functional unit was.  About 90% of the size of the binoculars was just empty air surrounded by plastic that was made to look high tech for a kid’s toy.  The actual unit was able to fit in the palm of my medium sized hands with room to spare.

So after disassembly, and removing all of the extraneous controls (it has the ability to record and playback video and audio which I didn’t need and just added extra bulk), so those circuits were quickly cut and removed along with their corresponding wiring and controls. 

I was left with just the CMOS camera, the circuit board, the attached video screen (about .75îx1î) the power switch and the battery pack. 

My next job was to fashion up a durable housing to place this in.  Since it is so small, I was able to make the housing a bit larger for durability. 

I was originally wanting a cylindrical tube, however because the rest of the unit was square, using a round tube would increase the size of the whole unit too much, so I used a thin walled square cross-section aluminum tube and placed the circuits inside.  To help increase durability and protect the circuits, I poured clear resin inside the square tube and let it dry (keeping the resin away from the actual camera or screen of course).  This will help reduce any shock that it might endure as well as protect the circuits and wires from damage.

I used a very small section of square tubing to house the unit itself, then I added in a shade on the backside (between the screen and the users eye) to help cut down on the glare from the small screen.  Lastly I added on a rubber eye piece from an old scope, so the user could get a good “eye weld” onto the scope for optimum viewing.

Since I had removed the very inadequate infrared LEDs, I replaced them with a Solar Force flashlight with an infrared emitter.  The flashlight is mounted to the outside of the unit, so it could be removed and replaced if necessary.  The final step that I used was wrapping the entire thing in Kydex and heat forming it around the aluminum tube.  This made it easier to handle and added yet another layer of protection.

So for a bit under $50 for the entire thing (which unfortunately entailed some trial and error with the aluminum tube and Kydex forming) I have a functional, seemingly durable night vision scope (durability testing will come after I have made a few more and established a solid methodology of how I am going to use these).

My next version (which I have already ordered) will be a bit more compact with a smaller housing and I will use it as a single side head mounted unit.  This will allow me to use it as both a hands-free unit for observation, but will also be able to use a rifle or pistol in the dark (after much practice of course).

My intermediate plan is to have one of these for each member of my house as well.

I have not tested these extensively for durability yet, but I can honestly say that it works better than I had could have hoped for.  This first unit is just a bit unwieldy, but I am not discouraged at all since this is my very first unit.  I am certain that I will find many ways to improve it as I discover the ways that I will use it and how it can be modified.

In my humble opinion, this could never take the place of a dedicated, purpose built night vision device, but like the old saying goes, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

I would rather have limited night vision capability than money put back saving for a better unit.  And for the very limited amount of money that these cost, it could be a great intermediate step and backup as needed.

JWR Adds: Most night vision monoculars are not up to the recoil stresses of mounting on a rifle–even a light-recoiling 5.56 mm. Also, the mounting interface for anything other than a purpose-built rifle scope tends to be problematic. Even a scope without a reticle (depending on the reticle of red dot scope mounted behind it) can still be a challenge to mount with reliability. The “duct tape and bailer twine” school of gunsmithing (also known as WECSOGing) is fraught with peril. In essence, re-purposing a toy IR scope can work with very limited reliability, but don’t expect it to work for you as anything more than just a hand-held monocular.

The next step up from a toy IR scope like Robert describes is buying a Bushnell Gen 1 night vision monocular. For under $180, these are sturdy, reliable, relatively weatherproof, and they have a decent built-in IR light. They operate on two standard AA batteries. They can sometimes be found used on eBay for less than $90.

Beyond that, purpose-built rifle starlight night vision scopes start at around $400. A fairly decent civilian model is made by ATN: the MK350 Guardian. But keep in mind that there is no true low-cost substitute for mil-spec quality. Sadly, that level of quality comes only with a high price tag.

If you already own one or more night vision monoculars (such as a Yukon), then a low-cost alternative is to wear a night vision monocular in a head mount or helmet mount, and attach an infrared laser to a Picatinny rail on your rifle. The rifle is then shot “from the hip”, using the the laser pointer for aiming. (Sort of a “Poor Man’s PAQ-4“.)

The bottom line: I recommend that you buy the best night vision gear that you can afford. As Robert pointed out, that can begin with a miniscule budget. Watch eBay closely for used Russian night vision monoculars (such as the Night Owl Brand.) These sometimes sell for as little as $60. They are better than nothing. Even after you eventually save up and buy the PVS-14 of your dreams, be sure to retain your older, less expensive, night vision gear. Those will be useful for spares, or worth their weight in gold, for barter.