Seeing in the dark is huge. Danger comes in the darkness, while darkness can also provide cover to move effectively and to counter attack. The military calls night vision a force multiplier, and the ability of American troops to see in the dark with night vision technology has provided us with a dramatic edge in conflicts since WW II.
As preppers, night vision could be invaluable. Controlling predators that could take out our livestock or damage our crops is one critical use, while defending our homes is another obvious one.
The first night vision gear was German and based on the idea that the human eye does not see infrared light. Bulky infrared spotlights were used to illuminate targets, while unwieldy scopes with cathode ray tubes allowed the user to see infrared light reflected from them. The Germans made some small ones for infantry weapons but also mounted large ones on armored vehicles. The United States was not far behind and also developed such equipment in time for the end of the war and continued using them in Korea. The Soviets were players as well with this sort of gear in World War II. This level of technology is sometimes referred to as Generation 0, or Gen 0.
The problem with these units was the need for powerful infrared searchlights, which required heavy power supplies. It didn’t matter as much for vehicles as it did for the guys on foot, but it was still a problem. Further, the range was limited by how far you could throw the infrared light. The U.S. version mounted on an M1 Carbine went less than 100 yards. Another issue was that your light was a bullet magnet. The other guy could sit there and use his gear passively and shoot you when you turned yours on. Making matters worse, he could see you farther than you could see him, just as you can see someone shining a flashlight farther than he can spot you with his light.
These drawbacks led to the development of image intensifiers, which got nicknamed starlight scopes when the U.S. deployed them to Southeast Asia. The early versions are called Generation 1, or Gen 1. These devices amplify light about 1,000 times and can work pretty well in bright moonlight or on an overcast night near a city when light is reflected back down by the clouds. Since this equipment is sensitive to infrared light, one can use an infrared light source to enhance their view of the dark with the caveat that you are broadcasting their location to anyone else who has night vision gear.
Night vision development has continued since Vietnam and we now have more generations, each more sensitive than the last. Gen 2 upped the score on light amplification as well as improving resolution and durability. The military currently has Generation 3 with autogating– a technology that improves performance. This type of equipment can amplify light by as much as 50,000 times, which is stunning. You may still need an illuminator, if you are inside or in deep shade on a moonless night where there is literally not any ambient light, but generally you can get by without it and not worry about revealing your position.
You can get this stuff in several configurations. There are binocular and monocular versions. There are even panoramic ones as well as units dedicated to be weapon sights. One of the more popular variants is the PVS14 style, which can be used as a hand-held monocular, a weapon sight when used in conjunction with a scope or red dot sight, or mounted on one’s head with a flip up device. They can also be coupled to cameras.
Besides the image intensifiers, there are at least two other types of night vision. The first uses digital camera technology. The sensors used for digital photography are actually very sensitive to infrared, so much so that the infrared usually has to be filtered out to produce good photos. Vendors have taken advantage of this to make night vision devices with these sensors, but they usually do little to intensify the light. The ones I have encountered have required illuminators for you to see much of anything in the dark. It isn’t a serious problem for hunting or predator control, but it could be trouble for self-defense.
I have written about thermal imaging, which is one of the newer technologies used to see in the dark. It has many advantages and interesting capabilities, but it is very expensive and not something most of us can afford. It operates by seeing the heat radiated from targets and is completely passive, even in total darkness. It offers an amazing ability to spot targets that are clueless to your presence.
As one might guess, none of this stuff is cheap. First rate Gen 3 devices will set you back $3,500. Gen 2 units go for $1,200 or so, while Gen 1 units can be found for under $200.00. The camera-based units can be had for around $200 as well. Thermal immediately gets you into four figures and beyond.
While Gen 1 seems affordable, many of the units aren’t very effective without illuminators, and they have other issues. Resolution is often low, so it is hard to see clearly what your are looking at, and they often have a lot of distortion.
I felt the need to add night vision to my capabilities, but I had despaired over how to afford it since, at best, I have a Gen 1 budget. I had a Russian-made Zenit Gen 1 unit someone gave me in the mid-90’s, and frankly it wasn’t much help. I think I could be more aware using 7x50mm binoculars than I was with the Zenit. It had an illuminator, but it was weak and didn’t go far. In my periodic bouts of insomnia, I searched for something that actually worked and that I could afford. I bumped into Armasight– a U.S. company based in San Francisco, CA. They offer a wide series of night vision devices, but one caught my eye; it was the Russian-made Spark CORE which can be had for $459.00. Armasight says this unit is, for want of better words, something of a cross between Gen 1 and Gen 2, and they have given it its own name– Generation CORE– which stands for Ceramic Optical Ruggedized Engine.
CORE promised to provide higher resolution, so the imaging is clearer. Armasight also pledges better durability and ruggedness than conventional Gen 1 units, thanks to the use of ceramic as opposed to glass for the intensifier tubes. The CORE tubes use the same technology as Gen 2 and Gen 3 tubes, but since the Spark lacks some of the technical features of Gen 2 equipment, it can’t be called Gen 2. The Spark has far higher resolution than Gen 1 and rivals some Gen 3 units in this regard with its 60-70 line pair/millimeter resolution.
Besides the promise of better performance than other Gen 1 units, I was especially drawn to its multipurpose abilities. It can be mounted on your head, your weapon, your camera, your daylight scope (for use at night), or used as a hand-held goggle. What you get for the $459.00, however, is the hand-held unit. All of the other options cost more money, and I hope to revisit them later, when I am able to acquire them.
When the box arrived, I was surprised at how light it was. The old Zenit and the digital-based units I have used were far heavier. Once I got into the box, I was also impressed with how small it seemed. The weight was only 14 ounces, and it is only 6.3×1.9 x3.2 inches in size, which is far smaller than the other units. It appears to have some form of polymer case that feels rugged. There are only three controls– focus of the eyepiece and the objective and the power switch. The power switch has three settings– off, on and illuminator one. There is a very small LED that shines green if it is on and red if the illuminator is on. There are three rails for attaching accessories or for attaching it to mounts. They are proprietary, alas, rather than the ubiquitous Picatinny rail. They do sell adapters for Picatinny gear to go on their rails. The Spark I am reviewing is finished in a matt black, but there are versions in tan too.
Besides the monocular, you get an olive drab fabric case with MOLLE straps, a CR123 battery, a lens cleaning cloth, and a decent instruction booklet. I rather wish the manual had been printed with larger type, but my eyes are not what they once were. Larger pictures would have helped too. The manual covers how to attach the unit to a head mount, helmets, weapons, cameras, and scopes as well as using accessory lenses that magnify your view by three or five times, depending on which you choose. The case has a small pocket that can hold the lens cloth and a spare battery. I rather wish it had a pouch to hold the optional illuminator, as it clearly won’t be able to get the Spark in the cases with it mounted.
There is also a flyer with the “DO NOT PASS GO, GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL” warning about exporting the device due to the International Treaty on Arms Regulations that controls the flow of weaponry across borders. I find this somewhat amusing, as it was imported from Russia.
The lens cap on the objective lens is retained to the device, which is a good thing as the components inside can be damaged if exposed to too much light. There is a pin hole so you can look through it in bright light. You do not want to expose the sensor to daylight or bright artificial light. It should only be used in the dark. More advanced units have protections to prevent damage, but this one is fragile in that regard. The one hassle with the lens cap is remembering to flip it to one side only, as it blocks the illuminator if you flip it the wrong way.
It has a built-in, low-powered, infrared illuminator that is good to perhaps 20 feet outdoors, but it works quite well indoors. You can attach a more powerful illuminator to one of the rails for long distance work when there is no light at all.
There is a generously-sized eye cup to keep extraneous light out, allowing you to easily concentrate on what you see through the monocular. It can be folded back for use with glasses, and even with my non-fashionable, over-sized ones I could still see the full field of view.
What you see in the viewfinder is not magnified, which makes it easy to scan your area. You can even use it to walk around, and I think it would work quite well for driving in the dark, but be aware that if you look into headlights or spotlights you could damage it. I didn’t get a chance to try driving for this review, but I hope to go someplace where I can, and when I do I will report back.
The field of view is rated at 30 degrees, which seemed accurate to me. More would be better, but I was able to walk around in the dark without much trouble.
It is powered by a CR123 battery; if I could change that to AA batteries, I would. CR123’s are more available than they used to be, thanks to the now-common, small, powerful flashlights, but they are still harder to find than AA’s and cost more. I would trade a little size to get the AA batteries. Armasight says that you can use rechargeable 123 batteries, but they must not exceed 3.2 volts. That is a problem, since most 123 rechargeable batteries put out more than that. Be very careful, if you go this route.
Battery life is rated at 40 hours, which appears accurate, based on the first battery and limited use of the illuminator. I suspect that, if you use it indoors a lot and run the illuminator constantly, the battery life will be less.
After all this run up, I am finally getting to the good part– how well it works. I was very surprised in a positive way when it got dark and I went outside with it. I had a night with cloud cover, and I live on the edge of suburbia on a 150-acre lake, so my backyard can get pretty dark, particularly under the trees that cover one edge of my property. The first night I tried it was cloudy, which probably helped me see more, even though it blocked the moon and starlight. The low clouds reflected a lot of the suburban street lighting back down, and I was able to see quite well and very clearly even without any additional infrared illumination. I was very pleased when I looked under the trees along a wetland area that gets no artificial light and could see quite clearly. It is a huge leap beyond the old Zenit I used to have. You essentially saw nothing through the Zenit one without a lot of infrared illumination; no matter what you did, the image you got was blurry. The Spark also works much better than the digital unit I had been using. That device also required copious amounts of infrared to be able to see anything.
The next night was clear with a half moon, and I went to my sister’s house, which is more rural than mine. There was a large cow pasture with trees on the far side, about 150 yards away. It was easy to see across the pasture and into the shadows of the trees. If anyone had been moving, they would have been easy to spot as they crossed the field unless well camouflaged and moving carefully. They would probably have shown up even in the shadows, unless camouflaged and still. My brother-in-law has two goats that are similar, but it was easy to tell which was which.
I have only had a very small amount of experience with Gen 2 and 3 night vision, and it was several years ago. From what I remember, the image in the Gen 2 and 3 units wasn’t much clearer than what I was seeing in the Spark, but they definitely seemed to pull more out of the shadows than the Spark. The Spark is, however, far more capable than I expected, which means I have little use for infrared illuminators, which is a big deal. Anytime you turn an illuminator on, you give away your position to everyone else with night vision. Further, even though we can’t see the infrared reflected back from the target with the naked eye, many illuminators give off a dull red glow that can be seen with the naked eye. This won’t matter while doing predator control, but it could get you in big trouble in a self-defense situation.
I was quite prepared to send this back if it didn’t seem useful. It is clearly useful. What remains to be seen is how well and how long it holds up. Night vision tubes have a limited life and are delicate. If you don’t protect them from bright light, they all go bad. The more sophisticated and higher cost units have some protection but are still vulnerable to bright light damage. The Spark has generally positive reviews on Amazon, though there are only 26 of them. Other Internet reviews are also positive, including those by former military who are used to much more expensive gear. I decided to keep this and take the risk. The capabilities it adds to my preps are needed, but I can’t afford the cost of the $3,500 Gen 3 device that I really want. I plan to add some of the other components and get back to you on how well they work.
– SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie