Now that the crops have finally been harvested, keepers and pest controllers throughout the land will be patrolling their hedges and the nearby stubbles for foxes and rabbits on a night-time forage. While the vast majority will doubtless be shining lamps to catch the bright eyes of both species, some will be viewing the world in green through their nightvision (NV) scopes.
With the Internet and shooting catalogues filled with offers promising the latest miracle cure for all your vermin woes, ST decided to ask industry experts to state their views on whether we are better off with the traditional lamp or the latest Generation 2 (G2) or Generation 3 (G3) NV kit.
Hamish Partridge runs a variety of web-based businesses including www.lampingsupplies.co.uk and www.deergear.co.uk, as well as the ladies’ outdoor clothing shop Partridge’s in Turriff, Aberdeenshire. Hamish said the market for hand-held lamps is steady, especially for the Australian LightForce range. “They are the best on the market and the best investment. They are very robust and will last for years. We sell a lot of the belt-pouch battery packs, which give a much more even weight distribution than the shoulder straps,” he said.
Hamish struggles to shift certain products in the NV line. “You need to spend the money and we find that it is hard to make people part with £1,800- plus. They tend to feel they are better off with a new rifle or a better scope. Of course, you do get the odd sly old fox that learns about lamps, but a keeper might choose to buy a variable power lamp for £125, which allows him to find a fox without dazzling it. He can then squeak it closer and push the intensity up before taking the shot,” he said.
Tony Gibson has been sales director for the British-owned manufacturer Deben for the past 20 years. His company sells the LightForce range, which he says far outstrips its competitors, especially the variable lights that can switch from a simple torch to a beam, which can travel 800 yards. “When you add a power source such as a belt-pouch battery that provides a full night’s lamping, you are looking at spending about £200,” he said.
“We also have the gun-mounted Stinger in our own Tracer range of torches, which will illuminate rats and rabbits in your back garden, or the LEDRay for distances of 70 to 120 yards. Another model in the Tracer range has variable power and can be attached to a .17 calibre rifle for shooting foxes. For those who still prefer it, it can be mounted on a shotgun, too,” said Tony.
Tony has found that the NV market has been difficult to get right. “The problem with the old chemical-based tube system for Generation 1 (G1) and G2 NV is that it was not developed for shooting small animals such as rabbits or foxes. They were made by the military for shooting humans showing 5ft above the vegetation. A fox has a far smaller infrared signature and so is almost impossible to spot, unless you have an extremely sophisticated model, which will cost up to £4,000. In this respect, it is no substitute for a lamp and battery that costs £200.”
Norwich-based rifle accessories supplier Uttings.com offers a wide range of NV products including Deben, Cobra, Yukon, Bushnell and Swarovski, as well as lamping equipment. Salesman Karl Howard, himself an avid rabbiter, was extremely helpful in explaining the various devices that are available to the Rifle who wants to get closer to his quarry.
“It is important that you do not expect too much from your G1 night sight,” he said. “If you are using a G1 sight in dark conditions then you must be realistic about how far it will allow you to shoot. With an airgun, it will allow you to shoot at the full range of the rifle, but with a rimfire you might be restricted to about 60 yards. But if you need to make a dent in the local rabbit population then nightvision scopes will probably work better than lamping. Something around the £500 to £700 mark from Deben, Cobra or Yukon would be good, as these makes have a good back-up service if anything goes wrong.”
Dick Hardy, owner of W. R. Hardy Gunsmith in Forfar, Angus, is also a fan of the LightForce range, as well as the Ruag products. “I have used the LightForce 170 with 1million candlepower for the past 10 years and it has always been reliable,” he said. “Some of the rabbiters round here prefer the slightly dimmer 140 model for bunnies, as they often run on if the light is too bright. The only problem I have found is that the lamps will sometimes burn out the cigarette lighter plug in the car. That has happened twice to me. I now use a plug fitted directly to the car battery, which means I don’t have to have the engine running all the time.”
Dick does not get many requests for NV kit and almost never from gamekeepers. “If I’m honest, the local keepers would not be happy with me if I was selling a lot of NV equipment, because they still see it as a tool for poaching,” he said.
Mark Taylor, co-owner of www.decoying.co.uk, is selling a large number of the Cluson Vermin Blaster scope-mounted gun lights that can give either 1- or 2million candlepower. He does most of his own lamping single-handed, so it is a useful tool, being light and manageable. “It gives you a free hand in the field,” he said. Mark has tested many of the NV kits and his company sells the Deben range. “But I’m not yet convinced, not least because the scopes can be far too heavy,” he said.
The case emerging for NV equipment was not good, unless the shooter was prepared to shell out. It did not improve when I spoke off-the-record to one ballistics expert who has tested NV equipment extensively. “If you are going to shoot rabbits at 50 to 60 yards, then I dare say it will give you an advantage,” he said. “But unless you are ready to pay upwards of £5,000 for a NV rifle scope, then I would always recommend a lamp instead.”
Because of the limited field of view with a 6x magnification NV sight – which is the extent of the best models – he found he was forever refocusing. This took away confidence that there was a safe background behind the fox at more than 100 yards. On many of the expensive G2 models that he tested, the zero or parallax would change regularly, or there would be problems with the reticule. As a wearer of contact lenses, he often suffered from headaches after looking down the scope.
“The manufacturers talk about giving you green daylight,” he said, “but I have never found that to be the case. I do like the NV monocular, however, as a tool for shooting fallow deer. I always try to get into position an hour before sunrise and the monocular not only stops you bumping into trees in the dark, but it allows you to get downwind of deer in the wood before it gets light.”
I spoke to another well-respected specialist whose job relies on NV equipment. He has opted to build his own hybrid scope from a variety of makers, having become frustrated by the standard of scopes on the market and the level of customer care from the companies that sell them. He even once bought a new scope with second-hand tubes inside. “The tube is the most important component,” he said. “It is like having a car that has a badge saying it has a 4.2litre V8 engine, only to find there is a 1.2litre engine inside. Or you find that the company has no spare parts, so you are left stranded when something falters, which they do all too often. But I have heard that Zeiss is bringing out a new product which I would be eager to try.”
He advises that any potential buyer should be extremely careful. “You need to test NV equipment in the field for image quality, reticule and its ability to hold zero before you pay a lot of cash. But as an observation device, NV is useful, because it doesn’t need a reticule and it doesn’t need to hold zero.”
It was making for grim listening. Surely there was a fox shooter out there with a kind word to say about NV equipment. Encouragingly, the next contact put a tick in the box. Franie Briley, owner of the Canal Game Farm in Kent, swears by his Archer monocular sight, which he uses to spot foxes around his release pens. The gadget can then be attached quickly to the back of his everyday rifle scope allowing him to line up accurately without the fox having the slightest inkling he is there. “For a lamp-shy fox, it is a priceless piece of kit, because that fox will quickly pick off a dozen poults a night that are jugging down in the nearby stubbles,” he said.
Ian Hodge, of Fieldsports suppliers in Cornwall, sells a range of lamps including the LightForce, Lazerlite and the new Night Stalker, which are starting to make an impact on sales. Ian also stocks the Deben NV equipment, for which he is full of praise. “Call me old-fashioned, but Deben stick by us, so we stick by them,” he said. “If there are any problems, the product is quickly fixed and returned. We have found that more people are buying the night sights. These are people who have the spare cash and others who scrape and save the money to buy the expensive stuff. Once they get it, they say they would never be without it again. It is important to buy from a reputable firm. If you are buying online from America or from international importers, then you leave yourself open.”
Buoyed by this good news story, I rang Thomas Jacks in Stratford-upon-Avon, the worldwide distributor of Cobra optics and UK distributor of Yukon advanced optics. Its head of marketing and sales, Ashley Beard, was at pains to stress that NV is not a magical solution for shooting at night. “You get what you pay for,” he said. “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. I realise that some buyers have been misled in the past about the quality of the tubes in the scopes or that they have been promised that a scope will pick out foxes at 200 yards in all weather conditions. As such, disappointed customers will bad mouth the manufacturers, even though the product was not designed for that task. I’m afraid that there are rogues in this industry, but if you are prepared to ask the right questions and handle the goods before buying, then there are excellent devices on the market.”
Ashley highlighted Yukon products around the £2,000 mark, such as the G2 3×50 Yukon Sentinel or Phantom, and the Cobra Javelin, which he is confident will work well in most conditions from 100 to 130 yards. “If you use it in the right light or with an infrared illuminator, it will shoot further, but we are not pushing our customers to shoot at long distances. An NV sight will often allow you to spot a fox at great distances, which you can then squeak in to 150 yards or closer. All we do is give an aid to viewing, how they shoot is up to them. The first rule of shooting is don’t shoot if you are not sure.”
Ashley has sold NV scopes in the £5,000 bracket and above for sporting estates where the investment over five to 10 years will be worth it. “For a large estate, a rogue fox can be hugely expensive, so they want the very best equipment to tackle it. For rabbiters, we have carried out tests in which the nightvision outperforms the lamp comprehensively. We would invite anyone who is not sure to visit our depot where we have a 23m lighting rig for demonstrating our products.”
In conclusion, a good lamp in the right hands is still effective, especially one with a variable beam strength. The growing number of scope-mounted torches are also attracting a good following. With NV kit, you get what you pay for, but go through a reputable dealer who can guarantee customer support and who will let you try it out beforehand.