Our reviewer tries out two top thermal imaging scopes. What did he discover?
Chris Parkin takes two high-end thermal-imaging rifle scopes from Pulsar through their paces and compares like with like
The cost of a top thermal-imaging scope could easily exceed that of your day scope or rifle.
At the high end of its range, Pulsar offers two distinct options: the Trail XP50, which bolts to the Picatinny rail on a rifle for dedicated night operations, and the Core FXQ50, a handheld spotter that will also double up as a thermal-capable optic when mounted to the front of your rifle scope.
Either would deserve their own review but for a more direct comparison, Nightmaster loaned both to trial side by side. I mounted the Trail on to my .223 foxing rifle and zeroed it using my favourite method of a disposable heat pack taped to the back of a steel gong for a nice circular 100m target.
In good dry air conditions, you can see a solid black target on white backing paper, but if there is moisture in the air, all you will see is a direct heat source such as that offered by this target or, ultimately, live quarry. The unit offers zero setups for three rifles with five distances for each, two colours of 13 reticle styles and five levels of brightness display, in addition to the usual brightness and contrast options for the image.
All details are explained in the extensive menu. Four main buttons on top control functions, with on/off to the side and a data port if you want to download any of your saved screenshots or video. Wi-fi will also stream live to a smartphone or tablet. Internal screen focus is controlled with a rear eyepiece collar for your personal needs. Frontal/image focus is adjusted using a dial above the front end, just behind the 50mm objective lens with a base level 1.2x magnification that can be boosted to 12.8x digitally by the electronics.
So which was the top thermal imaging scope I reviewed?
1. The Core FXQ50
Best for all types of shooting
+ Compact and handheld
+ Four hours use
– Needs careful fitting
The Core is a compact handheld spotter for any type of shooting. It uses two CR123A batteries rather than a supplied rechargeable one like the Trail, but these still give four hours of use and an adapter is supplied to connect to an external power supply.
Locking collars are available with bayonet fittings to clamp the Core to the objective bell of your rifle scope, and these are the weak link in terms of accuracy.
Take your time and fit them well and all will work brilliantly; rush it and weak or misaligned units will fail you in the long term and not allow satisfactory refitting after removal. You can buy extra collars for the Core to be set up for multiple rifles, leaving the base of the three-part collar on each. I would use a light bonding agent to make their positioning semi-permanent.
You need to ensure that there is plenty of scope-to-barrel clearance so there is space for the collar, and this might affect your head position if extra-high mounts are needed. Clicking the unit on and off after a few practice runs with the right-side locking button and bayonet studs becomes second nature and zero is retained if the collar on the scope was fitted securely. Zeroing requires you to initiate the internal menu and move the reticle for vertical position and align the collar rotationally with the cross-hairs’ lateral bar but done once, the collar can stay put forever.
Entering the full zero mode aligns the Core’s cross-hairs laterally and vertically with the precise aimpoint of the scope’s reticle and takes a few seconds to do, but in a week of shooting with the Core on and off the rifle about 20 times, this remained on target. Whatever reticle you have in your scope will appear quite naturally in the green hue of the thermal image projected and you have all its benefits, but I would recommend something with illumination against the green/black thermal image, which can easily conceal a fine reticle’s location.
The major joy of the Core is the natural eye position and eye relief; the downside being the very long reach to controls, especially the focus ring right at the front of the multi-component setup. A 2x digital zoom is available and a rifle scope with no more than 6x magnification seems to work well, though I used a 3-18x on an FAC-rated airgun when rat shooting indoors with great success.
2. Trail XP50
Best for fast fitting
+ Controls easy to reach
+ Distinctive vision
– Field of view
The Trail has a black/white image versus the green/black of the Core, which seemed more distinctive when detecting concealed quarry. The green also seemed far less likely to diminish your night vision and, equally critically, if you keep your eye planted to the back of the Trail too long, the rubber bellows shrouding the ocular lens retain your skin’s natural heat, leading to things steaming up. Likewise, I have said every time I have used any Pulsar digital technology that the exit pupil is critical and, though appearing broad, has a pin-like position for correct repeatable focus.
Your own daylight scope will seem far more relaxed visually in comparison, from any shooting position. The 40mm, 50mm and 56mm objective lens mounting kits contain multiple shims for versatility — I used the 50mm on a 42mm Leupold scope without issue for the bulk of my hunting with rats. Mounted to a beefier 56mm Steiner on a .308, the scope maintained zero after three deliberate removal-refits out to 200m on a 4in steel gong, which I found most acceptable. Such a setup would suit moonlit wild boar nicely with the thermal on or off; of course, with it taken off you can snap on the regular eyepiece cup to scan with.
On a foxing and rabbit outing with the Core, I found the image grainier than the Trail when using extra zoom from the scope or internal digital capability, and if you zoom the scope you do lose some field of view. The controls on the Trail are much easier to reach but there are a lot more functions available to you in terms of stadiametric rangefinder, multiple zero and usage distances, reticles, colours and so on.
Both units are supplied with remote controllers, the Trail’s again being far more complex, but both are fingertip sized and easily lost, so I left them at home. The only major downside to the Core is the long reach to any control but especially the focus collar right at the objective lens, which is a full arm’s reach and badly shaped for grip, needing a firm grasp at arm’s length, which makes it easier to dislodge the whole unit. More knurling on the collar would be helpful.
Having used the Trail and the Core individually, this side-by-side comparison left me feeling that, for my own varied span of shooting, my top thermal imaging scope would be the Core, with collars for perhaps three rifles — FAC airgun, .17HMR and .223 — with the ability to steal one of the setups for boar.
Were I a fox controller, the Trail would be my top thermal-imaging scope. It offers more functionality, twice the battery life and a far more compact and rugged setup. Digital zoom on the Trail, with the screen-in-screen technology, suffers from loss of clarity — it is just
a digitally zoomed image with the same pixel size. It makes shot placement slightly more precise without detracting from the field of view.
Both options tend to show a distinct blob of heat, but the Trail has slightly higher resolution, showing things such as ears more clearly, but the joy of thermal will always be the ability to watch an animal’s gait, unknowing and unflustered, to confirm your quarry identification. The greater black-and-white colour graduation of the Trail’s black/white image also makes it far easier to judge background surroundings, foliage and topography, giving more information on the likely path and movement of any quarry in your sights.