Jules Whicker revisits his favourite thermal spotters, clip-ons and scopes of 2022
PULSAR AXION XM30S AND MERGER LRF
Thomas Jacks - www.thomasjacks.co.uk
I couldn’t decide whether to put Pulsar’s new Merger LRF bi-ocular or their Axion monocular in this slot because, while both devices are favourites of mine, each represents a different approach to thermal spotting. Even with the Axion, you can opt for the entry-level XM30S at £1,069.95 and have a very useful tool for detecting and identifying any potential quarry within your immediate environment, or step up incrementally to the Axion 2 XG35 LRF and its top-tier 640x480/12μm sensor, 1024x768 AMOLED display and 1,000m laser rangefinder at £2,629.95 for some properly-impressive imaging.
Regardless of model, you get Pulsar’s comprehensive and accomplished suite of image-tuning, recording and connectivity features in a uniquely compact and lightweight unit, with maximum dimensions in non-LRF models of 152x50x74mm and a top weight of just 300-grams. That’s true pocket-sized performance, and perfect for the kind of intermittent spotting and observation most of us do.
By contrast, the Merger LRF is built for more deliberate and sustained work. Like the Accolade 2 LRF it replaces, the Merger LRF sends the processed output from a single lens (50mm) and sensor (640x480/17μm/25mK) to twin 1024x768 AMOLED displays, enabling the user to observe the scene with both eyes through eye-pieces whose interpupillary distance can be adjusted to fit your face perfectly. As well as reducing fatigue, bi-ocular viewing increases your cognitive ability to perceive the details of the scene and produces a more immersive experience.
Focus is via a rubberised ring at the front of the Merger’s left barrel, which is home to the germanium-glass lens and thermal sensor, whilst the right barrel houses the laser rangefinding (LRF) unit and a built-in battery. The bridge mounts the socket for the supplied tripod adapter and provides a compartment for a second, hot-swappable, AP5 power-pack, giving a combined 9-hour run-time. The control buttons are laid out in two sets of three on either side of the bridge, with power, imaging and ranging on the right, and menu, up and down on the left.
The move from the Accolade to the Merger has added a couple of centimetres of length and girth, plus 100-grams of heft, but it has also brought with it a sleeker, more stylish design, along with upgrades to the display, run-time, recording formats, WiFi and USB port. Amazingly, this has all been done without increasing the price, so it seems mean to say I preferred the Accolade’s bridge-mounted focusing dial to the Merger’s barrel-mounted ring and even more nit-picky to prefer that it didn’t move quite so easily, especially as the role the Merger is for sustained long-range observation rather than rapid multi-range spotting.
For most of what I do personally, my Axion is perfect. I can pop it in my pocket ready for when I need it. Nevertheless, for professional use or long spells in the high seat, the Merger amply repays the extra weight carried (and money spent) with a peerless user experience. Prices: Merger: £4,649.95 and Axion XM30S: £1,069.95.
THERMTEC CYCLOPS CP335
Optical Solutions - www.opticalsolutions.uk
Outwardly, the Thermtec Cyclops has a classic/generic, elongated-teardrop shape, yet internally it offers some of the latest hardware, complemented by processing tech that includes a unique artificial intelligence (AI) rangefinding system. The housing has a smart black rubberised finish, contouring for additional grip, a USB-C port, a tripod-mount underneath and a small dial for focusing the display at the left/ rear. The other controls are ambidextrous.
The display itself is a 1024x768 OLED unit that ensures the on-screen display (OSD) and menus are pin-sharp, but with a 384x288/12μm sensor it’s also clear that Thermtec’s image-processing software is doing some heavy lifting. A distinctive feature of the OSD is that you can set the colour mode to grey, blue or violet, while the downrange view can be rendered as black-hot, white-hot, red-hot, green, golden or violet.
Selecting colour palettes is as easy as nudging the orange joystick button (mounted top-and-centre) to the right, while a nudge forward or back increases or decreases the digital zoom in 0.1x increments from 1x-6x. That '1x' figure must be Chinese for 'baseline', however, as the FoV is just 7.5ox5.6o and visually the native is around 3x.
A nudge to the right, meanwhile, activates Themtec’s unique AI rangefinder. This recognises animal profiles in the image, compares their shape and apparent size to standard templates, and calculates the range, which is displayed in a box above the targeted animal. Rabbits rarely registered, muntjac confused it, but roe generated results within 5% of the true value. Albeit not as powerful or versatile as a laser rangefinder, there’s no penalty in cost or bulk, so basically a gift-horse/free lunch.
Power is supplied by 2x built-in 18650 cells with a run-time of 12 hours and is controlled via a low-profile button ahead of the joystick. Start-up and shutdown are a bit slow, so the stand-by function could be welcome if far from external power. Also built in are 16Gb of storage for stills (1024x768px jpg) and video (720p mp4) captured via a button behind the joystick, and WiFi connectivity with Thermtec’s Smart Thermal app. This offers a useful degree of remote control, but doesn’t share files with the monocular or sync the time/date as it should, and only connects with my SIM de-activated, so a case of 'room for improvement'.
A double-click on the joystick opens the main menu, a bar at the left-hand side of the screen from which each selection opens up to the right, showing the full option tree, which is nice. As well as the usual 'brightness' and 'contrast' options, you can 'sharpen' and 'denoise' the image as desired, and an integrated GPS module lets you record your location.
While the test sample (£1,495) sported a 35mm lens, 15mm, 19mm, 25mm and 50mm versions are available too, as are 35mm and 50mm models equipped with 640x512/12μm sensors. Prices range from £1,045 to £2,335 and you get a 3-year warranty and support from UK distributors Optical Solutions.
PULSAR KRYPTON FXG50
Thomas Jacks - www.thomasjacks.co.uk
Clip-on devices promise to provide a spotter and a riflescope in a single unit. In practice, however, clip-ons rarely perform equally well in both roles. Pulsar’s Krypton FXG50, for instance, is at its best when mounted to a scope, with its performance as a spotter being hampered by the chunky housing (inherited from the F455 digital NV unit and never designed with ergonomics in mind), and an optional eyepiece consisting of an optional 5x30 monocular whose magnification unduly limits the view of the Krypton’s display. A simple 2x eye-piece would be perfect, but Pulsar doesn’t offer one. OK, moaning over, and honestly, I don’t really care because, once fitted to a suitable day-scope, the Krypton really shines.
Mounting is via a 'PSP ring adapter', an alloy collar generously dimensioned for scopes with either 42mm, 50mm or 56mm objective bells and complemented with a set of Delrin bushings. The adapter is then mated to the thermal unit via a ball joint and the display aligned with the scope’s crosshairs before everything is nipped up tight. After that, it’s just a matter of flipping a cam lever to lock/unlock the assembly from the scope. This means you can go from daylight to thermal or vice versa in seconds.
Once mounted, the Krypton does need calibrating to your scope’s zero, but thereafter will reliably retain zero between uses, and even - in my experience - between different scopes. The obvious advantage is that each of your day-scopes can become a thermal sight in an instant, with no need to re-zero, plus no change of reticle, core controls or eye-relief.
A welcome extra is that the Krypton comes with a wireless remote and self-adhesive Velcro strips to position it on your gun, giving you full control of the device while maintaining your shooting position.
An impressive hardware set, comprising a 50mm germanium-glass lens, a 640x480/12μm US-made sensor, and a massive 1746x1000 AMOLED display, combined with Pulsar’s accomplished image processing deliver the detail you need to zoom in while retaining definition. Choose a day-scope with a base magnification of 3x or below to see the whole screen, and expect a useable top-end of about 8x.
The display is monochrome (black-hot/white-hot), with a greenish tint, and image-recording is naturally at 1x with no reticle image and an unusual 960 x 720 resolution in both video (mp4) and photo (jpg) modes. Otherwise, the Krypton has the full Pulsar package in terms of display info, menus and connectivity.
For power, it uses the legacy B-Pack IPS7/IPS14 rechargeable battery system, an external battery being connectable via a micro-USB port. Indeed, the Krypton is such a mix of leading-edge internals and legacy externals that I wouldn’t be surprised if a sexier, APS5-powered replacement isn’t in the pipeline. That said, the best thermal is always the one in your hand, or on your rifle, not the one in the shop or on the drawing board! Price: £3,999.95, 5x30B monocular: £99.95, PSP ring adapter: £119.95.
GPO SPECTRA TI35
Raytrade UK - www.raytradeuk.co.uk
GPO (German Precision Optics) combine European design and marketing with Chinese manufacturing to produce some very attractively specified and priced conventional optics. They’re also distributed in the UK by Raytrade who know a good product when they see it and offer solid support of their own.
Thermal devices are a newish departure for GPO, so wisely they’ve chosen to base their Spectra TI35 clip-on on Hik Micro’s Thunder, teaming it up with a quality dayscope adapter from Rusan and flip-open lens covers from Tenebraex. The core specification is unsurprisingly solid, with a 35mm germanium-glass lens, a 384x288/1712μm <35 mK sensor and a 1024 x 768 OLED display. Dimensions are compact, if boxy, 120x62x62cm and at 350-grams the TI35 is a featherweight alongside the Krypton.
Initially, I tested the TI35 with GPO’s Spectra 4X 4-16x50 scope (a commonlyadvertised combination), but the 4x base magnification overly-cropped the TI35’s screen, redacting menus and preventing me from using the essential calibration function that ensures the clip-on is zeroed to the day-scope. I suggested an alternative, and Raytrade kindly sent me a Spectra 6X 2-12x50. This was a massive improvement. Firstly, because it let me see the whole display at 2X and secondly, because it was 33mm shorter. This doesn’t seem like much, but in biomechanical terms, it made a world of difference.
The TI35 is powered by a pair of CR123A cells. Good quality single-use cells will give about 5 hours of runtime but expect less for most rechargeables. After consuming a pair of batteries to check the run-time, I opted to use an external power bank plugged into the micro-USB port in front of the battery compartment.
Mounting the thermal begins with screwing the adapter into the internal thread of the objective bell of the dayscope and tightening it with the C-spanner supplied. Once the adapter is in place, a second adapter ring that incorporates a bayonet fitting and a threaded locking ring is screwed into the rear of the thermal, and serves to mate it to the scope.
To set the TI35 up as a spotter, the second adapter is removed and replaced with a 1x eye-piece (exactly the kind of thing the Krypton needs!) Reconfiguring the TI35 in a hurry in the dark isn’t the easiest thing, therefore, but practice makes perfect!
The Spectra’s menus are clear and I found the control layout fairly intuitive, but the buttons are quite small, which led to some mistakes when wearing gloves, and there’s no remote control except what’s available via the smartphone app. Nevertheless, the calibration process was simple and effective, the brightness and contrast were easy to tune, a full set of colour palettes (black-hot, whitehot, red-hot, green, fusion, urban, nature) is available, and there was enough definition in the image to wind the scope all the way up to 12x (though I mostly used it at 4x-6x). So, there’s a lot to like about the TI35, but like any clip-on, it needs pairing with the right scope. Price: £3,250, Spectra 6X 3-12x50i: £799.
PULSAR TALION XQ38
Thomas Jacks - www.thomasjacks.co.uk
Pulsar transformed the geography of thermal scopes when they introduced the Thermion range, winning converts and imitators alike. For the first time, thermal scopes looked like conventional day-scopes, enhancing their aesthetics and delivering compatibility with every mounting system offering 30mm rings. In this context, the new Talion may look like a retrograde step, but where Thermions and their imitators have adapted modern tech to the constraints of a classic template, the Talion is simply the best blank-slate, entry-level thermal scope Pulsar’s boffins could design.
I love it. It’s light (700-grams), compact (330mm long), rugged, easy to use, and 100% ambidextrous. It has a proper reach-back, multi-position mount to compliment the super-short eye relief inherent in Thermal and NV devices. It has a lockable but quick-access battery compartment in its uncluttered mid-section that’s as easy to 'load' a fresh battery into as a break-open shotgun. It uses Pulsar’s consistent and capacious APS5 (9hr) rechargeable cells, eschewing the hostage-to-fortune of a built-in battery.
Up front, the objective bell sports a handy pair of 'fins' that align when you’re focused at 70m, with the rear fin neatly housing the power button. At the back, three rubberised buttons for menu, zoom and image (jpg and MP4 at 1024x768 with audio recording) set within a horizontal dial on the ocular bell, give fast intuitive control.
The hardware package is mostly mid-tier, with a 35mm germanium-glass lens and 384x288/17 μm sensor, but Pulsar’s advanced image-processing algorithm and a 1024μ768 HD OLED display make the absolute most of it, while the design of the menus and on-screen display are second-to-none.
Key menu options include a choice of 8 colour palettes (including white-hot, black-hot, red-hot and red monochrome), 10 reticle designs in 9 colours modes, adjustable icon brightness, freeze-frame '1-shot' zeroing, optional image-smoothing and 3 new amplification levels (normal, high and ultra) that compensate for humidity, mist and rain.
Almost all thermal devices today feature WiFi connectivity to a smartphone app, but the Talion links to Pulsar’s Stream Vision 2 app, which is typically attractive, fast and reliable.
Demand for the test sample was unsurprisingly high, so I didn’t have it for very long, but actually, this mattered little, since I had it set up, zeroed in and running sweetly almost before I knew it. In the field, I appreciated how much handier it made my rifle feel compared to some of the other thermal scopes I’ve tested, and how easy it was to reach and operate the controls. Of course, the Talion’s smaller lens, sensor and display don’t deliver the performance you’d get from a top-spec Thermion, but its many virtues and lighter price tag still make it an attractive alternative to the Thermion XM30, whilst Pulsar’s strong brand-values and the support offered by longstanding UK distributor, Thomas Jacks still count for a good deal in a rapidly-diversifying market. If I was looking to get into thermal, or buy a second scope for sub-100m work (I’m already covered for the longer stuff), this would be it. Price: £1,949.95, Mount: £44.95.
THERMTEC ARES 660
Optical Solutions - www.opticalsolutions.uk
Just beating the deadline was the Thermtec Ares 660. First impressions here, then, but the Ares is too innovative to leave out. More on that later, but those first impressions are excellent.
A smart red box encloses a top-quality, semi-rigid carry-case containing the scope, eye-protector, spare battery cap, USB cable and a pair of high Picatinny rings. Unfortunately, the rings are just too low for a flat-top AR15 and don’t provide the set-back any thermal or NV scope requires to compensate for its minimal eye relief. Fortunately, I had a cantilever mount to hand, which is what Thermtec need to supply if mountability out-of-the-box is their goal.
The scope itself is handsomely presented, sporting a bronze-anodised main body and grippy, protective rubber on the objective bell, the turret caps, the control pad on the ocular bell and the magnetically-secured eye-protector. The Thermionstyle layout is familiar: right turret = USB-C port, top turret = battery compartment (18650/18500), left turret = dial-and-click controls. On the rear binnacle: front = power, rear-right = imaging, rear-left = aha! Something different, and in a good way, since this button lets you scroll through the colour palettes (white-hot, black-hot, red-hot, green, golden, violet) swiftly identifying the best match for the conditions. A long press activates the same AI rangefinding system seen in the Cyclops.
On the left turret, simply winding the dial forward gives a smooth 1x-5x digital zoom, while one quick click accesses brightness adjustment, and a second does the same for contrast. Double-clicking manually calibrates the big/fine 640x512/12μm sensor, but this is rarely needed, since calibration is actually continuous, without any Pulsar-style screen-freeze. A long push enters the easily-navigated but featurerich main menu.
Zeroing offers 'manual' and 'auto' modes. I didn’t have time to try 'auto' (another AI application), but 'manual' mode and its 'freeze' function worked perfectly. Adjustment range is ample and 'clicks' are very fine, giving an exceptionally-precise zero, despite a somewhat 'mushy' feel to the dial itself.
Now for that radical objective lens. Behind it is a 2-position ring that triples the focal length from 20mm to 60mm, delivering extra magnification without image degradation, albeit with a reduced FoV. Further testing will check if switching affects POI, but for now, I love it!
While perhaps not as 'realistic' as Pulsar’s, the Ares’ overall image is arguably more informative, with animals being impressively distinct and well-defined. Indicating some cows over 2K away, my buddy said: 'If I had a fifty-cal, I reckon I could shoot them with this!' I’m itching to see how far I can reach out to a fox target, but for now, the Ares 660 promises to be the best thermal riflescope for long range, by far. Price: £3,600.