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Brief History of Night Vision Devices

Person using a night vision device

Night vision enables users to operate in extremely low light conditions. This revolutionary technology was initially developed for military use and has been altered in many ways to further its capabilities. Read on to learn about the interesting history of night vision devices.

When Were Night Vision Devices First Used?

Night vision devices were first used for military operations during World War II in the 1930s by Germany and America. Known as Generation 0, this fascinating technology used active infrared to light up the battlefield, which was then converted to visible light via a special image intensifier. An example of an active infrared device from this era is Germany’s Vampir. The Vampir was portable and used on assault rifles, needing a large battery to power the infrared searchlight. The searchlight was required to shoot an unnoticed beam (because infrared isn’t visible to the human eye) that reflected off objects and bounced back to the lens of the scope to then be amplified by an image intensifier. This then converted the IR light into visible light for the human eye.

Was Generation 0 Night Vision a Success?

While this technology was a significant development for warfare, Generation 0 wasn’t without its flaws. The device that produced the IR light was pretty big in itself and required a substantial amount of power to fire the beams. Also, the scopes themselves were not particularly reliable; producing distorted images as well as breaking easily.

Introduction of Passive Night Vision Devices

Generation 0 demonstrated night vision devices were a valuable technology for warfare. However, it was evident that active infrared night vision was impractical at the time, making it necessary to work on a device that didn’t require an active source. Thus, the first generation of passive devices was born, using passive ambient light in the place of active infrared. Generation 1 was introduced in the 1960s by the US during the Vietnam War. The Starlight Scope used an image intensifier that amplified ambient light sources by roughly 1000x, using natural sources of light such as the moon and stars, creating a light visible to the human eye.

Full moon

Passive Night Vision Devices Flaws

Although the development of passive night vision was necessary for Generation 1 - ditching the large battery and infrared searchlight found in Generation 0 - it was still a long way from being as reliable as the technology we see today. For example, as the scope required an ambient light source, on cloudy nights or nights where the moon wasn’t at least half showing it was utterly useless. Furthermore, while they ditched the previously large additions, this new scope was pretty big on its own, making it awkward to operate. Moreover, problems found in Generation 0 scopes, such as image distortion and short service life were still evident.

Needed Refinements Brought in Generation 2

The 70s provided much-needed refinements to night vision devices. Firstly, the image distortion found in previous generations was drastically reduced. Also, the service life was improved, meaning they lasted much longer. Not only that, the image intensifier was upgraded allowing a massive increase in light amplification to around 20,000x, a huge leap from the 1000x amplification found in Generation 1 night vision devices. Previously it needed at least a half moon to work, but this was no longer necessary, as this upgrade didn't need moonlight and it could also work when cloudy and in other conditions, such as fog. Other developments during this time saw further upgrades to low light capabilities, as well as improvements for resolution.

Soldiers operating in the night

Generation 3 Night Vision Devices

A lot of the basic features introduced in the 1970s would become staple for years and years to come. More recent developments in Generation 3 night vision devices came in the form of different materials used, which helped increase the image quality produced and also prolonged the effective life of the devices. In addition to these changes, the amplification capabilities were also improved, resulting in 30,000-50,000x light amplification, further enhancing visibility in extremely low light conditions. Of course, all of these additional upgrades significantly increased the cost of the latest versions of night vision devices, making them generally unavailable for the general public. However, previous generations are widely accessible, and you can pick yourself up a great piece of kit within an affordable price range. It’s also important to add night vision devices are illegal in some countries and states, and even where they are legal, there are restrictions on the types you can obtain legally.

As for the future? It looks bright, perhaps so bright that we may see night vision devices that work in complete darkness!

Did you find this breakdown of the history of night vision devices interesting? Let us know through our socials! We couldn’t imagine carrying around a massive battery to shoot our airsoft rifles in the dark - thankfully we have some more compact and portable night vision scopes, such as the Yukon Photon RT 6x50S!

If you found this blog interesting, you should also take a look at a brief history of the telescopic rifle sight.

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