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Night Vision: Understanding the Differences Between Generations

The caliber of different night vision systems are graded by generations. For example, Gen 1 was developed first in the 1960’s and are still used today because because it is still sufficient for the average consumer and the cost is affordable. Next came Gen 2 models which considerably increased the quality of the image intensifier tube. Generation 3 is the latest in night vision technology with an even better tube. So what exactly defines the differences between Generation 1, 2, and 3 Night Vision Devices? They are graded based on a universal rating system that includes three main criteria.

Night Vision Generations

  1. System Light Gain
    Evaluates how many times a night vision unit is amplifying the available light.
  2. System Resolution
    Reveals information regarding the sharpness and clarity of the amplified image.
  3. Photosensitivity
    Determines the minimum light level and type of light needed in order to function properly.
Image Intensifier Light Amp. 300-900 20,000-30,000 20,000-30,000
System Light Amplification <1,000 <6,000 <6,0000
Resolution in the center, ln/mm 25-30 30-68 45-68
Resolution on the edge ln/mm 15-20 30-68 <45-68

GEN 1 Night Vision

Generation 1 technology dates back to the early 1960’s when a computer was the size of a small house and there were no such things as cell phones. Even though it is the oldest generation it is currently the most popular type of night vision scope in the world.

Gen I Night Vision Devices need some visible light (stars and/or moonlight, combined with extra infrared illumination) to operate and do not function well in extremely dark environments. A 1st generation night vision scope will amplify the existing light several thousand times which will allow you to see clearly see in the dark.


  • affordable prices


  • shorter battery life
  • maximum useful range is about 75 yards depending on the night
  • images are lower resolution with more static/noise and aren’t as bright
  • relies on built-in IR illuminators that are always on. This makes the user very visible to anyone using another night vision device
  • distorted image on outer one third of the field of view, This is known as Geometric Distortion.
  • more susceptible to image distortion caused by excessive light also known as “blooming”.
  • shorter life expectancy
    • Gen 1: approximately 1500 hours
    • Gen 2: around 5000 hours
    • Gen 3 over 10,000 hours.
  • slight high-pitched whine when the unit is on

Heck everyone’s on a budget these days, and it is great to have Gen 1 equipment available for those who need to stay within that budget range. You will be able to do quite a bit with Generation 1 Night Vision Devices at a low cost, which is perfect, whether you are boating, observing wildlife, or providing security for your home. Remember, some night vision is always better than no night vision.

A Quick rule of thumb for telling a Gen. 2 (or 3) from Gen. 1 device:
Turn off the device. If it shuts off immediately – it is a Gen. 2. If the image glows green for some time it is a Gen. 1 unit.

Armasight Nemesis**Pictured: Armasight Nemesis 4x GEN 2+ SD Night Vision Rifle Scope

GEN 2 Night Vision

GEN II optics were developed in the 1970’s. Gen 2 is a huge step up from 1st generation equipment. A good Gen 2 device is a lot closer to Gen 3 performance than it is to Gen 1 performance. They are primarily used by law enforcement or for professional applications. This The cost of a 2nd Gen device is approximately $500.00 to $1000.00 more than the 1st Gen models.


  • longer battery life
  • 3 times longer life expectancy than Gen 1
  • significantly longer lifespan than Gen 1
  • do not require visible light to operate, which allows them to work in extremely dark conditions.
  • a better resolution with images that are much brighter and much more capable of light intensification than Gen 1.
  • useful range is in the 200 yard area depending on model
  • does not rely on built-in IR illuminators that are always on allowing the user the ability to operate “passively” without the necessity of IR illumination.
  • less susceptible to “blooming” or image distortion caused by light
  • much smaller thanks to improved microchannel plate and photocathode plate technology

If your budget can afford to make the step up to Generation 2, it would be worth it. We also have what is referred to as Gen 2+ where some companies further developed the Gen 2 technology. Gen 2+ quality is often compared to be as great as Gen 3.

GEN 3 Night Vision

Currently the state of the art in night vision,GEN III optics have a greatly increased amount of light gaining ability and resolution (clarity) over all other forms of night vision. Generation 3 is the real deal and is it is currently the gold standard in technology. US Military and Special Forces use Gen 2 Autogated. All grades/levels of Gen 3 are outstanding.


  • longest ranges, in the 300 yard plus range depending on model and conditions
  • brighter and sharper image was achieved by adding a sensitive chemical, gallium arsenide to the photocathode
  • longest life expectancy of up to 15,000 hours of use
  • best reliability/durability
  • best low-light performance
  • operating without the use of IR illumination/covert operation allows for even greater ability for completely “passive” operation
  • significant reduction to “blooming”
  • best versatility due to better performance when using with magnification lenses, scopes, camera adapters, and other night vision accessories
  • offering excellent detail and range for night hunting applications


  • vastly more expensive than 1st or 2nd generation
  • cannot be exported outside of the U.S. except by direct permission of the Department of Defense

Gen 3 gives you incredible performance, especially with an autogated tube option, expensive night vision generation, with proper care it will last an extremely long time. If it doesn’t break your budget, you won’t be sorry. We know that the Gen 3 is the best because it is used by US Military and Special Forces.

Now that you understand the differences in Generations, decide what you are going to be using the device for. Don’t over buy a Night Vision Device if you are only using it for casual use. A Gen I may be the best choice. 

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