IR ILLUMINATOR SHOOT OUT
Hello all, since I started out in night vision back in 1994 I’ve noticed that finding good night vision sources with viable information has usually been hard to come by. Most publications via the internet have been mediocre, with written publications being either biased to a company or the author not knowledgeable about the subject matter at hand to report findings that are most important to the night vision consumer. I’ve struggled with this lack of information and learned the “hard way” in many instances by purchasing NV gear that was substandard and did not meet my mission goals.
As many of you know, I have now become a dealer of high-end night vision products and their accessories. Over the last several years I have conducted training and consulting to many LE and Fed folks. With now being a public dealer as well, I strive to give you folks here the best information I can in the world of NV products.
With that being said, there have been many discussions over the years in regards to IR illuminators that have hit the market. Lots of mysteries and false claims in many instances have sometimes plagued the capacities of these units. After hearing and reading so much debate, I decided to perform a hands-on shoot out of the 5 top dedicated IR illuminators out there. The 5 IR lights I chose for this test were, (in no particular order)
1) Pentagon IR Illuminator
2) ATN IR Illuminator
3) Sure Fire M1 Illuminator
4) “Da-Torch” ELR (Extended Long Range Illuminator)
5) “Da-Torch ELR-VFB (Variable Focus Beam)
While not getting into a technical discussion on the inner workings of IR illuminators, something that is out of the scope of this article, I will talk briefly on a few technical points. Each illuminator selected for this shoot-out, is a pure IR LED device. No IR laser illuminators were used, nor were incandescent flash lights with IR filters placed over the lenses (which btw, is the most ineffective way to employ an IR light source for range). Briefly put, any time you place an IR filter over an incandescent light source, you will lose over 70% of the light source. Also something some are not aware of; and must be stated here, all dedicated IR illuminators emit some sort of a faint red glow visible to the naked eye as all the IR LED units tested here fall into the 810-850nm light spectrum. Also note that this faint red glow can ONLY be seen while positioned directly in front of the light within 2-3deg to the sides. Some units produce more or less of this red glow than others. This fact is an important point to some out there, where absolute stealth is a necessity. The only way to really have this stealth option is to employ an IR LASER Illuminator of some sort. Look for an upcoming article on these amazing devices as well.
Each light tested here was viewed through a Gen 3 intensifier tube, specifically an ITT PVS-14. I have of course (you know me) taken lots of NV side-by-side pics showing each illuminator tested at the end of this article. All night tests and pics were completed in the same evening under the same conditions in a very dark area with no moon and a clear sky. (The variable torch pics were taken at a later time due to it's recent release.) At the end of this shoot-out, I gave a ranking to each illuminator based on the criteria I thought were most relevant. These are:
1) Range, broken into CQB, Medium and Long Range.
2) Naked Eye Visibility
4) Mounting Solutions
It is important to note here that the results of this test did surprise some in the industry. In fact, some industry folks did not believe the results until the pictures were first shown to them. Most times it had to do with the actual range their devices reached out to vs. the advertised claim. It’s also important to remember the test results here are very subjective in nature and what some users might deem important such as the red LED glow, some users may deem this aspect not as important. Range is also subjective to what the end users mission requirement is.
PENTAGON MS2 IR ILLUMINATOR
The first unit I tested was Pentagon’s IR Illuminator. When I first handled the unit, I was very surprised that the unit is built like a tank! At around 5” in length, this was one tough light! The unit came with a pressure switch cap option, ARMS throw lever for weapon mounting and was powered with 2 CR123’s batteries. The lens is made up of 19 small LED’s. The fixed beam field of view (FOV) for this particular unit was not advertised either in the instruction manual, nor Pentagon’s web site. Strangely enough, when I contacted Pentagon, and after talking with 3 folks, none of them could give me the true FOV. Most informed me that the FOV was based on range. While I understood this aspect, there had to be a fixed FOV of some sort. I guess this was going to be my job to figure this out…
After powering up the light for the first time, I found out very quickly about the FOV. It had to be over 40-50deg at 20 yards! As you can see by some of the pics at the end of this article, while a very clean beam, the Pentagon light covers the whole viewing area. The next thing I looked at was the red glow of the unit. Due to the vast number of LEDs that made up the lens, it was no surprise this red glow was the brightest of all the units tested. I actually saw the red glow out to 65+ yards with an unaided naked eye.
The next area I tested was the effective range of the unit. Due to the wide FOV of this unit, the most I was able to illuminate effectively was out to 75-85 yards max. Pentagon claims a 300-yard range. For CQB roles, the unit performed very well indoors, but the numerous LED’s produced a red glow from center to a 20-degree off center angle that is very questionable if stealth is a concern.
As for reliability of the unit, it worked well and the pressure switch also worked extremely well. This particular unit came with an integral ARM’s throw lever mount. The unit could be hand held as well. As stated, the unit is very robust and is built like a tank.
As for the retail cost of the unit, I came away very surprised that the suggested retail was in the neighborhood of $315.00 with the included pressure switch and arms throw lever. Street price may be a bit cheaper.
ATN IR ILLUMINATOR
This illuminator came in as a smaller unit (around 4” in length) and had an adjustable beam from approx. 2-6deg FOV on the bezel, as well as a variable power selector by the use of two small +/- buttons on the body housing along with windage and elevation adjustments. The unit is powered by one CR123 and has an on/off power switch. Presently, the light I had was a version that was made to fit ATN’s line of NV riflescopes. Due to the shape of the unit, no other weapon mount was available at the time of this writing so the unit was only tested hand-held.
After powering up the unit for the first time, I played with the units adjustable FOV. I found the unit did very well from CQB out to a true 275 yards with the 2 deg setting. I was quite surprised with the range of this unit. The beam itself was somewhat clean, but did show a strange hourglass shaped dark area in the middle of the beam no matter what FOV or power setting. The variable power buttons seemed to have approx. 6 power settings, but between the lowest and highest settings, although the beam intensity did not show a large difference in intensity. During indoors, the unit performed satisfactory for CQB roles but once again if stealth is a concern, the red glow is worrisome but only visible with 5 degrees off-axis. The red glow of this unit was also very visible to the naked eye out to 60 yards or so.
The reliability of this unit worked well with durability in question due to the all plastic construction. I feel the unit could get damaged during room clearing, etc, where contact could be made with walls, etc. if capable of being mounted to a rail system.
Retail price for the unit I found for approx. $139.00
SUREFIRE MI ILLUMINATOR
SureFire’s M1 IR illuminator was next. This unit came in as the smallest overall unit, approx. 3.5” x ¾” diameter and powered by one CR123. The unit has a twist on or off or momentary on via the tail cap and is built well as all Surefire lights with machined aluminum construction. A pressure switch can be ordered from SF as with all SF modular products. The unit does not come with any weapon mounts but can be easily adaptable with a number of 1” weapon rings and mounts. I used a Viking Tactical ring setup for testing. Larue’s new dual light ring mount will be a big hit with this system as well.
Firing the unit up showed that the M1 provided the cleanest beam of all the units. A solid circular beam of light at approx. 4 deg backed up with a great reflector provided this clean beam of IR light. I tested the unit indoors, and it provided the best indoor CQB role. During outdoor testing, the unit showed an effective range out to 75max.
The red glow of this units LED was seen approx. 40 yards away naked eye with a 4deg off-axis view of the beam.
The reliability if this unit worked perfectly and durability is not in question due to the machined aluminum construction.
Retail price for this unit was $135.00
“Da-Torch” Extended Long Range Illuminator
Da-Torch was up next. The unit is powered with 1 CR123 and comes with an integral rail mount, that either affixes to a Picatinny rail or the mount base removes allowing the unit to attach to the D-740 or 760 line of NV rifle scopes. A rocker toggle on/off rubberized pressure switch is located atop the unit. Overall dimensions of the unit are approx. 6-1/2” x 1 –1/2” diameter. Construction of the unit is armored rubber with a polymer bezel.
Upon initial power up Da-Torch produced the strongest intensity of all the units tested out to a true 300 yards! The beams FOV was approx. 6 deg and showed a flash light type appearance at 20 yards with a very clean inner 4 deg beam, with a faint diffused outer beam that was not apparent past 20 yards. For CQB roles, the unit is very bright with minor blooming indoors. The red glow of the unit was visible to the naked eye out to 40 yards with off-axis viewing at 4 deg.
The reliability of this unit worked perfectly and durability was excellent due to the rubberized armor.
Retail price for this unit was $149.00
“Da-Torch” Extended Long Range Illuminator - Variable Focus Beam
At the time of this writing a new model torch was released with many new features from the original torch. The unit is a tad bit smaller at 6” x 1” diameter and now comes with a variable focused beam that adjusts from 2-8 deg via a rotating bezel. The unit also comes standard with a silent twist power switch. The mount is also a weaver style Picatinny that fits to both a rail and the D-740 and 760 line of NV rifle scopes. One added feature to the mount is the ability to adjust the windage and elevation of the beam to boresight the beam.
Field-testing of the unit showed an impressive range of 400+ yards at the 2deg beam setting. The variable adjustment bezel is a threaded friction type that does not move with recoil. The beam itself on this model is a very clean and with the widest setting positioned at 8deg, CQB roles are a cinch with no blooming noted.
As an option the unit also comes with a new-coiled pressure switch that replaces the silent end-cap switch.
The reliability of this unit was also perfect and the durability was also excellent. The faint red glow was seen at approx 40 yards. Interesting enough, due to the recessed nature of the LED inside of the rotating bezel, viewing of the faint red glow was not seen off-axis except dead-on in front the of the unit + or - a degree.
Retail price for the unit was $199.00. The pressure switch option was $39.00
Before I go on to the rankings, please keep in mind as I stated earlier in this article that reviews of lighting systems is always subjective. Where I might think one aspect is important for my mission requirements, others may have different areas that deem important to them. Thus, I have tried to balance these rankings to several different mission requirements. With that said here are my findings,
Best Long-Range Applications
1). Variable Beam ELR Torch (Approx. at 400 yards+)
2). Fixed Beam ELR Torch. (Approx. 300 yards+)
3). ATN IR Illuminator (Approx. 275 yards+)
4). Pentagon’s IR Illuminator (Approx. 80 yards max)
5). Surefire M1 IR Illuminator (Approx. 70 yards)
Best Medium Range Applications (200 yards)
1). Variable Beam ELR (With at 5deg beam setting)
2). ATN IR Illuminator (With 3deg beam setting)
3). Fixed Beam ELR Torch
Best CQB Applications (Indoors)
1). Surefire M1 Illuminator
2). Pentagon MS2 Illuminator
3). Variable Beam ELR Torch
LED Faint Red Glow Naked Eye Visibility (Least to most visible)
1). Variable Beam ELR Torch (40 yards within 1deg off-axis)
2). A virtual tie for SureFire’s M1 and Fixed Beam ELR torch. (40 yards with a 4 deg off-axis view)
3). ATN IR Illuminator (60 yards with a 4 deg off-axis view)
4). Pentagon MS2 Illuminator (70 yards with a 20 deg off-axis view)
Durability (Very Subjective here as all units test VERY robust except for the ATN unit)
1). Pentagon MS2
2). Surefire M1
3). Both ELR Torches.
4). ATN IR
1). Variable Torch ELR (Screw Picatinny/weaver rail mount with adjustable windage and elevation, as well as removal rail for NV Rifle scope mounting of the D-740 and D-760)
2). Fixed Beam ELR Torch. (Screw Picatinny/weaver rail mount with removal mount for NV Rifle scope mounting of the D-740 and D-760)
3). Pentagon MS2 (Integral Arms throw lever)
4). ATN IR. (Integral mount only for dedicated ATN line of rifle scopes)
5). Surefire M1. (No rail mount included. After market mounts available from Viking and Larue).
Cost (Least Expensive to Most Expensive based on MSRP)
1). M1 Surefire ($135.00)
2). ATN IR ($140.00)
3). ELR Fixed Beam Torch ($149.00)
4). ELR Variable Beam Torch ($199.00)
5). Pentagon MS2 ($315.00)
In closing, I hope you have gained some insight to the best IR illuminators out there for your hard earned dollar. The units above represent state of the art for all night vision intensified devices. With current IR lasers restricted to the general public, these LED units are the best option for our NV needs. Thanks all!
Depicted below are the photo’s for the illuminators above. Please note the following.
-All shots were taken with a Minolta Z1Image Digi Camera through the tube of the PVS-14.
-In some instances there is camera bloom due to the incredible amount of IR light, not one of the units caused any blooming of the PVS-14.
-The Variable ELR torch was a late-comer (after the original article was written) and through-the-tube pics side by side with the ATN or M1 are not included. Comparison shots with the fixed beam torch are shown.
ATN, Fixed Bean Torch and Surefire M1
Fixed Beam Torch, Variable Beam Torch and Surefire M1 (Photo's curtesy of Wes1)
Fixed Beam Torch, M1, Pentagon and ATN (from left to right)
IR Beams on a fence 10 yards away. (From left to right,) M1, ATN and Fixed Beam Torch. Note, the Pentagon's huge FOV is not easliy seen as it encompasses the whole view shown and is washed out by the other units intensities.
Visible Faint Red Glow. Fixed Beam Torch, M1, Pentagon and ATN (from left to right)viewed at 3 feet with no NV
Down Range Looks - (1st Birm 25 yards, 2nd 50, 3rd 100 and 4th Birm is 200 yards. Tree's at approx. 275 yards away)
ATN, Fixed Beam Torch, Pentagon and M1 (Once again due to the Pentagons huge FOV, the other units intensities washed out this image)
100 Yard Looks
Fixed Beam Torch
275 yard looks with magnified 6x with a D-760 NV Rifle Scope
Fixed Beam Torch
200 yard look through a 4x Raptor with the Variable Beam Torch (2deg setting) and 8 deg fixed torch.
300 yard looks (Thanks to Wes 1 for the pic)
Variable Torch (left) and fixed beam (right)