October 27, 2023
I was around 14 years old when I first had the chance to go on a thermal hog hunt. My dad’s lifelong friend had served in the U.S. Army for years, and he was able to acquire some high-end thermal scopes for the day. He built up a guide business, and he invited us on a hunt for free, which is something we never could have afforded then. I distinctly recall asking him how much the thermal optics we used cost, and he told me they would have been in the $15K to $20K range for civilian purchase. I lamented the fact that it would be a long time, if ever, before I could buy my own thermal, but my fortunes have changed as I now have one of the new Sightmark Wraith Mini Thermal scopes, which comes in at a price tag of just $2,000.
A $2,000 thermal scope is cheap, subjectively speaking. That’s still a lot of money, but after using it over the course of a few weeks on various hunts, it’s clear to me that you’d need to buy a thermal in the $4K to $6K range to truly beat the performance of the Wraith Mini Thermal. The Wraith is no “good enough” thermal, though. Having used it on numerous hunts, it’s a quality optic, and Sightmark has hit the sweet spot when it comes to technical specs in a thermal package like this.
So, how did Sightmark get the price so low for a thermal optic? Firstly, it’s worth noting this is a true thermal imager, not a mere digital night vision scope. The Wraith Mini Thermal has an actual micro-bolometer inside the housing behind a germanium lens. Speaking of germanium, some costs are simply unavoidable. A substantial portion of manufacturing expenses comes from the germanium lens, which is rare, incredibly expensive and one of the few materials that will work as a lens on a thermal optic.
Much of the cost savings comes from the housing itself. For those unfamiliar with Sightmark, they have been making digital night vision optics for years, and the Wraith line has been a popular option for those looking for affordable night vision. The Wraith Mini Thermal is an extension of the Wraith digital night vision, so it shares the same housing. Again, the Wraith Mini Thermal is a true thermal optic, but utilizing the housing of the existent Wraith digital night vision line has saved a lot of manufacturing expenses. It’s hard to understate how expensive tooling costs are to build new molds for optics. I know from experience that it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in upfront costs. That inevitably gets passed along to the consumer, and it is almost unavoidable for new optics.
In addition to the saved costs by sharing a preexisting housing, Sightmark opted out of a number of features found on more expensive thermals. The Wraith Mini Thermal is what I would call a no-frills thermal scope. The thermal itself is the draw, and for shooters like me, that’s all that is important. The Wraith does not have a built-in laser rangefinder found on many other thermal scopes, which saves you several hundred dollars out the door. Sure, a laser rangefinder is a nice feature, but I’ve used the Wraith on several successful hunts without it.
Another cost-saver is that the Wraith is not rechargeable. Instead, it’s powered by two CR123 batteries, which are quite common. This is another feature that would be nice, but I can buy a lot of CR123 batteries with the savings from the Wraith. However, as an optional aftermarket purchase, Sightmark does offer a compatible quick-detach (QD) rechargeable battery pack that clips onto Picatinny rail sections. It’s low-profile enough not to obstruct the objective lens, and it provides hours of runtime. Price point is right at $100, and it’s a practical way to extend battery life for the Wraith.
Only in the past few years have thermal scopes started entering the realm of affordability, so there is still a lot of uncertainty on what specs to look for amongst most interested parties. It’s understandable, though, as there are many terms that everyone must learn before buying a thermal. Starting from the front is the objective lens. In general, the larger the lens, the greater the detection range. However, a greater detection range usually translates to a smaller field of view. The Wraith’s 35mm objective lens puts it in a nice middle ground. It has a claimed 1,400-yard detection range, but it still has a nice field of view. From my experience using it, I can detect coyotes on open fields well at longer distances, and the field of view is large enough that I could see an entire sounder of 30 or more pigs within 100 yards.
Next, I look at the pixels and sensor resolution, and the more pixels a thermal sensor has, the better the image will appear. Again, the Wraith is right in the middle ground with a 385x288 resolution. The low end of thermal sensor resolution is 160x120, and the high end is 1024x768. However, image quality is not just as simple as an excellent resolution and pixel rating. A thermal’s noise equivalent temperature difference (NETD) rating, which is measured in millikelvins (mK), is a crucial factor in the image quality of a thermal. You can have a high-resolution thermal sensor, say 640x480, but if the NETD rating is too high, say <80mK, that thermal won’t be able to differentiate temperatures as well. So, with the Wraith’s 385x288 sensor resolution, it also has a NETD rating of <40mK, which is not bad at all. The premium end would be <25mK, but you’re talking serious money at that point.
One more spec I look for is the pixel pitch. In short, the better the pixel pitch of a thermal, the more thermal energy it can absorb. We’re looking for low numbers when it comes to pixel pitch, and the Wraith Mini Thermal has an excellent pixel pitch rating of 17 microns (µm). The high end of pixel pitch would be 12 µm, but the Wraith’s 17 is a great match to the sensor resolution and NETD rating. All of this is ultimately to say that the Wraith Mini Thermal produces an excellent thermal image. Sightmark has put together an excellent combination of sensor resolution, pixel pitch and NETD rating, which gives us the good image without breaking the bank. Are there thermals available with a better image? Sure, but be prepared to tack on a few thousand more to the price tag.
With the more complicated technical specs of the thermal out of the way, let’s break down some of the more digestible specs on the Wraith. As I mentioned, the Wraith is powered by two CR123 batteries. This provides it with a 3.5-hour runtime if you’re recording video or a 4.4-hour runtime if not. Before I realized you could purchase a Sightmark aftermarket rechargeable Picatinny battery pack, I bought some rechargeable CR123 batteries from SureFire. These worked well in the field, and it was nice to be able to have two batteries on the charger in the truck while actively using another pair. One thing I noted, though, is that fresh out of the charger, the Wraith only recognized the SureFire batteries at half charge, even though they did have a full charge. This didn’t seem to affect performance in any way, but buyer beware. At this point, I’d probably recommend the aftermarket SureFire Picatinny battery, but rechargeable CR123 batteries are nice if you don’t want to take up any rail space or add weight. Like most thermals, the Wraith does have a feature to record video during use or take still photos. It also features a microphone to record sound, and it picked up pig squeals at 100 yards with ease. I’m indifferent to recording hunts, but it seems to be a pretty standard feature across thermals.
Along with the video recording, the Wraith has five color palettes available. You can cycle through the classic white-hot to black-hot, green-hot, rainbow and magenta (which is just predator vision). Rainbow and magenta are honestly novelty, but they’re fun to mess around with and show friends. I found that I most like scanning with the white-hot color palette, but I like to switch to black-hot for shooting. The black hot shows greater definition on animals, especially the pigs and coyotes I’ve hunted. The green-hot function does have the added value of reducing eye fatigue, and it doesn’t ruin your night vision the way white-hot does.
One of my favorite features of the new Wraith Mini Thermal is the ability to store up to five gun profiles. If you’re like me, then you’re probably only going to have one thermal at any given time, so that thermal is going to be pulling double duty on multiple firearms. So far, I have a profile for my 6mm ARC LaRue Tactical Black and Tan AR-15 and a simple, self-built 5.56 AR-15. As long as I place the Wraith on the same rail section and select the correct profile, the zero will be pretty close when swapped. Only minor adjustments need to be made to zero the optic to the rifle again.
Thermal scopes don’t do you any good sitting in a gun safe. I suppose that’s true for any optic and gun, but I find it even more true with thermals. To say I’ve had a blast hunting pigs and coyotes with the Wraith is an understatement. Those who’ve used a thermal on a hunt before know what I’m talking about; you simply can’t just go back to regular hunting.
With my Wraith mounted to my 6mm ARC LaRue Tactical Black and Tan, I headed to Texas for a pig hunt. I took along 40 rounds of the new Black Hills Ammo 6mm ARC load, which proved incredibly lethal on three 200+ pound boars. It was dark enough in the stand that I couldn’t make out the feeder, but the three boars showed up perfectly. The first two dropped with one shot each at 50 yards right next to the feeder. Those pigs were only about 10 yards apart, but it was still easy to stay in the optic when transitioning. The third pig made it to the treeline before I could get him, but he popped back out another 50 yards beyond the first two. He only stayed for a moment before he took off for the treeline again. I shot him on the run with one shot and dropped him where he stood. He, along with one of the other pigs, did need a follow-up shot to finish them off, but each pig dropped where they stood on the first shot. Black Hills knows what they’re doing with their new 6mm ARC load.
One thing I noticed throughout the hunt and from subsequent uses is that the Wraith frequently will make a subtle clicking sound and refresh the screen. I was alarmed at first, but it’s nothing to worry about. This phenomenon is known as non-uniformity correction (NUC) or “nucing.” What’s happening is the thermal camera is making adjustments for its own heat output along with other environmental factors. The subtle clicking sound and refresh is simply the camera recalibrating itself so you always have a clear image. The recalibration is brief, and it never interfered or caused issue when shooting. Without it, the image would eventually no longer be accurate, which would especially be a no-go when hunting.
As I was hunting with the Wraith Mini Thermal, I confirmed the claimed 1,400-yard detection range. Now for those who’ve never hunted with a thermal, this doesn’t mean you can take 1,400-yard shots. Detection just means you can see a heat signature; you can cut that number in half for identification range. At the 700-yard mark an in, you can definitely tell the difference between a deer and a pig. I’d say you’d need to be within 500 yards to confidently tell the difference between a coyote and a racoon. For engagement range, I would feel confident taking a shot at game 250 yards and in, and I would have no issues engaging pigs to 300 yards, maybe 350.
The Wraith Mini Thermal is most ideal for shooters who already know and can recognize terrain to identify distances. Thermals are notorious for being challenging on your depth perception, hence the addition of laser rangefinders on many different models. If you want to be a serious predator out West and take longer shots, it’s going to be more challenging than a thermal with a 50mm objective, great sensor and specs and a laser rangefinder. Now, with that being said, the Wraith opens a lot of doors to shooters that can’t afford expensive thermals. You could certainly make it work out West if this is what you can afford.
The Wraith Mini Thermal is perfect for the greater Midwest and South, especially if you’re shooting on familiar ground. It also has some serious merit for potential tactical use. It’s a thermal scope that under-promises and overdelivers for these regions and applications. Overall, I can’t find anything to complain about with the Wraith Mini Thermal. If it were priced at the $6K mark, then I’d have some questions. However, I’m blown away by the performance of a thermal scope that’s “just” $2,000. I just want a thermal scope that gets the job done well, and that’s exactly what I got.
About the Author
Jack Oller is a U.S. Army veteran, having served in the Military Police with one deployment to the Camp VI Detention Facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He has extensive firearms training from military and civilian schools and is a passionate shotgun shooter and hunter. Jack has an English degree from Illinois State University, and he started his career in the outdoor industry as Associate Editor for Guns & Ammo magazine. After Gun & Ammo, he worked as Brand Manager for Crimson Trace and now is the Digital Editor for Firearms News.
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