Game changers: how has technology changed the way we hunt?

A thermal image of two squirrels by some trees at 65 yards

Two squirrels at just under 65 yards range. Please note, the quality of the image is significantly higher as observed, compared to one that's been uploaded and printed for you, here. - Credit: Archant

Terry Doe, editor of Airgun World magazine, considers how, and why, new technology changes the way we hunt...

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Too many superlatives are thrown around these days, and most are used without thought. I’ve thought deeply about this one, though, and I feel perfectly justified in referring to the new hunting technology I’ve been getting to know, lately, as a ‘game changer’, simply because it is. This hardware has, quite literally, changed the way I hunt. It’s also changed the way I plan things, the way I think about hunting, and most of all, the amount of interest, excitement and pleasure I get from my hunting. My game has been changed, no doubt about it.  

A thermal image of 10 rats that have been shot with an air rifle during pest control

Ten rats that experienced the incredible efficiency of thermal imaging. The sight of a rat-filled barn through a thermal imaging device is certain to raise your pulse rate. - Credit: Archant

First, there was the Sightmark Wraith HD, day/night sight, and the sheer versatility of that device captured me pretty much from the start, perhaps because using it is a blend of conventional techniques and new technology, and that eased me into things. Then came a couple of devices from Infiray, I featured last month. The E3N spotter and the SAIM SCT19 scope use thermal-imaging technology, and it’s offered at a far more affordable price. At £1,169 for the E3N, and £1199.95 for the SAIM SCT19, we’re still talking about a serious amount of investment, but compared to previous pricing, these two are decidedly bargain offers.  

A photo of an air rifle on a wooden table, mounted with a night vision scope and next to a thermal imaging unit

The effect of this hi-tech hardware on my hunting habits has to be experienced to be believed, but the Air Arms Ultimate Sporter brings it all together for me.

Last month, I supplied the technical details and features on the ERN and the SAIM – pronounced ‘seem’, as far as I can tell – so this time I’d like to concentrate on the practical aspects of their use and the effect it’s had on my hunting.  
To begin, my hunting has become more ‘targeted’, because I can scan areas and potential quarry will almost announce itself as a glowing shape that’s at least worthy of further investigation. The speed at which this can be done is truly amazing, especially at night when the fields are cooler and the temperature difference between warm-blooded quarry and their chilly surroundings is all the more stark.  
With a lamp, and to some extent night-vision technology, I’m relying mainly on a combination of eyeshine and being able to tell a rabbit from a clump of earth. With thermal imaging, those rabbits actually light themselves up and they’re instantly visible from hundreds of yards away.  

A thermal image of a rabbit in a field at 100 yards

A still of a rabbit running at a range of just over 100 yards. If you fancy stalking one rabbit, there's your target. Otherwise, that field is empty, and it's time to move on. - Credit: Archant

The first benefit this has, is that it allows me to find, and concentrate on the most productive areas of my shoots quickly, rather than having to walk for miles to find where those rabbits are congregating. This in turn makes it possible to cover far more ground in the time I have available, and I’m talking about three and four times more, not just an extra field or two. 
It’s not just about rabbits, though. The difference between using a thermal-imaging device to search the tree canopy for a squirrel sitting tight, or a perching pigeon, compared to using my eyes or binoculars, is worlds apart. Having spent so much of my life craning my neck and staring into the treetops, trying to locate birds and squirrels, the difference a thermal spotter makes is nothing short of incredible. No wonder our own Mick Garvey and his red squirrel conservation colleagues use thermal spotters to locate squirrels. Mick will be here next month with a full feature on the SAIM SCT19, which he uses in conjunction with an E3N, and I’m told he’s highly excited, which is unusual for a cool customer like Mick.  

Thermal image of a line of trees, with a squirrel in one of them

The range is 250 yards, and there's a squirrel in the tree. That's the foundation of a stalk, right there. - Credit: Archant

I have my Sightmark Wraith HD – yes I bought one – set up on an Air Arms Ultimate Sporter, because the adjustability of that rifle’s stock puts my eye right behind the Wraith’s viewfinder. I wasn’t overjoyed to replace the Wraith with the SAIM, but to appreciate what it offers, I felt I needed to have it set up perfectly, so the deed was done. My experience with a menu-based zeroing system made matching pellet impact points with my choice of crosshair a few minutes’ work, and even at a lowly 4X magnification, I was soon nailing targets at 20 yards, which was my preferred zero for the rat-shooting session I’d planned that evening.  

A thermal image of a squirrel on a tree trunk

Even in a snow blizzard, it's easy to see there's a squirrel in that tree. Not a chance of spotting that without the thermal imager.

I’m not a ‘technical’ person, and far less a technical shooter, but I’m able to learn new things, and so far I’ve been able to translate the, sometimes intimidating, instruction manuals into real-world, step-by-step actions, with a pleasing result at the end of them. In truth, I’m finding it all extremely exciting, but I can where some would be put off by the apparent complexity. Don’t be; the results are incredible, and worth far more than a bit of effort and understanding.  

I’ve used this set-up just three times so far, but already I’m developing an incredibly efficient system. First, in daylight I take a good look with my standard-issue eyes at the field, barn, tree, or wherever I’m hunting, and if nothing appears, I re-sweep with the E3N. I’ve also been using the E3N during my routing outings, just to explore my shoots at a new level, and that, too, is paying dividends in terms of learning where the wildlife is at different times. 
At night, I dispense with the basic visual check and go straight in with the thermal, and if you want to see the term ‘game changer’ defined before your very eyes, try scanning a barn with a bit of rat activity! Even after all these years, it’s hard to remain calm and lock on to one target, when glowing rats are criss-crossing your field of view.

An air rifle leant against a tree, mounted with a thermal scope

My Airgun World colleague, Mick Garvey, is also using the SAIM 19, and he'll be bringing us a full report next month. - Credit: Archant

Many years ago, when darkness fell, most of my shooting mates would either go to the pub, or go home. A few of us, equipped with home-made lamps, would be back out in the fields. Those DIY lamps of yesteryear were heavy, and their wet-cell motorcycle batteries would leak acid all over our clothes, and they only gave us a few precious hours run time, but we put up with the demands, to be out hunting.  
There are hunters today who are just as willing to go that bit further to explore a new, exciting world. These are the shooters who will buy and use the new generation of hi-tech hunting hardware. As things stand – I’m going to do my best to be out there with them.