Night Vision Shooting Performance: Research Review


If you’ve done any night vision shooting, then you know it’s a difficult skill to master. As we used to say in the Marine Corps, everything is harder at night. In this article I’m going to review some excellent research that compares daylight shooting performance to night time shooting, to see what we can learn to improve our own skills. Keep reading for more.

For several decades the US Military has claimed that they “own the night.” Having spent a lot of time using night vision devices including: single tube and dual tube goggles, it’s probably more accurate to say that you only “rent the night.” It isn’t as easy as looking through a night vision scope, and squeezing the trigger.

Operating at night, with night vision devices (NVDs), is a completely separate skill set from day time or white light operations. Your depth perception, and your peripheral vision is drastically constrained, with almost all night-vision devices. For those on the ground under low light conditions, that means that non verbal communication is curtailed as well. You begin to see why using NVGs is a complex skill!

In this article I’m going to review some awesome research, conducted on US Army infantry soldiers. If you want to read all the details you can find the research article linked here. Otherwise check out the quick review below.

Night Vision Shooting Performance Overview

  • Even with experienced users night vision shooting performance drops 63% from daytime
  • Rates of fire increased drastically from day to night, even at moderately long range
  • Weapons manipulations (reloads) took 53% longer
  • Fundamental firearms skills need to be emphasized to perform well at night
  • Research conducted with image intensifier tube NVGs, non thermal systems

It is very clear that shooting performance goes down when shooting under NODs. As you’ll see when we discuss the research later, this happens even at relatively close distances. If you want to be proficient with your use of night vision equipment, you have to be a good shooter during the day time. You must dedicate portions of your live and dry fire practice to night vision shooting. Make sure you join the email list below for awesome articles on fitness, shooting, and tactical gear.

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Before we get to the specifics of this night vision research study, we need to quickly review some of the basics of current night vision technology, so we can better understand how that might affect our proficiency.

Night Vision Device Basics

There are many different types of night vision devices. Traditional night vision devices amplify ambient infrared light into an image that is viewable by the human eye. This image is often displayed in green, or more recently, white images, via an image intensifier tube.

There are also thermal night vision devices that read heat signatures in the form of infrared spectrum energy. These devices do not require any ambient light, and can be used in total darkness. They also have the ability to see through things like fog, and dust. They cannot see through walls, windows, or other thermal barriers.

The US Military and specialized law enforcement officers use night vision in similar ways. Most commonly they mount single or dual tube night vision devices on their helmets, and rely on an infrared illuminator and aiming laser to aim their rifles at night.

Alternatively you can mount a night vision scope directly to your rifle, or in line with a red dot reflex sight. This allows you to shoot passively without the use of an IR light or aiming laser. We’ve come a long way from tritium paint on iron sights!

While this is a brief overview of this technology, it’s worth noting that this research was conducted using standard US army rifles and light machine guns, with their issued night vision lasers / devices. This isn’t Delta Force or Devgru! Now, let’s get to the research.

Night Vision Shooting Research

This research was conducted on US Army infantry soldiers, in Camp Shelby Mississippi. The researchers had 18 different infantry squads conduct the Army battle drill 2A, squad assault. For those that don’t speak infantry, this is shooting a static enemy position. All the squads in this study were static from a support by fire position as well.

In this drill, the support by fire unit must move into position where they can successfully engage the enemy position. Their whole job is to pin the enemy down, or kill them, while the rest of the squad flanks the enemy from the left or right.

For this experiment the researchers put audio recorders on the soldiers so they could obtain accurate round counts from the squad automatic weapon, and the M4. They also used these recorders to count how long reloads took.

Each squad ran through this drill where they established a support by fire position and engaged man-sized targets that disappeared. These targets were roughly 120m away from the support by fire position. Each target was programmed to disappear when hit in the chest, neck, or head zone once. They would also disappear if they were struck three times in a non vital area, like the arm or outer torso.

These infantry soldiers had an average of 6 years years in the Army, with about a year with their squad. Like I mentioned previously, they used their issued night vision device, and IR Laser (standard night vision package). Here are the results.

Night Vision Shooting Research Results

The researchers had each squad run the drill during the daylight first. They then recorded the number of shots, and hits on the targets. They found that during the day each squad shot an average of 65 rounds a minute, between the M4 Rifles, and the Squad Automatic Weapon M249 SAW. They also shot an average total of 321 rounds per daytime run.

Given that they were only 120m away, in good lighting conditions, I expected hits to be much better than they were. On daytime runs, there were an average of 42 hits, and 17 kills per run. That works out to about a 45% accuracy rate for any hit on target. Remember this is during the day time.

Night Battle Drills

The same squads ran this drill at night, after a long break. Theoretically this should help, as they were familiar with the terrain and the enemy target locations. The researchers also provided partial illumination of the enemy position with simulated muzzle flashes and chem lights, providing some small light to the targets.

At night, the squads averaged 79 rounds per minute, with 422 total rounds fired between the SAW and M4. Here’s the bad news. The squad averaged 14 hits, and 8 kills. That works out to roughly a 12 percent accuracy rate, for any type of hit on target. This is not a good result for man-sized targets. Let’s discuss it further.

What Causes Poor Night Vision Shooting Performance?

If we really look at the all the data from the study, we can see some interesting bits of info. If you recall the researchers also measured the length of reload time averaged between the SAW and M4. Each SAW used a 200 round drum.

During the daylight runs the saw gunners shot an average of 199 rounds, or right up until they had to reload. During the night runs, they shot an average of 241 rounds, which would require a reload. This would also require the M4 shooters to pick up their rate of fire while the machine gun reloaded.

Ranger Regiment night training

This increased rate of fire likely resulted in much lower hit percentages. Because the SAW gunners shot too fast, everyone had to shoot faster than they were prepared for with their night vision equipment. This dropped the accuracy even more than night shooting should have. In the next section we’ll cover how to improve night vision shooting performance.

Training for Better Night Vision Shooting Performance

Having run a lot of night live fire ranges in the Marine Corps, and out of the Marine Corps, I can tell you that you need to be able to see your hits on targets to improve the mechanics of your shooting. This is something no one does.

In the military you most commonly shoot at targets at very far distances. You never actually get to see your hits. Sure, they might disappear, but you never know if that was your hit or the machine gun burst next to you.

Even when I’ve shot with smaller units, we most commonly shot on steel at night. While this is an improvement, because you can hear hits on your own target, you are only shooting as accurately as you need to get that audible hit confirmation. You would be much better off shooting on cardboard scoreable USPSA targets like these. You can see what I’m talking about in this video

While this video compares dual tube night vision goggles, and the uber cool GPNVG-18 Panoramic Goggles, they bring up some good points for both. The mechanics of shooting with an IR laser, and goggles isn’t that hard. They can be trained on most static ranges, using the slaved visible laser. You can also practice that with dry fire as well.

You really need to practice the movement portion of shooting under NODs. Getting used to panning your head around to maintain situational awareness is very important. You also need time to learn depth perception under your NODs.

Night Vision Training Drills

To get used to night movement I recommend just going for a walk in varied terrain with your NODs. Waking through the woods with NODs is the easiest way to train this, and highly recommended for new shooters. Once you’re familiar with this, you can add in some weapons movement in dry fire.

I recommend training dry fire with the Mantis X laser bolt for the AR15. It replaces your magazine, and bolt carrier group. It resets the trigger, and gives you a visible laser shot every time you pull the trigger. It’s a great tool for force on force, and night vision training.

You can use it to do the same sorts of drills that you do during the day. Things like bar hop, track the A zone, and any other moving and shooting drill can be done at night using this tool. More importantly, it can show you where your first round impacts are.

Lastly, once you become familiar with these drills in dry fire you can accomplish them in live fire. I highly recommend that you have a few people with you to make sure that the range is run safely. You need to have safety officers to make sure the range is clear, and that no one is flagging anyone. Trust me, dumb things happen on night ranges. Now let’s finish this article up.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned in the first part of this article, you only rent the night, you don’t own it. You have to put in a lot of work to be proficient with night vision shooting. Luckily much of this work can be done just by wearing the goggles and moving with them.

You can get away with shooting at night every couples of months or so, provided that you’re doing night dry fire training. This won’t make you DEVGRU or Delta Force, but you’ll be proficient. Lastly, remember that you need to keep the mechanics of gun handling as similar to your normal shooting as you can.

Don’t shoot from the hip just because you can with a laser. The only thing you really need to change is your visual scanning. If you put the work in you can gain and maintain a lot of skill very quickly. Now get out there and get training. Don’t forget to join the email list.

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