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Cheap Night Vision Goggles? Budget vs Build vs Buy

From 2020 to 2021, night vision products have soared in popularity. A fair assessment derives this from the ammunition and firearm shortage that came from the Covid-19 panic and the subsequent racial tensions heavily affecting the larger cities in this nation. In the 2012-2013 ammunition shortage, we saw a rise in hard skills such as survival training and products, first-aid/trauma education, and radios. This time around it seemed that the latest trend has been nighttime activities and the tools required for such enterprises. Due to this, we had a massive increase in first-time night vision buyers and users, and thus the industry was met with thousands of questions about the topic. Often circulated is the question: “Can one get into get night vision for cheap” or “Is there such thing as Cheap Night Vision Googles?.”

PVS-14 Disassembled

These questions alone have been the inspiration for many new articles and even more YouTube and Instagram videos by night vision veterans and amateurs alike. Our answer to this question, like many others has a short and long answer. In short, no. One cannot get into decent night vision for “cheap”. The long answer is a bit more nuanced. The price scale for night vision is quite vast, as it can cost $2,000-$3,400 for a quality PVS-14 monocular and $4,500-$13,700 for a binocular. For most applications, a dual tube system outpaces a single tube, but this can easily double the cost. The quality of the tube inside the device can also greatly dictate the price, and lastly, the housing, the external casing that the user interacts with also has an impact on the price of a device.

Argus BNVD 1431 Cheap Night Vision Goggles

Let's Talk Housings

Argus, a Chinese based night vision company, has created a housing for MX-10160 style intensifier tubes (this format only has automatic gain, no manual gain), the same type of tube that is found in most popular dual tube systems such as the RNVG, TDNVG/DTNVS, and some PVS-14s. What is interesting about this housing is it looks almost identical to one of the US military’s issued night devices, the PVS-31, to a suspicious level. What is unique about the 1431 however, is that it accepts the widely used and found PVS-14 objective and ocular lenses as opposed to the far more expensive and proprietary lenses found in most versions of the PVS-31. Many modern binocular housings use these lenses.

PVS-14 mounted on a team wendy helmet
The popular PVS-14 Monocular system certainly has its place. Whether as an entry-level unit or a stepping stone to Binos, they typically hold their value.

With the housing coming in at an MSRP of $1200 (a very similar price point as the ever-popular RNVG fixed bridge housing), this means that the end-user can get a housing with articulating pods for significantly cheaper than other offerings in the industry.

Cheap Night Vision Goggles argus

Why articulating pods as opposed to fixed? A question again asked frequently for both new and experienced users of night vision. This largely comes down to personal preference. A fixed bridge housing such as the RNVG (Ruggedized Night Vision Goggle) and the now-discontinued Sentinel Device are prime examples of this style of housing. Often more durable than an articulating housing, the fixed bridge systems have interpillar adjustments (how far apart the pods are so they line up with the users’ eyes properly) that once they are set, the user can forget. The fixed bridge system simply has less to go wrong, less to adjust, and lean rugged due to the overbuilt housing construction.

However, When stowed/flipped up, the device sits very high on the user’s head leaving the unit susceptible to snags when moving about. Additionally, the weight of the device sits much farther from the user’s head making for more perceived weight, thus inducing more neck strain.

TNVC RNVG
Ruggedized Night Vision Goggle (RNVG) built by TNVC.

An articulating housing has adjustable pods, similar to how a pair of binoculars work. This means that the tubes can be flipped up to the side while in the down position of the mount, making it ideal for driving or places with low clearance. This also means that once flipped up and stowed in the upright position, the tubes can be flipped to the side and can hug the mount creating less of a snag hazard and bringing the weight much closer to the head, making for less strain on the user’s neck. These articulating devices, in theory, are more fragile as the pods move independently from the housing body. This necessarily results in more failure points.

The real advantage of the Argus 1431 is that it comes in at a significantly lower cost. Due to the need for more moving parts and the attempt to create a still rugged device, articulating housings tend to be far more expensive than a fixed bridge option: sometimes double the price. This means that a thrifty buyer trying to keep the cost as low as possible can purchase a built out 1431 with Photonis 4g or green phosphor Gen 3 tubes and have an articulating night vision device for a competitive price.

The Argus 1431, however, is not perfect. A gyroscopic sensor inside the housing determines if the system is in the stowed position, or the down position. Alone, this is a great feature as when the device is stowed it automatically turns off the tubes inside. This system also controls an automatic shutoff feature. Why is this a bad thing you might ask? Answer: the automatic shutoff feature prohibits the use of the black box technique. Those new to night vision learn simple maintenance rules such as protecting the device from damaging light, such as headlights, or daylight.

Cheap Night Vision Goggles Cover

These seem fairly obvious, but if one accidentally damages their tube, how can one get rid of the blobby blemishes from light exposure? That’s where the black box technique comes in. Powering up the night vision device, sealing it inside a completely lightproof box, and leaving it on until the battery runs out often helps the tubes self-heal. With modern generation 3 tubes which are very complicated analog devices, minor damage can actually be reversed if this method is applied. However, with the automatic shutoff feature, one can run the risk of making the damage permanent. We contacted the manufacture about this, and the gyroscopic sensor can be turned off apparently by pressing the on button 5 times after the tubes have been powered down. This information is nowhere to be found with any retailer selling the housing, and no information like this comes with the housing. Turning off the gyroscopic sensor also disables the auto-off when the unit is stowed in the up position.

As we eluded to earlier, the design of the Argus 1431 is suspiciously close to the PVS-31 and L3Harris BNVD 1531, a variation of the PVS-31A redesigned to use PVS-14 style optics. While there are only so many ways to create a binocular night vision device, the resemblance is uncanny.

Building Cheap Night Vision Goggles

So given the price point of this device, we proceeded to build out a 1431 night vision device ourselves. Using a pair of green phosphor Gen 3 MX-10160 tubes and Carson PVS-14 lenses, the parts were a little under $5,000. We assembled the Argus 1431 with the pair of tubes, then shipped off the unit to Night Vision Inc to collimate (align the optical path through the lenses to reduce eyestrain) and purge (replacing the air inside with a neutral gas to prevent fogging) the night vision device.

Building Cheap Night Vision Goggles

Once this was all completed, we had a working, articulating night vision unit for a substantially cheaper price than the industry average. So, do we recommend picking up the parts and building a night vision unit yourself in your kitchen? No. Definitely not.

Extracting the tubes is a delicate task, so have the right tools, and prepare your environment.

Companies like Night Vision Inc, TNVC, and Goonin Gear exist for a reason, they professionally assemble and adjust night vision. They also pride themselves in securing the best tubes they can have great quality control, and often warranty the assembly. Putting together a night vision device can be risky, to say the least, one mistake might destroy a $1200 (or more) housing or damage a matched intensifier tube. A mistake like that could put an end to the project and cost significantly more than if an assembled unit was just purchased from a quality dealer.

Cheap Night Vision Goggles PVS-14

There are also specific tools for assembling a night vision device: the cheap ones don’t work very well while the ones the professionals use cost several hundred dollars. Building your own cheap night vision goggles is possible with the right knowledge, training, and acceptance of the risks associated with it as the strong DIY night vision community testifies. If someone is dead set on building their own night vision device, the Argus 1431 housing isn’t a bad choice, assuming the user is aware of the quirks. Both VF1 Systems and Night Vision Inc answered our many questions as we proceeded through this project.

Argus BNVD 1431 Cheap Night Vision Goggles

Night vision is a wonderful and useful tool, and it has been exciting to watch the industry grow substantially over the last couple of years and accept new customers and users into their fold. In the specialized world of night vision, companies like Night Vision Inc, TNVC, and Goonin Gear LLC have gone the distance so us at home don't have to. Knowledge is power, so do your homework and be willing to ask questions. Quality night vision is an investment, and something, that if taken care of, can last a lifetime. 

[Editor's Note: Photography by Forrest Cooper.]


Resources:

VF1 Systems: vf1systems.com
Night Vision Incorporated: nvincorporated.com
TNVC: tnvc.com
Goonin Gear LLC: gooningear.com


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