Military vs. Civilian Tech: Debunking Night Vision Classifications

by Greg Pearson

The use of night vision technology has been around since the beginning of World War II. Back in those days, it was pretty much limited to prototypical testing purposes by the most elite of military forces, and the technology used was pretty poor compared to today’s level of available technology. However, as the technology has improved and subsequently became somewhat less expensive and produced more, it became used more by both the militaries around the world and civilians who could afford it. But during the roughly 70 years since its conception, night vision has taken on different generational name for each era before each major technological renovation . . .

For instance, the first generation (aptly named Generation I) describes the models of night vision that utilize the technology that was available from the beginning of World War II through the end of the Korean War. This generation of night vision is obviously the least advanced in terms of technology, and thus requires an ample amount of ambient light, some needing the equivalent of the light from a full moon. The images produced were quite grainy and had a fairly short range.

Generation II included the technology developed from about midway through the Vietnam War until the late 1980’s. Gen II included the use of an additional plate in the night vision tube that allowed for a brighter clearer image compared to Gen. I. The second generation allowed to the optional use of an attachable infrared light emitter. The light emitted is invisible to the naked human eye, but would act as a flashlight for night vision.

Generation III is characterized by the technology used from about 1990 through about 2010. Gen III included an additional plate gallium-aresenide — a quite expensive process to make — and thus increases the price of production. The payoff however is unrivaled clarity, responsiveness and range. This is the current technology employed by many militaries throughout the world.

There’s also a fourth generation in existence, but Gen IV is still being developed and is in the experimental stage. It actually removes the added plate in Gen. II models so that only the gallium-arsenide plate is active. The result so far has been an almost unimaginable reduction in graininess which allows for the image to effectively be magnified, allowing for absolutely incredible range.

Despite the different generations of night vision gear, all of the generational technologies are still in production, mostly for cost reasons. However, due to the extreme technological differences and improved qualities and benefits of the latest technologies, there are standards which much be adhered to for use in many military applications. For instance, the United States military requires that all night vision equipment that’s to be used in the field must be of Generation III (or higher as Generation IV becomes more available).

With the restrictions on the type of night vision used for the military, there arises a question as to why are the previous generational technologies still used and produced. The simplest answer is cost. Whatever the cost, the military wants the latest and greatest in order to obtain the best possible night vision capabilities. But the average cost for a single set of Generation III goggles is around $3000.

While that may be fine for governments that can print their own money, the average individual wishing to purchase their own gear usually can’t afford the steep price. As such, they can choose the cheaper, less effective Generation I and II technology models that are still out there in production, with average costs around $300 for Gen I and $1000 for Gen II equipment.

Of course, civilians can purchase any generation of night vision as long as they are willing to pay the price. They’re all made by private companies that will sell to anyone. The only reason why some night vision models are considered ‘military grade’ is because most militaries have the image/range quality requirements that can only be met by Gen III models. Which is why it’s generally accepted that Gen I and II are considered civilian technology while Generation III (and newer) are considered military.

Craig Pearson is an avid hunter, outdoorsman, and adventurist. His main passions are hog hunting in Texas and writing about his many adventures. He currently blogs for, a supplier of high quality night vision equipment.