By SGM(R) Karl R. Erickson
First off, let's just say that I'm not just another «arm-chair general» reviewing a cool piece of kit with no background to back it up. I'm a retired Green Beret, with 18 years in special ops; most of which was with a special mission unit. I used my first thermal sight way back in 1986. That's right, I said 1986; and I've seen thermal technology develop ever since. Just since the Twin Towers fell, on 9/11, I've had ten combat deployments; and I've seen thermal imagery improve leaps and bounds. What Armasight has here, in the Zeus, is cutting-edge technology and features that in my opinion is the best... Period.
Most of my career was either as a scout/sniper in «big army» or as a sniper in a special missions unit. We owned the night. To do that, your military has to have the very best in cutting-edge technology. Our planes must be able to bomb targets in the dark, and our tanks need to be able to engage targets through fog and total darkness. They are all able to do this through the use of thermal sights.
Even as a sniper, we needed the very best night vision technology that money could buy. That would make the difference between us seeing the enemy first or being seen first. Our military ground troops have been using GEN-III Image Intensification goggles and weapon sights for over a decade, and it has given us an edge over the enemy.
Why GEN-III, and not thermal? The rule was always that you would «use thermal to acquire a target, then use GEN-III to identify the target as friend or foe». If an enemy was well camouflaged and didn't move, he was often hard to spot with even the best GEN-III sniper scopes. However, scanning the area with a thermal sight, and the heat signature of even a small rat or bird jumps right out at you. So, thermal is better, right? Not so fast. Thermal sights, small enough to carry dismounted on the battlefield, would only show a «blurry» blob of heat. They weren't detailed enough to allow a sniper to properly identify a person as an armed enemy or an innocent civilian. So, once we had acquired the target with the thermal sight, we would then interrogate the target with the GEN-III sight mounted on the Sniper Rifle. With a good GEN-III, not only could you see weapons, but you could make out facial features. This crisp clear detail comes in handy when your sniper team is providing over-watch of a meeting with friendly troops present. So, the rule still applies today... «use thermal to acquire a target, then use GEN-III to identify the target as friend or foe». However, today's small light-weight thermal sights are providing some extremely clear images. Spotting a weapon is no problem. If I had to choose between carrying either GEN-III or Thermal, my answer for the last twenty years would have been GEN-III. However, today with the Zeus on my rifle... I would pick thermal.
What is thermal? I'm going to break it down for you, without using all the «hundred pound» words that you can get out of the manual. Instead of amplifying available light, like traditional night vision systems, thermal sights allow you to "see" the heat that is radiated by an object. Forget all the Hollywood BS. There's no «Switching to Thermal» to allow the sniper to see through walls, like in the movies. Thermal Sights can't even see through glass. However, they can "see" even trace amounts of heat. Everything either radiates heat or reflects heat; some materials more than others. Think of an automobile parked near a pond, after sunset. While the ambient air may be 70 degrees, most of the materials still hold some of the heat radiated by the sun all day. Of course, the warm engine still «glows.» However, the vehicle paint reflects/radiates heat different than the gravel road; which also reflects heat different from the surface of the water. The thermal sights of today are sensitive enough to pick up the small differences between the rubber door molding verses the door itself. A GEN-III scope could see all this too, because there is enough ambient star/moonlight to illuminate the scene. However, let's now park this same truck in the woods with thick underbrush. The GEN-III scope couldn't see the truck, because it would be hid in shadows below the trees. Ambient light couldn't get to it. Now, the Thermal sight doesn't need the light... It «sees» the heat being radiated/reflected by the truck. Think of this radiated heat as if the truck suddenly turned it's lights on. The GEN-III scope would now be able to see the lights because trace amounts of light would pass between branches and leaves on the brush. The Thermal scope likewise «sees» this radiated heat passing between all the branches and leaves.
So, why do you want thermal? The military wants them for obvious reasons. However, you the civilian consumer, may also want to think about making the plunge. Varmint hunters are going to love the Zeus. Hog hunting with traditional Gen-II or GEN-III night vision is hit or miss; you really needed to get them in the middle of large open areas to identify them. With the Zeus, it's almost not fair. Back in October, I took this Zeus-3 down to a buddy's ranch in Texas. October Texas nights are awfully warm for older thermal sights. The Zeus worked flawlessly. We were in our first hide roughly 15 minutes before we spotted hogs. I actually had to have my partner wait on shooting, so I could film more of the hunt. Once he shot, the Hog ran into thick woods. Instead of trying to track it with flashlights, the downed hog «glowed» in the Zeus, and we were able to walk right in. After processing, we moved to our second hid location. Illumination was about 3% that night. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. Five minutes there, and I spotted another larger group of hogs. I had range data with the Zeus out to 400 meters, but let the hogs close to 200 meters. While I couldn't see them through the GEN-III goggles; through the Zeus I could clearly see all their features, including size of tusks. We were using the Armasight optional Digital recorder to film all the hunts. It clips right to the side of the Zeus. I love that the Zeus has a «Video Out» port. Once I found the hog I wanted, it was over with the trigger squeeze. The cool part, which you can see on the video, was watching the hog squirt puddles of warm blood as it ran a short distance. After processing this hog, we were back in the lodge by 9PM laughing at the video. Again, it ALMOST wasn't fair.
Opening day of deer rifle season, I always take my daughter out to our favorite tree stand. While it's mostly about the hot chocolate, candy bars, and hanging out; we always seem to fill our tags. My daughter is great at spotting deer, and I'm great at mixing metal and meat together. Since this year my daughter was 13, it was going to be her first year shooting deer. I had built her a hot pink AR with a good optic and zeroed it with some of the best deer loads available in that sissy caliber. We had gotten into our stand well before sunrise. I had pulled the Zeus off of my hog rifle. The Zeus is small enough to easily use hand-held. While I couldn't see anything with the naked eye, I spotted a bachelor group of nice bucks crossing the field to our front. They laid up in a small thicket that we normally would not have paid much mind to. Once the sun came up, I told my daughter to keep an eye on that thicket. I'm proud to say that my daughter got her first deer this year, a nice 8-point buck. Thanks, Zeus.
Why Zeus? This Thermal Sight totally rocks. You can go to the Armasight website to read all about the hundreds of great features, but there are a few that I want to touch on.
To start with, it has a solid weapon mount that consists of two throw-levers, compared to just one by the competition. This helps it hold a zero and handle the recoil that our rifles are going to hit it with. If you have a standard Picatinny Rail, you can mount a Zeus.
The sight itself has three major components: the camera, the computer, and the viewing screen.
The Camera, forward end of the scope, is the latest and greatest Tau-2 FLIR. This isn't any cheap shit from Taiwan. If you look at the front lens, it looks like mirrored glass. it's actually made from Germanium, which transmits heat much better than glass. My Zeus-3 had the 75mm objective lens. Armasight also offers a smaller 42mm lens. Smaller might be better for some applications or budgets, but I like the added ability to reach out.
The central body of the Zeus holds the computer, batteries, and all the control buttons. Besides a simple on/off switch, There's also 5x buttons that allow you to work through all the capabilities of the Zeus. Computers have come a long way, improving even more than the thermal technology itself. While it is a small thermal sight, it packs a lot of computer capability.
The third part is the viewing screen. At first glance, it looks like you are looking into the ocular lens of a regular rifle scope. However, you are not looking «through» this scope. Rather, what you are looking at is a small viewing screen, similar to a television screen. My Zeus-3 had the «top of the line» 800x600 display. Armasight also offers lower resolution viewing screens for those on a budget. If you have to skimp because of price, this is the end I would do it at. You'll still be able to acquire targets just as well, but you won't be able to see all the fine details with the lower resolutions.
The Zeus has a digital E-Zoom. My Zeus-3 has 1x, 2x, 4x, and 8x. This allows me to scan a large area on 1x to acquire targets. I could then immediately (simple push of a button) scroll through 2x, 4x, 8x to identify the target. I still can't get over how clear the features appear in this Zeus!
Zeroing the Zeus was easy. Unlike a traditional night-vision scope that can only be used in the dark, the Zeus can be used in broad daylight. After all, it's seeing heat, not light. So, zeroing can be done on your local rifle range during the day. Even more important, the Zeus holds its zero, even when cycling through the digital zooms. A lot of lower quality thermal sights, from competitor brands, can't claim that. Zeroing is done through a drop-down menu and is easy.
The Image Palettes are great. Most thermal sights, like those on a Predator Drone, only have White Hot/Black Hot. The Zeus has 13 different Palettes. What are Palettes? Think of them like the movie Predator; remember how the alien would cycle through different view screens till he found one that allowed him to see what he wanted? The Zeus's Palettes work very similar. White Hot shows the warmest areas as lighter shades of grey; cooler temperatures show as darker shades of grey. When you switch to Black Hot, it inverts and cooler temperatures now show as lighter shades. While I first though most of these extra palettes were just «Fluff», I've found that they do indeed come in handy. Example: Again, looking at a truck. In one palette, the top half of the truck may be crystal clear, but the lower half may appear shaded. As you cycle through the different palettes, You'll find that in one pallet you can see the lower half clear and the upper half is shaded. Keep scrolling and You'll probably find one that even allows you to see lug nuts. I always start on Fusion, as it gives me the best resolution for my current environment, and then try others as needed till I find the best for that current situation.
You can change different Reticle Patterns (cool) and different Reticle Colors. I've seen different colors available on standard GEN-III Scopes and found them to be just a gimmick. After all, a Black reticle in a Green tube is the same as a Red reticle in a Green tube. However, in a Thermal Scope, it is imperative. Picture only having a Red reticle and your target glowing Red; you wouldn't be able to get a good center point of aim. That's not an issue with the Zeus; just scroll through the different available reticle colors till you find one that contrasts best with your current target's color.
The Zeus also has some pretty cool «Scenarios» available in the drop-down Menu. I mentioned the powerful computer. They built Hunting scenario algorithms, that will focus on the body temperature of that selected animal. For example, if in «Hog Mode», the Zeus makes anything with the normal Hog body temperature stand out more. Theoretically, it works, but I couldn't get a Zebra to stand next to my Hogs. Yes, the Zeus does have an algorithm for tactical situations like CQB.
The list of great features would go on for pages. The best would have to be the great customer service from Armasight.
Poor Features? Yes, everything has a weak point. This Zeus drinks CR123 batteries. I was only getting about 4 or 5 hours out of a set of batteries. That said, in their defense, Armasight now offers an external AA battery pack, that clips on the same rail that I use for the external Video Recorder. This should help with the battery issue, as you can't always find CR123s in little country towns, let alone a third-world village. Great plan, but I don't have one yet.
So, if you are still on the fence about buying a thermal sight, you haven?t held a Zeus in your hand yet. In the last twenty years we have gone from huge vehicle-mounted thermals, to a light-weight Zeus that sits pretty on a simple AR Rifle like a work of art. I only wish I had this technology back in Afghanistan and Iraq, during the first ten years of this awful war on terror. Our war fighters now have these cutting-edge tools overseas. Now, you can have the Zeus, here at home.
Sergeant Major(Retired) Karl Erickson has over 25 years Military Experience; 18 years of experience within Army Special Forces, conducting all aspects of Special Operations, to include training, execution, and technical oversight at the detachment, company, and combined joint task force level. SGM Erickson has earned numerous awards, to include three Bronze Stars and an Army Commendation Medal for Valor. His military schooling includes Ranger school, Military Free Fall Jumpmaster, Special Forces Medic, SFARTEATC, Special Forces Sniper, to name but a few. After retiring, SGM Erickson now serves as the Director of Special Projects, at Tier-1 Group LLC, where he continues to train our military's finest to prepare them for tomorrow's threats.