Is the Pulsar XQ50 Trail set to be a new market leader in thermal imaging? Mike Powell gets his hands on one to find out
It’s amazing how quickly things change in the shooting world, and nowhere can this be seen more than in the night shooting environment. Twenty years ago most night shooters were still using lamps, and the thought of shooting without artificial light was still in its very early stages.
Then along came night vision. Not only was this an efficient method of shooting in darkness, it was also very interesting, opening up a world that hitherto was a complete mystery. After the first tubed night vision appeared it wasn’t long before the real game-changer, thermal, arrived, and took night shooting to a new level. There was, however, certain limitations where thermal was concerned, mainly difficulty in accurately identifying the object you spotted. Unlike conventional night vision where you actually see the quarry, thermal picks up the heat signature the body produces – which, particularly at ranges over 100 yards, can only be described as blurred. With experience you can get a good idea of exactly what you are looking at, but a good idea isn’t enough to risk squeezing the trigger.
Technology advances apace, and it was only going to be a question of time before something better appeared. Enter the Pulsar Trail XQ50.
I have been using Pulsar hand-held thermal spotters from when they first appeared on the market and now they are an ever-present piece of equipment whenever I shoot either by day or night. My latest is the XD38S, which has served me well, so when I received the new Trail XQ50 the first thing I did was compare the quality of the image between the two. There was no doubt that the image produced by the Trail was sharper.
I mounted the Trail on my Sauer .243 and the fixing system proved easy and secure, locking the sight to a Weaver or Picatinny rail. With the battery in place, the unit weighed just over 2lb, which, considering how solid it is, came as a pleasant surprise.
I zeroed the rifle at 100 yards. It was a dull evening, ideal for thermal zeroing. I used a plastic container filled with hot water to ‘rough zero’ the scope before fine-tuning it. The Trail has two zeroing methods: one-shot and freeze. I like the freeze system as it’s straightforward – you simply set up the target at a given range and take the first shot. If your shot is imprecise, following the instructions on the menu will enable you to move the auxiliary cross to the point of impact and save the setting. You can save up to three rifle/ammunition profiles at each of five distances. A wide choice of reticle designs, colours and brightnesses is included, and the picture allows the user a magnified view of the reticle while giving an unobstructed view of the target area.
For those who wish to record video or pictures, the Trail features a recorder and storage facility. You can also link up, via Wi-Fi, with Android and iOS-based mobile units using the mobile app. Stream Vision software connects the Trail with either smartphone or tablet enabling footage to be received in real-time mode; you can also operate it remotely with your smartphone and stream images to YouTube. Furthermore, the versatile Trail boasts an accelerometer/gyroscope which accurately identifies angles and cant of greater than five degrees.
Like many in the Pulsar thermal range, the Trail incorporates a stadiametric rangefinder which, I have no doubt, will prove popular among users. The unit is waterproof, even when submerged in up to three feet of water. It will also cope with extremes of temperature not encountered in this country.
Power is provided by a B-pack, removable, rechargeable 5.2A-h battery which, the manufacturer claims, will give up to eight hours of continuous use. I tested it for six hours in one go and had plenty of charge still left at the end. As with other Pulsar thermals, the Trail has a power down, display off system that saves the battery and gives a quick start-up, even in cold conditions.
In the field
I spent two nights with the Trail, first getting used to it and seeing how it compared with the aforementioned XD38S spotter. The manufacturer claims a range of up to 1,800 metres; this would be for a particularly large object, such as a deer, and my tests showed that this range would be possible, though weather conditions would have to be ideal. My own view is that on a cold, dark night the Trail will spot fox-sized targets out to 800 yards – I was spotting rabbits almost 600 yards away. The variable magnification facility was easy to use but I found that the scope worked best on the basic 2.7x setting; 5.4x was useful for identification but 10.8x, which I’d hoped would aid identification at long range, was blurred. The usual white-hot/black-hot facility was, as always, useful in certain circumstances.
I had been keeping an eye on a specific fox for some days, with the aim of culling it, so on the second night I set off with the Trail to see what I could do. The outing proved remarkably straightforward – the fox turned up and the Trail did what it was supposed to do, picking up the animal 300 yards out making its way towards me. I eventually rolled over the fox when it was 75 yards away.
The Trail is a highly sophisticated piece of equipment, and undoubtedly a market leader? I still question the ability of thermal to accurately and consistently identify quarry at distances of 150 yards-plus. However, I don’t view that as a particular problem as the whole idea of night vision is to enable the shooter to get within that distance of their quarry. The Trail was very good – certainly the best thermal I’ve used to date – but on the test night I picked up a single image 250 yards away when, in fact, there were two. I was able to identify one and be 95 per cent certain it was a fox; the other was almost certainly a badger. Would I have taken a shot? No, because I was not 100 per cent sure of my quarry’s identity.
My only other minor gripe concerned the focusing control knob, which was not the easiest to reach when actually shooting.
So if I was looking to buy a thermal riflescope would I spend the Trail’s asking price of just under three grand? I’d have to say yes. The Trail is an extremely good piece of kit, ideal for someone venturing into the fascinating world of thermal imagers for the first time.