German soldier with a rifle and a Zielgerät 1229 Vampir night vision sight

Conquering the Night Generation Zero: The First Night Hunters

Why can’t humans see in the dark?

Since most primates lack an ocular organ called the tapetum lucidum which reflects visible light back through the retina and amplifies the amount of light available to the photoreceptors, humans have poor natural night vision compared to most animals. As usual, with our biological shortcomings, we develop a tool to compensate.

Generational night vision is based on basic technology actually developed by accident in the late 1800s and early 1900s while scientists were working to create a “radio-based electro-optical converter,” known today as a television. Alongside the collateral creation of night vision, other inventions such as the electronic microscope, electronic telescope and radar were also invented.

Gen 0

The first generation of night vision technology ever created is regarded today as “Generation 0” night vision, or Gen 0 for short. Gen 0 night vision optics were “active devices,” meaning they needed a source of infrared light to illuminate and see targets. The tubes of Gen 0 devices made extensive use of electronically charged anodes and vacuum tube-housed S-1 photocathodes, mostly constructed from silver, cesium and oxygen designed to intensify the light that passed through the optic and provide enough light for the operator to see clearly.


This is the German Infrarotstrahlung mounted to a Sd.Kfz. 251.
This is the German Infrarotstrahlung mounted to a Sd.Kfz. 251.

Night vision saw its first military role in the 1930s with the development of the Panther-Panzer-mounted Infrarotstrahlung night vision made by the companies Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft and Leitz for use on German tanks in the Second World War. The Infrarotstrahlung system was affixed to the top hatch of a tank where it was available for spotting use by the tank commander. The system featured a long viewing tube as well as a massive 200mm infrared illuminator or as they called it at the time, an infrared “searchlight.”

Zielgerät 1229 Vampir

German soldier with a rifle and a Zielgerät 1229 Vampir night vision sight
The Zielgerät 1229 Vampir required a 30-lb. battery pack.

The first night vision device fielded by a single man was also developed by the Germans in the Second World War. Dubbed the Zielgerät 1229 Vampir, it is considered today as the first Gen 0 weapon-mounted night vision optic. Designed to be mounted onto the Karabiner 98 series, the Gewehr 98 and the Sturmgewehr 44, the system featured the optic itself with an IR illuminator mounted on top, as well as a battery worn as a backpack to power the device. The system worked but was quite cumbersome. The unit added 5 pounds of weight to the firearm while the battery pack added 30 pounds to the operator.

Vehicles outfitted to carry the same 200mm infrared illuminator from the Infrarotstrahlung system were used to illuminate larger areas for infantry carrying the Vampir. Only 310 of these Vampirs were ever fielded in combat and were only used in the final months of the war. A special regiment called the Nachtjägers, “night-hunters,” was pieced together from the most elite grenadiers in the Wehrmacht and deployed on the Eastern front against the Soviets.


The Soviets just so happened to be working on a Gen 0 night vision optic of their own around the same time. Named the Iskra (Искра), meaning “Spark,” the Soviet night vision scope was much more versatile than the German Vampir and could be mounted to a much larger variety of weapons. The drawback of the Soviet design was that it must be carried and operated by two individuals; one carried the rifle itself with the mounted scope and the battery, the second carried a large IR illuminator as well as a second battery. The man with the IR would spot for enemies and illuminate them, while the man with the Iskra and the rifle would take aim. Unfortunately, if it was too dark outside, the soldier operating the IR couldn’t see anything to actually point the illuminator at and without the illuminator pointed at a target, the shooter couldn’t see anything either. Due to the issue of not being able to locate targets in the dark, the Iskra system never saw combat.

Sniperscope T120

USA Sniperscope night vision device mounted on a M3 Carbine rifle with battery pack.
The Sniperscope was mounted on the M3 Carbine.

Halfway around the world, the U.S. Army was developing a night vision optic to aid them in contending with Imperial Japanese nighttime infiltration and raids. Simply referred to as the “Sniperscope T120,” the American Gen 0 night vision was designed only for use on the M3 Carbine. The M3 design was identical to the M2 Carbine design except it was fitted for the mounting of the Sniperscope T120 system, had no iron sights and had a pistol grip affixed to the rifle. The Sniperscope T120 system featured a night vision scope on the top of the weapon and had an IR illuminator on the underside of the rifle. Unlike the competition, the Sniperscope could easily be removed from the rifle and used as a handheld device. The forward pistol grip on the M3 could be removed as well and used as a grip for the handheld T120.  While the Sniperscope still used a large external battery housed in a backpack, it was a far more compact design than its German or Soviet equivalent. The M3 Carbine and Sniperscope T120 saw use at the end of the Second World War, the Korean War and in the first stages of the Vietnam War. The T120 system was improved upon and updated throughout its lifespan. About 3,000 Sniperscope T120s were produced.

Overall, Gen 0 night vision optics were extremely primitive and while they worked effectively in many combat situations, they also suffered extensively from image distortion, drops in clarity and in some instances, problems with the infrared illuminator not providing enough light to see. The detection range of the Gen 0s was never greater than 100 yards and were usually rendered inoperable by weather conditions like rain or fog. Yet, despite their shortcomings, Gen 0s were the first step in the development of all night vision optics and paved the way for the later Gen 1, Gen 2 and Gen 3 systems we use today, as well as other forms of night optics such as thermal imaging and digital night vision devices.

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