Night vision is incredibly valuable in modern warfare. As the name implies, it enables soldiers to see very clearly after dark without revealing their position. This provides a great advantage over anyone who doesn’t have night vision. You can see them, but they can’t see you – except, perhaps, when your muzzle flashes.
In 1935, Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft developed night vision devices intended for use both by infantry and armor. Neither saw much use, however. They were large, bulky, and expensive.
In 1944, production began of the Zielgerät 1229, codename Vampir, which was a device designed to be fitted on small arms, such as the StG44 assault rifle and MG34 / MG42 machine-guns. 310 of them made it to the Wehrmacht in 1945, who designated those fortunate enough to receive the device “Nachtjägers,” or Night-Hunters.
Though not as large and bulky as earlier models, it was by no means light. The scope and IR (Infrared) spotlight dish weighed 5 pounds, almost half the weight of the StG44, which was 11 pounds and 5 ounces loaded. The battery pack that was required for the Zielgerät to even function? 30 pounds.
The IR spotlight is perhaps the most ridiculous looking part of the device, but was very necessary. The scope was essentially a sensor able to detect the upper infrared spectrum, and would only provide a clear image with the spotlight turned on. Early night vision required IR spotlights to function well. For example, a Czech NVG (night vision goggles) setup for tankers has been making the rounds on the military surplus market and was intended to be used with the tank’s IR light. Without it, the image is just not very good, as many who have got the surplus goggles working have found out. If you want a set of those Soviet-era NVG’s, they are sometimes available at Varusteleka. (When I get my set working, I’ll probably post an article about it.)
Even though only 310 of the 35 pound Zielgerät 1229 systems made it to the German military, its limited use was, as one would expect, effective. The Nachtjägers on the Eastern Front were able to get some sniping in when the Sun had set, thanks to their “peculiar non-shining torches coupled with enormous optical sights.”
The Germans weren’t the only ones to test out night vision during the second World War. Americans also issued similar devices to soldiers in the Pacific, who used them to shoot many Japanese. They were also large and bulky, and a topic for another article.