Richard Saunders: An Experts View
All of our reviews are based upon Richard Saunders opinions. Richard has been shooting air rifles for nearly forty years. Today he hunts and carries out pest control on more than a thousand acres spread across different locations in the south of England. He is a regular contributor to Airgun Shooter magazine, writing mainly hunting features and product reviews, as well The Airgun Show on YouTube.
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Generally speaking, calling out anything as ‘the best’ is going to prompt disagreement and discussion. In other words, it makes people wonder ‘what does he know?’ And that’s a fair question. Plenty of people are just as qualified as I am to offer such an opinion, if not more. But if you have come across this article because you are looking for a little help in making a purchase, I offer up the following on the basis that I have owned, used and reviewed a great many scopes in 40 or so years of using them and of those still available at the time of writing, these are the ones that stand out the most. I should qualify that a little by explaining that the vast majority of my time behind an air rifle is spent hunting. Of course, I spend plenty of time on the range zeroing my rifles and shooting a few tin cans and targets, but I don’t go in for formal target or competition shooting of any kind.
I’ll say right up front that scopes can run into thousands of pounds. I’ve used a great many of them on centre and rimfire rifles and they are truly impressive. The clarity over long distances has to be seen, literally, to be believed. But for airgun hunters, the majority of whom will be looking to shoot at a maximum of 40 metres, or a little further with FAC rifles, they are simply too much scope.
So with that, and an apology if your favourite scope is not listed, or you disagree with my selection, let’s get started. Remember my opinion is worth exactly what you have paid for it – nothing.
First Focal Plane or Second Focal Plane?
First Focal Plane (FFP) scopes differ from second focal plane scopes in that the reticle is placed in front of the magnification range. This means that as you go up and down the magnification range the reticle itself will get smaller and bigger, however its relationship with the target will always remain constant.
On a second focal plane scope, you can zero your air rifle at say 30 metres on 10x and find that at 40 metres you need a mildot of holdover to compensate for pellet drop. But when you tweak the magnification up, say to 20x, all of a sudden you need to allow even more holdover.
With a first focal plane it doesn’t matter what magnification you use as the amount of holdover will stay the same regardless of the magnification you are using. Most of the time, for 12 ft. lbs. air rifles that isn’t a huge problem because people tend to stick with a favourite catch-all magnification that will work between say 20 and 40 metres – the effective hunting range of a legal limit rifle. However, increasingly people use high-powered FAC rated rifles of considerably more power. As a result, especially as many high powered shooters also use more ballistically efficient slugs, the effective range is greatly increased. All of a sudden, the magnification range of a scope becomes more important, and that’s when the benefits of a first focal plane optic come into their own.
1. Hawke Sidewinder 30 FFP 4-16x50 - the best hawke scope for an air rifleSee More
Spend any time amongst airgunners, say on a range or at a club, and you’ll see plenty of Hawke scopes. And for good reason; they are well made, reliable and they do everything you need a scope to do. The range is enormous – literally a scope for every need – but here are a few that stand out for me.
As someone who shoots FAC air rifles, I have learned to appreciate a good FFP scope and the Sidewinder 30 FFP 4-16×50 is a real favourite. For such a high performance scope it is relatively light and compact at 725g and 339mm long. The 30mm chassis, 50mm objective lens and 18 layer, fully coated lens layout is not only clear but seems to me to perform better in low light conditions than earlier versions. Like many top end scopes, you can illuminate the reticle (six levels) and the parallax adjustment is via a side wheel which operates very smoothly right down to just nine metres.
The magnification ring is nicely designed and although the textured collar rotates easily, you can screw a throw lever which is helpful in the dark. The field of view seems have been improved as well – certainly a range of 2.7 – 10.6m stacks up well against similar scopes. Zeroing is very easy thanks to the lockable turrets that feature 1/10 MRAD clicks that are very positive and defined.
The addition of a window on the top turret to give you an at-a-glance view of your turret’s position is a good addition. I use my Sidewinder 30 FFR on a 30 ft. lbs. air rifle to shoot rabbits at distances up to 50 metres and tend to rely on hold over and under rather than adjusting the turrets; I just find it easier and quicker, especially at night. As a result, I’m really fussy about reticles – they have to be clear and uncluttered but detailed enough to allow me to aim shots precisely. Finding the right balance is tricky. As the name suggests, Hawke’s FFP Half Mil reticle has half mil spaced markings out to five mildots in all four directions. If you need more precision, there’s a series of windage crosses on the lower section.Check Price
2. Hawke Airmax 30 SF 3-12x50See More
For too long airgunners had to make do with scopes that were not necessarily intended for them. And the few dedicated airgun scopes were pretty sad affairs. Hawke’s Airmax range is made specifically with airguns in mind and the 2-12×50 is an excellent example and one I use on my sub 12 ft. lbs. rifles, especially when I am controlling rats and grey squirrels when the low 3x magnification comes in useful for spotting targets with a large field of view.
The 30mm tube and 50mm objective lens let in plenty of light and the side parallax goes down to just nine metres – any closer than that and it’s a case of fix bayonets! With layer multi coated lenses, the image is crystal clear and when used in conjunction with night vision add-on gear like the Pard NV007 or any of the Nite Site type screen systems, the image remains high quality. The illuminated AMX reticle is also designed specifically for airgunners and, despite offering plenty of aim points including half mildots lines to help with holdover, is nice and clean.
I’ve lost more turret caps than I care to think about so the fact that the Airmax has exposed lockable turrets is a real bonus in my book, as is the fact they can be adjusted precisely.Check Price
3. MTC King Cobra
MTC make some great scopes, many of them comparable to those offered by Hawke in my opinion. And one of the best is the King Cobra 6-24×50, another first focal plane scope. Generally speaking, I tend not to go for scopes with very high magnification for the simple reason that I don’t think it is necessary on most air rifles. However, I have a couple of rifles that produce close to 100 ft. lbs. and the extra zoom comes in useful if I have an opportunity to exploit the additional range such outputs enable.
Thanks again to the combination of a 30mm tube and 50mm objective lens, performance in very low light conditions is exceptional and MTC’s SCB2 reticle is, I would argue, one of the best with plenty of aimpoints in mildot and half dot that are designated as lines on the lower part to help with holdover. I love the way the mildot lines form a frame around the centre point of aim.
The illumination has separate on/off and brightness controls that are easy to operate, as is the side parallax adjustment wheel, which goes down to just 15 yards. The lockable exposed turrets are easily adjusted with your fingers and the clicks are nice and positive. In the field, the image through the glass remains clear and undistorted throughout that huge zoom range.
4. MTC Mamba Pro
In a market that seems to introduce new and increasingly complex products with all sorts of features every few minutes, I find the MTC Mamba Pro refreshingly simple and straightforward to use. That’s not to say it is cheap and cheerful, it’s just that I get the impression MTC Optics set out to provide a scope that does exactly what you need to do with an emphasis on doing it extremely well.
There are three magnification options: 2-12x, 3-18x and 5-30x – all with a 30mm tube and 50mm objective lens. I have the 3-18x and 5-30x but the lower magnification version is the one I end up using the most. Although it shares many of the specifications of the Viper Pro, it has simpler low-profile turrets rather than the Viper Pro’s 3:1 geared turrets. The coin slot style turrets of older versions have been replaced with much easier to use finger turn turrets. The reticle is MTC’s SCB2 design which has half and full dot markings that are lines on the bottom half to make holdover placement much easier. A set of screw on magnetic scope covers completes the set up.
5. Nikko Sterling Mountmaster 4x40See More
It’s very easy to fall for manufacturer’s blurb and think that unless you spend several hundreds of pounds on a scope you’re wasting your money. Nothing could be further from the truth; don’t get me wrong, you get what you pay for and skimping on a scope when you’ve spent a small fortune on the latest PCP rifle does seem illogical. However, let’s not forget that an air rifle, especially sub 12 ft. lbs. doesn’t demand too much from a scope. Just as long as it has the basics covered there are some excellent scopes for less than £100 available.
One of my favourites is the Nikko Stirling Mountmaster 4×40. Nikko Stirling make some excellent high end scopes and I think that when they set out to make a more affordable range with the Mountmaster they simply couldn’t bring themselves to do anything but an excellent job. Despite a one inch tube and 40mm objective lens, the scope’s ability to work in low light is more than adequate. The reticle is a simple dot and dash mildot / half mildot and can be illuminated in red or green.
Although the Mountmaster is at the budget end of the spectrum, the lenses are great quality and the image is extremely sharp. The only shortfall, and its a minor one, is that parallax adjustment is achieved by twisting a collar on the objective lens rather than via a side mounted wheel, but it does go down to just 10 yards.Check Price
It’s very easy to spend money on a scope that has way more performance than you need on an air rifle. The basics of good glass, a clear image and turrets that work well will get you a long way. Of course, there are refinements such as side parallax adjustment, more precise reticles and first focal plane arrangements to be had as you start paying more. And although I have some cheap scopes that hold their zero well, generally speaking, better engineered, more expensive models are better in this regard. As I often find myself telling people who ask me ‘what’s the best…’, the most important thing to do is ask yourself what you need. If you’re only planning on shooting out to 30 yards do you really need 24x magnification for example, or would a 4×32 do?