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.
See our Youtube content on the MTC King Cobra:
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?
Choosing an Air Rifle Scope - Some Additional Pointers
Many modern air rifles are finely engineered machines. With most countries imposing power limits, such as 12 ft. lbs. in the UK, manufacturers have focused on producing rifles that are consistent and supremely accurate. Some air rifles are sold with open sights – a traditional notch at the front and ‘v’ at the back, and good accuracy at shorter ranges is achievable. However, to fully exploit their potential for accuracy, the right telescopic sight is essential.
Like many other pieces of equipment, the range of telescopic sights is bewildering not only in terms of choice but budget too. We’d need page upon page to cover every detail, so our aim here is to provide you with the basics.
The size of the forward most lens, or objective lens, is expressed in millimetres. 32, 40, 42, 50 and 56mm are most common. A scope that is sold as 4-16×50 is one that has a magnification range of 4 to 16x and an objective lens of 50mm.
The magnification on some scopes is fixed, usually at 4x or 6x, though higher fixed magnifications are possible. Some competition disciplines stipulate the use of fixed magnification scopes only, but for most other shooting situations the flexibility of variable magnification is best. Most common are scopes with 3-12x, 4-16x and 6-24x magnification ranges, which cover most airgun scenarios. However, once again, higher levels and ranges are available. Zooming in and out of a target is usually achieved by twisting a collar at the back of the scope, just forward of the eye.
OCULAR LENS AND EYE RELIEF
The lens located closest to the eye is known as the ocular lens. The distance between a shooter’s eye and the ocular lens is known as ‘eye relief’. Some scopes require the user to put their eye right against the ocular lens and are known as ‘zero eye-relief’ scopes. To avoid injury, such scopes are intended only for pre-charged pneumatic air rifles and other rifles that have no recoil. All other telescopic sites require a gap, or eye-relief, of several inches.
All but the very cheapest scopes enable you to adjust the focus on the reticle – the black lines which you place against your target – by twisting the ocular lens.
Most scopes give the ability to make adjustments to address parallax error which is the effect caused when the position or direction of a target appears to differ when looked at from different positions. Parallax adjustment, usually achieved by turning a dial on the side (often indicated as side focus or ‘SF’) of a scope or a collar on the objective lens addresses the issue and brings targets into sharper focus. Some scopes have fixed parallax, which is fine for airgun use as long as the parallax setting allows targets at typical airgun ranges to be in focus.
RETICLE AND MILDOTS
The reticle is the name give to the lines that are visible through a scope and are placed over the target, and are sometimes referred to as ‘cross-hairs’. There are many different designs, varying from a simple vertical and horizontal lines to more elaborate designs. The lines on many reticles have small dots, lines or numbers. These markings are precisely placed to provide alternative aim points other than the point at which the vertical and horizontal lines cross. They exist to help shooters determine the extent to which they need to contend with the amount that a pellet will drop over longer distances. The markings on most scopes are measured in ‘Minutes of Angle, most commonly shown as ‘MOA’. Some scopes have an illuminated reticle (IR) feature in which part or all of the reticule can be illuminated to help shooting in low light conditions.
Different Types of Air Rifle Scopes
As the name suggests, digital scopes generate an electronic image of the shooting landscape rather than rely on traditional glass. Used in conjunction with an infrared torch, they are excellent in the dark and although they are compromise compared to glass, image quality is improving all the time and they are more than adequate in day time as well. In addition, they are usually full of features and functions such as the option of changing the colour and style of the reticle as well as the ability to record video, take photos and even stream content to another device over Bluetooth and wifi. Some are also available with a built in laser range finder, or the ability to attach one as an accessory. Popular brands include: ATN X-Sight 4K Pro, PARD NV008 and NV008LRF and products from Sightmark and Yukon.
Thermal scopes are the most expensive form of night shooting scope running into thousands of pounds. Whilst they can be used on air rifles, they are intended more for big bore, centre fire and rimfire use. As you’d expect, thermal scopes detect heat and highlight targets in black, white or any of the other colour settings that are usually available. The more expensive products have higher specification sensors and provide sharper images. As with most night shooting, judging distances is an issue many airgunners struggle with. Top end thermal scopes have integrated laser range finders to help.
NIGHT VISION ADD-ONS
Whereas digital and thermal scopes replace traditional glass scopes, add-ons attach to the ocular lens to enable night vision use. Add-ons take two basic forms. Some like those made by Nite Site, Night Vision UK and Digital Night Stalker attach a camera to the ocular lens. An infrared torch is used in conjunction with a viewing screen usually sited on top of the scope. To use, shooters have to adopt a heads-up position and use their rifle on some kind of support – either shooting sticks or a bipod. Such systems are an excellent choice for rat shooting as they allow the shooter to scan large areas without having to continuously put the scope to their eye. Other add-on systems such as the PARD NV007 also attach to the ocular lens or a regular scope and use infrared but allow the shooter to look through the scope as usual.
See here our guide to the best night vision scopes for an air rifle.
Air Rifle Scope FAQs
Yes, absolutely. Some air rifles are equipped with open or iron sights. And if you don’t want to use a scope consider a red dot or laser sight instead.
Some budget packages come complete with a scope and much more, such as a bipod, gun bag and even pellets in some cases. In addition, some gun retailers will put together a combo package comprising gun, scope and other accessories.
Yes, though some scopes intended for rimfire, centre fire and big bore use have a fixed parallax that will not focus at typical airgun distances. Always check the fixed parallax distance before buying.
Not all of them. Some fixed magnification scopes have the ability to vary the parallax.