Selecting the Right Airgun Scope

High-quality optics help squeeze every ounce of accuracy from today’s high-tech air rifles.

Selecting the Right Airgun Scope

The left turret on this MTC Cobra is for parallax and illumination adjustment, top is elevation and right is windage. All are easily and quickly adjusted without tools.

I believe that every hunting air rifle should be equipped with a scope and there are several reasons for this. It is true that as we age, our eyesight can use some help. But aside from offsetting diminishing eyesight, a good scope enhances the ability to see game in the low-light conditions of dusk and dawn, when most airgun hunting takes place. The other major factor is the need for precise shot placement with an airgun. Airgun projectiles are lightweight and driven at relatively low velocities, thus generating far less energy than those fired by centerfire and rimfire firearms. So, to be effective, the shooter needs to drop that projectile right on target.

My requirements for the optics that go on my pre-charged pneumatic hunting guns are straight forward: good optical quality, excellent low-light transmission, variable magnification in the 3-12X range — though I’ll sometimes opt for a higher magnification scope for long-range shooting — parallax correction and tactile and responsive windage and elevation turrets. I will use either a 1-inch or 30mm tube and prefer the scope to be light and compact. The scopes I’ve been using extensively this year, are the MTC Cobra F1 and Element Helix on PCPs, and the Leapers Compacton springers.

Good optical quality is one of the most obvious requirements for a scope but can be one of the most difficult to define. It comes down to the optical quality of the image throughout the scope’s magnification range, a product of lens polishing and optical coatings, which determine how bright the image is. When evaluating a scope, be sure to see how it functions in low light. Even mediocre scopes can look crisp and clear in the midday sun, but the image might be less acceptable under diminished light.

 

Countering Parallax Error

Most riflescopes are parallax corrected for 150 yards, but airgunners might shoot as close as 10 yards or reach out to 100 yards without changing magnification. Parallax error results in the position of the target appearing to shift when viewed from different positions. If you look through the scope and position the crosshairs on your target, then move your eye off-center and the crosshairs remain centered, there is no parallax error. If, on the other hand, you move your eye and find the crosshairs are no longer over the target, there is a parallax distortion. 

Airgun scopes usually have a method to easily adjust the parallax to optimize shooting at different ranges and magnifications. There are a couple ways this is typically achieved, using either a focus ring on the objective lens or a side focus that uses a third adjustment turret on the left-hand side of the scope. The AO mechanism allows the aimpoint to be optimized from close range to infinity. Adjusting the AO might be an additional step when shooting under pressure, but the positive impact on accuracy makes it worthwhile. I do not use scopes on my hunting guns unless they have parallax correction. I prefer the side adjustment, because it is easier to work and requires less game-spooking movement. 

I find a variable scope with 3-9X or 4-12X magnification works for most hunting situations. This is particularly true when shots will be inside 60 yards. When shooting at these closer ranges, high magnification adds some potential problems — light transmission is not as good at higher magnification and any perceived jitter is more apparent, which can shake the shooter’s confidence.

However, there are applications — such as prairie dog shooting — where longer shots on small targets is the order of the day, where light transmission is typically a non-issue and shooting from a rested position makes a higher-power scope more appealing. Of course, you can take a higher magnification scope and dial it down to a lower setting when high magnification isn’t needed. Typically, the price you pay for this is a larger and heavier scope, but it is an option that provides flexibility.

 

The Right Reticles

The reticles I prefer for the scopes on my hunting airguns have some sort of aiming points, such as Mil-Dots for both elevation and windage. The MTC Cobra uses a Small Caliber Ballistic (SCB) reticle that offers high visibility aiming points with a floating crosshair for clear and accurate target acquisition. This is ideal for use on small targets. The 1-Mil-Dot square around the cross provides rapid acquisition for small, fast-moving targets such as squirrels. When shooting at small targets or when pellet drop becomes critical, such as when hunting prairie dogs at long range, the versatility of this reticle is advantageous. 

The Element scope uses an All-Purpose Reticle (APR) with holdover dots that extend down in a “Christmas tree” pattern facilitating more precise long-range targeting. The reticle has a fine center dot that allows the shooter to clearly see the intended point of impact. There is an MOA scale on the horizontal and vertical crosshairs that permits quick downrange targeting. There are also holdover dots that provide fast target acquisition that allow shooters to quickly find hold points when hunting.

The MTC Cobra F1, Leapers Compact SWAT and Element Helix are all solid choices for hunting. The Cobra and Helix are first focal plane models while the Compact SWAT is a second focal plane scope.
The MTC Cobra F1, Leapers Compact SWAT and Element Helix are all solid choices for hunting. The Cobra and Helix are first focal plane models while the Compact SWAT is a second focal plane scope.

FFP or SFP and Why

I use both first focal plane (FFP) and second focal plane (SFP) scopes. In SFP scopes, which is what most of us have used over the years, the reticle stays the same size as the scope’s magnification is dialed up or down. The size of the reticle and the size of the image diverge as the magnification is adjusted. This means that the value of those aim points on the reticle change depending on the magnification and are normally calibrated to provide the specified elevation or drop at the maximum magnification setting. This limits the utility of the aim points if the shooter constantly changes the magnification. The saving grace is that the center point of the crosshairs does not shift and is always correct, which is why I often make my adjustments by positioning the crosshair on my target rather than using the Mil-Dots. 

With an FFP scope, the reticle and image stay in scale as the magnification is dialed up or down. I will speak mostly of the advantages of FFP, but one disadvantage is that at low magnification it can be difficult to even see the crosshairs. The linear relationship between the size of the image and the reticle is advantageous in that it allows the shooter to use the aim points at any magnification without the need for mental gymnastics. In practical terms for airgunners, where trajectory is an issue at much shorter ranges than with a powder-burning firearm, it allows a hunter to figure out what their gun and pellet trajectory is, then map it to their reticle knowing it will not change as magnification changes.

The conventional wisdom for hunters using centerfires has been that unless they are engaging in long-range shooting, there is less advantage to using a FFP scope, which often costs significantly more than SFP scopes. In my experience with airguns, the marked trajectory at shorter distances (compared to firearms) in conjunction with the need for precise shot placement on small kill zones, means that magnification is adjusted more. Airgun hunters want to know how the reticle markers map to a point of impact at discreet intervals. I have no problem hunting with SFP scopes but do find myself gravitating to FFP scopes more frequently these days.

 

Bi-directional Recoil

Spring Piston Airguns place another requirement on optics: They need to be able to stand up to a springer’s recoil. Before you laugh at this, many expensive high-end scopes that had been used on magnum centerfire rifles, have been destroyed when placed on a spring-piston rifle. Though the springer’s recoil is much less, it is bi-directional, moving first rearward than accelerating rapidly forward. Most firearms scopes are not reinforced to withstand this forward recoil. When buying a scope for a springer, all of the same requirements mentioned above hold true, but make sure it is also rated for use on a spring piston air rifle. 

The new scopes I’ve been using this year, are mostly those from three companies, MTC, Element and Leapers. I find they have high-quality feature sets, and usability is excellent in all three. MTC and Element scopes have been developed primarily for the PCP shooter, while many of the Leapers/UTG scopes are purpose designed to be spring piston airgun rated.

The MTC Cobra F1 FFP has become my favorite overall hunting scope — great performance, feature rich and fairly compact. The crosshairs use Mil click-stop adjustments with lockable, finger-adjustable elevation and windage turrets. The glass-etched reticle is illuminated and uses sidewheel parallax adjustment to correct parallax distortion and facilitate range estimation. I especially find the light transmission qualities of this scope to be outstanding, with a clear, bright sight picture across the entire 4-16X magnification range. This is facilitated by MTC’s proprietary lens coatings and the implementation of a 50mm objective lens in a 30mm tube. 

In the field I appreciate the option of turning the magnification down to 4X and setting the AO at 10 yards to get a well-focused close-range shot when necessary. I think the simple, yet highly effective reticle aim points make this the perfect fast action hunting scope. 

The Element Helix is another scope I have been using a lot this year. I have the 6-24x50mm FFP configuration, though it is also available in a SFP version. The glass quality is top level, and the scope is available with several reticle options, some of which have been designed by well-known airgunners. The turret system Element has implemented features stainless steel internals that stand up to heavy usage. The turrets and zero-stop mechanism make tool-free adjustments quick and easy. This is a scope I have particularly liked for long-range shooting and have used it on several prairie dog shoots with excellent results.

 

Good Scopes on a Budget

Lately, I’ve been topping many of my guns, especially my spring piston rifles, with Leapers/UTG scopes. These scopes do not have the same level of refinement seen in the MTC line, but the glass is good quality, the illuminated Mil-Dot reticles are very serviceable, and they are very rugged. As a matter of fact, Leapers has a whole line of spring piston rated scopes that can stand up to the bi-directional recoil of the meanest magnum springer. I particularly like the compact 3-12x44mm scope on a 30mm tube and use this on my compact PCPs as well as springers. An impressive attribute of the Leapers scopes is the budget friendly pricing. There is an old saying that you get what you pay for, but many of this company’s scopes punch way above their weight class. 

Airgunners have a lot of optics options available to them these days and each of these three companies offers quality products for just about any airgunning application. I suggest that when buying a scope for an airgun you think about how it will be used, the features you need, the conditions it will be used in and get the best scope your budget will allow. Airguns used for hunting rely on precision, and good optics will allow shooters to get the most out of their rigs.

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