Air rifles can be both useful and fun to shoot, but the fact of the matter is that there are times when you just want to make sure that you hit your target. It’s not to say that a good set of sights can’t be what you need, but if you’ve got your rifle for hunting or pest control, then a challenge isn’t what you’re looking for. You want an air rifle scope that is accurate, clear, and will help you get the shot that you want every time.
Keep in mind that every air rifle scope is different and has strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect scope that will help you in every situation. There are, instead, several scopes available and it’s up to you to choose the one that is going to help you accomplish what you’re looking to.
First, let’s take a minute to talk about what a scope is and how it’s constructed.
Terminology and Parts of a Scope
Before you go out looking for a new scope, it helps to understand how it’s made and what you’re actually looking at. It seems simple, but it can be one of the more complex parts of your rifle and needs just as much care as the rest of your weapon.
An air rifle scope has two lenses that you need to worry about: the ocular lens and the objective lens. The ocular lens is the one that you look into and the objective lens is the one that faces away from you. When a company puts the magnification on a scope box, it generally looks something like this: 4×32. The first number refers to the magnification of the ocular lens, the second number refers to the size of the objective lens.
There are also two different types of scopes: fixed and variable. Less costly scopes tend to be fixed magnification, which means that they will always magnify the same amount no matter what. The numbers I gave you above, 4×32, are an example of what a fixed scope might be. In this case, the “4” means that it magnifies whatever you’re looking it by 4 times. Fixed scopes generally magnify anywhere from 4 to 12 times a normal view, though there are some that go higher than that. Keep in mind that higher magnifications also exaggerate small movements, so you might not want the highest you can get.
Variable scopes can be adjusted to a number of different magnifications. Their models will usually be listed with a range of numbers in the first place, such as 3-9×32 or 4-12×32. In these cases, the first scope can magnify between 3 and 9 times, while the second can magnify between 4 and 12.
The objective lens on the other side of the scope is what the second number is measuring. It’s the size of the lens in millimeters. Generally the higher the magnification, the darker an image gets, so larger lenses can let more light in to brighten the look. They can also help in low light situations. For most people, 50mm is the largest lens they will need. Any more than that and you not only have to worry about extra weight, but also mounting your scope higher to make room for the lens.
Parallax and its effect on accuracy
Many scopes have a nob on the side for a parallax adjustment. The parallax effect is a bit tricky to explain, but the easiest way to describe it is by example. Hold your hand out in front of you at arm’s length and close one eye. Now don’t move your hand, but switch the eye that you’re looking with. See how it looks like your hand has moved? That’s the parallax effect. Worse, the closer you get, the more pronounced it becomes. This little nob helps you control for that so moving your head a little doesn’t throw off your shot. The nob, which is also sometimes a ring around the objective lens, is called an “Adjustable Objective” or “AO” and is usually part of a model number if it’s on the scope.
The last part you really need to understand is the reticle. All this means, in plain speech, is “crosshairs.” There are a number of styles of reticle that you can choose from, each with different benefits. We won’t cover them all here, but this is a few you might run into.
Fine Crosshair – The most classic reticle style available. All this is is two thin lines that cross in the middle. The advantage of this, especially for hunters, is that it doesn’t cover very much of the target. The problem is that if you’re hunting in the deep woods and there’s a dark background, it’s easy to lose the center.
Duplex Crosshair – Many air gun enthusiasts prefer the duplex crosshair reticle. This has the advantage of not covering much of the target while also being easier to see against vegetation because the lines are thicker around the edges of the field of view.
Mil-Dot – This is like the duplex crosshairs, but instead of thicker lines it uses a series of small dots along the hairs that not only make it easier to see, but also provide targeting zones and even range finding if you really wanted to use it for that.
More complex scopes have adjustment nobs for focus, windage, elevation, and even illumination, but for now let’s stick with the basics.
The Difference Between Air Rifle Scopes and Firearm Scopes
Far too many novice air gun enthusiasts make the very expensive mistake of assuming that all scopes are the same. I know at least one person who borrowed his friend’s hunting rifle scope to use for a day of plinking and the scope never worked right again.
The reason for the difference is that air rifles have literally twice the amount of recoil as firearms of the same caliber. In the case of a rifle that shoots bullets, force pushes the muzzle up once when you fire and that’s it.
With an air rifle, you have either a spring to worry about or the release of gas to push a piston. In both cases you have recoil once when the spring or piston is released, and then again in the opposite direction when it is fully extended. Cock your arm back, then throw a quick punch straight forward without trying to stop at the end. You should feel the rest of your body move once when you start punching, and again when you reach the end of your arm.
Because normal rifle scopes are so delicate, they generally can’t handle the extra shaking and the lenses can be thrown out of alignment so they simply will not work anymore. Air rifle scopes are designed to compensate for that extra recoil. If you own firearms and want to get into air rifles, make sure you don’t shoot with your old scopes unless you don’t plan to use them again.
Now that you have an idea of what you’re looking at, let’s take a look at some of the options out there.
Best Entry-Level Air Rifle Scopes (under $50)
If you’re just starting out with air guns or using scopes, you may want to ease yourself in and not get anything too pricey. These scopes are both quality and will help you get the hang of shooting with magnification without too much of an investment.
The UTG/Leapers brand produces a pretty good range of different scopes, and this is probably the best of their entry-level models. Like I mentioned above, there’s nothing particularly fancy about this scope, just a fixed magnification that comes with rings to attach to a .22. What is does have is reliability.
The best thing about this UTG is that it holds zero incredibly well. I adjusted mine when I first got it and I haven’t had to again over 700 shots later. I know at least one person who got a lemon, but nobody else I’ve talked to has ever had a problem with this scope staying adjusted.
The mil-dot reticle is also a nice touch, made nicer by directions that come in the booklet on how you can use those to find range. A lot of shooters don’t use this feature, but when it comes to this scope, which is adjusted to 35 yards, it helps to be able to determine that quickly and without having to stop lining up your shot.
The biggest issue with this is that there is an internal lens that, if it gets knocked out of place, makes the scope pretty much unfix-able. However, that doesn’t happen often and you’re not investing a lot to worry about.
When you see the word “Winchester,” you can be pretty sure that you’re getting quality. That is certainly the case with this scope.
It’s one of the few scopes under $50 with an adjustable objective. Most scopes are zeroed for parallax at anywhere between 50 and 100 yards away from the shooter by default. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if you’re shooting at a range or need it for pest control, there’s a good chance that your target is closer to 10 yards away. That means that even slight head adjustments can throw off your aim if you don’t have the AO available. Fortunately, the Winchester has it available and is incredibly easy to use.
Another thing that stands out for most Winchester scopes is that the lenses are excellent. These are very clear and give a wide field of vision without notable blurriness.
This is a solid scope that you can count on to work over a number of distances and in several situations.
Best Mid-Level Air Rifle Scopes (under $100)
As you get more expensive, you’ll also find that you get more options to work with. These scopes are a bit more complex, but give the shooter more control over how they are used. If you’re hunting for your dinner but can’t drop a ton on an expensive scope, these will still give you the accuracy that you need.
This scope consistently exceeds expectations for me. It has a number of options, not all of which are fully reliable, but the ones that count are always exactly what they need to be.
The focus and zoom adjustments are tight on this, with easy to feel clicks that make it simple to adjust to exactly the way that you want them. Moreover, you don’t have to worry about them getting knocked around while you’re walking with this, a problem I’ve had with other scopes that have cost me important shots.
One feature this scope has over the Hawke offerings are the uncapped elevation and windage adjustment knobs. This is probably one of my favorite attributes. If I need to make a small adjustment on the fly I simply do it. No caps to unscrew and possibly lose, and no wasted time. The knobs also seem to keep the internals sealed well from the elements.
I’m not a big fan of the lighted reticle since I don’t really see the point in most situations, but you don’t have to turn it on, so I don’t. Further, light leaks around the inside, so it makes the inside of the scope tube kind of glow when it’s on. I see this as more of a gimmick than anything really useful, but it is on most of the scopes in this price range, and It’s definitely not a deal breaker. In fact, my daughter actually really likes it because one of the available colors is pink, so I guess it’s not totally worthless.
Other than that, though, this scope works and it works well. Once you’re found zero, you can count on it staying put and being highly accurate. As far as value for your money, this is one of the best scopes that Leapers makes.
What I like best about the HK3012 is that it packs a lot of value into a reasonably priced package. Not only is it very easy to mount this scope, but there is a remarkably fast zero time so that you can have it installed and be shooting almost immediately.
When you’re talking about Hawke Sport, though, what you really need to talk about are Hawke optics. For whatever reason, these are some of the best lenses in the business, with very clear sight and a good field of vision, even at higher magnifications. I have never looked through my HK3012 and not immediately adjusted mentally to the new magnification because it looks as clear as my own eyes.
Besides the easy installation and the optics, this is also a seriously rugged scope. This is the one that I take with me into the heavy brush because I know that it can take a few bumps along the way. The barrel is heavy, but doesn’t add significant weight to the gun, and the lenses are well mounted so that you can be confident that they’ll stay in place.
All due respect to UTG/Leapers, but Hawke Sport absolutely has the better mid-range scope for serious small game hunting or even long-range plinking.
Best High- End Air Rifle Scope (over $100)
At this point, you’re ready to make an investment that you hope will provide the best possible view and range finding while being able to withstand even the toughest conditions. When you’re ready to buy your first high-end scope, understand that it will take more work on your part to adjust, but that’s part of the advantage: the chance to set it to your specifications.
When I was testing this scope, I had set the parallax at 30 yards. I went out hunting for squirrels and one of them jumped on a branch maybe five yards distant. The crosshairs stayed put and I still got my game. Something that can correct for parallax that low immediately impresses me, and that alone would make it a worthwhile purchase.
As with the less expensive UTG True Hunter scope this scope has the uncapped windage and elevation adjustment knobs. Again, I really like this feature. They also have the ability to realign the dials to zero without changing your adjustment so you can easily keep track of changes.
The clarity and light transmission on this scope are absolutely top notch. Even at higher magnifications, I can see very fine details and the 40mm objective means that I never have to worry about things being too dim.
My only complaint, and its minor, is that the mil-dot reticle on this one, because the optics are so good, blends a little too much against certain backgrounds. They should consider something with hash marks instead, which are going to be larger, but not hide the target significantly while still being easier to see.
I cannot say how incredibly disappointed I was with this scope. Considering how good Hawke Sport is in the mid-range, it’s shocking to see how little care they put into their high-end product. It’s almost like it’s made by another company altogether!
Starting with the good stuff, Hawke optics are still the absolute best on this scope. Everything is clear and the coatings they use to keep the lenses in good shape does an excellent job. Never a scratch or warp in them.
However, that didn’t prevent the barrel from being slightly warped in a way that not only threw off my aim, but also had just enough room that when it started raining and I got a little water on the objective, it managed to slide into the barrel and I had to work to dry it out.
This scope cannot seem to hold zero. I’ve tried on a number of rifles with several mounts and none of them came even remotely close to working right.
I honestly don’t know what happened. In preparing for this review, I not only tried one, but I returned that one thinking that maybe it was a manufacturing defect and the scope is normally much better. The replacement had many of the same problems other than the warped barrel. Even the objective lens not fitting properly was repeated the second time.
I don’t know how a company that clearly put so much work into making the HK3012 so good could have dropped the ball on the Airmax EV so badly, but they certainly did.
While Hawke may rule the mid-range, UTG/Leapers absolutely has the high end completely under their control.
So what is the Best Air Rifle Scope?
As per usual, I can’t really tell you what the best air rifle scope is. I can tell you what is good for certain activities and sports, but the best rifle scope is going to follow a number of very specific criteria that has meaning and value to you.
With the exception of being able to hold zero, something that every scope should be able to do within reason, what a scope needs to do changes from person to person. Do you need something that can correct for parallax incredibly close, such as for those who want to get rid of the raccoons knocking over trash cans or the birds living in the barn? Are you hunting particularly skittish critters that you need to be far away from to avoid scaring but also want to make sure you kill on the first shot? Do you plan to use do some target shooting at various ranges? Are there several purposes you have in mind for your scope?
For my money, the HK3012 fits my needs very well. It’s not too expensive, is adjustable, doesn’t drift, can handle a day walking through the brush, and has optics that are clear enough that I know my shot isn’t going to injure but kill quickly and humanely. This is the best rifle scope for what I need.
Before investing in an air rifle scope, make sure you sit down and really ask yourself what you need it for. Figure out the kind of shooting you plan to do, how powerful a rifle you want to mount it on, and the kind of investment you’re willing to make.
So long as you know both what you’re looking for and what you’re looking at, you should have no problem finding the best air rifle scope for you. Now go check out my air rifle comparison table to find out what’s the best air rifle to pair with your favorite scope.