Air rifles are often underestimated; dismissed as pellet guns or even toys by many and disregarded in favour of .22’s or other ‘real’ guns. Not only is it dangerous to treat any weapon with this disregard but it really is a disservice to these very simple but incredibly effective weapons.
They might not be what you’d want for home defence or hunting anything more than the smallest of game but they can be incredible tools and exceptional training aids for young people being introduced to firearms for the first time.
I learned to shoot with an air rifle, an old BSA airsporter, an underlever spring design with open sights that had been my Dad’s since he was a teenager. He taught me to shoot with that before I bought my own with money I earned from my first paper round and probably took more rabbits, squirrels, rats, pigeons and other small game and vermin with that any other single weapon I own, I still have it many, many years later and now my children are learning to shoot with it just as I learned with my Dad’s air rifle.Before you look at a scope to put on your air rifle though there are a few things you need to understand about how they work, the common types of air rifle and shooting disciplines they are most commonly used for.
- How Air Rifles Work
- Modern Air Rifles
- Spring Powered Air Rifles
- Pre-charged Pneumatic Air Rifles
- Large bore Air Rifles
- Hunting and Target Shooting with your Air Rifle
- Top 10 Air Eifle Scopes Reviews - Comparison Table
How Air Rifles Work
First of all it’s quite easy to assume that air rifles are a modern invention, a projectile launched either by a measured dose of air from a pressurised reservoir or the action of a spring power piston sounds fairly modern and while they aren’t as ancient as the roots of firearms powered by gunpowder, which originated in the 13th Century in China, they have still been around in their earliest forms since the 16th Century.
In fact in the days of muzzle loading black powder firearms air weapons offered considerable advantages, they could be loaded faster, fired without a tell-tale muzzle flash or smoke and could be used in any weather while flint lock’s, match locks and other firearms were very unreliable in damp conditions. An early air rifle, the Girandoni air rifle was invented in Austria in 1779 and issued to the Austrian army from 1780 to 1815, it was made moderately famous after it’s use by the Lewis and Clarke expedition when it was demonstrated to Native American tribes.
The Girandoni fired .46 calibre balls, considerably larger than modern air rifle pellets, at around 500 feet per second with about 117 ft/lbs of energy, powerful compared to most air rifles today which normally fire a .22 or .177 calibre projectile, although there is a growing trend for large calibre air rifles which can be used for hunting large and even moderately dangerous game.
While the Girandoni was very innovative and offered certain advantages over contemporary weapons it was difficult and expensive to manufacture and the air reservoir it was fitted with required 1500 strokes from a hand operated pump to fill, or alternatively filled from a larger wagon drawn reservoir. Each charge would give about 30 shots but the rifle required special training to operate and was eventually withdrawn from regular use.
It wasn’t until modern manufacturing techniques became available that affordable, reliable air weapons became more commonly available.
Modern Air Rifles
These come in two main types, spring operated whereby the projectile is propelled by air driven by a spring operated piston or by a pressurised cylinder which releases a measure of air with each trigger pull to launch the projectile. Most modern pre-charged air rifles feature a cylinder which can be filled with a pump or from a divers bottle in a similar, if considerably updated, fashion to the Girandoni rifle. Some air rifles, but these tend to fall firmly in the ‘bb gun’ category and don’t tend to be particularly powerful or accurate, can be ‘pumped up’ with an integral charging handle to fill a reservoir of air, this charge of air is then all released with a single trigger pull making them very slow and inconvenient to load and fire and impractical for all but casual use and back garden plinking.
Spring Powered Air Rifles
Oddly enough the oldest of air rifles represented by the Girandoni featured technology which didn’t become popular in mass produced air rifles until the mid to late 90’s before then most affordable air rifles were spring powered. In these a lever, often in the form of the barrel which breaks open or alternatively in the form of an underslung additional lever, is used to cock the spring which drives a piston and forces a measure of air through a valve which propels a projectile. Because these rifles need to be cocked with a lever between each shot they don’t really lend themselves to being fed by a magazine and are single shot weapons. Modern precharged rifles though can and often are fed by a magazine and can be operated with a simple bolt action, although there are many variations to that theme, much more so than you would normally see on regular firearms.
Spring guns, considering their limited power, actually produce a hefty recoil, not in proportion to the energy of the projectile but because of the power of the spring being released. For this reason you still need to be a bit careful when selecting a scope as it will have to be more robust than something you might slap on an airsoft gun, spring guns actually recoil significantly more than most .22 or .17 rimfires.They are perfectly suited to hunting or target shooting and can be very effective, normally available in .177 and .22 calibres spring guns also used to be produced in .25 calibre which was popular for a while and more powerful air rifles are still produced in this calibre.
Pre-charged Pneumatic Air Rifles
These are the mainstay of modern air rifle shooting and function more or less the same way that the Girandoni air rifle did over 200 years ago. Most air rifles fire a .177 or .22 projectile and work on the principle of a specific measure of the air stored in a pressurised cylinder being released with each trigger pull. Depending on the specific model of rifle, it’s power and calibre those cylinders might contain enough air for up to seventy shots, plenty for the average hunting trip or target shooting session.
There are a whole range of different methods of cocking and loading precharged air rifles, the early ones tended to be loaded one pellet at a time like spring air rifles but nowadays they almost all feature a magazine, normally a rotary style magazine almost like a toy cap gun. This offers a considerable advantage over single shot air rifles and allows you to reload quickly. This makes a massive difference if you are hunting with your air rifle and might need a quick follow up shot or even for target shooting where not having to pick up your rifle to cock it allows you to stay in the aim and build a more consistent group.
They are almost completely silent when fitted with a simple moderator and are a fantastic tool for urban pest control and close range hunting, especially in areas where more powerful firearms might be inappropriate or dangerous.
Large bore Air Rifles
The Girandoni fired a .46 calibre projectile and until the 20th Century almost all air rifles fired projectiles much larger than the typical .177 or .22 as they needed the size and weight of a larger projectile to give them a useful amount of energy. More modern air rifles through generally fire smaller pellets and people often think that the large bore air rifles on the market at the moment are a brand new innovation but when you consider the full history of air rifles they really aren’t.Large bore air rifles are a fairly specialist item though and they are expensive compared to most lower powered options. There are limited numbers of manufacturers who produce them and Benjamin leads the way in the large bore air rifle market, one of their flagship products; the bulldog is demonstrated in this video:
These large bore air rifles can even be used for hunting large and moderately dangerous game such as hogs or even African Plains Game such as the smaller species of Antelope and you can watch a hunt for a black wildebeest here:
My personal opinion is that these large bore air rifles aren’t suitable for this kind of game as they don’t deform and expand like full power rifle bullets that will be traveling several thousand feet per second instead of a few hundred feet per second and are specially designed to expand. While air rifle projectiles, even the 145 grain, .357 projectiles of the Benjamin are generally solid and don’t impart a lot of energy when they strike your quarry, they will punch through leaving small wounds which might kill with a precise shot but do not create the kind of wounds you would expect from more powerful firearms which are essential for a humane kill. Standard power air rifles are however perfect for hunting small game such as rabbits, squirrels and for controlling small pest species such as pigeons.
Hunting and Target Shooting with your Air Rifle
While they might not really be suitable for hunting large game air rifles are great for other things and will most commonly be found in .177 and .22 calibres, although they have also been popular in .20 and .25 calibres. These calibres are perfect for some target disciplines and for hunting and pest control.
The .177 calibre is the most popular for target shooting, except possibly the discipline of ‘hunter field target’ which replicates hunting conditions where the .22 calibre is more popular due to the increased energy of the projectile. For Olympic target disciplines though the .177 is the calibre of choice. Some very specific target disciplines such as 10 meter air rifle are shot through open sights for most other target or hunting applications a scope is required.
Due to the relatively low power of air rifles their projectiles travel in a quite a pronounced ballistic arc, a trajectory which would be exhibited over several hundred or even a thousand yards in a centre fire firearm might take place over forty or fifty with an air rifle. Because of this pronounced trajectory a scope with multiple aim points is useful, mil dot or line reticles allow you to adjust for the trajectory of the air rifle pellet over range, while target turrets can be useful for ‘dialling in’ those corrections with scopes on more powerful rifles those adjustments are so constant with an air rifle that it is easier and quicker to use the reticle, so target turrets are really wasted on most air rifle scopes unless you are involved in very serious target shooting.
What you don’t need on an air rifle scope is the expensive optics that make longer range shooting possible, it does sometimes confuse me why people would put thousand dollar optics on air rifles worth just a couple of hundred dollars if not much less. You won’t be shooting at extreme ranges so extremely expensive lenses and coatings and very high zoom really aren’t necessary but here are ten recommendations for scopes that would be perfect for your .22 or .177 calibre air rifle;
Top 10 Air Eifle Scopes Reviews - Comparison Table
Various; options include 2-7 to 6-18
various; options from 236-50
Various; options from 1.75-5 to 4-12
Various; options from 32-50
v-plex or deadhold.
BARSKA AC11876 4x32
A fixed power scope is all an air rifle really needs under most circumstances unless you are getting really in to target shooting or carrying out very challenging pest control work. This scope by Barska is well suited to hunting and pest control work but also features a mil-dot reticle which makes adjusting for targets at different ranges much easier.
The fixed power four times magnification is plenty for informal targets and ample for vermin out to fifty meters. The illuminated reticle will make picking up targets possible in low light conditions and the mil dots will help you adjust when you want to reach out a bit further.
The 50mm front end of this scope gathers light fantastically allowing you to use your air rifle in low light conditions for hunting and pest control at dusk and dawn or even at night with a lamp. At an affordable price the Simmons 8-point retains fantastic clarity with high quality glass and fully coated optics without breaking the bank and outclassing modestly priced air rifles. The variable magnification allows you to make that coveted head shot which the small size and limited power of air rifles demands to ensure a clean kill.
I have been using Simmons scopes on my own air rifles ever since I bought my first one with the proceeds of a paper round. They have always been great and I still have one on my current Air Arms TX200 HC air rifle.
TASCO Varmint 6-24x42mm
The 24 times magnification really isn’t required for most air rifle shooting but for precise urban pest control might be carried out a little easier with powerful optics and it may also be useful for target shooting. Additionaly this scope from TASCO is features a mil dot reticle which is perfect for adjusting for the poor trajectory of an air rifle pellet and making corrections for windage and elevation without having to dial adjustments into the scope.
While UTG scopes are robust enough to work on a full bore rifle their low price makes them a great choice for an air rifle as well. This one is very compact so it won’t weigh down a light weight rifle and also gives you mil-dots and an illuminated reticle to assist with your aiming. Many UTG scopes, as with the Barska featured earlier come with mounts to attach the scope to your rifle but you do need to consider the kind of mounting system that works, while some air rifles do feature piccatiny or weaver rails you may need to fit them yourself as an aftermarket option or consider mounts for standard dove tails rather than piccatiny mounts.
Hammers Air rifle scope
This scope has the features you need in an air rifle scope without breaking the bank or offering too many superfluous features. It does lack the Mil-dot reticle that some of the other scopes on this list have and which is quite important for air rifle shooting. It comes with a one piece mount, this style of mount provides added rigidity and stability which can be very useful, especially on spring air rifles which recoil notoriously viciously.
CVLIFE 3-9x40 Optics R4 Reticle Crosshair Scope with 20mm Free Mounts
Another great bargain scope for your air rifle, the 40mm objective lens gathers most available light but for the very best performance in that department you want to look for something in the 50mm range but this is perfect for most air rifle shooting and hunting scenarios.
It also comes with free mounts, to get this scope mounted on your rifle without delay, if we were talking about scopes for long range shooting on a full bore rifle we might discuss the lack of target style turrets on a lot of these scopes but they really aren’t necessary on an air rifle they complicate what should be a very simple activity.
While most of the scopes in this list feature fixed or relatively small magnification ranges and objectives or between 32 and 40mm this is more suited for field target shooting. The honeycomb sun shade isn’t really a useful feature but the large parallax adjustment wheel is a great option on a scope suited for air rifle shooting where lots of close range focus adjustments will be required.
The illuminated reticle could also be useful and the reticle with it’s complex multiple sub-tensions will allow you to make any necessary adjustments due to range. The 50 mm objective lens will also gather light to give you the best picture quality at the higher magnifications.
Perhaps more expensive than some of the other options for your air rifle this scope by bushnell will do a fantastic job though and will give you the robust performance you might not normally see on a cheaper scope designed for an air rifle.
Bushnell offer great quality products at very affordable prices. Not quite as low as the Simmons but still at an affordable price. As well as multi-coated optics and waterproof and fogproof construction the bushnell is protected by a robust warranty and will serve excellently on top of your air rifle for squirrel or rabbit hunting.
BARSKA AC11876 4x32
Vortex Optics some fantastic products for firearms in general and while this model is strictly designed for rim fire rifles it would make a great option for your air rifle as well. Vortex have only been around since 2004 but they have built a fantastic reputation in just a few years and this is just one of their line-up of great scopes.
The v-plex reticle is basically just a very small, fine duplex reticle but the deadhold option gives you a couple of additional sub-tensions for adjusting your aim, which will probably be very useful to you on an air rifle.
The Buckmaster might be at home on a full power hunting rifle but it will also serve well on an air rifle and it’s ‘BDC reticle will give you extra aim points.
The 50mm objective lens will gather all the light you need if you are shooting at dusk and dawn and the adjustable magnification will give you the adjustability you need for precise shots on small game and vermin.
Any of these scopes will serve you well on top of your air rifle but I have used Simmons and Nikko Sterling and UTG scopes on almost all my air rifles and also on rim fires. The added aim points provided by mil dot, bdc or other similar reticles are very helpful with an air rifle and you should really consider brands such as Vortex optics who produce scopes far over and above the requirements of most air rifles and be a fantastic option.
If you really want to do some shooting with larger bore air rifles you may need to think even harder about your scope and purchase something that would be suitable for full bore rifles.