The world of airguns is growing steadily every year and for good reason. Air rifles and pellet guns can offer distinct advantages over traditional firearms and for some shooters may even replace firearms altogether.
If you’re getting into airguns, you may have run into scopes that are called air rifle scopes or “airgun rated scopes” and found yourself scratching your head wondering how exactly they differ from traditional scopes.
The truth is they don’t much, it’s mostly a marketing ploy, but there are several features on “airgun” scopes that make them inherently better suited for air rifle and pellet gun use.
Let’s outline the most important features you should look for when shopping for a new scope as well as my top 9 recommendations for every budget. After going through this review, you might also want to check out my favorite PCP air rifles and pellet guns.
- Here are the Best Air Rifle Scopes in 2019 (Listed by Price)
Airgun Rated and Bi-directional Recoil – What’s That?
While there are many advantages to picking features on a scope that are related to airguns, the terminology airgun rated means that the scope is structurally able to withstand a phenomenon called bi-directional recoil. Bi-Directional recoil is exclusive to spring-piston powered air guns and won’t be a problem with the other power plants such as multi-pump pneumatics, C02 or Pre-Charged pneumatics (PCPs).
When a spring-piston airgun is fired, the compressed mainspring releases its energy causing a typical recoil into the shoulder. However, this also causes the piston to shoot forward and slam into the end of the compression tube where the transfer port is located. The piston has a seal which acts like a plunger and forces the air out of the compression tube launching the pellet out of the barrel, while also causing a forward recoil. The whole firing process is actually quite violent and can easily destroy scopes of any quality that are not built for this type of recoil.
I’ve fielded more than one frantic caller who’s spring-piston rifle destroyed a costly Leupold scope or has outright shaken the mounts and scope right off of the rifle! We have to remember that airguns are a fairly new niche within the American sporting market and even high-end scope makers can neglect spring-piston shooters. The good news is that there are more scopes designed to withstand this bi-directional recoil than ever before with most manufacturers fielding “airgun rated” optics in all price ranges.
However, you might be asking yourself, “I have a good quality scope already but how do I know if it’s rated for airgun use?” Usually, I recommend calling the manufacturer directly with your scope model number for confirmation, but occasionally they won’t be of much help. The quickest and most sure-fire way to tell is to look through the objective part of the scope (the large end) and try to see if there is a large diameter coil spring within the scope tube. Typically, this spring is located within the first couple of inches behind the objective lens and is fairly obvious once you know how to look for it. The coil spring acts as a sort of shock absorber similar to shocks on a car or truck and negates the harm of bi-directional recoil. If you’re purchasing a new scope “airgun rated” will typically be on the package or product description as it’s a selling point, but again when in doubt give the manufacturer a shout.
Another feature that is important to airguns of every power plant is the ability to adjust parallax. Parallax is an optical error in which the focal plane of the scope is offset from the reticle, meaning you might not be aiming where you think you’re aiming. An experiment to illustrate this error is to take scope without parallax adjustment and slightly bob your head while looking through the scope (this needs to be done on sandbags or a bipod) and if the target is not within the scopes parallax range the reticle will appear to move or bend.
On typical firearms hunting scopes the parallax range is fixed at 100 yards and anything outside of this range will cause reticle distortion and perhaps a misplaced shot. Greater reticle distortion occurs at closer ranges (100 yards and below) and can cause issues with airgun shot placement as the ranges are often below 50 yards and targets are smaller allowing for a smaller margin of error.
Parallax adjustable scopes adjust out this optical error and allow for much more precise shot placement. Scopes with adjustable parallax have two common methods of adjustment depending on the scope in question. The most common is that a scope will have an adjustable “bell” on the objective end of the scope. The adjustable bell will also have a range of numbers indicating different distances in which the scope should be parallax free and you can simply turn the bell to the desired range.
However, these ranges are not always accurate, and some shooters will wrap a small piece of tape around the bell and write in the accurate markings for each yardage. When in doubt, turn the objective until both the reticle and target become crystal clear at which point the scope should be parallax free. An interesting note is that if you’re willing to make a custom tape for your objective bell the scope can essentially become a very accurate range finder at airgun distances as when the reticle and target are clear at a set distance then you’ll know for sure you’re at say 30 yards. If the target is still blurry, adjust the bell more and when the target is clear simply look at your bell and you will have a solid idea of how far the target is. The process can be time-consuming but in the end is well worth it, especially if you’re not able to afford a laser rangefinder or simply don’t like to carry one.
The second most common adjustment method is through an adjustable “side wheel or side focus” which resembles an elevation or windage turret but is usually located on the left side of the scope. These parallax side wheels are usually found on long range or tactical style scopes but are becoming very common on scopes intended for airgun use. I personally prefer the side wheel to the objective bell adjustment as it’s simply smoother and easier to adjust.
The side-wheel will also allow for adjustment while the rifle is still shouldered making it the superior choice when quickly adjusting for variable ranges as well as moving targets. In many cases, especially for airguns, these scopes will have an optional larger side wheel attached via set screw or tension fit that allows for a much more precise adjustment and greater surface area to wrap your parallax range tape. It’s vital for scopes intended for airgun use to have parallax adjustment down to as low as 10 yards while many firearms scopes with parallax adjustment will begin at 25 yards. On a final note about parallax, if you’re attempting to use the optical clarity as your “rangefinder” make sure the adjustment is made while on the highest magnification that you’re scope allows since higher magnification…well, magnifies the parallax error more allowing the shooter to more finely adjust in that perfect parallax free range.
Air Rifle Reticles
When I’m shopping for an air rifle scope one of the most crucial features I look for is reticle type. While you can get away with the plain ol’ Duplex style reticle, I find that having a reticle with a few reference points to be very handy when dealing with the rainbow trajectories of airgun velocities. Imagine this scenario: You’ve spotted a squirrel at 47 yards but your rifle is zeroed for 35 yards. Logic dictates that you’ll need to aim a bit higher to account for the drop of the pellet over the additional 12 yards. With a duplex or plain wire reticle, you’ll pretty much have to eyeball it which can be inhumane to your quarry if indeed you misplace the shot. However, reticles like Mil-dots, MAP-6, ½ Mil-dot are all extremely useful reference reticles. While initially these reticles were developed to help long-range shooters estimate target ranges, for airguns they can provide aiming points to deal with both wind drift as well as projectile drop.
One important thing regarding spring-piston air rifles and reticles is that you should be shopping for a scope that has an etched glass reticle as opposed to a wire reticle. The vibrations from the spring-piston rifles can snap the wire reticles, while etched reticles are lasered directly onto the lens so you needn’t worry about reticle damage.
A pet peeve of mine is the absolute market flood of a feature called illuminated reticles (IR) and are particularly abhorrent on low priced scopes. The idea is that a small LED will illuminate the reticle and allow the shooter to see the reticle in low light conditions. However, the target tends to get blurred out even on the lowest brightness settings. The IR also adds unnecessary weight and more moving parts to the optic. I’ve shot both firearms and airguns in very austere, low light, dreary conditions and have never felt the need for IR within my scope. Higher quality optics and glass are the only thing that will allow better target and reticle clarity in low light. However, when shopping for air rifle scopes it’s almost an included feature these days on many scopes and has that “tacticool” appeal… just be aware they may not work the way you’d like.
Magnification, Tube Size and Objective
When it comes to scopes you’re going to run into either variable magnification or fixed magnification. Each style has their pros and cons with variable magnification being the most popular choice for most people today.
With a variable magnification, the range is typically represented by the first two numbers followed by an objective size such as 3-9X40mm; The 3 indicates 3x normal (vision) magnification up to 9x with the magnification wheel being very easy to see and adjust on the fly. The number 40mm indicates the size in millimeters of the objective lens of the scope. Typically, the larger the objective, the more light the scope is going to allow into the scope translating into a brighter image. However, keep in mind that with large objectives you will need to mount the scope in higher mounts so that the scope will clear the barrel. Bigger isn’t always better and you may find that when the scope sits higher it becomes difficult to attain a good cheek weld and consistent shooting positions. Also, the closer the scope axis is to the center axis of the barrel the less you’ll need to adjust for trajectories (there is some complicated mathematics to this, but the closer the better). I’ve found that I prefer scopes with objectives ranging from 32mm to 44mm as this gives the best compromise of optical brightness and keeping the scope close to the barrel.
Airgun targets tend to be smaller and may require more magnification than a typical 3-9x40mm that’s usually at home on a deer rifle. Scopes with magnification up to 16x or even 20x can be just the ticket for airgun use. Be careful, though, as high magnification doesn’t necessarily mean high quality. Low quality-high magnification scopes can be a nightmare to use as the edges of the scope maybe become blurred or hazy.
Fixed magnification scopes are just that, the magnification is fixed and not “zoom-able”. While they’re a bit less versatile than a variable, these scopes often weigh MUCH less. Due to less moving parts fixed magnification scopes are extremely durable and tend to hold their original zero very well. So how the hell do you know which preset magnification to pick since you only get to choose one? My best advice on this front is to start with a variable magnification scope (if you’re new to scopes) and play with different magnification ranges for the various scenarios you shoot in. Personally, 6X and 10X cover most of my uses from hunting to informal plinking.
Finally, you may be wondering what tube size is best; 30mm or 1”. The tube is the non-tapered area on either side of the adjustment turrets and is where your scope rings/mounts will go. There is a lot of hoopla on the internet saying that 30mm is inherently brighter than a 1″ tube, however, brightness is actually a product of exit pupil diameter (this can be a whole article in of itself) and brightness claims are largely inflated. The main advantages that a 30mm tube offers is a thicker and more durable tube wall as well as bigger internal lenses which can increase optical performance. Though, a lot of manufacturers will use 1” tube lenses inside of a 30mm tube so that the shooter has more “clicks” to work with effectively increasing the usable range of adjustment. For airgunners, 30mm became a popular choice as these tubes are usually used on tactically oriented scopes with mil-dot reticles, zeroing target turrets, higher magnification ranges and all the infinitely adjustable goodies that are perfect for improving airgun precision.
Here are the Best Air Rifle Scopes in 2019 (Listed by Price)
1. Winchester by Daisy AO 2-7x32
My review: If you’re looking for the cheapest scope to get the job done, Winchester is your best friend. They’ve been making optics since most of our readers were born and offer up a fantastic budget line of scopes. It’s hard to complain about a scope that simply works and is under $100.
This scope comes with a magnification level of 2-7x and an objective lens of 32mm which is a pretty standard offering for air rifle optics. Furthermore, this scope has the basic level of durability features such as being fog proof and shockproof. This scope can certainly take a beating and seems to hold up very well, especially against its competitors.
All in all, this is probably one of the best economical options for an airgun that a minor will be operating or something to just throw on and go plink around in the backyard. It’s not exactly ideal for hunting but I suppose you could get away with it! Notable Features: The only cons I see: If you haven’t used an AO scope before, this one may be a bit frustrating as you must have the AO perfectly focused to have a clean sight picture.
All in all, this is probably one of the best economical options for an airgun that a minor will be operating or something to just throw on and go plink around in the backyard. It’s not exactly ideal for hunting but I suppose you could get away with it!
The only cons I see:
If you haven’t used an AO scope before, this one may be a bit frustrating as you must have the AO perfectly focused to have a clean sight picture.
2. Bushnell Banner 4-12X40
Price range: Under $100
My review: The Bushnell Banner is one of my favorite scope series under $100. It’s a no-frills 4-12X40mm (also available in 6-18X40mm) scope with a duplex style reticle and an adjustable objective for parallax. The beauty of this optic is in its simplicity. It’s not weighed down by illuminated reticle devices or the extra moving parts of lockable target turrets. The lack of these features allow the manufacturer to put extra money into the glass and the Banner line is optically sharper than many other scopes in this price range.
The Bushnell Banner is also a good choice for spring-piston air rifles. 4-12X gives a very versatile magnification range with a 40mm objective being a good standard for most air rifle applications. Notable Features: Example content here
The Bushnell Banner is also a good choice for spring-piston air rifles. 4-12X gives a very versatile magnification range with a 40mm objective being a good standard for most air rifle applications.
Example content here
3. UTG Accushot 4-16X44 30mm (Best Under $100)
Price range: Under $100
My review: The UTG Accushot is easily the most feature-laden scope in the $100 price range and has remained a top choice for the discerning air gunner for many years. The Accushot sports a mil-dot reticle, zero reset-able locking target turrets, side focus parallax adjustment, a generous 44mm objective, and a hefty 30mm tube. It’s literally every feature that an air gunner could want in an air rifle scope and a bargain at that! If that wasn’t enough, the scope comes equipped with flip-up scope caps to protect your lenses and a set of 30mm Picatinny rings. One of the only drawbacks to the scope is that the optical clarity isn’t as bright as a similarly priced scope like the Bushnell Banner.
The illuminated reticle also tends to be a little bright and can wash out and distort the reticle. Overall, I can’t say enough good things about this optic and would recommend it to anyone. In my opinion, this is the best air rifle scope under $100. I’ve owned scopes a lot more expensive, but I always keep an Accushot in my stable since they’ve been so reliable for me. Notable Features: The only cons I see: A bit heavy coming in at 23.2 ounces
Optical clarity is wanting
The illuminated reticle also tends to be a little bright and can wash out and distort the reticle. Overall, I can’t say enough good things about this optic and would recommend it to anyone. In my opinion, this is the best air rifle scope under $100. I’ve owned scopes a lot more expensive, but I always keep an Accushot in my stable since they’ve been so reliable for me.
The only cons I see:
A bit heavy coming in at 23.2 ounces
4. UTG 3-9X32mm Hunter
Price range – Under $75
My review: While for most shooting scenario’s I recommend sticking with a scope at least $100 and up, if you’re on an extremely tight budget you would be served well by the UTG 3-9X32mm Hunter. The UTG Hunter features many desirable features like a mil-dot reticle, adjustable objective, and zeroing lockable turrets. Just like the Accushot the Hunter comes standard with flip up scope caps, and 1″ dovetail rings with a stop pin. One of the cool features that UTG included in this scope is their “TF2” turrets. Gone are the days when you need a coin to make elevation and windage adjustments.
Simply pull up on the turret that you want to adjust and push down to lock it in place. The turrets are also “zeorable” so in when you dial in your final zero you can set the turret dial to “0”, making counting clicks a lot easier. Notable Features: Example content here
Simply pull up on the turret that you want to adjust and push down to lock it in place. The turrets are also “zeorable” so in when you dial in your final zero you can set the turret dial to “0”, making counting clicks a lot easier.
Example content here
5. AEON 3-12X50
Price range: Under $200
My review: The Aeon scopes are a line of scopes from China (like most scopes under $500) that have completely blown me away for the price. The 3-12X50 is one of the best all-around models and features zeroing target turrets, side focus parallax adjustment down to 10 yards, and an insane “trajectory reticle”…or at least that’s what they call it. I’ve had an AEON 3-12X50 on my KalibrGun Kricket .25 caliber for 5 years now and the zero has NEVER drifted. The glass is incredibly clear for a sub $200 scope and easily destroys any other competition in its price range. The trajectory reticle will seem a bit crowded or busy to some initially, however, the lines are thin and easy to navigate once you spend some time behind the scope. The etched trajectory reticle allows me to have several aiming points within the scope so I can quickly adjust my hold over to a myriad of ranges. Once you have it paired with a rifle you’re confident with you’ll discover a match made in heaven. I have not observed a recoil mainspring in this scope so I’m not confident that it will be suitable for spring-piston rifles
- Trajectory Reticle
- Side Focus parallax adjustments
- 30mm tube
The only cons I see:
Target Turrets don’t lock so keep an eye on your settings
Not suitable for spring-piston air rifle use
6. Hawke Airmax 4-12x40
Price Range: Under $250
My review: Hawke Sport Optics has been a name synonymous with quality and has catered to the airgun demographic for years with features we all want. The Airmax line is perfect for shooters wanting to step up to higher quality glass and a reticle specifically designed with air rifles in mind. The Airmax 4-12x40mm is perfectly at home on a heavy recoiling spring-piston rifle and even comes with a set of 9-11mm dovetail Hawke mounts; which are actually quite good! The AMX ranging duplex reticle is unique to Hawke and is terrific for airgun use. The scope is compatible with a free BRC software called Chairgun. After you plug some data into the software the program can very accurately show you where you pellet will land in the reticle. The user can even print out a small reticle chart to glue or tape inside your scope cap as a quick reference. The Hawke Airmax is a notable upgrade from the UTG/Leapers line of scopes and is even a solid choice for rimfire rifles.
- AMX Ranging reticle
- Adjustable Objective to 10 yards
- Compatible with Chairgun software
7. Leupold VX-2 2-7X33
Price range: Under $300
My review: If you have spent any time shooting rifles equipped with scopes then there’s a great chance you’ve heard of Leupold. Leupold has built their name on the quality of their optics and the VX-2 2-7X33 scope is a perfect example of everything that’s been done right with a scope. While the VX-2 doesn’t possess as many of the whiz-bang features of the optics already discussed, it doesn’t really need them. The glass quality is top notch, the adjustments stay in place without fail and the 33mm objective lets in plenty of light. I feel that the 2-7X33 is at it’s best atop air rifles intended for 60 yards or less, such as the Beeman R7 or an accurate C02 platform like the Crosman 2240. Personally, I’ve had mine mounted on an FWB 124 and it’s been an awesome match. While the scope features a duplex reticle, Leupold offers just about any reticle you’d like through their Custom Shop if you’re willing to pony up the extra dough. The VX-2 2-7X22 is an excellent representation of the quality that is consistent with Leupold products, you certainly will not be disappointed if you choose to add one to your collection.
- Adjustable Objective
- Diamond Coat lens coating
- Duplex reticle
8. SWFA SS 10X42 (Amazing Value)
Price range: Under $300
Note: My choice as the best air rifle scope for the money.
My review: If you’re looking for a high-quality fixed-power scope, look no further than the SWFA SS series of scopes. There is a quite the back story the Super Sniper series and I highly recommend reading the history here. I first came across the SS series when I was looking for a quality scope for a .308 long range rifle build. One day I threw the scope on an airgun for giggles and have since enthusiastically purchased several of these scopes in various magnification ranges. They’re just about the perfect fit for an airgun as they feature the incredible Mil-Quad reticle, are completely shockproof (safe for springers!) and have super quality glass. The SS fixed power scopes also feature a really unique way of adjusting parallax. Instead of utilizing the AO or SF on most scopes since the SS is fixed power it replaced the magnification wheel as the parallax adjustment. It takes a few shooting sessions to get used to but is by far my favorite parallax adjustment method. The mil-quad reticle is superb with the crosshair being extremely thin allowing for precise shot placement. Instead of mil-dots which can obscure the target, the Mil-quad reticle utilizes see through squares and dashes… I simply can’t gush enough about how awesome this reticle is. To be honest, the SWFA SS 10X42 should be so much more expensive than it is, it’s truly a diamond in the rough. If you don’t have one of these fine fixed-powers, you’re missing out!
- Fixed-power from 6×42, 10×42, 12×42, 16×42 and 20×42 to suit any need
- MIL-QUAD reticle
- 30mm tube
The only con I see:
The target turrets don’t lock, so watch those settings!
9. Hawke Sidewinder 6.5-20x42
Price range: Under $500
My review: Picking up where the AirMax and Varmint line left off, the Hawke Sidewinder Tactical is the pinnacle of quality and features for many airgun shooters. The 6.5-20 is damn near the perfect magnification range for target shooting or hunting and the 42mm objective lets in plenty of light while allowing you to mount close to the bore. The scope sports a sidewheel parallax adjustment and every Sidewinder come with an extra large aluminum side wheel to mount of the SF turret. The turrets are lockable and have the ability to re-zero once your settings are in place. The Sidewinders are equipped with Hawke’s ½ Mil-Dot reticle, which a regular mil-dot but has expanded its usefulness with dashes between each dot allowing for even more aiming points. The reticle is also illuminated with the battery and settings integrated into the side focus turret; I don’t mind this IR so much and it seems to do the job much better than other budget models. The Sidewinder is also shockproof making it perfectly suitable for spring-piston rifles. Overall, if you can handle the weight, it’s one of the highest quality air rifle scopes on the market
- Unique ½ Mil-Dot reticle
- Compatible with Hawke’s Chairgun software
- 30mm tube
The only cons I see:
A fatty coming in at a hefty 27.5 ounces
Target Turret adjustments can feel mush
10. Leupold VX-3i 6.5-20X40 EFR Target
Price range: Around $850
My review: If competition target shooting is your game then it’s definitely worth taking a look at the Leupold VX-3i 6.5-20X40 Target. The Leupold features an extremely fine duplex reticle that is so thin it’s nearly impossible to obstruct the target. Side focus parallax adjustment is standard and focuses down to an airgun friendly 10 yards. The target turrets are HUGE, very easy to read and have positive clicks. Additionally, the turrets are able to be zeroed out once your final settings are in place and though the turrets don’t lock they come with large threaded turret caps to keep your settings safe. While I don’t use this scope for competition, I’ve found it’s incredible for accuracy testing my rifles. The extra clarity, magnification, and superfine reticle make it easy to squeeze out every bit of accuracy a rifle has to offer!
- Large target turrets
- Fine target reticle
Derek Goins is a former 0311 infantry team leader and Designated Marksman with 3rd BN 5th Marines. He served a combat tour in Sangin, Afghanistan in 2010 in Helmand Province as well as a tour in the Pacific with the 31st MEU.
After serving with the Marine Corps, Derek got an education at one of the top gunsmithing schools in the nation and has worked as a gunsmith for firearms and airguns since 2013. Derek is also an avid hunter, traditional archer, outdoor photographer, and obsessive gun nut.