How much should a beginner spend on an airgun scope?
How much should we spend on an airgun scope? Jim Old looks for that vital sweet spot of price and performance for those just starting out
I lift the airgun scope carefully from the table and bring it to my eye. It looks and feels like a quality piece of kit, but it’s slightly unwieldy because it’s not attached to a gun. I adjust the focus and the eyepiece until the reticle is pin-sharp and the image is perfect. There’s a stubble field beside the showground which slopes gently uphill to the edge of a wood. It’s midday in late summer. The landscape is flooded with bright light. I dial the magnification up to the max and scan the shadowy line between field and wood. The clarity of the sight picture is miraculous. If there had been an animal lurking there in the shade, it would not have escaped my gaze.
I’m impressed, and somewhat reluctantly hand the scope back to the man running the stand. But 50 yards away, covered by a neat, branded gazebo, is the Hawke stall; noticeably busier than its counterpart. I head towards it. It’s comparison time.
An optical fanboy
I should declare an interest at this point. I’m a bit of a Hawke fanboy.
Three of the four airgun scopes that I’ve purchased since returning to airgunning have been Hawkes. I’ve never had an issue with their optical quality or the way they’re built and finished. I like the fact that it’s a British company and that their scopes are covered by a lifetime warranty.
Hawke scopes are not cheap, but nor are they particularly expensive when considered alongside some of the high-end names in the optics marketplace. Game fairs, gun shows, or in this case an open day run by my gunshop, Emmett & Stone, offer good opportunities for direct comparison between brands.
The expensive airgun scope that I was getting my greasy fingermarks all over was a mega high-end optic with a magnification range of 4x to 16x and a 50mm objective lens. The quality of its sight picture and overall package was impeccable. It’s a riflescope designed for use on a variety of firearms, but can be pressed into service on an airgun too.
Make no mistake, high-end optics are wonderful things, and it was a real pleasure looking through this airgun scope and being rewarded with such a wonderfully clear image.
Click here for our picks for the best infrared scopes
Glass for a grand
Perfection (or at least near-perfection) doesn’t come cheap and scopes like this are geared for those with rather deep pockets. If you’re lucky, you might find one these days for under £1,000, and you could celebrate by buying yourself a medium cappuccino with the change! But do we airgunners really need to spend a grand on our glass? We’re told to buy the best optics we can afford. As I wander over to the Hawke stall, I reflect that I definitely can’t afford the first one I looked through – and, lovely though it is, I’m not sure I’d buy one even if I could.
The Hawke employee is earning his pay. Three people are asking him questions simultaneously about different products. He’s juggling scopes, rangefinders and binoculars as punters ask to look at various items. I zone-in on one particular scope. I take it to the side of the stall, where I have an uninterrupted view of the stubble field and its distant treeline.
Once again, I sweep the boundary between field and wood. I’m no expert, but I’m damned if I can see much difference between the image offered by the £1,000 contender and the one I’m seeing now through the Hawke Sidewinder 30 SF. Both are excellent.
I turn the airgun scope over in my hands. It doesn’t have the classic, uncluttered visual appeal of the other model perhaps, but it’s still an optic that would grace anyone’s gun. This version of the Sidewinder has the same magnification and lens size as the other, similar bells and whistles – both are second-focal-plane with illuminated reticles – and yet it’s less than half the price.
See the light
So how can two ostensibly similar scopes carry such different price tags? We’re told it’s all about the quality of the lenses themselves as well as the coatings applied to them. There’s a lot of technical gobbledygook spoken about lens coatings, but in essence they’re intended to increase light transmission; more rays passing through the objective lens and the airgun scope tube to our eye, giving us a brighter, clearer image, especially noticeable (in theory) in gloomy conditions.
I’ve no doubt that an expert could probably see a difference in the optical qualities of the two scopes, especially if they were examined at dawn or in the last light of the day. But in the eyes of this ordinary airgunner on a sunny Saturday afternoon, there’s nothing between them.
To take the comparison a step further, I pick up a Hawke Airmax airgun scope and peer through it. I’m on more familiar ground with this one, already having two of these at home. Airmax is Hawke’s airgun-specific product line, with prices ranging from about £130 to £390. I’m pleased to find that there’s no discernible drop-off in image clarity from the previous, more expensive scopes. Still, it’s hardly a scientific study. Other optics brands are available of course, and there might even be some confirmation bias at work (do I subconsciously want the cheaper scopes to do well?) but the results are interesting, nonetheless.
A nest of hawkes
Returning to airgunning in 2019 after a very long break, I bought an Air Arms Ultimate Sporter. Emmett & Stone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse on a rifle and scope package, so effectively the gun came with a Hawke Airmax 4-16×50 scope. I had no complaints. In fact, I was delighted with it and particularly excited about its illuminated reticle – not that I’ve ever really used it.
In a short space of time, one rifle became three and I bought two more Hawke scopes. Firstly an Airmax 8-32×50; the increased magnification being intended to help me with my benchrest shooting. Then came a Hawke Vantage 3-9×40 to sit atop my new Weihrauch HW95K. This gun arrived in my cabinet as the result of an impulse purchase, because it reminded me of the long-lost air rifle of my teenage years. I wanted a slightly cheaper scope because I felt guilty about the money I’d just splashed out to satisfy a nostalgic whim. I think it cost around £90. It’s safe to say its optical quality is not as good as its Airmax stablemates, but this could simply be due to its smaller objective lens. To my mind, the Weihrauch and the Vantage make an effective pairing. It’s all the scope that this handy little springer will ever require.
The airgun scope you need
So should we heed the advice and buy the best glass we can afford? To answer this, I would add a further clarification: buy the scope you need. Late last year, I sold my Airmax 8-32×50 and used the money to buy a Vector Optics Sentinel-X 10-40×50. On paper, and in the real world, the Sentinel is not as good as the scope it replaces, but that extra 8x magnification is helping to make a difference to my benchrest scores. It’s the scope I need for the shooting I’m doing at the moment.
Regular Barn Door readers will know about my ongoing struggle to secure an airgun hunting permission. Most of my shooting these days is done at my club, in broad daylight or under floodlights. I don’t need expensive multi-coated glass that would give me the edge if I was hunting rabbits at dusk. Should that change, it’ll be the reasonably priced but still impressive Hawke Sidewinder that snakes its way onto my shopping list.