Getting the most out of your airgun optics
Phill Price offers air rifle hunters a few tips and tricks to help them get the best out of their optics, whether it’s ranging, spotting or shooting
Like all modern hunters, I rely totally on optics to maximise my field performance, so I thought I’d share a few things I’ve been taught and some others I learned the hard way.
Regular readers will know that I always champion the use of binoculars and have done for many years. People have told me often that binoculars are an unnecessary expense and a bother to carry around, and while I accept those points to a degree, until you’ve tried a pair properly you simply cannot know what you’re missing.
My favourite hunting saying is that you can’t shoot what you can’t see, and I honestly believe that’s true.
I wrote recently about the correct technique for using them, so I won’t fully cover that here, but suffice to say that you do need to really look carefully and work each area slowly until your quarry finally reveals itself.
As for the subject of expense, there are really decent bins on sale these days for around £150 that offer great performance in a neat, easy-carry lightweight package. Take the Hawke Frontier 8×42 that weighs just 555g and costs £149. I use a pair of these a lot of the time and have literally no complaints. Sure, there are bins with even better performance if you’d like to spend more, especially in really low light, but for daytime use I like these a lot. Mine are a bit battered from all the use and knocks, but that’s what the rubber armour is for, right?
If that weight is still too much, folding ones like an 8×20 will still give you an advantage over the naked eye, weigh almost nothing and fit into a jacket pocket with room to spare. I have a pair that I use when weight and bulk are my most important considerations, and many’s the time they’ve shown their worth. They can be a good compromise for some.
A great tip a professional stalker gave me is to set the magnification on your scope the same as the mag of your binoculars. So 8x bins means 8x on your scope – easy.
The practical reason for this is that by matching the magnification, the image will appear similar as you swap from your bins to the rifle, which will help you locate your quarry quickly.
Good scopes have a huge range of magnification adjustment, often very high. This can be great for long-range target shooting, but can be a hindrance to the hunter in some situations. The key difficulty is that high mag causes the field of view to become very narrow, delivering the opposite of the idea above. If you’re struggling to find a squirrel’s head high in a tangle of branches, only seeing an image 1ft wide can be hugely frustrating.
Conversely, if your field of view is four times bigger, your search will be quicker and more likely to succeed. In fact, if I think my quarry could be very close I’ll drop my mag right down to 6x or even 4x. You can always make a shot work with low magnification, but you often can’t make it work at 14x.
This brings me onto reticles. Again, modern scopes tend to have reticles that have been designed for long-range work, and because of this tend to be very fine. This allows for maximum precision by covering as little of the target as possible. In good light on a clear target this is ideal, but in poor light they can be hard to find, which can be horribly frustrating. Many scopes offer illumination that can mitigate the problem, but selecting just the right level of brightness can be tricky too. If you set it too bright it will dazzle your eye and obscure your target, but if you go too low the crosshairs can still be hard to find.
For hunting at airgun ranges, a simple, bold reticle is your friend. Illumination can be useful on these reticles too, but most often you can aim precisely without needing it until the light gets very low, at which point perhaps you should let that shot go anyway. If it’s so dark that you cannot always be sure of correct quarry identification, it’s best to let that one live for another day.
Another consideration of high magnification is that as mag goes up, image brightness goes down, all factors considered. Of course, there are many factors that can affect that statement, but it’s a decent rule of thumb and nobody needs a dim image, making it more difficult to see your reticle and aim point at a critical moment.
A criticism that’s levelled at high-mag scopes I tend to disagree with is that they exaggerate your wobbles.
All the scope is doing is telling you the truth about just how unsteady we actually are. Now some people might find that off-putting, and perhaps that’s a negative for you. If so I understand, but higher magnification isn’t what’s making you wobble more.
You could use this effect as a training aid while you’re practising as you can see how each technique reduces the wobbles, making you a more accurate shooter in the end.
Any optical device can have its performance reduced by letting the lenses get dirty, and it only takes a little knowledge to keep them clean and their performance top-notch. Firstly, keep them clean by using lens covers all the time the scope is not in use. Don’t let dust build up on your objective lens while the gun is stored.
With the lens caps on they’ll remain spotless. However out in the field dirt accumulates on them from dust on the wind and rain falling, so in time cleaning does become necessary.
You can get some neoprene scope covers that are designed to be used in the field that stretch over the whole thing. These not only protect the lenses, but also absorb knocks and scratches. When not needed, you can just stuff it into a pocket to be refitted later. Another option is flip-up covers that stay on the scope to be released as your quarry comes into sight. These are invaluable in wet weather and are a great aid to clear vision.
On the lens surfaces, the manufacturers apply sophisticated coatings that reduce reflections and enhance light transmission, and we really don’t want to scratch them off. The way to start is to use a soft brush to gently flick the particles away. I like to blow as I brush until I feel certain that the dust is all gone before moving to step two. I then use a lens cloth and a cleaning fluid I got from a camera shop to really clean the surface and remove any remaining dirt and grease.
Take your time with this, going slowly until everything is sparkling. This ensures that you’re getting 100% from your investment every time.
Dirty lenses are the biggest problem when you have low sun striking them at an angle, a frustration I’ve suffered enough times to want to avoid it as much as I can. I can well remember looking at a rabbit sitting unaware of my presence just 20 yards away, but I simply couldn’t see it through the scope as the light flared all across the objective lens that evening. Just in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t get that rabbit, but I did swear at the scope. A second factor was that particular scope’s lens coatings were rubbish, as I was learning to my cost.
I sold it soon after, and ended up buying something that was much better.
That brings me to another consideration: how much to spend. Deerstalkers who constantly hunt in low light say you should spend more on your scope than you do on your rifle. That might be a bit extreme for airgun use, though it does make the point that the quality of the scope is very important. If you have a fixed budget, it might be worth spending a little less on the rifle and more on the scope to get the best combination you can. You might choose to buy the beech stock version of your new gun over the walnut one to free up some cash for a better model of scope.
My final recommendation is to try a laser rangefinder. Like binoculars, they’re inexpensive today and the lenses have improved beyond recognition (pun intended). They used to cost a fortune and had a terrible sight picture, but today they can be afforded by almost anyone and will improve your accuracy and shot placement overnight.
Rangefinders typically come with 6x magnification, which offers a wide image, helping you find your quarry quickly. The objective will be around 20mm, so keeping the mag low means that the image will still be bright enough to provide decent clarity.
If it sounds like I think about optics a lot, it’s because I do. They’re a massive part of my hunting success and I cannot imagine a hunting life without them. An old boy I know tells stories of hunting rabbits with a .22 BSA Airsporter that had plain, open sights. His maximum hunting range was 12 yards, so his fieldcraft must have been incredible. I think it mostly involved waiting, overlooking their warren and taking them as they emerged, one by one, but even then he said clean kills were not all that common, so being close increased your chances of grabbing the rabbit to deliver the coup de grâce. How times have changed!