by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Today’s report is for blog reader J-F, who asked this exact question: “Why do airgunners need high-magnification scopes?” And let’s define high magnification as anything over 12x. That’s arbitrary, of course. It’ll be arbitrary no matter where you set the limit. I set it there because that’s 3 times the power that the average deer hunter’s scope had in the 1950s.

But airgunners delight in 24x, 32x, 40x and even 60x scopes. I know because I’m one who does. But I also know why I want this level of magnification and what purpose it will serve.

Braggin’ rights
One reason for high-magnification scopes is pure bragging rights. Like the pilot who has to have the largest, most complicated watch, the biggest scope gets the most attention — at least in the minds of the guys who think that way. And I know for a fact that some people do think that way; I’ll tell you how I know in a moment.

Field target
One good reason for owning a scope with high magnification is so you can use it to determine the ranges to targets. No one needs to do that more than the field target competitor. Rangefinders are not permitted in field target matches, but the parallax adjustment on a scope provides something very close because it focuses the scope when the distance to the target is dialed in. This isn’t a true rangefinding function like you might find on a coincidence rangefinder built especially to do this, but it’s close enough to satisfy most people. And, it’s all you’re allowed to do.

Field target courses run from 10 yards to 55 yards, so the scope has to work in those boundaries. You want a scope that has most of its adjustment range between 10 and 50 yards. The best field target scopes are made that way — with 3/4 of the adjustment (the distance that the adjustment wheel or bell is turned) between those 2 distances.

To determine ranges accurately, you have to be able to see when something very small comes into sharp focus at your desired distance. To see things that small, you need as much magnification as you can get with the image still being clear.

field target
The kill zone of this field target is the small hole above the dime. Your pellet has to go through the hole without touching the sides to score a point. This is why field target competitors need to know how far away the targets are!

Let’s get something clear right now. Just because a scope adjusts to 40x does not mean that you can use it at that setting. I own a Tasco Custom Shop 8-40X56 scope that cost $650 back in the 1990s, and it’s unusable above 30x for anything other than a bright target in direct sunlight. Field targets are often shot in the deep woods, where the light is either low or dappled with bright sun and dark shadows. In that light, my Tasco isn’t useable above 30x.

There are cars whose speedometers go up to 120 m.p.h. It doesn’t mean the cars go that fast. Same is true of scope magnifications levels. If you want to see at 40x in a field target setting, you’re probably going to have to pay close to a thousand dollars for your scope.

Small field of view
Here’s how I know that some people buy big scopes just to be envied. On several occasions, I’ve seen a field target competitor start the match and then not be able to find the targets! They sit there burning everyone’s time, looking though their powerful scopes but are unable to see the targets because everything looks so big and dark through the lens. This got so bad, in fact, that AAFTA (the American Airgun Field Target Association) started enforcing the time rules that typically give a competitor 5 minutes per 2-target (4-shot) lane.

The reason this happened is because these guys had never looked through their scopes at anything besides paper sight-in targets until the day of the match. They assumed things would be as they always were; and, of course, they aren’t when you move from a well-lit range into the woods.

The other thing powerful scopes do is bring out the anal side of some shooters. They will sit and range and rerange to the target, acting like some clueless manager examining a spreadsheet. They can’t get off the dime and take the shot because — what if they were wrong?

On the other hand I suffer from the opposite affliction. I don’t take my time and just charge on through the course. Great instincts for a first-wave armor officer — not so good for longevity on the battlefield or to win a match.

Benchrest shooters
The other shooter who really needs a powerful scope is the benchrest shooter. “Aim small, miss small” is their motto. A few weeks back, I showed you my 100-yard box targets that help me sight my most accurate scoped rifles.

printed box target1

My best centerfire rifles are, in descending order — my Rock River AR-15, which I built from parts; my HW 52 in .22 Hornet; and my Savage 1920 bolt-action in .250-3000 Savage. The AR has the Tasco 8-40X56 scope on it; and even on sunny days, the power never goes above 30 or the scope gets foggy. The Weihrauch Hornet has a vintage Weaver K10-T that’s a fixed 10-power scope with an adjustable objective. The Savage is carrying a vintage Weaver V9-W 3-9X32 variable with a widefield view.

three rifles
My 3 most accurate centerfire rifles are (from the top), AR-15, .22 Hornet falling block and .250-3000 bolt action.

One of the main reasons two of these scopes are vintage is that they have fine reticles that are perfect for my box targets. I can see when they split the box, even at these relatively low magnifications. Would I like more power? You bet! But I need to get it in scopes that will fit in fairly exotic rings and clear the guns when they’re mounted. That’s a tall order because high magnification usually comes with a large objective bell.

Who doesn’t need high magnification ?
As a general rule, hunters don’t need high magnification; and they do need the wider fields of view and brightness that come with lower-powered scopes. Varmint hunters might disagree with me on this because they’re more like benchrest shooters, but squirrel and rabbit hunters will probably agree.

Exterminators can also get by with lower power, with a few exceptions. When they hunt quarry that’s extremely wary, such as rats can sometimes be, they may want more power to place their pellets precisely on the little part of the animal that does show. But we’re talking 12-16x here — not 40! But the guy who’s killing birds in a discount store or mall at 3 a.m. can get by with a good 6x scope most of the time.

So, J-F, the answer to your question is a combination of things. There are those airgunners who actually do need high magnification, then there are the wannabes who have it because it’s cool. And then there are the first-time buyers who may get it because they have no idea what they’re getting into, and high magnification sounds good.