Some frank talk about optics
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Dot sights — the good and the bad
- The downside of dot sights
- Dot sight summary
- Compact scopes
- Compact scope summary
- High magnification
- Summary of high magnification
- Know the limitations of your equipment
Last week I asked for help determining how to test and evaluate a set of scope rings and a new scope. I got some good suggestions, but there was also a lot of discussion about optics that I would like to address today. I’m calling this report “Frank talk about optics” because this is what I would tell you if we were speaking privately. I’m not trying to sell you anything today. I just want you to consider some fundamentals when you select an optical sight.
Dot sights — the good and the bad
A dot sight shows an illuminated dot inside an optical tube that can be placed on a target of your choosing. Let’s start with the good stuff. I am preparing to demonstrate the Air Venturi Air Bolt system to the public at the 2016 Texas Airgun Show this coming Saturday, and I mounted a dot sight on the Sam Yang Dragon Claw 500cc rifle I’m using. I needed a sight that is quick to acquire the target and also very reliable, so I selected a red dot sight.
Dot sights usually have no magnification, and if they do it is very low magnification. So finding the target is quite easy. Of course it’s hard to see something very small that is also far away — say a tin can at 100 yards — so a dot sight is not the right tool for targets like that. Dot sights are for close targets that are similar to those you would shoot with open sights.
A dot sight is faster and easier to use than most open sights because there is just one thing to look at — an illuminated colored dot. Place the dot where you want the projectile to hit and you are done, as long as the gun is sighted in. I will be shooting at a 19-inch by 19-inch arrow stop placed at 25 yards. I have discovered that the Air Bolt is accurate enough to keep the arrows within two inches at that distance (stay tuned for more reports on that!) when I shoot offhand supported by a monopod, so the dot sight is the best way to go.
The downside of dot sights
As I was sighting-in it occurred to me that the dot sight runs on batteries. What if my battery goes dead in the middle of my demonstration? That would be like loosing a battery while you are hunting. The fix? Carry a spare battery and also a means of removing the dot sight from the airgun if you have to. You might want to use dot sights on guns that have open sights (that are sighted-in), or have an alternative optical sight at the ready. If you are going out for a half-hour of shooting, a backup plan isn’t as important as if you are flying with this gun to Alaska for a $10,000 guided hunt. Use common sense.
Dot sight summary
Dot sights are quick to acquire targets and easier to use than open sights at close distances. They are not precision sights, beyond hitting what open sights are expected to hit. They run on batteries, which has to be taken into account. For all other considerations like reliability, control and visibility of the dot, ease of adjustments and precision you have to consider the specific dot sight you will be using.
Reader RangeRunner talked about compact scopes last week. I want to add to what he said. Compact scopes are good for keeping weight and the overall size of your air rifle to a minimum. But they have very limited mounting options. They have short tubes that require rings that are not too wide, and they cannot slide back and forth in the rings for eye positioning. Most of them compensate for that limitation with a somewhat longer eye relief, but on some airguns they just won’t work, because of where the scope stop limits rearward movement of the rings.
Compact scopes are similar to dot sights in that they normally have low magnification. Targets are acquired quickly, but you don’t have the same precision that larger scopes can give.
RangeRunner complained about the thick reticles on compact scopes — particularly on the UTG Bug Buster line. He’s right about them being thick, but Bug Buster scopes are not intended for precision shooting. You should not use a Bug Buster scope when you try to shoot a one-inch group at 100 yards, because the thickness of the reticle will not allow you to aim precisely enough.
On the other hand, if you are hunting squirrels in the deep woods, there are few scopes that can match a Bug Buster for speed on target. That thick reticle that’s too heavy for precision is exactly what’s needed for shots that have to be taken within seconds. No scope with a hairline reticle will work in that situation unless you can convince the target to remain stationary long enough to locate the hairline reticles.
Compact scope summary
Use a compact scope when you want to limit the size and weight of the airgun. Make certain you can mount it where it can be seen. Remember that, besides positioning, a compact scope has limitations such as thick reticle lines and lower magnification. Don’t choose it as an all-around scope. Use it for the purpose for which it was intended.
High magnification has its place, and like the compact scope, it isn’t universal. Field target shooters often use scopes that magnify 40-60 times. SWAT snipers usually stop at 10 power. Each has their reason for what they use.
A field target lane is well-defined and contains a specific number of targets. You can get away with high magnification in that situation, although I have waited for a long time for some shooters to “find” the target in a match. That’s why there is a time limit per target when the shooter sits down on a lane — to keep the duffers from wasting all day playing with their equipment! On the other hand, when you can see a blade of grass at a far distance, it is easy to focus on it and determine the range from what your parallax ring or knob indicates.
A SWAT sniper never knows where he will be deployed or under what conditions he will have to take his shot. Despite what you may believe, SWAT snipers do not have a benchrester’s mentality. They don’t shoot the smallest groups possible. They shoot to hit their target every time. There is a difference, and it shows up in the scopes they use.
I personally have a benchrester’s mentality most of the time. You see that in the reports I write. But when there is a squirrel gnawing on the soffits on my roof, I don’t need a 40-power scope to take it out. I need a scope that will give me a quick shot that I know will hit a one-inch kill zone at 20 yards. So my most accurate springers have scopes of lower magnification — scopes I can absolutely depend upon.
In my opinion, the best all-around scope is either a 3-12 or a 4-16 power scope whose point of impact doesn’t change that much when the power setting changes. A lot of my air rifles have 3-9 power scopes that I find very suitable.
Summary of high magnification
Select high magnification when precision is important and time is not much of a factor. Also make certain you can find your target. Being able to see a blade of grass sharply does you no good when you don’t know which blade it is!
Know the limitations of your equipment
This report was written in response to the discussions we had on the optics tests I asked about last week. I felt some readers are expecting their scopes to do everything, when they may not be able.
Bear this in mind — a Rolex watch is a fine piece of jewelry that also keeps time reasonably well. But a quartz watch — even a cheap one — keeps much better time. Explorers and outdoorsmen choose the Rolex because they know it will keep running when they are far from home. They don’t care if they are 30 seconds off on the exact time. But astronauts do care! That’s why they wear quartz watches with batteries, and the space agency provides backup support for their watches to the extent possible.