How to Sight and Aim an Air Rifle

Rifle with scope on bipod

It is often said that a rifle is no better than its sights. Rifles don’t function in the same way as shotguns that rely on a large number of pellets or shot to provide multiple hits on the target. No — you have to rely on one shot, and one shot only. That requires accuracy.

Therefore, the hunter who uses an air rifle must have sighting equipment appropriate to the task. Air gun education is a long path, and learning how to aim an air rifle and how to adjust your BB or pellet gun sight is a critical part of this journey. There are four types of sights that are commonly used on hunting air rifles:

1. Open or Iron Sights

For centuries, sights on rifles have consisted of two raised points on the barrel that could be aligned with the target. Those two points usually consist of some sort of notch in a blade to form the rear sight and a bead or post front sight that is viewed through the notch in the rear sight. This arrangement constitutes what is generally referred to as the “open” or “iron” sights that are mounted on the barrel.

A couple of generations ago, almost all rifles (both firearms and air rifles) were produced with sights of this type. They are inexpensive and effective enough at reasonable ranges if the shooter has good vision and already knows how to aim an air rifle relatively well. Moreover, they do not add much weight or size to the rifle — but it is a fact that it is impossible to focus simultaneously on three points at different distances from the eye, making it necessary for you to know how to adjust your BB or pellet gun sight.

The front sight on an air rifle generally has a shape that is one of the two types shown in Figure 5. The front sight is usually a square-topped post or a post with a bead on top.

How to aim an air rifle: a front and side view of the sights on an air gun

Figure 5. Two types of front sights used on rifles.

In most cases, the rear sight has either a square notch in the blade or a notch with a round bottom. If the front sight is a square-topped post, the rear sight normally has a square notch, and a rounded opening is used if the front sight is a bead. The alignment of the front sight with the rear is shown in Figure 6.

How to aim an air rifle: diagram of an alignment of the front sight with the rear sight

Figure 6. The alignment of a front sight in a rear sight with a square notch and a bead in a round notch.

Learning how to aim an air rifle with open sights is pretty simple: align the front sight in the notch with the rear sight and then aim the front sight at the target. This is known as the sight picture. However, there is still some choice as to how the front sight should be aligned on the target. Two ways of aligning a post or bead front sight on the target are illustrated in Figure 7.

In target shooting where the aiming point is of uniform size and shape, it is customary to have the sights adjusted so that the bullseye rests on the top of the front sight. It is difficult to see the correct placement when a dark colored post or bead is being viewed against a black background.

However, when adjusting your sight for hunting, the sights should be set so the top of the post or bead is placed in the center of the target. This will make it easier to learn how to aim an air rifle properly. A game animal does not have a regular shape and it may be located at different distances from the muzzle. Therefore, a sight picture like that shown in Figure 7 in which the top of the post or bead is placed where the pellet is supposed to strike is a better arrangement.


Figure 7. Alignment of post and bead front sights on a target.

If the rear sight is one in which the front sight is a post and the rear sight has a square notch, the situation is slightly different. Figure 8 shows the alignment of a rear sight with a square notch, a square-topped front sight, and a round target to give two types of sight pictures. When targets of different sizes and shapes are encountered, the sight picture on the right is preferable.

How to aim an air rifle: photos of a square post front sight and square notched rear sight

Figure 8. The possible sight pictures when using a square post front sight with a square notched rear sight.

How to Sight an Open Sight

It is necessary to learn how to adjust your BB or pellet gun sight so that the pellet strikes the target (the point of impact) at the intended location (the point of aim). This process is known as “sighting in” the rifle. In most cases, the front is rigidly attached to the barrel so it’s just the rear sight that must be moved. The rifle should be held on a steady rest such as sandbags on a shooting bench so that any natural shaking of your grip doesn’t affect your shot. Then, three shots are fired at the target using the sight picture chosen. Check where the center of the three-shot group is located in relation to the center of the target.

This is where another critical part of learning how to aim an air rifle comes in: moving your sights! Most air guns can be raised or lowered by moving a small ramp that has a series of notches. The sight is raised or lowered by sliding the ramp forward or backward to adjust the elevation. In other cases, learning how to adjust your BB or pellet gun sight means finding a screw that moves the rear sight blade.

The rear sight is moved in the direction you want the point of impact to move on the target. For example, if the shots hit low and to the right, raise the rear sight and move it to the left. The horizontal adjustment or windage is made by moving the rear sight blade laterally. This normally requires that a retaining screw that holds the rear sight in place must be loosened and the rear sight moved either left or right as needed. Other types of rear sights have an adjustment screw that must be turned to move the sight.

It isn’t possible to tell how much the point of impact is changed as the rear sight is moved because there are no calibrations, so it’s just a matter of trial and error. So, after the retaining screw is tightened or the adjustment screw is turned, another group of three shots should be fired and the position of the group noted. Another adjustment can be made if necessary to bring the point of aim to the point of impact.

Regardless of how open sights are utilized, they’re a simple sight that is limited in how accurately they can be aligned on the target. This process is helpful when you’re navigating the experience of how to aim an air rifle.

Challenges of Learning How to Aim an Air Rifle with Open Sights

Figuring out how to adjust your BB gun sight is a complex endeavor by itself, and learning how to aim accurately can be even more difficult. Shooting a rifle with open sights requires the shooter to try to focus his or her eye on the front and rear sights and the target simultaneously. If one has less than perfect vision, it may be difficult to position the front sight in the rear sight notch in exactly the same way for each shot.

Consequently, open sights aren’t great for accuracy, which can make learning how to aim an air rifle much more difficult. To improve accuracy, there’s a second type of sight: the aperture or peep sight.

2. Aperture or Peep Sights

With these sights, the shooter looks through a small hole or aperture past the front sight and aligns it with the target. The aperture is never in sharp focus because it is placed close to the shooter’s eye. There are several advantages of peep sights over the open variety:

First, the peep sight is normally placed on the receiver relatively close to the shooter’s eye. That means there is a greater distance between the front and rear sights, which makes aiming easier.

Second, an important part of learning how to aim an air rifle with peep sights is the shooter looks through the opening, not at it. The brightest spot is in the middle of the opening, so the eye naturally seeks this point as the place through which to view the front sight and the target. The result is that alignment of the sights is much more accurate and precise than it is with open sights.

Third, peep sights are made with adjustment screws that move the aperture a small, reproducible amount with each “click” of adjustment. Consequently, it is possible to sight in the rifle more easily and accurately than is possible with open sights.

How to Sight an Aperture Sight

As in the case of open sights when learning how to adjust your BB or pellet gun sight and how to aim an air rifle, there remains the question of how to position the front sight in the aperture and how to align it on the target. The two most common ways are shown in Figure 9.

How to aim an air rifle: the view of the target through a peep sight

Figure 9. The view of the target through a peep sight.

In the drawing on the left, the “six o’clock hold” is illustrated in which the top of the front sight rests in what would be the “6” position on a clock. This is the classic arrangement when the paper targets are of uniform size and shape as in the case of target shooting.

When you’re trying to learn how to aim an air rifle when hunting, you’ll want to adjust the sights so that the top of the post rests at the center of the bullseye or other type of target and the pellets strike at that point, as shown in Figure 9(b). That way, the top of the post can be aligned on the animal where the pellet is supposed to hit.

In either sighting arrangement, a peep sight is exceptionally accurate, as is demonstrated by the phenomenal scores established in target competition where only metal sights are allowed. However, it can’t compare to the accuracy of attached scopes.

3. Telescopic Sights or Scopes

If there is one aspect of shooting that has changed drastically (and one that affects whether or not you need to learn how to adjust your BB or pellet gun sight) it is the use of scopes on rifles. These are typically available as air gun accessories. However, many new rifles today aren’t even equipped with open sights because it’s obvious they’ll be used with scopes attached.

Because it is so much easier to learn how to aim an air rifle with a scope, this situation is true even for air rifles. On many models, open sights are simply omitted, but the rifles are designed so that a scope can easily be attached. Many air rifles used for hunting are sold with a scope already included. This usually means some kind of bar or rail with grooves or notches — such as a Picatinny rail — is located on the receiver so that a scope mount can be attached.

For the vast majority of shooters, the most accurate aiming device is the telescopic sight or scope. Such an optical device removes the necessity of trying to keep multiple objects in focus simultaneously as you would when learning how to adjust your BB gun sight, making it much easier for those new to shooting or learning how to aim a new air rifle they just got. A scope sight consists of a telescope of some magnification with an aiming device known as the reticle. As a result of the optical design of a scope sight, the reticle and the target appear to be at the same distance from the shooter’s eye so both are clearly in focus. It is necessary only to align the reticle on the target to establish the aim point.

Types of Reticles

Scopes are produced with several types of reticles, some of which are illustrated here:

1. Mildot

mildot scope reticle

2. Duplex

duplex scope reticle

3. BDC (Bullet Drop Compensator)

BDC (Bullet Drop Compensator) scope reticle

4. Christmas Tree (for long range precision shooting)

christmas tree scope reticle


Figure 10: Four of the most common types of scope reticles.

Crosshairs — Although the standard crosshair was formerly the most popular type of reticle, the fine lines can be hard to see against a background of tree limbs or in dim light, which only hinders your efforts to learn how to aim an air rifle.

Dual Thickness — The dual thickness reticle has the same shape as a crosshair, but with thick lines that make it visible in dim light and thin lines at the intersection for accurate aiming. As a result, your eyes are quickly directed from the easily-located thick sections to the thin lines at the center. The crosshair with a dot at the intersection also makes the reticle visible on the target in dim light.

Mil-Dot — The Mil-Dot reticle offers the advantages of the crosshair reticle, but with dots along the wires that can be used for range estimation. However, this should never encourage the hunter to simply try to “hit” the game, and the process of learning how to aim an air rifle is a bit different.

Although these are some of the most common types of reticles, there are many others that have been devised for more niche use cases. Any of the reticles will work well for most types of shooting.

Regardless of the reticle you use, if the game you’re hunting is too far away to place the shot accurately, don’t shoot! This is one of the most important lessons to learn when trying to learn how to aim an air rifle when hunting. Wounded game escaping to die slowly is not the way to convince anti-hunters that we are ethical in our sport. 

The Relationship Between Magnification and Accuracy

Not only does a scope make it possible to sight in the rifle more easily, but it also enables the shooter to see the magnified target more clearly. There is a tendency to think that “if a little is good, more is better” when it comes to magnification. Magnifying the target is achieved only at the expense of having a smaller field of view and less depth of field where objects are in sharp focus.

Tests on how to aim an air rifle most effectively have shown that if a shooter can shoot groups of a certain size with a 4X scope, the group size does not shrink to half that size if a scope of 8X magnification is used. Although it is reduced somewhat, the aiming error is not cut in half by doubling the power of the scope. In fact, tests have shown that the sighting error when using a 4X scope is reduced by only about one-third when using a 24X scope. A good scope of 4X or 6X magnification will permit fine shooting. A variable power scope of about 3-9X magnification makes a good choice for all-around shooting. There is a trend toward scopes of higher power and those of 4-12X are also popular.

However, a hunter does not usually go through the process of turning a dial at the time game is sighted, and many scopes of variable power are left set on one magnification. It is still hard to beat a really good 4X or 6X scope for general air gun shooting. Higher magnification makes the target look large and may tend to encourage hunters to take shots at longer, unreasonable distances. This can make it more difficult to learn how to aim an air rifle.

How to Sight a Scope

Assuming that the scope has been properly mounted, sighting in the rifle is carried out in the same way as described earlier. However, much like you need to make adjustments when figuring out how to adjust your BB or pellet gun sight, scopes have adjustment knobs with arrows on them to show the direction they should be turned to move the point of impact in the desired direction.

Also, turning an adjustment knob moves the point of impact a specific amount at some distance for each “click” the knob is turned. The most common amount for each click is ¼-inch at a distance of 100 yards, which means it would require four clicks to move the point of impact by one inch. Keep in mind that if a scope adjustment gives this amount of change at 100 yards, one click will move the point of impact only 1/8 inch at 50 yards, 1/16 inch at 25 yards, etc.

So what is the best type of sight for those trying to figure out how to adjust your BB or pellet gun sight and how to aim an air rifle? By itself, this question has no answer. It depends on the type of shooting you plan to do. If you are going to hunt small game and pests, accurate placement of the pellet on the target is extremely important. For most of us who do not have eyes like an eagle, that means a scope is required.

In fact, although I enjoy shooting handy multi-pump rifles, they aren’t as easy to handle when a scope is attached. Given the ease of configuring a PCP with a scope, the convenience of being able to fire a large number of shots by loading only a pellet each time, and the high power of such rifles, I’ve just about stopped hunting with anything else, and highly recommend this when learning how to aim an air rifle. For shooting at silhouettes of animals or for hunting small game or pests, a scope is the best aiming device.

Keep in mind that a scope on top of your air gun changes its center of gravity and adds weight and bulk. Neither open sights nor a peep sight adds much to the dimensions or weight of the rifle. Adding a scope or a fine peep sight may cost as much as the gun itself did originally. So, the type of sighting equipment used depends on the type of shooting you will do and the level of accuracy you wish to achieve. Whatever the type of sight chosen, sight in your rifle carefully with pellets that give good accuracy in your rifle as you navigate the process of figuring out how to aim an air rifle.