Scopes and Sights – Are They Right for You?

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There is a debate in the paintball world as to whether or not scopes and other forms of firearm sights are useful or not.  Most say that with the inherent inaccuracy of paintballs that a sight of any sort is more for decoration than anything else. Others say that with the limited range of paintball scopes are all but useless.  While both points have their merits, scopes and sights can increase your first shot success.  Read on to find out more.

A word about "Lasers"

Some of you may be wondering about lasers and you are going to be disappointed to see nothing else written about them past this point. Simply put, lasers are only really good for very close range work and in dark areas such as the inside of a building or at night. Also, lasers can cause safety issues if you shine them into the eyes of opposing players. In the world of real firearms, the risk of causing eye injury to a person you are about to put a bullet into really isn't that big of a concern but in the realm of paintball we don't want to cause anyone to go blind. Since the typical conditions in which we find ourselves playing paintball makes lasers less useful and the fact that most fields ban the use of lasers anyway I am not going to talk about them as a viable sight option.

Why aim at what you can’t hit?

Before we get into the virtues of scopes and sights, we first have to discus the rest of the gun’s setup.  You see, quite simply put those people that say sights are useless because paintballs are so inaccurate have a very good point.  If you take any old marker, throw a CO2 bottle on it, and start firing any old paint chances are the gun is going to seem to throw paint everywhere but where you’re aiming.  Because of this, there are some things you have to take into consideration before you think about adding a sight or scope to your marker. Keep in mind that no paintball marker will shoot with the accuracy of a real firearm but there are things that can be done to make a marker shoot “as accurately as possible”.  Note too that nothing replaces practice no matter if you have a sight or not.  If you do not know your equipment and do not practice with it do not expect to hit much with it.  A sight is not a replacement for practice.

Not that this is just a rough outline as to paintball accuracy. If you want to know more about improving the accuracy of your marker and why paintballs fly through the air the way they do, check out the Accuracy in Paintball guides, part 1, part 2, and part 3.

First off is your gun.  A word about what I am about to say.  Without a sight, you can always walk your shots onto the target by observing where they land.  With a sight, you’re trying to avoid that by placing the first shot in close proximity to where you want it to go. Because of this, gun type doesn’t matter AS MUCH as some other items we’ll talk about.  After that first shot when things like recoil have to be taken into account, markers that have less recoil will be more accurate shot to shot than markers with more recoil.  I could probably write a whole different guide on this subject but I want to focus on sights here so I’ll leave that for another time.  Just keep in mind, we’re talking first shot here. No matter what gun you have, if the first shot is “on target” then you have a much better chance of hitting your target with the second, third, and fourth (or more) shots rather than having your fifth shot be the first one “on target”.

Second is cleanliness and maintenance.  Keeping your barrel clean adds to your marker’s accuracy.  A dirty barrel affects the velocity of the paintball as it leaves the marker and this affects accuracy.  It is also important to clean the striker and bolt of your marker (if so equipped) for the same reasons.  Checking airlines for leaks, blockages or kinks that may make airflow inconsistent and such problems need to be addressed. 

Without an consistant shooting marker a sight is useless. A good regulator like this Palmer's Stabilizer can make a tremendous difference if you are using CO2 as an air source.

Next on the list is having a regulated air source.  If you run HPA already, you are in luck because you are already regulated however for those of you running CO2 the pressure coming out of your tank can fluctuate greatly.  I strongly recommend the Palmer Stabilizer for CO2 users.  It is designed specifically for use with CO2 and will not only regulate your pressure but keep liquid CO2 out of your marker which will also cause major pressure spikes. 

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, is paint quality.  It is not enough to just worry about paint to bore match here either though that is one item.  You want to make sure the paint is consistent in two areas, size and roundness.  In the size department you want not just a few balls to fit your barrel but you want every ball to fit your barrel.  Now, no matter how good the paint is every ball will not be EXACTLY the same size so you are looking for two things, an average size and an acceptable size margin.  Here is where you will need a ball-sizer.  Find a ball in the group that fits your barrel just right.  Use the blow test.  If you do not know what the blow test is, do a search on paint to barrel matching and you will find information about it.  Then measure that ball in the ball-sizer.  This will tell you your barrel’s ideal paintball size.  Let’s say this size is .691. 

Now you want to find paint that has an average ball size of .691.  What you also want to look for though is to make sure the size range is not too huge.  A batch of paint that ranges from .688 to .694 is going to shoot worse than a batch that ranges from .690 to .692 even though both average in size at .691. 

You also want balls that a consistently round.  Paintball’s shaped like a football do not work well.  Usually higher grade paints are more consistent in both categories so if you find a paint that is good in one area chances are it is good in the other as well.  However, always double check to be sure.

Once all these items are done, your marker should be about as accurate as a paintball gun can be.  Still will not shoot like a real firearm, but you should see a marketed improvement in its shot to shot consistency.

Scope it out!

A standard rifle scope with adjustable magnification.

Now that we have gotten the marker shooting consistently you want to be able to aim and put those balls on target.  Many people think they need a scope for this since they think they are going to be able to shoot people out at longer ranges and they want to be able to target them.

Well, not exactly. One thing to note here is that the terms “Scope” and “Sight” are not equal.  A Scope is a Sight but not all Sights are Scopes.  A scope is a specific type of sight that MAGNAFIES the shooter’s vision to assist in making long distance shots.  As with most things in life with every benefit there is a drawback.  With scopes, your benefit is the magnified sight picture that lets you pick out details at much further ranges than you could with your naked eye.  The drawback is that you have to close one eye to use it and that results in “Tunnel Vision”.  This means that the ONLY thing you will see and focus on is what you see in your scope.  With paintball, so much is happening so close all around you that while you are looking down your scope at someone you can not hit someone else is moving on you that WILL be able to hit you and you will not know it. Not good. 

The view through a magnified scope. Note that you must close one eye to use this kind of sight.

Thus for aiming purposes I tend to advise people to stay away from scopes.  However, there are times when a scope comes in handy.  If you play scenario or big games, a scope can be helpful to scout out objectives that may be far away.  Maybe you want to know how many people are guarding the objective you are going after or want to see if that is a foot sticking out from that bush or just a shadow.  In those instances a scope can come in handy but in most situations a scope will be just for looks.

On the dot!

So if you do not use a scope what do you use?  It is call a red dot or reflex sight.  These sights project a small illuminated dot into your sight picture.  They come with red or green (or the option for either) illuminated dots or other targeting reticules (but I will usually refer to them as red dots regardless of their actual dot color).   They are designed to be used with both eyes open thus helping to eliminate the problem with tunnel vision.  They are not magnified (though there are scopes with “red dot” targeting reticules…we are not talking about those here…) and most run on batteries but not all.  These sights can be broken down into two types, tube type where you look through two glass lenses to acquire the dot and the reflex style sight where there is only one glass lens that has the reticule projected onto it.  Generally speaking reflex style sights are faster for the shooter to acquire and put on target but are more vulnerable to paintball hits than the tube style sights.  They are also more affected by bright sunlight than tube sights but more on that later.

Armson Red Dot Sight. Note the window on the left side of the picture that allows sunlight to illuminate the fiber element. The user would look "at" an appature at the right end of the sight. (Not visible in photo)

Because these sights can be used with both eyes open, the effect is much the same as a laser sight where it looks like the “Dot” is actually projected on the target however there is no beam of light going from the site to the target like there is with a laser sight. 

Most of these kinds of sights are powered by batteries so they can be used day and night.  However, there is another kind of sight that collects light with a fiber optic thread that creates the “dot” in a completely dark field.  Armson is the most popular one in the paintball community.  These sights MUST be used with both eyes open as you cannot look “through” the site itself.  The benefit to these sights is that you never have to recharge batteries, they are small, light, and hold up well to direct paintball hits.  However, they cannot be used at night. 

Not all “dot” sights are created equal either.  With the exception of the Armson style sights, sunlight can affect the visibility of a red dot sight.  The whole idea with a red dot is that a shooter should be able to acquire a target and get the sight on target fast.  Some cheaper red dots though cannot be seen clearly in bright light when aiming at light colored surfaces thus causing the shooter to have to “search for the dot” before shooting. To me, this is not acceptable.  I strongly suggest not buying a red dot unless you have seen it in person and checked it to make sure you can clearly pick up the dot in bright sunlight against a light background.

Not all Red Dots are created equal. Note how hard it is to pick up the dot in the photo at left. This is on a medium background. It would be almost invisible if the background was lighter. Compare this to the sight in the right picture. Note this sight is almost pointed directly into the sun (see the light coming "into" the tube) and yet the dot is still very clearly visible. It could even be turned down a level or two in order to make it smaller and clearer.

One more thing to keep in mind that is that you are going to need to mount this sight on your marker.  Thus you need to see if your marker has a sight rail of some sort (such as a Weaver, Dovetail, or Piccanny) and get the right sight for the kind of rail you have.  Also, you may also need to purchase “scope rings” to be able to mount some tube style red dots.  In that case, the rings must be the right type of rail mount and fit the body of the red dot.

On Target!

Now that you have a sight, what do you do with it?  No, no, no, I know you’re going to put it on your marker and aim with it.  The question is how to go about it the correct way?  Now, I could tell you to go out and measure off a known distance then lock the marker down in a gun vise to hold it still then start in zeroing in the sight like you would a real gun but most folks don’t have a gun vise and with paintball guns it just isn’t necessary.

A tube style Red Dot with built in Piccanny mount attached to a Piccanny style rail. Note this sight has seven different settings and protective covers over the lense. The smaller knobs on the top and side are the adjustment knobs for zeroing in the sight.

First, if you have to mount your sight with scope rings, you will want to mount the rings to the gun’s sight rail first.  Make sure they are fully seated and tightened down before you install the sight.  Next, you will install the sight into the rings.  Secure the rings just tight enough so that you can turn the sight in the rings but that it does not turn freely.  Now adjust the sight in the rings so that it is aligned properly.  With scopes, this is easy as you just want to make sure the crosshairs line up perfectly vertically and horizontally in relationship to the top of the marker.  Red dots may be a bit harder and you will need to look to the adjustment knobs to know when it is properly positioned.  Once you have the sight in straight and properly aligned, tighten the rings snuggly.

Now you want to zero in the sight.  You are going to need a nice flat area where you can shoot out to a range that you want your sight to be “Zeroed” at.  This is critical.  If you zero in your sight to 50 feet, anything further than 50 feet away and you will have to aim above your target.  If you zero in to 150 feet, anything closer than 150 feet away you will have to aim below your target.  I usually pick somewhere between 100 and 125 feet as shooting at any target closer than that using a sight becomes less critical.  It is important to note whatever range you choose though for future reference as anytime you remove the sight from the marker it will need to be re-zeroed.  That means cleanings after games too!  I usually have to re-zero my marker after every weekend of paintball play.  Also be sure to zero in your marker when there is NO wind as this will affect where your balls travel.

A reflex style red dot. These sights provide very quick sight acquisition but at the cost of durability. Some feel these sights may be more succeptable to breakage if a paintball were to hit their lense directly. This is usually only true of low quality reflex sights.

Once you have a spot picked out and know what range you want to zero in at, you will want to determine at what height you will be shooting from.  I suggest a sturdy shooting platform like the tailgate of a truck or a table.  Whatever height your shooting platform is at is the same height you want to place your target at. 

Now remove the caps on the sights adjustment knobs.  Sometimes you will need to remove the hopper to access these knobs.  If you do, leave it off because you will need access to them to adjust the sight.  Support your marker to help steady your aim.  I use a bipod when possible or things like a couple sandbags to help steady the barrel.  Now would also be the time to chrono the marker if you have not already done so and be sure to be using fresh, high quality paint as was discussed earlier.

Aim at the center of your target and take 4-5 shots with about a second between each shot. DO NOT adjust your aim if the balls are missing the spot where you are aiming.  If your shots are missing the target completely, have someone note where they are going in relation to where you are aiming. 

After you are done with this first round of shots, see where they grouped compared to where you were aiming.  Do not expect to have all the paintballs land in ONE spot, but you should have a fairly tight grouping depending on your range.  You want to find where the center of that grouping is. Ignore the one paintball that may have gone way off course if the majority of your shots are in a respectable grouping. If you have a lot of these "flyaways" you may want to check your paint for dimples or that it has a good paint-to-barrel match for your marker.

A tube style Red Dot sight without scope. To mount this sight the user would also need a pair of scope rings.

Now is time to adjust your sight.  Holding your marker EXACTLY in the position that you fired it in and the sight aimed at where you were aiming before, begin to adjust your sight so the target reticule (cross-hairs or dot) moves to where the center of your grouping was.  Obviously this requires you to keep the marker very still and you cannot use the sight as a point of reference to see if it has moved or not. 

Once this is complete re-aim the sight at the center of your target and repeat the above steps until you are happy with where your shots are landing compared to where you are aiming. 

Conclusion

There are a number of opinions out there as to whether or not sights are useful in paintball.  No, paintball markers are not the most accurate things in the world but a good sight can improve your chances of hitting your target with the first shot.  Even scopes can be useful to scout with during scenario games played on large fields. Remember, a sight is no substitute for getting to know how your marker shoots and practicing with a sight is critical to get the most out of it.

Good luck and remember, it is all about having fun!

- Robotech

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