Britain’s Airgun Heritage
John Milewski looks back at the first BSA telescopic sights
John Milewski’s history of the airgun. Part 1, the BSA Rifle Telescope from 1959
Telescopic sight use on air rifles is seen as virtually mandatory today, and many modern air rifles are not even supplied with open sights. This has not always been the case, and current scope enthusiasts owe BSA a debt of gratitude for pioneering the option of telescopic sights for air rifles.
In 1959, BSA introduced the break-barrel Meteor, which went on to become BSA’s best-ever seller, with sales in the millions. A unique feature of the Meteor was the option of fitting a telescopic sight to the rifle by means of four raised grooves stamped into the top of the air cylinder. BSA Airsporters from 1959 onward also provided the same facility through four wide scope grooves machined into the steel cylinder.
The 15.5mm-wide grooves were wider than today’s mounts can accommodate, and whilst the basic sights BSA supplied came with integral mounts, more substantial scopes could only be used if especially wide mounts were obtained, such as those provided by Parker Hale. Using more substantial mounts did not necessarily help because they could damage the fragile grooves on the Meteor if over-tightened.
Naturally, BSA offered their own branded scopes to suit their air rifles and although basic by today’s standards, they were seen as quite revolutionary in 1959 because fitting telescopic sights to a production air rifle had not been attempted previously.
John Knibbs points out, on page 140 of The Golden Century, that Elliott Optical of Birmingham made the Mk I sight to specifications laid down by BSA. This company was described as ‘moulders in plastics’ in trade directories, and also made lenses for cameras and spectacles. The sight was made from high-impact polystyrene and was described as ‘shockproof’ in the instructions, which accompanied each new
sight. Early models were supplied with a magnification of 2X, whilst later models were 3X power. The telescope’s power was marked on the left side of the scope, above the rear mount. A 1960-dated BSA booklet stated that the sight was of 2X power, and by 1962, an updated edition of ‘The Air Rifle’ booklet described the magnification as 3X power, as did a later 1966 BSA retail price list.
Forward and rear steel fixing clamps (mounts) could be placed in one of six positions on the sight’s integral plastic mounting blocks, thereby proving a variable level of eye relief. The large fixing nuts on the right side of the sight could be tightened by hand, rather than with one of today’s ubiquitous Allen keys, and two rubber buffers behind the clamps helped to dampen the shock from the rifle’s recoil. The image itself was not fixed and the cross hairs moved when the sight was zeroed, resulting in the aim point potentially appearing at any point within the sight’s image and not centrally.
The BSA ‘piled arms’ trademark was impressed into the left side of the central adjustment saddle. External knobs were used to zero the sight and did not require covers. The lateral knob was marked with an arrow between L and R, whilst the elevation knob was marked U and D, to direct shots Up or Down.
An undated BSA circular dealer letter from late 1965 announced that scope grooves were to be changed to a narrower 11.5 mm on the Meteor, and in due course on the Airsporter, too. Consequently, two new models of telescopic sight were introduced with narrower 11.5 mm fixing clamps, which were designated the Mk III and Mk IV.
The Mk I was supplied in an oblong box with a green background. An instruction sheet accompanied each sight, and boxed examples can often be found with boxed BSA Meteor Mk I and early Mk II rifles, which still had the wider scope grooves. A BSA dealer catalogue dated 1st March 1966 suggested a retail price of £2.2.0 for the sight.
The British-made, polystyrene, two-power Mk II telescopic sight was intended for the lowpowered BSA Merlin air rifle, but BSA also illustrated the sight fitted to their .22 Armatic semi-auto rifle in a 1963 flyer. The sight body was fixed to a mount that could be adjusted for elevation and windage, resulting in a centred reticle. The elevation screw was located under the sight’s body and to the rear of the mount. A further screw fixed to the front mount could be adjusted laterally from the left side.
Once again, the fixing nuts could be finger-tightened and there was no requirement for keys or tools. The Merlin was introduced in 1962 and the sight was included in a 1966 BSA trade catalogue. It remained available until production of the little Merlin ceased in 1968.
The sight was supplied in an orange and white box and was accompanied by a folded instruction sheet. The suggested retail price in March 1966 was £2.2.0.
Owing to the poor clarity of both sights and the non-image-moving nature of the Mk I sight, accuracy proved to be somewhat lacking and I found it difficult to acquire a decent sight picture. Neither sight moved under recoil due to their light weight, and both would have been seen as revolutionary when new.
In the second part of this review, we’ll take a look at some of BSA’s other sights from the 1960s and 1970s.
The first BSA Rifle Telescope was of 2 X power and made of plastic!
Above: A telescope-sighted BSA Meteor Mk1 was considered state of the art when fitted with a BSA Mk1 Telescope Sight in 1959.
Below: The BSA Merlin air rifle was intended especially for juniors and was made between 1964 and 1968. BSA made the Mk 2 Telescope especially for this air rifle.
This boxed BSA Mk II Rifle Telescope has survived with its original box and instructions.
The light alloy mounts did not creep during testing, but accuracy proved to be elusive.
The Mk II Telescope mounted on a BSA Merlin Mk 2. Just look at that tiny objective lens!
The mounts fitted a plastic block on the Mk1 scope’s body and provided six alternative mounting positions to allow for eye relief.