The eyes have it
Chris Batha takes a look at the symptoms of faulty visual perception in the shooting field, and considers the remedial options available.
(Photograph: Fieldsports Channel)
You can have tried and tested the best ballistic combination of gun, choke and cartridge, worked hard on mastering the fundamentals of straight shooting, footwork, posture and gunmount, and grooved your technique to a razor-sharp edge, but still suffer from mystery misses and have off days in the field.
These mystery misses, believe it or not, are often a result of faulty visual perception. Yes, that inability to put the pattern on a collision course with the bird is really the inability to hard focus on the bird. And the farther and faster it flies, the harder it is to maintain this focus.
All activities that involve your hands and eyes working together (catching a ball, for example) require good eyesight. It is your eyes that guide your hands to the ball. For many of us, as we grow older, our vision fades and it becomes more difficult to focus sharply and track a moving object. This situation can have a major impact on one’s shooting.
If your form deteriorates, first check for any changes in your eye dominance. Tiredness or a change in your vision can often result in a shift in eye dominance. If you have not had your eyes tested lately, I would recommend having them checked and then continuing to do so on a regular basis. You may be surprised to discover that you can’t see as well as you thought you could.
The gold standard
The eyesight standard is 20/20 vision. This is considered normal visual acuity, i.e. the ideal for clarity and sharpness of vision. If you need correction to obtain this, it can be achieved with corrective glasses, contact lenses or laser surgery.
About one per cent of the population has 20/10 vision – visual acuity that is superior to 20/20 vision. What you can see clearly at 20 yards, they can see clearly at 40 yards! A large percentage of the top performers in all sports have better than 20/20 vision – they see the ball, target or bird sooner and more clearly, and so have better hand-eye coordination.
Among the elite in all sports – including champion clay shooters and acknowledged top game Shots – I wager a good percentage have been blessed with 20/15 or 20/10 vision.
Improving your vision
There is, of course, much that the 20/20 shooter can do to improve and enhance his or her vision, starting with choice of eyewear. First and foremost, the lenses of any shooting glasses must be made of a ballistic material that can survive a strike by one or more shotgun pellets, protecting your most precious asset.
The type of lens, the frame design, and fit all contribute significantly to a shooter’s performance. The lenses for shooting glasses are made from two materials; CR 39 plastic, and polycarbonate. In terms of safety, polycarbonate is the best and most effective material. It has outstanding impact resistance, and lenses are less than half the weight of those made from glass. The polycarbonate lens requires careful processing, though, as it is prone to scratching when uncoated. It should therefore always have an anti-scratch finish applied.
It has long been recognised that wearing shooting glasses with lens colours which enhance the bird under specific light and background conditions, can make the difference between a clean kill or a miss. This is because the eye achieves better definition and depth perception when the pupil is constricted, and maximum constriction is achieved by using the brightest colour lenses you have, adjusted to the shooting situation.
Vermillion-coloured lenses bring out the buffs and tans of birds against a moderately-bright background, whilst yellow and orange lens-tints work well on overcast days or in poor light, and brown tints in varying shades are very effective in bright sunshine. While all tints offer enhanced contrast and definition, the choice is very subjective and often person-specific. Everyone has a degree of colour blindness and it is important to experiment to find the tints that work best for you in various light conditions and with birds of different plumages. You will find that the lenses that work well on a summer grouse moor may not offer the same advantage on a bleak winter day when shooting driven pheasants.
Light versus contrast
The more light that enters your eye, the better your vision and the better your hand-eye coordination will be. Any coloured lenses will block some part of the light spectrum, actually reducing the amount of light available. You need to experiment with your lens colours, balancing any light loss with enhanced contrast, and using the lightest tint possible.
Polarization and anti-reflective coatings
Lenses for shooting glasses should be polarized for ultimate protection from ultraviolet radiation which contributes to the development of cataracts and has been shown to cause degeneration of the retinal pigment epithelium. It has also been discovered that exposure to harmful UV rays can accelerate age-related macular degeneration – a painless eye condition that causes a loss of central vision.
A clear lens will only allow 90 per cent of the available light to pass through to the eye, with 10 per cent being lost in reflection. Anti-reflective coatings eliminate the glare of light from the front and back surfaces of the lenses. With fewer reflections, more light passes through the lens to the eye, further improving vision. Polarized lenses offer the ultimate in UV protection but, more importantly, eliminate reflections and glare.
Frames for shooting glasses
Regular glasses are designed to place the lens centre directly in line with the centre of the pupil. However, when we lower our head into the correct shooting position, we end up looking off the optical centre of the ordinary spectacle lens. Everyday glasses are designed for fashion and looks rather than function. This often means that the frame interferes with or, in the worst case, obscures the vision and hence the target.
Properly designed shooting glasses sit high up on the nose and have the optics correctly placed so that, when the head is lowered into the shooting position, the pupil is looking through the optical centre of the lens (slightly above the actual centre). Shooting glasses have lenses that are oversized and often frameless, so there is no obstruction between the eyes and the target. The frame arms have padded, curved ear pieces and nose pads to stop the glasses from slipping or being knocked ajar by movement or recoil. This high fit means that they stand slightly off the face and air can flow freely between the lens and the eye, preventing fogging on wet and humid days. Lenses can also be polished with an anti-mist solution to avoid fogging.
The ultimate choice
The best shooting glasses should include a comfortable and durable frame with tinted and coated lenses which provide protection, increased visual acuity, better depth perception, and improved vision/contrast, whilst helping to control eye fatigue.
Prescription glasses and contact lenses
If you require corrective prescription lenses, it is best to have only single vision lenses fitted to your shooting glasses. Bi- and tri-focal lenses cause distortion and the graduated prescription or Varilux type cause additional visual problems. As the light passes through the lens, it is bent or refracted, so when the head is in the correct shooting position, it may not be in the optimum position for the distance section of the bi- or tri-focal lenses.
If you cannot see the primers of the cartridges in the chambers of an open gun, then you cannot see if the safety catch is on or off and you should have a small bi-focal fitted at the bottom of the lens in your shooting glasses.
The optician for shooting glasses
Prescription shooting glasses should be ordered through an ophthalmologist or optician who specialises in shooting sports. They are familiar with the correct head positioning and where the corrective sweet spot on the lens should be when the head is mounted on the stock. They also take into consideration the shooter’s physique when fitting the frames.
Contact lenses offer distinct advantages compared to the prescription glasses. Contacts project a larger image on the back of the eye and eliminate spectacle distortion. This helps you see your targets sooner, sharper and bigger. If you wear contacts, you can use the standard, non-prescription and less expensive shooting glasses.
Corrective eye surgery
A growing number of people are choosing laser corrective surgery, instead of wearing contact lenses or glasses. When doing so, they often opt to have one eye fixed for long sight or distance vision and one for short or close-up vision, to eliminate the requirement for bi- or tri-focal prescriptions entirely. This can also be done with contact lenses. If you choose to take this route, be sure that the eye for long sight matches the shoulder off which you are shooting, i.e. your dominant eye.
Eyes on the prize
Game shooting takes place under varying light conditions and backgrounds. Birds are in constant motion against this background and fluctuating light and shadows can make it difficult to maintain hard focus on the bird. This creates potentially inaccurate information for the brain to process, and the result is often a missed shot.
It takes concentration to maintain hard focus on a bird on the wing, and a good pair of shooting glasses will not only protect your eyes, but let you see the bird sharper and clearer without being distracted by background, peripheral images, shadows and colours – ultimately increasing your ability to locate, lock-on and shoot more consistently.