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Vision Problems and Alternative Shooting Sight Solutions

Revised August 2020 -- Banacek

The main part of this article was written in May 2012, but more information was added in August 2020. (You get older and you learn more -- hopefully.)

So you're still a young person with perfect eyesight. I was once too. But everyone, even you, gets older and almost always will experience at least a minor deterioration in vision. Eyeglasses or contact lenses solve vision problems for most of our activities, but precision shooting can still have its own set of problems. I'll get to that shortly.

Until age 40 my vision was perfect. Then computers came into my life, and many working hours daily were spent with these darn things (you are likely reading this on one now, so take care) and caused enough eyestrain to make me need reading glasses. A few years later, I needed some correction for distance too. And some astigmatism.

Older folks here know the drill. Prescription glasses, maybe bifocals, maybe progressives [man I hated those things and quickly exchanged them for regular bifocals], maybe prescription sunglasses, and very likely multi-pairs of cheap non-prescription reading glasses in various powers for various tasks, stashed in the workshop and vehicle glove box and spots all around the house. [And way too often I have to search for a particular pair -- same problem as elusive tape measures -- I keep buying more and strategically place them in obvious spots, where they will never ever be found again, until after I buy another...]

Okay, back to the shooting issues and possible solutions. Open sights even with perfect vision can present problems. The human eye simply cannot focus on the rear notch and front sight and target at the same time. Our eyes' depth of field -- the range over which our eyes can have multiple distances all in focus at once -- is limited, and gets worse over time.

While younger, we can do pretty well by focussing the front and rear open sights and leaving the target a bit blurry. A tiny error in alignment of the two sight components makes for a huge error at the target distance, whereas a small error in where the sights are located on the distant target makes for only a small deviation in bullet placement.

An aperture rear sight on a rifle (or shotgun formerly equipped with rifle-type open sights) makes for a huge improvement in ease of sighting. Your eye automatically centers itself in the aperture while you focus only on the front sight; place the front sight on the slightly blurry target and success. Unfortunately rifle-type aperture sights do not work on handguns held at a distance, in the normal pistol manner.

One old solution for trying to better focus both front and rear open sights on a handgun has been a patch, a dark disk with small hole, attached to the master-eye side of your shooting glasses. It could be stuck on the glass, or attached with a hinged device so it could be swung out of the way after shooting. When the eye looks through such a tiny hole, the depth of field increases greatly. (Same principle as reducing the aperture on a camera to increase its depth of field.) That system works well until vision deteriorates to the point that it no longer works well. Lots of eventual disappointments in life start out just like that ;-(

With respect to aperture sights on long guns, another annoyance for some of us with lessened eyesight can be a slightly grey ring that appears to float around the front sight. Just mentioning this so you won't think you're nuts if you see that too. But we can still shoot well with the aperture sight.

Telescopic Sights. Yes these darlings are much favoured by nearly everyone using a rifle for hunting, and target shooting in events where they are permitted. The target is big and bright and both crosshairs and target can be in perfect focus for the individual using the scope. If we liked them before we developed vision problems, we will definitely love them afterwards.

For offhand shooting, particularly in hunting situations, one handicap of the scope becomes evident if the magnification power is too high. High power means a reduced field of view, that can make it more difficult to acquire a moving target. In my early days, for large game a fixed power scope of perhaps 2X magnification was considered better in dense wood situations, and a fixed 4X scope handled pretty well everything else, with the possible exception of antelope or mountain goats/sheep where 6X was popular. With the advent of quality variable power scopes, many game animals have had time to get away when the hunter had the scope set to such a high power that he could not acquire the target before it disappeared into thick woods. [Side note: Difficulty finding game in the scope is greatly reduced if you keep both eyes open; the master eye has no problem using the scope view while the other eye sees the scene around the scope.]

Now let's look at using a scope on a handgun. Same benefits of a big and bright target with everything in sharp focus. Hereabouts we are not using handguns for hunting so scope magnification does not present a problem for time spent in acquiring the paper target. Unfortunately scopes are not allowed in some competitions, but that won't stop us from having informal shooting fun and using them when we can. Whatever the rules, there is not much fun in missing a target.

But a pistol scope can have its disadvantages too. One is price, really good scopes cost really big bucks; but fortunately there are pretty good scopes at reasonable prices. Then there is added bulk and weight. On the flip side, a little extra weight can help in holding a firearm steady on target. Flipping back the other way, a pistol scope with magnification also magnifies shake and that lovely fixed paper target can look like it's on a storm-tossed boat. Definitely unnerving. Yes we are human [there's an assumption that science fiction fans here or perhaps our friends might question] and always did shake a bit; it was just never that obvious with iron sights. You'll have to mentally get used to it, and functionally get over it.

Another sighting system that has become popular of late is the red dot. Yes some models have options of variable size and shape dots and/or illuminated crosshairs and/or different colours, but collectively we can refer to them all as red dots here. These devices can have the outward appearance of a small scope in that they may be in a tube attached to the firearm with regular scope rings; a red sighting dot appears centered on a glass/plastic lens inside and optionally there may be magnification of the target. Other varieties have less bulk and omit the tube and have the lens out in the open. In both cases you see the target through the lens and simply put the red dot on it.

Last summer I got to try a red dot mounted on a Browning BL-22 rimfire lever gun. They made a sweet shooting and effective combination. As with a scope, there is a minor increase in weight and bulk, and admittedly you should try not to physically abuse such a device by using it to drive nails ... again.

But most of us handle our pet firearms, with or without such devices, as if they were indeed precious to us. So scopes and red dots are acceptable. [Side note: I will never mount a scope or red dot unless, by simply removing it, the iron sights remain as a functional backup. Folks who buy rifles without iron sights simply ignore the risk of a hunting trip being ruined by a banged up or fogged scope. I've had a couple of misadventures with scopes in remote areas, and continued with iron sights. And no nails were involved.]

Remember that earlier discussion of all the eyeglass varieties we accumulate. When using a handgun for target shooting with iron sights and one particular set of glasses, I was getting increasingly frustrated. I could start a session with a respectable score of say 97 or better, but focussing got progressively harder with each target. I alternated sessions by trying my distance glasses and reading glasses of various powers. The best case scenario was a further distance pair of reading glasses, while trying to keep the front sight squarely in the rear notch, and a very fuzzy target. Worked okay, but scores could go downhill with eye fatigue during a prolonged session.

Okay, on to red dots and handguns. Supposedly the same advantages as the scope, but generally a little less bulky or heavy. At no magnification, very quick on target. So I had to try one for myself and got a chance to test this example.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Bushnell Red Dot Sight on Ruger Mark 2

Here are some first impressions.

The unit has a 6 moa red dot, meaning its dot size would cover 6 minutes of angle or roughly 6 inches at 100 yards. Lots of other models advertise 3 or even 2 moa. Is the dot too big at 6 moa to be useful or precise? Actually it is not too big for shooting at pistol ranges. The variable brightness makes the dot appear smaller at low settings and is easily centered fully within the black bull's-eye of any pistol target, with lots of black in view all around.

For eyeglasses I used my regular distance ones; both target and red dot were clearly in focus. After a few minutes of sighting in using 3 and 5 shot groups [no rest], I fired a nice tight 10 shot group all in the 10 ring. Well, that's not always going to happen, but I was starting to really like this red dot. The next target had seven tight centered shots and three flyers into the nine ring, that I had called (knew were off) at the moment the Ruger fired.

Oh, and that scope thing earlier about magnifying shake, it still holds true for the red dot, even with zero magnification. Mildly unnerving. You definitely see the red dot wobble within the black as you wobble. Equally definitely I would not want more power and to see more shake.

But there is an advantage to this visible wobble, you can easily see the difference in shake or steadiness depending on how you grip the firearm and how you control breathing and trigger squeeze. Observation plus modification to technique plus practice should make for improved shooting. At least that is my hope ... we'll see ;-)

A 2020 Update

Wow, time really does seem to fly. I have been shooting regularly, at least a couple of sessions per week, and decided to bring this article up to date. Over the past three years I added benchrest shooting to my regular routine and what I learned there is in a separate article available on the Member Ramblings page in the Rifles section and titled Achieving Benchrest Rifle Precision and Accuracy.

And over the last couple of years I experienced another vision problem. Earlier in this article I had remarked that while looking through a rifle aperture rear sight, I saw a fuzzy ring around the front sight. That got progressively worse.

When benchrest shooting with a scope, my right master eye saw a grey-brown cloud near the cross hairs. When using a high power scope (above 24 power) the cloud was big enough to partly obscure the cross hairs. My opthamologist diagnosed a beginning cataract in my right master eye.

My left eye was still very sharp at distances and I considered doing benchrest left-handed, but that proved exceedingly awkward. Consequently I now really appreciate the difficulties left-handed people experience when forced to use a right-handed rifle or other equipment.

It took me a long year before I had cataract surgery on my right eye. In the meantime, I could still shoot pretty well so long as the scope was under 24 power. (Fortunately using a shotgun was no problem while shooting trap or skeet with both eyes open.)

And I can again shoot comfortably with higher powered scopes such as a fixed 36 power and even a variable up to 50 power. Those cross hairs look so much clearer now :-)

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