Aiming: Dominant Eye and Hand Decisions

Aiming: Dominant Eye and Hand Decisions
Aiming: Dominant Eye and Hand Decisions

Should we always use our dominant eye and hand to shoot? What if you are right handed and right-eye dominant and you are shooting behind a barricade at a left-side target and want minimal threat exposure? Do you change hands and move the gun or change to your non-dominant eye or lean way out to the left? If your strong hand becomes incapacitated or disabled, can you shoot with your support or off-hand? Do you shoot with both eyes open or close one eye or cover it? When support-hand shooting, do you use your left or right eye or both eyes to aim? How do you aim with the dominant eye and the support hand? Is it easier to switch the dominant eye or the dominant hand for better accuracy? Should you even switch? These are just some of the questions and vision variables to consider when aiming and shooting for accuracy. Some don’t think of these complexities and don’t want to. The answers are controversial and the considerations are many and individualistic. How important is accuracy and saving our life? Of course, very important so maybe there’s more to it than we initially thought and we should try various options to decide for ourselves.

About 80 percent of the world’s population is right handed. However, about 65-70 percent of the population is right-eye dominant, with about 20-25 percent being left-eye dominant. About 10 % of the population is cross-eye dominant, i.e. right-hand dominant but left–eye dominant (or vice versa.) Only a small number (roughly 1 percent) have no dominance by either eye. These variables affect hits and accuracy and your self defense. I have noticed that students who are cross-dominant shooting on the range usually miss slightly high on the target, but way off to the side. So, for example, a right-handed-left-eyed shooter will hit high and to the left. You can usually recognize a cross-dominant shooter when they move the gun toward their non-dominant side or see their head moving sideways as they aim. Of course, this varies.

Usually most shooters use their dominant eye along with their dominant hand, whether the right or left, for shooting. It seems natural for most and you do not have to struggle with your eyes, head movement to the side, covering one eye or putting tape on one eye glass, etc. It is frustrating, takes a lot of time and practice, and is counter to our basic physiological composition to try to overcome our natural tendencies to use our dominant eye and hand and gravitate to the other eye or hand. Of course, medical factors, eye and hand injuries, early training, distances and bullseye or close-quarters type of shooting, follow-up shots and response time, and other factors all impact our decisions. Certainly, each of us may have different degrees or magnitude of eye and hand dominance and some may shoot just as well with either eye or hand. This applies to shooting with both eyes open or closing or covering one eye when shooting. Seeing with two eyes is natural, seeing with one eye is not. Generally, seeing with only the non-dominant eye requires more effort, but many can shoot just fine this way.

The 1986 Miami FBI shootout involved agents and officers who had not been trained nor practiced using their non-dominant support hand. The results were terrible with many killed. We should all be prepared to use our support hand and eye just in case our primary or dominant ones become injured or disabled, but what about primarily or solely using our dominant eye. Should we always or mostly use our dominant eye to shoot? For sight alignment, sight picture, and accuracy purposes, when shooting with our support hand should we use our dominant or support eye? If so, how do we do it? Some claim they can get better hits with their dominant hand and their support eye. Some claim just the opposite, that when shooting with the support hand, they get better hits using their dominant eye. They move their head to align their dominant eye directly behind the sights of their non-dominant hand. Should we change from our dominant eye to our support eye when shooting with our support hand? The same question arises about shooting with both eyes open or closing or occluding the non-dominant eye. A reader this week said he can shoot better with his support hand by switching to his non-dominant eye. He asked me to follow-up my “Proper Sight Alignment and the Keys to Accuracy” article I wrote in June, so here are some other eye and visual ideas to consider. As with all fundamentals, consider what others say and make your own decision based on your situation, conditions, and preferences. Your decision, but remember to always be safe and practice, then practice some more. Be careful!

Dominant Eye

Visual Variables

When aiming, shooters are concerned about the relationship among three separate variables related to eyesight: (1) the front sight and its clarity, (2) the rear sight and its clarity, (3) and placing the aligned sights on the target and bullseye (sight picture.) These three variables CANNOT be clearly focused simultaneously. With traditional open sights, the human eye physiologically has difficulty focusing at the same time on the three separate objects. It is difficult to align the front sight post in the center of the rear sight notch with equal distance on either side of the front post (vertical alignment), while simultaneously aligning the top of the front post level with the top of the rear notch sight (horizontal alignment.) Accept that it is a fact from a strictly physiological and anatonically-functioning perspective, the human eye cannot focus simultaneously on more than one object at a time.

There are some visual variables to consider and decisions to make when aiming. Since the juxtaposition of the handgun is closer to the eye than the target, the eye will focus either on the rear sight making the front sight and the target a blur, or on the front sight making the rear sight and the target a blur, or on the target making the two gun sights a blur. While some claim the shooter must focus only or primarily on the target, most know that we should focus on the FRONT SIGHT for optimal accuracy, so it follows then naturally for the rear sight and target to be blurry. Time permitting for the type of shooting we are doing, we could do a cursory sight alignment and then focus only on the front sight. But do we do this with one eye or both eyes and, if with one eye, is it our dominant eye? Do we use our dominant eye when shooting only with our dominant hand or do we switch and use our non-dominant eye with our dominant hand? What about using our dominant eye even when shooting with our support hand? Or should we even switch either for improved accuracy? Most never think about all these options, but some do and practice with a different approach to realize improved accuracy. So don’t become complacent and take the time to experiment and practice some options. Something to consider: Anatonically and psychologically is it easier to switch the dominant eye or switch the dominant hand?

Shooting Ideas from Eye Professionals

Consider what some eye and medical professionals say. Sight picture disturbance may be more prevalent if one uses their non-dominant eye to sight. When your eyes are synchronized and working well naturally, your hand-eye coordination improves and sustained fire will be easier as you regain aim between shots, according to experiments and studies by Dr. R.H. Wong, a California Optometrist and competitive shooter. He says some shooters (not just new shooters) may close one eye while sighting with the opposite shooting eye. Generally, he says this is not recommended. He explains that we know that the pupil enlarges under dim lighting but many of us may not realize that if we squint to close one eye, the other open eye will dilate. This is known as a “sympathetic response.” With an enlarged pupil, focus tends to be worse Dr. Wong says. He concludes from his studies that the best of all choices would be to keep both eyes open when shooting (binocular vision.) Wong says you might want to use a small piece of frosted scotch tape or equivalent on the center of the shooting glasses lens in front of the non-dominant shooting eye (when shooting with your dominant eye, but not closing your non-dominant eye), which several shooters actually do. This appears to cause the least pupillary effect to the shooting eye he says. The biggest advantage with keeping both eyes open is the improved overall vision as compared to single-eye vision. It was surprising to me to find from my reading that quite often eyes which are capable of seeing 20/20 will see an improvement to 20/15 when both eyes are open while shooting. I didn’t realize that. Another advantage is to lessen the eyestrain whenever only one eye is used which leads to instability. With binocular vision, the two eyes not only see better, perhaps 20/30 or even 20/25 (even with the same shooting glasses prescription), but also “the vision is stable which is crucial in exact sight alignment,” says Dr. Wong. Of course, he and I and most recognize that proper sight alignment is the most important factor for obtaining a good hit… or at least ranked up there with proper trigger control. So, our brain naturally dislikes confusing images and will always try to allow vision to be constant and unwavering. Our brain will favor vision from our dominant eye and ignore vision from our non-dominant eye whenever there is a disparity. Remember this is controversial, so experiment and practice for yourself in a safe environment, not in an actual encounter or tactical situation.

Dr. Edward Godnig, a behavioral optometrist, specializes in enhancing shooters’ abilities to use their “visual system” to improve marksmanship. In essence, he says a complete “visual system” uses two functioning eyes which are usually better than one. Dr. Godnig says skillful shooters have reported a visual ability of maintaining an awareness of a central target while simultaneously maintaining a vast amount of peripheral visual awareness. A fully functioning visual system is capable of responding to objects located within a total visual field (which for each eye is approximately 40 degrees up, 60 degrees toward the nose, 70 degrees down and 90 degrees towards the temple measured from a central point of fixation). It is critical that shooters are aware of what is beyond and around the target to insure safety and peripheral vision awareness and both eyes are crucial for this.

Dr. A. M. Skeffington, considered the father of behavioral optometry by some, theorized that during stress like in a shooting incident, the human ability to focus on the sights and identify a specific target is severely hampered. He said there is a temporary loss of fine visual-motor (e.g. eye-hand) coordination. For accuracy, the shooter must have peripheral vision and depth perception, which is enhanced by the use of both eyes. In general, it is easier to switch the dominant hand than the dominant eye. However, some are reluctant to carry their defensive handgun on their non-dominant side and operate it with the non-dominant hand which usually has less strength and less dexterity than their dominant hand..

Your Decision: One Eye or Both Eyes

While the NRA, most military instructors, and law enforcement trainers also recommend to shoot with both eyes open, whether shooting with the strong or support hand, I have found the majority of my students (experienced and inexperienced) have chosen to NOT do that, for a variety of reasons. From my admittedly limited and non-scientific observations and evaluations of range hit performances (in a non-tactical, non-combat environment) by many handgun students in a classroom setting over the past few years, those shooting with one-eye closed (at a distance from about 7 to 10 yards) seem GENERALLY to be more accurate overall than those shooting with both eyes open. However, if Point Shooting up very close is involved, both eyes open seem to produce more accurate hits quickly, but practice is required. For short distances and bad-guy/gal tactical encounters, quick sight acquisition and reacquisition are important. Accuracies vary, however, especially by distance (inside of 10 yards vs. outside of 10 yards vs. 100 yards and more), previous training, practice frequency, handgun vs. long gun experience, magnitude of eye dominance, general preference, etc. In tactical close-quarters combat or self-defense encounters, using two eyes may allow the shooter to more quickly address the target. Again, be careful, practice, and decide for yourself. The speed and flexibility of quickly changing eye focus from one point in space to another point in space is directly correlated to maintaining clear, single binocular vision, while shooting competition, in class at the range, or in combat. Of course a caution– this relationship does not necessarily imply causation for using both eyes for improved accuracy. Just because the shooter used both eyes, does not imply that caused the accurate hits. It’s certainly possible, but is not evidence of proof.

For example, I am more accurate shooting handguns with my dominant hand and my non-dominant eye closed and, so far, the NRA, other certifying associations, and the IDPA have not taken away my certifications or classifications. But, I was trained that way 45 years ago, have aging eyesight, and that muscle memory is solidly in place. My hits are still acceptable and I do try to shoot with both eyes sometimes. Bottom line… IT DEPENDS and is personal preference with individual considerations. Usually “experts” say that you want to shoot with both eyes open for short-distances and with the non-dominant eye closed or even covered (occluded) for longer distances and better accuracy (especially with rifles.) Again, it depends. Recognize that one of the primary reasons for shooting with both eyes open is to allow better peripheral vision on the side and increased depth of field to identify threats and bad-guy movements for a tactical advantage. Your call.

Handgun Canted to 20-30 Degree Angle
Handgun Canted to 20-30 Degree Angle

An Unscientific Experiment and Some Tips to Help Visual and Physical Aiming

So, medical eye professionals and “experts” seem to agree that our brain will naturally favor vision from our dominant eye and ignore vision from our non-dominant eye whenever there is a disparity. Shooting with both eyes seems to be recommended by many. Try this unscientific experiment and relate it to your aiming and shooting, when experimenting with shooting with both eyes if you now shoot with one eye. Look at the door knob across the room you are in. As you continue to stare at the knob, raise your right thumb in front of your eyes and you’ll see two thumbs. (This dual image is a frequent complaint of shooting with both eyes open.) Position your thumb so that the knob is between the two thumb images, but continue to look only at the distant object. After several seconds, notice that the brain will try to shut off one of the thumb images. This is natural “suppression”, but sometimes the remaining thumb is not aligned with the door knob, especially for those who are cross dominant or vacillate between dominant eyes. This happens when aiming and you miss your bullseye by several inches. When I experiment with moving FROM closing my non-dominant eye when shooting to trying shooting with both eyes, I move the left-side image (of the dual images I see) to the right (I am right-eye and hand dominant.) to cover-up the target. Try it in your room with the door knob. It works doesn’t it. You will have your thumb exactly lined up and on target after the move for improved accuracy. Similar to left-eye dominant shooters shooting right-handed and moving their head to the right, so their left eye will line up with the sights. Some say moving the head is not the best technique since it points the right eye off to the right side, reducing peripheral vision to the front left. Others suggest keeping the head pointed straight forward, but just tilting it to the right just enough to bring the left eye behind the sights. Try it both ways to decide. Also, it may be necessary to cant the handgun slightly at a 20-30 degree angle or so for a better sight picture. Hope these ideas help.

Continued Success!

Photos by Author.

© 2013 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected]