As we age, our bodies change, obviously. Most human beings will experience changes to their vision throughout a lifetime. Near-sightedness is much more common now than in generations past due to our lifestyle of always looking at screens in front of our face. Most people also hit a change in vision once middle-aged as the eye losses its ability to focus on closer objects, even if the distance vision remains clear. So, the bad news, most experience changes in vision over time.
The good news, however, is that we now have the technology for shooters that makes accommodating vision changes more viable than ever before. While there may not be a perfect answer for your specific vision limitation, there are options to make the situation as tenable as possible.
When it comes to shooting a handgun, having an adequately clear aiming picture is important. Granted, most defensive handgun shooting is not a precision affair. Still, once we get out past ten or fifteen yards, our ability to hit sufficient target areas deteriorates if we cannot see a clear sight picture. The handgun also poses further problems in this regard compared to rifles. On long guns that are used for distant accuracy, most rely on magnified optics, which go a long way toward fixing most vision issues. If focusing through a magnified optic, most people will be able to bypass issues such as far-sightedness or astigmatism, though prescription lenses are still needed for near-sightedness. However, handgun accuracy is not so easily addressed.
The most obvious visual limitation that most handgun shooters encounter, at least in middle age, is the ability to see iron sights clearly. Many shooters with this visual challenge have found a solution by embracing the new wave of red dots for handguns. Even here, however, there may be better solutions than the red dot, depending on the eyesight limitation. Other tools are also available that can help, such as the less-embraced option of lasers. If you are unhappy with your shooting due to a visual limitation, first, address the limitation. Can it be entirely corrected with prescription lenses or contacts? Second, determine what your shooting goals are and work from there.
The Common Visual Problems
Let’s start by addressing the common problem of loss of near-sight focus just due to age. If you are new to this problem (welcome to middle age), you may find switching to a red dot optic on your pistol will be the answer, as red dots allow for target-focused shooting, along with a smaller, more precise, aiming point. The truth is, one can target focus with iron sights as well, but iron sights tend to be bigger and blocky, and a loss of visual acuteness at a closer distance will make an iron sight picture difficult to work with for any sort of precision.
A second very common visual limitation is astigmatism, which results from a misshapen cornea or lens in the eye. People who have astigmatism can often be brought to 20-20 vision with corrective lenses. However, astigmatism often interferes with the ability to see dot optics clearly. Many argue that green dots work better for astigmatism, but red dots, indeed, can appear very distorted to an eye with astigmatism. Instead of seeing a crisp, small dot, you may see a blob, a comet, or a starburst pattern. Needless to say, this will detract from your ability to precisely aim compared to that ability if the dot appears clear and crisp. While the new trend suggests that almost everyone shoots more accurately with a dot compared to iron sights, if a shooter with significant astigmatism can see iron sights clearly, then they may still prefer iron sights, even for more distant and accurate shooting.
What Are Your Shooting Goals?
So, there is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to aiming technology. After addressing your visual limitations, determine what your shooting goal is. Are you pursuing bullseye pistol shooting or engaging in action pistol shooting? Are you simply interested in realistic self-defense? Defensive shooting and action pistol alike usually focus on fast shooting on closer targets, with obvious exceptions. Bullseye shooting, however, is a very different discipline with an entirely elevated accuracy demand. How accurate do you need to be?
Let us return to the remark above about eyesight changing over time. As an example, this author has been near-sighted since childhood. Due to significant astigmatism as well, for many years, I was not inclined toward red dots on pistols. The truth is, even though I see a starburst blob when using a red dot, it was still better for distant accuracy than irons, but the limitation did not seem to make it better enough to encourage me to switch. Recently, my sight has changed due to age, and the red dot provides for much better accuracy, despite the astigmatism issue. To be able to determine what difference there is, you must put the options to the test. How does your accuracy compare between iron sights and red dots, and at what distance does it even matter? Perhaps fiber optic iron sights give you everything you need and prefer, or a dot may be the best solution. One must test the options.
Therefore, what are your goals? The truth is the shooting goal may demand a specific gun. There is nothing to say that you can’t have one sighting option on a carry gun and a different one on a bullseye gun if that is your thing, but test and know the capabilities and limitations. For example, I find relatively little difference between the iron sights on my preferred carry gun and the red dot on my larger, full-frame, competitive gun, out to about fifteen yards. Beyond that, however, the dot gun is much more precise for me, despite my astigmatism. For example, while I rarely do bullseye-style shooting, I can consistently shoot a 25-yard B8 with scores in the high nineties with my dot gun. Still, I usually only make the high eighties with my iron-sighted gun. That is a considerable difference. While my vision limits my abilities, there is still an evident and demonstratable advantage over irons, even with the dot.
However, is the difference important to our goals? I would argue that being more accurate is always better, but the simplicity of iron sights still appeals to me on a carry gun, so I currently carry iron sights. Your decision might differ, but you must test the options side by side to see what your differences are. For the vast majority of shooters, even those with no vision issues, a dot sight will be a lot more accurate at distance than irons, but the balance of what you demand and what works best for your carry gun is one that only you can decide. Even the dot will be challenging for people with significant astigmatism, such as myself. I am convinced I would still shoot much more accurately if I saw the dot clearly, instead of being forced to superimpose an imprecise blob of light on the target. Still, though, it works better than iron sights at longer distances.
The good news remains that the technology is better than ever. Each shooter, however, must compare the options and choose based on individual needs and preferences.