The Importance of Eye Dominance in Shooting
By Gary Zinn
Just before I turned six years old, my brother, Vernon, taught me to shoot the family .22 single-shot rifle. The lesson began with a blistering gun safety lecture, after which we retired to the makeshift shooting range that my older brothers had set-up years before on our small farm. Vernon began teaching me by saying, "Watch how I do this and then do the same."
After I spent a couple of hours shooting the rifle under his supervision, Vernon told our father that I could probably be trusted to use the rifle without shooting myself or one of our chickens. Accordingly, Dad gave me a couple boxes of .22 Short cartridges and told me to begin making war on the English sparrows and starlings that plagued our farm. Soon I graduated to .22 Long Rifle ammo and added woodchucks and crows to my varmint hit list. Two years later, I began hunting squirrels and rabbits for the pot. It was a different place and time.
There is a point to this story: Vernon is left-handed, so that is the way he taught me to shoot. I shot the rifle that way for a year or more before it occurred to me that I am right-handed. At that point, I tried shooting right-handed and it worked. One benefit of learning to shoot lefty is that I can shoot a rifle with equal effectiveness from either side.
What does this have to do with the subject of eye dominance? To begin, I must explain the "monkey see, monkey do" way I learned to shoot. Our rifle was a right-handed bolt action, so Vernon worked the bolt and chambered rounds right-handed. Then he would mount the gun to his left shoulder, close his right eye, aim and fire. This is what I learned to do.
I was certainly not aware of the concept of eye dominance at the time and I do not think my brother was either. In the vast majority of cases, eye dominance is not a significant issue in shooting, for most people who are right-handed are right eye dominant and vice versa. However, cross dominance is not as rare as one might imagine; i.e., a right-handed person to be left eye dominant, or vice versa. Cross dominance creates a problem, both when learning to shoot and when practicing to become an accurate, confident shooter.
I have come to appreciate the importance of cross dominance through involvement with public shooting events conducted by my wildlife club. We have been sponsoring semi-annual Ladies Day and Youth Day shooting events, open to non-members, for over a decade.
I have worked as a staff member at many of these, generally serving as an instructor on the .22 rifle station. This consists of a half-dozen scope sighted rifles, shooting from a bench rest at 50 foot small bore targets. The majority of the shooters who participate are inexperienced and many of the youth are true first timers.
When a shooter arrives at my station, I ask two questions: "Have you shot a scope-sighted .22 rifle before? Are you right-handed or left-handed?" I do not ask about eye dominance, because I have learned that this question is generally answered with a blank stare.
Rather, I closely observe what the shooter does when I clear him or her to set up with the rifle. For instance, suppose the shooter is right-handed. Before loading the rifle, I will ask her or him to take control of the gun, get it comfortably positioned and look through the scope and find the target. If the shooter has trouble finding or getting a clear view of the target through his/her right eye, I begin to suspect cross dominance. If the shooter leans across the stock in an attempt to view the target through the left eye, it is a dead giveaway.
Whenever I suspect a case of cross dominance, I immediately test for this. Here is the test method I use. Understand that I am right eye dominant as I explain this. With both eyes open, I point at an object some distance away. Then, while maintaining the point, I close my left eye; I will still be pointing at the object. However, if I close my right eye, the object will appear to "jump," so that I am pointing to the right of it. This confirms that my right eye is dominant. Of course, all of this is reversed if a person is left eye dominant. If I suspect that a person may be cross dominant, I have them point at the target and then tell me what they observe as they close first one eye, then the other.
If I encounter a shooter who is cross dominant, I discuss their options with them. For instance, if a person is right-handed and left eye dominant, the options in shooting a rifle are to either shoot right-handed, being sure to keep the left eye firmly closed while aiming, or shoot left-handed.
I generally encourage neophytes to learn to shoot a rifle on the side of their dominant eye, since I am convinced that one gets at least a marginally better sight picture with the dominant eye. This may not be much of a consideration when using a magnified scope sight, but can make a real difference when using iron sights or non-magnifying optical sights, such as red dots. I will say more about shooting with non-magnifying sights below.
Is cross dominance common enough to even be worth worrying about? Yes, my observation is that cross dominance is almost as common as left-handedness. Here is my evidence: A rough average of participation in our Ladies and Youth shoots is about 90 persons per event. The .22 rifle station is set up with six rifles, since that is how many benches we have on that range. With 90 total participants divided among six rifles, I can expect 15 shooters to use my rifle during an event. At each event, I almost always encounter one or two shooters with cross dominance. I had five one time, which made for an interesting day.
Most of the cross dominant shooters I have encountered respond well to the situation, choosing one of the two adaptive courses I noted above and getting on with life from there. However, I have seen an occasional difficult case.
For instance, one Ladies Day a young woman was shooting at my station. She was right-handed, so I set her up to shoot from that side, but she complained that she could not see the target well through the scope. We did an eye dominance check, and sure enough, she was left eye dominant. I suggested that she try shooting left-handed, but she said, "That will not work, because I am so right-handed that I can hardly do anything with my left hand."
Further, we discovered that she was so strongly left eye dominant that she could not keep that eye closed while she tried to aim with her right eye. Her left eye kept sneaking open and taking over the sight picture she was getting, which was why she was having trouble seeing through the scope.
She solved the problem by wedging her drivers license between her shooting glasses and left eye. Once she did that, she could see the target clearly with her right eye and she shot well.
Barring an extreme case of cross dominance such as that, I believe that pretty much anyone can learn to shoot a scope sighted rifle from either side, whatever their hand and eye dominance situation. It is probably easiest for beginning shooters, since they do not have established shooting habits.
That leaves four other important situations: shooting rifles with iron or non-magnifying optic sights, shooting handguns, shooting with both eyes open and wing shooting with shotguns. Among non-magnifying sights, red dot type sights are the easiest to use. Since the dot seems to be superimposed on the target, all that really matters is how sharply defined the dot appears.
Assuming the optic is of good quality, getting the dot to appear sharp is a matter of adjusting the dot brightness so that the dot is clearly defined relative to the light falling on the target. I have found if I get the dot to appear as sharp as possible when sighting with my dominant eye, it will appear a bit less sharp if I switch to my other eye. However, this is not enough to make a noticeable difference in my accuracy. A red dot type sight should work well for someone with cross dominance, whether they shoot with or against their dominant eye.
Moving on to metallic sights, aperture (peep) sights generally give a better sight picture than open sights. With peep sights, the eye and brain have to deal only with the position of the front sight relative to the target, while with open sights, the position of the rear sight has to be added to the sight picture the eye sees and the brain has to process. I could always shoot rifles with open sights from either side, but that is the setup I first learned to shoot, using my non-dominant eye to boot.
Today, with eyes that are seventy rather than ten years old, I shoot better with aperture and red dot sights than I do with open sights. I shoot with about the same proficiency with peep and dot sights, from either side. I guess the bottom line is that shooting well with open, peep, or non-magnifying optic sights is a matter of practice, confidence and ultimately personal preference.
If one is a general recreational shooter, I do not think that shooting with or against eye dominance makes a great deal of difference in everyday accuracy, if one practices. However, if one wants to participate in competitive shooting, I recommend shooting a rifle from the dominant eye side.
Before moving on, I will mention that being able to shoot a rifle from either shoulder can be an advantage to a hunter. I say this based on six decades of experience. When hunting, I normally shoot right-handed, but over the years I have bagged a significant amount of small game and varmints, especially squirrels and woodchucks, while shooting left-handed. I sometimes did this just for fun. I can recall at least two whitetail deer that I felled left-handed, when right-handed shots were not feasible.
I have some authoritative support for this idea. Craig Boddington is a veteran gun writer and globetrotting hunter who, in my opinion, approaches the legendary Jack O'Connor in terms of telling it like it is. In a recent magazine column ("Practice Like You Hunt," Guns & Ammo, August 2015), Boddington wrote:
"Do some practice from your weak or support side. I am left-handed, but in some cramped situations, such as in tree stands and ground blinds, I have shot a few deer and a couple of turkeys right-handedly. It is good to know how to accomplish this as part of your skill set."
Turning to handguns, I have good news for anyone who is cross dominant: the condition is not an issue when shooting a handgun. A person who is cross dominant can control the gun with his/her dominant hand and aim with the opposite dominant eye without problems, because the gun is held at arms length. Just hold the handgun to align with the dominant eye. For instance, the strongly cross dominant lady who had so much trouble aiming my .22 rifle had no problems on our handgun stations at the Ladies Day shoot.
I began shooting handguns when I was 55 years old. (No, I cannot explain why I wasted so much time.) I shoot handguns strictly for fun. I am not into competitive bullseye or action shooting. Accordingly, I am not bummed I am not the greatest handgun shooter, but at the same time I look for ways to improve. One thing that I found helped was learning to shoot pistols with both eyes open.
I began shooting pistols the same way I had learned to shoot rifles with open sights, using one eye to aim while keeping the other eye closed. About three years after I began shooting handguns, I read an article that advocated shooting pistols with both eyes open. I decided to try it, so I went to the range with the mission to teach myself to shoot with both eyes open. Somewhat to my surprise, I got the hang of it in less than an hour.
I could see an immediate improvement in my shooting. On targets, my groups were smaller and more clustered on the bullseye. When plinking, I acquired and engaged those elusive tin cans quicker and knocked more of them off the berm with each magazine of ammo.
I am a complete convert to shooting handguns with both eyes open. When shooting with both eyes open, the dominant eye will naturally take over the task of focusing on the sights and target, while the other eye helps out with depth perception and peripheral vision.
What about extending the both-eyes-open technique to shooting rifles? My experience says yes with aperture sights and red dot type sights, maybe with open sights and low magnification scopes, and no way with high magnification scopes.
Before explaining that statement, I must stress something: to shoot a rifle with both eyes open, one must shoulder the gun on the dominant eye side. This is because when one looks at something with both eyes open, the dominant eye always takes the lead in focusing. Accordingly, if one mounts a rifle on the non-dominant eye side and tries to sight with that eye, while keeping the dominant eye open, the sight picture will be totally messed up and the gun will be pointing nowhere in particular. Again, when shooting a long gun with both eyes open, the gun must be mounted on the dominant eye side.
Having become convinced of the benefits of shooting handguns with both eyes open, I experimented with non-magnifying sight systems on rifles. I found shooting with both eyes open easy with peep and red dot sights and my accuracy and consistency improved at least marginally.
Open sights, though, are not a clear case. I generally do not get any noticeable difference in results when I shoot with one or both eyes open over open sights. As a result, I may use either technique at any given time, depending on which seems to give me the better sight picture at the moment.
Magnifying scope sights can also be used with both eyes open, but there are important limitations. One must be looking through the scope with the dominant eye and also there is a limit to how much magnification can be handled with both eyes open.
My personal limit is about 2.5x. if I crank the magnification above that, my brain protests that I am asking it to process conflicting optic signals from my two eyes that it does not want to deal with. Consequently, my accuracy deteriorates.
Finally, we come to shooting at moving targets with shotguns. The rule for effective wing shooting is writ large: Shoot with both eyes open, with the gun mounted on the dominant eye side. Ask anyone who has much experience hunting birds, shooting at those little clay frisbees, or taking out spying drones.
Here a relevant story. My wildlife club has regularly scheduled informal trap shooting sessions. Once, when I took my grandson to participate, I was watching the shooting and noticed something. There was a lady, shooting right-handed, who closed her left eye when she shot.
Curiosity got the better of me, so after she had finished her round I asked her if she was left eye dominant. She acknowledged that she was and went on to explain that she had tried to shoot left-handed, but could never get comfortable controlling a shotgun from that side. She said that she understood that shooting with only her non-dominant eye lowered her scores, but she did not care, because she had fun anyway. That is the true spirit of recreational shooting.
Without getting into an involved discussion of why, I will just say that anyone who shoots a shotgun with one eye closed is automatically spotting the person on the next station on the trap or skeet range at least two or three hits per round. However, if one cannot, for whatever reason, shoot a shotgun the "correct" way, that does not mean that he or she should not even try. The story I just shared is a case in point.
Hand/eye cross dominance is not common, but neither is it extremely rare. For someone who is cross dominant, it is simply a situation to be recognized, understood and adapted to when shooting. It should not discourage anyone from participating in and enjoying the shooting sports. I think this is the most important thing for anyone who is cross dominant to understand.
Copyright 2015, 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.