Through Glasses — Darkly

Oldies, goodies, but no longer made: Bausch & Lomb’s iconic aviator shooting glasses with wrap-around ear pieces and AmberMatic lenses that change tint with changes in the light. Zeiss’s SCOPZ glasses had adjustable bridges and wrap-around stems, which held them firmly as high on the face as you wanted. Unfortunately, to get three or four different color lenses, you had to buy three or four pairs of glasses at $215 a pop. Ouch.

by Terry Wieland

Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of being hanged, and nothing focuses the mind on shooting glasses like being hit in the face by a half-dozen shotgun pellets.

This happened to me in December of 1998, on a mixed-bag shoot in Wales.  It was the morning flight for ducks, and our host had just delivered the requisite safety lecture with the admonition that “in the final analysis, the fault lies with the man who pulls the trigger.”

Barely thirty minutes later, he whirled to shoot at a pheasant that rose unexpectedly behind him, and I, up on a hill, was slapped in the face by five pellets, which dropped me to my knees with blood streaming down my face.  One pellet broke the skin less than an inch below my right eye, with four more scattered around.  Fortunately, the pheasant absorbed most of the shot.

I’d forgotten my shooting glasses, which were in my bag in the car.  Rather than delay the proceedings, I figured to be extra careful and grab them when we finished with the ducks and headed off for the next stage, which was driven snipe over a bog.  I reckoned without that pheasant.

By a miracle, I emerged with my eyes intact and have never since shot at anything with a shotgun, animate or inanimate, without shooting glasses.

The glasses I prefer, and have for 35 years, are the old Bausch & Lomb aviator-frame Ray-Bans with “AmberMatic” lenses that automatically change from yellow to dark amber and back again, depending on the sunlight or lack thereof.  The lenses are rated shatter-proof.  The stems are thin, springy, wrap around the ears, and hold the glasses snugly against your face.

Bausch & Lomb (now Bushnell) ceased making these many years ago, although you still see used ones for sale on-line, usually at a starting bid of $500 or more.  I know this because I went looking a year ago, when mine sustained some minor damage in an incident involving a dead pheasant, an over-eager dog, and a badger hole.  Fortunately, I was able to get them repaired.

Wearing them while shooting trap or Skeet, I never have any trouble seeing the clay regardless of cloud conditions.  The other day, though, I went to shoot Skeet wearing my normal glasses, having neglected to put in my contacts.  This would have been fine—the lenses are also rated shatter-proof—except that they darken to a deep grey in sunlight.  It was cloudy, which rendered all the trees in the background grey, but bright enough that the lenses went dark anyway.

Shooting from stations one through three, I could not pick up the high-house clay until it was well past the center post and riding a vigorous tailwind.  Even trying to spot it when others were shooting, the clay was invisible for the first half of its flight, then suddenly became visible only when it was nearing the limit of effective range.

Probably, I should have switched to the Ray-Bans and accepted the fact that without corrective lenses the targets would be blurry, but at least visible.  But I didn’t.

Shooting glasses today are either racy, all-plastic frames whose stems hug the temples, or more conventional glasses similar to those that Buddy Holly made famous.  They have interchangeable lenses, which come in many shades of yellow, amber, green, and grey, but none—not that I’ve found, at least—which automatically change with changing conditions.  (And vermillion, which was all the rage 20 years ago, is nowhere to be found.)  I assume this is simply to save money, since this technology has been around since the 1960s, and variable lenses are common on normal glasses.

Checking over one line of “performance eyewear,” I find the lenses are offered in eight or nine different colors, with UV protection, polarized lenses, and ballistic safety certification.  All of this is all very well, and I’m sure they protect you against errant pellets, UV rays, and all the rest, but they don’t help pick up a flying clay unless conditions are just right.

Twenty years ago, Zeiss briefly offered the “SCOPZ,” a line of very expensive shooting glasses.  The lenses were offered in about a dozen shades and colors, but were not interchangeable.  At $215 apiece, buying four or five glasses to cover every eventuality was a pricey deal.  They did, however, offer two important features:  The bridge piece was adjustable up and down, so the glasses would ride on your face exactly where you wanted them, and the spring-loaded stems wrapped around your ears to ensure they stayed in place come what may.

Today, the main selling points seem to be stems that hug the temples, and glasses so light-weight that temple-hugging is sufficient to hold them in place.  Sort of.  I’m not an engineer or a designer, but these frames look to me to be dirt cheap—plastic pieces moulded in some machine that turns them out at a fantastic rate for pennies apiece.  Fit the lenses (probably the most expensive part), tack on a designer name, add three zeroes to the price and, voilá.

I don’t doubt the technical qualities—the ANSI Z87.1+, for example—but I wonder about the usability.  There is one way to find out, and that’s to try them.  Leupold has a 70-year plus reputation for highly usable products, so I have sent away for an assortment of theirs to try out.

I’ll get back to you.

Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, is fortunate in having read warnings about eye and ear protection in childhood and—surprise, surprise—taken them to heart.