What explains the startling difference in ability between the novice or beginner shooter and the experienced Master Class shooter? As in all sports, learning the fundamentals is simple, but when it comes to implementing those fundamentals, physical talents definitely come into play.
Like all sports involving eye-hand coordination, shooting is basically a simple game: “see the bird; shoot the bird.” Everyone can learn the fundamentals of stance, posture, head position and how to mount a shotgun consistently. Using a shotgun that fits makes shooting well even “easier.”
The next skill to acquire is the ability to visually analyze a target’s speed, angle and distance and to determine the shotgun’s insertion point and the break point. With practice, it becomes easy to grasp the concept of “lead”—i.e., seeing a gap or forward allowance between the target and the muzzle. Or why you need to “miss it to hit it.”
But how does one make the quantum leap from being an average shooter to one who connects more consistently and is able to punch up into the next class? One answer is to discover the writings of Dr. Joan Vickers, a professor in kinesiology. Several decades ago Dr. Vickers discovered the quiet eye phenomenon (QEP), and her studies have been applied to a large variety of sports.
Working with a range of athletes from different sports, she used an eye-tracking technology to establish what the eyes focus on and for how long. The quiet eye phenomenon became defined as the final “fixation” on the target prior to the initiation of movement. To simplify: The ability to implement the quiet eye may be the reason that elite athletes are able to maintain hard focus even when under intense competition pressure.
Dr. Vickers’ experiments showed that fundamentally skilled athletes across all sports were able to hold longer visual focus on the target in the initial phase of impending action an average of two-plus seconds. In comparison, less-skilled athletes were able to hold focus for less than one second. A simple example applied to shooting is that without employing the quiet eye phenomenon, you likely will miss the first target of a pair or the first bird of a covey flush because your eyes are not ready.
So what is the solution to mastering QEP? Do all elite athletes simply share an incredible ability to focus and concentrate on the job at hand?
Some would say QEP is almost the same as “tunnel vision” or “being in the zone,” and this concentrated focus is achieved by grooving all movements to be smooth and consistent, allowing the eyes to guide the hands. This is possible only when the eyes track from one point to another smoothly—which also is known as “smooth pursuit.” Conversely, when we have rapid eye movement between the gun and target, where the eyes quickly jump from one point to the other, the inevitable result is a miss.
The lesson to be learned from this is what Dr. Vickers discovered: The better the competitors in various sports, the longer and steadier is their focus on the ball or bird and the smoother and more effortless is their strike or break. The top competitors actually slow down their analysis and thinking at the crucial moment of striking the ball or pulling the trigger.
QEP has been a huge game changer in all sports and is taught in the Olympic shooting training programs. But even the average shot can use it to increase target acquisition and focus in both clay and bird shooting, with the result being better breaks and cleaner field shots.
In shooting, visual connections with the target or bird typically take place under varying light and background conditions. The motion of a target against various backgrounds causes fluctuations in light and shadow, making it difficult to maintain focus on the target.
It long has been recognized that the right choice of shooting glasses and lenses in certain colors can enhance target clarity against different backgrounds. In fact, the correct choice of lens color often can mean the difference between a hit and a miss. Better visual definition along with better depth perception occur when the eyes’ pupils are at their maximum constriction. This is achieved by using the brightest/sharpest color lenses for the conditions in which you are shooting. For example, in sporting clays, vermillion-colored lenses make orange targets stand out against moderately well-lit backgrounds. In poor light or dusky, almost foggy conditions, yellow and orange tints can work best. Lenses with a brown tint are most effective in bright sunshine, but you need to experiment to find the tint that works best for you when shooting against different backgrounds.
We are all individuals, and each shooter needs to experiment to learn which tints offer the best enhanced contrast and definition when it comes to light condition, target color and background. The choices can be personal and specific to the individual. Regardless, the more light that enters the eye, the better the vision process and the better the eye-hand coordination. The use of color lenses to block some part of the light spectrum actually reduces the amount of light available, so there needs to be a balance of light loss with enhanced contrast. And this is achieved by using the lightest tint possible.
Lenses for shooting glasses should be polarized for ultimate protection from ultraviolet radiation, which contributes to the development of cataracts and has been shown to cause degeneration of the retinal pigment epithelium. It also has been discovered that exposure to harmful UV rays can accelerate age-related macular degeneration.
Regular glasses are designed to place the center of the lens directly in line with the pupil. When we lower our heads to the correct shooting position, with regular eyeglasses we end up looking off the optical center of the lens. A further problem is that everyday glasses are designed for fashion rather than function, which often means that the frame interferes with—and sometimes even obscures—vision. Professionally designed shooting glasses sit high on the nose and have correctly placed optics, so that when the head is lowered to the proper shooting position, the pupil is looking through the optical center of the lens. Shooting glasses have lenses that often are oversized and rimless, so there are no obstructions between the eyes and the target. The frame arms have padded, curved earpieces and nose pads to stop the glasses from slipping or being knocked ajar by movement or recoil. The high fit means that the glasses stand slightly off the face, allowing air to flow between the lenses and the eyes and preventing fogging on wet and humid days. (Lenses also can be polished with an anti-mist solution.)
While understanding the quiet eye phenomenon as well as finding the best shooting glasses with proper lenses can seem to be complicated processes, the resulting improvement in your shooting will prove the effort to be well worth it.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RANDOLPH RANGER