The first time I pulled the trigger on a real, loaded gun, it was my father’s 16-gauge Model 12. I was seven years old, and doves were in season. After making sure I understood that we don’t “normally” shoot at doves unless they are in flight, Dad made an exception and allowed me to take a shot at one sitting on a limb.
To this day, I still remember seeing the bird flying off and pieces of bark falling to the ground while I tried to figure out what had just punched me in the nose. I didn’t know enough to ask my dad, and he apparently didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until years later that I learned why my nose hurt that day… I was shooting right-handed but lining up the sights with my left eye.
On the rifle range at Boy Scout camp, it always seemed the rifle I used shot to the left, so I compensated by aiming the same amount to the right. I became so familiar with the Remington 514 I used at camp that when I found out they were going to sell it as surplus I bought it for a whopping $2. At least I knew how to aim it by compensating for the sights I thought were off.
In the Army, I qualified on the M16, and so long as I was getting rounds somewhere on a human silhouette target, the instructors had very little to say about technique. They did not teach anything about cross-eye dominance in the Army in 1969.
It was when I attended an NRA Basic Pistol Instructor course that I learned of the phenomenon called Cross-Eye Dominance. Before discussing the concepts of sight alignment and sight picture, the instructor took us through a test to determine which eye was dominant. For me, it turned out to be my left eye, even though I’m right-handed.
I was somewhat surprised to learn about this after a lifetime of shooting. As an aviator who was required to undergo a flight physical every year, including an eye examination, I knew I had 20/15 vision in my left eye and 20/20 in my right. However, as it turns out that has very little to do with which eye is dominant.
After discovering was left-eye dominant, I took the old Remington 514 to the range and shot it left-handed. The sights were dead on. The compensating I’d been doing was because of my eyes not the sights on the gun. No wonder Dad’s 16-gauge shotgun nearly bloodied my seven-year-old nose. I was leaning way over it to get the sights to line up.
There are several tests you can do to determine your dominant eye. You would think right-handed, right-eye dominant; left-handed, left-eye dominant, but they aren’t related. A different part of the brain makes the determination.
The test we did during my NRA Basic Pistol Instructor class is called the Miles test. To conduct this test, you pick an object across the room, then extend both arms, bringing your hands together to create a small opening through which you view the object. With both eyes open, slowly bring your hands back toward your face keeping the object centered in the opening. If you do this correctly, your hands will bring the opening back in front of your dominant eye.
There is another test that helped me understand my own eye dominance better. In this test, called the Porta test, you point with your index finger at a distant object with both eyes open. Then close one eye. Open it and close the other eye. Usually, your finger will appear to move off the object when you close one of your eyes. The one in which your finger moves off the object when you close it is your dominant eye. This was a real eye-opener for me (pun intended). At 12–15 feet, my finger appears to move approximately 7 to 10 inches left of the object when I close my left eye. As I mentioned before, I’m right-handed.
Several years ago, I put something like 14,000 students through the Texas License to Carry class, and we did this exercise in every class. Our statistics pretty much matched what I had read as far as national statistics. Approximately 30 percent of the general population is cross-eye dominant, with the percentage being a little higher among women. A small percentage of the population does not have a dominant eye.
When I’m working with people, I like to conduct both tests in class, because the Miles test works best for some people and the Porta test for others. Some people tell us they see two fingers when trying the Porta test. If they said they saw three, it would be easy to tell them to shoot the one in the middle, but with two, who knows?
The Porta test was very helpful for me. It showed such a difference and allowed me to realize where to align the sights when using my left eye compared to where my point of aim would be when aligning the sights with my right. It turns out that my being 20/15 in my left eye and 20/20 in my right eye has nothing to do with eye dominance. It’s just a coincidence.
Adapting to Eye Dominance
I now shoot long guns left-handed, but I still use right-handed rifles and shotguns. I bought a left-handed Ruger M-77 a few years back thinking it would be just the ticket, but operating it was awkward. Operating a regular bolt-action or lever-action rifle or shotgun with right-handed controls but off the left shoulder works fine for me. It took a little getting used to, but now I’m comfortable with it.
With a handgun, it’s important to align the sights using your dominant eye, but if you’re cross-dominant, you don’t have to change your shooting hand. Just rotate your head slightly. Don’t tilt it to the side, keep it upright and rotate it, like shown in these photos.
I wish determining eye dominance was all you had to deal with when learning to properly use the sights on a handgun. If you’re 21 years old and have 20/20 vision, the sight alignment/sight picture basics are no big deal. But we live in a world in which people have near and far contact lenses, Lasik or Keratotomy surgery and sometimes lens replacement surgery. Any of these may affect your ability to determine the best sight alignment strategy to use at near targets versus targets positioned farther away.
When working with a new shooter, using a laser or red dot sight on your handgun is a good way to identify eye issues affecting sight alignment. Theoretically, once you get your sight aligned, it will work for you regardless of which eye is dominant. Understanding how your eyes work with your gun’s sights before going to the range can save you a lot of discouragement (not to mention money).
One recommendation I’ve seen in print is to use a bit of opaque tape over the lens on the non-dominant side of your shooting glasses. This would allow you to keep both eyes open resulting in more light on the target which can help with depth perception. I’ve discovered in some lighting conditions, usually dim light on the periphery of the shooting area, the only thing that works for me is closing my right eye.
An instructor friend of mine — who doesn’t have a cross-dominant eye issue — tried to convince me that proper sight alignment will result in hitting the target regardless of which eye you use. Yes, that probably works if you totally close the eye you’re not using. I cannot close my dominant eye only, unless I hold it closed. When I’m shooting, there is no extra hand available for that purpose. Therefore, I use my left eye. Whether I leave my right eye open or close it, I am reasonably successful at hitting where I’m aiming. If I use my right eye with my left eye open, I shoot off to the left.
If you’ve never tested for eye dominance, I suggest doing so. Having this information in your arsenal may just help you hone the sight alignment/sight picture aspects of the shooting basics, so your rounds hit close to your intended aiming point.