Brian Arabie, a regular reader, queried the magazine about teaching his young son shooting and firearms safety.

"I have a 5-year-old to whom I'm teaching the basics of marksmanship (on the air rifle, for now.) My son is right handed, but appears to be left-eye dominant. In other words, he is unable to close his left eye and keep his right eye open. He can, however, keep his left eye open and close his right eye.

"What should I do? Insist that he learn to close that left eye, or just teach him to shoot left-handed?"

It was readily apparent Arabie's son is cross-dominant, meaning his strong hand and strong eye are opposed.

Todd Masson, editor of Louisiana Sportsman, answered the query first. Masson said his son, Joel, was cross-dominant, and he had solved it by putting a patch over his son's left eye whenever he shot. This forced him to shoot with his right eye.

Joel, 8, is now a very accurate shooter.

Everyone has a dominant side, either right or left, and a strong hand which does most tasks. In most folks, it is the right hand. Likewise, most will have a strong or dominant eye on the same side as the dominant hand.

Your dominant eye is the eye you should use for aiming when shooting any firearm - if possible. To do otherwise is working at cross purposes with your brain. It is accepting visual signals from your eyes and transmitting orders to your muscles to accomplish whatever task is at hand.

But cross-dominance is a far more common problem than one might think. I have been teaching handgun-safety and shooting courses since 1992. These courses have run as small as three people and as large as 50. In perhaps no more than four or five of these (and they were always smaller classes) can I recall not having a single cross-dominant person in the classroom.

One of the easiest ways to determine your dominant eye is demonstrated in the accompanying photographs. Jamie, my model, agreed to let me photograph her showing how to hold her hands properly, making a sort of "peep" sight between the webs of the thumbs, extending the hands interlocked as shown, and focusing with both eyes open on a distant target, looking at it through the small hole formed by interlocking the webs of the thumbs.

Keeping the eyes open, you bring the "peep" sight back to your face. You will naturally bring it back to your dominate eye; in other words, your dominant eye will be the one looking at the target through the "peep" between the thumbs.

Another way to do the same thing is to hold your finger or thumb upright at arms length and look at a small object some distance away. With both eyes open, you will see a "double" of your finger or thumb - it will look like two of them out in front of your face.

When you close one of your eyes, the finger or thumb will cover the object you are viewing. When you leave it open and close the other eye, the finger or thumb will obviously jump to the side of the object. Your dominant eye has lined the finger or thumb directly in line with the object.

Another, perhaps even simpler way to do this is to hold a pencil in your right hand extended in front of your face at arms length.

With both eyes open, align the point of the pencil on a small object about 20 feet away. A light switch is a perfectly good target for this.

Now take your left hand and cover your left eye. Did the pencil move to the side of the light switch, or keep it covered? If it kept it covered, you are most likely right-eye dominant.

Now, switch hands and repeat the experiment, this time pointing the pencil with your left hand, and covering your right eye with your right hand. If you are right-eye dominant, the pencil will noticeably move to the right.

When we conducted the experiment with Jamie, we found she also is cross-dominant: she is right-handed - and left-eye dominant. She was a bit distraught at first, thinking it meant something was unusually wrong or different with her.

I was not surprised to find this. It is a common condition, and more common, for some reason, in women than in men. We tried it at the house for the first time, and my own wife, Mary, is left-handed and right-eye dominant.

When my two sons became old enough to hunt, I discovered that my stepson, Brent, was cross-dominant - he also was right-handed, and had a vision problem that gave him a weaker right eye. This necessitated prescription lenses while he was growing up.

As in Brent's case, it is very awkward, almost impossible, to sight through a riflescope when you are shooting from your right side, and having to aim with your left eye.

Brent overcame it by forcing himself to use his weaker right eye. And it worked, because he has killed several deer and other game with rifles and shotguns. Eventually, the prescriptive lenses corrected his vision, and he now has true right-eye dominance.

Intrigued by Abadie's question and experiences with people in my classes, I talked to Guy Coates, a writer with the Associated Press and a dedicated shotgunner who competes regularly shooting trap. It is well-known around his shooting club that Guy is cross-dominant.

Since shooting a handgun is no problem with cross-dominance (you simply tilt your head slightly and use your dominant eye to aim), I was not familiar with overcoming the problem with long guns - and it is a very real problem with long guns.

If you are shooting a rifle right-handed, it is almost impossible to lay your head far enough over on the rifle stock to be able to sight with your left eye.

If you are shooting a shotgun, cross-dominance will alter your perception of the target and your gun barrel, and cause you to miss. I asked Coates what he did about his problem.

"Every article I've ever read in a shotgunning magazine has said the same thing," he told me. "The experts say if it is a young person, even any age less than 20, teach them to shoot with their off hand. They all say the young person will be better served learning to shoot on the same side as their dominant eye.

"Now, that works well with young folks. But when you have someone like me who waited until his kids were all grown and gone before he took up shotgunning, it's going to be nearly impossible to convert to shooting with the offhand. I didn't take it up as an active hobby until I was 52 years old. You're not going to get a 52-year-old man to change his strong side."

Being so right-handed I practically can't scratch my head with my left hand, I could identify with his condition.

"The answer," he continued, "is just like your editor's solution - force the mind to utilize the non-dominant eye."

Several different tricks can be used here. You can patch the dominant eye as Masson did with his son. Coates said the method most preferred here is to place a piece of opaque tape over the glasses on the side of the dominant eye. This forces the non-dominant eye to take over and aim without totally blocking vision in the dominant eye.

"Generally," Coates said, "they recommend opaque tape rather than a patch - the non-dominant eye will learn to take over. There are also sighting devices on the market you can attach to your shotgun's rib that will force use of the non-dominant eye by blocking the sight path of the offside dominant eye."

One of the devices described by Coates is simply an L-shaped piece of angle aluminum that is glued to the rib of the shotgun near the front sight. By its design, when the head is pressed to the stock, the off-side eye is blocked from seeing the front sight, forcing the strong-side eye to dominate. The off-side eye cannot see the front sight at all.

Interested in how this was developing, I called Dr. Charles Williamson, a prominent ophthalmologist, eye surgeon and dedicated outdoorsman. Williamson was raised on a farm, and he grew up shooting and hunting. I described what we were researching, and asked his opinion.

"I'd have to agree with the shooting experts," he said. "It's better to teach the student to work off their weak side and use their strong eye, than vice-versa. But the eyes can frequently be trained. For instance, we sometimes operate on someone who had corrective lenses made as contact lenses. In some cases, we have discovered the optometrist corrected their vision opposite their true dominant eye. We kept the correction true in surgery, since the person had become used to it."

Similarly, in a recent class, we discovered a male students who was cross-dominant - right-handed, but left-eye dominant.

Knowing he was a dedicated hunter, I asked how he had managed to shoot a rifle all his life.

His friends laughed at my question and said he was different than anyone else. He writes with his right hand. He shoots a rifle and a bow with his left hand, and he shoots pool with his left hand.

So here is a perfect example of someone's brain and muscles accommodating the demands from the dominant eye. Notice that each of these activities demands skill at aiming with the eye. Since his left eye is dominant, his body has learned to do the necessary muscle actions to use his strong eye.

I can't recommend either method, and from the literature and opinions of experts, apparently either patching or forcing the body to learn to shoot from the offside is acceptable.

But I compliment Brian Abadie on his dedication and interest in starting his son in the shooting sports at such a young age. We need more dads getting their sons involved like this. I started my own life-long love affair with guns by receiving a Daisy air rifle on my sixth birthday, and I was taught safety and accuracy by my father and uncle from the start. Fortunately for me, I wasn't cross dominant.

Looking back on my own kids, if I had to do it over, I probably would now try to train my stepson to shoot with his left hand. In the long run, it makes him a more versatile athlete, and he is accommodating that all-important dominant eye. Of course, his dominance has been regained in his right eye, and he would be that most versatile of all of us, like my former student, an ambidextrous shooter.

 

Gordon Hutchinson's best-selling novel, The Quest and the Quarry, a generational tale that parallels the lives of a line of trophy bucks and the youth of a farming family that hunts them, can be ordered at thequestandthequarry.com or by calling (800) 538-4355.

It was recently chosen as a book of the year by the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association.