I’m a cross-dominant rifle shooter, meaning I’m a right-handed shooter and I’m left eye dominant. Not a good combination for shooting at bucks on the run (as when you see one jumping from its bed after a long day on the track) or working a shotgun at the skeet range, in the upland bird fields, or at running rabbits, etc. There are fixes for the cross dominant shooter. But to understand how to fix the inherent issues associated with being a cross-dominant shooter, you must first understand how the human eye sees and focuses on an object of interest and why this is important for proper shooting.
How the Dominant and Subordinate Eyes Work together for Binocular Vision
One of your eyes – the dominant eye, focuses on the object of interest first; in this case let’s say a buck jumping from its bed. (Note: There are techniques to find out which of your eyes is the dominant one. Just search on the web for “dominant eye” and the techniques are listed.) Here is a link to a good video for you to start with. Eye Dominance Test Video Once your dominant eye focuses on the buck, the less dominant eye follows suit, making for a full binocular image of the buck making his escape. This takes a fraction of a second of course, as the brain needs a small window of time to process the information it is receiving from the optic nerves for the binocular focusing and recognition to take full effect. Binocular vision is important because it provides for depth perception as well as a wide field of view.
If you are right hand dominant (right handed) and you are also right eye dominant you are blessed with a great foundation for the shooting world (same for left-handed and left eye dominant shooters). Your dominant eye will line up naturally when you bring the gun up and will focus down the sights (or on the scope reticle) and onto the buck quite quickly. Your left eye will then follow by providing the second plane of vision creating depth perception, as well as providing the advantages that come from a two-eye’s-open wide field of view and peripheral awareness. This makes for a very effective scenario in quick fire scenarios. Also, in this case you are using the dominant side of your body as a right handed person, so your muscle memory of the right handed stance and grip of the rifle will also support the eye dominance that exists in your right eye. This makes learning to shoot accurately and quickly a very doable process given some practice time is invested.
However, even when shooting with two eyes open and from your dominant side, you will still see what I like to call “a shadow image” of the side of the barrel from your left eye’s sight picture. But because the dominant eye is in charge, your brain will easily discount that annoyance, and with practice you will notice that your brain will compensate and become less aware of this minor sideshow.
Shooting Cross Dominant
Now let’s say you are right handed, but you are left-eye dominant like I am. This is cross dominance. If you are like me, no one attempted to find out what your dominant eye was when you began shooting as a child, and so you never realized until you were older that this cross dominance oversight created a handicap in your ability to shoot accurately and quickly, especially at moving targets. Let’s run through the buck scenario again, this time as a cross dominant shooter.
You see the buck getting up to run. You pull the gun up in the right handed stance with two eyes open, and bring the gun to your right shoulder. As you attempt to line the sights up with your non-dominant eye (in this case the right eye) you automatically see two blurry front sights, a blurry rear sight, and a muddled image of the buck in the background. This happens because your brain is receiving a mixed message. It will first focus using the dominant eye, which sees the image of the side of the barrel and the front sight from that off-angled perspective. But simultaneously, the brain knows that you are trying to force the non-dominant right eye to focus down that barrel – hence the image of dual front sights. Next, the brain desperately tries to reconcile which eye is supposed to be focusing first, causing a delay in the entire process of focusing and following the deer with any accuracy. On instinct, you override your brain’s confusion by closing your dominant left eye and everything immediately becomes clearer as your non-dominant right eye now focuses on its single image of looking down the sights without the dominant eye’s interruption. What you now see is a blurry rear sight, a somewhat clear front sight and after a bound or two, the deer comes into some semblance of focus in which to shoot at. But notice that the deer is now out of his bed and on the run because of the delays in the eye to brain connection. With your dominant eye closed tight, there is now no depth perception because everything you’re looking at is on one focal plane. Also, you have very limited peripheral vision, and the deer running through the trees is harder to find in the sights, especially as it runs through the brown-colored brush.
A Decision Needed to be Made
There are only two ways to fix cross dominance. Close one eye when you shoot (with or without a scope) as explained above and practice, practice, practice. Or, learn to shoot to your dominant hand and eye. For nearly 39 years I’ve shot as a cross dominant shooter with one eye closed. I practice shooting with regularity and have shot many game animals – 42 deer and a bear to be exact, 3 of which were on the run when hit and killed, and countless small game animals. But, when I did an inventory of my overall hunting experience, I counted 18 deer in that span of time that I’d missed – over 90% of which were the running shots. Another point I realized was that I’ve never hit a grouse on the wing either, although I’ve shot at a ton through my younger years. Now, you the reader, might think, wow that’s embarrassing. And for years I was embarrassed as I missed animals I watched others dispatch with relative ease. If not for the tens of thousands of rounds I’ve fired in my lifetime, I am absolutely sure I would have missed many more of those I did get, and here is why. I did not know how hopelessly left eye dominant I actually was, and as a right handed person/shooter, that dominance is quite difficult to overcome.
I used to watch people shoot skeet and whack 8 or 9 out of 10 birds, while I could only hit 5 to 7 no matter how hard I tried. I learned to go early and practice before the other shooters would show up so I could be somewhat better at it when we got to it. If I didn’t, I struggled to hit any. It really affects your confidence, because you always doubt your abilities, and that is one of the worst mental states to be in when tracking season comes along. Of course like everyone, I’ve had issues with guns failing to perform because of mechanical issues, or a fogged scope, or sights that just didn’t seem to work well for me, but that is all normal stuff you figure out with experience. Those are things that everyone in the field will be forced to deal with at one time or another. But this issue is different – it’s more personal. A gun that is broken is frustrating yes, but a person’s confidence that is broken is much worse. My journey with cross dominance has been more problematic for me because I felt that somewhere in my late-thirties that I had hit my limit of progress shooting right handed and I was not satisfied with the results.
In a sense, I felt I had to accept a certain level of limitation in my hunting world, and that can be depressing for a tracker that invariably needs to shoot at bucks on the move at times. This emotional stress was always in the background on my hunts, and it forced me to feel as if I needed to catch a buck in its bed unaware or I’d have little chance of killing him. It’s not happenstance that 5 of the last 8 bucks that I’ve shot were killed in their beds (the other 3 were standing still when I shot them).
I met Tim Bolduc, a fellow Big Woods Bucks Team Member for the first time at the Augusta Maine Sportman’s Outdoor Show this past April. We hit it off right away and were discussing my new book which discusses my path from being a beginning tracker to becoming a successful one. As we were talking, I explained that I had one area in my hunting arsenal that I still struggled with; that being my cross dominance. I also explained that in one respect, this handicap has made me very knowledgeable on rifles and ballistics (and made me a better stalker). As a result of my path to overcome this handicap I have tried and tested untold numbers of guns and optics/sight combinations to make me a better shooter. So out of fire came a certain steel so to speak. Yet, Tim could sense my frustration with it all, because he knows like I do, that a tracked buck isn’t always a still buck. After explaining my challenges with eye dominance, he looked at me and said, “You need to learn to shoot left-handed. I did it myself many years ago – I had the same exact cross dominance problem. I switched to shooting left handed and it was a revelation to be able to keep both eyes open when I was shooting. It changed my confidence level like crazy! I’m telling you, you gotta try it.”
I have read instances where people made the conversion, mostly in the tactical 3 gun competition arena, but I’d never met a fellow tracker that did it. Tim is a great tracker/hunter (or he wouldn’t be on the Team!) and his opinion and suggestion came with some impressive credentials that hang on his game room walls, so I listened. We had a great heart-to-heart talk about it, and I decided then and there to make the switch.
When I Got Home
I got back from the show, went directly downstairs to my gun safe, picked up one of my pump rifles and mounted it to my shoulder in a left handed stance. My heart sank. It was awkward beyond compare! I’d worked so hard for more than three decades to become a competent right-handed shooter with thousands of rounds sent downrange in that position, that attempting to mount the gun in the left handed stance was as alien to me as trying to write a term paper in cursive with my left hand. Frankly it was just horribly weird. But then something wonderful happened.
I put my cheek on the stock, kept both eyes open and looked through the 1x4 Trijicon scope and realized in that instant why Tim told me to try this. While my muscle memory seemed backwards and awkward, my sight picture felt PERFECT. I could see everything clearly, even outside the scopes ocular. The amber triangle reticle was clearly in the center of my overall vision as it should be, there were no double vision issues or blurriness, and my brain did not try to compensate in any way. Tim’s words came back to me, “You gotta try it!” In that instant I realized that I’d been hunting for my entire life with a kind of “blurry blindness.”
The next morning before work, I went to the gun range and began my conversion to left handed shooting. As an ex-boxer, I knew the muscle memory of mounting, pointing and adjusting my physical stance would come with practice. Muscles don’t think – they are a slave to the mind, and like learning the jab in boxing, I knew if I held and shot that gun left handed enough, the brain and muscles would eventually connect.
With my dominant eye in control, I shot with both eyes open and immediately was getting decent groups. Within 2 weeks of some shooting before work, those groups went to half their original size. I bought a Browning Bar Semi-Auto Carbine to make the process of building the muscle memory an easy one – it has no action to work. With one of my 1x4 Trijicons mounted and my dominant eye looking down that scope at 1 power, it is incredibly easy to shoot and rip off accurate shots all the while being able to see around the periphery. After some days of doing this, I began working on using my pump actions in the new stance. Working the pump came with a quick muscle memory conversion. I was getting this! Next, I tried the lever action and the bolt action – these were a struggle from a working the action proficiently perspective. But like anything, with practice will come perfection.
My goal is to be a fully ambidextrous shooter in all of my favorite rifles within 2 years. That means, the semi-auto Browning’s first, then my pump action Remington’s, and then the lever action Marlin’s. My bolt actions will remain a right-handed tool. I never take a bolt action into the tracking woods where quick shots might be necessary anyway.
Solutions Come In Many Forms
Sometimes answers to a person’s struggles come in a way that is most unexpected. I’m not one to easily open up to people about a personal issue – especially one that has resulted in many misses through the decades. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve been trying to be more secure about myself and life in general, and part of that is being ok with admitting failure. At the last few outdoor shows that the BWB Team attended, we had been giving panel seminars where the Team Members discussed openly to the crowd the stories of the bucks we regretfully had missed in our respective hunting careers. The panel was called “The One’s That Got Away”. These panels ended up being the most popular seminars given at those shows. I believe this is the case because all hunters share this experience at one time or another. I guess in a way, because of that group vulnerability, I came away from the panel discussion more open to a further conversation about this when I got back to the booth. When I began to talk openly with my new friend Mr. Bolduc about my frustration, and he didn’t bust my stones about the number of bucks I’d missed over the past 30+ years of hunting, that final barrier which had always blocked me from a solution was pierced. To be honest, being on that panel broke the ice inside of me and forced me to face the fact that I’d been frustrated for long, long time. As Tim and I got deep into the finer points of the discussion, fellow BWB Team Members, Joel Carvell and Matt Breton each chimed in (ironically they were also on the panel that day as well) encouraging me to try the new shooting style.
I’m glad I met Tim, that day, and I’m glad I discussed freely my cross dominance struggles with him, Joel and Matt. Had I not taken that emotional chance, I would not have received the answer to my struggle from my fellow Team Members. Hopefully, by writing this all down and providing the answer I have found, a hunter out there who is also struggling can take a chance and discover the value of changing the way they shoot. In the end, hunting is a brotherhood, and passing on the lessons we learn is an important part of being a member of that brotherhood!
Copyright ® Mark Scheeren 2018 all rights reserved
If you or anyone you know has a problem with addiction or would like more information about Mark’s latest book, The Freedom Model for Addictions, or his residential retreats, The Freedom Model Retreats, or if you would like to talk to Mark confidentially and one-on-one, just dial toll free, 888-424-2626 and ask for Mark Scheeren.