By Jeff Johnston
For years we've been told to wear eye protection while shooting. Common sense says it's good policy, but what level of protection can we expect? Disregarding manufacturer claims and forgotten studies, I grabbed a shotgun, a box of shells and an assortment of brand-new-but-soon-to-be-demolished glasses in order to determine:
1. At what ranges and with what shot sizes is eyewear effective?
2. Are polycarbonate lenses better than other materials?
3. Does expensive eyewear perform better than bargain brands?
To "fail," shotgun pellet(s) had to: 1) penetrate the lens; 2) the lens had to lose structural integrity by fracturing or fragmenting; 3) the balloon(s) had to burst as a result of this failure(s). If the lenses displayed no pellet penetration, fracturing or fragmenting and the balloons were intact, then the glasses "passed" at that range/load combination. The experiment was then repeated with an average brand (North's The Edge, which has ANSI Z87.1-certified polycarbonate lenses) using No. 6 shot, No. 4 shot, No. 2 steel and buckshot. When the glasses failed, they were not tested at closer ranges.
Ammo: Federal Gold Medal (T116); 12-gauge, 23/4-inch, 3 Dram Eq., No. 8 shot (1.07 grains per pellet), 11/8-ozs. shot; MV-1200 fps.; ME-3.1 ft.-lbs.
2. It's a mistake to assume that any plastic-lens sunglasses off the rack at the local 7-11 are made of polycarbonate and therefore are effective as shooting glasses. Cheap plastics are not polycarbonates; in fact, wearing them could be worse than wearing nothing, as they can introduce sharp shards of plastic to your eyes in addition to the projectile(s) that caused them to break. All glasses that have Z87.1 stamped somewhere on them have passed the ANSI standard for "Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection Devices," a series of tests administered by the International Safety Equipment Association. The glasses that were marked Z87.1 + (the plus-sign means they were rated for high-impact) did the best. Some glasses, like the Decot Hy-Wyd, are not officially rated—the company chose to use metal frames thereby disqualifying them from the ratings. Its polycarbonate lenses are quality, though not as durable as some of the others. Just make sure you buy polycarbonate lenses if you are buying them primarily for safety. The stylish Decots, while expensive, were also the only glasses we tested that can be had with prescription lenses, though others, like WileyX, are available. Less costly options for eyeglass wearers are the EyeArmor OveRx glasses that fit over ordinary prescription eyeglasses.
3. With eye protection, cost does not necessarily correlate to level of performance. Companies charge more for high-optical-quality lenses, hard coatings, interchangeable lenses, tints, polarization, accessories, prescription lenses and warranties than do others that just charge for clear Z87.1 polycarbonate lenses and frames. Case in point: the $12 Bollé VX and the $5.95 Pyramex Rendezvous performed wonderfully. Both are clear, eye-protection glasses, not protective sunglasses. The EYESights S101X is one example of interchangeable-lens sunglasses that look good, protect extremely well and cost only $39.95. NRAstore.com offers a five-lens shooting kit made by Pyramex that sells for $29.95.
Using a mannequin head with balloons for “eyes,” the test pitted 12-gauge, No. 8 shot versus 10 brands of eyewear. Some were effective at 25 yards, others at 8, but ultimately all were shot to smithereens.