Saturday, August 18, 2012

Eye Dominace and Youth Rifles: Hodgeman Rants

As my son gets older, he is proving to be an enthusiastic hunter like myself. As he finds himself a "tweener"- apparently an age between true kid-dom and the teen years that escaped the common lexicon when I was that age- he is no longer content to merely follow along as I hunt or simply be an "add-on" to the chase. He wants to be a full participant. That was confirmed to me after last year's caribou hunt; my son spent an hour at the sporting goods counter staring through the glass display looking for the best hunting knife to skin big game. It is entirely possible to go afield with a gun and not be a participant in the hunt, but wielding a knife on downed game- that's full on desire.

Its something I must admit pleases me in no small way, but I must confess that it's not something that I've demanded of him lest it drive us both to misery. We started him on the BB gun- a version of the classic Daisy- and after he learned the basics of gun safety, and while going through the frustration of teaching him the marksmanship basics I learned that he is "left eye dominant". As some information, eye dominance has nothing to do with "handed-ness", in fact my son has the worst condition possible- "cross eye dominance" wherein he is right handed and left eyed. I speak from experience being firmly left handed and right eye dominant. With a handgun, cross eye dominance isn't really a disadvantage at all but with a rifle, shotgun or bow it can lead to a lot of frustration and requires a lot of training to overcome.

Determining eye dominance is a straightforward test- have the person form a triangle with their thumbs and forefingers held at arms length and look at you through it from across the room. The eye you see back through the opening is their dominant eye. Various military organizations through the years sought to make everyone shoot right-handed rifles operated from their right side regardless of eye dominance- thinking it was solely a training issue. Maybe if you're teaching a bunch of neophytes to operate automatic rifles it isn't much of an issue, but in the hunting field where we demand reflexive and natural action it is detrimental. Shouldering and shooting a rifle or shotgun should be as instinctual as possible.

After instructing him to hold and shoot from his left side (trigger hand or bow grip being the left one) and sight with his left eye, his shooting improved tremendously. The inexpensive lever action BB gun was relatively ambidextrous and I managed to find a fairly well made youth bow in left hand and that's where my good fortune pretty well ran out. I started searching for a .22 rifle (the greatest training weapon ever devised by man) and found relatively little in a left hand bolt action with a kid sized stock. I examined a couple such weapons and found one that even though the bolt was on the left side, the safety was not. Slung over the left side, the safety would likely rub on clothing or packs and become set to FIRE inadvertently- bad show. One example I found was so poorly made with such a hideous trigger it would have been more trouble than it was worth- and it carried a substantial premium over the right handed version of the same weapon! I eventually settled on a Ruger 10/22 Compact. The semi-automatic action isn't really a favorite of mine for a youth rifle, but it's pretty well made, correctly proportioned, common and relatively ambidextrous.

Our recent shotgun acquisition mentioned in my last piece is really very nice, being well proportioned, well made and a truly useful hunting arm. The pump shotgun loads through the centerline, the safety is located on the tang and is ambidextrous as well (not all pump shotguns share this feature by the way). About the only criticism I can offer is that a left handed shooter is perhaps at slightly greater risk in the event of a case rupture since the ejection port has the right side of the face in it's vicinity for escaping gas where a right handed shooter would have only the point of the shoulder as a potential injury. That's a pretty minor point however since shotguns operate at pretty low pressure and I can't remember ever seeing a modern shotgun shell rupture- and I've fired thousands and seen many times more fired by others. As an older teen there are some true left hand pump shotguns and the Browning which both loads and ejects from the bottom- making it truly ambidextrous.

This year, he has expressed a desire to tag a caribou and I'm endeavoring to find him a correctly proportioned, left hand rifle in a small centerfire rifle caliber and I'm not having much luck. I've seen one example, so poorly made that it would basically become value-less on purchase. I've seen a couple more in various maker's catalogs but all the retailers I've ventured into at this point didn't have anything on the rack. One hates to custom order an expensive rifle without being able to shoulder it for fit. There are a couple suitable lever action rifles which by nature are ambidextrous (maybe those old guy's from the early era of smokeless arms really did know what they were doing?) by design if you discount the addition of a push button safety- which is a modern insertion into an old design that is both pointless and obtrusive. I could likely make do but the tubular action requires flat point bullets which severely limits range. Don't get me wrong- I dearly love the lever action 30-30 (in fact, I killed my first big game animal with one) but hampering a young hunter to 100 yards in the wide open West or Alaska seems like handicapping them unnecessarily.

Here lies the source of my rant. We've been told for many years that we should encourage "non-traditional" markets to take up the shooting sports- that's ladies and youth for those that don't speak marketeer. Both generally require a stock that is quite different to something a full grown man would shoot. But when you endeavor to outfit those ladies and kids with a decent rifle you're forced to make a lot of compromises. If you happen to be an enthusiastic young hunter or a lady taking up the shooting and hunting sports and you happen to be left eye dominant, you will likely not have something to select from on the rack. Without a resident rifle geek (like myself) helping guide your purchase, you will quite likely end up spending your money on something that is uncomfortable, inefficient if not outright unsuitable. By this point I've talked to several lady hunters who were making do with rifles they wish they'd never purchased. How many haven't I spoke to- who shot an uncomfortable rifle a few times and gave it up. I've also encountered far too many youths shooting a rifle with a stock a couple inches too long or reaching over the top to work the bolt. Only in the last couple of decades have left hand rifles even become generally available and several makers still offer no left hand option at all.

So here is my challenge to both arms makers and retailers:
Roughly 50% of the population is female. Roughly 20% of the population is left eye dominant. Roughly 10% of the population are children of hunting age. That's a lot of potential hunters and shooters we're leaving purposely out in the cold. In the days of old your clientele mainly consisted of grown men or older teen boys (who use adult sized rifles) and your manufacturing methods were laborious and tooling both expensive and inflexible- the argument that you didn't have enough market to justify the substantial cost was likely correct.

That was yesterday- history.

Today the fastest growing segments of the shooting and hunting sports are women, followed by children. In fact I haven't talked to many male adult onset hunters over a long period of time. I personally know several women who took the sport up in middle age- with no background whatsoever. Thanks to the work of a lot of people- the hunting and shooting sports are reaching out and attracting both a female audience and a younger one. Those folks need equipment. To the maker- new machine equipment is CNC driven and the concept of tooling a left hand action that once took revamping an entire line of dedicated manual machines can now be accomplished with a few mouse clicks on the CAD/CAM station. The tooling costs for producing a dedicated left hand gun is minimal. Since most gunstocks are now injection molded plastic the cost of producing one is rather minimal since CNC injection molding is now as common as CNC machining. And by the way- the arms you produce for ladies and kids are largely junk, built to a price. It's true that neither ladies nor children are large buyers of multiple arms (rifle geekdom seems solely a male pursuit) but you're giving them little encouragement with your product line.

Yesterday I visited two of the largest arms retailers in Interior Alaska- one of the most ardent hunting markets in the US. I looked at racks that contained many hundreds (I admit my tendency for hyperbole- but that statement is literal) of guns and out of over perhaps 400 centerfire rifles, I found about 15 left hand guns and 0 with a youth stock. Right hand youth rifles numbered about 20. You are leaving a lot of clientele (with cash in hand) without an option. I've often heard that "there's no market" and that's true with 1950's data but I believe today's figures are driven by your inventory- the lack of a ladies or youth market is an invention of your own making. With no stock on hand to demonstrate, sales are low. Low sales numbers are certainly a rationale to the makers that there's no point in investing in making the product.

A word on your gun counter staff (this is generic and by no means universal)- how about some training? The majority of counter staff I spoke to yesterday had little idea what was even available within your own product lines. The all-male staff reaked of Alpha Man syndrome so severely that a female customer would likely be offended if not dismissed outright- no surprise the sole female customer I saw after 5 minutes of condescending, empty-headed diatribe just wandered off. Often the gun counter advice is just wrong... when I mentioned a lefty kid gun I had multiple self proclaimed experts heartily recommend I "just teach him right handed".As an adult hunter, he can make his own choice to train himself to shoot that way and overcome his natural tendency and eye dominance. As his Dad however, I'm going to teach him and equip him to shoot correctly.

Period. End of story.

Eventually a company will make the transition to the modern market and to my mind it can't happen soon enough.

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