At the Rio Olympics, Vitalina Batsarashkina, a 19-year-old Siberian sharp shooter, stepped onto the range with an air pistol in her hand.
The gun was the least menacing part of the scenario.
No, the gold medal for badass Olympics gear would go to what was on her face: a pair of cyborgian spectacles that looked like they could’ve been plucked straight off Locutus of Borg.
Esoteric Olympic sports tend to come with esoteric kit, and shooting glasses are among the oddest pieces of industrial design you’ll find at the Games. And at the Olympic level, glasses like these are standard fare. “Pretty much everybody uses them these days,” says Scott Pilkington, a gunsmith who has worked with past Olympic marksmen.
That’s because the key to sharpshooting isn’t really about focusing on the target itself; it’s about aligning your mark with your firearm’s front and rear sights. “The ability to hit the target is your ability to correctly hold those two alignments points up against the target,” Pilkington says. This is harder than it sounds—but shooting glasses make it easier, thanks to some clever optical trickery.
These optical accessories look complex because they are. Shooting glasses are endlessly customizable; a pair from Swiss manufacturer Champion’s Choice is made from nearly 100 different pieces. That said, even the most complicated rigs typically boil down to three basic components: a lens, a mechanical iris, and a series of blinders that dangle from the frame like charms on a bracelet.
The lens can be ground to a sharpshooter’s optical prescription, but that’s not really what it’s for. An eye at rest would rather focus on a distant object than one that is near at hand; focusing on something in the foreground requires effort, and can lead to fatigue. Adding just a touch of lens power (+0.50 diopter, for the opticians in the house) to a sharpshooter’s prescription can help her sighting eye bring her gunsights into focus and keep them there, even as she concentrates on aligning them with the target in the distance.
this russian olympic shooter is the best quentin tarantino character he never wrote pic.twitter.com/u29MjcPej4
— jenny (@fvrmvn) August 8, 2016
But the lens presents a tradeoff: Bringing a gun’s sights into sharper focus can make the target go fuzzy. That’s where the blinders and mechanical iris come in.
“Your eye is like a camera lens,” says Tom Gaylord, a competitive air gunner known in sharpshooter circles as the godfather of airguns. And if you were armed with a camera instead of a pistol, bringing the target back into focus would be as simple as narrowing the aperture of your lens. This increases the range of distance within which objects will appear in focus (aka “depth of field,” for the photographers in the house). A greater depth of field means you can hold a target that’s 30 feet away and a pair of gunsights hovering at arm’s length in focus all at the same time.
A shooter typically mounts his mechanical iris to his shooting glasses just behind his lens. This lets him control the depth of field of his own vision. Twisting the iris narrows its aperture and reduces the amount of light that reaches the shooting eye, bringing the target and both sites into sharper focus than would be possible without the glasses. “The less light you can tolerate, the greater your depth of view will be,” Gaylord says. (Ever tried the pinhole trick, or squinted to see your alarm clock? This setup works by the same principle.)
The blinders serve a similar purpose by reducing the amount of light entering the shooter’s pupils. But the opaque plastic tiles also work to obscure the movements of other shooters and visuals that might otherwise distract an athlete. “I use them to block the vision of my non dominant eye,” says Jason Turner, a three-time Olympic marksman.
Sound like overkill? It’s not. “At the levels they’re competing at, they want every little extra edge they can get,” Pilkington says. And also, we’d imagine, to look like badass cyborgs.
Scoring 199.4 points from her 20 shots, the 25-year-old Zhang took the title by a comfortable margin of more than two points from Russia’s Vitalina Batsarashkina, with Anna Korakaki of Greece pocketing the bronze at the olympics.