Effective Eyewear

The first thing I consider when looking at glasses is whether they will effectively protect my eyes. Don't buy eyewear where you buy your morning coffee. It is not going to protect you.

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Because I grew up watching all of the best "cop shows" on both the big screen and the small screen, I know a pair of cool sunglasses is part of the requisite uniform. We all know they make us look more professional and give us that official "cop look." However, glasses do much more than this on duty. You will notice I said glasses, not sunglasses, because in my humble opinion you should be wearing glasses on every shift, not just when it's sunny. I believe glasses are body armor for your eyes.

Now you may say, "Hang on, Smith. What do you mean wear glasses on every shift? It's not sunny at midnight, and what if it's a cloudy, rainy, gray day? The sun won't bother me when those are the conditions." To this I say, true, the sun might not bother you in these situations. But what will protect your eyes from flying debris, liquids thrown at you, someone spitting in your face, or even a flying fist?

In the year 2009 glasses are not just sunglasses or glasses to help those of us who are optically challenged; they are ballistic eye protection. Yes, you read that correctly: ballistic eye protection. Anything that is flying through the air technically has a ballistic coefficient and can damage soft tissue, especially your eyes. Even the military has realized the troops need to protect their eyes and has a list of authorized protective eyewear.

So what makes a good pair of duty glasses? At first glance that might sound like questioning what makes a good pair of duty boots. However, there are specific characteristics that you should look for in duty glasses.

Balance Quality and Looks

The first thing I consider when looking at glasses is whether they will effectively protect my eyes. Most cheap sunglasses at the local corner market will offer you some protection from the sun, at best. If you are purchasing your duty shades there to save a few bucks, ensure they will at least protect your eyes from both UVA and UVB rays, which will harm your vision when you're out in the sun all day long. If these bargain specs don't do that, you are just buying smoke-colored plastic to cover your eyes. Better yet, don't buy eyewear where you buy your morning coffee. It is not going to protect you.

Where do I suggest purchasing protective eyewear? Your favorite uniform shop, a well known online supplier, and your local firearms retailer are good places to start. These places specialize in gear to protect you on and off duty.

Now, you may grouse that protective eyewear isn't cool. But I beg to differ. Companies such as Oakley, Wiley-X, and 5.11 Tactical manufacture what I think are stylish mainstream sunglasses; they all just happen to be impact and shatter resistant. You'd be surprised at the ballistic ratings many of these trendy companies offer, as they are approved military eyewear.

When you are shopping for protective optics from manufacturers of fashion eyewear, I suggest steering clear of the cool guy aviator or small lenses. They may look good, but they don't give your eyes protection from debris entering the sides of the glasses. Most ballistic/duty eyewear is a wrap style for this reason--and yes, they do look good.

Single or Interchangeable Lenses

After you find a reputable store to purchase your protective eyewear, I would suggest looking for glasses that have interchangeable lenses or shields. When you can go from clear, to yellow, to smoke/brown tinted shields you can wear the glasses day or night. Interchangeable lenses also reduce the amount of stuff you need to carry in your duty bag because you only need one set of frames. And if you buy higher end glasses, this option also greatly reduces the overall cost.

I have found that Wiley-X, Revision, and SunBuster are excellent choices. 5.11 Tactical also offers a pair of glasses with interchangeable lenses, the Eagle, which is a fine pair of specs.

If you don't like the idea of glasses with interchangeable shields but would like choice in lens color, then look at glasses from places such as big box stores and your local firearms dealer. They will have single lens shooting glasses. Yes, I said shooting glasses. They can be found in clear, yellow, and most often smoke. These glasses will also be affordably priced. 5.11 Tactical also offers several pairs of optics, which feature a single dark lens for daylight wear. From what I have seen these are tough glasses. Other quality eyewear is made by Radians, MSA, Peltor, and Champion to name a few.

[PAGEBREAK]Prescription Compatibility

One feature I personally look for in protective eyewear is whether the glasses are prescription lens compatible. Being optically challenged, I need eyewear that can accept a prescription insert or optical lenses mounted to the frames so I can have the advantage of various lens colors for changing lighting.

Top players that meet this requirement are Wiley-X, Rudy Project, Revision, and SunBuster. You can have prescriptions ground into shields for some companies' glasses, but it gets pricey. It's a personal preference, but I prefer the second line of protection provided by a prescription insert lens, just in case something shatters the outer shield.


When it comes to duty optics there is only one specialty optic; goggles. While not something many of us will use on duty, those who wear them need to have an idea of what's out there. Blackhawk, Revision, Wiley-X, Oakley, and ESS offer numerous models of goggles. These can be the large ski type goggles or more streamlined conformal ones.

The only goggles I have worn are Ant from Revision and the CQC from Wiley-X because they accept a prescription insert. Both pairs are comfortable and fit close to the face. And for goggles they look good.

Quality goggles all have a couple features that the GI sand goggles of my youth didn't. The first is they have air vents so the lenses don't fog up when it's humid. These vents have some type of a mesh to keep out dirt and sand if they are for use in that environment. Others will have slits, which create a cross draft to keep the lens clear.

Some goggles offer tearoffs so you can simply rip one layer off and have a clear lens should the outer layer get dirty or scratched. Most quality tactical goggles have interchangeable shields so you can use them in a variety of light conditions. This also allows you to easily replace one shield without forking over the bucks for a whole new set of goggles.

You will find goggles for general eye protection, use in boat operations and other aquatic applications, chemical environments, when using pyrotechnics/explosives, etc. Goggles will offer you enhanced protection over your daily ballistic eyewear for those times when things really go south or can go that way rapidly.

All quality protective eyewear, be it glasses or goggles, are designed to protect one of your most fragile tools: your eyes. They are built to keep your eyes working when things go to hell around you. If you buy quality optics designed for the purpose of protecting your eyes from UV rays as well as flying objects, you will not be sorry. The cost of the eyewear compared to being blind or visually impaired is minimal because they will serve you for many moons, unless they are broken.

Don't scrimp on something to protect such a valuable item as your sight. Be safe, and protect yourself always.

Scott Smith is a former federal police officer for the Department of Veteran's Affairs and a contributing editor to POLICE.

About the Author
Scott Smith Bio Headshot
Retired Army MP
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