A Guide to Ballistic & Tactical Eyewear

Ballistic Eyewear like the ESS Crossbow provide protection from extreme impact hazards found on the battfield

Ballistic Eyewear like the ESS Crossbow provide protection from extreme impact hazards found on the battfield

Although the U.S. Military is drawing down in several areas (Afghanistan for example), the importance of ballistic-rated eye protection is not going away and has in fact become a mainstay of our armed forces. In addition, the use of ballistic-rated eyewear has started to trickle down into non-military applications.

What is ballistic & tactical eyewear, & how does it differ from other eyewear?

In basic terms, ballistic refers to a free-moving object, such as a missile or cannon, fired from a fixed site. The term tactical refers to activity, such as bombing or using weapons, that usually supports military operations. Ballistic and tactical eyewear protects wearers from the dangers associated with these and similar situations.

In addition, ballistic and tactical eyewear provides additional protection in harsh military environments, such as the Middle East with its intense heat and frequent dust storms, and it does so at a standard well beyond those found for industrial-rated safety eye protection.

While ballistic-rated safety glasses and sunglasses are becoming one of the fastest growing segments of protective eyewear both inside and outside the military, there still seems to be a considerable amount of confusion over what actually classifies eyewear as ballistic rated.  The two terms are often used interchangeably in casual conversation, but not all ballistic eyewear is necessarily intended for tactical use, and not all tactical eyewear is ballistic (though it should be).

The U.S. Military has issued rigorous ballistic tests that safety eyewear and sunglasses worn by military personnel have to pass. These tests, conducted in a field environment, include subjecting eyewear to projectiles at over four times the velocity of normal ANSI Z87.1 testing, the standard for industrial safety eyewear. ANSI (American National Standards Institute) tests projectiles at 150 fps, while the military requires testing projectiles at 650 (+/- 10) fps for spectacles and 550 fps for goggles.

Smith Elite Eyewear Ballistic Eyewear Chart

Smith Elite Eyewear provided this chart to quickly show the differences between ANSI Z87.1 and the Military Ballistic Standards.

According to The Army Vision and Conservation Readiness Program, in addition to impact safety requirements, the U.S. Army also wants eyewear to be functional, reasonably comfortable, to not have bright colors or distracting design, and to be able to be disinfected.

The military’s standards are outlined in the MCEP (Military Combat Eye Protection) Program, created by the Army’s PEO (Program Executive Office) Soldier authority, and the two main Military Ballistic Standards used for testing are MIL-PRF-31013 (spectacles) and MIL-DTL-43511D (goggles).

The Advanced Planning Briefing for Industry describes MCEP as the umbrella program with the purpose of:

  • Protecting eyes from external hazards including fragmentation, electromagnetic radiation, wind, sand and dust.
  • Providing vision correction to accommodate those needing corrective lenses.
  • Encouraging use in the field by providing variety in choices of sizes and styles.
  • Encouraging feedback to promote improved design.
Oakley SI Ballistic M Frame 3.0

Oakley Tactical eyewear like the Ballistic M Frame 3.0 is designed to fit under communication headsets used by today’s modern soldiers.

This briefing also details the requirements for submitting product to be considered for APEL (Authorized Protective Eyewear List), which is modified yearly as models improve and new models are submitted. For more information on MCEP Standards, see Understanding U.S. Military Eye Protection (MCEP) Standards.

(Note: In the European military, standards are set up a bit differently with the European EN166 standard identifying four levels of ballistic protection.)

The Advanced Planning Briefing for Industry also states that all APEL eyewear must bear the APEL logo, which is the single-best way to know eyewear is approved for military standards.

The military insists that personnel only wear approved eye protection not simply to have another regulation on its books, but because there is a significant need for a protection standard beyond what typically works for the civilian population.

How great is the need for ballistic and tactical eyewear in the military?

Military Eye Injury

Congress increased battlefield eye injury research to $10 million this year.

The Official Homepage of the United States Army recently published an article titled Eye doctors teach combat trauma management that illustrated the tremendous need for ballistic and tactical eyewear protection for individuals in the armed forces.

Consider the following information presented by these doctors:

  • Combat ocular trauma has stabilized due to widely implemented eye protection in the military.
  • The vast majority of combat eye injuries are due to explosion from high energy projectiles and improvised explosive devices rather than from gun shots or explosions.
  • Combat ocular trauma is more complicated and more likely to involve more than one body system than is civilian ocular trauma.

And the U.S. Congress apparently agrees with the importance of better eye care for our nation’s military since it has budgeted $10M for research.

The Military.com article Congress Budgets $10M for Eye-Injury Research, says that Defense Department statistics show the following startling data:

  • About 15% of injuries from battlefield trauma are to the eyes.
  • In just the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there were more than 200,000 eye-related injuries to military personnel.
  • About 75% of military personnel suffering traumatic brain injury also have eyesight problems.
  • Approximately 70% of our total sensory awareness comes from eyesight, making vision the most critical of the five senses, especially in combat conditions.

These statistics show the necessity of this funding and stress the importance of research for treating eye injury. They also serve to emphasize the importance of prevention through ballistic and tactical eyewear.

The need for ballistic and tactical eye protection extends well beyond military application, though, and into many areas of civilian life as well.  We’ll explore this in the next segment.  To be continued…

About Michael Eldridge

Michael Eldridge is the Founder and CEO of Safety Glasses USA, one of the web's largest providers of safety glasses and goggles. He's a US Marine Veteran who's particularly passionate about protective eyewear and helping people learn about vision safety. In his spare time he enjoys target shooting, fishing, camping with his family and watching Detroit Tigers baseball. You can follow Michael on Twitter @MikeEldridge73, Google or via the Safety Glasses USA Facebook Page.

Comments

  1. bud fogleman says:

    Maybe I’m missing something that is already in place but the thought just occurred to me that it would be nice if the was a box to put a dollar amount in that would or could be designated as money we could add to an order to be used to purchase eyewear for our soldiers.
    Thanks.

  2. That’s an interesting idea. I know armor4troops.org accepts donations to help supply protective eyewear to our troops.

  3. Glenn Jones says:

    Thank you Michael for a very informative overview. I have found the whole ANSI/MIL thing more than a little confusing, especially as these acronyms seem to be thrown around by advertisers as if they were interchangeable. It leaves me with a hollow feeling when I realise that there are probably people out there wearing the wrong eyewear in dangerous situations because of this kind of ‘careless’ use of labels just to sell a pair a glasses. This leads me to ask that you consider prominently indicating on your website which glasses are APEL and which aren’t. This would ma

  4. This is something we’re working on now and hope to have ready in a few weeks. Thanks for your suggestion.

  5. Hi Michael, have you ever addressed the issue of ballistic safety glasses that disrupt vision? I am lucky enough to have great eyesight but have always had a problem when shooting because all eye protection seems to have some sort of correction to it. I always start out a trip to the range looking like I can’t hit the broad side of a barn and it takes me some time to compensate for the correction. This also tends to give me a terrific headache after an hour or so. Any advice or is it just my cross to bear?

  6. Sara,

    For the vast majority of the population, safety eyewear doesn’t distort their vision. However, there is a small segment of people who are very sensitive to the optics of safety eyewear, because of the lens material and thicknesses required. This problem can be magnified while on the shooting range for two reasons.

    1. Shooting is a vision intensive sport. You’re working your eyes extra hard while focusing on your guns sights and target.
    2. While aiming your gun, you may not be looking through the best part of the lens. The most optically correct portion of the lens is centered over your eye. If you’re looking through any other portion of the lens your eyes will be working hard to compensate for the increased distortion.

    You may have to try several brands/styles of eyewear to find something that works for you. Try looking for styles that have less “lens wrap”. Typically a flatter lens will be more optical correct than a lens with aggressive curvature. You may also want to try using a brown, bronze or copper tinted lens. These lens colors can help sooth your eyes, because they block blue light, which can cause eye strain. You will also receive the added benefit of increased contrast and depth perception. I also recommend trying to keep the sun/light source behind you if possible.