Sharpshooter Glasses – Or Sighting for Sore Eyes?

by Fred Ray on March 30, 2014 · 9 comments

Quite a number of books and articles mention sharpshooters (presumably Union & Confederate) using special glasses to gain clearer vision of their intended targets, and at any given time you can find several for sale on Ebay and other outlets, and at Civil War shows. Usually these are nickeled steel frame spectacles with orange lenses frosted except for a clear spot in the center. Were they actually used, and if so when and where?

sglasses

The answer, unfortunately, is that they are not sharpshooting glasses and in fact have nothing to do with sharpshooting or the Civil War. I will tell you what they were really used for in a bit.

First I’d like to recommend an excellent web article on period glasses, or spectacles as they were called then, which I think will be of use to reenactors who are looking to perfect their impression. The authors are members of the Ocular Heritage Society and seem quite knowledgeable. The section we are concerned about starts on page 17, in which they consider the “sharpshooter glasses.”

… there  are  large numbers of an unusual type of spectacles sold as “Civil War shooting spectacles” or “sharpshooter glasses” on the antique market  –  indeed,  probably  more  than  the  total  number  of sharpshooters in the War. Extensive searching in newspaper advertisements, optician books and publications, the Official Records  of  the  War  of  the  Rebellion,  sharpshooter  and regimental histories, and many other books, documents and other sources during the last fifteen years have failed to establish the use of this style of glasses by soldiers during or before the Civil  War.  An  inquiry  made  to  the  U.S.  Army  Heritage  and Education Centre at the Army War College asked the curators to  search  their  records  –  no  evidence  of  Civil  War  use  of shooting spectacles could be found.

I would agree. I have been researching Civil War sharpshooters for about the same length of time (and wrote a book about it) and I have never seen a contemporary mention of them either. One has to be careful with negative evidence, but as the authors say, since they were rather unusual you’d expect someone to at least mention them. So my conclusion matches theirs – there are no contemporary mentions of such shooting spectacles, and the earliest mentions of commercially available “shooting glasses or spectacles” are not until much later.

It has been suggested that they were actually “sun goggles” issued to British troops in Egypt and the Sudan in the 1880s and 90s. While there is ample documentation (and even a few photos) of these glasses, they appear to be quite different than the “sharpshooter glasses” sold as CW issue. For one thing they had blue lenses and were goggles rather than glasses, as can be seen from the contemporary sketch of a British officer.

SG1

No, they were actually glasses made to shield weaker eyes from excessive light. The idea goes all the way back to 1756, when a London optician named Benjamin Martin introduced his “Visual Glasses.” These glasses featured a horn or tortoiseshell rim that restricted the light entering the lenses, and were the first sunglasses. The idea caught on for those with “weak” eyes, and in 1839 an American, Charles Jachan, patented a modified version of Martin’s glasses, which he described as follows:

The object of my invention is to protect the eye from too strong a light as much as possible, and this I effect by leaving only a small portion of the surface of the glasses polished and surrounding it with a ground space extending to the circumference or outside rim, intended to obstruct the passage of the rays of light and soften their effect upon the eye, leaving that portion opposite the pupil a small clear circular space.

In other words an early form of sunglasses. They looked like this:

patent1Looks pretty similar except for the location of the clear space. Jachan’s glasses were evidently fairly popular (though few examples survive) but there’s no mention of them having anything do do with shooting. But now let’s jump to the turn of the century to the 1897 Sears & Roebuck catalog, where we find a later version (Jachan’s patent having long since expired) advertised as “shooting spectacles”, although the ad is at pains to explain that they are “very largely used by tourists for looking at scenery.”

Spec2

There are two versions – one with plain steel frames and another, at twice the price, with nickeled frames. These specs, with their amber lenses and clear centers, appear to be identical with what’s being sold today as “sharpshooter glasses.” They were apparently quite common and also appear in the Montgomery Ward catalogs of about the same time.

Spec1

But let’s look at another piece of evidence. Most of the “sharpshooter glasses” I’ve seen for sale have the nickeled frames, which would have been rather expensive at the time of the Civil War. The principles of electroplating had been known since the 1750s, but the process had only become practical in the 1850s. Even so, it remained an expensive, high end process used mainly for plating precious metals to jewelry, silverware, &c. The first commercial electroplating plant did not open (in Germany) until 1876. After that, however, plants proliferated and the cost began to drop dramatically. By the end of the decade we see nickel plated firearms and by the turn of the century it was being used for consumer items like — glasses.

It seems very unlikely that either army would have bought these rather expensive items (especially since the Federals did not even buy sharpshooter rifles) or that individual soldiers could have afforded them, nor has any evidence of such purchases turned up.

Were these spectacles really used for shooting? Maybe. I’ve looked though civilian texts on rifle shooting and have not found any reference to them before 1880 or so, and most references (which do not specify what the spectacles looked like) are from the turn of the century. The books that do mention them do so only in passing, and there is no mention of them at all in military marksmanship texts. The only military reference I’ve seen is from the Navy shooting team in 1908, who had a surgeon to make some special (and corrected) shooting glasses.

Overall conclusion is that the “sharpshooter glasses” seen today are really mass-marketed turn of the century sunglasses, made fully forty years later, and had nothing to do with the Civil War or sharpshooting.

Perhaps the next item to be discovered is “artillery glasses,” which were supposed to have been used by cannoneers in the Late Unpleasantness to shield their eyes during firing. Although I have no doubt that some purported examples will turn up for sale, their existence, like that of the sharpshooter glasses, if just so much applesauce.

 

 


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Alan McBrayer July 25, 2014 at 2:50 pm

Hi, Fred,
I ran across your article on so-called “Civil War sharpshooter spectacles”, and wished to thank you for your kind comments concerning the article written by myself and Tom Valencia. I have been researching for a much larger project, that being a book about use, style and manufacture of spectacles in the US from 1700-1870, at which point frames became mass-produced items with interchangeable lenses that any idiot could assemble and sell – and many did.
My only quibble with your article is the implication that these, or other spectacles, were costly is something I don’t find evidence to support. Spectacles could be bought for 25 cents or even less – not great optical masterpieces, but very usable. Your artillery glasses (by which I think you refer to protective cups with glass fronts and wire mesh sides, or flip-up covers of metal (hoodwinks), both gleefully sold by dealers as artillery goggles, or artillery flash protectors, or some other oddball description. Yes, those glass / wire mesh goggles WERE used by some artillerymen (photos exist), and by infantry, and by others. Much like the Havelock, these were mainly a early war-use item that quickly was discarded. About 95% that I see for sale are post-war manufacture, and they were used for years in many industrial settings for eye protection. Tom and I have much research on this subject – which is the “part 2” I mentioned in the article, which will also cover eye-glasses (“pince nez” – a term not used at this period, except in France), shades and other eye-related items.
If you hear of PRIMARY SOURCE information that contradicts anything in our article – great!!!! I love to be proven wrong. Something did exist by 1851 called “shooting spectacles”. What – I do not know, despite 20 years of hard-core archive research. Thanks again – and please tell people about this article. We grew tired of reading nonsense.
Best regards,
Alan McBrayer
Charlotte, NC

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Fred Ray August 3, 2014 at 1:26 pm

Thanks for the comment, sir. However I did not say (or mean to say) that all glasses were expensive, for as you point out they were not. However, nickel plated glasses, such as most of the ones offered as “sharpshooter glasses” are, would have been very expensive in the mid-1860s, since at the time it was a custom process suitable only for high end items. I think it unlikely that any army would have spent the money on such things, especially (in the case of the Union army) they would not buy a sharpshooter a rifle.

If you have photos of artillerymen using special glasses I’d love to see them.

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Alan M. Daniel November 8, 2014 at 10:40 pm

I found this article, and while you guys may be right that it isn’t a common thing (I don’t recall seeing many photos of tinted lenses over the years), it certainly isn’t outside the realm of possibility. For example, there’s an 1865 photograph of the famous American psychologist William James with some pretty dark lenses:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James#mediaviewer/File:Houghton_MS_Am_1092_(1185)_-_William_James_in_Brazil,_1865.jpg

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David Murray May 26, 2017 at 11:48 am

I will preclude my comment with the fact that I also posted this comment on the collectorsweekly website, in response to dialogue pertaining to “sharpshooters spectacles”. I’ve included my comment below.

I would like to include here, that I was recently researching the 1855 colt revolving rifle, its use by the 1st USSS (Berdan’s Sharpshooters) and stumbled across 2 sources that mention “sharpshooter spectacles”. Granted, both books were written by the same author, one published in 2008, The History of Sniping and Sharpshooting, as well as the 2009, Sharpshooting in the Civil War. Both by Major John Plaster (USAR Retired). Both books mention that the “principle of the orthoptic is the focusing of the field of vision before it reaches the lens of the eye, explains a 19th-century shooting guide. The advantage is better definition, especially of the foresight and bull’s-eye. The U.S. Army’s Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia includes in its collection a pair of these unusual spectacles, used during the Civil War by Private J.C. Nobel, a Union sharpshooter, whose rifle also is on display.”

Just thought I’d put this out there. I have no dog in the fight, just wanted to make this known. There is a picture of the spectacles in the book, and they look almost exactly like the one’s you show, minus the case.

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Fred Ray June 3, 2017 at 9:55 pm

Thanks for the comments everyone. This is one of those issues which will probably never be definitively solved because the sources are so few. As I’ve said I’ve never seen any sort of primary source material that shows or mentions them. Nevertheless they continue to hawked in large quantities at shows and on Ebay.

Mr. Daniel links to an 1865 photo of William James with some sort of dark glasses on. These glasses obviously existed (the design goes back a hundred years), but then again James had notoriously weak eyes and came from a wealthy family. The sharpshooters were young men in their teens and 20s with good eyes.

Mr. Murray, while I have great respect for Maj. Plaster, his historiography is a bit weak. I have his books (the CW book is just an excerpt of his big one) but unfortunately he does not footnote anything so it’s impossible to tell where he got the info. Things like this find their way into books and the internet and become accepted as fact, much like the myth that “sharpshooter” is derived from the Sharps rifle.

I’d like to talk to the people at Ft. Benning and see what the provenance of those glasses is. Who knows, maybe they are genuine.

To reiterate, no it’s not impossible that some sharpshooter used them, we still need at least a reference to the. To judge just from the ones on sale on Ebay, everyone must have had one.

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David Murray June 6, 2017 at 12:14 pm

I completely concur Mr. Ray. As I posted originally on the collectorsweekly website, if I were in any way an eyeglass historian or any sort of expert in eye glasses, my butt would be in the car on my way to Ft. Benning to better confirm or debunk Major Plaster’s findings. Anything less would be speculation. As I just stumbled across the information while researching the use of the 1855 Colt Revolving Rifle, I really was not that concerned with the glasses. Though it was the first time I’d ever heard of such a claim. The glasses, if they exist at the Ft. Benning museum, would also still have to prove to me their authenticity an their authentic link to the mentioned Union sharpshooter that supposedly used them. If nothing else, its a tangible path that an interested eye glass expert/historian could pursue to put this debate to rest. Until then, it is a bit unfortunate, if they do turn out to be from a later period, that sutlers would seek to make a dime on false historical details. I like to give human beings the benefit of the doubt, in that they are just trying to do the right thing. Everyone is not programmed equally, when it comes to the lengths they are willing to go to prove a point, unfortunately. I’m not saying they are willfully pulling the wool over someone’s eyes, but it’s fair to say that if someone saw this in a reputable book, they have a certain right to take it at its face value. I appreciate your article. Regards.

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David Murray June 6, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Sorry for double posting, but I left out one additional point of interest. If someone is willing to pursue chasing down said glasses at Ft. Benning, it would also be interesting to find whatever “19th-century shooting guide” was referenced in the Ft. Benning comment about the glasses. I think it would be necessary to document if said “19th-century shooting guide” is from 1865 or later, than it would easily support that these glasses were likely not around. That is also not to say that these glasses could have been used during the last week of the war and thus people would immediately believe they were “used during the Civil War”, when in reality, perhaps they were not around for the majority of the war. We all know how things get twisted. That’s all. I’ve never done searches for 19th century shooting guides, so I’m no expert on that topic, just wanted to point that out as a potential source of confirmation when it comes to these glasses.

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Jeanie Kirkpatrick September 5, 2018 at 1:34 pm

Hello Mr. Ray,
I enjoyed your article. I am the museum director for the Keystone Historical Museum, in Keystone, South Dakota. We have a pair of glasses that you talked about in your article. I would like to know if a blind person might wear these if they were light sensitive. We believe that these glasses were worn by Mary Ingalls, from Little House on the Prairie. Mary lived with her sister Carrie in Keystone and passed away here. We have not found any pictures of Mary wearing these glasses, but believe that these are hers.

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