Whether you are a 20-year Green Beret, a newly-minted landscaper fresh out of high school, or somewhere in between, outdoor eye protection is an absolute essential. Everyone understands the kind of damage UV light can cause, but tactical sunglasses provide extra levels of protection to one of your most valuable assets: your eyesight. When your work environment or a weekend trip to the range involves fast-flying debris of one kind or another, having a quality pair of Magpul, Oakley, or Wiley X shades will clear your mind of minor threats and free you up for distraction-free decision-making.
Whether your next step involves identifying a potential threat to your teammates or something involving a little less urgency, the right pair of tactical sunglasses will keep your eyes clear and protected while you accomplish the mission at hand.
Finding a pair of tactical sunglasses with good quality and a reasonably affordable price tag can be a challenge, but Wiley X Valor shades do a heck of job fitting the bill. The half-frame Valor features matte black polymer frames with an optional Kryptek® Typhon upgrade and shatterproof Selenite polycarbonate lenses available in either a three-pack of interchangeable lenses (smoke, amber, and clear) or a single set of polarized lenses (with an upgraded price tag). The Selenite lenses are designed to withstand extreme ballistic impacts, meeting or exceeding ANSI Z87.1 (Z87+), OSHA 1910.133(b)(1)(1), and MIL-PRF-32432 standards. The T-Shell Lens coating provides good scratch resistance, and the low-profile, double-injected rubber temples provide a non-slip surface to provide comfort and security with and without ear protection. The Valor provides complete protection against UVA and UVB light while eliminating visual or color distortion and reducing glare. These Wiley X shades are also available in a prescription version, should you need a budget-friendly solution for tactical Rx sunglasses. Need something for a narrower face? Try the Wiley X Saint (prescription version here).
If a tight budget is cramping your style, fear not. The Smith & Wesson M&P Harrier provide solid performance with its ANSI Z87.1 (Z87+) certification. These half-frame tactical sunglasses come with four sets of interchangeable polycarbonate lenses in smoke, yellow, pink, and clear. Each set boasts a UV400 rating, blocking all harmful UV rays, and an anti-fog coating to maintain your line of sight in hot, humid environments. Swapping out the lenses uses the Smith & Wesson “One-Touch” system, eliminating the need to flex or bend your frames. The nose pads and ear pieces use non-slip rubber surfaces to keep your shades in place, and with a regular price tag somewhere around the $40 mark, there’s a lot to love about the M&P Harriers.
The Oakley SI Ballistic Crosshair is designed to provide you with hardcore ballistic protection with sleek lines sure to turn Pete “Maverick” Mitchell green with envy. The list of tactical aviator sunglasses is a short one, and these shades from Oakely sit right at the top with its tough yet lightweight C-5 alloy frames and head-turning square lenses. The Plutonite® polycarbonate lenses block 100 percent of all UVA, UVB, and harmful blue light up to a 400-nanometer wavelength and provide ballistic protection that meets or exceeds ANSI Z87.1 (Z87+) and MIL-PRF-32432 standards. These lenses come with Oakley’s High Definition Optics® technology which meets Z87.1 standards for optical clarity. To achieve maximum comfort, the alloy frames come with a three-point fit and Unobtainium® contact points for maximum security. These shades are compatible with all helmets and helmet-mounted optics while the thin-stem earpieces play nicely with muff-style ear protection and communications systems. Of course, all of these goodies come with a steep price tag, but those with the cash to spend will stand out both on the range and off.
Ask any soldier, and they’ll tell you that the Army has a rule for everything from dressing to eating to spitting, and the same applies to combat-approved eyewear. Thankfully, the ESS Eyewear Crossbow 3 Lens Kit checks all the right boxes, landing it on the APEL, the Army’s “Nice List” for tactical eye protection. This modular kit provides you with everything you need for top-notch ballistic protection, meeting or exceeding all applicable testing standards by ANSI, OSHA, and the Army, including Z87+ and MIL-PRF-31013. This set comes with frames, a nosepiece, three polycarbonate lenses (smoke, yellow, and clear) with full protection against UVA and UVB light, and a few helpful accessories. That said, whatever this kit lacks can be purchased at any time. Need a muff-friendly frame? Track down the Suppressor frames. Want some polarized replacement lens to defeat the glare or a foam gasket to keep fine particles out? They are only a click away. Thanks to its combination of comfort, performance, modularity, and a decent price tag, it’s easy to see why so many people love the Crossbow system.
If you need Asian fit tactical sunglasses, you know it, and offerings such as the Oakley Flak Beta (Asian Fit) are an absolute savior for your sanity. These ballistic sunglasses are perfectly sized to eliminate issues with your lenses being too close to your eyes or having your lenses or frames resting on your cheeks instead of your nose. These Flak Betas were built for comfort, taking advantage of durable yet lightweight O Matter frames, a three-point fit, and non-slip Unobtainium® nose pads. These half-frame, wraparound sunglasses also provide plenty of protection with glare-reducing polarized lenses, optical clarity and ballistic protection engineered to ANSI Z87.1 (Z87+) standards, and full protection from UVA, UVB, UVC, and harmful blue light rays up to the 400-nanometer mark. Unfortunately, the Oakley Flak Beta tends to be a little expensive, but in the interest of redemption, authentic Oakley prescription inserts are available.
NOTE: The Amazon listing for the Asian fit Flak Beta also includes non-ballistic versions of these sunglasses. While browsing, make sure to look for references to ANSI, Z87.1, and/or Z87+ when selecting a different model.
Why should you trust us
As a shooter with a professional background in aquatics (translation: long days in the intense Colorado sun and its vengeful glare), I know the value of a solid set of shades. The sun’s UV rays can give your eyes a beating, and when you add in other environmental attackers, such as dust, dirt, and metallic debris, you can’t rely on simple, molded plastic sunglasses to keep you safe. When it comes to keeping airborne brass and sunlight out of my eyes, I’ve learned a thing or two over the years. I’ve even written up another guide about safety glasses in case your interests take you beyond the range or the field.
Popular types of tactical sunglasses
Interchangeable lens kit
Beyond the basic single-lens offerings on today’s market, you will fit a number of tactical sunglasses kits which come with a collection of interchangeable lenses and a single pair of frames. Most often, these kits will include a non-polarized set of lenses without any polarization and one or two additional pairs of lenses: clear and/or low-light (yellow, amber, copper, etc.). Oftentimes, replacement lenses are available from the manufacturer, so if glare is an issue, you can always supplement your kit with a new pair of polarized lenses.
Some of the best tactical operators in the world couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn without their prescription lenses. Ok, so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but sometimes prescription tactical sunglasses are an absolute must-have. Sure, there are options that will fit over traditional eyeglasses or you could settle for wearing contacts with regular ol’ sunglasses, but let’s face it: Tactical environments are not particularly forgiving of either solution. As such, investing in a pair of prescription shades with the ballistic performance to keep you in the fight. The only downside with this solution is the extra cost and the need to order from either the manufacturer or the optician.
The human body is simultaneously uniform and unique, and the same goes for our facial structure. Most standard tactical sunglasses are designed around the dimensions of the average Caucasian face shape, but ballistic shades made to these specs are not well-suited to fit many individuals of East Asian or Pacific Rim heritage. As such, many ethnically Asian or Pacific Islander individuals (and a few others) need a pair of ballistic sunglasses with a proper nose bridge, lens shape, and frame curvature to accommodate their face shape in such a way as to provide adequate protection from both sun and debris. Many brands offer Asian fit sunglasses, although a number of them use different descriptors, such as omni fit, universal fit, or low bridge fit to name a few. For a more thorough rundown on the topic, check out this helpful article from SportRx.
What to consider when buying tactical sunglasses
Before settling on a pair of tactical sunglasses, always make sure they fit properly. While one pair may fit some people very well, that same pair may not provide you with the level of protection you need due to the variations in human facial structure. Each person is unique, and finding the right pair takes a little patience. Find the right pair, and you’ll be golden for years to come.
While durability can be hard to quantify in terms of numbers and tests, this feature is especially valuable in tactical situations. The last thing you need is for your expensive new shades to fall off your face after only a mission or two. As such, tactical sunglasses should be built to last, no matter how rough the going.
In the world of civilian eye protection, most people can settle for ANSI’s Z87 rating, signifying basic impact protection. Not so in the tactical world. High-speed impacts from flying debris and shrapnel are a very real concern, and any pair of shades worth their salt will bear the civilian ANSI Z87.1 rating (often listed as “Z87+”) as a bare minimum. All military-grade tactical eye protection with a Z87+ rating will also earn a passing grade when put through the paces of MIL-PRF-32432 testing standards.
Planning to head downrange? Make sure you throw a pair of APEL-listed tactical sunglasses in your ruck before you go. To earn an APEL listing, the Army’s official Nice List of combat-approved eyewear, tactical sunglasses must pass both MIL-PRF-32432 (shrapnel) and MIL-PRF-31013 testing protocols. While the first test is on par with ANSI Z87+ standards, MIL-PRF-31013 testing subjects eyewear to about seven times the amount of impact energy, and the Army has high expectations in terms of resistance to environmental and chemical resistance in addition to fit and material stability requirements. How can you tell if sunglasses are APEL-listed? Check out the Army’s current list. (Don’t be surprised by the lack of stylish offerings. Here, function trumps form.)
Ear protection compatibility
Hearing protection and comms gear are regular tools used in many tactical (and non-tactical) settings, but not all ballistic sunglasses are comfortable when worn long-term with ear protection. While some hearing protection is extremely low profile, such as SureFire’s Sonic Defenders line, traditional muffs are virtually standard issue for most shooters of one kind of another. As such, look for sunglasses with muff-friendly ear pieces.
Glare can be a devastating opponent and one over which you have little control. That said, polarized lenses can go a long way in mitigating the effects of sun glare off of water, sand, snow, or the road ahead of you. Polarized lenses feature virtually invisible black lines running across them in a horizontal orientation. In practice, they act much like your fingers when you hold them between your eyes and the offending glare. The only downside is that they make it impossible to view electronic screens in most situations.
Many quality tactical sunglasses come with both scratch-resistant finishes and anti-fog treatments. No matter how well you baby your new tactical shades, they will at some point be exposed to some form of abuse. As such, investing in a pair with scratch-resistant lenses will keep you from crying when you drop them unexpectedly. On the flip side, humid environments can adversely impact your visibility without the help of an anti-fog treatment thanks to the combined effect of your environment and your sweat.
Benefits of tactical sunglasses
Despite the buzz that tactical sunglasses impart to the civilian mall ninja population, tactical sunglasses provide a number of practical solutions to real-world problems, offering some distinct advantages over traditional eyewear. Of course, UV protection and polarization are excellent assets for anyone who spends significant amounts of time outside, but the most critical advantage tactical shades provide over off-the-shelf offerings is their ballistic protection. Whether you spend your time fighting flying grains of sand or taking down terrorists, ballistic sunglasses provide an unsurpassed level of protection from both foreseen and unforeseen hazards. Tactical sunglasses with interchangeable lenses can be a versatile tool, doubling as safety glasses for a backyard science experiment with your kids or standard eye protection for indoor shooting ranges. While the ESS Crossbow you used during your last deployment may not be the epitome of style and class, there are still plenty of tactical sunglasses out there that manage to combine performance with great aesthetics.
Pricing ranges for tactical sunglasses
If quality tactical sunglasses were cheap to make, you would find them at any number of big box stores, but sadly, this is rarely the case. Most ballistic shades of reasonably quality will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $50, but rather than going downrange multiple times over, these tend to be better for range use, casual wear, or as affordable backups should you misplace your Oakleys. With the exception of (usually) limited durability, you can expect to find offerings with polarized or interchangeable lenses. For something a bit more rugged, expect to be set pack somewhere between $75 and $150. Tactical sunglasses in this price range tend to be tougher, and many of them are engineered to meet APEL standards in terms of their ballistic performance even if they were never intended to make the final cut. Ballistic sunglasses wearing a price tag in excess of $150 tend to be high-end offerings from some of the best names on the market and have the quality to match. Again, they may not all make the Army’s “Nice List,” but they’ve got the ability to perform as peers to those that make the APEL.
How we chose our top picks
When reviewing new gear, we much prefer to go the hands-on route, but sometimes, a lack of resources may thwart our attempts to get our mitts on some cool gear. To make sure we don’t let you down, we take the time to listen to those who have firsthand experience, combing through reviews on Amazon, professional publications, enthusiast blogs, and more to bring you the best intel available. We sift through it all, keep the gold, and toss the rest.
Adding to our own hands-on experience with tactical sunglasses like the Wiley X Saint (a smaller version of the Valor), we received plenty of valuable input from the good people at Safety Glasses USA, SportRx, Oakley Forum, Officer.com, PEO Soldier, and The Firearm Blog.
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