The Early Days: Military Eyewear Before World War I

As a member of the United States military, your vision and eye protection are paramount when in combat situations or training exercises. The evolution of eyewear for military use closely aligns with innovations in technology and changing battlefield tactics over the last century. From early aviator goggles to modern ballistic eyewear, read on to explore the storied history and continuing advances in military eyewear. This article will cover famous brands, fashion impacts, innovations, and the critical role vision readiness plays in keeping service members safe and effective.

World War I: The Rise of Army Eyewear

Military eyewear has come a long way since its early days. Before World War I, few protective eyewear options existed for service members. The first military-issued eyewear was basic wire-rimmed spectacles introduced in the 1880s for marksmen. The round lenses offered limited protection and fogged easily.

Goggles Introduced

The advent of the automobile led to the introduction of aviator goggles for driving an open-cockpit plane. The U.S. Navy adopted aviator goggles in 1912 to protect pilots’ eyes from wind and debris. The goggles featured oval lenses, leather padding, and an elastic strap to fit snugly over the face.

Impact of Trench Warfare

Trench warfare during World War I highlighted the need for more protective eyewear. Basic wire-rimmed spectacles and aviator goggles did little to shield eyes from hazards like shrapnel, chemical agents, and snipers. In response, the American military developed new eyewear options like the Triplex goggles with impact-resistant glass lenses and fitted metal frames. The Triplex goggles set the standard for military eyewear that would be built upon for decades to come.

Continuous Innovation

After World War I, military eyewear continued to evolve based on combat needs and technological innovations. New options included polarized lenses, anti-fog and scratch-resistant coatings, and ballistic-rated frames and lenses. These ongoing improvements would make military eyewear far more durable and multi-functional - transforming it into vital protective gear and a symbol of service around the world.

World War II: Mass Production of Military Eye Protection

The First World War saw tremendous advancements in military technology, including innovations in protective eyewear. As chemical warfare emerged, the U.S. military developed gas masks to protect soldiers from toxic gases. However, the basic goggles issued with gas masks offered little protection from debris and shrapnel.

The Introduction of Ballistic Eyewear

In response, the American Optical Company created the first ballistic eyewear for U.S. troops in 1917. These goggles featured impact-resistant glass lenses and sturdy metal frames, designed to protect from fragments while still allowing for a wide field of view. The goggles saw immediate use in the trenches, saving the eyesight of countless soldiers.

Popularization of Aviator-Style Frames

Around the same time, aviator-style frames rose in popularity for their balance of functionality and style. The teardrop-shaped metal frames provided coverage while the wire ear pieces ensured a snug but comfortable fit under helmets. Aviator goggles became standard issue for WWI pilots, then were adopted for ground troops and continued use through WWII and Korea.

Influence on Fashion Eyewear

The aviator frame’s popularity extended beyond the military, becoming a fashionable style for sunglasses in the 1920s and 30s. This helped to popularize the teardrop shape and large, metal frames that have endured for over a century. In a way, the military origins of aviator eyewear helped to shape mainstream American fashion and popular culture.

Impact on Modern Military Eyewear

Advancements from WWI laid the groundwork for modern ballistic eyewear. Contemporary combat eyewear provides crucial impact protection and UV filtering while incorporating the latest lens technologies. However, the aviator-inspired teardrop shape and large metal frames remain perennial favorites for their retro-inspired style and nod to military history.

The Modern Era: Innovation in Military Glasses and Goggles

In the early 1940s, the U.S. War Department issued a contract to several manufacturers to mass produce protective eyewear for soldiers during World War II. Several companies including Willson Products, Inc. and American Optical Company produced over 50 million pairs of military issue eyeglasses and sunglasses from 1941 to 1945.

Development of Impact-Resistant Frames and Lenses

The increase in mechanized warfare and aerial bombardment during WW2 created new ocular hazards for ground troops and pilots. To address this, new impact-resistant frames and lenses were developed using cellulose acetate, a lightweight and durable plastic. These frames and lenses could withstand high impacts without breaking into sharp fragments.

Popular Styles for Different Branches

The rounded ‘aviator’ style sunglasses were initially developed for pilots to reduce glare. The ‘Willson Combat Goggles’ featured side shields and were issued to ground troops and tank operators. The ‘boat shaped’ frames resembled the styling of regular eyeglasses and were issued to administrative roles. These various styles would go on to influence commercial eyewear designs in the post-war period.

Lasting Impact

The mass production of eyewear during WW2 helped to make protective eyewear more common and acceptable. After the war, many veterans continued to wear their issued sunglasses and eyeglasses, popularizing the styles among civilians. Some iconic brands like Ray-Ban and American Optical were able to transition their expertise to the commercial market, using technologies and designs originally developed for the military.

The military’s investment in protective eyewear during WW2 revolutionized the eyewear industry and shaped trends in frames and lens that would span decades. Styles issued over 70 years ago, like the aviator sunglasses, remain fashionable to this day. By meeting the needs of soldiers in the field, military eyewear brands made a lasting impact on culture, fashion, and commerce.

Military Eyewear Brands Through the Ages: From Apel to Oakley

Advancements in Lens Technology

In the mid-20th century, the emergence of new lens materials revolutionized military eyewear. Polycarbonate lenses were developed in the 1950s and provided impact resistance and safety. Trivex lenses offered similar durability while also blocking UV radiation. Photochromic lenses that automatically darken in sunlight were created in the 1960s and added convenience. These lens innovations allowed military eyewear to better protect soldiers’ vision during combat and training.

military eyewear

Development of New Frame Materials

Military eyewear frames also evolved to become more durable and comfortable. Metal alloys like aluminum, monel, and titanium were strong yet lightweight. Nylon frames were flexible, chemical-resistant, and non-conductive. Rubber and silicone materials provided comfort, grip, and shock absorption. Interchangeable lens systems were developed so soldiers could quickly swap lens tints to adapt to different light conditions.

Integrated Technologies

Modern military eyewear often incorporates advanced technologies to assist soldiers. Some models feature built-in GPS, heads-up displays, night vision compatibility, and Bluetooth connectivity. Other high-tech features include prescription inserts, thermal imaging, and sensors that can detect the presence of chemical or biological agents. While early military glasses and goggles were purely for vision protection and enhancement, today’s models have become integrated information systems providing data, communication, and augmented reality capabilities.

Military eyewear has come a long way since its inception, with each era of conflict driving new innovations to aid soldiers on the battlefield. From basic vision protection to integrated combat systems, military eyewear continues to evolve to meet the ever-changing demands of warfare in the 21st century. With the rapid pace of technological progress, the future of military eyewear promises to be even more advanced and transformative.

Roger Sarkis