2016 Michigan Tech Magazine: Issue 2

Husky on the Hunt

By Marcia Goodrich

Alumnus Jon French’s patented device helps the visually impaired—including his own brother—shoot and hunt.

Dan French has harvested wild pig, elk, buffalo, and a bighorn ram. Those trophies would do any hunter proud, but what makes Dan's accomplishment remarkable is that he is totally blind.

What makes it possible is the MA French Visually Impaired Sighting System (VISS). Designed by his older brother, Jon French '98 '00, the VISS lets a visually impaired person draw a bead on a target—from a bull's eye to a whitetail deer—with help from a sighted partner.

These are not easy shots over a bait pile. "We walk," said Jon. "If we see an animal we intend to harvest, I grab Dan and pull him down to his knees."

Jon crouches right behind Dan and looks through the specially mounted scope, patting his brother's back gently right or left, up or down. "He moves his gun, and when he's on target, I put my hand flat on his back. He takes three deep breaths and squeezes the trigger."

It works especially well if your partner is a marksman. Dan dropped the buffalo at 162 yards.

"We were like two little boys at Christmas with our Red Ryder BB guns."

Their story began more than 30 years ago, when Dan, then three years old, lost his sight in a vehicle accident. Hunting was a big part of their family, and when Dan got older, he wanted to be a part of it.

Their father, a tool and die maker, struck a deal with Jon, who by then had earned a BS in Geological Engineering and an MS in Civil Engineering from Michigan Tech. "He said if I could design something that would let Dan hunt, he would build it," Jon said.

Their project was going nowhere when Jon had an inspiration. "I played catcher, and I was always amazed at how the umpire was right there," he said. "After that, it was pretty much common-sense engineering."

The design was simple: a standard scope clamped on a bar that could be mounted on the gun and adjusted. The sighted partner could look over the hunter's shoulder, just like an umpire, and sight in on a target.

"I credit my Michigan Tech education for a lot of it," Jon said. "They teach you theory, and they also teach you problem solving and to look outside the box." Finally, Dan could go hunting.

Jon French
Jon French '98 '00

That probably would have been the end of it, except that a few years later, Jon, a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, was deployed to Afghanistan. On July 19, 2009, he was shot in the chest with a rocket-propelled grenade.

The grenade destroyed his right elbow, gave him a concussion, and temporarily blinded him. Now Jon feels lucky; of the five soldiers who sustained similar attacks that month, he was the only survivor. At the time, however, he was struggling with depression and PTSD.

"I felt very lost," he said. "Here I had bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering from Michigan Tech, and the best I could do in rehab at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland] was stack three Legos."

Jon persevered in his rehab at Walter Reed, mastering the Lego repertoire and even completing a course to become a farrier. But he was still discouraged about his arm, which was not healing well. Then he had a chance meeting with Jim Zumbo, one of America's top-tier outdoor writers.

"He gave me a kick in the ass," Jon said. Zumbo also took him hunting with a customized rifle, so he could shoot again. "We were like two little boys at Christmas with our Red Ryder BB guns."

That experience helped teach him that brother Dan wasn't the only guy in the world with a disability who might want to get outdoors and hunt. "It started with a spark, with my brother, and then I met several soldiers who needed help," Jon said. "I wanted to give back."

"Jon's whole mission is to give these sights to wounded warriors, so they can recapture some of that warrior mentality and climb out from beneath the rock they're under."

So he filed for a patent on his system and started the MA French Foundation. ("MA is for my dad, Michael Andrew; my sons, Mike and Andrew; and my wife, Margaret Ann," he explained.)

Now back home outside of Chassell and armed with a brand new artificial elbow, Jon builds VISS sights in his basement workshop. He gives them away to combat-wounded vets and sells them at cost to other veterans. Civilians are charged a slight markup—the total cost is about $200.

Expenses are covered by donations and money from his side business as a farrier, shoeing horses throughout the Copper Country. Any money left over at the end of the year is donated to veterans' support organizations. During the week, he's an engineer and project manager for Baraga Telephone and Peninsula Fiber Network.

Dan is his business partner and "guinea pig," Jon says, since his brother's input has been key to successful design. Using the system "is a lot of fun," Dan says, and so is making it available to others. "It's so neat to see this is possible for other people."

Retired Army Captain Thomas L. Hicks, of Phoenix, a member of the Northern Arizona Chapter of the Blinded Veterans Association, received his VISS in the mail a few months ago.

Hicks lost his sight in 1997 and was contemplating selling his guns. "Shooting when you are blind can be very boring," he confided. "You shoot, bang bang bang, and spend the rest of the day cleaning your weapon."

Then he met Dan and Jon and learned about their sighting system. "My buddy said he'd take me shooting, so it's not boring at that point. It's really target practice."

A rifle modified with the Visually Impaired Sighting System (VISS).
The VISS was designed by Jon French '98 '00.

Target practice, and something else, what soldiers call "embracing the suck."

"Jon's whole mission is to give these sights to wounded warriors, so they can recapture some of that warrior mentality and climb out from beneath the rock they're under," says Hicks. "For a blinded vet, this is the kind of challenge that can pull you out of a tailspin."

Hicks is looking forward to trying out his VISS on the gun range and maybe, this fall, out in the bush. "The neat thing about this is it's simple, rugged, and doesn't take a lot of money." And it offers a chance to do something he'd thought he'd never do again.

That's the point, says Jon. "It's a healing process, and I don't know who gets more out of it, me or the veterans who receive the sights.

"Blinded vets will never be exactly how they were—all of us understand that. But man, if we can get 95 percent of the way there, or 90 percent, or even 60 percent, if something as simple as this gun sight can help them get back out in the outdoors, find that purpose, find that passion for something . . . well, now you're living."  

Michigan Technological University (www.mtu.edu) is a leading public research university developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering; forest resources; computing; technology; business; economics; natural, physical and environmental sciences; arts; humanities; and social sciences.