We’ve all made the foolish bargain.
We choose the ability to hear that rustle or that twig snap as it breaks through the silent morning, alerting us to the presence of a big trophy buck. We trade it for the minutes-long ringing that follows the shot we worked so hard to make possible.
We’ve all asked our ears to pay the price for the comfort, convenience, or preference of foregoing hearing protection. Sure, you could better hear you buddies on the range, or every little noise in the woods if you were to wear no hearing protection at all, the problem is that it only takes one unprotected gunshot to cause significant damage to your hearing. What’s more, damage to your hearing has a cumulative effect over a lifetime – once it’s damaged, there is no regaining your hearing. It’s vitally important to know how to protect your hearing properly, and to know how to get the best available tools for the job.
We’ve consulted with audiologists to determine the absolute best choices for hearing protection, as well as how to properly use hearing protection to ensure that your ears stay healthy for a lifetime of shooting.
But first let’s start with why it’s so crucial to protect hearing, so hopefully none of us will make that foolish bargain again.
WHAT TO KNOW
Hearing is the result of your brain’s ability to interpret the stimulation of microscopic nerve endings, or hair cells, in your cochlea – or inner ear. As sound waves of certain frequencies enter your ear canal, pass through the middle ear, and onto your cochlea, the nerve endings respond to those sound waves and your brain makes sense of the stimuli. High-intensity impulse noise above 140 decibels peak sound pressure level (dB pSPL), such as that produced by most firearms, is some of the most potentially harmful to these nerve endings. The pressure of the sound wave produced by this type of noise is so large that it tears through the cochlea like an explosion shockwave, causing hypermovement of the membrane, and significant damage to those hair cells.
Without the proper functioning of those hair cells, you can’t hear.
And as you might have guessed, once those hairs are gone, there’s no way to get them back. Every time you expose your ears to high sound levels, such as firearm noise, you risk losing some of your hearing. This process over time, without the proper precautions, can lead to significant hearing loss and communication problems that could dramatically lower your quality of life.
However, even sound levels less than 140 dB SPL can cause damage. Prolonged exposure to loud sounds, such as constant droning noise in a factory, is strictly regulated for this reason. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) prohibits prolonged exposure to noise levels greater than 85 dB SPL – or about the noise level you’d be exposed to while crossing in traffic.
For avid shooters and hunters, the sudden, high intensity nature of gunshots when unprotected are almost certain to cause damage to the inner ear and therefore to your hearing. As an example, even a Ruger 10/22 – popular, especially with younger shooters, because of its soft recoil and relatively quiet report – still registers a decibel level of 143.4 dB pSPL according to data compiled by the Council for Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation. And It only gets louder from there. An average Remington 870 shooting 2.75” target loads registers at 155.2 dB pSPL, while rifles like the Winchester Model 70 can reach volumes of 166.5 dB pSPL.
Pistols aren’t any better than long guns, either. A Glock 17 comes in at 163 dB pSPL, while popular .357 Magnum pistols like a Smith & Wesson 586 can reach almost 170 dB pSPL. We perceive the larger firearms and larger calibers as being significantly louder than smaller caliber firearms because of our ability to not only hear the soundwave, but also feel the concussion blast as a round exits the muzzle. A .22-caliber rifle’s concussive force might not feel as powerful, and therefore may not be perceived as very loud in comparison. But in terms of its ability to harm you hearing – as you can see from the data above – it’s every bit as dangerous.
Sound suppressors can reduce some firearms’ sonic footprint by nearly 30 decibels when using subsonic ammunition, which is enough to bring many suppressed firearms under the 140 dB pSPL hearing threshold. For small caliber firearms like .22 rifles and pistols, suppressors can make their sonic footprint as relatively low as 115 dB pSPL. However, as we stated above, this doesn’t necessarily mean hearing damage is impossible at those levels. If you go unprotected, it’s not quite so uncomfortable for the shooter, and it’s certainly a lot more pleasant for the neighbors. However, the best practice is to continue using hearing protection even when shooting suppressed.
If your goal is the absolute best protection for your ears, audiologists agree that the best practice for target shooting is to use a suppressor, combined with quality hearing protection, and sub-sonic ammunition.
For those of us who would like to stave off hearing loss for as long as possible and make hunting and shooting sports a healthy, safe activity that can be enjoyed for a lifetime, we must make hearing conservation and safety as much of a priority as safe firearms handling and shooting range safety.
WHAT TO BUY
The good news is that, in 2018, high-quality hearing protection options are easier to find and can be more affordable than ever before. Many options today have advanced technology that not only protects hearing, but enhances it as well, making you more effective at picking up those subtle signs of game while in the woods and still keeping your ears from harm. The more frequently you’re around firearms, the more crucial it is to outfit yourself with the best available protection. If you’ve never been to an audiologist to determine your specific hearing needs, that’s a great place to start. Let us break down some fantastic options that are out there for shooters and hunters today, from the functional to the stylish to the practical.
Get It Tailored – Custom Fitted Hearing Protection
Every individual’s ears are as unique as a thumbprint. The absolute best possible option for hearing protection, according to professional audiologists, is to get a custom-fitted system that is tailored to each of your ears individually and fit to you by the pros. Not all “custom” ear protection is the same. Some companies claim their ear protection is custom fit, but a truly custom fit will require a complete impression of your ear. This is sort of like a cast of your ear canals and outer ear which is then used to make a custom solution that fits you like a glove. If you’ve never had an ear impression made, you don’t actually have custom fitted hearing protection.
Companies like ESP America offer true custom solutions with electronically enhanced, custom molded ear protection that protects your ears from the damaging decibels of gun blasts while allowing you to still hear conversation-level sound. A trained professional carries out the custom fitting process by making a complete ear mold impression of each of your ears. The process goes a something like this: an otoscope is used to examine your ear canals, ensuring that no wax or other potential obstructions will interfere with the completeness of the ear mold. This is crucial to the performance of the final product, as it allows the hearing protection to completely seal off your ear without the need to pinch, squeeze, or otherwise compress the unit as you put it in your ear, which can lead to improper or incomplete protection. After your ears have been examined, a small piece of foam is inserted into your ear canal to protect your eardrum and middle ear from the molding material. The molding material is inserted into your ear with a large syringe, completely filling up your ear canal and sitting flush with your outer ear. This outer part of the mold will serve to “lock” the final product into place within your ear. After a few minutes, the material stiffens to completely seal your ear and is removed. An impression of your ears has now been professionally crafted, and the resulting impressions will be sent to the company you have chosen to create hearing protection devises that fit your ear canals perfectly.
The benefit of having this done professionally cannot be overstated. Some companies offer “DIY” ear molding kits, advertised as having the ability to give you a custom fit hearing protection solution at home. These types of hearing protection will not be as effective as professionally molded hearing protection systems – it just is not possible to achieve the same results. More importantly, attempting to make a mold of your ears by yourself can result in severe injury and hearing loss. Treat your ears like you’d treat any other part of your body that you want to care for and let the health professionals help you do it right!
Custom-molded systems are extremely comfortable. They’re fit to your ear like a tailored suit, making them an ideal option for shooters who spend a lot of time in the field or at the range. Professional hunting guides, range safety officers, firearms instructors, 3-Gun competitors, or anyone who needs the best possible combination of comfort and capability should consider having custom-fitted hearing protection. The tradeoff for a custom fit and supreme capability is price. We won’t sugar coat it, custom fitted hearing protection is not the most budget-friendly option – not by a long shot. But if you’re a serious shooter, or you need the flexibility of an electronic hearing protection system, or you just want the absolute best in protection for your ears and your hearing, the cost is worth it without a doubt.
Get It Off The Rack – Proven Solutions, Ready To Use
The custom-fitted route just isn’t for everyone. Not every shooter needs the top-level protection, comfort, and certainly not price. For anyone who will be spending some time at the range or in the deer blind only every now and again, there are plenty of capable options to choose from that give you a great combination of comfort, performance, and safety.
It is important to note before we go any further that you are likely to encounter a ratings number when shopping for hearing protection, known as NRR or Noise Reduction Rating. Generally speaking, the higher the NRR on a hearing protection unit, the greater potential for protection. While this is useful to help guide your selection, this rating number is a subjective measurement based on a product’s potential ability to decrease noise when compared to other products. This measurement does not map directly onto any objective hearing health measurement data, such as a unit’s ability to block a certain number of decibels. For example, an NRR rating of 25 does not mean that 25 decibels are being blocked. Furthermore, it is a measure of the potential ability to block noise when ear protection is used properly under favorable conditions. If you are concerned specifically with blocking out a certain number of decibels to protect your hearing, consult with an audiologist for the best possible solution.
In terms of a cost-to-benefit metric, the use of earplugs that are inserted directly into the ear are an extremely affordable option and will go a long way to protect hearing in comparison to no hearing protection at all.
A common practice for many shooters and hunters is to purchase a baggie or cannister of the disposable foam earplugs to keep in a range bag or hunting pack at all times. These can be found in bulk, upwards of 50 pairs to a package, usually for less than $10 or $15. They are fantastic for times when you’re in a pinch on the range or as a first line of defense for serous hearing protection when paired with over-the-ear style protection. Fantastic, that is, so long as you’re using them properly. Let’s briefly cover how to make sure your foam plugs give you the best possible performance.
HOW TO PROPERLY INSERT FOAM EAR PLUGS
• Take the ear plug between your thumb, first, and middle fingers, with the tapered end at your fingertips
• Squeeze the foam, rolling slightly back and forth between your fingers.
• With your opposite hand, reach around your head to the ear you will be inserting the plug into.
• To open your ear canal, pull your ear up, and backward gently.
• With the plug compressed, insert it into your ear with a slight twisting motion, and gently hold it in place while the foam expands to fill your ear canal.
If you do not take the time to compress the foam, open your ear canals, insert the foam plugs completely, and then allow them to expand before using them, they will not achieve their maximum potential for hearing protection. Another drawback to this option is that foam plugs completely block all sound – firearms noise as well as conservations with your fellow shooters on the range or hunting buddies.
A step above the foam insert ear plugs are the reusable silicon plastic versions sold by numerous manufacturers. The benefit of these styles is that they have the potential to offer a little more flexibility than the foam plugs. Some designs, like the those you will see with flanged sections on the inserted end, protect strongly against the types of impulse noises encountered when shooting while allowing the wearer to retain a better ability to sense low-intensity volumes like conversations and sound directionality. These pieces of silicon act a lot like baffles in a muffler or a sound suppressor, deadening sound and redirecting it away from your ear. Particular models like the Surefire Sonic Defenders or the 3M Combat Arms will feature hollow tubes that run through the length of the insert, capped and sealed on the outer side. When these caps are opened, you have the ability to hear low-intensity noise and conversation even better while still retaining an amount of protection against impulse noises. However, if you are exposed to loud or sustained noise while the units are not sealed, their ability to protect your hearing decreases. A nice benefit of these reusable ear protection inserts is that they usually come with a convenient carrying case, or sometimes on a cord that allows them to be draped around the neck when not being used, and they are also very cost-effective.
In-ear electronic earplugs are also an option. These will usually combine either a foam tip, or a silicon tip, attached to electronic units that can have noise cancelling and noise enhancing technology built in. For these types of products, the foam or silicon work in unison with the technology to provide a more complete hearing protection solution. The inserted portions of the units continue to provide the impulse noise protection, but the electronics add the flexibility of being able to clearly hear situational noise in the absence of impulse noise. When the microphones detect a high intensity impulse noise, they shut off – or sometimes switch to a noise-cancel function – and allow for the insert ends to take over the role of protecting the ear. More expensive units will act dynamically along the range of intensities, applying more electronic noise-cancellation as ambient noise gets louder, giving you the best possible protection at all times in dynamic sound environments. Companies that make electronic in-ear protection have even begun to fuse hearing protection with Bluetooth audio connectivity, allowing you to listen to music while being protected from impulse noise. This is an interesting feature in terms of product differentiation, as it sets these types of hearing protecting devices apart from others that only protect or enhance. However, it is important to be careful when using a product like this, as sustained loud music so directly aimed into your middle- and inner-ear can be just as harmful to your hearing over time as a gunshot. Turns out mom was right — listen to that rock n’ roll music too loud and you’re liable to hurt your ears.
OVER THE EAR PROTECTION
For many shooters and hunters, having earplugs in your ear canals for long periods of time is uncomfortable. The pressure caused by inserted foam or silicon earplugs can become very unpleasant halfway into a day-long range session or an opening day marathon in the deer blind, so a different solution may need to be considered.
Over-the-ear protection, or earmuffs, have long been a useful solution when it comes to protecting your ears. Companies like Walker’s, Howard Leight, Peltor, Radians, and Caldwell have all brought excellent products to market in this category, and chances are good that if you’ve shopped for shooting ear muffs, you’ve found these on the internet or at your local gun shop.
Because of how affordable the technology has become, most of the over-the-ear options you will find today will be electronic. They will have the ability, like the electronic in-ear options, to give you amplified or at least normal level hearing up to the point where impulse noise becomes present. At which point the muffs – using acoustic foam pads to completely cover and seal your entire ear – provides you with protection. The cause for price variations for this type of product can be any number of different things. The quality of the construction, the capability of the microphones, the physical noise reduction ability, whether or not the unit is Bluetooth compatible, or even the clarity and performance of the noise enhancing and cancelling features can affect the price of the ear muffs. When shopping for these styles, always be sure to let your specific needs inform your buying decision.
One potential drawback of over-the-ear style protection is the fact that the units can potentially interfere with your ability to operate your firearm while maintaining proper protection. If the ear muff housings come in contact with the buttstock of your rifle while you’re attempting to achieve a good cheek weld, there is a good chance that the seal around your shooting ear will be broken, exposing it to significant impulse noise. The same issue can arise with your eye protection, due to the fact that the muffs will sit over top of your ear and inevitably come in contact with the temples of your glasses’ frame. Just be mindful of your selection’s size and, if possible, try the ear muffs out with your rifle handy and your eye protection on before making a final purchase.
WHAT EAR PROTECTION IS BEST FOR YOU?
When it’s decision time, this instance like many others that arise when choosing firearms gear comes down to preference. Just don’t prefer to go without, or to use what you have improperly. As we discussed, everyone’s ears are different. What might be incredibly comfortable to you could be unbearable to someone else. Your hearing is too important to settle for a one-size-fits-all solution, and anyone’s opinion is going to be just that and nothing more. It’s also important to consider your family or loved ones who shoot and hunt with you when selecting ear protection. Their hearing protection needs to be right for them, just as yours needs to be right for you. Children or smaller adults might need smaller sized ear protection to be comfortable and properly protected. If you are someone who regularly shoots at an indoor range, consider the effect that has on your selection. The enclosed space traps in noise, acting like an amplifier for the high impulse sounds caused by your firearm and those being fired by the people shooting around you. The concussive force from muzzle blasts can also feel even stronger inside an enclosed shooting range.Primary Arms always suggests wearing both in-ear and over-the-ear protection when shooting indoors.
Never settle for good enough when it comes to your ears — if you think something is doing a less-than-adequate job of giving you the protection you need, then find something new. If you’re worried about the current state of your hearing health, consult an audiologist and find out exactly what your hearing protection needs are and how to find the right tool to get the job done. No one wants to lose their ability to hear and communicate, especially if it could have been avoided. So, take the time, find what’s right for you, and enjoy a lifetime of happy and healthy shooting and hunting with the people you love and protect.