EAR PROTECTION FOR SHOOTING
We’ve all asked our ears to pay the price for the comfort, convenience, or preference of foregoing hearing protection. No one wants to be Nerd at a concert wearing ear plugs. and 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. But the problem is that it only takes one Rolling Stones Concert, or 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 rock concerts and 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.
EVERYTING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT EAR PROTECTION
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 your ears like an explosion shockwave, causing hypermovement of the membrane, and significant damage to your ears.
However, even sound levels less than 140 dB 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 – 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. Even a Ruger 10/22 still registers a decibel level of 143.4 dB according to 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, while rifles like the Winchester Model 70 can reach volumes of 166.5 dB. Pistols aren’t any better than long guns, either.
A Glock 17 comes in at 163 dB, while popular .357 Magnum pistols like a Smith & Wesson 586 can reach almost 170 dB. 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.
- Also bigger bullet = bigger boom, right? NO!
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.
And makes a 10/22 sound like a BB gun; going below the 115 dB mark.
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.
BEST SHOOTING EAR PROTECTION
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.
CUSTOM FITTED EAR 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.
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.
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 if done wrong.
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 cheap. 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.
NON-CUSTOM EAR PROTECTION FOR SHOOTING
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. 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 measurement based on a product’s POTENTIAL ability to decrease noise when compared to other products, not its guaranteed absolute ability.
For example, an NRR rating of 25 does not mean that 25 decibels are being blocked.
IN EAR PROTECTION
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.
A common practice for many shooters and hunters is to purchase a baggie 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, 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 and hunting buddies.
A step above the foam insert ear plugs are the reusable silicon ones. The benefit of these styles is that they are Designed with flanged sections on the inserted end, to protect strongly against impulse noises encountered when shooting; while allowing you to hear low dB noises from conversations and animals rustling.
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 EAR PROTECTION
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.
Walkers Silencer rechargeable earbuds are a great example of electronic ear protection. 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.
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 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.
In this situation slimmer ear cups like the howar leight impact sports will be a great option.
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.
One way to remedy this will be to use memory foam ear cups. they break in to the shape of your head and will curve around your eye protection to maintain a proper seal. All while being incredibly comfortable. It's like wearing a temperpedic mattress on your head at the gun range. Peltor makes these pads for their electronic ear protection.
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, Stronger ear protection will be better for you. We at Primary Arms suggest doubling up and using both in ear and over ear protection when 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.