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 hits your ears like a 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.
For avid competitors and hunters, the sudden, high intensity nature of gunshots is almost certain to cause damage to the inner ear if not mitigated. Even a Ruger 10/22 still registers a decibel level of 143.4 dB, which will cause permanent damage.
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 or more. Pistols aren’t any safer. A 9mm Glock 17 comes in at 163 dB, while popular .357 Magnum pistols like a Smith & Wesson 586 can reach almost 170 dB.
In many cases, we perceive the larger firearms and larger calibers as being significantly louder than smaller caliber firearms because we feel the concussion blast as a round exits the muzzle. This can give a false sense of security with low-pressure cartridges, but any gunshot can permanently damage your hearing.
Sound suppressors can reduce some firearms’ sonic footprint by nearly 30 decibels, which is enough to bring many suppressed firearms under the 140 dB pSPL hearing threshold. That said, not all suppressors are hearing safe, and you should always be careful about exposing yourself to a potentially damaging noise.
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.