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Hearing Protection Frequent Asked Questions

Hearing protection is personal protective equipment that should be worn while shooting firearms. Hearing protectors come in the form of ear plugs and ear muffs, reducing the amount of noise that enters your inner ear.

Hearing has a cumulative effect over your entire lifetime–once it’s damaged, there is no regaining your hearing. Unfortunately, many American gun-owners suffer from permanent hearing loss or tinnitus as a result of shooting sports. It’s one of the most common health hazards related to firearms, though many gun-owners underestimate its impact because the damage occurs through years and years of shooting.

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. Remember: hearing damage is permanent but also preventable. If you wear proper hearing protection, you can prevent the hearing damage of gunshots and maintain your hearing for life.

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.

Every individual’s ears are as unique as a thumbprint. The absolute best 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 incorrectly.

Treat your ears like a treasure. 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 the price. We won’t sugarcoat it: custom fitted hearing protection is not cheap. But if you’re a serious marksman, 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.

Beyond custom-made hearing protection, you can compare the performance of hearing protectors by NRR or ‘Noise Reduction Rating.’ The higher the NRR on a hearing protection unit, the greater potential for protection.

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. If the protector is damaged, or if it doesn’t have a perfect seal, that NRR value will not be perfectly accurate.

When choosing hearing protection, consider NRR, price, and technology to identify the best fit for your needs.

In terms of a cost-to-benefit metric, in-ear protectors or ‘earplugs’ 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 purchased in bulk, upwards of 50 pairs to a package, usually for less than $10 or $15.

Foam earplugs are an effective lightweight option—so long as you’re using them properly. If you do not take the time to properly insert them, they will not achieve their maximum potential for hearing protection.

A step above the foam insert ear plugs are the reusable silicon. The benefit of silicon earplugs is that they use flanged sections on the inserted end, which target impulse noises encountered when shooting. 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. By opening the caps, you can hear low-intensity noise and conversation even better while still protecting against impulse noises. However, if you hear loud or sustained noise while the units are open, their ability to protect your hearing decreases.

Follow the steps below to safely insert foam earplugs for maximum hearing protection:

1. Take the ear plug between your thumb, first, and middle fingers, with the tapered end at your fingertips.

2. Squeeze the foam, rolling slightly back and forth between your fingers.

3. With your opposite hand, reach around your head to the ear you will be inserting the plug into.

4. To open your ear canal, pull your ear up, and backward gently.

5. 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.

In-Ear Electronic (or ‘Active’) hearing protectors are digital earbuds that selectively filter loud noises. These will usually combine either a foam tip, or a silicon tip, attached to electronic units that can have noise canceling and noise enhancing technology built in.

Walkers Silencer rechargeable earbuds are an 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 fused 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.

For many, earplugs can feel uncomfortable after a few hours.

Over-the-ear protection, or earmuffs, has long been a useful solution in protecting your ears. Companies like Walker’s, Howard Leight, Peltor, Radians, and Caldwell have all brought excellent over-ear products, and you’ve probably seen them on the internet or at your local gun shop.

Because of how affordable the technology has become, many 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.

The price of electronic over-ear hearing protectors will depend on quality of construction, the capability of the microphones, the physical noise reduction rating, Bluetooth compatibility, and general audio performance. 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 might 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, the protective seal around your shooting ear will break, exposing it to significant impulse noise.

The same issue can arise with your eye protection, as 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.

When it’s decision time, this instance like many others that arise when choosing firearms gear comes down to preference. Ultimately, everyone’s ears and needs 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 even suggest doubling up and using both in-ear and over-ear protection when indoors.

Never settle for good enough with your ears. If you think your current protection is doing a less-than-adequate job, then find something new.

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to send us a message at info@primaryarms.com or call us at 713-344-9600.

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