How to protect your hearing while shooting
Tuesday, November 04, 2014
A good sense of hearing is important during day-to-day living. However, your hearing is also vulnerable to damage from extremely loud noises, which makes hunters and shooters especially vulnerable to hearing loss.
For this reason, it is extremely important that you take appropriate steps to protect your hearing when you are exposed to noisy environments. Luckily, this task is much easier than many people assume. Keep reading, and I'll demonstrate a few of the methods available today to protect your hearing while hunting and shooting.
Unfortunately, noise-induced hearing loss is permanent. Though hearing aids can sometimes improve the quality of life of those with hearing loss, they are extremely expensive and are not nearly as good as normal hearing.
Any noise louder than 85 decibels can cause hearing loss, and if the noise is loud enough, the damage can be immediate. For reference, a gunshot shotgun blast is about 130-180 decibels (give or take, depending on the load).
Additionally, some firearms produce a pressure wave strong enough to cause hearing loss by damaging the bones behind the ear, even if the ear canal is protected by an ear plug. This is especially common for people shooting indoors or in close proximity to others shooting shotguns or rifles with muzzle breaks (such as waterfowl hunters or hunting guides).
Foam ear plugs
Regular, foam ear plugs are the simplest and cheapest way to protect your hearing. Luckily, there are lots of choices on the market. Usually, a pack of 20 goes for around $5. With a Noise Reduction Rating of 25-33 (depending on the specific plugs), they provide decent protection for your hearing.
Foam ear plugs have several advantages: they are cheap, small and versatile. Unfortunately, they also have a number of drawbacks.
Probably the biggest disadvantage is that they only protect the ear canal, leaving the sensitive bones outside the ear unprotected. In extremely loud environments, this can still lead to damage to your hearing.
Another problem is that ear plugs are often worn incorrectly. When users do not insert them deeply enough into the ear canal (which can be difficult for people with small ears), they do not provide the advertised level of protection.
Finally, regular ear plugs dampen all noise, not just loud noises. Though this may not be a problem for most shooters, this can make foam ear plugs impractical for users who need to hear sounds from the environment around them (such as hunters or competition shooters). For this reason, I don't recommend traditional foam ear plugs for those people.
Impulse ear plugs
Impulse ear plugs are a significant step up from traditional ear plugs, but still go for a reasonable price. I've got a pair of Peltor Combat Plugs that I used in Iraq and Afghanistan that work well and currently sell for around $10. These plugs are reversible: one end provides passive protection for constant noise (like heavy machinery), and one end provides noise-activated protection against impulse noise (like gunfire).
The big advantage to these ear plugs is that when used in the noise-activated mode, they still allow the user to hear ambient noise relatively well, but protect against gunfire and explosions. That is why they are issued to soldiers in combat zones. This also makes them good choices for hunters who want to protect their hearing, but still need to hear the much of the noise present in the environment around them.
While they are a good product, impulse ear plugs do not provide a high level of protection overall (noise reduction rating of 22 for passive protection, slightly less for noise-activated protection). For this reason, I don't recommend using them alone to protect against extremely loud noises, such as indoor shooting ranges or short-barreled rifles.
For more serious shooters, using some type ear muffs is the way to go. There are literally dozens of different models out there to choose from, but you can get a good pair with a Noise Reduction Rating of around 30 for $20-30.
Ear muffs are a serious step up from ear plugs and do a much better job of protecting your hearing when around loud noises. Not only are they usually easy and simple to properly use (thus avoiding a major pitfall of ear plugs), but they also protect the delicate bones behind the eardrum (which ear plugs don't do). They may also be combined with ear plugs for extra protection in extremely loud environments.
One of the drawbacks to ear muffs is that they are awkward to wear with headgear. Obviously, this is a nonstarter for people (like soldiers) who must wear a helmet. Additionally, some people do not like to wear ear muffs when shooting rifles and shotguns because they sometimes get in the way. Finally, they are not practical for hunters to wear precisely because they are so good at blocking out all levels of noise.
Electronic ear muffs
For those who want to spend a little more money for a significant increase in performance, electronic earmuffs are a good choice. They retail for $40-50 and provide excellent performance by blocking loud noises and amplifying all other sounds. So, not only will they protect your hearing, but they actually improve it as well.
This makes them useful both at the range and when hunting. At the range, this allows the shooter to protect his or her hearing while still being able hold a normal conversation with another person. While hunting, this allows the user to hear all the little sounds he or she needs to hear, like the snap of a twig made by an approaching deer. Additionally, since they are ear muffs, they also provide protection to the bones of hearing.
Some people do not like to use ear muffs when shooting a rifle or shotgun because the get in the way. Personally, I have not had this problem with electronic ear muffs, and I use them for much of my shooting and hunting.
My biggest complaint is that they only have a Noise Reduction Rating of 22. This does not bother me much when hunting or shooting outside. However, this can be mitigated when in especially loud environments (like an indoor shooting range) by wearing ear plugs in addition to the muffs.
The noise-amplifying characteristics of the muffs still provide normal or slightly enhanced hearing for the user even when wearing ear plugs. I consider them well worth the money, especially considering that they only cost a little more than a traditional pair of ear muffs.
Electronic ear plugs
For those who want the performance of electronic ear muffs in a smaller package, there are several different types of electronic ear plugs on the market today that retail for $200-400 per pair.
Like electronic ear muffs, they block loud noises and amplify all other sounds. However, they are much smaller and more portable than electronic ear muffs. Additionally, some versions have the added bonus of allowing the user to tune the ear plugs to focus on amplifying specific frequencies.
Since they are ear plugs, they do not protect the outside of your ears. As a result, they are designed more for hunters than for shooters (though they may be used for both). However, they have the advantage of not getting in the way of a rifle or shotgun and they can be worn with any headgear.
However, they electronic ear plugs have two significant drawbacks: their cost and the fact that they do not protect the bones of hearing. The price is a bit steep for a casual hunter or shooter. They are well worth the money for a serious hunter who will frequently use them and take advantage of their awesome features.
I hope that you've found this article on how to protect your hearing while hunting and shooting both helpful and informative. As long as you take the right precautions, it is possible preserve your sense of hearing despite exposure to extremely noisy environments.
Trust me, this is a precaution that you will absolutely appreciate taking down the road.
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