Protecting Your Hearing - Options for Ear Protection
Most shooters are familiar with the three main rules of firearms safety.
1. ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
2. ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.
3. ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
These rules are vitally important for keeping you and others safe on the shooting range. However, preventing injury expands beyond standard gun safety. For example, the first time you catch a hot piece of brass, you learn the importance of wearing a hat and closed toe shoes when you’re shooting.
Another important aspect of shooting safety is ear protection. While some may try to go the macho route, thinking they can skip the neon ear plugs, hearing loss is a serious risk for shooters. Gunfire is loud (approximately 140 decibels on average). Some firearms are so loud a single shot can cause immediate and permanent hearing damage.
While hearing loss cannot be reversed, it can be prevented. Here is a quick rundown of the basic options for ear protection and why it is so essential to shooter safety.
Why Shooters Need to Protect Their Ears
Most people are familiar with the workings of the inner ear. That’s where the eardrum and its important companions with cool rustic sounding names (the hammer, anvil, and stirrup) are located. An extremely loud gunshot can potentially rupture the eardrum or damage the bones in the middle ear.
However, if you move past these familiar parts and travel into the inner ear, that’s where the real damage happens, and you may not even be aware it’s happening.
Deep inside your ear is an organ shaped like a spiral staircase called the cochlea. Inside the cochlea is the organ of Corti and the basilar membrane. Thousands of tiny fragile hairs run along this structure, and it is their job to register sound waves and transmit them to your brain.
Intense high decibel sounds (like gunfire) can cause the basilar membrane and organ of Corti to separate forming small lesions. These small lesions become inflamed, destroying the tiny hairs that cover the structure. As the lesions heal, scar tissue forms which could further damage these all-important hairs. Over time, cumulative noise exposure causes extensive irreversible damage to your inner ear. As a result, the entire auditory central nervous system could eventually go deaf.
How to Protect Your Hearing
When you use proper hearing protection when you shoot, the intensity of the sound that reaches the delicate parts of your middle and inner ear is significantly reduced. This helps prevent internal trauma and preserves your hearing.
There are so many options shooters can use to protect their hearing that there’s really no good excuse for not using them. Here are just a few ways to keep your ears safe on the shooting range.
Traditional ear plugs fit snugly inside your ear. Some disposable versions are cheap and made of soft, compressible foam. To be most effective, you need to squeeze the material, insert it into your ear, and allow the material to expand.
Other earplugs are reusable and made from molded plastic.
Both versions help protect your hearing, but they do have some major drawbacks. While they do a great job of muffling the noise of gunshots, they also dampen the sound of everything else. This makes it difficult to communicate with other shooters, which could pose a serious safety hazard. It also makes earplugs highly impractical for hunting as you will have difficulty hearing approaching game. You will also be unaware of how much noise you are making, causing you to potentially alert animals to your presence.
Some people also don’t like the feeling of having something stuck in their ears. Foam earplugs can also require proper roll-down insertion, which can be tricky, especially if you’re wearing gloves or have cold hands.
Passive earmuffs feature foam pads that create a seal around your entire ear, reducing the noise that reaches your ears. They come on a headband and look pretty much like the earmuffs ice skaters wear to keep their ears warm. Although most passive earmuffs are fairly effective at filtering higher frequencies, they may not be as effective as earplugs at reducing overall noise.
Although not as cheap as foam earplugs, passive earmuffs are still relatively inexpensive. They are also more durable and work well for repeated use. Most will fold up to a compact size so you can conveniently fit them in your range bag.
Like earplugs, passive earmuffs muffle all noise, so having a conversation while wearing them is almost impossible. They are also fairly bulky, and some models may interfere with your cheek weld, a major drawback for rifle shooters.
Electronic ear protection is the most effective form of hearing protection for shooters. However, electronic protection is also the most expensive. These high-tech gadgets selectively filter sound and some actually amplify the sound of voices. This unique feature allows you to have a casual conversation while they effectively dampen the sound of gunshots.
You can purchase electronic protection in a variety of formats, including muffs or plugs. Electronic earmuffs tend to be considerably less bulky than the passive variety, making them more comfortable and practical in the field. However, plugs provide the greatest freedom of movement.
Electronic protection does require batteries, which some shooters will consider a drawback. However, gadget junkies will appreciate high-tech options like Bluetooth technology that allows you to stream music and make phone calls right from your ear pro.
Be sure to check the noise reduction rating (NRR) of your ear protection, especially if you are a frequent shooter. The higher the rating, the greater protection it provides.
Remember, even the most expensive form of hearing protection isn’t going to do you any good if you don’t use it. Once your hearing is damaged, you can never get it back. Make ear protection part of your shooting safety routine. And maybe keep an extra set of disposable earplugs in your range bag for your buddies, just in case.