How Should Shooters Best Protect Their Hearing and Ears?

Americans like their guns. Some of this interestin guns derives from TV and movies where policemen, cowboys and villains are sporting their guns with pride and regularly firing at each other. The impression from these images must have been potent, because the US continues to have millions of gun owners who fire them on a regular basis, at shooting ranges or while hunting. But what the movies and television programs didn’t show was that anyone shooting guns on a regular basis most likely spent the last few decades of their lives deaf, or struggling with serious hearing problems.

Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is a very real concern, and accounts for a sizeable percentage of hearing problems in today’s world. Noise-induced hearing loss has two major sources. Transient high noise levels (for example gunfire or explosions), and sustained high noise levels (for example heavy machinery sounds)

Sound levels are measured on the decibel scale. Zero decibels is total silence. A whisper is around 15 decibels. A normal conversation is around 50 to 60 decibels. The decibel scale is logarithmic. 60 decibels is twice as loud as 50, 70 is four times as loud as 50, and 80 is eight times as loud as 50. Prolonged exposure to sounds exceeding 90 decibels (such as a farm tractor) might cause long term hearing loss in just a few weeks. Comparable ear damage can happen much faster at higher noise levels. It only takes a couple of minutes of sounds at 120 decibels, for example from a rock concert or a jet engine, to result in lasting damage. Gunshots measure 140 decibels.

One topic that hearing professionals and gun owners concur on is that nobody should be shooting a gun lacking some sort of hearing protection. What type of ear protection is best depends to a certain degree on where you plan to shoot.

If most of your shooting is done at outdoor or indoor gun ranges, your best option at a sensible cost is some form of over-the-ear “muff” type headphones that block transient sounds not only from getting to the inner ear but also from getting to the cochlear bones behind the ear. The over-the-ear muff can be easily combined with in-the-ear foam ear plugs for additional protection. Many shooters will pick in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 30 or more for use with their muffs. On the high end of the price range you will also find electronic noise-cancelling headphones developed especially for shooters, which are pricy but which will offer the maximum levels of protection. Electronic noise-cancelling headphones have the added benefit of allowing you to hear normal conversations while blocking out the transient gunshots.

So if you have fun with firing guns, before your next trip to the range, talk to a hearing care professional about hearing protection. Then adhere to the advice they give, while you can still hear them talking to you.