I learned over the years, from working around loud industrial plant noises and from seeing my Dad experience terrible ear pain, continuous ringing in his ears, and substantial hearing loss from job-related noises and from regularly shooting firearms, that serious hearing problems can develop quickly. Sometimes new and younger shooters don’t pay as much attention as they should to protecting their hearing, forgoing hearing protection for just that one time… or focusing only on eye protection. I certainly consider both eye and ear protection important and mandatory for shooting. For me and my firearms students, hearing protection is mandatory at the range.
Noise Hazard from Shooting
The noise from gunfire is one of the most hazardous non-occupational noises that people are exposed to. It’s possible that a single gunshot heard by an unprotected ear can lead to immediate and permanent hearing loss, often accompanied by tinnitus or ringing, hissing or humming in the ears. The Cleveland Clinic and the Sight and Hearing Association report that hearing loss can definitely result from a single gunshot or from noise over an extended time. According to Dr. William Clark, senior research scientist of the Noise Laboratory at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, “the damage caused by one shot from a .357 magnum pistol, which can expose a shooter to 165 dB for 2msec, is equivalent to over 40 hours in a noisy workplace.” Dr. Thomas Krammer, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana echoes this. Here are estimated average dB noise levels for gun calibers:
- .25 ACP - 155.0 dB
- .32 LONG - 152.4 dB
- .32 ACP - 153.5 dB
- .380 - 157.7 dB
- 9mm - 159.8 dB
- .38 S&W - 153.5 dB
- .38 Spl - 156.3 dB
- .357 Magnum - 164.3 dB
- .40 S&W - 156.5 dB
- .41 Magnum - 163.2 dB
- .44 S&W Magnum - 164.5 dB
- .44 Spl - 155.9 dB
- .45 ACP - 157.0 dB
- .45 COLT - 154.7 dB
- 12 Gauge Shotgun - 155 dB
- .22 Pistol or Rifle - 140 dB
- M-16 - 160 dB
Generally, noise becomes damaging to hearing above a certain amplitude level for a certain duration of time, usually cited as about 90 dB for 8 hours. The OSHA permissible noise level exposure is 115 dB for just 15 minutes. Both amplitude and intensity duration are related to a sound’s power and possible hearing damage. So without hearing protection, listening to rock music at 90 dB for 30 minutes may not be as damaging as working in an industrial plant environment or hearing continuous gunshots at 90 dB for 6 hours or so. As the amplitude increases, the time duration your ears can tolerate noise without damage goes down. For example, at 115 dB the duration drops to 15 minutes or less and the pain threshold begins usually at about 130 dB. A dangerous sound is usually considered to be anything over 85dB for an extended period of time, without protection, but a single loud gunshot for a short time can also be very damaging. Most gun shots average a dB level of 150 to 160, as the above chart indicates. The normal conversation benchmark is 60 dB, while a jet takeoff is about 120 dB, and a jackhammer has 130 dB. I recall a few times at the shooting range when I forgot to put my hearing protector muffs on and the resulting loud bang and how my ears were ringing just from one occurrence.
Dr. Michael Stewart, Professor of Audiology at the University of Central Michigan and the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, gets specific and says that exposure to noise greater than 140 dB can permanently damage hearing, without protection. This supports Dr. Clark’s above research. Stewart says that almost all firearms create noise that is over the 140-dB level. A small .22-caliber gun can produce noise around 140 dB, while big-bore rifles and pistols can produce sound over 175 dB. Firing guns in a place where sounds can reverberate, or bounce off walls and other structures, like inside a building or some indoor shooting ranges, can make noises louder and increase the risk of hearing loss. Also, adding muzzle brakes or other modifications can make the firearm louder. Dr. Stewart says that shooters who do not wear hearing protection while shooting can suffer a severe hearing loss with as little as one shot, if the conditions are right. So just because you might have shot without hearing protection in the past, and without apparent hearing loss, does not mean you might not damage your hearing the next time. So, it’s important to wear hearing protection EVERY time you shoot a gun to avoid possible hearing damage. Once your hearing is damaged, it won’t come back.
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is the hearing protection rating method used in the U.S. The current range of NRRs available in the U.S. market extends from 0 to 33 decibels. The NRR is derived from an involved calculation that begins with attenuation test results from at least ten laboratory subjects across a range of frequencies. Two standard deviations are factored in to account for individual user variation, and several corrections and cushions are included to make the NRR applicable to a broader population, and a wide variety of noise sources. The NRR is the most standardized method currently in use for describing a hearing protector’s attenuation in a single number and estimates the amount of protection achievable by 98% of users in a laboratory setting when hearing protectors are properly fitted. The higher the NRR the greater the noise level is reduced.
Check the noise reduction rating (NRR) of your hearing protector. All hearing protection devices are rated according to how much noise (in decibels) they will reduce for the wearer. While wearing hearing protection your exposure to noise is equal to the total noise level minus the NRR of the hearing protectors in use. For example, if you were exposed to 80db of noise but were wearing earplugs with an NRR of 29, your actual noise exposure would only be 51dB. For general use, look for NRR of 25 or greater. Actual noise reduction will probably be about half of the manufacturer’s NRR, because ratings were obtained under perfect lab conditions.
Types of Hearing Protection:
- Passive Ear Plugs – These are basically soft plugs that are usually made from plastic or some type of foam based substance. These plugs are placed into the ear opening and they serve to dampen any high volume sound that the ear is exposed to. They are called “passive” because these plugs don’t utilize any electronic devices that damper noises. Ear plugs are by far the least expensive form of ear protection, but do they actually work well? The sound is dampened a bit, but can still be quite loud. The plugs help some, but they really don’t protect your ears as well as they can be protected.
- Passive Hearing Protection – This model generally is comprised of ear muffs that have a cup which encompasses the entire ear. The muffs are usually attached by a headband or headpiece of some type. Like the passive ear plugs, this model won’t have the electronic sound dampening device. The ear muff style design is nice as the cup has a seal that protects the entire ear from the noise versus the ear plugs which only partially protect the ear canal itself. Most ear muff models have the ability to be adjusted, although some of the less expensive ear muff models may not have this feature. Unfortunately, ear muffs of this design dampen all or most sound, so the wearer can’t hear anyone speaking or any other important sounds.
- Electronic Noise-Cancelling Hearing Protection – This design incorporates an ear muff style and integrates it with electronic technology that reduces the noise down to a level that isn’t harmful to the human ear. The entire sound dampening process takes place faster than the blink of an eye as the suppressed sound is transmitted to the wearer almost instantly. The best feature of electronic hearing protection is the ability to hear everything that is going on around you while you are shooting. In many situations, such as on the range, during training, or while hunting; this can be a great benefit. Of course, due to the technology needed, electronic hearing protection tends to be the most expensive of all the hearing protection devices. A number of the higher end electronic models may have other enhancements such as a separate volume control for each side of the ear muffs, enhanced adjustability, a battery saver feature to conserve battery use, and ambient sound magnification. The ambient sound magnification is a great benefit for hunters as it amplifies noise to a degree that is far greater than the naked ear can hear. At the same time, the augmented sound is instantly dampened when a shot is fired.
Electronic Hearing Protection Headsets vs. Passive Hearing Protection Earmuffs
Both Electronic Headsets and classic earmuffs have advantages and disadvantages. Earmuffs offer comfort without any direct pressure inside the ear canal. The three common styles of earmuffs are the standard over-the-head, cap-mounted and behind-the-neck. The cap-mounted earmuffs are design to mount directly to most hard hats that have side-accessory slots. Behind-the-neck style can also be used while wearing headwear. Classic earmuffs are less expensive than electronic headsets and tend to have a slightly higher NRR.
Electronic Earmuffs provide the same protection as standard earmuffs but also offer other special features. These headsets allow you to protect your hearing from loud noises while still being able to listen to low sound levels such as conversations. Others features besides distort free amplification can include audio jacks, automatic shut offs and volume controls. Electronic headsets are available in multiple models like traditional earmuffs, but are more expensive and require batteries.
What’s the Best Hearing Protection Choice for You?
Assess your basic requirements and match them to the appropriate option above. Generally, I would not recommend the basic passive ear plugs. Although they are certainly better than nothing, they provide only the minimum of protection. If you shoot infrequently or don’t have the need for the additional capabilities of an electronic model, basic passive ear muffs will most likely work OK. If you are a active shooter or hunter, the electronic models can be a worthwhile purchase with all their added features. I switched from passive headphones to an electronic model for almost all purposes and don’t regret it. Some acceptable brands of hearing protectors to consider are Radians, Peltors, Pro Ears, Winchester, Caldwell, Howard Leight, Browning, and Remington. Prices range from just under $20 for passive earmuffs to up to $250 and more for electronic headsets. Generally, you should be able to get a decent pair of passive earmuffs for about $20 and a decent electronic set for about $50. At the end of the day, the choice really comes down to your own personal preferences, frequency of shooting, and needs.
Although I own several different hearing protection devices, I prefer electronic noise canceling headsets that detect sharp, loud noises, allow me to hear my students clearly, and cancel the volume in the headset for a split second when I shoot. Of course, I need to regularly hear and understand my students talking to me at the range and I shoot very regularly. My electronic headset cancels loud noises up to an acceptable level and also increases the volume of ambient sounds, so I actually hear better. Standard ear muffs deaden sound to a decent level of safety, but hearing low-level sounds is not possible. When plinking for fun at my outdoor range, I might use standard passive earmuffs, as they are usually lighter and a little more comfortable than my amplified type. When I’m teaching a class of students at the outdoor range where it is important to hear student-shooters ask questions, I wear electronic earmuffs. In very noisy environments, such as when shooting very loud (often magnum) firearms or at an indoor range, I use both earplugs inside of earmuffs, for maximum hearing protection. When dual hearing protectors are used, the combined NRR provides approximately 5 – 10 decibels more than the higher rated of the two devices. For example, using disposable ear plugs (NRR 29dB) with ear muffs (NRR 27dB) would provide a Noise Reduction Rating of approximately 39 decibels. I had a student who wore a hearing aid and she found it best for her condition to use both plugs and muffs. Shooters should match the level of hearing protection required to their need, situation, and priorities. Most importantly, always wear some sort of ear protection when shooting, in addition to proper eye protection. Your top priority is self-preservation.
Protect Yourself– Select and ALWAYS Use Proper Hearing and Eye Protection for Shooting!