Saturday, November 22, 2008

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? - A Home on the Range Re-Post Request

You know your social life could use a little perking up with you meet up with a guy and he says "Did you bring protection?" and you know he's talking about eyes and ear.

Most weekends that I don't get called out to work, I usually meet my friends at the range or at one of the Fish and Game matches. Most ranges won't allow shooters out unless they have both eye and ear protection, but I've encountered several shooters outdoors in the field, chasing birds or game, that wear nothing to protect against the dB's of shotgun blast.

The sound of gunfire is the most hazardous non-occupational noise to which adults are exposed and can be a cause of noise induced hearing loss. The damage happens to the microscopic hair cells found inside the cochlea. These cells respond to mechanical sound vibrations by sending an electrical signal to the auditory nerve. Different groups of hair cells are responsible for different frequencies (rate of vibrations). The healthy human ear can hear frequencies ranging from 20Hz to 20,000 Hz. Over time, the hair cell's hair-like stereocilia may get damaged or broken. If enough of them are damaged, hearing loss results. The high frequency area of the cochlea is often damaged by loud sound.

Sound pressure is measured in decibels (dB). Like a temperature scale, the decibel scale goes below zero. The average person can hear sounds down to about 0 dB, such as the level of rustling leaves, or someone out in the kitchen trying to sneak that last brownie out of the pan. Conversations run up to as much as 60 dB, still not enough for damage, even if of filibuster quality. If a sound reaches 85 dB (an idling bulldozer) or stronger, it can cause permanent damage to your hearing over time. The following is the peak sound pressure levels of typical guns.
What is so insidious about peak levels such as these is that a single shot experienced by an unprotected ear could lead to immediate and permanent hearing loss of some degree, often accompanied by ringing, hissing, or humming in the ears. Just because you might have shot without protection in the past, and without apparent hearing loss, does not mean you might not have damage incur the next time. Exposure to peaks sound pressures can be likened to accidentally dropping that glass Yuengling bottle on the tile floor. It might break, and it might not, but you can't bet on that outcome.

Recreational firearm noise has been cited as a primary cause of hearing loss incurred during leisure activity. It is estimated that in the United States, well over 60 million Americans shoot firearms as part of recreational target practice or when hunting various wildlife. The use of firearms while hunting is of special concern because it has been reported that only about 1% of hunters use hearing protection devices. [1]

I'd suggest that even if you aren't a "regular" shooter, you invest in a good piece of hearing protection. Sure, many ranges offer a set free to use or will "rent" you a set for dollar or two charge. But frankly, the starting quality and wear from many heads larger than mine, rendered some so poor that I would have been better served taking my bra off, wrapping it around my head, and stuffing a cup in each ear.

It's not just quality of the dampening of sound, but comfort. Too loose, and you lose a large degree of the hearing protection. Too tight and you'll feel like you spent the morning with your ex spouse, not your favorite weapon. Grabbing a "free" pair at the range is not always the best way to go.

There are a lot of choices in high performance shooting hearing protection devices, many quite lightweight and comfortable. One newer offering is the Howard Leight Sport Earmuff. It's got a noise reduction rating of 22db and is VERY low profile, electronically enhanced it will amplify ambient low level noise (i.e. conversation) while truly muffling more dangerous sound. It is, however, around $60.

Howard Leight has some excellent overall and inexpensive ear protection. The one I carry with me everywhere is the Leightning L3 muff. It's sleekly elegant in design and very economical. The seal is excellent with a slow-recovery soft foam, without sacrificing comfort. The headband is extra long and softly padded, with pivoting cups that fit like a custom headband at a very decent price. With an NRR of 30d dB, one of the highest rated for any earmuff it's my favorite. I noticed the cold that required a jacket but NOT my earmuffs this day. Not all online shooting supply vendors carries them. I found mine through another favorite, Midway USA, who has them for $24.99. This pair is 3 years old and still performs as well as new. That's my own choice. You'll have your favorites. Beretta has a good one for less than $30. And Cabellas always has an assortment of well reviewed ear protection in all price ranges.

You can go high end, spending several hundred dollars, but some of the fancier ones with
four high-frequency directional microphones and two-channel digital circuitry, adjustable frequency tuning to enhance sounds on specific frequencies, 50db amplification, adjustable headsets and muffs with antimicrobial treatment, frankly aren't as well reviewed as the more budget minded ear protection. For $370 I would want it to not just comfortably cancel noise, but take Barkley for a walk and give me a back rub.

One size fits all, well, doesn't. You can find a variety of adjustable muffs for less than $40. One I liked using when I was out of town shooting and borrowed some gear, was the Pro Ears with the Soft ProForm® leather ear seals (forms tightly to your head without binding too tightly) and ProTen® headband, that can be adjusted to fit all head sizes, from youth to overinflated Congressman. These are available in three NRR ratings: 26, 28, and 33.

The bottom line - some kind of hearing protection should always be worn when firing guns. Some will even choose to use dual protection because it reduces the sounds even further for greater protection, and for some, for better shooting as well (since the pulses are lower and the likelihood of flinching is reduced). If I'm shooting a big boomstick at an indoor LEO range, which I've done before, I'll wear both muffs and the washable E.A.R. ULTRA-FIT EAR PLUGS that I picked up for $5 at Brownells.

I'm not trying to sell you a particular brand, or a particular vendor. I'm simply saying that there are many choices, and like your weapon and holster, you should pick one with good fit, comfort and protection. You may have a chance at that pheasant you missed on another day, but hearing lost in the field can't be regained. It's worth some messed up hair and a few dollars out of your pocket for quality equipment, to protect that.

(1) Kramer WL, Updike CD. Recreational shooters and their use of hearing protection. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association; November 1991; Seattle, Wash.


  1. As someone who has lost some hearing due to unprotected exposure to gunfire, I think this is a great post. I use the Peltor electronic muffs these days.

  2. "I would have been better served taking my bra off, wrapping it around my head, and stuffing a cup in each ear."

    And yet you couldn't take a picture of that to start the post?

  3. I always keep a couple pairs of disposable earplugs in the car, they fit in the sunglasses compartment quite well.
    I have become quite careful in protecting my ears as I have already noticed some hearing loss. For those of you who like to see live music or go out to the clubs on occasion, I certainly recommend bringing along a pair of earplugs. I saw the Rolling Stones here in CT a couple of years ago and it was so loud that I found it painful, fortunately I had brought along a pair of foam earplugs to reduce the loudness.

  4. Ah, the constant hissing of tinnitus. I got mine in Vietnam. We had a free fire day and I was firing my trusty B.A.R with a guy on each side of me firing M-16's and 2 guys beside them firing .50 cal machine guns. At that time our only hearing protection was the filters from cigarettes stuffed in our ears. On the command to fire, it felt like someone poked 2 hot ice picks into my ears.

    I've had the hissing since then. At first it interrupted sleep, but now I have been so used to it, that I think that I would notice it if it stopped.

    Everyone take Brigid's advise........wear the protection. Hissing is NOT good.

    But, the question arises, would a bra be better than cigarette filters? As a scientist, you should do the research, of course with pictures.

  5. William the CoronerNovember 22, 2008 at 5:54 PM

    I've heard tell that field expedient earplugs can be made from .38 JHP slugs. Of course, you ARE jamming bullets in your ears, in violation of the elbow rule.

    Physicians know that babies screaming in ears can lead to hearing loss amongst pediatricians. They stuff the ends of their stethoscopes in their ears, which would not work at the gun range.

    Myself, I mislaid my muffs in a move. I need a new pair, and I usually do foam-and-muff protection when shooting indoors.

  6. I knew a young lady who got a medical discharge from the Army for loss of hearing; she was at an M16 Qualification range and one of her GI ear plugs fell out. After you wear these things for a while, your ears can get numb: She didn't notice it was out until she felt a sharp pain in her ear. Fortunately for her disability claim, she had witnesses who saw her put them in, and even using the correct (and uncomfortable, stupid looking) "reach over your head with the opposite hand" technique. She told me that she had an unbroken record "ever since I was a little girl in .22 matches with daddy" of always wearing her hearing protection, and she wasn't sure what made her angrier, the hearing loss, the the discharge, or why she was getting it.

    She having the same MOS as me, some hearing loss was inevitable anyway, something about listening to static all day with headphones on...

  7. "7Mary Paul, disturbance, loud noises reported, unknown cause 1234 Duck Lane, Signal three"

    *knocking* hard on front door.

    "Ma'am? United States Army Police. Open up , please. I got a report of a loud, excessive noise".

    "Everything ok, ma'am?"

    *Whoa.....spotting partially concealed weapon on left hip*

    "Ma'am, Please place your hands on the wall, shoulder high. Legs spread, Feet wide, take three steps back"

    *frisking* time.

    "You do have the right to legal counsel. Anything you say, could and might be held against you".

    "Do you understand these legal rights as they have been read out loud to you?"



  8. I use disposables and muffs both, since I'm already down 40dB is both ears from flying, I can't afford to lose much more. Excellent post and good info! Thanks.

  9. Back in the day - '60s and '70s - no one realized the long term damage that noise caused, at least not among those of us who raced go karts and motorcycles. If a 150 db gunshot causes hearing damage, imaging 150 db for a 90 minute race, week after week.

    It caught up with me about 10-15 years ago when I realized I couldn't hear a conversation in a restaurant because my hearing loss was right in the middle of the speech range - around 4000 cps - and the background noise was overlaying the conversation and I was constantly asking for repeats.

    It's a bit of locking the barn door after the horse escapes, but since then I wear muffs (Howard Leight Thunder 29) while mowing the lawn, using the table saw, etc. At the range I put disposable foam plugs in before I get out of the car and add the muffs as I approach the firing line.

    One thing surprised me a few years back: returning to motorcycling (pleasure riding) how loud the wind noise was around the new, lighter full face helmets. I don't climb on the bike without plugs, and keep several sets in the car, bike saddlebag and briefcase.

  10. Considering Brigid already is using E.A.R. solid ear plugs, I am a big fan of the E.A.R. Combat Arms earplugs. They are double-ended, the yellow end has a noise actived filter and goes in for outside range firing, up to and including automatic weapons fire, and yet you can clearly hear range commands and normal conversations. The olive drab end functions as a regular plug for indoor use. Both ends provide NRR 22 dB noise reduction, but I usually also wear a pair of muffs indoors or under a range cover for rifle fire. No batteries, and again, with the yellow side in you can still hear normal conversation levels of speech. They're about $13 at Brownells or Brigade Quatermasters, and well worth it.

  11. I think you got us all with your first paragraph. But didn't you mean to say that you could put your bra cups over your ears, not in your ears. [Sorry, just couldn't resist!]
    I lost hearing working as a shooting instructor at a summer camp in '67. Since we were outside and just using .22 Shorts, I wasn't worried. Wrong! Lately at the range my son and I use both the "sponge" plugs and over-ear protection. I've had a custom set of plugs made up, but they're due for replacement.
    Much enjoy your writing, as does the Son and Heir.

  12. Hair's beautiful. Great post, I hope all the younger shooters listen up.Don't be macho,it WILL happen to you. I've got about 6 or so pairs of muffs around,2 custom plugs and a pile of foamies on hand and no,I don't think it's too many. I always double up. Shoot safe. God help the Republic. the mushroom

  13. When I was shooting IDPA several years ago there was a young lady who was an audiologist who shot with us at the Nationals, and she made the point that you should use muffs as well as foam plugs because the foam plugs would reduce noise but that they couldn't reduce the concussive noise that reached your ears via bone conduction. Only muffs would do that. So now, especially if I'm shooting indoors or around larger calibers or guns with the AK-74-style muzzle brakes, I make it a point to follow her advice and wear both. I can tell a huge difference.
    I like the electronic muffs when I'm instructing on the range because that lets me hear questions or pick up on problems that might be happening, but don't use them otherwise.
    After losing a good bit of hearing in my left ear, I never shoot without at least the foam plugs in use, ever! I've always been a music lover and audiophile, and the hearing loss I already have is especially grievous to me.

  14. OldeForce - welcome back to comments. Glad the son and heir is enjoying as well.

    Everyone - you've passed on some great hints and stories that I hope my younger readers pay close attention to. I love music and I'd hate to lose any hearing due to years of noisy hobbies.

  15. I got a pair of the Howard Leight's and they are great. Highly recommend them (from Midway or Cabelas). I shut them off and put in the foam plugs as well (h/t to Chaz) when shooting a friends .50 cal with a big muzzle brake. Also, when others are on the line with anything sporting a muzzle brake - encountered someone with an AR that had a muzzle brake a while back and it had plenty of side blast.

    I have some marginal hearing loss to show for years of hunting and sometimes not having hearing protection on for situational awareness (except for prairie "rat" hunting which doesn't require much SA if any). I also shot competition rifle for years but always had plenty of hearing protection on for it.

    WV: lamfiest (We will be feasting on lamb this evening!)

  16. Just a note from an old gunship driver... You can buy the EAR plugs by the box full, for under $20.00 from a lot of safety companys. Do a web search. They are great for a lot of uses from snoring wives to noisy chain saws.


  17. As a kid I grew up in the country shooting everything from .22 to 12gauge and we never wore hearing protection and would have made fun of anyone who did.....and now have some serious upper frequency deafness and permanent tinnitis (ringing in my ears) All I can do at this poitn is second what Brigid has said and try to make sure my kids learn the lesson from me, and don't do similarly stupid things like 100db music listening.

  18. You can't over-stress ear pro. The thing I'm probably angriest about my deployment is my retard sergeant ordering me not to wear hearing protection during fire missions, so I had 81mm rounds go off next to my unprotected ears at least twice.

  19. WHAT? For Pete's sake, SPEAK UP and STOP MUMBLING!

    My tinnitus has some entertainment value. Right now it is playing military band music. Never finishes a piece but plays the same prologue over and over as if from a great distance. Who needs an iPod?

  20. All kidding aside, I actively wear Zee Medical ear plugs. Yes, I look funny lifting one ear then other while inserting them but?

    I've found over time in an industrial high DB environment they dampen the noise quite well.

    Think the trade brand is EO or something like that. Blue/white striped packets is what they come in.

    They come packaged in singular and in a paired sets too. Back 'em up with muffs you can't lose.

    Mine have an FM radio built in.

    Management has no idea I am listening to rock music while their standing around blabbing away!


  21. No two ways about it- USE HEARING PROTECTION!

    In addition to that, there are substances that have been shown to drastically reduce the damage done by loud noises... even AFTER the exposure to the noise.

    Here are three that I have read really good things about from very well respected places:

    n-Acetyl Cysteine
    Vitamin E

    Turns out that all of these have anti-oxidants in them that work on preventing the permanent damage. From what I've read, the first one can be taken up to a few hours after the fact and still be effective while the last two work, to at least some extent, up to three days later.

    They've all been shown to be more effective if taken in advance so that the stuff is in your system at the time, but better late than never applies in this case.

    Even if it was nothing more than a case of "can't hurt, might help" I'd suggest using them.

    Do some Googling and you'll see lots of information on all of these.

    Save the ears, boys and girls, you only get one set.

  22. When I first heard about hearing loss, it was associated with people who liked their rock music a little loud.

    I did take some training in live music production work once. The guy who gave the training told us about hearing loss; he had done many live concerts.

    I've generally had foam plugs with me on the range, at minimum.

  23. Brigid, thank you for this wonderful post.

    Like many of your readers, I learned a lesson too late. While I always wore hearing protection while shooting, I had NO IDEA that constant exposure to wind noise at highway speeds - while riding a motorcycle - could damage hearing, too. Now I know...

    Folks, keep a pair of plugs with you at ALL times - riding a motorcycle, shooting, attending a rock concert... I've been known to pull out the plugs for all of these. At my last job, one of the phone systems I was responsible for was located in the machinery room of a 30 story building - I'm sure that it was over 100db up there. I flat out refused to go up there without hearing proection - and told my boss so, too.

    These days, if I decide to join my wife in rotting my intellect and watch some TV, I find that I have to ask her to turn the sound up - three notches about does it. And I won't even mention how often I have to ask her what someone said.

    My hearing has held steady these last few years... but that's because I'm so anal about protecting what I have left.

    This weekend, I ran a turkey shoot for my Masonic Lodge. I used Aguila Super Colibri .22 - this stuff is primer powered, no powder charge at all. About as loud as a hand clap. I still made everyone wear hearing protection. My range, my rules...

    Please... mowing the lawn, blowing leaves... anything that's noisy. Wear protection. I can't get back what I've lost, but maybe I can help others from losing theirs.

  24. Excellent advice.
    Emptying 2 mags from a Beretta 92F WITHOUT hearing protection gets me strange noises at odd times, for life. Young & DUMB. Just the high pitched ringing is enough. Now, I'll grab plugs for concerts, for testing .22 shorts, and for anything with big indoor powertools. Sometimes even the air compressor is too much, after 3 or 4 hours.

  25. In the "for what it's worth" category, the listed NRR of a set of protective plugs or muffs is not indicative of the actual, effective protection offered by those devices. The actual protection is also a function of the frequency (Hz, not how often) of the noise to which you are exposed. Gunfire is classified as "impact" or "impulse" noise and is measured as "peak sound pressure level."

    In rough, general terms, subtract 7 dB from the rated hearing protection to get a handle on the actual amount of protection that is afforded by your choice of hearing protectors (NRR = 30 affords 23 dB protection, etc.) That table that Brigid provided is quoted as "standard" and of course your mileage may vary when it comes actual exposure.

    If any out there work on a range, know that there are a boatload of OSHA regs governing hearing protection as well as lead exposure.

    What fun - but it keeps me employed!

    H the IH (Industrial Hygienist)

  26. "The tones dissapeared, but I'd see her hand movement and hit my button. She got this increasing look of surprise on her face, and finally, jumped up and ran out of the room. She came back with the doctor (who'd been my AME since I was a teenager) squealing "she can hear things DOGS CAN'T HEAR"."

    Now we know why Barkley respects you so much!

  27. [...]Protection - Quote of the Day[...]

    "I really wish I had known all this before I started hanging around shootists, motorcycles and jet turbines. And concerts."

  28. Good advice. How times change! When I started shooting almost 40 years ago hearing protection was an afterthought, at best. Four years active duty as a Marine rifleman left me with a lifetime supply of sea-stories and high-decibel hearing loss. Oh well, no use crying over spilled milk, as it could have been bourbon, but I do insist that my kids wear hearing and eye protection while shooting. See, old devil dogs can learn new tricks!


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