Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Hard of Hearing

I sometimes have to go weeks, occasionally months, between shooting due to my schedule, caring for a home or tending to my Dad, but when I do go, I usually meet my friends at the local LEO range or at one of the Fish and Game or Conservation ranges. 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 pistols (from
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 Guinness 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. Not cheap, but reasonable for the quality product you'll get.

Howard Leight has some excellent overall and inexpensive ear protection. The one I carry with me everywhere as a "spare" 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 an expensive pair to have on hand as main wear, or spare, 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 you can find most places, and often for next to nothing.

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.

And remember
what the great Red Green said - "What doesn't kill you, makes you hard of hearing".

(1) Kramer WL, Updike CD. Recreational shooters and their use of hearing


  1. LOL. I remember firing an AK-47 without hearing protection quite by accident one time while I was filming--of all things--a safety video for new shooters. (I was handling the weapon safely but had forgotten to put my ears on before shouldering the rifle and firing the shot.) Ow! That whole incident and my obvious pained reaction to the loud noise was left in the video at my insistence just to drive the point home.

  2. Well written. I know some quite deaf shooters......

    I actually advocate doubling up--a pair of the cheap foam plugs, or the "better" ones on the little string thing worn IN ADDITION TO a set of muffs do wonders. I wear glasses, and find that the muffs don't seal perfectly around them, so the plugs are a good extra level of protection.

    Plus, I do what MrsMaineMapleDave (an audiologist) tells me to do!!!!

  3. Yep, wish somebody had told me that 50 years ago... sigh... Between shooting and Jets, well suffice to say I'm damn near deaf as a post :-(

    I went ahead and spent the $70 on the EARS custom fits about 5 years ago, and just got another set last weekend at the NRA AM.

    Use em or become like me...

  4. News one can use; written with two bushels of humor and pallet of wisdom.

    Many thanks.

  5. News one can use; written with two bushels of humor and pallet of wisdom.

    Many thanks.

  6. If I find myself hearing protection-less, I welcome your brassiere improvisation. I was talking to a hearing specialist that was asking me my thoughts on creating some type of special hearing protection for shooters. The problem is that it isn't just sound waves entering the ear canal, but also conduction of sound through the bone behind the ear. That is why plugs and muffs are recommended.

  7. Oh, I have been there and done that! A great post and one that strikes home. My "Curmudgeon" has virtually no hearing left. He has a hearing aid for one ear and the other on the right is beyond hope. The right one is gone just because of what you say.

    Sound advice, no pun intended. I am currently using Peltor Tactical Pros. They are beginning to show some age and are expensive. It is extremely important for me to hear on the range during training of new shooters. I may have to try your suggestions!

  8. When I was a kid, my Dad and I would go plinking, and we never wore ears. It just wasn't done. He already has hearing loss from exposure to Sonic Booms in the Navy. He thought that since I was "only shooting a .22" revolver, I didn't need it.

    I have permanent Tinitus, now. I always hear a high pitched ringing in my ears, and always will. There is no such thing as quiet. I wear ears now, simply so I won't do more damage.

  9. I have some hearing loss in my left ear. When the audiologist asked if I had any idea why just the left ear, the only thing I could think of was gunfire. As a kid, we never used, never even heard of, hearing protection.

    And like 99% of hunters, I've never used it when hunting (though I intend to change that, with the right set of amplified muffs).

  10. I have tinnitus in my right ear, presumably from too many M-16s, 60s, 9mm, not to mention standing 2 feet from F-16s while starting.

    And that's WITH hearing protection.

    Be careful.

  11. I'd suggest using muffs/plugs for more than shooting. Racing motorcycles decades ago without hearing protection cost me almost half the hearing in my right ear and about 30% in the left. At the range it's plugs and muffs, and or the past 20 years I've religiously worn muffs when mowing the lawn or using a circular saw to protect what I have left.

  12. My hearing is about shot. I wonder why?

    I always wear plugs and muffs now.

    The horse is long gone from the barn and "he ain't coming back".


  13. Yup.
    Twixt RVN when I was a stud, 40 years in construction, and 40 years of shooting with unprotected ears and eyes, here I am a geezer constantly sayin' "what?"

  14. Yup.
    Twixt RVN when I was a stud, 40 years in construction, and 40 years of shooting with unprotected ears and eyes, here I am a geezer constantly sayin' "what?"

  15. Great post. I am a huge fan of the electronic ones. You can clearly hear the people around you and still be fully protected from noise. I have two of the electonic, and a pair of the regular muffs. I keep spares on hand for guests to use. My first pair of electronic work well, but were bulky, making proper cheek weld on rifle stock awkward. I upgraded to the low profile and am quite happy with them.

  16. Brigid,

    A quote by Red Green! LOVE it!

    OK, I know it is off your topic. But, "keep your stick on the ice."


  17. I would walk the dog, Mow the lawn,
    give you a back rub, and cover your ears for $350.00.

    Good thoughts


  18. J.Geils Band, Utica NY,
    1977/8-ish, front row seat at the venue downtown. Right ear rang/sang/buzzed for MONTHS. Plugs and muffs ever since things start banging since.

  19. This is a serious topic, well done...
    that said...when I read Rev Paul's comment...pert near busted a gut.

  20. Well thank you very much, now I will have to stop using an old discarded bra as ear muffs. Good advice though, I have ringing in my ears all the time (sounds like crickets in the distance)from years of being around loud noises like shooting and machinery. I try to always use protection now.

  21. Grew up in rural Pennsylvania, shooting .22's by the thousand and 12 gauge Shotgun shells as fast as I could reload them...sadly no one in the country setting in the 1970's would have been caught dead wearing hearing protection out in the woods where this all went on....Hearing was one of those things my parents never thought to teach me to protect. At 50 I have the companionship of a constant ringing in my ears that it is hard to hear other things over.

  22. Tin Can Assassin - been there, done that. My Dad was a rifle instructor during WWII. In my case it was .30-06s and 12 gauge shotguns. I wear muffs now.

    Then there were the years standing on the side of a race track holding a flag and listening to big block 'Vettes rumble by, although I had ear plugs in most times.

  23. As said by many, there's a lot of 'What?' going on in my life as well from silly macho 'I don't need no stinkin' ear muffs', not only while shooting but in construction and elsewhere.
    But what really drove the point home for me is my Shadow, who's pretty much deaf now from the many hours of sitting patiently by as I did my thing hunting or at the range. I need to find some Muffs for Mutts or stop taking them shooting.
    Shy III

  24. I double-up: plugs+muffs. Folding Peltor muffs pack easily in my range box, however, since they're only 25NRR, I use ear plugs too.

  25. You didn't mention that the dB scale is a LOG scale. You ever wonder why all those rock-and-rollers look so stupid, with their mouths hanging open? Sound pressure levels. I'm lucky - after a quarter century as a professional R&R and Blues player, I'm not deaf. Most of the orchaesteral players I know are damn near deaf, too. That's what cost Ludwig Van his hearing, you know. Pete Townsend has a 501c3 type of thing about hearing loss awareness.
    I'm a bit odd in this respect - I've been deaf (3 months, from trauma), blind (2 years, cataracts), and paralyzed (5 weeks, Bell's palsy), and have recovered all my facilities.
    There must be a God, otherwise who could I thank?

  26. BTW, I ran into an old drummer of mine at a show. He said "JC, bum me a couple cigarettes" and I said "Dale, you don't smoke"."It's too (redacted) loud, I just want the filters for earplugs".
    The show was Dick Dale, who was celebrating his 75th birthday on tour.
    "If it's too loud you're too old" is a crock of (deleted due to respect for our blog hostess).
    Yr obt svt,

  27. One thing I've found helpful is to replace the ear cushions on my muffs with gel cushions. They form a better seal around the ears, and adapt better to shooting glasses bows. I also find them more comfortable for long term wear.

    I just wish I could find a slim set of muffs that were north of NRR28 or so. Often when shooting rifles I need to remove my muffs and just use earplugs.

  28. I can't imagine not wearing any ear protection.....just so darn loud!!! LOL

    Thanks for the informative post post.

  29. Ginko Biloba for tinnitus. May help. Highly idiosyncratic I suspect, possibly a "reverse" Type B drug reaction, if there is such a thing, in that positive side effects occur. I've had profound relief from taking only a few capsules while on the road and suffering a sudden onset of loud whining. My doctors for the most part tend to scoff, but it works for me. YMMV. Unfortunately my hearing is so far gone that tinnitus is no longer the problem it once was. $3000+ invested in hearing aids was barely effective, but I can at least have a conversation with my kids, and hearing my granddaughter is worth it all. Shooting, heavy equipment exposure, rock music, chain saws, an ex-wife, etc. all have contributed I suppose. I suspect the real culprit is chronic low level viral infection during the 90's. Sorry to run on so long.

  30. All my work places have the free foam plugs.
    My car, my range bag and the wife's have them.

    My work place (construction) is so noisy that even with the jolting full volume- the only way i know someone is calling is the vibrate feature.

    That being said- I don't usually use HP because it really doesn't sound that loud.

    ASIDE for B--
    If you're ever in the San Antonio area, let me know.
    You have my e-mail and I'm working at Lackland for the next several months.

  31. As Kirk and MMD has discovered, double works great. I also found out that while working as my offices F/A instructor, having a student double muff will increase their accuracy.

    Spending time in various turbine rotary aircraft was where I discovered the double technique.

    It's carried over to motorcycle touring. Makes a huge difference.

    I prefer the orange foam, over the yellow... the yellow seemed to irritate and not seal quite as well.

  32. I have been shooting and riding motorcycles most of my life. "Pardon ,sorry what was that' is very common question I ask now. In addition to hunting, I am shooting a great deal of trap,clays and centerfire rifle now. On the range I have taken to wearing muffs and plugs together. Still don't use anything hunting though


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