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 freehearingtest.com)
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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