Hear This !

It’s time to ‘fit’ effective hearing protection into your life

What if I told you there was an essential piece of shooting gear that not only enhances your experience but also protects your hearing? That’s right, I’m talking about ear pro — also called hearing protection — a piece of gear many shooters don’t think about. Hearing loss is a common yet preventable problem. Let’s explore modern hearing science and the products that’ll keep you safe for a lifetime.

How Loud?!

The intensity of a sound is measured in decibels (dB). Each number on the scale is ten times louder than the previous number. Conversational speech, for example, is approximately 65 decibels while a busy highway is about 75 dB – 100 times louder. The risk of hearing damage is a function of how loud and how long ears are exposed. A vacuum cleaner produces continuous noise, while gunshots are considered an impulse noise.

“Because of its short duration, impulse noise is thought to be safer at higher intensities, but only up to a point,” explains Dr. Robert Ghent, Research Audiologist/Manager for Honeywell’s Acoustical Testing Laboratory. “Impulse noise such as gunfire produces shock waves that affect the ear differently than continuous noise. Unprotected exposure to impulse noise over 137 dB peak can cause instant hearing damage. That said, passive hearing protection generally provides protection from impulse noise in much the same way as it does continuous noise. The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of a hearing protector can be applied directly to both continuous and impulse noises, so a 156 dB peak firearm report can be brought down to a safer 123 dB peak by using properly fitted, high-attenuation hearing protection.”

Almost all firearms create a noise over that 137dB level — including the benign, standard velocity .22 LR! Shotguns produce about 150 dB, and that number increases with shorter barrels and hypersonic loads.

Hearing Loss

The inner ear contains tiny little hairs attached to nerve cells. Imagine the hairs as a handful of pipe cleaners. When normal sound waves hit the hairs, they flex at a certain frequency, sending information about the sound to the brain. When exposed to a loud sound, a few hairs bend or even break off. Now the signals aren’t transmitted properly — hearing loss has occurred and it is permanent. High-frequency hearing loss is common in firearm users. It means over time shooters may have trouble hearing speech sounds like “s,” “th” or “v” and develop ringing in their ears called tinnitus. Trust me, I know! In extreme circumstances, it is possible for a muzzle blast to rupture an eardrum. Repair through surgery is possible, but why take the risk of this trauma in the first place?

Protecting Your Hearing

The good news is people can prevent hearing loss by using appropriate hearing protective devices (HPDs), such as earmuffs or earplugs — often nicknamed “ear-pro”.

Each HPD has a noise reduction rating on the package in decibels. The higher the number, the more noise they block (for example, 30 dB NRR gives more protection than 25 dB). NRR for each product is the average NRR for ten different people — each with a different face and ear shapes. For one tester, the NRR may be 24 dB; another may record a 29 dB rating. The fine print on the package reads “when used as directed”. What does this mean? Fit is critical!

The two types of HPDs designed for shooting sports are passive and electronic. Passive HPDs include earmuffs and earplugs. These products reduce the intensity of sound reaching the inner ear. Electronic HPDs amplify quieter sounds while blocking impulse noise and include earmuffs, in-the-ear plugs and behind-the-ear devices. Electronics are ideal for hearing range commands while target shooting and hearing game or talking strategy with your buddies while hunting.

Passive Hearing Protection

Simple earmuffs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, sculpted to suit your shooting style without interfering with your movement or gunstock.

Foam plugs or “foamies” are the simplest form of hearing protection, an inexpensive, disposable option that should be included in every shooter’s range bag or hunting pack as backup. Because of their design — to fit in the ear canal — the NRR is one of the highest of all the hearing protection types. NRR for foam plugs ranges from about 22 dB to 33 dB! Foam plugs can be used with other types of earmuffs to ‘double’ the amount of protection.

Competitive Shooter, Travis Gibson says: “While I’m on the range at shooting events and not shooting, I usually just wear the HL Impact Pro Sports. When I’m actually shooting, I use those muffs and foamies. I like to be in my own little world.”

The downside to passive HPD is they dampen all sounds, both loud and soft. Important communication such as range commands may not be heard.

Electronic Hearing Protection

The technology in electronic HPDs has come a long way in recent years and is worth a closer look. The first generation of electronic hearing protection amplified low-level sounds, briefly turning off (passive protection) if the sound reached a dangerous level and turning on when safe again. The speed at which the amplifier could switch between off and on, is referred to as attack time and is one way to compare different electronic ear-pro.

Modern advanced ear-pro uses technology often called sound compression. It lets you hear all sounds in the environment but compressed into a lower-volume continuous stream of sound.

Where To Start?

The brands listed below design hearing protection for the shooting sports, with subtle differences between makes and models. Most importantly, the hearing protection should fit you well and be worn consistently.

ESP creates advanced hearing protection against hearing loss, while amplifying natural sounds in CD-quality. With their high-quality microphone, you can hear the launch of a trap or the flush of a bird. Custom-molded plugs provide maximum protection by conforming to the ear. A custom fit provides all-day comfort. The electronic hearing protection (25 dB NRR) comes in several models in a range of budgets — higher-priced models offer clearer sound. Nevertheless, all models offer the same level of hearing protection. ESP is the choice of shooting pros like two-time NSCA National Champion, Cory Kruse. espamerica.com (Editor’s note: See the ESP ad on page 17.)

Pro Ears (Altus Brands) The new and innovative Stealth Elite (28 dB NRR) features three sound settings — Isolation, Awareness, Amplification (up to 5x) — so users can match a setting with an activity. The Stealth Elite includes both foam and silicon ear tips for a perfect fit, a wind shield for blustery environments, and a Bluetooth-capable lanyard that lets you play music or talk on the phone, too. For more info about the wide range of Pro Ears products, visit proears.com

E.A.R. Inc offers a selection of hearing protection products. E.A.R.’s newest product is the Modular Hearing System MHS 360. Solid Modules provide maximum attenuation while Filtered Modules, like the DEC Filtered are best for impact sounds. Each module has different NRR. Modular units can be purchased with generic foam tips and used right out of the box. For maximum attenuation, comfort and fit, they can also be used with a set of custom earmolds made from soft heat-curable silicone. earinc.com

Safariland Liberator HP (26 dB NRR) compresses and reduces hazardous sound to safe levels inside the headset without muting other ambient sounds or audio. Liberator HP headsets provide 360 degrees ambient sound reproduction for accurate environmental sound replication, threat identification and localization. In speech isolation mode, end users can easily communicate face to face without the need for an intercom. The Liberator HP is ideal for professional users in dynamic environments. Made in the USA. safariland.com

Walker’s creates a wide range of electronic earmuff, earbuds and passive hearing protection. The new X-TRM Razor Digital with Bluetooth is an ultra-low profile design and well-suited to shotgun shooters. It uses active dynamic sound suppression and includes hi-gain omni, and directional mics are a welcome feature for hunters. NRR 23 walkersgameear.com

SensGard ZEM combines simple design with revolutionary chamber technology for maximum protection and easy communication. These hearing protectors are an affordable option for protecting hearing for normal sounds while dampening louder sounds. They are comfortable, lightweight, and best of all, they have no batteries to replace. NRR 26. (Editor’s note: See the SensGard ZEM ad on page 18.)

Flugz offers custom fit, passive-protection earplugs that are ready in less than one minute. Heat the plugs in water in the microwave for 30 seconds. The warmed plug is malleable and can be pressed into the ear for a custom fit. The plugs can be reheated and re-formed as often as necessary. Flugz plugs (NRR rating of 21 dB) are best with quieter firearms such as rimfire rifles. flugz.com

Decibullz’s are another brand of thermo-fit molded earpieces. The basic model is a passive ear plug with an NRR of 31 dB. But Decibullz has a specific model in their custom-molded percussive/impulse filter earplugs, designed for shooters. Filters protect users from the sound of gun shots, suppressing it to safe levels with a NRR 32. Voices and ambient sounds are easily heard when no ear-damaging noise is present. Because they’re not electronic hearing protection, they don’t need batteries to operate. The filtered earplugs are priced at $75 USD. decibullz.com

Howard Leight Impact Sport electronic earmuffs. A slim profile keeps the shooter’s cheek close to the stock. The earmuffs’ NRR is 22 dB with 0.5ms attack time. Directional microphones amplify up to 5X, so low-level sounds such as range commands can be heard in stereo. A 4-hour auto shut-off saves battery life. The popular Impact Sport is available in an array of colors and pattern options. howardleight.com

Peltor Sport Tac 500 (26 dB NRR) has many unique features including: Dynamic Suppression Time — the earmuffs measure gunshot energy and echoes and then adjusts the suppression time; Clear Voice Tracking technology identifies voices and adjusts noise filtration to optimize communication; Safe Volume Control Technology measures noise exposure throughout the day and adjusts the volume level to keep audio dosage below acceptable limits. The Sport Tac 500 features low-profile cups with cut-outs and rubber bumpers for use with long guns. 3M.com/PeltorSport

Hearing protection is mandatory at gun ranges, yet some shooters have a cavalier attitude when it comes to conserving their hearing while target shooting. In my experience, hunters are even more careless when it comes to protecting their ears. Excuses for not wearing hearing protection include: “too hot to wear”, “too bulky to shoot with” and “prevents me from hearing game animals”. My guess is these shooters simply don’t know about modern hearing protection devices. Most of today’s hearing protection eliminates these perceived problems. These marvels of technology protect ears and enhance the shooting experience in the field and at the range.

Shooting is a lifelong sport. Hear this! It’s time to ‘fit’ effective hearing protection into your life. SS


Lowell Strauss was born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada. Each fall, he heads to the field in search of waterfowl and upland birds. In the off-season, look for him at the range testing shotguns and honing his wingshooting skills, in the field handling his yellow lab or at the bench building the perfect handload. Lowell has won numerous national and international awards for his writing and photography.

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