When I first started shooting competitively, most of my club’s committee consisted of the ‘old guard’- folks who’d been on the range or around firearms a lot for most of their lives, throughout the Rhodesian bush war and events like the first Practical Pistol World Championship in 1977. It wasn’t long before I got involved with the club’s reloading teams. It could be quite comical on a Wednesday evening with the old-timers bellowing at each other to discuss the merits of different bullet types and powder charges, for a good many of them had spent most of their shooting lives without using hearing protection.
The greats of yesteryear, like Elmer Keith and Bill Jordan, didn’t hear too well either as the years wore on. In their halcyon days, hearing protection just wasn’t seen as necessary and that ringing in your ears after a day on the range was just part and parcel of shooting. I grew up like that too, but fortunately didn’t do a lot of shooting until the use of hearing protection had become the new normal. I do have tinnitus – that annoying background ringing in the ears – today, but it’s a result of two large doses of quinine after contracting a particularly bad strain of malaria on the Zambezi River. What shooters didn’t realise back in the day, was that there is a condition called Noise Induced Hearing Loss. It is a medical condition, wherein the cumulative effects of repeated exposure to loud noises causes degradation of one’s hearing.
There are times when it’s not practical to wear ear defenders: a military scenario and hunting are examples. When I was working as a biologist for Tsetse Control during the last days of the Rhodesian war, I always kept a pair of spent 9mm cases on the light switches of my Series III Land Rover for the purpose – and of course I never used them, except maybe if we did some impromptu shooting practice on the old airfield that doubled as our range.
Since then, I have done a lot of shooting over the past forty years as far afield as the United States, Namibia, South Africa, Ecuador, Australia and Bali, and in this day and age, I have not come across a range where both eye and ear protection are not mandatory. In the major international disciplines such as the International Practical Shooting Confederation, these safeguards are a condition of match entry. Even air gun shooters wear ear defenders – not because of the deafening report of a .177 Hammerli, but to minimise distractions from background noise. On this website, I would come under fire from my readers for letting through photos of people supposedly shooting without eye and ear protection, or having a family pet on the range during what appears to be live fire.
The good reason for this is that any time the human ear is exposed to sounds in excess of 85 decibels there is the risk of damage to the sensory receptor cells in the ears called auditory hair cells. Experts will tell you that even a single exposure to such a loud noise can result in temporary damage to these cells. (A decibel equates to ten Bels – named in honour of Alexander Graham Bell and originally used to quantify telephonic power in the early 20th century.)
Hair cells are sensitive to vibrations in the air – sounds – which they then biochemically convert into impulses along the auditory nerve which the brain translates into perceived sounds. The result of damaging them with unduly loud noises is sensorineural hearing loss, and what this means is a diminished hearing sensitivity. You can still detect volume, just not the subtler nuances between sounds. Human hair cells are not capable of reproduction, and therefore the damage to hearing will, over time, become permanent.
Millions of people around the world have developed high frequency hearing loss as a result of unprotected exposure to loud noises, and the shooting fraternity is particularly at risk. In addition to the pure volume in decibels of a sound stimulus like a gunshot, its frequency and duration are also causative factors in damage to your hearing, hence the use of hearing protection in the construction industry.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss may go almost unnoticed, but as time goes by, once sharp and clear sounds become indistinct and muffled. People with the condition begin to have difficulty distinguishing similar words from one another and perceiving common sounds like ‘v’ and ‘s’ – particularly in environments where there is a lot of background noise.
Sound is caused by vibrations travelling through the air, and as such is moderated by physical barriers and distance. The closer you are to the source of the sound, the louder and more distinct it will be, and this applies to the muzzle of a firearm as well. When a topographical obstruction like a wind current or a physical barrier interferes with a soundwave, it causes what is called an acoustic shadow. In the case of a shooter, the head creates a partial acoustic shadow, so the effect of a gunshot and any resultant hearing impairment is not necessarily the same for both ears. The report, in the case of a right-handed shooter will be greater – by about 3dB – in the left ear and vice versa.
If a noise needs to be 85dB to potentially damage one’s hearing, how significant can 3dB be? Very. To understand the decibel scale, remember it is logarithmic. Increments are non-linear; logarithmic scales are used to measure wide ranges of values such as light intensity and loudness of sound. While ten decibels is ten times greater than the faintest sound the ear can perceive, twenty decibels is one hundred times greater. To put this into perspective, a 3dB increase means the intensity is doubled.
As a general guide, if you’re sitting in a quiet room, you’re probably being exposed to around 40dB. If your alarm clock goes off, that goes to around 80dB. Go outside to mow the lawn, or use other machinery and you’re going to be in the 90-110dB range.
‘Firearms’ are collectively rated on most charts as giving off around 140dB, but not all firearms are created equal, and higher velocity cartridges and shorter barrels are going to be louder. An MOA single shot .358 Winchester I occasionally shoot at long range silhouettes has a 360° muzzle brake – and that can add in excess of 10dB to the report.
It’s easy to see how long-term exposure to gunfire can irreparably damage a person’s hearing. Indoor ranges and covered ranges will often prohibit the use of magnum loads to reduce ambient sound, especially as someone standing alongside a shooter is exposed to even greater noise.
As with most things, prevention is far better than cure, especially when there is no cure. And because Noise Induced Hearing Loss is cumulative, even though some permanent damage may have been done from the beginning, it is never too late to start using hearing protection.
Hearing protection is basically divided into two categories: passive and active. Passive would consist of earplugs or hearing protectors. I know a lot of shooters who insist on wearing both types concurrently.
Ear defenders range in price from dollars to hundreds of dollars, and it’s probably not worth skimping too much in this regard. The effectiveness of different types and brands is determined by something called a Noise Reduction Rating. This is a unit of measurement used in the United States that compares the effectiveness of various forms of hearing protection. The higher the NRR number, the more effective the device presumably is. Again, the NRR reverts to a bit of a generalisation because sounds are comprised of varying frequencies, and earplugs and defenders do not temper different frequencies to the same degree.
If you are using plugs together with a set of ear defenders, you do not add the two NRR values together, but rather add a decibel value of five to the highest number, e.g. if the higher NRR rating is 29dB, that combination of plugs and hearing protectors would afford 34dB of protection (29 + 5).
For years, I used Deben’s passive Slimline ear defenders. They are a good quality product at an affordable price, and their noise reduction rating is 24. The quality is important, because the efficacy of hearing protectors depends largely on the fit. They must fit properly and seal tightly around the ear, or the Noise Reduction Rating is almost meaningless.
Then, one day, a friend convinced me to order a set of 3M Peltor Tactical Sport Hearing Protectors. The price was way above what I normally paid for a set of passive defenders, but at the very least I would have a state-of-the-art set of passive defenders if I didn’t like them. I do like the way mine amplify ambient sounds, and as they cut out at 85dB, they fit the bill nicely.
There are many applications for a good set of hearing protectors that will also allow you to hear normal background sounds and conversations and be aware of what is happening around you, while at the same time filtering out harmful noises. Modern active electronic ear defenders like my 3Ms are the solution to this problem. The shooting fraternity is pretty much divided down the middle as to whether they are a good thing or an abomination. I personally like the idea of active noise reduction, because I can clearly hear the range officer’s commands. Top competitive shooters may feel that the background noise is too distracting when they are on the line, so they often use their fancy active hearing protectors as passive hearing protectors!
How do active ear defenders work?
Active ear defenders incorporate a battery-powered amplifier that works with microphones in each ear muff and normal background sounds are picked up, amplified, and fed through miniature speakers on each side. Better models have volume controls, and any loud, harmful noises – in the 80-90dB range – are filtered out by an electronic circuit, which cuts off the speaker in the headset. Across the board, varying active sound suppressors come in the 15-30dB NRR range, and, apart from the amplification of normal background noises, they are no better or worse than passive hearing protectors.
It really comes down to the individual shooter’s choice as to what type of hearing protection to use. The least expensive are earplugs, and the best types like the Silencio Red-E-Fit offer NRR ratings of up to 32. The price tag goes way up if you order ones custom-fitted to your ears – or active ones, which are available – but they do afford the best seal. Many shooting ranges, including mine, have inexpensive throw-away earplugs for sale to casual day members, and you can buy ones like Silencio’s silicone Economy Earplug, which are re-useable. The only complaint that many shooters have is that earplugs can be uncomfortable, and may be dislodged with strenuous activity.
Passive ‘clamshell’ ear defenders are the next step up. In the cheaper types, the ear cushion is foam-filled, and this is replaced by liquid silicone in the better models. If you wear ear protection and eye protection, your shooting glasses, for example, may interfere with the fit around the ear and the liquid silicone is much more adaptive and ensures a better seal.
In summary, all types of ear defenders have their place. I always throw a couple of pairs of disposable 3M foam plugs into my range bag, because someone on the range is always going to forget hearing protection; if I’m the RO, I won’t let the shoot, and I’ll feel bad. At the price, there will always be one or two pairs in my car, too. My old Deben passive hearing protectors also live in the car, along with an older pair of shooting glasses – for I can be forgetful, too. The simple fact is, there is no alternative to sensible hearing protection.