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shooting ear protection

Everything You Need To Know About Shooting Ear Protection

Everyone knows you need shooting ear protection, but not everyone necessarily knows what to shop for when you get some.

Some decent hearing protection is definitely one of the top range essentials, so let's make sure that you're getting a decent set.

Shooting is not easy on the ears, so the more protection you can give yourself, the better.

Why You Need Shooting Ear Protection

shooting ear protection

By now, everyone knows that you need shooting ear protection. However, let's put some numbers to WHY you need it.

Bear in mind that the following is a GROSS oversimplification.

Now, how hearing works is that sound vibrates the eardrum, which passes the vibration into the cochlea, a bony structure with a fluid channel. The vibrations of the fluid rustle the cilia, hair-like bundles of epithelial cells (often called hair cells) found all over the body. The cilia transmit the vibration from there, and the signal registers to you as sound.

Again, way oversimplified and with a lot of other details left out, but that's kind of the gist.

Now, why does this matter? Mammals, including humans, generally lack the ability to regrow inner ear hair cells due to a common mammalian gene. Once they get damaged, that's it; hearing loss is occurring. Well, at least until gene therapy becomes available (and it's coming) but hearing loss is for now irreversible.

Exposure to any noise greater than 85 decibels (dB) can cause hearing loss if you're exposed to it long enough, but exposure to any noise louder than 120 dB, according to the CDC, can cause instant injury to your hearing.

The typical rimfire round produces 140 dB or more; the typical centerfire round, including pistols, shotguns and rifles, produce 160 dB or more. A suppressor, commonly (and wrongly) called a "silencer," won't save you either; most suppressors will only attenuate (reduce) noise to about 130 dB at most unless used with subsonic ammunition.

Point being: shooting will hurt your hearing. Therefore, you need to reduce the level of sound that your ears are subjected to.

Electronic Ear Protection

electronic ear protection

Now, the most popular type of course is electronic ear protection. Shooters prefer it, and the cost is reasonable enough that electronic ear pro can be had for less than $30 in many stores.

So, how does it work?

Electronic ear protection is noise-canceling by using a form of electronic interference. How it works is that microphones pick up the ambient noise, and transmit it through the speakers in the earpieces.

Now, when a noise is picked up over a certain threshold - usually around 80 dB - the onboard amplifier and sound processor splits the signal. One speaker is the sound as it would be heard naturally, and the other is emitted out of phase, meaning that the signal wave is partially changed, usually by applying a millisecond delay to the other signal or with the second wave being inverted.

Don't worry if that sounds crazy - it barely makes sense to me either!

The point? When you hear out of phase sounds, it's cancels out the noise. What this means in practical terms is that a real loud sound is essentially muted by electronic hearing protection. Therefore, any noise over 80 dB or whatever the threshold of your ear pro is, gets basically muted.

There are electronic ear plugs as well. While they're expensive, they can actually be a great investment as you avoid the headaches of the ear cups interfering with a long gun. They're also great for hunters, as you can listen to the woods AND save your hearing.

A lot of hunters will tell you that the gunshot isn't that loud when one's quarry is in the sights...but we don't mention how our ears ring for a day or two after dropping the hammer on a deer, elk, hog, turkey or goose or what have you. How we have to ask the wife or kids to speak up a bit for a week or so after a hunt. It's a bad habit that a lot of us have, and while we all know we should be wearing ear pro in the woods or the blind…not all of us do, and we really don't have any good excuses for it.

Passive Hearing Protection

passive hearing protection

Passive hearing protection involves no amplification or electronic interference of any kind. Generally, it comes in two forms: ear muffs and ear plugs.

Ear muffs cup over the ears, essentially sealing them off to the degree that they can. The cups are lined with a dense foam, which provides baffling (like the foam on the wall of a recording studio) to reduce the amount of noise that reaches the ear. Basically, they cover the ear and block out noise.

The outer material - usually hard plastic - and the baffling inside the ear muffs along with the tightness of the seal around the ears block as much noise as possible.

Ear plugs, on the other hand, well...plug up the ears. Instead of sealing the outside of the ear, they seal up the inside of the ear. Tough to expound on that too much!

The quality of the plug determines its efficacy. The tighter and more form-fitting the seal, the more noise is blocked out. That's why custom-molded plugs offer better noise attenuation than the cheap disposable ones.

If you're going to either use passive ear protection or have some as a backup - and hey, a lot of people will grab a $10 pair of muffs from the hardware store - there's a bit more that you should know.

Understanding Noise Reduction Rating

Hearing protection is rated by a measurement called Noise Reduction Rating or NRR. This is the rating you need to look for when it comes to purchasing.

Does price necessarily correlate to NRR? Loosely, but you can actually get decent ear pro for not too terribly much. That said, the general rule is the higher the rating the better.

Noise Reduction Rating has a number rating - usually 18 to 34, depending on what you're looking at - but the number doesn't actually reduce sound by that number of decibels. So if you buy a pair of earmuffs with an NRR of 30, it won't reduce a 160 dB gunshot to 130 dB.

What you should know about decibels is that they aren't linear numbers, but rather are logarithmic. Every 10 dB increase is actually 10 times the sound level; 130 dB is actually ten times louder than 120 dB. Hearing protection likewise doesn't work in a linear fashion.

To calculate the noise reduction in decibels, hearing protection uses a formula:

(NRR-7)/2 = Decibel reduction

So, if you have a pair of earmuffs or plugs with an NRR of 30, it would look like this:

30-7=23/2=13.5 dB of attenuation.

Thus, 120 dB of noise (a jetliner taking off, a Motorhead concert) would be attenuated down to 112.5 dB.

Now, you might think "if I wear plugs AND muffs, I'll get even more protection! Check mate, hearing loss!" And while you'd be right in that doing so is a best practice for shooters (which it is) you'd be wrong about the size of the effect.

If you wear dual shooting ear protection, you add 5 to the highest rating of your hearing protection. Returning to the above formula...

((30+5)-7) = 28/2 = 14 dB of attenuation.

The bottom line that the most you're going to get out of passive ear protection is about 20 dB of attenuation at most. Therefore, if you're going to use passive ear protection, use plugs and earmuffs at the same time, and purchase the greatest NRR of both that you can find and/or afford.

Buy Shooting Ear Protection That Works For You

shooting ear protection

So, when you buy shooting ear protection, make sure that you buy a set that's going to work well for you and your purposes. While you could just grab a set from the hardware store for a few bucks, it might not necessarily suit your purposes.

How so?

One thing to pay attention to is the over-ear fit. Your entire ear should fit under the cup, which should sit flush against your head. A less-than-perfect fit means less than perfect hearing protection, so that has to be right.

Next, consider yourself and what kind of shooting you do. Do you pretty much only shoot handguns, or only sparingly shoot long guns? Or do you 3-gun on the regular?

What sort of long guns do you shoot? Are you an ARs and Glocks only type of shooter? Or do you prefer good guns with walnut and blued steel?

This is important, as you need to make sure your ear pro can be used with long guns. The wider the cups, the more they will interfere with a shouldered shotgun or rifle.

Make sure that they feel comfortable to wear. If you hate putting them on, it'll make you miserable. It seems terribly obvious, but it bears mentioning.

And the thing is that you don't really have to spend much to get decent hearing protection, so you really don't have too many excuses for not getting a decent set.

About The Author

Writer sam hoober