Hearing protection: What to use and why you need it

Hear today, gone tomorrow: Are you killing your ears every time you take a shot?

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Hearing protection for shooters

Frequent exposure to gunfire is literally deafening. Hearing loss and its associated conditions are common to shooters. 

One in six Aussies suffer reduced hearing and the proportion is rising. About a million Australians have damaged ears through exposure to excessive noise.

When you’re dealing with excessive noise, there are two factors at play: time and volume. The greater the volume, the shorter the time you can be safely exposed to it. 

The generally agreed safe maximum noise level is 85dB, about equal to a vacuum cleaner, so feel free to push the Hoover to your heart’s content. 

Hearing protection for shooters
Custom-made plugs (left) should fit perfectly and comfortably. Single-use foam plugs (right) are a cheap option

Above about 90dB, the noise of a typical lawn mower, your ears will be OK if you get the job done within a couple of hours, the time it takes to do irreversible damage. And so it goes until about 120dB, when hearing damage is immediate. 

Most shotgun and centrefire rifle shots are in the 100-140dB range. Every shot is doing irreversible harm, and if your rifle makes your ears ring it’s well above the safe limit. 

You average .22 rimfire or sub-sonic round won’t be bad, but anything else warrants the use of hearing protection.

Blocking noise

The simple way to protect your hearing when shooting is to block all noise entering your ears. Earmuffs or plugs will do the trick, and the higher their noise reduction rating (NRR), the better the job they’ll do for you. They do not stop all noise, they only reduce it. The size of that reduction depends upon their design, materials and fit.

Hearing protection for shooters
Even out hunting, firing few shots, hearing protection is important

We shooters need a sizeable reduction in volume. Let’s say you have good muffs with a noise attenuation rating of 30dB, and a rifle that cracks out 120dB; your ears will be hit by just 90dB — an acceptable level for such a brief exposure. 

“You want to get as close to 80dB as you can,” recommends Aaron Dalle-Molle of Earmold Australia. Aaron has been in the business of hearing protection for years, not just selling the products of various manufacturers but making custom-moulded plugs for customers in industry, sport and recreation. 

“Any protection is better than none at all,” he says, pointing out that foam, rubber or silicone earplugs will do the job well, as will most muffs. But they must be used properly. 

If you don’t let foam earplugs expand fully into your ear cavity, they will not block sound. If you have earmuffs with old cups they won’t work effectively. Even wearing a pair of glasses under earmuffs can be problematic because the cups won’t fully seal and, worse, sound can be transmitted directly to your ear’s conduction bones via the frames, with potentially disastrous consequences. 

Hearing protection for shooters
The quality and condition of your hearing protection will determine how effectively it works

“Fitment is the crucial thing,” he adds. “If you have a big ear with a small plug, it’s like a bath that leaks water. A large plug won’t fit well in a small ear either.”

He stresses that single-use disposable plugs are strictly for one use. Foam plugs that have been compressed will lose their integrity, and on second use can provide as little as 50 per cent of the protection they did previously. If you’re buying them, buy a pocket full. 

Blocking frequencies

The technology in sound-beating materials is amazing. In some, we’re into the realms of nanotechnology. You can buy earplugs made of very basic material that offers minimal filtration of sound, or you can get much more clever stuff. 

Hearing protection for shooters
Hearing protection is compulsory at ranges, and doubly important indoors

Shooters want protection that’s most effective at around 4000Hz, the pitch of an average gun shot. Independent tests of Earmold’s InstaMold custom-made plugs, carried out in increments from 125Hz to 8000Hz, showed they were at their best at 4000Hz, where they blocked an average of 41.5dB. That’s clearly a case of putting maximum effort into the problem area. 

There’s another side to this. By providing less noise attenuation at other frequencies, you’re more likely to hear, say, a shouted warning. However, there’s a better way to get around the obvious compromise between hearing protection and hearing nothing — electronics. 

Electronics

Electronics have solved the conflict between protecting your ears and hearing your environment. Electronic systems built into earmuffs and even earplugs permit you to hear everything normally, but the moment a shot rings out the electronics shut down the transmission of sound, giving you the full benefit of protection from the muffs or plugs. 

Hearing protection for shooters
Electronics cut noise transmission when only volume exceeds a certain level, so you can still hear clearly at other times

It’s pretty simple. A microphone picks up sound outside the protective quietude of the protectors and a speaker on the inside transmits it to your eardrums. The instant incoming noise levels rise about a set threshold, the speaker volume is cut back so that the only thing you hear is the muffled thud that comes through the muffs or plugs. As quickly as the outside volume drops below the threshold, the speaker comes up again. 

It works extremely well. The better the system, the smoother the interruption, to the point where you barely register a blip in conversation when chatting at the range while shots go off every few seconds. 

What’s best in the real world?

At a pinch, off-the-shelf foam or rubber plugs are fine at the range, but foam ones are fiddly and both types don’t always provide a well-sealed fit. I hate using either type when hunting. Foam ones are too slow to put in when a shot’s on; rubber ones don’t always work well when jammed in rapidly. But they’re cheap.

Custom-made plugs are a great fit, as you’d expect, so they’re comfortable and effective. They’re also pretty quick to put in and pull out, so can be practical when hunting. They’re a good investment without spending a fortune.

Electronic earplugs can be left in place without blocking your hearing, and they have the advantage over earmuffs of being compact and unobtrusive. They can be expensive. 

Good earmuffs are simple to slip on and off, even when out bush hunting. Their broad coverage arguably provides the best hearing protection of all. Electronic earmuffs are awesome. But muffs can get hot, sweaty and very irritating. 

Whichever type of hearing protection you choose, use it!

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1 COMMENT

  1. Mick
    The article was very informative. I have a set of plugs that are of metal construction with rubber shroud that fits in the ear. Inside is a valve that operates by a sudden change in air pressure, ie gun shot, the valve closes and shuts off the sound wave. They seem to work reasonably well as unless the valve is closed you can hear normally. I also have a cheap set of electronic ones that work with a 22 or even a stapler, but not so well on larger calibers. I suppose you get what you pay for.
    Speaking to a friend of mine in the UK. He was telling me that many shooters there now use sound moderators (silencers) at the range. It comes under their health and safety legislation. I wonder if it will catch on here?

    Thanks

    Derek Browning

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