Your ears are sensitive instruments, and firearms produce powerful noise. Noise reduction is essential when working with something that produces a loud noise. Otherwise, it’s impossible to guarantee the safety of your hearing. Noise induced hearing loss is one of the common drawbacks of using firearms. It’s tragic considering how easy it is to protect yourself from damage, even in loud environments.
The reasons why people avoid hearing protection may vary: “It doesn’t look cool,” “I’m young and don’t need it,” “I’m only shooting a few rounds,” etc. But none of these excuses address the reality. Loud noises can affect anyone, and they can happen after even one exposure. No matter how tough you may think you are, there’s a fine line between being brave and stupid. Hearing loss can reduce your ability to hear your family and friends when they speak or stop you from fully enjoying the sounds of the outdoors. Skipping ear protection is dangerous and irresponsible.
Bottom line: you need hearing protection when you’re around any hazardous noise. Whether it’s out in the wild or taking shots at the shooting range, having a loud sound next to you can erode your ability to hear clearly. It may be difficult to reduce noise levels in firearms, but we can change how much noise exposure our ears get.
What is the use of ear protection?
Ear protection stands as a shield between you and whatever loud sound you’re dealing with. Using a hearing protector means you’re making the right steps to prevent hearing loss, whether that means you’re using an earplug, an earmuff, or an electronic hearing protection device. Ear protection lowers the force of noise, often measured in a noise reduction rating.
Your ears have a lot of work to do because sounds are very complex, so they have to be very sensitive to passing vibrations. Those vibrations activate different cells in the ear canal, which send the stimulus to the brain, where it interprets those vibrations as sound. All sound works the same way: whether it’s wind rustling through the trees, a music concert, or listening to our best friend talking; our ears have a lot of work to do.
Hearing damage begins when you’re exposed to noises in the 70 decibels (dB) range. Anything below 70 is fine, but above that can be harmful and even painful. Those sensitive cells, which are designed to respond to gentle noises, can be damaged and even die. And once they’re gone, they’re gone. Noise exposure from power tools and gunshots can harm your hearing even after a few times—just once can hurt.
On the other hand, if you’re properly prepared, the potential for noise damage goes way down. Hearing protection doesn’t make sounds quieter, but it can reduce how much force reaches your ears. The methods vary, but they rely on the same principle: keep a firm layer of foam or other noise-blocking material between your ears and the sounds you’re working with. That way, the ear protection takes the full force of the hit and protects those sensitive cells in the inner ear.
How do ear protectors work?
There are three main types of hearing protection:
- Earplugs. The most common and often the cheapest option, earplugs work great for accessible, reliable protection. It’s a small foam device designed to go right into the ear canal. Roll it up into a thin tube-like shape until it becomes small enough to enter the ear. Insert it about halfway into the ear canal (far enough to stay in, but not so far that it hurts). You’ll know when it’s working: the foam expands and fills the whole canal, returning to its original shape while blocking the inner ear. Keep in mind that some earplugs are disposable and not intended for multiple uses.
- Earmuffs. Rather than going inside your ears, earmuffs provide external protection. They fit snugly around the outer ear so that harmful sounds never even enter it. Earmuffs still work great but are usually considered less effective than earplugs. They also get hot and sweaty depending on where you’re working, and wearing glasses around them is difficult. Try to find models that strike a balance between protection and usability. Some muffs fit around your ear but don’t take as much space.
- Electronic hearing protection. This protection is a hybrid between earmuffs and noise cancellation technology. Electronic earmuffs allow you to hear human speech and regular noises while blocking harmful sounds. Think of them like a gatekeeper that lets the good sounds in and leaves the bad ones out. Electronic earmuffs often require batteries, so be sure they’re loaded or charged before you hit the firing range. There are also Bluetooth ear muffs, which use similar technology but in a specialized way.
When should I use hearing protection?
There’s this false idea that hearing protection is only for constant loud noises and that it isn’t necessary for sounds that happen only a few times. We’d like to stop this idea before it gets any further.
Ear protection is essential for both firearms and power tools. Whether someone’s exposed to a loud noise once or consistently over a long time, damage can still occur. There is no “adjustment” period where your ears “get used to” a level of harmful noise. Hearing protection should be worn whenever harmful noises reach that 70 dB range.
This includes any time that loud equipment and other noises are present in the environment. This includes firearms in a shooting range or the wild—just because it’s an open space doesn’t mean the sound’s impact magically disappears. Try out a few types of protection equipment to see what works best for you. Some ears are built differently than others and may require different needs to adapt to loud environments.
How much does proper hearing protection reduce noise?
Depending on the model, make, and proper fit, ear protection can reduce decibel levels significantly. Good protection can lower noise by 15-30 decibels, bringing an unsafe blast down to a safer range. Each product should indicate how well it blocks noise. Look for a label that says something like “reduced dB” on the product specs.
Also, make sure you’re getting enough protection for whatever firearm you’re using. Some guns are louder than others and demand a higher safety standard for their equipment. Check out the gun you’ll be firing and figure out its average noise level. Find some ear protection to match so you won’t be caught off-guard by its power. If you’re unsure about new gear, test it out on firearms that aren’t as loud, and work your way up from there.
How do you properly insert your hearing protection devices?
Most devices that require insertion are earplugs. There are regular, disposable (sometimes washable) ones that roll up until they’re skinny enough to go into the ear canal. All you have to do is pinch the tip, or roll them up between two fingers, and put them into the ear canal. Before you go firing anything, make sure the plugs have time to expand (usually takes about 60 seconds, if not less).
Most of these are disposable and aren’t supposed to be worn multiple times. In fact, it can be damaging to your ears. Not only do they get dirty, but they also wear out just like any equipment, making them less effective over time. Don’t expect them to be just as useful as the first time you wear them. Putting in old disposable plugs can give you a false sense of security about your hearing, so get some new ones when they wear out.
As for ear muffs, these don’t require any insertion in the ear. They’re designed to put a thick seal around the outer ear, so good hearing protection muffs should cover the entire ear and stay in place. They shouldn’t slide around or leave part of the ear sticking out. Adjust the strap to whatever’s comfortable for you. There shouldn’t be much pressure on the ear, but it should feel like the muffs are working. The foam seal should lock in place quicker than ear plugs’ foam, and the noise difference should be noticeable right away. You should feel like you’ve got hands over your ears or like the pressure difference when you need to pop your ears (except not painful). Be sure to test out any electronic equipment in the muffs before going out onto the range with them. If you’re not sure if the muffs are fitting right, ask a friend or an instructor to check them for you.
Hearing equipment is just as essential as other protection. There’s too much at stake when it comes to your hearing, and saving your hearing is as easy as wearing the right ear protectors. Earplugs, earmuffs, and electronic hearing protection do a fantastic job at stopping loud sounds from damaging your ability to hear. The best thing you can do for your hearing is to listen to safety advice and find proper protective equipment. After that, your hunting or firing range trip will be a breeze.