ear protection for shooting guns

Why Ear Protection Should Be Worn By Shooters

One of the first items of firearm safety that we all learn is to wear eye and ear protection while shooting. Such recommendations aren't made because some ninny somewhere decided to boss people around, not wearing ear protection can seriously damage your hearing.

Omitting Ear Protection Can Seriously Damage Hearing

ear protection for guns

While wearing ear protection while shooting or engaged in any other activity is something of a modern concern, a lot of people likely wish they would have earlier. It's really a must-have in shooting accessories.

Take, for instance, rock musician Pete Townshend of The Who, who has well-known and severe hearing issues. Studio recording, part of his job, hurts him. It's forced him to cancel or delay tours, such as in 2010 when they had to postpone touring while a custom set of in-ear monitors (monitors are speakers musicians listen to onstage; in-ear monitors are basically super high-end wireless earbud headphones) were built for him to use without serious discomfort.

The more a person is subjected to loud noises, the higher the risk of hearing damage, tinnitus or outright hearing loss. Regular shooters are one of the highest risk groups.

More Cowbell, Less Decibel

The unit of "loudness" is the decibel, or dbA. A refrigerator makes about 40 dbA of noise; a normal conversation makes about 60 dbA. Hearing damage starts at 140 dbA, about the sound made by a .22LR, so even plinking should include hearing protection. Most pistol and rifle rounds produce sound levels ranging around 160 to 170 dbA, more than sufficient to damage hearing and induce tinnitus.

Ever hear ringing after shooting? That's tinnitus. That's you losing your hearing, one round at a time. That can become permanent, like it is for some lifetime shooters, members of the military and Pete Townshend.

Damage can set in at much lower levels, however. Continued exposure to sounds in excess of 85 dbA is enough to permanently damage hearing, according to the National Institute on Deafness. The NIDOCD is part of the National Institutes of Health, one of the few governmental organizations that only lets you join if you know what you're talking about. Therefore, unless you only shoot a bow, you should be using ear protection.

How Does Hearing Damage Set In

hearing protection is important

Here's a brief rundown of how hearing works: sound vibrates the eardrum, which sends vibration into the ear canal - just like a drum head sends vibration into an actual drum. That causes three tiny bones in the inner ear - the malleus, incus and stapes - to vibrate in turn, which send the vibration into the cochlea, a snail-shaped sac of fluid.

The fluid in the cochlea then ripples, and those ripples cross the basilar membrane - the base of the cochlea - which has a number of tiny hairs on it. Atop those tiny hairs on the basilar membrane are stereocilia - also called cilia - which are hair-like cells with a pore-like channel on the top.

When sound enters, the cilia's pores open, and nerve endings fire, sending impulses into the auditory nerve, and from there to the brain - and you hear the sound.

Biomechanical systems, like any machine, have tolerances, and when greater stresses than they are engineered to undergo on a regular basis are introduced, damage occurs. The cilia, very delicate cells, are what get damaged by loud noises, since the cilia are only supposed to deal with 75 or fewer dbA on a regular basis.

Unlike most other species on earth, human hair cells in the auditory system do not regenerate. Once broken, they're broken.

Suppressors Are No Substitute For Ear Protection

gun silencer

Thinking of getting in on the suppressor craze? As much as playing secret agent is awesome (I loved it when I was 8) a suppressor doesn't always do much in terms of noise reduction.

A 1999 Finnish Ministry Of Labor study, according to guns.connect.fi studied the sound difference between suppressed and unsupressed shots from an FN FAL assault rifle chambered in .308 Win. Suppressed gunshots registered at 145 dbA for the shooter and 135 dbA 10 meters away; unsuppressed shots produced about 155 dbA for the shooter and roughly 143 dbA at 10 meters.

That's an attenuation (noise reduction) of 10 dbA, which is not enough to save your hearing. Granted, that study is almost 20 years old and suppressor design has ostensibly advanced since then, but a suppressor is not going to be enough.

Just Use Ear Protection Already

use hearing protection

The NIDOCD, along with the National Institute of Occupational Safety (itself part of the Centers for Disease Control) recommend shooters wear earplugs AND muffs at the range. Granted, packing that into the woods isn't always practical, so naturally hunters will want something more compact, like ear valves or other more portable ear protection.

Naturally, don't worry about it in a self-defense situation; a little hearing damage is better than a little being dead. However, anywhere else..wear ear protection. You'll be better off in the long run.

Sam Hoober 

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

purchase gun belt