I have been using ear protection on the range for a long time. I have pictures of me at the range with family wearing the ubiquitous “mickey mouse ears” when I wasn’t big enough to walk. Despite using ear pro religiously, after nearly 40 years of consistent exposure to gun fire, a lot of heavy metal, and some periodic explosions I find myself saying “what?” a lot more than either my wife or I would like. In all honestly, I always assumed a little hearing loss and tinnitus (perpetual ringing in your ears) went with the territory. Right up until I sat down to write this article, I figured I knew everything I needed to know about ear pro. Turns out after doing some research I didn’t know nearly as much as I should have. If you are just getting into shooting hopefully some of this information can help you out before you are half deaf.
The first thing we need to understand about hearing protection is exactly what it is that we are trying to protect against. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) exposure to 115 decibel (dB) of sound for more than 28 seconds or even exposure to 70 db for 24 hours can cause permanent damage to your hearing (https://hearinghealthfoundation.org/decibel-levels). The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) advises that any exposure, regardless of duration, to 140 dB of sound can cause a permanent degradation of hearing (https://www.asha.org/public/hearing/Recreational-Firearm-Noise-Exposure/).
To put those numbers in perspective a .22 caliber rifle produces about 140 dB, a shotgun 145 dB, and a big bore rifle in excess of 175 dB (see the articles sited above). That means virtually any non-suppressed shooting we do with either rimfire or centerfire cartridges is not hearing safe. To make it hearing safe we have to somehow reduce the sound level below 75 db.
So how do we know how many dB our ear pro will block out? The effectiveness of hearing protection is rated by an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) metric known as the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). The NRR can usually be found on the packaging of a product or on the manufacturer’s website. Essentially, the NRR gives you the number of dB that the product will reduce. For example, if the noise I am exposed to measures at 100 dB and my ear pro has an NRR of 25 then I have reduced the exposure to 75 dB, which is right at the verge of hearing safe. Like most things the NRR isn’t quite this cut and dried. There is some debate about the way hearing protection is fitted (by the user or a lab tech) in the testing, so I would err on the side of caution by subtracting a bit from the provided NRR.
This brings us to the part of the discussion that was particularly mind blowing to me and explains why I can’t sit in a quiet room without hearing bells. Your average set of foam ear plugs, like those you see at most ranges and work sites have an NRR of 33 dB. Most of the over the ear muff style ear pro that I looked at (which I always assumed was better) only had an NRR of between 19 and 33. When you consider that a .22 rimfire puts out 140 dB and most of our commonly used ear pro only has an NRR of 33 (at best), that still puts us at 107 dB…which is 32 dB above the hearing safety threshold.
My takeaway from that data is that one method of hearing protection isn’t actually enough for most shooting. To be truly hearing safe you have to have over the ear protection with a high NRR used in conjunction with quality ear plugs. It also makes the case for wide spread use of suppressors especially compelling.
My original intent with this blog post was to give a general overview of types of hearing protection and discuss some of my preferences. After doing the research though, I have come to the conclusion that I personally need to rethink my hearing protection strategy and equipment before I make specific recommendations to anyone else. For instance, I found out my favorite set of ear-pro that I own multiple sets of and have been using for 20 plus years has an NRR of only 19! So, for now my general suggestions would be these;
- Know the NRR of your ear-pro. If you are buying your first set, go for the higher rating.
- Double up! Wear ear plugs and ear muffs. Neither of them has a high enough NRR to protect your hearing independently.
- Active ear pro (those that electronically enhance sounds below a safe dB and dampen those in the unsafe range) is great idea. Particularly if you are taking classes these will allow you to hear range commands while still protecting your hearing.
- Go for designs that are low profile, particular at the bottom of the ear cup. This will allow you to get and keep better contact with your stock when shooting carbines and long guns.
- If you own or have access to suppressors, use them!
For now, these are all the thoughts I have. Researching this article was wake up call for me. In the next few months I will almost certainly be making some changes. Once I have reached some conclusions about specific equipment, I will keep you updated with a follow-up on this article.