It is pretty much a given nowadays that you should wear ear protection when shooting firearms. The thing about hearing loss is that it is cumulative, meaning the little bit you lose today will be added to the loss you suffer tomorrow, and the hearing you lost yesterday. Eventually that adds up to a pretty significant amount of hearing loss and the worst thing about it is, once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. No medication, therapy, or surgical intervention can reverse noise-induced hearing loss.

Along with eye protection, adequate ear protection is imperative protective gear for firearm safety. You should always wear hearing protection when shooting firearms. Even most suppressed firearms generate enough noise to cause damage to your hearing, even if it isn’t painful to unprotected ears. Gun noise levels are measured in decibels. Decibels are difficult to describe in relative terms because they are measured on a logarithmic scale.


Gun Noise Levels

 The noise level of firearms depends on a lot of factors. First, where are you shooting? If you are shooting indoors, the noise is reflected back by the walls, ceiling and floors, making it “louder” than if you were shooting outdoors. Next, what are you shooting? A .22 is going to be quieter than a big-bore rifle, and a pistol is going to be louder than a rifle, all other things being equal.

So at what decibel is hearing protection required? The “magic number” that a lot of people have latched onto (especially as firearm suppressors gain popularity) is 140 decibels. This number is heavily marketed as the “hearing safe” number, and the number suppressors try to reduce sound to. Unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple. Even noises of 80 decibel (a noisy restaurant or heavy traffic) can cause damage after as little as 8 hours’ exposure. Now back to the shooting range where big-bore pistols can produce as many as 175 decibels, or noise on par with a rocket launch.


Shooter’s Ear

Shooter’s Ear is a term for the damage sustained to those exposed to frequent or sustained gunfire. It is typically more pronounced in one ear because of the shooter’s stance. If the shooter is shooting rifles or shotguns, one ear (the “off” or “weak side” ear, typically the left ear) is likely to suffer more permanent hearing damage than the other. Damage to the shooter’s ear is caused by the concussive wave that rattles the delicate bones of the inner ear.

Hearing loss can be temporary, with a feeling of the ear(s) being “full.” This is also usually accompanied by ringing in the ears. This is known as Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS) and most of your hearing will return to normal within a few days. Most of it; if you’ve experienced TTS, it’s a good indicator you’ve lost some of your hearing permanently.

Fortunately, temporary and permanent hearing loss on the firing range is 100% preventable. Unlike a lot of disease processes, keeping your hearing is completely within your control, and you should absolutely work to protect it. Your hearing is vital to your safety. If you are interested in personal defense, consider this: how effective are you going to be if you can’t hear someone walking up behind you, or the living room window being broken? If you are a hunter, how much effectiveness are you going to lose if you can’t hear game? 

Not only will you lose situational awareness, how much of life are you going to miss out on? You will miss out on jokes and entire conversations. You’ll struggle to tell where sounds come from…if you hear them at all. People you don’t know may think you’re dull when you constantly have to ask them to repeat themselves…just save yourself the trouble and protect your hearing now! With that said, let’s take a look at how you protect it.


What Are the Levels of Ear Protection?

There are all sorts of hearing protection out there, from the little foam earplugs to the big headsets and everything in between. They aren’t all created equal for noise exposure. Let’s sort through these products and see what some of their claims mean.


What is NRR?

 Noise Reduction Rating is one measure of protection level. A product’s NRR is generally expressed as a number from 0-30, and indicates how many decibels it reduces from the source. Unfortunately – again – noises are measured on a logarithmic scale, and you don’t just subtract the NRR number from the source.

Under absolutely perfect conditions, the actual noise level is determined by taking the NRR, subtracting 7, then subtracting that number from the source. Here’s an example: you are shooting a rifle that generates 150 decibels. Your earmuffs have a NRR of 25. To determine what your ears are exposed to, subtract 7 from 25, for a result of 18. Now subtract 18 from 150, which results in 132. While firing you are exposed to 132 decibels – and keep in mind that is when you are using the devices correctly.

Therefore, NRR may not be the best indicator of hearing protection for loud impulse sounds such as those produced by gunfire. Since NRR measures the average noise reduction across a range of frequencies, it does not calculate for impulse noises, such as gunshots.


What is IPIL? 

Gunfire, as you have probably intuited, isn’t quite like the monotonous loud noises of jackhammers or factory machines that the EPA and OSHA envisioned when NRR was instituted. Gun fire has a loud “peak” noise and level of pressure that occurs really quickly. Impulse Peak Insertion Loss (IPIL) is used to describe the difference in pressure in an open ear versus one with protection in place. Since gunshots are impulses of noise, IPIL is generally more accurate when measuring protective devices for shooting.


Types of Hearing Protection

There are a lot of hearing protection products on the market. The two most common types are over-the-ear muffs, and in-ear plugs. The other differentiator is electronic versus passive. Let’s take a look at these broad categories.


Ear plugs vs Ear muffs

Earbuds fit into the ear canal and can offer superior protection. Products like the Pro Ears Hex Ear plug can reduce noise by an astounding 41 decibels as measured by IPIL standards, while still offering good hearing of moderate sounds like conversation and range commands. Ear plugs are also small and unobtrusive, and won’t interfere with your cheek weld with your rifle or shotgun. Ear plugs are also the most economical option, but make sure you are getting a good set that offers adequate protection. The downside to ear plugs is…they are small and unobtrusive and can easily be lost.

Ear muffs have the advantage of being easy to don and doff. They are a comfortable fit and you can put them on and take them off at will, quickly, easily, and pretty much without fuss. They are also generally pretty easy to keep up with. Unfortunately, the protection levels offered by muffs are lower than ear plugs, and this ear protection can be compromised by improper fitment or interference from stuff like eye protection.


Electronic vs Passive Protection

Some hearing protection is electronic and some is passive. Passive simply means that the product – whether muff or plug – places a barrier between your ear and the source of the noise. These are generally the least expensive hearing protection devices available. One use for passive ear plugs is use under muffs. Hearing aids are expensive; ear plugs are cheap!

Electronic hearing protection is more expensive, but offers a huge benefit. Rather than dampening every noise, it actually amplifies low and moderate sounds. This allows you to hear softer sounds like commands from the instructor. As a hunter it allows you to hear game coming from even further away while still protecting your precious hearing when you take the shot. As a firearms instructor it may let one put the muffs on backward and face away from the class on breaks, yet still hear what the students are saying.

A huge benefit to electronic hearing protection is that you don’t have to yell during normal conversation on the range. Despite amplifying some noises, electronic ear protection has a cutoff threshold, above which it attenuates the sound. This allows it to truly be the best of both worlds: enhanced hearing, while protecting your natural hearing.


When Should You Use Hearing Protection?

You should use hearing protection any time you are exposed to a noise over 85 decibels. It might not look ultra-manly, but you should be wearing hearing protection for a lot more than just shooting. Any time you crank up the lawnmower, leaf blower, chainsaw, or weedeater, you should protect your hearing. And you certainly should any time you shoot a gun. The quietest firearm, a .22, still produces 140 decibels, enough to cause permanent damage.


Pro Ears Hearing Protection

Pro Ears offers the proper hearing protection for any situation. Pro Ears uses our patented Dynamic Level Sound Protection (DLSC) technology. Many other companies say they use compression, but what they actually use is “peak clipping” or “Automatic Level Control,” both outdated technologies that simply attenuate everything above a certain threshold. DLSC allows you to hear softer sounds…even during gunfire.

Pro Ears offers top-of-the-line electronic ear protection and passive hearing protection for shooting and gun ranges. Protect your hearing health with the best products available. Hearing provides situational awareness and keeps you safe – trust your hearing with Pro Ears!