Hearing protection is often underestimated by both new and seasoned shooters. Did you know that a single gunshot heard by an unprotected ear can lead to immediate and permanent hearing loss? That single fact alone should wake you up to the necessity of protecting your hearing!
With all of the hazards associated with shooting, I can see how this can be overlooked by new shooters. But for those of us who have been around awhile, there is simply no excuse. You should never be without several pairs of hearing protection at the range. Not only will this ensure that your ears are protected, but you will also be able to hand off a spare pair to someone in need.
There are many different types of ear protection, but they generally fall into two categories: plugs and muffs. Before we delve into them, let’s learn a little bit about Noise Reduction Ratings.
Hearing Protection: Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)
The Noise Reduction Rating, or NRR, measures the ear plug or muff’s ability to block out noise. Noise is measured in decibels (dB). Take a look at the list below to gain an accurate understanding of how loud a decibel is:
- One shot from a 9mm 160 dB
- One shot from a .45 165 dB
- 12 gauge shotgun 155 dB
- .22 rifle or pistol 140 dB
- Jet Engine 120 dB
- Normal talking 60 dB
NRR’s vary greatly between brands and styles, with the most expensive hearing protection usually having the highest ratings. Ratings go up to 33 for ear plugs, and 31 for ear muffs. You can combine plugs and muffs for greater protection, but will only ever reach about a 36 or so. It gets complicated explaining why you don’t just add the two together, but in a nutshell the NRR is only true in a lab tested environment. User error negates much of the advertised protection.
So which type of hearing protection is best? NRR isn’t the only thing you should be looking at before you purchase. One size does NOT fit all, and comfort, along with proper fit, should be a top priority. Let us now look at the many choices we have!
Hearing Protection: Ear Plugs
Passive Ear Plugs
Ear plugs are made of a soft, pliable material, such as foam or plastic, and are inserted into the outer ear canal. Passive ear plugs are plugs that attempt to block out all sound. While they do have a higher NRR rating than muffs, many people find them just too uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time. They also only come in one size, but different brands have different lengths and thicknesses. You basically wet the inside of your eardrum a bit, roll the plug between your fingers, and insert it into your ear. As it expands back to normal size, you can adjust the comfort level by pulling it out some.
The pros of passive foam ear plugs include pricing and disposability. They are easy to use, easy to carry, are cheap, and there is no cleaning involved because you toss them after each use. I recommend that you always carry a box of these in your car and range bag, in case of emergencies. There will be at least one time you leave your preferred hearing protection at home, and at only $5 for 14 pairs you can’t go wrong. The plastic ones can be worn many times, just be sure to clean them. They are not disposable.
Also, you may find you like wearing plugs and ear muffs together, especially if you find yourself next to someone shooting a hi power firearm.
Electronic Ear Plugs
These are my husband’s choice for hearing protection. Me, not so much. They work much the same as passive ear plugs, but allow low decibel sounds in so you can hear people talking while wearing them. Again, there are many types of these, ranging in price from about $30 to $400. The less expensive ones are connected with a cord, so you can take them out of your ears and hang them around your neck when you are not shooting. The super pricey ones are individual pieces.
These are great if you are a hunter because they let you hear soft sounds, such as a deer walking in the woods or your friend talking next to you. And they also give you superior protection when you pull the trigger on your shotgun or rifle. Many pro and competition shooters use electronic ear plugs as well.
The cons of these include price, maintenance and comfort. You have to clean them after each use, and replace the batteries often.
Hearing Protection: Ear Muffs
Passive Ear Muffs
Passive ear muffs consist of two foam padded cups that are connected by a headband. This is what most people end up getting, mostly due to the price. They are pretty cheap, at $20 or less, and readily available everywhere. The quality, however, isn’t so great. For just a few more bucks, you can get an electronic pair with comfy gel cups and superior hearing protection.
Electronic Ear Muffs
Technology has come a long way with ear muffs, and we are the beneficiaries when it comes to price! They can range in price from $30- $450, but for around $50 you can get a great pair of electronic ear muffs. I recommend these for many reasons, but comfort and the ability to communicate while wearing them top the list. Just like the electronic ear plugs, the muffs block out high decibel sounds but let in lower sounds like talking. When I am on the range teaching a class it is very hard for those who are not wearing electronic ear protection to hear what I am saying. They are well worth the extra money.
Electronic ear muffs run on batteries, mine takes 2 triple As. It is a good idea to always carry extra batteries along in your range bag, as it is very easy to accidentally “leave your ears on” when you take them off of your head. I have yet to find a good way to remind myself to turn the power switch to off. Other than extra batteries, the only maintenance needed is a good cleaning every now and then with some wet wipes.
Now there are people who still prefer ear plugs and that is ok. Ear muffs do tend to make wearing glasses uncomfortable to some. And we all must wear eye protection at the range.
Hearing Protection: Wrap Up
It is not a good idea to skimp on hearing protection. Comfort equals proper fit, and that should be your number one priority. If they are too heavy, they will shift. If they are too tight you will get a headache, and if they are too small you will be uncomfortable. Any ear protection that doesn’t fit right will be a distraction, and any distraction around firearms could end up in disaster. Take the time to try out many types of hearing protection before you buy! And as always, be safe my friends.