Shooting Ranges, Guns and Ear Protection – Suggestions from a Hearing Specialist

Americans really like their guns. Some of this interest derives from movies and TV where policemen, cowboys and bad guys are wearing their guns with delight and regularly firing at each other. Regular encounters with these images is one of myriad of reasons that you will find so many American gun owners who greatly enjoy shooting them on hunts or at shooting ranges. The aspect not thoroughly conveyed to these many gun owners is that the individuals shooting guns on television and in movies quite possibly wound up deaf, or battling with serious hearing problems.

Guns are loud, and noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is a very real phenomenon, among the most common causes of hearing losses in America. NIHL has two major sources. Transient high noise levels (e.g. gunfire or explosions), and sustained high noise levels (e.g. working around heavy machinery)

Sound levels are measured on the decibel scale. Zero decibels is total silence. Rustling leaves are around 20 decibels. A typical conversation is around 60 decibels. Note that the decibel scale is a log scale. 50 decibels is twice as loud as 40, 60 is four times as loud as 40, and 70 is eight times as loud as 40. Extended exposure to noises exceeding 90 decibels (for instance a farm tractor) may cause long term hearing loss in just a few weeks. Similar damage can occur much faster at higher decibel levels. It only takes a few minutes of noises at 120 decibels, for example from a jet engine or rock concert, to result in permanent hearing damage. A gunshot measures 140 decibels.

You will find one aspect of the gun debate, that everybody agrees upon. Gun devotees, normal people, and hearing specialists all agree that everyone shooting a gun needs to wear ear protection. The question of which type of ear protection you should get depends on where you do the majority of your shooting.

If much of your shooting is at indoor or outdoor gun ranges, the best choice at a sensible price is some form of over-the-ear “muff” type headphones that inhibit transient sounds not just from getting to the inner ear but also from reaching the cochlear bones behind the ear. Many sport shooters augment the over-the-ear muffs by also donning in-the-ear foam plugs with a NRR (Noise Reduction Rating) of 30 or higher. For greater protection, go with headphones with electronic noise-cancelling technology. They are the most expensive option, but also provide highest level of protection. These headphones block out the gunfire sounds while enabling you to hear normal conversations.

If you are a shooter, talk to your hearing care expert and ask them what type of hearing protection they recommend. And always remember, hearing protection doesn’t do you any good, at home, in your bag, or hanging around your neck. You have to wear it at all times.

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