Hearing protection is an essential accessory for anyone who shoots. However, regular plugs and muffs don’t always perform how you need them to, especially when you need to hear voices. For that reason, among others, consider buying electronic hearing protection.
Why You Should Protect Your Hearing
Firearms are loud. Modern cartridge ammunition contains smokeless powder. This is a low explosive that generates hot, high-pressure expanding gases when ignited. When these gases exit the muzzle and enter the atmosphere, they produce a deafening blast. If the bullet exceeds the speed of sound, it also creates a miniature sonic boom.
The sound of a gunshot can exceed 160 dB, which is louder than a jet engine. Continuous exposure to gunshots causes permanent hearing loss, which is why it’s imperative that you wear appropriate hearing protection when shooting.
Many gun owners choose passive hearing protection, but the electronic variety has gained steam in recent years due to its range of features.
The Importance of Hearing Protection
Hearing protection for firearms is not a new concept. People used to wear wads of cotton in their ears to reduce the intensity of gunshots, but this is not satisfactory.
For decades, there have been, broadly, two types of hearing protection that most shooters wear. These include classic earplugs and earmuffs. Unfortunately, while effective at protecting your hearing, they also reduce your situational awareness and can render human speech difficult to understand.
On a firing range, you need to hear range commands from range safety officers and firearms instructors. In the field during a hunting expedition or during a competitive match, you have to hear your friends or teammates. It’s also vital that you can hear your surroundings, whether it’s a twig breaking or leaves rustling.
That’s where electronic hearing protection is preferable to traditional passive equipment. By using battery-powered external microphones and internal speakers, an electronic pair of earmuffs can amplify low-intensity sounds, such as human speech and the sound of wildlife. However, when the electronic earmuffs detect a high-intensity sound, such as a gunshot, the earmuffs compress these sounds to a safe level, protecting your hearing.
This increases your situational awareness and, as a result, your safety compared with traditional earplugs and earmuffs.
The microphones often amplify low noises, such as birds singing and flying insects buzzing so that you’re able to hear your environment more acutely than your ordinary hearing would permit. This can be especially helpful if you’re a hunter. Many hunters choose not to wear hearing protection because they need to hear their surroundings when stalking game.
However, that also means that their hearing is in jeopardy. If you hunt with a powerful centerfire rifle, especially a heavy magnum caliber, you can suffer severe hearing loss with few shots. It’s not worth the tinnitus or use of hearing aids later in life.
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)
When you’re searching for suitable hearing protection, you want the highest noise reduction rating you can find. This indicates the level of noise attenuation. Ideally, you should choose hearing protection that provides an NRR of 27 at a minimum. A 30 NRR is better for indoor firing ranges, and 32 or 33 NRR is best.
The intensity of sound doubles every 3 dB, so what may seem like a minor increase in noise can have significant consequences.
You can double up by wearing earplugs and earmuffs together. This doesn’t “double” the hearing protection and you don’t simply add one NRR to another, but combining the two increases your protection against dangerous sound exposure.
Classic Hearing Protection
Standard, non-electronic hearing protection takes many forms. You should have this on hand regardless of whether you purchase an electronic headset. Anytime you frequent an indoor or outdoor firing range, you expose yourself to high-intensity sounds.
Earmuffs have the advantage of being more comfortable to wear than earplugs because they don’t increase pressure in the ear canal.
There are downsides to traditional and electronic earmuffs. The headset variety, whether active or passive, can interfere with a proper cheek weld. If you’ve ever placed your cheek on the comb of a rifle stock and noticed that you were moving the earmuff, you are familiar with this problem. Sometimes this may require a “chin weld.”
Earmuffs can also be bulky, can snag on branches, and be uncomfortably warm during the summer.
Passive earplugs range from cheap orange foam cylinders and “marshmallows” to more sophisticated options. They can vary considerably in comfort. Foam cylinders are inexpensive and widely available but can be difficult to insert. Marshmallows are more expensive but are the choice of professional musicians.
There are also earplugs made from beeswax, cotton, and lanolin, which you can mold to your ear canal using pressure. This variety is reusable and provides a high noise reduction rating. Unfortunately, they also leave a residue and are difficult to clean.
Preventing Hearing Loss
Your hearing is a valuable sense, and environmentally induced hearing loss is preventable. If you own a gun or are contemplating owning a gun, purchase hearing and eye protection.
The passive variety of hearing protection — earplugs and earmuffs — is a classic standby that should serve you adequately. You should never fire a gun without them at a minimum.
It’s also vital that you protect your eyes. A pair of dedicated shooting glasses can deflect everything from unburnt powder particles and metal fragments to spent cartridges. Keep these in your range bag.
Other Ways of Reducing Noise
Before high-quality hearing protection became widely available commercially, one way to protect your hearing was to use a sound suppressor.
Sound suppressors, also known as silencers, can protect your hearing by capturing, slowing, and cooling the high-pressure expanding gases produced by the burning propellant before they enter the atmosphere. They also protect the hearing of those around you and reduce noise pollution.
Unfortunately, sound suppressors are expensive — in part due to the $200 federal tax — and tightly regulated. In some states, private possession is illegal. Electronic hearing protection, by comparison, is widely available and far less expensive.
While you should always have access to hearing protection as a shooter, electronic earmuffs are worth the money. While more expensive than many of the classic varieties, an electronic headset can amplify the sounds you need to hear while blocking out the ones you don’t.
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