My friend Neil has been after me to write this post for some time and for good reason: his wife has extensive experience in the world of audiology and he is keenly aware of just how precious the sense of hearing truly is. We all probably know someone who has significant hearing loss. It may be an inconvenience to us but to the person with the hearing loss it can be a profound hardship. The good news for us as shooters is that there is no need to compromise our hearing just because we want to enjoy firearms. All it takes is common sense and careful selection of hearing protection.
The first thing to remember is to always have some form of hearing protection with you whenever you go to the range. No exceptions! When you arrive at the range, make sure you have your “ears” available in the car before you even open a door or window. That way you can’t get surprised by the guy with his elephant gun on the next range over! This is doubly important for indoor ranges: never take off your ears while on the range! I’ve seen this happen a hundred times. Some person finishes a string, takes off their ears and BLAM, the guy grabs his ears in pain when the person he didn’t see down the line breaks a shot. Only take them off/out when you are well away from the line and nobody is handling any guns.
So, you probably get it at this point: protecting your hearing is your own responsibility, not the range master’s, not the RO’s, not your mom’s or your spouse’s. It is up to you and you alone to follow protocol to protect your hearing.
So, how do we do this? Cotton balls? .45 cartridges, like Gunny Sgt. Ermey? I sure hope not. Please at the very least keep some of those bright orange expansion foam plugs in your range bag. I keep some in my ammo box, glove compartments and even in my hip pack. I’ve given them to people numerous times when I spotted them on the range without. Likewise, if you are bringing new shooters to the range make sure you provide them with appropriate hearing and eye protection or assist them in getting these items for themselves.
A word should be said about expanding foam plugs. If you don’t insert them correctly they will not provide adequate protection. I have found the best way to use them is to use two hands to roll/twist them between your thumb and index finger while simultaneously stretching them lengthwise (hence two hands). I liken this to turning a Play-Doh “marble” into a Play-Do “worm”. This makes a very long, thin plug. If you then quickly insert them deeply into your ears they will slowly revert to their original shape, thereby filling completely the outer portion of your ear canal. This makes an excellent layer of protection against dangerous acoustic events. The only trouble is that you can’t hear anything else either! This beats hearing loss so keep them in unless you are absolutely certain it is safe to remove them.
There is some evidence that plugs alone may not fully protect against very loud noises. Apparently the sound can travel through bones in and around the ear and still damage the hearing organs. For this reason a better solution is in the form of quality, good fitting ear muffs. The good, old Winchester specials from Walmart are actually quite good at attenuating noise and I keep at least two or three extras in my range box to have on hand for those who might need them. With muffs it is much easier to put them on and take them off compared to foam plugs, but as I have mentioned, it’s not always a good idea to remove your “ears” while still at the line.
Beyond basic plugs and muffs, there’s another class of product that is very popular within competitive shooting circles: amplified muffs. These are ear muffs that have microphones on the outside, usual one on each side pointing forward, and speakers on the inside. They have amplification circuitry that picks up sound from the outside and reproduces it on the inside. The key feature of these devices is that they will attenuate any sounds above a certain level, usually 85db. The newer models will do this so quickly that the perception is that the shot is simply not very loud. All this while hearing all the range commands and any other conversation or incidental sounds that occur on the line. In fact, your hearing can become downright bionic if you turn up the volume.
At this point I want to make a plug for my current choice for amplified muffs. The Howard Leight Impact Sport is an excellent choice for comfortable, reliable hearing protection. These muffs are rated at -22db noise reduction. They are slim and fit well and they have a single, easy to use thumb wheel on the left side that turns on the muffs and then manages the volume. A great feature found on these muffs is the automatic power-off function. If you leave the muffs on for four hours, they turn themselves off even though the thumb wheel is still in the “on” range. To turn them back one you simply turn the thumb wheel down until it clicks off, wait a few seconds and turn it back on again. I have had a pair for over six months and have not needed to change the batteries yet. This contrasts sharply with other units that have required new batteries almost weekly due to my leaving them on. Another nice feature that I like is that there’s an accessory jack for plugging in your iPod or iPhone. While shooting alone I do enjoy listening to music and more importantly, I can hear the phone ring. I can in fact answer a phone call without taking off my “ears”, which may look goofy to others at the range but again, my hearing is what matters most.
Are these the best muffs around? Certainly not. Pro Ears are arguably the best muffs on the market but they also cost 4-5x what the HLIS units do. I will say that if I’m shooting rifles I will always wear plugs under the muffs then turn the volume all the way up on the muffs. My main use for the HLIS muffs is for pistol shooting, for which they are perfect.
It doesn’t take much to produce permanent hearing loss so please, take the time to put those ears on and keep them on until you know it is safe!