If you enjoy shooting, odds are you’re intimately familiar with the need for hearing protection.
A few shots without some proper ear plugs or ear muffs and you’ll likely experience ringing in your ears. Without adequate hearing protection, that ringing can become permanent; tinnitus is a very common condition amongst shooters, and can cause severe disorientation and sleep disturbances.
Seeking hearing protection is a matter of critical importance if you’re planning on operating a firearm, even if only once.
In this article, we aim to teach hunters and clay pigeon shooters alike how to protect their ears when shooting. We’ll be covering solutions from cheap ear plugs all the way up to custom-moulded ear valves.
Why Should You Protect Your Hearing?
Before we get into the options available to you, it’s important to understand just how dangerous the volume of a gunshot can be.
To give you a better perspective, at 140dB, a sound can cause immediate and permanent damage to the sensitive parts of your ear. Gunshots range in volume from roughly 140dB to 170dB depending on the firearm. All it takes is one shot and your hearing could be permanently damaged. There is no known cure for this damage.
Certain shooters who do not use ear protection have reported that they’ve become used to the volume of their firearm. However, your ears cannot adapt to deal with louder noises. If a loud noise that used to hurt your ears no longer does, that is because your hearing is irreversibly damaged and it is critical that you protect the hearing you have left.
How to Protect Your Hearing
Now that you understand how critical it is to protect your ears when shooting, we can break down the options available to you.
There are a huge range of hearing protection products on the market for shooters. For the most part, your options can be broken down into two categories: in-ear protection, and over-ear protection. In-ear protection being ear plugs and ear valves, whereas over-ear protection includes ear muffs and ear defenders.
In-ear protection covers quite a broad range of products. However, you’re likely to be already familiar with ear plugs. Though ear plugs are often sold as a sleep aid, they offer excellent protection against loud noise due to their tighter fit in the ear. The snug fit is a common trait to most in-ear protection, including ear valves, custom ear moulds, and electronic ear plugs.
By far, the crowning characteristic of ear plugs is that they’re extremely inexpensive. You can purchase disposable ear plugs by the dozen for £5-10. Whilst cheap ear plugs should not be trusted as a permanent solution to your ear protection needs, all shooters should carry a few pairs on them at all times, just as a backup. Nobody should ever fire a firearm without hearing protection, so having some backup ear plugs in your pocket is a good idea.
The basic principle of inserting a barrier into your ear can be taken to some high-tech extremes. There are a variety of simple ear plugs available on the market, including: foam ear plugs, silicon ear plugs, flanged ear plugs, and custom-moulded ear plugs. Choosing between the types is a matter of personal preference and budget.
Ear valves are a unique invention. They make use of mechanical components that shut out harmful noise, whilst allowing safe noise in. This technology is very useful as it means that shooters do not need to remove their ear plugs to communicate or to hear ambient noise. Removing ear plugs whilst near other active shooters is very dangerous, as it only takes someone else to carelessly fire a gun whilst you’re not protected for permanent damage to occur.
Ear valves can be inserted into virtually any other type of ear plug. For the shooter on a budget, they can be found for £20-30. However, if you’re shooting regularly, you may wish to look for a set of custom-moulded ear plugs that include an ear valve.
Custom Ear Moulds
Custom ear moulds are an expensive but highly effective option for the more dedicated shooters. Custom ear moulds require the customer to have an impression of their ears taken, preferably by a trained audiologist.
As the name suggests, these ear moulds are produced specifically for your ears, meaning that that the fit is guaranteed to be perfect as well as comfortable. Due to the perfect fit, custom ear moulds offer great protection. Combining a custom ear mould with an ear valve or electronic device is also quite common, offering excellent protection and comfort, as well as any features that a shooter might want.
Electronic Ear Plugs
Though electronic ear protection technology is mostly found in over-ear designs, it can be found in a number of ear plugs. Due to the small size and thus the complexity of manufacturing, electronic ear plugs can be quite pricey.
Like ear valves, they allow safe sounds in, whilst muffling unsafe sounds. Unlike ear valves, however, they can be used to amplify the volume of ambient noise. This is especially useful for hunters who need their hearing to be as sharp as possible. Though, some people still like to use them when at the range as they allow for better communication.
Over-ear protection is particularly popular for being inherently reusable. Unlike cheap ear plugs which are likely to be useless after only a handful of uses, over-ear ear muffs will last for quite a while. That said, cheap ear muffs shouldn’t always be trusted to protect your hearing when shooting.
It’s extremely important when looking at ear muffs that the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is taken into consideration. Shooters should be aiming for a NRR of 25dB or higher. Most ear plugs will offer a solid NRR anyway, due to their snug fit. Cheap ear defenders will not.
For gun owners, over-ear protection really only comes in two forms: passive ear defenders, and electronic ear defenders. Both work by putting a physical barrier between your ear and harmful noises.
Passive Ear Defenders
If you find ear plugs to be uncomfortable and prone to falling out, you may wish to consider a set of passive over-ear ear defenders such as the 3M Peltor Optime III Ear Muffs.
Many people dislike over-ear ear defenders them because they’re bulky and can interfere with any eyewear that a shooter is using. However, they come at a price point that makes them very tempting for shooters who aren’t willing to shell out hundreds of pounds for custom ear moulds, but still want something effective and reusable.
Electronic Ear Defenders
Electronic ear defenders are a very popular choice amongst shooters due to their features and price point. Like electronic ear plugs, electronic ear defenders allow the wearer to hear ambient noise through a speaker, whilst preventing loud sounds from passing through.
Electronic ear defenders such as the 3M PELTOR SportTac Electronic Ear Defenders can also be used to enhance a wearers natural sense of hearing. Since sound input is taken through a microphone and then played back through a speaker, many sets of electronic ear muffs allow the wearer to amplify ambient noise.
In addition to allowing the wearer to listen to ambient noise, some sets of electronic ear defenders will include a radio receiver or an auxiliary jack that allows the wearer to listen to music from the radio or their phone. Though we do not recommend operating a firearm without your full focus, the ability to listen to music during downtime is quite nice.
The range of hearing protection products available on the market to recreational shooters in the UK is vast. The key things to look for in your hearing protection are comfort and attenuation (noise reduction) as it is crucial that your ear protection is comfortable and effective. We also recommend carrying some disposable ear plugs as a part of your kit, just in case you need them.
Selecting the right protection is challenging, but extremely important. Whether you’ve got the budget for extravagant custom-moulded electronic ear defenders or whether you’re just looking for some cheap foam ear plugs, there’s a product out there for you.