Photo: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Israel Chincio/Released

Noise-induced hearing loss is a major problem faced by shooters. Too many shooters don’t think about the health of their hearing until it’s too late. The effects of noise are cumulative, so even lower levels of noise can harm hearing over time. Hearing loss is insidious and can easily creep up on you. Once it is lost, you can never get it back. Taking proper precautions to protect your hearing is vital.

Choosing the right kind of hearing protection (ear pro) can be challenging with so many options and types on the market. You want something that safeguards you, is comfortable and easy to use, and fits well. You also don’t want it to affect your communications. However, there is no ideal hearing protector that meets all these criteria, but you can follow some tips for choosing the right kind of hearing protection.


Sound is the sensation that’s experienced when the brain interprets vibration within the structure of the ear caused by rapid variations in the air pressure. The specification of the intensity of the sound, as ordinarily used, implies a comparison with the smallest level of sound detectable by the human ear.

We use decibels (dB) to measure sound. The smallest level of sound that can be detected by the human ear is around one dB (0.1 bel). They are logarithmic units, A sound that is 10 dB louder than another sound actually has 10 times more power, and a sound that is 20 dB louder has 100 times more power. For purposes of comparison, normal conversation is around 60 dB. The average threshold of pain for the human ear is around 130 dB.

Gunshots can produce sound levels of up to 190 dB. According to the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the threshold for a hearing safe impulse noise is 140 dB. Without hearing protection (hearing protection), exposure to any impulse noise over 140 dB causes varying degrees of permanent noise-induced hearing loss.

Although individual sensitivity varies, many authorities believe that prolonged exposure to noise above 85 dB can also lead to hearing damage. For this reason, OSHA requires employers to implement a hearing conservation program when noise exposure is at or above 85 decibels averaged over eight working hours, or an eight-hour time-weighted average.

Earplugs vs. Earmuffs

Wearing proper hearing protection is essential at all times when shooting. There are two major types of hearing protection: in-ear and muffs. They can be further divided into two categories: passive and electronic (digital). Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Earplugs are disposable or reusable devices that are inserted into the ear canal to block out noise. They come in different shapes, sizes, and materials, such as foam, silicone, or wax. Earplugs are generally cheaper, lighter, more discreet, and easier to carry than earmuffs. However, they may not fit well in some ear canals, they may fall out easily, they may be difficult to insert or remove, and they may not provide enough protection for very loud noise.

Custom fit earplugs are also available. They are created by taking a mold of your ear canal. They cost more but offer many benefits over disposable earplugs, such as better noise reduction, more comfort, and longer lifespan.

Earmuffs are devices that cover the entire ear with a cushioned cup and a headband. They create a seal around the ear and reduce noise by absorbing sound waves. Earmuffs are more bulky and may interfere with glasses, hats or helmets, but they offer more consistent and reliable protection for all ear sizes. They may stay on more securely, they may be easier to put on or take off, and they may provide more protection for very loud noises.

Passive vs. Electronic Hearing Protection

Passive hearing protection blocks dangerous noise using a physical barrier, either in the ear (earplugs) or over the ear (earmuffs). Earplugs can be disposable (single use) or reusable. Reusable earplugs may be either full-block or filtered. Full-block blocks all noise, while filtered attenuates only dangerous noise while allowing safe levels to pass though. All disposable earplugs are full-block.

Electronic hearing protectors digitally amplify ambient noises and cut off the amplification or lowers the sound level whenever there is a dangerous noise level, providing protection when you need it but still allowing you to hear what’s going on around you. Electronic ear protection is available as earbuds or as muffs. Many consider it to be the best type of ear pro for shooters overall. Electronic protectors usually have adjustable volume controls and multi-directional microphones for 360-degree situational hearing. Some have Bluetooth® connectivity or an AUX input that can allow you to listen to music or take phone calls while shooting. Electronic hearing protection is more expensive.

Choosing electronic hearing protection that uses rechargeable batteries can save you money in the long run, as you do not need to buy new batteries. However, rechargeable batteries need to be charged regularly, which means you need access to a power outlet or a portable charger. Electronic hearing protectors still provide passive full-block protection when off or the batteries have run out of power. Electronic hearing protectors should be turned on before shooting and off after shooting to conserve battery life, although some have a timed auto-shutoff feature in case you forget.

Noise Reduction Rating

Hearing protectors in the U.S. are tested in accordance with American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards. The ANSI standards are used to ensure that hearing protection provides a predictable level of protection, which is expressed by the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). Rated in dB, it is the level of protection that you get when you wear the device by itself. In order to comply with the ANSI standards, hearing protection needs to be tested by an authorized testing facility. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires every hearing protector sold in the U.S. to have an NRR label.

The higher the NRR number associated with a hearing protector, the greater the potential for noise reduction. This potential is subject to many other factors, including whether or not the protection is properly worn. NRR does not directly indicate the actual amount of noise reduction that a user will experience in a real-world situation. This is because NRR is based on laboratory tests that may not reflect the actual fit, use and maintenance of hearing protectors in different environments. The NRR should be used as a guide rather than an absolute value.

To get the NRR listed, the device must be properly and correctly. Follow the manufacturer’s fitting instructions. Hearing protectors that are hard to fit may be uncomfortable and not worn. Choose protection that balances performance and comfort.

A hearing protector should provide attenuation that is appropriate for the level of protection needed. Hearing protection with an NRR of 30 can potentially reduce a 160 dB gunshot to 130 dB, which is still very loud but less harmful. You should look for hearing protection with an NRR of at least 25 dB for shooting.

Combined Protection

If you want to achieve the highest level of hearing protection possible, you can wear both earplugs and earmuffs at the same time. This will create a dual layer of noise reduction. However, this may also reduce your ability to hear low-level sounds or communicate with others.

The NRR of earplugs and earmuffs worn together is not simply the sum of their individual NRRs. To reasonably approximate the NRR of earplugs and earmuffs worn together, you can expect to to add 5 dB to the higher NRR of the two devices. For example, if you wear earplugs with an NRR of 25 dB and earmuffs with an NRR of 30 dB, the combined NRR is 35 dB. This means that the noise level reaching your ears is reduced by 35 dB when you wear both devices. This is only an approximate attenuation. The actual attenuation depends on many factors, such as the type and fit of the devices, the frequency and level of the noise, and the bone conduction pathways. It could be more or less.

Comfort & Fit

Comfort and fit are very important. You want hearing protection that fits snugly and comfortably on or in your ears, without causing any pain or pressure. You also want hearing protection that stays in place and doesn’t fall off when you move your head. You should also consider how easy it is to put on and take off, especially if you need to switch between different types of protection. You should try on different types and sizes of hearing protection before purchasing.

Look for hearing protection that is designed for shooters. Some hearing protection devices have special features that make them more suitable for shooting. For example, some earmuffs have cut-outs or notches on the lower part of the cup to accommodate glasses or sunglasses without breaking the seal or have gun stock cutouts to accommodate long guns. Some electronic hearing protection has tactile buttons or dials that can be easily operated with shooting gloves on.

Final Thoughts

The most suitable hearing protection for you is the one that suits your situation, fits your ears well and does not cause discomfort when you wear it. Do not settle for a device that can block the noise level you need, but makes you feel uneasy. You have many options to choose from when it comes to hearing protection.

No matter what type of hearing protection you choose, make sure you follow the instructions on how to use it correctly. Earplugs should be inserted deep enough into the ear canal to create a tight seal without causing discomfort. Earmuffs should be adjusted to fit snugly over the ears without gaps or leaks.

You should always wear hearing protection whenever you shoot, even if it’s just a few shots or a small-caliber gun. Choosing and wearing the right hearing protection for shooting can protect your hearing and enhance your shooting experience. Your ears will thank you later!

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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