Vin T. Sparano, as excerpted from Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia: Camping, Fishing, Hunting, Boating, Wilderness Survival, First Aid
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), any sound over 90–95 decibels (dBs) can result in hearing loss. Shotguns and rifles, depending on the firearms, can have noise levels of 140 to 190 decibels. Pain and permanent hearing loss begins at 125 decibels. By comparison, a roaring jet on takeoff only reaches a level of 100 decibels and a thunderclap can register 110 decibels.
Here are some statistics that should scare any target shooter or hunter: A study in the Archive of Family Medicine concluded that hunting and target shooting are the two recreational pursuits most hazardous to hearing. And target shooters are twice as likely to damage their ears as hunters.
How does a shotgun or rifle blast damage ears? Without getting too technical, sound pressure is measured in decibels. The average person can hear sounds down to zero decibels. People with exceptional hearing can hear sounds at -15 decibels, but as the decibels increase in number, so does the risk of hearing loss. There’s little danger of permanent hearing loss until the noise level reaches 90–95 decibels. Obviously, the impact of a rifle or shotgun blast of 140 decibels will inflict hearing loss unless the ear is protected.
Repeated exposure to 90–95 decibels over an extended period of time will damage the microscopic hair cells found inside the cochlea or inner ear. These cells respond to mechanical sound vibrations by sending an electrical signal to the brain, where it translates into sound. Different groups of hair cells are responsible for different frequencies or rates of vibrations. With extended exposure to levels over 90–95 decibels, these hair cells in the inner ear are damaged and permanent hearing loss occurs.
There are various ways to protect your ears when you’re target shooting or hunting. You can use earmuffs, foam plugs, electronic muffs, or combinations of ear protection and sound-amplification aids. Selection should be based on a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), which is required by law to be shown on the label of every hearing protector sold in the United States. If an ear protector has a rating of 29 decibels, for example, the protector would reduce a rifle blast of 150 decibels down to 121 decibels. NRR ratings, however, are based on optimized lab tests and may bear little resemblance to what users get in practice. Some units labeled as a 20-30-decibel reduction may only achieve a 10-20-decibel reduction when poorly fitted.
There’s a simple way for shooters to determine their bad ear. If you shoot right-handed, your left ear is closer and faces the muzzle and it is likely to be the ear that suffers more hearing loss than the right ear. If you shoot left-handed, the right ear takes the brunt of the muzzle blast.
Several manufacturers produce products with a combination of ear protection and sound amplification. They are effective and can add many years of active hunting for sportsmen who are experiencing hearing loss. This technology is also available in electronic earmuffs and they tend to be less costly. Most of these electronic muffs have NRR ratings of about 25 decibels.
It’s important to remember that hearing aids are not ear protectors. Most hearing aids are vented, making them useless as hearing protectors. In fact, hearing aids should not be used in high-noise areas whether they are turned on or off.
If you’re looking for a simple economical solution to protecting your ears, use foam plugs. Most plugs are made of expandable foam. Properly inserted, foam plugs offer among the best protection available and are comfortable for most wearers. Many shooters, however, still don’t know how to use them. The plug must be rolled into a very thin cylinder and inserted well into the ear canal. Foam earplugs can have an NRR rating of 30 decibels. The very best protection is to use the foam plugs in combination with earmuff protectors. Keep in mind that the object is to obtain a solid and comfortable seal against noise; any ear protector that has a “leak” will not protect your hearing.
There’s a wide choice of ear protection available to shooters. If your hearing is still good and you want to keep it that way, it’s critical that you use ear protection whenever target shooting or hunting. If you’ve been negligent like older shooters, the damage has probably already been done, but you can still protect what’s left of your hearing by always using ear protection, even if you’re only a bystander at a range.
About the author:
Vin T. Sparano is the author of Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia as well as three other guides for Rizzoli.
He has been an outdoor editor and writer for more than fifty years. He is editor emeritus of Outdoor Life, and has written and edited more than fifteen books about the outdoors. In 2013, he was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.