Gunslingers: Lend me Your Ears! Better Yet, Protect Yours

Guns can be hazardous to your health. I’m not talking about “ballistic issues” or brain damage from huffing lead. I’m talking about hearing loss. I SAID—  Pause with me for a nanosecond whilst I give some of you time to go all “Oh I know all about earplugs. Besides, my gun’s not that loud. And if I shoot without plugs, my ears ring a bit, then they’re back to normal.” Hearing is like pre-divorce capitalization or that paradise that Joni Mitchell’s antagonists paved: you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. And then it’s gone forever. Only it’s more subtle than that. You don’t realize that you’re losing your hearing, even when you’re losing it. Here are some fun facts . . .

  • If you fire a gun without hearing protection, even just once without hearing protection, you WILL experience a measurable hearing loss that’s permanent.
  • After the ringing stops, and your hearing returns, what you get back is not what you started with – there will be a small, but measurable loss.
  • Hearing loss caused by firearms discharge and other loud noises can be completely avoided by using hearing protection.
  • Hearing protection is cheap – especially when you consider the cost of losing your hearing, hearing aids, et cetera.
  • Discharging a firearm indoors increases the potential for hearing loss exponentially, over firearms discharge outside.
  • Nothing you see on TV or in the movies is realistic, when it comes to firearms use and your ears.

I’m taking care of my dad right now. He’s 84. Among his catalog of maladies is some serious hearing loss. In WWII, he was on Admiral Nimitz’ staff. His bunk was under the 21″ guns on the Missouri. Back in the day, nobody had the least idea that exposure to loud noises was anything other than annoying or inconvenient. As a result, the VA issued him some very nice (and very expensive) hearing aids, to help him compensate for some profound hearing loss.

Since he’s a musician, wearing hearing aids is a challenge on a number of levels. He doesn’t like them, he’s embarrassed about wearing them, and he forgets to put them in. Not fun. Even worse is when he doesn’t wear them. Those around him are in danger of going deaf from the volume levels on his TV. Yet, when the hearing aids are out, he has no idea that setting his TV volume to the max is a problem – it’s not too loud for him.

My Dad’s hearing loss occurred to his ears back in the 1940s. The problems didn’t begin until he was older. In his 40’s, he realized he had “peaks” in his hearing. Certain pitch ranges (mostly higher ones) he had a harder time hearing. Now as he’s in his 80’s and his hearing is shot to Hell.

I have an acquaintance who once spotted a coyote loping along a remote road in the Texas Panhandle. He was armed. The coyote (the furry kind, by the way – not a human trafficker) was not. My pal pulled out his handgun, rolled down the window and shot it dead. And couldn’t hear much for the better part of three days. He can look forward to hearing less in the future. It’s the way of things.

So what can YOU do to avoid losing your hearing? Simple. Wear hearing protection. And wear it every time you shoot.

Now I get that, if you’re in a condition red situation, the last thing on your mind will be worrying about damage to your hearing. If you’re confronting thugs in a home invasion, a carjacking, or getting held up on a street corner, you’re not gonna say “Hey…hang on a sec, while I put in my earplugs…don’t wanna experience any hearing loss when I whip out my concealed handgun and blow your worthless ass away.” No, I suspect you’re gonna shoot first and ask hearing questions later. Questions like “Huh?” “Can’t hear you…can you speak up?” “What did you say?”

Okay. We’ve established that hearing protection is essential. What kind of protection works?

  • Rule #1 – Any hearing protection is better than no hearing protection. Even those iPod earbuds that completely block your ear canals (the ones marketed as “noise blocking”) are better than no earplugs at all. And in an urban environment, thy are not a bad compromise, especially if you’re looking for a quick ‘n dirty, improvised solution.
  • Rule #2 – You need more hearing protection indoors than you do outdoors. Physics is the culprit here. All sound is really nothing more than the vibration of air molecules. When you set off a loud noise, the molecules radiate from the point of origin. If they have nothing to bounce off of, the sound dissipates. If the vibrations hit walls, ceilings et cetera, they reflect and you get more molecules coming right at your ear canals. The smaller the room, the bigger the boom.
  • Rule #3 – Hearing protection is useless, unless you wear it. I don’t care how much you spend on fancy hearing protection. If it’s in your range bag and not in your ears, it’s no more useful or effective than “none at all.”

Ear protection comes in a variety of shapes sizes and styles. Some block more sound. Some less.

  • In-ear protection – these can be as simple as pieces of so-called “memory foam” that you squeeze and stick deep in your ears. Or they can be some relatively sophisticated gadgets with tiny mics and speakers that simultaneously amplify normal sounds and instantaneously reduce loud sounds to a manageable level.
  • Over-ear protection – These are the ubiquitous “cans” you see at the range. They come in two flavors…with or without electronics. The electronics ones make it easier to hear things at a normal volume, while still protecting your ears from big booms.

The Federal Government (in particular OSHA) has established standards for hearing protection. Using the familiar Decibel scale, hearing protection is rated, showing you just how much loud noises are reduced by the earplug or can. If you visit your local sporting goods emporium, you’ll see ratings like “-16dB” for earplugs, or “-22dB” for cans. I found the following data online at Galen Carol Audio (gcaudio.com):

Environmental Noise
Weakest sound heard 0dB
Whisper Quiet Library 30dB
Normal conversation (3-5′) 60-70dB
Telephone dial tone 80dB
City Traffic (inside car) 85dB
Train whistle at 500′, Truck Traffic 90dB
Subway train at 200′ 95dB
Level at which sustained exposure may result in hearing loss 90 – 95dB
Power mower at 3′ 107dB
Snowmobile, Motorcycle 100dB
Power saw at 3′ 110dB
Sandblasting, Loud Rock Concert 115dB
Pain begins 125dB
Pneumatic riveter at 4′ 125dB
Even short term exposure can cause permanent damage – Loudest recommended exposure WITHhearing protection 140dB
Jet engine at 100′, Gun Blast 140dB
Death of hearing tissue 180dB
Loudest sound possible 194dB

Now, you might ask, “doesn’t it hurt my ears more, the longer I’m exposed to loud noises?” RIght you are, bunkie. And here’s the 411 on those factoids:

OSHA Daily Permissible Noise Level Exposure
Hours per day Sound level
8 90dB
6 92dB
4 95dB
3 97dB
2 100dB
1.5 102dB
1 105dB
.5 110dB
.25 or less 115dB

For comparison sake, here’s some stats on music appreciation:

Sound Levels of Music
Normal piano practice 60 -70dB
Fortissimo Singer, 3′ 70dB
Chamber music, small auditorium 75 – 85dB
Piano Fortissimo 84 – 103dB
Violin 82 – 92dB
Cello 85 -111dB
Oboe 95-112dB
Flute 92 -103dB
Piccolo 90 -106dB
Clarinet 85 – 114dB
French horn 90 – 106dB
Trombone 85 – 114dB
Tympani & bass drum 106dB
Walkman on 5/10 94dB
Symphonic music peak 120 – 137dB
Amplifier rock, 4-6′ 120dB
Rock music peak 150dB

Now if you’re not already asleep, let’s look at some firearms sound data, shall we?

Table 1. SHOTGUN NOISE DATA (DECIBEL AVERAGES)

.410 Bore 28″ barrel 150dB
26″ barrel 150.25dB
18 ” barrel 156.30dB
20 Gauge 28″ barrel 152.50dB
22″ barrel 154.75dB
12 Gauge 28″ barrel 151.50dB
26″ barrel 156.10dB
18 ” barrel 161.50dB

Here’s some long rifle data:

Table 2. CENTERFIRE RIFLE DATA

.223, 55GR. Commercial load 18 _” barrel 155.5dB
.243 in 22″ barrel 155.9dB
.30-30 in 20″ barrel 156.0dB
7mm Magnum in 20″ barrel 157.5dB
.308 in 24″ barrel 156.2dB
.30-06 in 24″ barrel 158.5dB
.30-06 in 18 _” barrel 163.2dB
.375 — 18″ barrel with muzzle brake 170 dB

…and some handgun data:

Table 3. CENTERFIRE PISTOL DATA

.25 ACP 155.0 dB
.32 LONG 152.4 dB
.32 ACP 153.5 dB
.380 157.7 dB
9mm 159.8 dB
.38 S&W 153.5 dB
.38 Spl 156.3 dB
.357 Magnum 164.3 dB
.41 Magnum 163.2 dB
.44 Spl 155.9 dB
.45 ACP 157.0 dB
.45 COLT 154.7 dB

If you cut through all the data, the answer is “guns are loud.” The other answer is “wear hearing protection.”

If you value your hearing, do something about saving it now, and not later. In the coming weeks, TTAG will be reviewing a variety of hearing protection solutions. But don’t wait on us. If you’re not already using hearing protection, get some now and use it every time you shoot. Hear me?

comments

  1. Great information! My father served on the USS Dixie early in the Vietnam era. His clinic (he is a Dentist) was located directly under the ship 5” deck gun, which was loud enough. He did use hearing protection and has excellent hearing today.

    Also, both of my sons are both percussionists (2009 PASIC National Champions!) and this is a big concern for them as well.

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