The Truth About Firearms and Hearing Protection

 (courtesy westone.com)

Scott Lake writes in response to our recent Question of the Day: Have You Ever Forgotten Hearing Protection?

In the interest of full disclosure, I work for Westone Laboratories – makers of DefendEar lab designed and manufactured custom hearing protection [as above]. I work on both ANSI and CSA standards development committees for hearing protection testing, qualification, etc. I’m also on the Executive Council for the National Hearing Conservation Association.

There’s a whole lot of misinformation on when one should and shouldn’t wear hearing protection – some of it repeated in this discussion thread. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is probably the most authoritative resource in the country as it pertains to hearing loss, and has the most concise description of the damage risk criteria for hunters and shooters. Their website addressing this topic recommends double protection (muffs over earplugs), and they don’t say that it’s o.k. to shoot a .22 without, but make sure that you wear it for everything else. NIOSH’s page states that not only is the damage potential related to the peak impulse, but it’s also related to how many shots one shoots per day . . .

You should also be aware that there is pending change to the EPA ruling for the labeling of hearing protectors which includes a rating of how the protector works for impulsive noise like gunshots. I can say authoritatively, that the NRR is really pretty meaningless as it pertains to gunshot noise. If you’ve ever had your hearing tested (which I highly recommend), then you are familiar with a process similar to that used to determine the NRR – hearing is tested with an without earplugs in place and the difference between the two sets of data are used to calculate the overall protection (average attenuation and standard deviations from a group of 10 test subjects, 3 rounds of testing each are used.

If you’d like to see how the NRR is calculated, it’s available as the first 2 pages of this .pdf.

These low level noises used to determine NRR are not representative of the highly impulsive nature of gunshot noise – where hearing protection behaves non-linearly from an acoustics standpoint. In 2010, ANSI released S12.42-2010 which includes a provision for measurement of impulsive noise reduction. The test data from that portion of the standard is used to calculate Impulsive Peak Insertion Loss, or IPIL. This test metric provides a much more representative measure of the potential attenuation for a hearing protector as it pertains to gunshot noises.

Very few manufacturers have tested their products for this as it is a relatively new test standard and there are only a couple of locations nationwide where the test can be conducted. We have this test data for our DefendEar Digital series of products as well as our DefendEar Hunter Passive, with plans to test even more of our hearing protectors in this fashion. We should soon have an article addressing this topic on our website.

Another topic that has reared its head in this discussion is that somehow one’s body protects itself against gunshot induced hearing loss. The Veteran’s Administration really wishes that these statements were correct, as they have paid out quite literally billions of dollars over the years to outfit veterans with hearing aids due to gunshot noise induced hearing loss. This report shows that hearing loss and tinnitus are some of the biggest claims that the VA has to pay, both from sheer numbers of persons suffering as well as the financial outlay. Several pages of that report address this issue.

In the meantime . . .

Don’t forget your earplugs and earmuffs and even more importantly, wear them properly. Improperly worn hearing protection is rampant. If you choose to wear a generic fit earplug, make sure to check with the manufacturer’s directions on how to fit them properly. Make sure that the product is the right size for you. I had a customer tell me his custom hearing protection was much less comfortable than his generic ‘bullet shaped’ foam earplug. Then he showed me how the foam earplug inserted without having to roll it down! He wasn’t getting any protection from that plug.

Roll the foam down so there’s no fold-over to it – hold it in while it expands. To test whether it’s really working, begin talking in a normal speaking voice and slowly raise an open palm hand past your mouth while continuing to talk and toward your ear (like an old-time radio announcer). You shouldn’t be able to hear a change in the sound with a solid foam or silicone hearing protector, as you raise your hand toward your ear.

Enjoy shooting the rest of your life – wear proper hearing protection – always.

comments

  1. avatar PhoenixNFA says:

    Silencers do NOT completely muffle the report of the firearm either. People make fun of me for wearing muffs when shooting a suppressed SBRd AR-15. If you look at actual testing you will see its still “loud” (for lack of a scientific term). It certainly helps and it certainly makes a great training tool and a “better than nothing” solution, but unless you are shooting a suppressed bolt action .22 subsonic, hearing protection will ALWAYS be a plus compared to without it.

    1. avatar BDub says:

      As the article above mentions, the peak is also part of the equation, a big part when it comes to the report of a fire arm. The actual decibel level is only part of the equation, and even a much lower decibel noise can cause damage, if the change between normal db and the peak db happens rapidly enough (as in a gun report). The tissues of your ear aren’t pliable enough to react/adjust to the change, and it just gets worse as you age as the tissues become even less pliant.

    2. avatar mike says:

      556 is loud with or without a silencer. Just a very inefficient round (sound-wise) to suppress period. Having an SBR makes it even worse. Hearing pro is still a must.

  2. avatar Will Power says:

    It’s about time someone with actual knowledge of the subject addressed hearing protection in a widely read firearm blog. I get so tired of hearing all the interwebs experts say again and again that one’s body has some magical ability to ignore simple physics. Thank you, Mr. Lake!

      1. avatar John Fritz says:

        Beat me to it.

        Huh?

        I said Beat Me To It.

  3. avatar Russ Bixby says:

    The flippin’ power of suggestion is a SCARY thing.

    I don’t have tinnitus, but reading this piece I got a brief ringing in my right ear.

    Gave me the screaming heebie jeebies…

    1. avatar Colby says:

      I hear that sound too. It lets me know I’m not dead yet.

      Sometime’s I wake up at night and wonder, but then I hear that eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. “Whew, still alive,” I think to myself and then drift back to sleep.

      Seriously though, I have had (wouldn’t call it suffering) tinnitus since my early teens from exposure to loud agricultural equipment and gunfire. I don’t want it to get any worse so for the last few years I’ve worn muffs over plugs whenever I go shooting. Only time I don’t double up is when hunting and the shot presented does not allow me the time, or if I have an emergency (which has yet to happen).

      Good article and good advice.

      1. avatar Anon in CT says:

        I’ve got rather wicked tinnitis (thank you Army) and even with foam plugs and the best earmuffs I could find, I still don’t like the indoor range when someone is shooting a hand-cannon like a .44 Mag.

        1. avatar Matt in FL says:

          I don’t think anyone really likes that, some just tolerate it better than others. I know that gun’s about as punishing to their hand as it is to my ears, and they won’t be shooting it long, so I just take that opportunity to go outside and get a drink for a minute.

  4. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

    Thanks all for this article. My dad was a firearms instructor in the Navy. (probably what started me on this path at age 6). He gets new hearing aids every couple of years. I’ve never wanted to be in that situation so I usually double up on protection.
    There’s been plenty of posts here about negligent or unintentional discharges, safety glasses, etc…
    The mild tinnitus I have bugs the heck out of me all the time from indiscretions in the past, no doubt.
    You younger shooters out there, double up!

  5. avatar Jeremy S. says:

    Scott, what is Westone’s best plug for maximum noise reduction and overall hearing protection for shooting (let’s say high volume shooting) that’s affordable for me? The digital ones are awesome, but just WAY out of the budget for my purposes and income. DefendEar Max? Style No. 40?

    Thanks,

    Jeremy

  6. avatar Crunkleross says:

    Auditory exclusion often happens during high stress events like combat but just because you can’t remember hearing the gunfire doesn’t mean it didn’t cause harm. Reminds be of the argument that you “won’t feel the recoil when your life is on the line”, maybe so but it will still affect your ability to get off the second shot accurately.

    1. avatar Gyufygy says:

      Auditory exclusion is a brain mechanism, while hearing damage is (usually, could be some exception I don’t know about) inside the ear itself. You didn’t really need those microscopic hair/nerve cells, did you?

      1. avatar Avid Reader says:

        Apparently not. Just like I didn’t need the ability to hear middle and high frequency sounds.

        Of course, now they’re made up for by the constant “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” from the tinnitus. . .

        Plugs and muffs for me!

  7. avatar TStanton says:

    I’ve always worn just the plugs when shooting handguns or rifles (even .22) – but I don’t wear any hearing protection when hunting.

  8. avatar Mike in CA says:

    To the TTAG staff. Those DefendEar plugs are pretty interesting. I generally wear foam plugs but i like electronic muffs. The reason i don’t wear them often is that they tend to interfere with my cheek weld and it’s pretty easy to accidentally unseal them when they do. I didn’t know there were internal electronic options available. Could you guys test something like that? Is anyone aware of similar options with a lower cost?

  9. avatar harrycarry says:

    Yup, being that I’m 23 I have a mild case of tinnitus from being in a band, shooting with out ear pros and working in a loud Industrial settings. I highly recommend all shooters especially young shooters to wear protection. I know for a fact I’m going to need hearing aids latter in life.

  10. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

    Just an FYI for those who care. This company is based in Colorado.

  11. avatar Jason says:

    Sometimes people look at me funny when I double up on hearing protection. I have a bunch of radians custom molded foam plugs (color coded for my left and right ears). And I wear a pair of voice amplifying muffs on top of that.

  12. avatar Leadbelly says:

    These sounded great till I looked at their website. These things cost more than my last car! I mean – are you sh***ing me? $1300.00 for a pair of ear plugs! Get real. I’m 65, have been shooting all my life, and couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve sat directly in front of the amps at Dead concerts in my youth. I’m a little hard of hearing, but no worse than anyone else I know my age. I wear silicone plugs, and muffs make sweat run down my face. At the end of a range session I have no ringing or other after effects.

  13. avatar Ralph says:

    I trust NIOSH as much as I trust the EPA, which is to say not at all. Not in the least. Not a bit. In fact, I wouldn’t trust NIOSH if it said that the sun rises in the east. Nor do I trust a corporate flack who cites NIOSH as authority for anything.

    I’m still wearing ear pro because I’m not stupid. I’m just not wearing DefendEars. Ever.

  14. avatar Robert Seddon says:

    If I do not have ear muffs or plugs handy, I have found that if you find a buddy that smokes filter cigs you can break off a couple of those filters and use them. Not scientific and definitely not digital, but they work O K for me .. ….what did you say?

  15. avatar Heardoc says:

    Thank you Scott for that excellent writing. Several things need to be mentioned: 1) There is a maximum attenuation for any hearing protection regardless of the cost and that is roughly 40 dB (NOT NRR) at which point the sound passes through the skull and impacts the cochlea directly.
    2) I have never found anything in the auditory literature that measured or discusses “Auditory Exclusion” in the real world. It’s mostly anecdotal or quasi-scientific data. I discount almost all of the self-defense industry’s use of the term. As a (former) military audiologist of 30 years I have no doubt that perceptual narrowing occurs in high stress situations, but it’s never been measured or analysed.
    Most of what you read in the popular gun media about the subject is pure conjecture.
    3) A combination of self expanding foam plugs and reasonably priced passive earmuffs will provide you with as much attenuation as physics and physiology will allow. Anything else is for personal preference, personal comfort, or one upsmanship.
    4) Westone makes some nice stuff and has supported the military audiology community for years.
    5) OSHA and NIOSH have very talented and dedicated scientists and engineers. Some of my best friends work(ed) for them. I wouldn’t trust them to come up with any cost effective real world solutions to anything. And I sure wouldn’t invite them to my range unless they also came with a very large bag of money….

  16. avatar Tommy Knocker says:

    Another blog dismissed the idea that muzzle brakes contribute to hearing loss. The reason that PHs in Africa don’t allow the things on hunting guns. Anyone that does a little research will find that folks who grow up and live in noise intense areas like cities and towns in the Western world all have progressive hearing loss. Native peoples who live in natural environments like the big woods of Canada or savannas of Africa have unbelievably good hearing at all ages. The nerve cells in the hearing mechanism have not been assaulted during a entire lifetime. How disrespectful to go there and jeopardize the hearing of a tracker or guide by using a brake. The large caliber canons with a brake are just like a .50 BMG. The concussion is enormous. The peak amp is huge.

    1. avatar Ropingdown says:

      Agree about muzzle brakes. I’m shocked that my nearest indoor range allows them. I will absolutely not hunt with someone whose rifle is so equipped. If a person can’t handle .375 H&H or other heavy loads, either don’t use them else load up your rifle with lead weights to ease the recoil. Nothing is more arrogant that boasting about one’s ability to handle a powerful rifle…that has a muzzle break on it.

  17. avatar Out_Fang_Thief says:

    Take this as the anecdotal offering it is. My uncle ran a gun range so large, it looked like it could have been a converted commercial bowling alley. The firing line was 50 yards long. In his club, nothing but full ear muff protectors were allowed. Many complained, but all complied. He knew, back in the 50’s, that foam ear plugs were not sufficient ear protection. The bone surrounding the ear transmits the shots concussive impact to the ear drum. Nothing is better than full ear coverage. Everything else is always less.

  18. avatar William Burke says:

    My late father developed severe hearing loss pretty early in his life. I always chalked it up to the fact that he worked decades in a mechaniical telephone switching office- this was before the era of electronic switching, which is silent. If anyone is old enough to remember them and has experienced them, it was thousands of mechanical switches continually clicking on and off – VERY loud stuff.

    I never considered his WWII service, because he was in the Signal Corps, and not in front-line combat. However, maybe I should have figured in training, as well.

  19. avatar NWGlocker says:

    The picture distracted me. $1300 – $1900????? Hearing protection at that price had better be more than good…even if they’re customized.

  20. avatar Christy S. says:

    Would love to see an article here about some quality options for hearing protection. Personally, for inexpensive protection, I use either the orange band with the foam on the ends from Dick’s with the because I can easily get them in and out of my ears and can’t hear when they are in. However, sometimes when I am instructing, I like the electronic ones so I can hear the students better…..but they don’t seem to do a good job filtering noise.

    Please TTAG….do a review of some hearing protection. If I missed an article like that, someone please point it out to me. Thanks!

  21. avatar Alan Rose says:

    Not too long ago I read of some new therapies for tinnitis. You wear headphones and a series of tones is transmitted to your ear to “retrain” it. Supposedly many people have experienced a complete cure.

  22. avatar Rocky says:

    Great article. Read it, sitting here with tinnitis (for the last 15 years) wearing my hearing aids. And only 56.

  23. Let’s be clear here.

    A human being under the kind of life/death stress of a fight for his life does not NOTICE the intensity of the sound, but that does not mean the human ears are not absorbing just as much of it.

    1. avatar AlphaGeek says:

      I run a pair of those with plugs underneath as my regular range wear. While they are very popular, they do have a few downsides that prospective buyers should be aware of:

      * They are nicely compact, but the compromise is that the foam surround is quite thin and doesn’t adapt as well as thicker foam surrounds to eye-pro temple pieces, etc. I’ve switched over to fog-proof goggles with elastic straps to address this issue, but there was a lot of sound leakage with conventional eye-pro.

      * Yes, they come with a convenient cable to connect them to your iDevice for listening to music — but the sound quality is absolutely wretched. I used them to listen to music while using noisy garage-workshop tools when I first got them — for about 20 minutes, then I unplugged the cord and never did that again. If you want to listen to music, put in a pair of in-ear headphones before putting on your ear-pro.

  24. avatar Scott Lake says:

    Hey folks, I didn’t realize that this posted – just noticed it today (about a week later!).

    I’m going to try my hardest to avoid discussion commercially related questions in the thread (preferred communication through our website), and just point out a few more details that may be of interest and pertinent to some of the comments on this post that I had originally made in the thread that Robert links to at the top of the post.

    The EPA, which requires the label that goes on hearing protection is The Environmental Protection Agency, and has regulatory authority.

    OSHA, is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – and it actually falls under the Department of Labor. It also has regulatory authority.

    NIOSH, is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is part of the Centers for Disease Control, which from my understanding is part of the US Department of the Navy! It has no regulatory authority, but exists to establish and publish worker safety and health best practices. Often times, NIOSH criteria and recommendations are more conservative as it pertains to individual safety and health items. Such is the case with hearing protection in general and specifically related to firearm noise.

    Here’s the reality – authoritative, consumer-friendly information on protection from firearm noise is incredibly scarce. This is somewhat understandable, as the measures for testig the effectiveness of hearing protection on firearm type noise is only recently published (2010), and even then – test systems that can be used to test to the standard were and are still being developed to comply with the standard. We tested some our products to the standard about as soon as the first test system was available at a certified laboratory. Likely, the testing methods will continue to evolve over time, as has been the case with other measures of hearing protector effectiveness. Whether the regulators ever catch up to the developments remains to be seen.

    1. avatar Matt in FL says:

      Thanks for the extensive writeup, Scott.

  25. avatar Jessie Mack says:

    I have hearing loss in one ear and mild tinnitus which is very annoying. I wouldn’t want to risk any more damage and appreciate the post Scott! I can agree that proper fitment is the most important part of hearing protection regardless of what equipment you have.

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