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What’s the best ear protection for shooting? Well, we covered electronic hearing protection recently but let’s expand a bit more on what you need hearing protection to do.

The short version is that you want the greatest degree of hearing protection possible that also fits the kind of shooting you do. Before I show you a few examples, let’s talk about Noise Reduction Rating as well as the noise caused by gunshots and what that means for your ears.

Hearing damage occurs if you’re exposed to a certain noise level for a long enough time period. Hearing damage occurs instantly above a certain noise threshold as well.

I’m not a doctor and I’m not an audiologist. I will be dealing in the Reader’s Digest version here; feel free to fill in the details in the comments section.

Essentially, any noise level below 85 decibels (dB or dBA) is considered safe. Prolonged and repeated exposure for a long enough time period will induce hearing damage. That period gets shorter the greater the noise level. Exposure to noise levels of 120 dB for more than a few hours will damage your hearing.

Noise levels above 140 dB causes instant damage to your hearing. Not much, but it does. The more it happens, the more damage you incur. The typical gunshot produces around 160 dB. In other words, any shooting without hearing protection damages your hearing. Maybe only a tiny amount, but it is happening.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Noise Reduction Rating. Now, NRR does not take the number of decibels off the top. So, if you have an NRR of 20, it doesn’t attenuate a 160 db noise down to 140. Instead, the actual reduction in noise is calculated in the following way:


So, if your hearing protection has an NRR of 25, it works like this: 25-7 = 18/2 = 9. Therefore, a 25 NRR reduces noise by 9 dB. A 160 dB gunshot will therefore be attenuated to 151 dB, which still damages your hearing.

Double protection is a good idea. Combining ear muffs and plugs is a best practice for repeat exposure to noise levels above 100 dB. This adds about another 5 dB of attenuation.

The highest rating for hearing protection is an NRR of 34. For those not wanting to blow cash on electronic hearing protection, standard muffs and plugs with an NRR of 34 can be easily found, which – if used properly together – can reduce the noise of a 160 dB gunshot or other loud noises to 140 dB.

Electronic hearing protection attenuates any noise above 82 dB, but doesn’t completely eliminate the potential for hearing damage. It does a bit, but a best practice is to combine electronic muffs with ear plugs for the utmost in hearing protection.

What are some good brands to look for? Here are a few.

Howard Leight Impact Sport (image

Howard Leight, part of the Honeywell family of companies, makes analog and electronic hearing protection. These are popular with shooters. Their electronic muffs are good budget electronic hearing protection, with the Impact Sport models being the best-suited for shooting. You’ll see a lot of these at the range. Their passive ear muffs and plugs are decent, but don’t offer any models with an NRR over 30.

Peltor Sport Tactical (image: 3M)

3M Peltor is another good brand. Again, their electronic hearing protection is popular, but they have passive hearing protection as well. Look for their Optime and X5 passive muffs, as they offer the most in passive protection with NRR of 30 or more.

Walkers is also another popular brand with shooters. Active and passive muffs and earbuds are available, with the Razor and Silencer lines being popular.

Dan Z. for TTAG

What should you look for in ear protection for shooting?

A balance of factors. Regardless of anything else, you need the greatest amount of hearing protection possible. For earmuffs, an adjustable padded headband is a good feature, as are low-profile ear cups so you can use them with a stock. Foldable helps, for easy storage, but isn’t strictly necessary, and having an input jack (or even Bluetooth) for an MP3 player is a nice touch.


Tyler Kee for TTAG

After that, you need to pick the right kind of hearing protection for you. That depends on what kind of shooting you do on a regular basis.

If you do your shooting on a more formal range and/or if you compete, you also need to be able to hear commands from a range officer. If you hunt, they need to be able to pick up ambient sounds and water-resistant models are definitely recommended. Look for electronic models with directional microphones and sound amplification, or passive models with sound valves.

Jeremy S. for TTAG

In-ear protection, popular for hunters and for tactical use, should be moldable so you can get the proper fit in the ear canal. Passive models with sound valves are good for hitting the duck blind, and active models – so long as they can withstand outdoor use – are good too.

What makes and models of hearing protection have you had experience with? Is there a good make and model you recommend? Sound off in the comments!

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  1. I’ve been hunting for over 50 years. Never heard or seen anyone use hearing protection in the field. Seems counter intuitive when hunting game. Where hearing the animal approaching is often the first sign of it’s presence. As for the best hearing protection. Hands down no question a suppressor is the best. Unfortunately that option has been regulated out of the average persons ability to acquire. Without jumping through governmental hoops and the added expense of paying fees on top of the expense of the suppressor.

    • Actually, the new electronic muffs allow you to amplify sounds while blocking gunshots. So really, now you get enhanced sound detection ability, like superman.

      • Yup. I was used to passive and then got an active set. World of difference. I was going through a drill in a shooting house and the instructor mentioned that I was the only one who didn’t shoot the ‘good guy’. I had to tell him that it was because I could hear him chewing out the other shooters from over 50 yards away thanks to my amplified hearing…

    • Never used anything in the field either but at the range with people on both sides a couple feet away firing away for hours you do need something and anything is better than nothing. Don’t see the need for high dollar fancy electronic stuff I use cheap little foam pugs that I used for years in my race car and they work just fine. No worry about forgetting them, use once throw them away buy them by the sack full….

    • i’ve had a conversation with a fellow instructor who was approx 50 meters away, while wearing electronic earmuffs.
      all the while approx 50 students were firing m-16’s.
      electronic earmuffs while hunting would be a tremendous help, with now hinderance at all.

  2. Most discouraging.

    I use Remington branded ear defenders, rated at NRR33. Underneath are foam ear plugs. Using the calculation presented, the very best to hope for at the range is a constant 142dB. (NRR33-7=26/2=13+5=18; 160dB-18dB=142dB). Not a good situation.

    • Well, not quite. The author didn’t explain that calculation and is combining two health and safety calculations. First, as a general rule, we subtract 7 from the NRR to get the actual reduction. The 50% is an way to conservatively estimate reduction in actual application. In other words, we subtract 7 because manufactures are gonna list the max under ideal conditions. So if we calculate we need a reduction of 15, we should get protection rated at 22. The 50% is what we can actually expect employees to get because we assume they’re idiots and can’t wear them properly. They won’t insert plugs properly or have proper seals with muffs. So we estimate that the average employee is only going to see a 50% effectiveness out of the NRR, and the NRR chosen should have been calculated conservatively with that extra 7.

      Now there is some truth to that with shooters, because our eye pro often interferes with muff seals. But automatically applying 50% is disingenuous in my opinion, and subtracting 7 can be argued as well.

      In other words, they’re calculations applied by OSHA to heavily err on the side of caution to protect employee hearing.

      • Thanx for the additional info.

        If I understand correctly, subtracting 7dB from the rated NRR of 33, would result in 26dB protection, add back 5dB protection from ear plugs (100% of the time), and subtract no dB loss due to eye protection frame legs, and the result is actually 31NRR. Which gets me 160dB-31dB=129; much better, much safer.

  3. Is anybody else bothered by their muffs’ headband riding the button on the peak of a cap?
    Every photo in this piece shows a cap with a button, like

    The muffs’ headband drives the cap’s button into my scalp, which is irritating and distracting within a few minutes, and painful during an extended period.

    If I’m wearing muffs, I absolutely must have a flat-top cap like

    • Yes, that blasted metal button at the top of a ball cap has hurt me several times over the years.

      What I do is pry the button off the cap and throw it away. Usually the button has teeth under it that you can bend back out with a small screwdriver. The whole thing is sewn together anyway. Have never had a cap fall apart on me.

      • As an instructor, competition shooter and RO and slow learner I started taking the button off my cap. About 2 years later my Dr. noticed a dime sized black spot on my head about the same place as the button hit. Turned and looked at my barber (aka wife), she said I thought you knew. Stage 4 melanoma, related? Who knows? Now, no button and a bump cap while on the lawn mower!

    • button ? button ? who needs the button ?
      simply remove the button by cutting the threads holding it on the top of your cap.

  4. For electronic muffs the speed with which they close down on sound levels above threshold is important. Pro Ears markets that they have fastest response times.

    • Which is why the valve type are worthless for shooting. The mechanical valves don’t have time to close. The shock wave is moving as the speed of sound (duh), but the valves don’t move at sonic speeds. The impulse is short, so even if the valves close, the sound has already hit and done the damage. The valves themselves are puny and would transmit the sound anyway. At NRR in the mid-teens, (NRR-7/2) is only 5 or 6 dB.

  5. Why is it no one ever talks about using hearing protection on top of hearing aids? I get a lot of squeal feedback and have to remove the aids if I wear earmuffs. Besides, earmuffs feel like a C-clamp screwed on my head. What to do? Have the same problem flying my plane with a radio headset on. It’s a lose-lose situation, it seems.

  6. For single layer protection, I’ve found nothing better than the pink disposable foam plugs. If you insert them right and they seal, you’ll get about -30db. Doubling up with muffs will get you to about -45db.

    It’s almost impossible to get beyond that in noise protection. Once you get to about -45-50db (depending on frequency), sound will propagate through your skull and no ear protection will prevent that.

  7. I use both, molded plugs under a set of electronic muffs which are the Walker’s Razor.

    The only obnoxious thing I’ve found about electronic earpro is that it works great for regular shooting, especially if you’re trying to talk to someone at a range. But if you have the volume turned up to hear someone the sound of a suppressed rifle or handgun isn’t enough for the electronics to trip and cut out the noise of the shot so instead it gets amplified. For a pistol it doesn’t matter much, for a rifle it can be rather loud. So two sets for that and I generally wear the double layered protection anyway because I find that safety glasses or sun glasses create a gap in the muff that decreases their effectiveness by like 1/3rd, which is then taken care of by the plugs.

  8. In all of this discussion about hearing protection, remember that bone conduction will transmit overly-loud SPL’s into your ear too.

    This means that when you get up into the 155+ dB sound levels, you should be thinking about how you insulate large areas of your skull with little tissue on top of the bone – eg, your forehead, your mastoid process, etc.

  9. I wish that prescription hearing aids were available with some type of sound cut-off above a certain decibel level. For those of us who carry all the time, the hearing aid thing poses a bit of a dilemma…if you need to use your pistol on short notice, you don’t have time to get rid of your hearing aids. I suppose losing what’s left of your hearing (mine was pretty well compromised after going through Basic with an M1 Garand) is preferable to being shot dead, but I’d prefer to have hearing aids that offered such protection in emergencies.

  10. The 3M Peltor electronic ones say that they are “not noise-cancelling”. What does it mean to be active/electronic but not noise-cancelling? Are they still protecting against anything above 85dB?

    • Active/electronic means that they have sound insulation, but they have microphones and amplifiers so that you can have a normal conversation with the muffs on. When someone shoots, the active amplification turns off so that it does not amplify the sound of the report.

      “Noise cancelling” means that electronics is used to sense noise making through the ear pro and then generate sound of the opposite phase to actively cancel the residual sound. These are most often found to wear on aircraft, etc. I know if no ear pro for shooters that include this, and most of us would not want it. This would mean we would not be able to hear conversations, deer, range officers, etc.

      • “Electronic hearing protection attenuates any noise above 82 dB”

        What does the article mean by that? It still confuses me a little.

        • “Electronic hearing protection attenuates any noise above 82 dB”

          “What does the article mean by that? It still confuses me a little.”

          It means that when noise above 82dB is detected, the protection “kicks-in”. Whereas with non-electronic hearing protection you are hearing everything muffled, regardless of dB, with electronic devices, you generally hear things “normally”, until the noise rises above 82dB. At that point, the noise reduction factor (NRR) provides whatever softening of the noise is possible with the device.

          Electronic hearing protection cannot reduce all ambient noise (gunshots) to 82dB. In the grossest terms, if the noise level is below 82dB, you have no hearing protection, and when the noise is above 82dB it is as if you just at that moment put on your hearing protection.

        • Electronic muffs are just like passive muffs. Any noise reduction is due to the padding, etc. They then have a microphone, amplifier, and speaker to the ambient sounds into the quieted muffs. When the sound gets too loud, rather than blasting your ears like at a rock concert, the muffs will either cut out the sound completely for a little while, or they will attenuate (lessen) the amplification to a point where it’s still comfortable to hear. The second are more expensive, but they will let you hear the steel ring, while those that cut out may not have turned back on fast enough to hear if you hit.
          As someone said, the noise cancelling ones play the exact opposite of the incoming sound so that the net effect is silence. Picture two lumberjacks at either end of a 2-man saw that push and pull at the same time instead of the one pushing when the other pulls. Another example is two guys pulling very hard on a tug-of-war rope so the middle stays still. One man is the outside sounds, and the other is the speaker inside the headphones. However, that works best with a repetitive sound, like engine drone. A gunshot is an impulse (short duration, contains lots of frequencies). The noise cancellation calculations would need to detect all the frequencies (record them), process them very quickly, reproduce the wide range of frequencies, and do it in a way that both signals hit your ear at the same time. Besides the problems with recording and playing a wide range of frequencies, if the timing is a little off, it will essentially be a double shot as both the original impulse and the cancelling impulse hit you a little bit apart. Picture the tug-of-war guys standing still, counting to 10 silently, and then giving the rope a quick yank. If their timing is exact, the rope doesn’t move, but if they’re mistimed, the rope will whip in one direction and then whip back in the opposite direction.

  11. I’ve tried to keep it simple and just use a set of Peltor 3m tactical sports over a set of disposable foam plugs. At the indoor range I use, I just keep them turned off and turn them on and use them in that manner when necessary. I haven’t shot outside with them yet but figure I’d just leave them on since the sounds would dissipate more. I have a set of passive muffs in case I need them as well (3M).

  12. I tried some Noisefighter replacement ear pads on my Howard Leight muffs. Very nice, and the eyeglass earpiece slot is a great idea.

  13. Your explanation of the confusing “NRR” numbers is so important. No one else bothered to explain that they DON’T reduce noise dB levels by the numbers they show people. Just you.
    Mr. Hoober, my own article on this subject was published in TTAG, and I congratulate you on your VERY GOOD article.

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