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Hearing Protection for Shooters

Filed in Articles, Hearing Protection, Shooting by on July 23, 2011 1 Comment • views: 1179

I’m shooting at an indoor range now (it’s summertime here in Arizona) and one thing I noticed immediately is that it’s a lot louder. That prompted me to review the types of hearing protection available.

First, some background about sound and noise reduction.

Sound pressure in measured in decibels (db). The first thing to know about the dB scale is that it is not linear. Every 3dB doubles the loudness, so a 93dB sound is actually twice as loud at a 90dB sound.

The level at which permanent damage to our hearing starts to occur is 90dB. Exposure to 90dB for 8 hours will cause some permanent hearing loss. For every 5dB increase that allowable exposure time is cut in half. It’s not uncommon for gunshots to produce 140dB – 160dB which will result in instantaneous damage. Chuck Hawks wrote an article in which he used a meter to measure the sound at his range and it pegged his 126dB meter, so the 140-160dB number is probably realistic.

We need to get down out of that 140-160dB range, but how far down?

By doing the math we can see that we can withstand 105dB for an hour without damage. Even at a busy range, the sound is not continuous.  Each blast lasts only a few milliseconds. They do happen close together but to my thinking, keeping the sound level below 105dB should provide me with sufficient protection unless someone is firing a machine gun.

This means that for complete protection at an indoor range (or somebody shooting next to your ear), you need something with a minimum of 35dB of noise reduction. My experience at outdoor ranges is that the sound levels are noticeably lower but I can’t find a quantitative number.

So with that in mind, lets see what’s available

Earplugs

I have long been a fan of the Silencio Red-E-Fit foam earplugs pictured here. They provide 32dB of noise reduction and are very inexpensive. A package of 6 pair is about $3.  To insert one, you roll it between your fingertips and compress it and then slide it into the ear canal.  The foam gradually expands providing an excellent yet comfortable seal. Though they are inexpensive, ironically they provide more hearing protection than most passive earmuffs.

Passive Earmuffs

Most people opt for  a set of earmuffs. The very first hearing protection I ever bought was the Silencio Original, (about $13 today) and providing 25dB of protection. In terms of noise reduction levels, I haven’t seen anything better than the Pro Ears Passive Ultra 33 (about $40) shown here with 33dB of protection. For a set of passive earmuffs that’s pretty good. I found that most passive earmuffs provide 23-27dB of protection.

One feature touted by manufacturers is liquid-filled (vs foam-filled) ear cushions. If you wear glasses, the liquid filled will probably fill more of the gap your glasses cause.

From years of aviation use however, I’d recommend you look for leather ear cushions instead of the plastic ones. The plastic ear cushions pressed against your head will likely make you sweat profusely. Leather breathes.

Electronic Earmuffs

When I first heard of electronic earmuffs for shooters, I thought they offered active noise reduction. Active noise reduction means that they analyze the incoming sound and produce an identical soundwave 180 degrees out of phase, causing the sound to be canceled out. That’s the way the modern aviation headset work.

In actuality, they operate quite differently. Externally-mounted microphones pick up outside sounds and electronically reproduce them in little speakers mounted inside the earcups. Some can even amplify the sound. When the sound level hits a predetermined threshold – usually 85db – the electronics shut off and they act like passive earmuffs. Most appear to offer just 22-27dB of protection. I found no one offering a higher level of protection that that the Pro Ears Gold has (33dB ) but they are REALLY expensive (about $300).

So why buy them? If you are in a situation where you need to hear conversation – such as a training environment – then electronic earmuffs are your only choice.

I use these Pro Ears Gold and I think they are amazing. I can hold a normal conversation an the shooting range with them on.  It’s great.

What About Double Hearing Protection?

You would think that by wearing ear muffs over earplugs you would get the sum of the hearing protection offered by the two – not true. There have been some serious studies that show that the best you can get from double hearing protection is about 5db over the highest rating of the two devices employed. I know it’s counter-intuitive but it’s due to bone-conductivity and an interaction between the earmuffs and earplugs.

Conclusion

Based upon this, I’ve come to the conclusion that for shooting at an indoor range, I need double-protection to be assured of saying below that 105dB level. The best hearing protection available offers about 33dB bringing the sound pressure level down to 107-127dB.

The combination of the Silencio Red-E-Fit foam earplugs (32dB) and a pair of earmuffs offer about 37db of protection.

Update:

Today at the range I borrowed a pair of passive earmuffs and wore them along with my earplugs and there was a noticeable difference.  I’m sold.

Comments (1)

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  1. TD says:

    Nice article. However, I wanted to note for future readers that NRR ratings are not additive. Its definitely counter intuitive, but 32db and 29db of combined passive muffs and plugs do NOT add to 61db of protection.
    Best you can do is about 35db. Check out the site below for more info:
    http://www.noisehelp.com/double-hearing-protection.html

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