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The Shooter's Guide to Hearing Protection

Posted by RangeOften.com on Nov 21st 2019

The Shooter's Guide to Hearing Protection

If you shoot guns without wearing muffs and earplugs, you will suffer Tinnitus or hearing loss. The caliber doesn't matter, nor does the number of shots fired -- take it from us, we know from personal experience. But you're a smart shooter and you like your hearing, so here's your guide to proper hearing protection. Let's get started.

Ready to pick ear pro? Check out our Review of the Best Shooting Muffs.


How Sound is Measured

Sound is measured in decibels, which we abbreviate as "dB". The louder the sound, the higher the dB. Sound is typically measured between 0 and 190 dB, with zero being the limit of hearing and 190 being the loudest natural sound possible: 

  • Noises above 120 dB can cause immediate hearing loss.
  • The average sound of gunfire starts at 140 dB or higher.

Even the tiny .22 LR reports over 140 dB of noise. Conventional pistol rounds like 9mm report over 162 dB of noise. The average 5.56 NATO round reports over 165 dB, while the average .44 Magnum reports over 170 dB. A study in Switzerland also found that 11% of over 1,700 hunters reported suffering "severe hearing loss". The amount of shots fired did not matter, with the study finding it's possible to suffer "irreversible damage to the inner ear from just one or a few shots."


Noise Reduction Ratings (NRR) Explained

You should understand noise reduction ratings, or NRRs, before buying hearing protection. The NRR measures the maximum number of decibels (dB) of noise reduction while worn. By law, all hearing protection devices must have an NRR rating. The higher the rating, the greater the protection against noise. The American National Standards and OSHA are responsible for testing the NRR of all hearing protection devices. The highest rating you can get with earplugs is 33 NRR, while earmuffs top out at 31 NRR.

NRR vs. Decibel Reduction

In a perfect world, the NRR reduces the maximum decibels of sound by a 1:1 ratio, meaning shooting muffs with 31 NRR would reduce a gunshot measuring 140 dB to 109 dB. However, this isn't always the case. OSHA recommends subtracting 7 from a hearing protection device's NRR rating to obtain the "real-world" rating. With the example above, shooting muffs rated at 31 NRR would reduce the sound of gunfire from 140 dB to 116 dB.

"What NRR Should I shoot for?"

Your hearing protection's total NRR should reduce the sound of gunfire below 120 dB. Small-caliber weapons require a minimum NRR of 20. Large-bore handguns and intermediate-cartridge rifles call for 25 NRR or better, and large-bore rifles and magnum loads require the highest rating possible (33 NRR). Hearing protection with a rating of at least 28 to 31 NRR is recommended for indoor shooting ranges, where gunfire is often amplified.

"Does combining hearing protection double the NRR?"

No. Although combining earplugs and muffs is recommended for shooting, the protection you receive isn't doubled. To calculate the combined NRR rating of two forms of hearing protection, OSHA recommends taking the higher of the two NRR ratings and adding 5. For example, if wearing a set of 31-NRR earmuffs and 33-NRR earplugs, the total noise reduction rating would be 36.


Types of Hearing Protection

There are three kinds of hearing protection available: Earplugspassive earmuffs, and active earmuffs. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends wearing both earplugs and earmuffs together when shooting any firearms.

Passive Shooting Muffs

Passive shooting muffs (like these 30-NRR Leightning L3s above) are the most common type of hearing protection. Passive muffs use dense foam and around-the-ear cups to insulate the ears from all external noises. Passive protection is the most reliable form hearing protection. Failing to fully seat the cups around the outer ears defeats their effectiveness, so passive muffs have to adjusted to sit on your head with a proper fit.

Pros

  • More economical than earplugs
  • Easy to wear and use for beginners
  • Most reliable form of hearing protection

Cons

  • Reduces all external noise, hindering awareness
  • Lower maximum noise reduction rating than earplugs

Electronic Ear Muffs

Electronic ear muffs (like the 22-NRR Peltor Sport Tactical 100s) are popular among shooters because they provide appropriate noise reduction for most gunfire, but they allow the wearer to hear conversations and safe noises around them while worn. Some units even amplify noises that are too quiet, enhancing situational awareness while hunting or training. Electronic ear pro works by feeding all external sound through the muffs to the ears with small, built-in microphones. When the sound processor inside the muffs detects an unsafe sound (like gunfire), it turns off the microphones before the sound can reach the wearer, essentially turning the muffs into passive ear pro when needed.

Pros

  • Lets the wearer hear safe noises
  • Enhances situational awareness
  • Automatically reduces unsafe noises

Cons

  • Requires batteries or charger to operate

Features to Consider

You're probably sold on the active muffs already. It's no surprise -- they're our favorite, too. When buying active hearing protection, it's important to consider all the features and technical specs. After all, you want to make sure they perform well and provide the right protection:

NRR Rating

Electronic muffs are often marketed and used for more than just shooting, so make sure the ones you buy have a high enough NRR rating to protect against the sound of gunfire.

Number of microphones

Active hearing protection devices use one or more microphones in each ear cup. The more microphones, the better the sound direction and volume control. Each cup should have at least one microphone and speaker. If you're hunting, training, or require more situational awareness, having at least two microphones per ear cup is beneficial. This provides a better indication of whether sound is coming from in front or behind you.

Noise Gate vs. Sound Compression

The processors in active ear muffs control sound levels by two methods: With a noise gate or sound compression. A noise gate turns off all sound when the safe volume threshold is reached. A sound compressor works by "averaging out" all sound: It reduces the volume of noises that are too loud, and enhances the volume of noises that are too quiet. Noise gate-operated muffs are typically more effective at killing off the sound of gunfire, while sound compression-operated muffs provide greater situational awareness.

Dynamic vs. Adaptive Suppression Time

The initial blast of a gunshot produces the most volume, but echoes and reverberation can cause secondary noises which are dangerous to a shooter's ears. This is a common problem when shooting at indoor ranges. Active ear pro units have either dynamic (user-adjustable) or adaptive (automatic) suppression times. The suppression time measures how long a dangerous noise lasts, and how long the hearing protection "shuts off" or kills volume to protect against the noise. This is also commonly called "attack time".

Maximum Volume

Active hearing protection offers the unique advantage of amplifying noises, too. With that comes the need to control max volume. Sometimes, amplified noises (which would otherwise be safe) can become unsafe for the wearer, so volume may need to be adjusted. Other active muffs have no volume control and automatically adjust all sound for you.

Earplugs

Earplugs needs little introduction. They're a great form of passive hearing protection, resting inside the ear canal just in front of the ear drum. It's strongly recommended you wear earplugs with your shooting muffs, especially if firing larger handgun cartridges or rifle rounds. 

Pros

  • Compact design saves storage space
  • Provides plenty of passive hearing protection
  • The most affordable form of hearing protection

Cons

  • Can be difficult to insert and wear properly
  • Can cause discomfort if not appropriately sized
  • Disposable plugs need to be replaced frequently
  • Reusable plugs need to be sanitized regular

How to Correctly Wear Earplugs

Earplugs provide excellent protection against gunfire and unsafe noises, but only if worn correctly. Whether wearing disposable or reusable plugs, follow these steps to ensure proper fitment and protection:

#1: Roll

With clean hands, roll (don't squeeze) the earplug between your thumb and fingers. Compress the plug until it is as small as possible.

#2: Pull

With your other hand, reach behind your head and grab the top of your ear. Gently pull up on your ear to open the ear canal for the earplug.

#3: Press & Hold

Insert the compressed earplug directly into the ear canal while gently pulling on your ear. With the plug inserted, let go of your ear. Maintain gentle pressure on the earplug for 10 seconds with your finger. This ensures the plug stays in place while it expands and seals your ear. To remove the plug, gently twist it and pull it out.


Quick Summary

  • There are three types of hearing protection: Earplugs, passive ear muffs, and active muffs.
  • Gunfire measures at least 140 dB in volume, but it takes just 120 dB to cause immediate hearing loss.
  • Hearing protection is rated with noise reduction ratings, or NRRs.
  • NRR ratings don't always translate into a 1:1 decibel reduction. 
  • Subtract 7 from a device's advertised NRR to be safe.
  • 20 NRR is recommended for small calibers, like .22 LR.
  • 25 NRR is recommended for pistol rounds and small rifle rounds.
  • 30 NRR or more is recommended for big-bore rounds and magnum loads.
  • When shooting guns, doubling up ear pro with muffs and plugs is recommended.
  • When doubling up hearing protection, add 5 to the higher NRR rating for the total NRR.

DISCLAIMER: If you are new to the world of DIY gun building, you likely have a lot of questions and rightfully so. It’s an area that has a lot of questions that, without the correct answers, could have some serious implications. At 80-lower.com, we are by no means providing this content on our website to serve as legal advice or legal counsel. We encourage each and every builder to perform their own research around their respective State laws as well as educating themselves on the Federal laws. When performing your own research, please be sure that you are getting your information from a reliable source.