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The Olive Branch

What Are the Best Earplugs for Shooting?

man wearing earplugs and shooting a gun

This article explores the connection between shooting and noise-induced hearing loss. Here we suggest some effective earplug options to help keep your ears safe during your next session.

Shooting and Hunting Mean Extremely Loud Sound


Sounds under 70 decibels (dB) are considered to be at a safe level for hearing. Anything over 85 dB is likely to cause some level of damage to the sensitive hair cells in your inner ear. 


Concerningly, firearm noise can range from 140 dB to 175 dB. Of course, this will depend on the gun's caliber and the shooting environment, but one thing’s for sure — without protection, this level of noise is going to take a serious toll on your ears.


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) even points out that exposure to one event at 140 dB SPL would constitute 100 percent of a person's daily allowable noise exposure.


With this in mind, world-famous shooters Shawn Dulohery and Dave Henderson have even refused to fire their guns without hearing protection.


A 2000 study involving 1,500 Wisconsin men revealed that 95 percent of those who hunted and 38 percent of those who participated in target shooting had never worn ear protection during the year preceding the study. The study also demonstrated a link between shooting and high-frequency hearing loss (a reduction in your ability to hear high-frequency sounds). 


The hope is that an awareness of the dangers of noise damage has increased amongst shooters in 2020. Nevertheless, it’s clear that many people still aren’t using ear protection when shooting or standing nearby. Some have grown up shooting without ear protection, and when others around you aren’t using it either, it’s hard to make earplugs a habit.


Why Should You Use Earplugs for Shooting?


Ear protection is integral to safe shooting, but strangely, bringing ear protection to every session seems to fall to the wayside for many people.


Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the biggest causes of hearing loss, affecting millions of Americans today. But it’s not just repeated exposure to loud noise for long periods of time that causes damage, as very loud but short bursts of noise (just like gunshots) can cause irreversible hearing loss or tinnitus in just one blow.


Unfortunately, the hearing loss caused by noise damage to the inner ear can’t be restored, as once hair cells are damaged they don’t repair, but die. This also means that noise damage is cumulative, and every little bit of harm that’s happening to your hearing is contributing to your overall level and rate of hearing loss.


Using shooting ear plugs isn’t just important for those shooting, hearing protection is crucial for bystanders too. Even if you’re not the one shooting the gun, this doesn’t mean that you’re a safe enough distance away to not need earplugs. There’s a big difference between 70 dB (marking the threshold for safe hearing levels) and 140 dB, the lowest noise level the shot of a firearm is likely to create.


On the upside, choosing suitable ear protection can be easy. 


How To Choose Earplugs for Hearing Loss


All hearing protection should come with a noise reduction rating (NRR) — a measurement indicating how effective the protection is. The NRR is also used to calculate the dB rating of sound as it passes through your ear protection.


The higher your ear protection’s NRR, the safer your hearing will be. For reference, the highest NRR you can get is 33 which can considerably reduce the level of loud noise reaching your ears from the gunfire you’ll find on the shooting range.


Most products will display their NRR, which can be a useful way to compare your shooting ear protection options, especially if you’re buying online and can’t look at your choices physically in-store.


Protecting yourself against noise damage is difficult when you’re not expecting noise in a given environment and you’re caught off-guard. However, if you’re a regular shooter, you’ll be organizing your trips and will know for certain that extremely loud noise will be present (and even caused by yourself) when onsite. With this knowledge, there’s no excuse not to plan ahead and bring suitable ear protection for yourself and those around you.


If this isn’t enough to convince you, it’s worth keeping in mind how important your hearing is when you're hunting. Any shooter will admit that you rely on this crucial sense just as much as you do on sight.

Different Kinds of Shooting


You could be using a handgun, rifle, or shotgun for bullseye shooting, field shooting, or clay target shooting — it doesn’t matter. Whenever you’re around a gun, you need to use ear protection.


Custom-Molded Earplugs


Some people opt for custom-molded hearing protection, preferring these fitted earplugs to bulkier hearing protection. 


Like other earplugs, these go inside your ear, however, their custom mold means they’ll fit snug into your ear canal. Not only is this more comfortable for you and prevents them from falling out, but a tight seal also provides much better noise protection. 


As the damage caused by shooting comes in the form of short but extremely loud bursts of sound, by the time you notice your earplugs have moved and aren’t positioned correctly, the noise will be over and damage to your sensitive ear structures will have already occurred.


Unless you’re extremely lucky and your standard disposable or reusable shop-bought earplugs fit perfectly, or you try every product under the sun, you won’t get a better fit than with custom-molded earplugs. Given the way sound enters your ear and causes hearing damage, it’s unsurprising that non-custom or poor quality earplugs have a much lower NRR than custom-molded earplugs.


If you’re shopping around for affordable options, check out the brand Decibullz. They offer fitted earplugs with a short and simple set-up process that you can do yourself. You can simply boil some water and immerse the earpieces until they become pliable. After you’ve left them to cool for a bit, you can mold them to the shape of your ears for a great custom fit. They’re also re-moldable, which is handy if you make a mistake on your first try!


The Ear Pro by Surefire 4 Sonic Defender Ear Plugs made from soft, medical-grade polymer have also received great reviews for low decibel sounds (they have a lower NRR) and lower caliber firearms. These earplugs also have a retention ring to prevent slipping. However, they won’t provide the best protection when used with louder guns.


Mack’s Shooters Ear Seals Ear Plugs are also a simple, effective option for protection against high-caliber firearms. 


According to the National Institue on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that hunters and shooters wear earplugs and earmuffs together when firing guns for maximum hearing protection. While some people find earmuffs obstructive, this is encouraged by many experts for a greater level of protection, so is worth considering.


For more information on hearing loss, see our other blog articles.


The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources:


https://www.decibullz.com/the-importance-of-hearing-protection-for-shooting/


https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/newsletter/2006/spring/dont-let-gun-sports-backfire-you-use-ear-protection-and-hang-your-hearing


https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/nioshtic-2/20031787.html



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