No reader here who is a frequent user of guns needs to be lectured on the importance of protective gear when behind a gun. Even those devil-may-care types who eschew eye-pro do not pretend to be so hard as to not need hearing protection, especially when around rifles or at any indoor range.
The noise of a gunshot ranges from very loud to ear-shatteringly, painfully loud. Any unprotected exposure to gunfire is probably going to hurt, and will also likely cause hearing damage. You don’t get your hearing back when it’s gone, so shelve the tough-guy act and bag those ears, even if you are just taking a shot or two.
But ear-pro is a needed piece of equipment beyond the range, and not just something to keep handy to don in a hurry on the off-hand chance a firefight breaks out in your neighborhood. Protective gear to muffle or deaden sound has several uses beyond just saving your eardrums, and is worth keeping handy with the rest of your supplies and perhaps even in your BOB or Go-Bag.
In this article we’ll explore a few situations where it would pay to have hearing protection handy away from the range.
Why Do I Need Ear-Pro?
As I stated above, your hearing is a pretty fragile thing, and should be protected from damage cause once it’s gone, it’s gone. Any peak or sustained level of noise above a certain decibel threshold will cause, or start to cause, hearing damage. Gunfire is one of the most common culprits, as are loud engines of all kinds, industrial noise, concerts, sirens and the like.
Eve sounds that may not be loud enough to be painful or cause significant peak damage to hearing can over time and with enough exposure result in degradation of hearing. This condition is sometimes called industrial deafness, owing to it being common in long time workers in factory, mill and foundry environments. Ask any range rat who works a busy public line how their hearing is after a few years; even “double-bagged” with plugs and high-quality muffs, most will suffer some loss of hearing.
Loss of hearing has a significant impact on your quality of life, even relationships: you don’t want to be the guy or gal always repeating “Huh?” or “Say again,” like I do. Any hearing damage can also lead to tinnitus, essentially that high-pitched bell-like or squealing whine we have all experienced on occasion. Imagine that happening all the time. Tinnitus sucks. You don’t want it.
The moral is even though you may not be anticipating harm from a loud environment, you might not be able to foresee all ends and so you should have ear-pro handy. Furthermore, there are other reasons and situations to don ear-pro besides protecting against damaging noises. We’ll discuss them below.
What Are Some Other Times You Might Use Ear-Pro?
Simply put any time you will be around sustained loud noise, want to focus or drown out background noise to get some quality shut-eye. Less exciting than gunfire but still damagingly loud sounds would be, say, a running chainsaw, certain generators, or doing a bunch of banging and hammering. Before you jump to conclusions about “muh situational awareness!” stop right there: you are totally, totally correct. There are times when the loss or reduction of your hearing via ear-pro is a bad idea. But there are also times where it makes sense.
If you have others in your group and are perhaps sleeping in shifts or just setting a watch, you might employ ear plugs or even muffs to help you rest, safe in the knowledge that someone is watching over you. Similarly if you just need to tune out the sirens, screams, banging, booming and crashing ear plugs will let you do that.
There are other tricky things we can do with certain types of ear-pro to reduce its impact on our situational awareness when we use them, and I’ll get into that when I talk about types of hearing protection. Otherwise, be smart. If reduction of your hearing could be a security risk you must weigh that against how damaging the ambient sound levels are or how badly you need to do whatever it is that got you to don them in the first place.
Types of Hearing Protection
Ear-pro is broadly available in two types, plugs and muffs, which each of those having several sub-types. Both have pros and cons, some are better for certain tasks than the other, and everyone has a favorite type. Ear plugs can be worn under ear muffs, sometimes called “double-bagging” to increase reduction even further.
Generally, plugs will offer better sound attenuation than muffs if they fit properly. Attenuation measures in decibels, or dB, reduced as perceived at the eardrum. On the ear-pro package, a higher number means more reduction, and ergo a “quieter” experience behind the muffs or plugs. Some plugs and muffs are designed with minimal reduction in mind to allow some sounds to remain perceptible.
Like most things, choose the right type for the right job, and there is a strong possibility you may need both. Below is a quick overview of the types of ear-pro you might consider for your purposes.
Pros: Typically good attenuation, easy to put on and take off. Even high performance models are affordable. Available with variety of fits to suit most tasks, and can even be integrated into helmets.
Cons: Bulky, bulbous cups and headband vulnerable to being knocked or snagged off head depending on situation, sealing over stems of glasses can cause agonizing headaches in some.
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Pros: Typically good attenuation, easy to put on and take off. External mics pickup sounds below cutoff threshold and transmit them to ear using speakers inside cups, allowing close to normal or even superhuman hearing. Good units can be integrated into personal radios for communications.
Cons: Bulky, bulbous cups and headband vulnerable to being knocked or snagged off head. Distortion and tinny sound over speakers is common. Requires batteries to function. Quality varies wildly, and good units can be very expensive.
Pros: Very cheap. Surprisingly good attenuation. Most models weigh almost nothing, and are very compact. Good supplement under muffs. Not likely to be knocked off.
Cons: Fiddly to put in ear canal. Repeated use degrades them quickly. Low durability.
Pros: Good compromise between cost and performance. Low profile. Some models feature tiny valves that can be opened to allow more sound to ear, at expense of attenuation. Typically durable. Good supplement under muffs.
Cons: Finding ideal brand for good fit can be tedious. Notorious for breaking seal when wet or sweaty.
Plugs, electronic w/ dampening
Pros: Typically good attenuation, often provide excellent hearing amplification increasing awareness.
Cons: Often very expensive. Require tiny, hard-to-find batteries or recharge dock. Don’t work great under muffs.
Considerations and Tips
If you are willing to spring for them, electronic ear muffs are one of the best investments you can make for preserving your hearing and situational awareness when guns are going off. This includes gunfights. High-end units will let you retain a sense of orientation as to where the sounds are originating from while simultaneously cutting off automatically when gun fire erupts. In milder times, they will let you hear conversation and other sounds normally while you keep the muffs in place doing their jobs.
Whatever muffs you choose, if you plan on shooting long guns it really pays to check for interference from the stock when you have a cheek weld on your rifle or shotgun. A bad fit can break the seal on your muffs, and perhaps interfere with sighting entirely. Some “shooter cut” muffs will alleviate this issue. Also keep in mind that larger bulkier muffs are more vulnerable to being snagged or knocked off during rigorous activity.
Plugs should be a dedicated part of your BOB regardless of whether or not you carry muffs. You never know when you might need them, and their tiny form factor and negligible weight mean you can carry a couple pairs anywhere. If you are around really loud noise, like gunfire inside a building, you can put muffs on over your plugs to make the experience tolerable.
As mentioned above, the type of plugs that feature a valve in the stem (Surefire EP series is a great example) will take the edge off handgun fire, maybe a rifle shot or two, and deaden background noise while still letting you hear generally. These can be a great all purpose earplug for sleeping and other tasks as well.
Protecting your hearing is important on and off the range, and too many prepared folks forget or omit ear-pro in their otherwise sound planning. Don’t be on one of them. Muffs and earplugs both have a place in your stockpile, and the right models can even confer a tactical advantage. Be sure to include them in your preparedness plan.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.