When it comes to ear protection, many shooters would never walk onto an active shooting range without some. However, all too often, ear protection is neglected or outright ignored by hunters who use firearms. In a sport where hearing is important, every shot at a deer, elk or duck erodes a hunter’s ears, robbing them of one of their most important senses. So what are the dangers of hunting without ear protection?
The Dangers of Hunting Without Hearing Protection
Shooting firearms can cause ear damage when hunting or even just when at the range. While this might seem obvious, it often gets forgotten even by veteran hunters, who might reason it away as only a gunshot or two, spread out over a long period of time — surely it can’t cause that much damage? Not so. A single blast from a 12-gauge shotgun at close range is rated at 165 decibels (dB), louder than a jet engine at 100 feet (140 dB) or a loud rock concert (115 dB). The loudest recommended exposure with hearing protection is 140 dB, with the pain threshold beginning at 125 dB.
Even though it’s only a single gunshot at a time, it’s still a single gunshot at 165 dB, loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage even with short-term exposure. While hunters of all kinds are at risk, bird hunters are especially high-risk due because they shoot multiple rounds per day from blinds where they must deal with the blast from not only their own guns but those of their fellow hunters, as well.
While hearing damage from loud noise isn’t unique to hunting, hunters do have to deal with something that other sportsmen do not: hunter’s ear.
Also known as shooter’s ear, this condition is a type of asymmetrical hearing loss caused by the way a hunter’s or shooter’s ears are exposed to the noise from a gunshot. The ear that faces the muzzle blast takes the full brunt of the noise, which can be anywhere from 157 dB (a 5.56 x 45mm rifle or 9mm handgun) to 165 dB (a .357 Magnum revolver) and above.
The asymmetricality comes from a phenomenon known as head shadow or ear shadow, where the head acts as a buffer for the non-dominant ear, providing a “shadow” of about 15 dB and significantly reducing the amount of hearing damage suffered by the ear that’s not facing the gun’s muzzle.
Still, even with the reduction in hearing loss presented by the head shadow, it’s easy for hearing damage to build up over time. So how does hearing loss or hearing damage happen? To answer that, first you need to understand how you hear:
- First, sound waves enter the ear and travel down the ear canal to the eardrum.
- The sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate. These vibrations are sent to three bones in the middle ear, known as the malleus, incus, and stapes.
- The inner ear bones couple these sound vibrations with fluid vibrations from the cochlea, which is a snail-shaped cavity filled with fluid. This cavity is bisected by a partition known as the basilar membrane, which serves as the base for key structures in the ear.
- The fluid vibrations in the cochlea cause a wave to form along the basilar membrane. Hair cells that sit atop the basilar membrane then ride this wave.
- As the hair cells move, the microscopic hairs at the end of each cell start to bend. This bending causes pores at the end of the hairs to open up, allowing a mix of chemicals to rush in, which creates an electrical signal.
- This electrical signal is carried to the brain by the auditory nerve, which enables it to be translated into a sound for us to process, understand, and react to.
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), of which shooter’s ear is a part, is caused by damage to and the destruction of the hair cells inside the inner ear. Unlike the hair cells of birds and lizards, human hair cells don’t grow back. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Each time the human ear is exposed to loud noises ( defined as any sound over 85 dB), there is a chance for hearing loss. While most hearing loss is gradual, caused by the slow death of the hair cells in the ear due to long periods of exposure to loud noises, extremely loud bursts of sound can cause damage to the three bones of the inner ear or even rupture the eardrum if they’re loud enough.
There are many different symptoms of hearing loss, which may either present over time (in the case of gradual loss) or immediately post-noise occurrence (tinnitus). The symptoms and effects of hearing loss include:
- Sounds becoming distorted or muffled
- Difficulty hearing or understanding other when they talk
- Tinnitus, a ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears
- Temporary hearing loss that may take anywhere from 16 to 48 hours to disappear
To reduce the amount of damage to their ears, hunters and shooters should wear some type of hunting ear protection. Ear or hearing protection works by reducing (not eliminating) the amount of noise entering the ear. To ensure that they’re using their ear protection effectively, every hunter should ensure that it fits properly.
The best ear protection for the job can vary from hunter to hunter, depending on:
- The individual’s comfort level
- The size of the individual ear canals
- The environment of use
- The expected noise level
The main benefit of hearing protection is obvious: to protect the ears from loud noises by reducing the amount of noise entering the ear. However, there are other side benefits as well, depending on the type of hearing protection chosen. These benefits include noise suppression over a certain threshold, allowing the shooter to hear normal conversations while muffling gunshots; protection of the ear canal or bones of the inner ear and hearing improvement to compensate for the hearing loss due to the insertion of the hearing protection.
Things to Consider When Purchasing Hearing Protection for Hunting
There are many different types of hunting hearing protection on the market. Because of this, a hunter or shooter needs to consider several different factors when they choose the type of hearing protection they’d like to buy. Factors to consider include:
- Amount of Use: Are you planning on just going out hunting or shooting once in a blue moon? Are you someone who hunts every season? If you’re only planning to go once in a blue moon, then simpler options may be the best choice. For a regular hunter, buying a pair of dedicated, custom hunting ear plugs is often a better and more cost-effective option in the long run.
- Type of Use: The type of hearing protection you get also depends on the way you need to use it — specifically, what you need to hear at any given time. If you need to hear conversations or a rangemaster’s commands, then simple foam earplugs may not be the best choice, since these tend to dampen or block all sound regardless of the source. Other options allow for the shooter to hear lower-decibel noises but then activate to muffle or dampen higher-decibel noises (usually anything over 85-95 dB).
- The Product’s Noise Reduction Rating (NRR): Each type of hearing protection sold has a Noise Reduction Rating that explains how much the given type of hearing protection will reduce sounds entering the ears. Different types of hearing protection have different NRRs, with foam plugs usually having some of the lowest.
- Comfort: Different options give the shooter different levels of comfort, depending on personal preference. It’s up to the hunter in question to choose not only the option they’re most comfortable wearing but also the option that they’re most comfortable using.
So what are the different types of hearing protection on the market? How do they compare?
Different Hearing Protection Options for Hunters
There are many different kinds of hearing protection on the market, ranging from the most simple (foam earplugs) to the increasingly more complex (electronic earplugs or electronic ear muffs). Let’s look at the different options and see how they compare.
- Foam Ear Plugs: Simple foam earplugs are probably the easiest, cheapest form of hearing protection to come by. They do have some advantages, namely the fact that they’re inexpensive, small and versatile enough to be used for many different applications. They also have an NRR of 33, making them pretty solid for blocking noise.
Still that doesn’t mean that they don’t come with some drawbacks, the largest of which being that they only protect the ear canal. This means that the sensitive bones of the ear are left largely unprotected. The second big problem is that foam earplugs dampen all noise, regardless of where it comes from, making it just as hard to hear a rangemaster’s commands as it is a gunshot.
- Ear Muffs: With an NRR of 30, a pair of shooter’s ear muffs may seem like a step down from foam earplugs, but in many cases, they’re actually a step up. They’re easy to use properly, unlike earplugs, which may require a special technique to insert properly and incredibly simple, just needing to be placed over the ears. Not only that, but ear muffs also protect the entire ear, not just the ear canal. They can also be combined with earplugs for increased protection.
However, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have drawbacks. Ear muffs can be awkward when wearing headgear, such as helmets, hats or beanies. They can also sometimes get in the way when it comes time to take aim, disrupting the fit of the rifle or shotgun to the shoulder. Finally, like earplugs, they block out all levels of noise, meaning that it’s harder to find game or hear conversations when out in the woods.
- Electronic Ear Muffs/Ear Plugs: Electronic ear muffs and ear plugs are much like their non-electric cousins. However, they offer one major advantage — the fact that they only block louder noises (85-95 dB). They also retain the advantages of non-electric ear muffs or earplugs. Of course, they also have many of the same disadvantages, as well as one other major disadvantage — cost. Electric ear muffs and ear plugs are by far the costliest option when it comes to choosing ear protection, with a pair of electric earplugs coming in at more than $125 per pair.
- Percussive Filters: A percussive filter is like a custom-molded earplug that combines all the good of ear plugs, ear muffs and their electric counterparts into one non-electric package. They cut out harmful noises and won’t lift off your ears when you fire a rifle. One of their only downsides is that, unlike electronic ear muffs or ear plugs, they don’t amplify sound. However, most percussive filters have two different NRR levels, meaning that they can block out loud noises with the 32 NRR section while still allowing regular conversations to flow through the 10 NRR section.
Trust Decibullz for All Your Custom Hunting Earplugs
Founded by gymnastics coach Kyle Kirkpatrick, Decibullz grew out of his desire to find a pair of headphones that stayed in, didn’t hurt his ears and sounded great to boot. Since then, Decibullz has striven to provide you with a pair of headphones, earbuds or earplugs that can be custom-molded to suit your needs while still protecting your hearing.
Since using ear protection when hunting is one of the best things you can do when it comes to ensuring that you’re able to enjoy your hobby long-term, we’ve striven to provide you with the best tools available when it comes to protecting your hearing.
To that end, we’ve developed our own custom-molded percussive shooting filters.
Decibullz’ percussive shooting filters are designed with impulse filter technology to protect users from the peak pressure of everything from gunshots to artillery fire. With an NRR of 32, a pair of Decibullz can bring noise down to a much more manageable level, turning a 157 dB gunshot from a 5.56x45mm into something just about as loud as a rock concert (115-125 dB).
Decibullz percussive filters can be custom-molded, allowing them to be shaped and molded to fit each individual user’s ears. All it takes is a little hot water, and the filters can be molded and remolded as necessary, meaning that they can change as your ears do.
If you’re not looking to go that far with your hearing protection, Decibullz also offers a pair of custom-molded earplugs, as well. Much like the percussive filters, these earplugs use the same molding process, simply requiring a dunk into some hot water to mold them to your ear. While the percussive filters are more designed with shooters in mind, the Decibullz earplugs are perfect for blocking everything from water to travel noise to loud music or a front-row rock concert.
For information about Decibullz’ products, visit us in-store or sign up for our newsletter for more information.