Maximizing the Shooting Experience with Hearing Protection

A short dive into noise reduction exploring silencers, earplugs, and earmuffs to help folks optimize hearing comfort while participating in shooting sports - especially those with sensitive hearing.

I recently came across a handful of social media posts where folks were looking for hearing protection recommendations. One post was looking for hearing protection recommendations specifically for a young kid who is ready to step up into shooting centerfire cartridges from a deer hunting rifle but has extremely sensitive hearing. I responded with my suggestions and then shared a short thread on Twitter summarizing those suggestions.

I thought about hearing protection some more afterwards and decided to write this post since the suggestions are really applicable to every shooter. The thing is guns are loud. Painfully (and ear damaging) loud. So loud in fact that oftentimes it is one of the reasons new or young shooters may decide that shooting activities isn’t for them and may even aid the development of a fear of firearms.

Before diving into this topic, let me be clear that this topic is specific to folks who have already developed a basic understanding of safe firearm handling and are adequately prepared to shoot centerfire rifle cartridges. Some of the recommendations I am about to make can impede a shooter’s ability to hear instructions. As such, I recommend learning to safely operate a rifle with less powerful cartridges (like .22 Long Rifle for example) where less hearing protection is needed to achieve a comfortable shooting experience and maintain the ability to clearly hear instruction.

Let’s get started.

Opt for the Outdoors

First things first, avoid indoor shooting ranges. This may not be possible for everyone depending on where they live and what local shooting facilities are available to them. However if one has the option to shoot outdoors safely, then I suggest picking the outdoor option every time when it comes to hearing comfort.

Shooting indoors is simply a louder experience. It’s not because the firearm is any louder. Rather, it’s elementary physics. Sound waves are directional. Outdoors the sound waves will be pointed downrange away from the shooter’s ear. Indoors sound waves will be reflected by the enclosed space and can be redirected back towards the shooter’s ears several times before dissipating. This makes the indoor experience much louder than the outdoor experience.

While the outdoor experience may introduce other discomforts in terms of climate depending on the current season, the indoor experience will always offer greater hearing discomfort.

Put a Can on It

Okay. I get it. Purchasing a silencer is an expensive and time consuming ordeal. In some jurisdictions, this may not even be a legal option. Then there is the pesky little detail that a large number of firearms do not have a threaded barrel and are not ready to accept a suppressor without additional investment. However, if a suppressor is an option then I strongly recommend purchasing one and, if needed, invest in modifying the weapon to accept a suppressor. Hear me out.

When fired, most centerfire handguns and rifles will produce sound pressure levels 160 dB (decibels) which is well above the 140 dB threshold of pain. Some rimfire rifles will produce sounds around just north of 140 dB when fired. Exposure to these sound pressures not only causes pain but also has a high likelihood of leaving some permanent hearing damage.

Generally speaking a silencer will reduce the sound pressure levels by about 30 dB. This can be a few dB lower when a smaller caliber cartridge is fired through a suppressor designed for a larger caliber. But even so, this reduction will bring the sound pressure levels of most common centerfire firearms under the 140 dB threshold. Mind you this is still louder than operating a jackhammer which can still be uncomfortable for many shooters, albeit hearing safe for the extremely short duration of a gunshot sound.

Double Up on the Hearing Protection

This might seem overkill at first, but I think it’s a good place to start for many shooters when stepping up to a more powerful cartridge. This is especially true for shooters with sensitive hearing. Even more so when shooting unsuppressed. I’m also going to suggest starting with inexpensive hearing protection. Chances are if you are still reading this, I’ll bet you are either a newer shooter (with or without sensitive ears) or are looking for a way to introduce a newer shooter (also with or without sensitive ears). Hear me about a bit as I take you through my train of thought.

I like to start with some plain old in the foam earplugs. I personally keep a small bucket of disposable foam earplugs with the shooting gear. They are always a great inexpensive backup to keep around. Sometimes I use them when I head to the indoor range, other times I use them to introduce newer shooters to different firearms. Either way, decent foam earplugs will have a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 32 dB. This means that when worn properly, they will reduce the sound pressure by around 32 dB as the sound enters the hearing canal.

In addition to the earplugs, I keep a couple of large inexpensive protective earmuffs with the shooting gear. These also make great inexpensive back up to the more expensive hearing protection I use. I also lend these out quite a bit to newer shooters when I’m introducing them to different firearms. When not doubling up, some folks prefer in the ear protection while others prefer over the ear. I’m all about helping folks be as comfortable as possible when handling firearms. A good large set of these will have an NRR of 30 dB.

One thing to note is that doubling up on hearing protection does not mean the NRR is combined as a sum. I found some information that explores the usage of dual hearing protection which explains why one can’t just add NRR ratings when doubling up, but was also unable to find a formula that precisely calculates the combined NRR. I’m going to guess that doubling up a 30 dB earmuff and 32 db ear plugs will result in about 41 dB noise reduction. Even if my guess is wrong, I can tell you from experience that doubling up definitely dampens sound more than just using one or the other option. Take a look at the following table to see my potentially incorrect numbers (either way it should give you an idea of the dampening effect).

No protection167 dB137 db
Foam earplugs (NRR 32)135 dB101 dB
Earmuffs (NRR 30)137 dB107 dB
Dual protection126 dB96 dB
Sound Pressure Levels from .308 Hunting Rifle

Ok cool. So what? Well let’s consider familiar sounds that produce those types of sound pressure levels:

  • 167 dB – Louder than a jet taking off. Painful. Immediate hearing damage likely.
  • 135-137 – Louder than a jackhammer. Uncomfortable. Hearing damage possible.
  • 126 dB – Louder than a thunderstorm. Discomfort likely for those with sensitive hearing. Hearing damage possible with exposure.
  • 107 dB – Chainsaw. Possible discomfort for those with sensitive hearing. Hearing damage possible with prolonged exposure.
  • 101 dB – Train. Less of a chance of discomfort for those with sensitive hearing. Hearing damage possible with prolonged exposure.
  • 96 dB – High school band. About as good as it’s going to get for a hunting rifle. Hearing damage still possible with prolonged exposure.

The down side to doubling up on hearing protection is that it can make it challenging to hear somebody else speak. This can be unsafe as it can make hearing instructions and range commands difficult when shooting.

Hopefully, I’ve made my case for using a can and initially doubling up with the hearing protection.

Lighten Up

If hearing discomfort is nonexistent when using dual hearing protection, then it’s worth taking off a layer of protection and giving it a go with either earplugs or earmuffs. Assuming hearing discomfort is still nonexistent, then it’s worth swapping out the earmuff for the earplugs or vice versa and see identify a personal preference.

At this point, looking at investing into some form of electronic hearing protection. I’m a big fan of electronic hearing protection as they can really help a shooter hear instructions and range commands. I’ll get into the ones that I use later in a future review.

The point of all of this is that hearing protection is important and so is hearing comfort. Even when shooting activities are safe from hearing damage, gunshots are loud and can create discomfort for many shooters. Getting the right combination of hearing protection and shooting suppressed not only aids in keeping the ears damage free, but can greatly enhance the shooting experience. 

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