America has a strong history of gun usage, based to some degree on the movies and television programs we knew as a kids, which showed us images of policemen and cowboys firing guns almost all the time. The impression from these visuals was definitely potent, because this country continues to have millions of gun owners who fire them often, while hunting or at firing ranges. The aspect not communicated to these millions of gun owners is that the individuals firing guns on television and in movies probably ended up deaf, or struggling with severe hearing disabilities.
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a very real phenomenon, and accounts for a sizeable proportion of hearing problems in our society. The damage done to hearing by loud noises has two primary types – damage caused by transient high noise levels (e.g. gunfire or explosions) and damage caused by sustained high noise levels (e.g. heavy machinery sounds).
The loudness of sounds is measured in decibels – total silence is zero decibels, a library is 40 decibels, and normal conversation is 50 to 60 decibels. The decibel scale is logarithmic. 50 decibels is twice as loud as 40, and 60 is four times as loud as 40 decibels. Permanent hearing loss due to NIHL can occur after sustained exposure to sounds over 90 decibels in just a month or so. Similar ear damage can happen considerably faster at higher decibel levels. It only takes minutes of sounds at 120 decibels, for instance from a jet engine or rock concert, to lead to long-term hearing damage. Gunshots have a decibel volume level of 140.
One topic that most gun enthusiasts and hearing professionals agree about is that no one should be firing a gun lacking some kind of ear protection. What type of ear protection is best depends to a certain degree on where you plan to shoot.
If much of your shooting is at indoor or outdoor gun ranges, your best option at a reasonable price is some type of over-the-ear “muff” type headphones that block transient noise not only from reaching the inner ear but also from getting to the cochlear bones in back of the ear. Some sport shooters who value their hearing combine such ear muffs with in-the-ear foam ear plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or higher, to achieve even more protection. The most effective protection – and unfortunately the most expensive – is provided by headphones with electronic noise-cancelling technology. Electronic noise-cancelling headphones have the additional benefit of permitting you to hear normal conversations while cancelling out the transient sounds of gunfire.
Regardless of whether you’re a novice or seasoned range shooter, ask your hearing care professional about the latest in hearing protection products, and under no circumstances go to the firingrange without protection. Then follow the advice they give, while you can still hear them saying it.