I’m betting most everyone remembers the cell phone commercials on television a decade ago with the guy showing up in remote areas and asking: “Can you hear me now?”
For a goodly number of regional shooting and hunting sportsmen, that ad hit home in more ways than one. Then and now, longtime gun enthusiasts suffer problems with diminished hearing, Fifty years ago, ear protection was seldom considered and, when it was, the options were scant.
Shooting for the most part consisted of sighting in the deer rifle with a couple of shells and hopefully one for a whitetail, a few shotgun rounds for partridge or ducks and maybe a handful of .22 bullets for rabbit and squirrels. Hearing protection was most ignored other than a few guys sticking their fingers in their ears at the rifle range. I’m pretty sure avid hunters like my Dad and uncles weren’t ignoring our mother’s requests and our questions, they just couldn’t hear some of them. Other times, I’m pretty sure it was selective hearing, which might just be hereditary as I get it sometimes myself.
Hunting seasons have expanded and shooting sports snowballed with more men, women and youngsters becoming involved each year. There are big game, small game, waterfowl, upland game and varmint seasons for licensed hunters, and shotgunners have trap, skeet and sporting clay courses. Of course there are dozens of indoor and outdoor target ranges for rifles and handguns. Guns and shells have gotten more powerful, are often louder and every time you fire one without ear protection, the small delicate bones and membranes of your ears and anyone nearby sustain at least a small degree of injury. Over time, irreparable damage occurs. Can you hear me now?
Thankfully, along with all the technical advances in firearms and ammunition, there have been just as many inventions and improvements for the hearing protection of shooters. Some of these products cost less than a dollar and are still effective, while others may be several hundred, which is still a cheap price to preserve one’s hearing. One type of ear protection is referred to as passive, while another style uses batteries and electronics to filter out loud noises and can even amplify ambient noise and recognize the difference.
Perhaps the first style of passive wear protection was a wad of cotton or piece of cloth inserted into the ear canal, available for over a 100 years. Only a few shooters and folks working around loud machinery made use of this option. Today’s version is a soft, pliable foam plug that can be compressed, inserted and then expands to fill the ear canal and deaden sharp sounds. Colorful to prevent loss and reusable dozens of times, a bag of 50 costs less than $10. For those who prefer over-ear protection rather than in-ear, dozens of styles and makes of plastic or fiberglass ear muffs with soft rubber cushioning to circle the entire ear are available.
I favor a set of camo-colored Howard Leight electronic ear muffs manufactured by Honeywell. Not only do they dampen sharp reports, but they amplify sounds allowing normal conversation on the target range, making them an important safety asset. Soft cushioning around the ear, padded foam headband and telescopic height adjustment are provided, all for about $75.
They also serve me well for ear protection while mowing and weed whacking and there’s even a set with a built-in radio tuner for non-shooting situations. Honeywell produces a variety of ear and eye protection for shooting and fishing situations as well as many noisy work scenarios. Check out the wide selection at the local rod and gun shop, in a favorite outdoor catalog or online.
There also are a handful of companies that sell a kit so shooters can custom mold their own foam ear plugs for as little as $20. At some large outdoor conventions, booths can be found where professionals will use wax to form exact ear molds, then build durable plastic sound baffle/amplifier combinations like a hearing aid. It is an individualized product and a bit expensive at $300 to $500, but it is very effective and lasts for years.
Every shooter needs to consider a few factors before purchase. For example, while earmuffs are fine for shotgun, rifle or handgun target practice, they aren’t great for actual hunting. In-ear protectors that filter shooting, perhaps amplify ambient sound and are easily inserted or removed, work best for field or forest outings. Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is a prime guideline as 140 Db or more of noise does long-term damage. Good ear plugs have an NRR rating of between 23 and 33 Db.
Comfort and fit are important factors when selecting earplugs or earmuffs. Appearance matters also, not simply looks and design, but certainly functionality. Bright colors matter little to target shooters but may easily catch the eye of game animals. There are some waterproof and other water resistant models and a few have rechargeable batteries. Finally, price must be considered. There is a wide range and one will fit your budget. They are far cheaper than hearing aids.
Almost a dozen hunting seasons will take place over the next four months, and a lot of practice shooting will occur from now on as well. Don’t compromise one of your most important senses. Get yourself some ear protection to prevent future hearing loss. Hear me now and later.