A 9mm round shot from a firearm creates almost double the sound as the recommended safe hearing levels. Even small caliber weapons like the .17HMR and .22lr create similar noise levels, and you can now easily comprehend what bigger calibers sound like.
Firearms have always been loud, but this concern was heeded profoundly only around the 1950s. It is even more surprising to learn that the U.S Army started issuing essential hearing protection to the troops starting as late as 2004. Here is a detailed guide for firearm hearing protection measures to give you a comprehensive insight into the topic.
What Is Firearm Hearing Protection and Why Is It Necessary?
The loudness of sound (noise) is measured in terms of ‘decibels’ and is denoted as dB. Over time, researchers concluded different levels of noise suitable for the human ear. Sounds below 70 dB are generally considered safe for the human ears, and constant exposure to sounds over 85 dB for prolonged periods of time is considered a risk factor. To give you an idea, a lawn mower creates about 90 dB of noise.
Firearms generally start at a noise level of 140 dB, which is twice more than that of a safe hearing level. To address this issue, developers came up with hearing protection devices. Tankers and airmen have been using such devices since WW1, unlike the infantry which used more improvised methods like cotton plugs or even spent cartridge cases.
The whole idea behind such a device is noise reduction and ear protection. There are two prominent designs of firearm hearing protectors – earplugs and earmuffs. While an earplug is a simple piece of wax, wood or cotton stuffed inside the ear canal, and earmuff looks like a modern-day headphone that has two ear cups and a headband.
Interestingly, infantry soldiers in WW1 and WW2 were issued earplugs, but the lack of situational awareness for subtle noises deterred them from using them. Constant exposure to firearm noise without using hearing protection can make the user go deaf in the long term. As a matter of fact, tinnitus, a hearing disorder caused due to high noises, is the most common form of disability among military personnel.
Types of Firearm Hearing Protection
Earplugs and earmuffs are the two most common types of hearing protection devices in use today. Each of these can be further classified into categories based on the design. However, the more prominent option out of these two are earmuffs which can be classified as passive or active (electronic).
An ear plug will be the simplest ear protection device you will ever encounter. It is nothing more than a conical or cylindrical piece of foam, which is stuffed inside the ears. There are four major designs for these which include single-use, multi-use, banded, and corded earplugs.
Single-use earplugs are the cheapest, and as the name suggests, they are intended for one-time use. Multi-use earplugs are suitable for washing and reuse, but they should not be used for more than two to four weeks.
Banded and corded earplugs are essentially the same, with the only difference being the connector. Banded earplugs come with a band or strip connecting the two plugs, whereas corded earplugs connect the two plugs using a cord.
Pros and Cons of Ear Plugs
- Earplugs are capable of providing the highest noise reduction which can go as high as 33 dB. Their design practically seals the ear canal and helps with preventing permanent hearing loss.
- These are really inexpensive, especially the disposable single-use designs.
- Universal fit does not create fitting and comfort issues. You can also have custom earplugs.
- Almost maintenance free, and can be disposed of without worry
- Extremely lightweight, easy to carry, and does not interfere with other clothing or gear
- On the flip side, proper insertion is essential for the best results
- Earplugs can also block other subtle, but important sounds
These are the original and most basic design of earmuffs which offer passive hearing protection. The term ‘passive’ describes that there is no mechanism or extra device involved in the functioning of these earmuffs. So the noise reduction is entirely dependent upon the thickness and sound resistance of the materials used for making the ear cups.
Passive earmuffs are mostly used by occasional shooters and beginners who hit the range sometimes, and also do not want too much ‘pro-level’ expensive gear. These are also a great choice for people who keep losing their earplugs and want a more definitive solution at a comparable price.
Pros and Cons of Passive Earmuffs
- Passive earmuffs offer significant noise reduction at a decent price and are more economical in the long run.
- Doubles as ear protection against harsh winter conditions.
- Does not rely upon batteries, or any other electronic, or mechanical components.
- Adjustable designs can suit a wide range of users
- It can feel difficult to wear with other gear like helmets or safety glasses. Further loosening the cup seal and sabotaging performance.
As the name suggests, electronic earmuffs are an advanced version of passive earmuffs that have an inbuilt electronic system offering active hearing protection. It comprises a pair of microphones that detect the sounds, an internal amplifier setup that either dampens or boosts these sounds, and a speaker that projects it onto the ears of the user.
Electronic earmuffs are more sensitive to sounds and actively refine it before reaching your ears. With speakers inside, you can stay aware of range commands and hear conversations.
Just like passive earmuffs, these electronic earmuffs are also available in over-the-head, cap-mounted, and behind-the-neck varieties. These earmuffs can have at least one microphone, and more expensive muffs generally have more mic and speakers along with features like independent ear cup controls and volume controls. Military-level electronic earmuffs also have an inbuilt radio that helps with communications among team members.
Pros and Cons of Electronic Earmuffs
- Like with passive earmuffs, these earmuffs dampen loud noises but still allow the user to hear surrounding sounds for better situational awareness
- Some specific variants are exceptionally suitable for tactical applications
- Simple setup, and cannot be easily lost like earplugs
- These are great for people who have gone through ear surgeries and need more care
- Since electronic hearing protection relies upon batteries and electronics, they are prone to failure in some situations
- Earmuffs in general can interfere with other gear like sunglasses
- General ear cup designs are not suitable for very hot climatic conditions.
Factors You Should Keep an Eye Out For
Here are a few important considerations you must keep in your mind before choosing a hearing protection device.
Noise Reduction Rating (Nrr)
Noise Reduction Rating refers to the value which describes how much noise dampening is offered by an ear protection device. The value goes all the way up to 33 and is essential to be checked before choosing one. For example, if a device has an NRR of 25 dB, it will reduce 25 dB of noise from reaching your ears. The higher the value of NRR, the better it will be in preventing noise-induced hearing loss.
Attack Time and Sound Compression
The attack time for an electronic earmuff refers to the speed at which it switches the sound processor on or off. The faster this attack time, the lower the chances of the user missing any sounds.
Sound compression in earmuffs refers to the dampening of ambient noise and projecting it at a safer level on the ears. This way, the user will always be aware of what is happening around him/her at a safe sound level. This is a great feature for extremely loud environments and almost negates the chances of hearing damage.
Comfortable Fit and Adjustability
Whether you choose the earmuff or the earplug, it is important to ensure it fits comfortably on your head. Those with an adjustable headband are better in terms of offering a comfy fit. Additionally, the material of the cups/plugs will also define the level of comfort.
Easy Maintenance and Battery Life
Your firearm hearing protection device should be easy to maintain and durable enough to withstand your intended treatment. Electronic devices should have significant battery life and must be of high quality to ensure ideal performance. A good extra feature to look for is water protection (even in saltwater) for extreme situations like maritime use.
Ear Muffs vs Ear Plugs
Plugs effectively block the ear canal and are considered more definitive for noise attenuation. Muffs can offer a more stable fit, and are also more suitable for winters. On the negative, muffs sit over the head and limit function when used with other gear like goggles or PPE.
Having a hearing protection device is extremely essential when working with firearms. A good hearing protector will ensure the safety of your hearing, and can also be used for dampening other dangerous sounds and for occupational safety. Earplugs and earmuffs are two such devices with their own pros and cons.
While earplugs can be seen as a simpler and more inexpensive solution, options like electronic earmuffs are suitable for more tactical applications.