America’s affinity for guns is practically unique across the globe; we grew up with television programs and movies about police and cowboys and heroes who were all sporting guns and shooting them regularly. These visuals appear to have created a lasting impression, because many millions still delight in shooting guns, either at shooting ranges or while hunting. The part of the story that you see in the movies or on television is what happens to these gun shooters in their later years. Many end up close to deaf or suffer serious hearing disabilities.
Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is a very real concern, and accounts for a large proportion of hearing problems in our society. Noise-induced hearing loss is caused by two types of noise – sustained high noise levels (such as working around heavy machinery), and transient sounds at high volumes (such as explosions or gunfire).
The volume of sounds is measured in decibels – total silence is zero decibels, breathing is 10 decibels, and a typical conversation is 50 to 60 decibels. Note that the decibel scale is a log scale. 60 decibels is twice as loud as 50, and 70 is four times as loud. Sustained exposure to noises over 90 decibels can lead to long term, noise-induced hearing loss in a matter of a couple weeks. Direct exposure to even quick periods of louder noises, for example a jet engine or rock concert at 120 decibels, may cause irreversible loss of hearing within minutes.
Gunshots have a decibel level of 140; that’s 128 times louder than normal conversation.
Regardless of how they might feel about firearms and guns, there is one subject on which gun owners and hearing specialists concur – no one should be shooting guns without using ear protection. Finding the right ear protection depends on the variety of shooting you plan to do.
For indoor or outdoor firing ranges, a “muff” type headphone that fits over the ear is recommended. The muff-type headphone can shield your inner ear as well as the cochlear bones from the gunfire sounds. A number of sport shooters supplement the over-the-ear muffs by also using in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or more. At the high end of the price range you will also find electronic noise-cancelling headphones engineered specifically for shooters, which are pricy but which will offer the highest possible levels of protection. In addition they have the benefit of allowing you to hear normal conversations, while blocking the transient high-decibel sound of the gun firing.
If you have fun with firing guns, before you next go to the range, talk to a hearing care expert about ear protection. They will probably have some specific advice for you; listen to it while you still can.