The problem

Although significant hearing loss is a natural consequence of living to a ripe old age, the intent of today’s column is to inform sportsmen — particularly the youth — about the greatest manageable threat to our precious sense of hearing: noise-induced hearing loss.

The causes

Our hearing acuity is threatened whenever we expose ourselves to sounds that are either too loud, too close or too long. The trick, audiologists say, is to totally prevent certain types of sounds from ever reaching our sensitive inner ears and to limit our exposure time to other types of damaging noise.
So how do you judge if a particular type or intensity of sound is damaging? As a general rule, you need to protect yourself from any sound that you must shout to be heard over, any noise that physically hurts your ears, causes them to ring, or that leaves you feeling somewhat deafened afterwards. You know, exactly how you feel after spending an afternoon at your mother-in-law’s.
Intensity of sound is measured in decibels (dB). Whispered words come in at 5 decibels. Normal conversation registers around 60 dB, snowmobiles and chainsaws irritate us with about 100 dB, while gunshots, jet engines and the like assault our ears with 140 or more dBs.
Audiologists warn that the damage threshold for individual sounds begins at 140 dB and that sustained exposure to noises of 85 dB or more will cause permanent hearing loss in most individuals.
Are you ready for a shocker? The lowly .22 LR, which we fire by the thousands or tens of thousands over our lifetimes without any hearing protection whatsoever, belts us with 130dB per trigger pull in a rifle; significantly more from our rimfire handguns. The universally popular 9mm handgun and 12-gauge shotgun pummels our delicate hearing apparatus with 150 and 170 dB, respectively. Can you imagine how our favorite muzzle-braked, fire-breathing magnum handguns, rifles, and shotguns ravage the delicate cochlear hairs of our inner ears?

The solutions

To protect your hearing, you must reduce (attenuate) the amount of noise entering your middle/inner ear. This can be accomplished with either ear plugs or ear muffs. Be advised, however; both devices rely on obtaining an air-tight fit. Select a device that fits your physiology and shooting style perfectly.
While bulky passive and electronic ear muffs are the customary choice for bench and competitive shooting, the individual soft foam, neckpiece-mounted, or silicone plugs are more practical in the field. Unfortunately, although they are highly effective at limiting gunshot noise, they also leave you deaf to the sound of a flush, the movement of a buck escaping through the brush, or the metallic rustling of aspen leaves in the wind.
To compensate for this shortcoming, a new line of ear plugs, typified by the Walker Game Ear and Ear Pro variants, has evolved featuring an assortment of integral electronic “noise-baffling” devices. They amplify conversation and ambient sound, while attenuating harmful noises. The downside: the low-end models don’t work and the top-end versions are prohibitively expensive for the working man.

The winner

I discovered my ‘miracle ear’ in the form of Surefire’s EARPRO Sonic Defender ear plugs. Fashioned of hypoallergenic medical grade polymer, their EP models feature double or triple flange ear canal stems that boost NRRs (noise reduction ratings) of 22-26 dB. Their exclusive internal design and removable filter caps block damaging sounds without interfering with your ability to hear normal conversation and ambient sound.
My personal favorite is their EP7 S.D. Ultra foam-tipped plugs, which are the most comfortable model and boost the highest NRR of 28dB. All of these models are offered in three sizes (small, medium, large), all are available locally and they all retail for $20 or less.
Sonic Defenders truly offer you the best of both worlds: the ability to enjoy normal conversation and natural background sound coupled with proven mechanical protection from damaging noises. These are wonderful products. Take a pair into the field, to work or to a rock concert this year and be amazed.
Good shooting.