Michael Stewart, PhD, CCC-A, Professor of Audiology, Central Michigan University
Exposure to noise greater than 140 dB can permanently damage hearing. Almost all firearms create noise that is over the 140-dB level. A small .22-caliber rifle can produce noise around 140 dB, while big-bore rifles and pistols can produce sound over 175 dB. Firing guns in a place where sounds can reverberate, or bounce off walls and other structures, can make noises louder and increase the risk of hearing loss. Also, adding muzzle brakes or other modifications can make the firearm louder. People who do not wear hearing protection while shooting can suffer a severe hearing loss with as little as one shot, if the conditions are right. Audiologists see this often, especially during hunting season when hunters and bystanders may be exposed to rapid fire from big-bore rifles, shotguns, or pistols.
People who use firearms are more likely to develop hearing loss than those who do not. Firearm users tend to have high-frequency permanent hearing loss, which means that they may have trouble hearing speech sounds like "s," "th," or "v" and other high-pitched sounds. The left ear (in right-handed shooters) often suffers more damage than the right ear because it is closer to, and directly in line with, the muzzle of the firearm. Also, the right ear is partially protected by head shadow. People with high-frequency hearing loss may say that they can hear what is said but that it is not clear, and they may accuse others of mumbling. They may not get their hearing tested because they don't think they have a problem. They may also have ringing in their ears, called tinnitus. The ringing, like the hearing loss, can be permanent.
The good news is that people can prevent hearing loss by using appropriate hearing protective devices (HPDs), such as earmuffs or earplugs. However, studies have shown that only about half of shooters wear hearing protection all the time when target practicing. Hunters are even less likely to wear hearing protection because they say they cannot hear approaching game or other noises. While some HPDs do limit what a person can hear, there are many products that allow shooters to hear softer sounds while still protecting them from loud sounds like firearm noise.
Two types of HPDs designed for shooting sports are electronic HPDs and nonlinear HPDs. Electronic HPDs make softer sounds louder but shut off when there is a loud noise. The device then becomes hearing protection. Electronic HPD styles include earmuffs, custom-made in-the-ear devices, one-size-fits-all plugs, and behind-the-ear devices.
Nonlinear HPDs are not electronic and are designed to allow soft and moderate sounds to pass through, while still reducing loud sounds. Nonlinear HPDs can be either earplugs that are inserted into the ear or custom-made earmolds. Nonlinear HPDs that have filters are the best choice. They are better than those that use mechanical valves. This is because the valves may not close fast enough to protect hearing from loud noise.
The U.S. military uses both electronic and nonlinear HPDs to protect soldiers' hearing during combat and weapons training. Electronic HPDs cost from less than $100 for earmuffs to over $1,000 for high-technology custom-made devices. Insert plug-type nonlinear HPDs cost around $10–$20, while custom-made nonlinear devices cost around $100–$150 per pair. Talk with your audiologist to choose the type of hearing protection that is right for you.