Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow
By Jim Gardner
If you’re not using plugs or muffs at the range, then you’ll spend your later years reading the TV.
“Okay you pups, listen up,” the sergeant’s voice boomed as he strode purposefully down the academy firing line. “We’re commencing our first live-fire training today, and the city says I have to make sure you all wear eye and hearing protection.” He stopped long enough to pick up a pair of ear muffs from the bench and stare at them disdainfully. “Of course, in my day,” he continued, “we didn’t bother with any of this pantywaist stuff.”
One of the recruits approached him. “Sergeant, my Glock’s front sight is broken. What do I do?”
“I said my front sight is busted. Do you want me to report to the armory?”
“Huh?” The sergeant paused a moment, then glanced at his watch. “Oh, it’s three o’clock.”
Most of us probably know cops like the Sarge. Spend any amount of time on or near the firing line and your hearing will become damaged. Depending upon the type and degree of your exposure to the high-pressure impulse noise typical of firearms, you may suffer either minor or devastating loss of your capacity to hear. Worse yet, exposure may very possibly result in tinnitus, a maddening, never-ending ringing in the ears. That’s right, you will suffer irreparable damage to your hearing—-that is unless you decide right now to go on the defensive.
Back in the dark ages, when I first started making regular visits to the rifle range, very few shooters bothered with any form of ear protection. Oh, we might stuff a couple of empty .38 cases in our ears, or if you were really well prepared you could bring some cotton balls for the purpose. Well, we’re paying for that foolishness now.
Sure, we thought we had good reasons for such indifference, but we were wrong. And with the great variety of hearing protection devices available today, ranging from simple disposable foam plugs to active electronic muffs, you’re foolish if you don’t make the most of them. So, enough lecture—-let’s look at your options to defend yourself from this insidious threat.
Earplugs should be thought of as your bottom line of defense against hearing damage. You might almost compare them to old style, two-point automobile seatbelts—they offer far greater protection than using nothing at all, but you may still sustain damage if this is your sole defense. The reason is a phenomenon called bone conduction. Even though your earplugs may thoroughly seal the ear canal, sound will be transmitted to the fragile inner ear via the bones of the skull.
Earplugs are available in four general types, soft foam plugs that when used properly expand to seal the ear canal, non-expanding elastomer plugs, active plugs containing a spring-loaded valve that allows conversation to be heard but seals when exposed to high-pressure sound waves, and active electronic plugs
Soft foam plugs are the most commonly seen, and given their low cost, they should be a standard item in your gear bag. But the spring-valve-type plugs certainly have their advantages. An interesting example of spring valve plugs is Peltor’s Indoor/Outdoor E.A.R. plugs, which combine both active (for outdoor use) and passive (for indoor use) plugs into one unit.
Electronic, amplifying earplugs like the Walker’s Game Ear aid in preventing hearing damage, but unlike passive plugs, they also amplify ambient sound. Marketed primarily to hunters, the system amplifies sound at up to seven times normal levels, but instantly shuts down the microphone circuit when sound reaches harmful levels. The Game Ear is a marvel in miniaturization, and because conversation and range commands can still be heard, there’s no temptation to remove your earplugs at the worst possible moment.
Passive Ear Muffs
Unlike plugs, ear muffs not only seal the ear canal from sound pressure; they dampen the conduction of sound vibrations through the bone adjacent to the ear. To apply our seatbelt analogy, these are the equivalent of a modern three-point lap and shoulder belt system, offering a significant increase in protection from damaging sound levels. Check out the local sports store and you’ll likely find a large variety of models, each claiming superiority. So what should you look for in making a selection?
The first inspection point is the Noise Reduction Rating (N.R.R.), usually imprinted on the packaging. This is a measurement, conducted under laboratory standards, quantifying the unit’s effectiveness. The very best muffs will carry a rating as high as 29 decibels (dB) reduction. Units achieving this usually employ a double shell construction, and thus may be a little bulky, but in general, it’s wise to select the highest N.R.R. you can find.
For handgun use, this is no concern, but for use with shoulder-fired arms, it will be necessary to ensure the muff does not interfere with a good stock weld. Some units are made with a “chop side” that is hollowed out to clear the stock. Next, look for good seals on the ear cups. Be certain to try out the muffs with your shooting glasses in place. A perfect seal around the ears is needed for proper performance.
The headband is your next point of inspection. Is it comfortable? Does it offer sufficient adjustment? Will it work with your duty cover in place? Muffs are available with behind-the-head bands to accommodate wide brimmed hats.
Now, put on your new passive muffs, make certain they’re adjusted properly, and have your buddy ask you a question. Can’t hear a darn thing, can you? This is exactly why passive ear muffs, while offering excellent protection, are, often as not, sitting on the range bench when a gun unexpectedly goes off beside you. And this is precisely why the active, electronic ear muff is the greatest advance in hearing protection we’ve ever seen.
Active Ear Muffs
These have been available on the commercial market for perhaps a decade, and in the intervening years we’ve seen increasingly better quality and features. All use a microphone (or series of mikes) to pick up ambient sound. Volume control allows you to adjust the level to your comfort. Because you can now hear range commands and conversation, there’s no temptation to remove your muffs on the line.
By the way, because these units amplify the sounds we need to hear, you may “double plug” by using these in conjunction with soft foam earplugs. This is absolutely the highest level of protection you can afford yourself in the noisy confines of the firing range. You might say this is the equivalent of a racecar’s four-point harness system.
When the amplifying circuitry detects sound at a level that would damage your hearing, it either kills or regulates the amplification. The exact method used to nullify these high sound levels differs by maker, as does the “attack time,” or interval required to perform this function. There’s a lot of hyperbole from different manufacturers touting their specific system, but attack time generally ranges from a low of 1.5 milliseconds to as high as 20 milliseconds.
These differences, combined with your normal shooting environment—indoor or outdoor, and the presence or absence of sound reflecting surfaces—will determine which unit will serve you best. All are good, but when possible, it’s wise to try out a unit before purchasing. This is not always feasible, so let me share with you some observations on two particularly good units.
PRO-EARS, by Ridgeline Inc., is one of the standard-setters in active hearing protection. The unit I’ve been testing lately is the Pro-Tac Dimension 2. This is available in several variations; mine is the model DLC, featuring a “chop side” for long-gun use and an N.R.R. of 20 dB. Other models feature N.R.R. ratings as high as 26 dB.
The Pro-Tac uses dual volume controls, obviating the need for an external connecting wire. It’s powered by four N-size batteries, which are accessed behind a foam cover in the ear cups. Battery life is approximately 200 hours, and the unit comes with an impressive five-year warranty. Attack time is rated at less than 2 milliseconds. Weight is 11.9 ounces. A small point, but one I really like, is the felt-like material covering the lower portion of the strong-side ear cup. It prevents the “bell effect” you normally hear when your muff makes contact with a rifle stock.
Dimension 2 muffs use PRO-EARS’ “Dynamic Level Compression” technology that greatly improves amplified sound quality. In plain English, what this does is continually amplify low-level sounds (like those sweet nothings the R.O. is whispering in your ear about watching the @#*&! front sight), while moderating high-pressure sound down to safe levels. The result is more natural sound without the annoying gaps some systems produce.
On an indoor range—-usually the worst environment for active ear muffs-—the Pro-Tacs worked as advertised. Conversations between adjacent shooters could be heard and understood, even in the midst of strings of fire. The Pro-Tacs are light (11.9 ounces) and comfortable. The ear cup seals are replaceable (a good feature), and the padded headband is appreciated after a few hours. Both ear cups feature jacks to interface with your radio system.
I’ve been using these for a while now with complete satisfaction. The N.R.R. is 19 dB, but other, slightly bulkier units offer protection as high as 25 dB. “Chop side” configuration ensures comfortable use with long guns. Unlike the PRO-EARS unit, a single on/off and volume control is located on the right-hand ear cup.
Rather than the usual rotary switch, the Comtac uses two small, rubber-sealed push buttons. Depress both to turn the unit on or off. Press the forward button to increase volume, the aft button to decrease. These controls are neatly recessed into the ear cup, as are the foam-covered microphones. Everything about the Comtac suggests rugged durability.
The leather-covered headband is wide and quite comfortable. Its minimum bulk will work well under a Kevlar helmet. Weight of the Comtac is 12.5 ounces. An available “hygiene kit” replaces the ear seals and foam liners when required.
Power is supplied by two AA batteries, easily accessible via an external battery door with permanently attached cover. Operating life is rated at 250 hours, and an automatic shutdown circuit preserves the batteries should the unit be put away with the power on. The Comtac features a radio interface. Other models in the Peltor line offer boom mikes and PTT switching for two-way communication.
Attack time of the Peltor Comtac is 2 milliseconds. When used on a noisy indoor range, conversation can be clearly heard, even in the midst of strings of rifle fire. I think I can detect a slightly choppy sound quality as the electronics attenuate the sound of gunfire, but if so, it’s certainly no distraction.
In the end, it’s your choice alone. You can ignore the threat to your hearing and suffer the inevitable consequences, or you can decide right now you don’t want to be a grayhair whose most-used word is “huh?” We have better equipment for hearing protection than ever before. But the determination to take advantage of it can only come from you.
Jim Gardner is the editor of GUNS magazine, and an internationally recognized firearms expert.