It was 51 years ago, but I remember the day quite well. We were on the firing line at Maxwell Air Force Base for our introduction to the .38-caliber revolver. Each of the 20 or so men in my flight were given a 6-inch-barreled S&W K-38, two 50-round boxes of 130-grain .38 Special FMJ ammunition and a pair of large, blue, plastic earmuffs. Our tac officer told us that using the earmuffs was optional. On the one hand, he said that battle was noisy, and there was reason to get used to firing under the extra stress of gunfire. On the other, he said we just might want to protect our ears. The choice was up to us. I thought I’d better get used to the noise, so I left the earmuffs on the bench. My ears rang for two days, and I never shot again without hearing protection.

Sound Advice

Shooting without hearing protection damages hearing by creating increased air pressure on the ear drums. Excessive noise causes the drums and attached bones in the middle ear to vibrate violently. This vibration is transferred to the liquid-filled inner ear, and when the sound level is over 85 decibels, inner ear fluid pressure is sufficiently high to initiate damage to small inner-ear hair cells that convert vibrations into the electrical impulses that register as sound in the brain. As more of these cells suffer permanent damage and eventually die, your ability to hear is reduced. Once the cells are gone, they’re gone for good.

Most centerfire calibers produce noise levels between 140 and 190 decibels. When several guns are fired simultaneously on an indoor shooting range, the noise level can rise far above 190 decibels. Worse yet, the decibel scale is logarithmic, so 190 decibels is actually many times greater than 85 decibels. Because of this, a single gunshot often produces temporary damage by stunning the cells in unprotected ears, and repeated exposure without hearing protection often results in permanent hearing loss. Of course, sound isn’t only transmitted by the ear drum. The bones of the skull also transmit pressure waves from a gunshot, and this further increases pressure on the inner ear. Now put 20 service members on a covered range and have them all shoot at once, and you can imagine the abuse my ears took on that sunny afternoon in Alabama so many years ago.

Types Of Hearing Protection

Today, there are two basic types of hearing protection offered to the general public: passive protectors like foam ear plugs and muffs, and active protectors that combine either plugs or muffs with electronic circuitry. The electronic protectors usually amplify soft ambient sounds by as much as 30 decibels, and they also have dynamic range compression circuitry that attenuates loud noises. The attenuation circuits quickly block sound that is above a preset threshold, usually somewhere between 70 and 95 decibels. Almost all hearing protectors have a noise reduction rating, or NRR, of at least 19 decibels, and some reduce loud noises by up to 33 decibels.

Foam earplugs and muffs are relatively inexpensive and, when worn together, can be very effective. Unfortunately, they can be so effective that they block sounds you want to hear like range commands and the noise made by game animals as they move through the forest. They also have other drawbacks. Unless they are custom-molded silicone or acrylic products like those from WildEar, earplugs can work their way out of the ear canal and become ineffective. And ear muffs can be so bulky that it’s difficult to shoulder some types of long guns. However, passive ear protectors can be effective in reducing noise when used properly. Passive earmuffs and plugs have NRRs of up to 33, and the WildEar passive molded plugs have an NRR of 26.

There’s a wide variety of high-tech hearing devices on the market. Prices vary according to the number of features, the level of noise suppression and the length of the warranty. So here are some of the latest electronic hearing protectors to help you out.

For the hearing protection devices featured in the gallery above, please visit the following sites.

3M Peltor Tactical Pro

Champion Electronic Earmuffs

Caldwell E-Max Low Profile Mossy Oak Break-Up

ESP Stealth Digital

Motorola MHP81

Howard Leight Impact Sport

Pro Ears Mag Gold

SoundGear Behind-The-Ear

SoundGear In-The-Canal

Walker’s Game Ear Elite

WildEar Master Series

This article was originally published in “Combat Handguns” July/August 2017. To order a copy, visit

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