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What’s best for shooters? Ear plugs or ear muffs?

Shooting may damage your hearing but which defenders are best - plugs or muffs? Perhaps both, advises Matt Cross

shootin gear plugs

Always protect your ears

Hearing loss is a serious issue for anyone who shoots. It can be temporary or permanent, it can build up slowly over years or be caused by a single incident. Constant exposure to loud noise can make the experience 
of being in noisy environments less unpleasant, but the human ear can neither toughen up to resist damage nor regrow the tiny and sensitive cells that are being harmed. (Read our guide to the best ear defenders.)

ear defenders

Shooting ear plugs or ear defenders – which would be better for you?

There is a world of different ear defenders for shooters out there. On every clay ground I have ever known, ear defenders are both mandatory and universal. (Read why you should never fire a gun without wearing ear defenders.)

Game shooters seem to be becoming more diligent about wearing ear protectors. Year after year the number of Guns standing 
on pegs without something to protect their ears seems to diminish. They are losing a little more, however — the cry of the beaters, the drumming of wings, some of the atmosphere, if not the ability to help identify quarry.

George Digweed

George Digweed is never without ear protection

What sound level shooting will damage your hearing?

  • The science of sound is quite complicated; how loud the sound is, how long it lasts, how near it is, how much it is contained and how often it is repeated are all considerations. It is certainly not as simple as saying that firing a .22 round produces 134 decibels (dB), any long-term exposure to sound over 85dB risks hearing damage, so firing a .22 risks damaging your hearing.
  • Shooting shotguns and centrefire rifles without measures to control noise will damage your hearing. It’s only a question of how much shooting and how much damage. In a few cases it will be the sudden, complete loss of hearing that big game hunter Jim Corbett experienced when a rifle was fired right next to his ear.
  • But for most it will be an insidious creep, damage that goes unnoticed until a partner points out they have to shout for you to hear them or the constant whine of tinnitus prevents you from sleeping.
  • It is well documented that people who take part in recreational shooting have higher levels of hearing loss than those who do not. This tends to take the form of a permanent loss of the ability to detect high-pitched sounds, which makes it hard to hear the sounds ‘s’ ‘th’ and ‘v’. Perhaps unexpectedly, right-handed shooters tend to get the most damage in their left ear and vice versa.
shooters out in the field wearing ear defenders

Already mandatory on the clay ground, hearing protection is seen increasingly in the field as Guns get the message


goose shooting in field

Duck and goose shooters need to be closely tuned to their environment

What about wildfowlers who need to listen to natural sounds?

Where the argument seems a little less clear is in those situations where the shooter needs to be closely tuned to the environment. The wildfowler who needs to be alert to subtle differences in calls or the stalker who needs to be a living part of the forest, for example. (Read about hearing loss in dogs .)

external auditory canal

The make-up of the external auditory canal means using both types of ear protection is safest

Decibels which damage a shooter’s hearing

As mentioned 85dB is the point at which a sound can damage your hearing. Almost any sporting shotgun will exceed this sound level, with a 12-bore typically generating roughly 156dB at the user’s ear. A single shot fired at a duck or a goose will harm your hearing. Add up all the shots fired over many years and the damage may well be significant. It is for the individual to decide whether they are willing to accept that damage, but without hearing protection there will be damage done. (Read are you shooting yourself to deaf?)

With rifles it is is more complicated. The widespread use of sound moderators on rifles has persuaded many users that the moderator alone provides adequate protection for their hearing. In 2004 the Forestry Commission asked the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to look at the noise levels that its rangers were exposed to when they fired rifles with and without moderators.

They tested nine centrefire rifles in six different calibres with four different moderators. Only one moderator reduced the sound to 
a level below 140dB. In every other case the sound output from the rifle was still harmful at the ear of the person firing. It was less harmful than without a moderator but it was still capable of damaging their hearing.

Only the combination of ear protection and a moderator could 
be relied on to reduce sound levels to a point where they were not harmful. Modern moderators are better than those on the market 15 years ago but it would be wise to check very carefully whether they are going to reduce the sound level below the critical 140dB.

Both ear plugs and ear defenders

The HSE boffins found that the performance of earmuff-type defenders was very variable — small irregularities of fit, knocks from recoil and a number of other factors had a marked effect on how much sound got through to the user’s ear. The problems are so significant that the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends protecting ears with both muffs and plugs.

The fact is that, without using ear protection, most gunshots will harm your hearing.