By Mike Zolczer, Hearing Healthcare Professional, Firearm Enthusiast
With the Hearing Protection Act gaining steam and attention, everyone is getting excited about the prospect of being able to legally own suppressors without investing outlandish amounts of time and money to get their hands on them. Who can blame them?!?! (I’ve got a .308 waiting patiently for one myself, see left). With benefits such as reduced noise levels, improved accuracy due to the associated reduction of flinch due to anticipation of said noise levels, and the appeal of having gun ranges be “better neighbors”, it’s hard not to see the attraction.
As an avid firearm enthusiast and hearing healthcare professional, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss what this all means where our hearing is concerned.
How loud ARE my guns?
In understanding the benefits offered by having a suppressed firearm, first we have to look at why firearms can be harmful to our ears in the first place. Noise becomes harmful to our hearing at around 85 decibels (dB). Momentary exposure to noise levels of 140 dB or greater can permanently damage our hearing, people who use firearms are more susceptible to hearing loss than those who do not. The American Speech-Language-Hearing-Association published an article written by Michael Stewart, PhD, CCC-A, Professor of Audiology, Central Michigan University that explains common noise levels during firearm use:
“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.”
Professor Stewart does a great job of illustrating just how damaging firearms can be on an unprotected ear. In my tenure as a hearing healthcare professional I have seen countless cases of firearm related hearing loss impacting everyone from hunters and target shooters, to extreme cases where hearing loss is severely impacting our military Veterans.
Once I get my suppressor I don’t need hearing protection, right?
Not necessarily. Now that we know just how damaging un-suppressed shooting can be, let’s discuss what impact a noise suppressor really makes in protecting our hearing.
Tom McHale published an article on OUTDOORHUB that aims at correcting some commonly held misconceptions about suppressors and what they actually do. The first misconception he tackles is that the term “Silencer” is wildly inaccurate. Next he illustrates how much impact a suppressor has on a 1911 handgun (about 162 dB not suppressed when firing a 230-grain .45 ACP):
“Putting a suppressor on that 1911 will reduce the sound to somewhere around 133 dB. That’s below the OSHA maximum exposure level for an “impulse noise.” But you don’t want to expose your ears to a continuous barrage of 133-dB noise, either.”
Knowing that damage to our hearing can start at around 85 dB (and that none of us are likely to fire just one or two shots at a time in our lifetime), we can safely assume that 133 dB is going to do some damage - especially over prolonged exposure.
So, while a suppressor may not reduce the decibel level enough to keep most firearms from being harmful to your hearing, it is not a bad start. What it definitely should not be, however, your one solution for your hearing protection needs. As illustrated with the 1911 above, additional protection is still needed to bring the decibels down to safe levels.
How do I know if I am protected appropriately?
Odds are, if you’re a modern day firearms enthusiast, or have spent any time at the range, the idea of hearing protection isn’t new to you. You may already be using “one size fits nobody” foam plugs or a variety of over the ear muffs. You may have outgrown those, and have had custom plugs made or even started using digital earplugs or muffs. However, how do you know if you’re getting enough protection?
Hunters and range instructors will most likely prefer custom electronic hearing protection as they need to have constant situational awareness while maintaining safe sound levels. Whereas the occasional skeet shooter or weekend sport shooter may prefer basic custom foam plugs or basic muffs or cans. I, myself prefer custom in-ear hearing protection because it seals properly, and doesn’t get in the way when I am shooting the aforementioned .308.
Once you get your suppressor will you still need hearing protection? Absolutely. While having less restrictive access to shooting suppressed is a great thing, and a step in the right direction hearing-wise, it will enable your choice of hearing protection to be more effective and make your shooting experience more pleasurable.
Your ears are fragile organs, if you treat them right with the proper choice of hearing protection, you’ll maintain good, healthy hearing for years to come!