America’s fascination with guns is almost unique across the globe; we grew up with television programs and movies about cowboys and police and heroic characters who were all totin’ guns and firing them regularly. Constant encounters with these images is one of many reasons that there are so many current American gun owners who very much enjoy shooting them at firing ranges or on hunts. But what the movies and TV programs didn’t show was that anyone shooting guns often most likely spent the final years of their lives deaf, or struggling with significant hearing problems.

Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is a very real concern, and accounts for a large percentage of hearing problems in today’s world. The damage done to hearing by loud noises has two primary types – damage caused by sustained high noise levels (for example heavy machinery sounds) and damage caused by transient high noise levels (for example gunfire or explosions).

The loudness of sounds is measured in decibels; total silence is zero decibels, rustling leaves are 20 decibels, and normal conversation is 60 decibels. Note that the decibel scale is a log scale. 50 decibels is twice as loud as 40, 60 is four times as loud as 40, and 70 is eight times as loud as 40. Permanent hearing loss due to NIHL can occur after extended exposure to noises louder than 90 decibels in just a couple weeks. Direct exposure to even short bursts of louder sounds,such as a jet engine at 120 decibels, can lead to long term loss of hearing within minutes.

Gunshots measure 140 decibels – four times louder than a jet engine and 128 times louder than normal conversation.

One topic that most gun owners and hearing professionals concur on is that no one should be shooting a gun without some form of hearing protection. Deciding on the best ear protection depends upon the form of shooting you intend to do.

If most of your shooting is done at indoor or outdoor gun firing ranges, your best bet at a sensible price is some type of over-the-ear “muff” style headphones that block transient noise not only from getting to the inner ear but also from getting to the cochlear bones in back of the ear. Many sport shooters who value their hearing partner such ear muffs with in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or more, to attain even more protection. On the high end of the price range you can also find electronic noise-cancelling headphones developed especially for shooters, which are expensive but which will offer the highest levels of protection. They also have the advantage of enabling you to hear normal-volume conversations, while blocking the transient high-decibel sound of the gunshots.

So if you enjoy shooting guns, before your next outing to the range, talk to your hearing care professional about hearing protection. And bear in mind, hearing protection won’t do you a bit of good, at home, inside your backpack, or around your neck. You have to wear it at all times around the firingrange.