By Gordon Whittington
I’ll never forget that morning back in November 1984. Because my ears won’t let me.
Some friends and I had gathered in Billings, Montana, to head out on a whitetail hunt. Winding through the countryside on the way to our hunting area, we found ourselves on a lonely gravel road through public land.
A couple of guys were antsy to check their rifles after the flight, so we pulled over in an unposted area with a safe shooting backstop. Next thing I knew, one of the guys had loaded his 7mm Rem. Mag. and touched off a round — while standing just outside the open door of the vehicle in which the rest of us sat.
No one had any hearing protection when that rifle went off, and afterwards, we all heard loud ringing. Unfortunately for me, I still do. From that moment 36 years ago until now, neither ear has stopped ringing for even a fraction of a second. And they’ll keep ringing until I die.
Such 24/7/365 high-pitched short-circuiting of the sense of hearing, a condition called tinnitus (“TIN-uh-tuss”), is caused by permanent damage to nerve endings in the ear. It’s typically the result of overexposure to loud noise. And it’s extremely common, especially among those who’ve spent too long around shooting ranges, heavy machinery, airport runways and/or loud music without faithfully using serious hearing protection.
Everyone’s hearing gradually worsens with age, but exposure to gunfire can greatly hasten and magnify the decline. A few years ago, in a study of men ages 48-92 living in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, researchers from the University of Wisconsin showed just how widespread a problem this is. The study involved 3,753 test subjects, including both shooters and non-shooters. Researchers found that men who’d ever regularly engaged in shooting were more likely to have a marked high-frequency hearing loss than those who hadn’t. And the risk of such loss increased seven percent for every five years a man had been shooting.
Another of the study’s findings was that 38 percent of target shooters and 95 percent of hunters reported using no hearing protection while shooting firearms within the past year. That’s troubling, to say the least.
“These results indicate that use of recreational firearms is associated with marked high-frequency hearing loss in men,” the researchers wrote. “There is a need for further education of users of recreational firearms regarding the risk of hearing impairment associated with firearm use and the availability and importance of appropriate hearing protection.”
I’d never say the solution is to shoot fewer rounds, much less to quit shooting altogether. But we all should take care to limit our exposure to loud noises, including guns. Regardless of the noise’s source, proper protection is key.
For as far back as I can recall, my dad and his dad were really “hard of hearing.” I don’t know how much of that was genetic and how much was from too much noise exposure for too long, but both men spent a lot of time on and around tractors and other loud equipment. And, they were gun hunters. Never did I see either employ hearing protection. But then, that made them like every other man I knew. By the time of my tinnitus moment at age 28, I’d shot thousands of rifle and shotgun rounds with zero ear protection. I now wear an $8,000 pair of hearing aids to compensate, but the ringing is still there. Ugh.
Fortunately, through studies such as the one in Wisconsin, we’re seeing more public understanding of the damage unblocked gunfire can do to human hearing. There also are now many great products for use around firearms and other sources of loud noises. So it’s easier than ever to limit damage to our own ears and those of everyone around us.
It’s especially critical that we set good examples for others. If you’ve spent any time in hunting camps, down at the local gravel pit or elsewhere shooters gather, you’ve no doubt seen adults firing away with loud guns while kids with no hearing protection were in the vicinity. Curiously, some folks who make a point of ensuring everyone’s out of the line of fire often overlook the need to avoid bystanders’ hearing damage.
For reasons that make zero sense, one of the most obvious ways to protect our hearing remains a hassle to acquire, at least in the U.S. That’s because of the federal government’s stranglehold on sound suppressors for firearms.
These devices thread onto the muzzle and use intricate baffling chambers to reduce blast sounds. While they aren’t the “silencers” depicted in Hollywood spy movies, they reduce gunfire noise about 30 decibels. Used along with with properly fitted hearing protection, however, a suppressor can lower even the loudest magnum’s report to a tolerable level. I used one on a Tikka .308 Win. when hunting whitetails in Finland in 2012, and it greatly reduced the rifle’s report with no accuracy or handling issues.
The National Institutes of Health’s “Noisy Planet” program urges more hearing protection for kids involved in shooting and other loud activities. So why aren’t suppressors now found on hunting rifles across the U.S.? It’s not for lack of threaded muzzles, as most newer rifles have them.
The answer lies buried in history. Theodore Roosevelt had an early “silencer” on his Model 1894 Winchester. But in 1913, anti-gun, anti-hunting zealot William Hornaday (not to be confused with the highly pro-gun, pro-hunting family at Hornady Ammunition) began a push for more firearms restrictions.
Hornaday, then director of the Bronx Zoo, claimed “silencers” were being used to wipe out certain animals. He proposed they be banned. Due in part to such rhetoric, when the National Firearms Act was passed in 1934, “silencers” ended up on the banned list, along with machine guns and hand grenades.
And they’re still on that list. Sure, you can fill out a form, pay a $200 “tax” and then wait many months to see if your application will be approved. But sadly, that’s at present the only real option. Buying a suppressor should be as straightforward as going into a store and getting a recoil pad, sling or box of ammunition. Instead, it’s easier to buy a suppressor in highly regulated Europe than in the U.S. Let that sink in for a minute.
The universally simple way to save your hearing is to use shooting muffs and/or in-ear devices that amplify soft sounds but protect your ears from loud ones. Fortunately, we’re seeing greater concern for shooters’ hearing and increased adaptation of technology to reduce this problem. The result is products that can protect our ears while making it easier to detect what we still want to hear, such as a buck’s grunting or the crunch of deer walking in leaves.
However you decide to dodge hearing damage, start immediately. As I learned the hard way in Montana 36 years ago, it only takes one too many unmuffled gunshots to damage your ears. And once it’s done, there’s no turning back the hands of time. Even if you don’t care about your own hearing, at least do what you can to protect the ears of those around you.
Whether you’re sitting in a deer stand or dialing in your scope out on the range, these products can greatly reduce the impact of gunfire on your ears.
Hearing doctors who hunt designed TETRA AmpPods to be premium hearing devices that fit inside the ear canal to maximize natural sound collection. Featuring patent-pending Specialized Target Optimization, AmpPods isolate and enhance whitetail sounds while keeping other sounds at normal levels — even while protecting your hearing from loud noises. TETRA uses a similar chip and digital noise reduction to that of high-end hearing aids but at much lower cost. AmpPods can be customized via an online hearing test. (tetrahunt.com)
The Omega 300 is touted as the best-selling suppressor in history, thanks to the fact it’s lightweight, extremely quiet and is compatible with cartridges up to .300 Win. Mag. This .30-caliber can is fully welded and made from titanium, cobalt 6 and stainless steel. It’s rated to decrease the muzzle blast of a .308 Win. to 133.9 dB. The Omega 300 comes with both a direct-thread mount and fast-attach mount, as well as a removable anchor brake to further reduce recoil. Total weight is 14 ounces; length is 7.09 inches. (silencerco.com)
Kids’ and adults’ ears all need gunfire protection, and Caldwell has them literally covered with its E-Max Pro series. Available in standard adult, low-profile and youth sizes, as well as a range of colors, these muffs feature Passing Hearing Protection noise-canceling ratings of 30dB NRR (full-sized) and 24dB NRR for youth and low-profile models. The padded headband and ear cushions make the E-Max Pro series comfortable to wear but also are easy to fold up small for transport in your range bag. (caldwellshooting.com)