Looking For The Best Ear Protection For The Shooting Range?

Protecting your hearing is an essential part of enjoying the shooting sports, and the state of the art in hearing protection equipment has really improved in recent years. The days of sticking cotton balls (or worse, empty cartridges) in your ears to muffle the sound of a gun going off are long gone. Today, we have all manner of effective hearing protection gear to choose from, but choosing what’s best for you can be a chore. 

Your ears, and why you want to protect them 

Anywhere between 10 million and 40 million adults in the United States have some form of hearing loss caused by loud noises (that’s almost one-quarter of the adults in the U.S.). Hearing loss can be caused by either a one-time exposure to a loud noise, or by repeated exposure to loud noises over a period of time.  How much noise is too much? Take a look at this chart.  

  • Library, urban ambient sounds: 40 db
  • Normal conversation: 60-70 dB
  • Movie theater: 74-104 dB
  • Motorcycles, dirt bikes and snowmobiles 80-110 dB
  • Sporting events, and concerts: 94-110 dB
  • Sirens: 110-130 dB
  • Fireworks show: 140-160 dB
  • .22 Rifle: 140-150 db
  • Centerfire Pistol: 140-150 dB
  • Centerfire Rifle: 140+ dB
  • .50 BMG Rifle: If you have to ask, it’s too much.

It’s worth noting that OSHA recommends an occupational noise level that tops out at 140 db, so every time you fire a gun without hearing protection on, you risk permanent hearing loss.  Not good. 

Types of Hearing Protection 

Selecting the right hearing protection can be confusing. If you shoot regularly at an indoor range, there will be racks of earmuffs waiting for you to use. If you go to an outdoor range, though, you’ll probably see inexpensive in-ear foam earbuds for sale if you forget to bring some with you. What’s best for you depends a lot on what you shoot and where you’ll shoot it. More on this later, as we look at each individual kind of ear protection.

Noise Reduction Rating 

Hearing protection is based on the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), a standard that’s created by the Environmental Protection Agency. The NRR rating shows how many decibels of noise a given type of ear protection will dampen when used properly. It’s that last bit, “used properly,” that can cause issues. I have never had much luck fitting expandable foam plugs into my ears, which reduces their ability to cut down the noise going into my ears.  In addition, how you use your hearing protection can affect how well it works. I recently ran into an issue in a carbine class where the large earmuffs I was using pressed up against the stock of my rifle and slid off my ears, opening up an air gap that let in the noise from my gun (and everyone else’s guns, too). I was using those earmuffs because they had the highest noise reduction rating (in theory) of any ear protection I owned. However, because they didn’t mesh well with the rifle I was shooting, they weren’t doing their job, so I switched to a pair of in-ear hearing protectors instead. 

Active Versus Passive Hearing Protection

The introduction of electronic active hearing protection has been a game changer for the shooting sports. Active ear protectors use a microphone and speaker to transmit outside sounds to your ear.  When those sounds get loud, they automatically cut the microphone, blocking the damaging levels of noise from reaching your eardrums. What this means in practice is that if you wear a set of electronic ear muffs or earbuds to the range, you’ll be able to hear the range commands of safety officers, the instructions of your trainers, and the conversations of your friends on the range, yet still have effective protection on your ears. Also, the microphones in a set of electronic ear protectors can be turned to levels where they augment your natural hearing, giving you extra-sensitive hearing while still protecting your ears from harm.  Passive earmuffs and earbuds are just that: passive. By relying on padding and other acoustical material to block harmful amounts of incoming noise, they don’t have an on/off switch or batteries to fail, meaning they work from the minute you put them on. However, they also block all levels of noise, so you’ll have problems hearing people who aren’t shouting at the top of their lungs. 

What About Bluetooth? 

Some of the newer models of electronic hearing protection have built-in Bluetooth connectivity, allowing you to connect your ear pro to a smartphone or other device. If I’m honest, I’ve yet to see the need for such a thing. In theory, it’d be nice to listen to music as I shoot.  However, I’m usually listening for audio cues, such as the “ping!” of my rounds hitting steel or the commands from a range officer or instructor. 

Now let’s talk about what types of hearing protection are out there, and which might work for you.

Foam earbudsIn-Ear Passive Hearing Protection

Noise Reduction Rating: 22-33 dB

Cost: $1-20 

Advantages

Price: It’s easy to find big bins of these earbuds at prices that reduce the cost of each set to just pennies apiece. Portability: You can stuff a pair of these into your pocket and have them with you wherever you go (in fact, there’s currently a pair of these on the spare change shelf in the console of my car). Utility: In-ear foam plugs can be used in conjunction with earmuffs to give you even more protection against hearing loss. 

Disadvantages

Usage: Whether they work or not depends a great deal on the shape of your ears and your ability to squeeze the earbuds into a shape where they fill up your ear canal and block out the sound. Communication: Passive earplugs lower the volume of all sounds on the range, not just gunshots. As a result, normal conversations (60db) get lowered to whispering in library levels (around 35db). This means that important range commands might not be heard. At a class, an instructor’s vital guidance might get ignored because it wasn’t heard. Comfort: Putting in and pulling out earplugs all the time can be annoying, and some people just can’t handle the feeling of having something stuck in their ears for hours at a time.  

Electrong Active EarbudsIn-Ear Active Hearing Protection

Noise Reduction Rating: 22-33 dB

Cost: $120+

Advantages

CommunicationThe active noise cancellation in this type of hearing protection means you can wear these earbuds all day long and still hear conversations around you. You’ll also be able to hear range commands and your instructor, making them a good choice for people who take classes or compete on a regular basis. Portability: This is a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s very easy to drop a pair of electronic earbuds into your range bag and take them with you wherever you go. On the other hand, it’s very easy to leave that same pair of expensive earbuds on the range and forget about them until much later.  Ask me how I know this.

Disadvantages

Comfort: People who don’t like the feeling of having something stuck in their ear for hours on end will probably hate active in-ear protection as much as they hate passive earbuds. Price: It’s not cheap to pack the electronics needed to instantly adjust the volume of noise into something that can fit inside your ear. Also, because of their size, this type of hearing protection uses hearing aid batteries, which are more expensive and don’t last as long as their AA cousins.

Earmuff ear protection.. so common, but very usefulOver-Ear Passive Hearing Protection 

Noise Reduction Rating: 20-30 dB

Cost: $10 – $200 

Advantages

Price: You can find these passive earmuffs just about anywhere, and even the low-end models can work very well. Comfort: Again, this is a bit of a two-edged sword. I find over-the-ear muffs easy to wear for hours on end when the weather is colder. However, I have friends who find it uncomfortable to wear earmuffs for longer periods when used in conjunction with eye protection, due to the pressure on the temples caused by the ear muffs. Utility: Combine these with passive earbuds, and you should be able to handle all but the loudest guns without lasting damage to your hearing.

Disadvantages

Portability: Because they cover the whole ear, earmuffs are bulkier and harder to carry around than a pair of small earbuds. Plus, the bulkier nature of earmuffs can cause problems when you’re shooting long guns like rifles and shotguns. Their increased size means they can interfere with your cheek weld on the stock of your gun, which can result in the ear cup lifting away from the side of your head, allowing the deafening (literally) sounds of your gun to leak in and affect your hearing. Communication: These are passive, so all incoming sounds are going to reduce equally, whether they’re loud like a gunshot or quiet like a conversation. 

Howard Leigh Sport Impact Electronic Ear ProtectionOver-Ear Active Hearing Protection

Noise Reduction Rating: 18-30 db

Cost: $35+ 

Advantages

Communication: In addition to the advantages of electronic active hearing protection, these types of ear protectors typically have an input jack that allows you to use them with a microphone or external sound source. Utility: One of the nice things about electronic hearing protection is that you can put them on at the beginning of a range session and leave them on all day. And, because there’s no need to take them off to hear range commands, you won’t be affected by the noise from nearby ranges or forget to put them back on your ears after a cease-fire.

Disadvantages

Portability: Just like passive earmuffs, these are not small. If I toss a pair into my range bag, they take up space for ammo, magazines, and all the other flotsam and jetsam I need to enjoy a day at the range. Price: The Howard Leight Sport Impact Sport earmuffs in the photo are one of the most popular ear protectors out there, but they have a noise reduction of 22 db, which is on the lower end of effective protection. These earmuffs can be made more effective with the addition of Noisefighter gel covers. However, the most effective, full-feather electronic earmuffs can easily cost hundreds of dollars. 

What Kind Of Hearing Protection Is Best For Shooting?

I know this answer may sound a bit trite, but you really need to try out a few and see which works best with your body, what you shoot, and where you go shooting. I know world-class competitive shooters who rely on passive foam earplugs to protect their hearing. I’ve also shot with members of our nation’s most elite units who use the latest in electronic earmuffs tied into their communications gear, letting them keep track of their mission goals while still keeping their ears safe from damage.

Also, keep in mind that the best style of ear protection might change from one situation to another. For instance, when shooting pistols indoors, electronic earmuffs work well for me. But outside in the South Florida heat, I find that in-ear electronic earbuds are much more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time. Over-the-ear hearing protection covers the ears.  Since your ears are one of the ways your body sheds excess heat, covering them up makes it a little harder for your body to cool itself when the sun is out.

Whatever the situation, using hearing protection while shooting an unsuppressed gun is a necessity, not an option. Find something that works for you and use it every time you go to the range to keep your hearing safe for years to come.