Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Ballseye's Firearms Training and Tactics 4 - Eyes and Ears...

...are two of our most valuable sets of organs. With them we perceive an awful lot of what goes on around us. We should never put them in unnecessary jeopardy of injury or loss, and this is especially true when shooting as each of these organs is quite susceptible to damage while we are so engaged. You can shoot once, yes just once, without hearing protection and permanently damage your ears. All it takes is one bit of ricochet material from a bullet to lose an eye - sort of like why your mom told you you could not have a BB Gun. Now I am not about to tell you not to enjoy shooting because there are some inherent potential dangers, heck there are probably more dangers involved in crossing the street. What I am about to say, to insist, is that you need to make certain to protect your hearing and eyesight when you shoot, or when you observe someone shooting, just as are my wife and son in the pic.

The best, and most practical, way to protect them is, in my opinion, with commerci
ally available hearing and eye protection. While some can be quite expensive, you don't need to spend a fortune to pick up a pair of adequate shooting glasses and hearing protectors. Various types of fairly inexpensive yet fully functional hearing and eye protection for shooters are available a gun shops, sporting goods stores, or online. I'll give you a rundown on some of the most common types of hearing protectors, and will also tell you something about shooting glasses that should point you right on target should you want to pick some up for yourself. Remember if you shoot, you should wear them whenever practical.

I'll start with hearing protectors and why we should use them. Basically there are two types available - those that fit over and fully around (not one or the other but they cover and fully encircle your ears, this is a must) your ears like ear muffs or headphones, and those that fit into your ear canal like ear plugs. All hearing protectors, as far as I am aware, are rated in terms of their NRR (Noise Reduction Rating). Noise levels, or the levels of pressure caused by noise, are rated in decibels, and in general the higher the decibels the louder the noise. The higher the decibels that are protected against, the higher the NRR, and the better the protection level that hearing protectors give to the shooter. Note that the idea is not to cancel out all noise, but rather to reduce harmful levels of noise from damaging your hearing. A typical gunshot from a defensive firearm, at arms length from you, can send about 150 to 180 decibels into your ears. It only takes about 85 decibels to be harmful to your ears and your hearing. Granted with a noise level of 85 decibels it takes about 8 hours of exposure to produce damage to your ears and hearing; however, noise levels as high as those of gunshots can instantaneously damage your hearing and ears. The higher the decibel level above 85 decibels, the less time needed to produce the damage. Typical gunshots come in somewhere between about 140 - 180 decibels. According to the NRA: "Gunshot decibel levels, measured by John S. Odess, M.D., ranged between 143.5 from a .22 short to 174.4 from a .458 Win. Mag (American Rifleman, "Hear No Evil," March, 1996)." (My source for this can be found at A good illustration and description of the dangers of decibel levels can also be seen at: Dangerous Decibels. They have a couple of charts showing info about decibel levels, such as what levels are produced by what sounds, and how long it takes certain levels to harm your hearing.

So when shooting, or in close proximity to shooting such as a spectator, it is imperative if at all practical, that you wear hearing protection. Note I did not say if convenient but if at all practical! In a self defense situation, or in the case of a cop walking a beat, it would probably be very impractical, maybe even impossible, to stop and don on hearing protection without risk to your own life. Yet, anytime you are at the range, a firearms sporting event, afield shooting - even as someone just there to watch - you can and probably should wear hearing protection to avoid hearing loss. This includes while hunting even though you want to be able to hear game or other hunters/people approaching. (There are special headsets that allow you to listen to, even amplify, regular sounds, that will negate the effects of high decibel levels.)

As for the actual hearing protectors, as I said there are two basic types. There are those that are of an ear muff or headset design that fit over the ear, and there are those that fit into the ear canal such as ear plugs.

Ear Muff types of hearing protectors come in two basic types: The first type of muff hearing protector are those that are passive, or in other words they do not doing anything other than block sound by the inherent properties of the materials from which they are made and how they are made. The other type are of an active nature, they actually respond to sound to block it out; this second type if battery operated and by some miracle of technology they block out high decibel levels. While muff type protectors look something like ear muffs or like stereo headsets, you should only use muffs actually made for hearing protection from loud decibel levels, and never use cold weather ear muffs or stereo headsets in place of them. These others do not afford proper hearing protection from either high or low frequency sounds, and protection from both is required to maintain hearing.

Muff hearing protectors of the passive and active types have NRR ratings up to about 30dB. This is usually considered sufficient to avoid hearing loss and ear damage. The thing about the electronic ones is that they allow you to hear regular sounds and block out the high decibel ones. The pair at right blocks out sounds above 85dB while letting you hear lower decibel sounds. Passive muffs block out just about all types of sound that a human can hear, regular and high decibel. They do not block out everything but do impair how well you hear normal sounds while wearing them, and this is something the electronic ones are supposed to overcome. Remember though, with either type, the higher the NRR, the more protection for your ears and your hearing. I almost have always used passive muff types of hearing protectors ( and many times also use ear plugs at the same time as muffs). I have tried a pair of noise reduction muffs, but the battery failed. Yes they still offered some hearing protection, but I was not impressed because the guy who gave them to me did not have extra batteries. I am not saying they do not work well, even better than passive muffs, but you do need to remember to carry extra batteries for them. I should try them again especially since I already have tinnitus in my left ear. Mine is a constant ringing very likely caused by gunshot noises at the range when a muff type protector was knocked off by shooting shotgun, and by another time when the insulation was missing from one of the muffs, this in addition to having worked at JFK Airport in NYC for about 15 years and frequently being on the tarmac without hearing protectors - no one told me about this stuff back then. I digress, let me get back on track.

While it is my understanding that any hearing protector with a NRR of 20 or more is sufficient for firearms range or self defense situations, I suggest that if you decide on either type of the muff protectors, get the highest NRR you can find for the type you are purchasing. The ones I use now, a passive set, have a NRR of 29. The passive type usually have ratings between 20 and 30. I would not trust what hearing I have left to less than a NRR of 25, and as I said I prefer higher. Now don't ask me why, when using a hearing protector with a NRR of 30dB, you are protected from hearing loss and ear damage from sounds in decibel ranges of lets say 180dB since the decibels supposedly still getting through, by my figuring and I am no doctor or scientist, would seemingly be about 150dB. This is more than enough to cause damage instantaneously - and you would think that a protector with a NRR rating of 30dB would not work well enough to protect you from those high decibel levels, but yes they do work to protect your hearing, even ones with NRRs as low as the 20s supposedly will do so sufficiently. Go figure!

One other thing about muff type hearing protectors. They produce different results when worn differently. If you wear the head band over your head, as opposed to around the back of your head, as opposed to under your chin they protect you differently depending on how worn. Usually the highest level of protection, at least with muff type protectors I have used, is when they are worn over the top of the head, but make sure to follow manufacturers instructions and suggestions for the most protection.

Okay enough of the muff type, lets get to the ear plug type of protector. There are a couple of basic types of ear plugs that you can get - ones fitted to your ear canal by a doctor, and ones that are bought over the counter that are rubber or foam-like and expand to fill your ear canal when inserted properly. (No I do not mean like shaving foam, but sort of like a foam cushion material.) As far as I am aware, ear plugs can have a NRR up to 33dB. They come in various shapes and sizes to fit your ears better. As for me, I have never used doctor fitted ear plugs since it is my understanding that they do not work all that better, if any, than commercially available foam ear plugs. I prefer to use those they have supplied me at work for years, and they have a NRR of about 29. They are disposable foam earplugs that go just about fully into the ear canal. Unlike some other ear plugs, they do not have a head band or strap to hold them together as a pair. They are individual plugs. They work fine for me, but I usually use them in combination with muff type protectors, using them as a sort of backup for ear muff protectors. In other words, I first properly insert into my ear canals, as per manufacturers directions, a pair of earplugs; then I don a muff protector over and fully around my ears. This affords somewhat more protection than just one type alone. It also provides for continued ear/hearing protection should your ear muffs come off, or become less effective, for any reason.

Now here is a very important point. I just wrote that I wear ear plugs while also wearing in muff protectors in case the muff protectors become less effective. It is very important when wearing either type of hearing protector to make sure they are fitted properly. If they get knocked off or out of place a bit y shotgun or rifle recoil - ouch. Also, anything coming between the edge of a muff type protector and your head - thereby preventing a good seal - can allow too much sound to get to your ears. Even a small break in the seal can let in dangerous levels of sound. So if you wear eyeglasses, or just plain old safety glasses to protect your eyes, and you well should do so as I will soon explain, what to do? They make foam sheaths that cover the ear pieces of safety glasses or so I have heard, and these are supposed to allow for maintaining a good seal. As for me I have never seen them, to my knowledge, in over 40 years of shooting. They also make ear plugs, and you can use them as I said thereby decreasing the risk of a broken seal with muff protectors. Then why not, you may ask, just use ear plugs. Well they too can be fitted improperly, and even fall out. I would rather have one caught inside my ear muffs, than hit the ground, not to keep them clean (and they do need to be kept clean to avoid ear infection) but because it means I also had on muffs to protect my hearing. Another way to get over the seal problems is to buy ear muffs with a good flexible foam cushion seals or liquid filled seal cushions (this is the part that rings the opening of the muff and contacts your head around your ears). One other thing about muff protectors that I have heard but have not verified is that they offer superior protection to plugs alone because they help decrease sound transmitted into your ears that travels through the area of your head around the ear lobe. This because they cover that area. I don't know if it is true but I guess it sort of sounds sensible. As I said though, I prefer to use both at the same time.

The thing you want to do is to protect your ears as well as you can and each of the above types of hearing protection have advantages and disadvantages. You have to make your own choice as to which you prefer. As I said though, get ones with the highest NRR rating you can find for either type. For sports like hunting, or to be better able to hear range commands, you may want an electronic set. Whichever you use, always remember to wear them in accordance with manufacturers instructions, and always make sure to wear them when shooting or at a shooting event if at all practical. In addition, make sure others around you are wearing them, the hearing you save maybe your children's.

As for shooting/safety glasses, what can I say, we are talking about one of our most valuable organs and one of most used senses during waking hours. Protecting your eyes while shooting may not be inherent common sense, but once you know just a little something about firearms, about ammunition, about gunpowder, about bullets and fragmentation and about ricochets - eye protection is basically a no brainer. Yet, shooters often fail to wear eye protection while shooting, and if they do wear some sort of eye protection it is often not the proper type; I just understand why.

The best type of eye protection for a shooter is probably shooting goggles, or in other words, goggles that fully mask the eye area, with a seal to your face completely around the eyes, and with a protective clear shield in front of their eyes (click the pic, wait a second or two, for a moving view). The next best choice is probably shooting glasses, those made specifically for use while shooting or for use in other high risk of eye injury activities. These should afford as much protection as possible to the eye. This means that shooting glasses to be very effective at eye protection while shooting should cover a larger area than do most eyeglasses. Regular eyeglasses are not usually an effective eye protection while shooting, and if you require to wear eyeglasses to see properly, then get eye protection that will fit over them such as goggles or shooting glasses made to fit over eyeglasses.

The reason I say most eyeglasses are not good enough for shooting glasses is that while shatterproof in most cases, they do not cover enough of the area around the eye, in the proper way, to avoid certain types of potential hazard from hitting your eyes while shooting. If you wear glasses, take them off now and look at them - use another pair if need be to see them. Look at the size of the lens, compare this to a run of the mill pair of polycarbonate shooting glasses (I prefer clear to the amber or yellow as shown). Which is larger, probably the lens of the shooting glasses. Now look to the side of the lenses connected to the ear piece. Is there, on your eyeglasses, a sort of shield (or wrap around lenses) at this point on each side to protect your eyes from particles that may enter the eye from the outside corners. There should be on well designed shooting glasses. Now look at the top ridge of your eyeglasses. Does it basically go straight across from outside lens end to lens end, and is it about as thick or a little thicker than each lens? Look at a well designed pair of shooting glasses and note this ridge is much the same on them except that it extends from the front of the lenses back toward the point where the glasses rest along your eyebrows. In other words this ridges is deepened, or thicker, it provides a sort of a platform atop the ridge of the glasses, and this platform helps prevent particles from entering your eyes from above. If you don't get what I mean, pout on your eyeglasses, now place your index fingers behind the top edge of each lens, get it now. That extra thick or wide ridge acts like the top of a pair of goggles acts, albeit not as well because it does not seal against your face. I will readily admit that to my knowledge, most shooting glasses, even expensive ones, do not have this feature, and I think that a shame - but there is a solution and I will discuss it later. Good shooting glasses also have highly shatterproof lenses. Yes they can be broken, but should not splinter into little pieces that could go into your eyes. I think most eyeglasses are like this nowadays, but I prefer shooting glasses or goggle over my eyeglasses while shooting just as a safety measure. Of course, many people shy away from glasses or goggle mad for shooting. They prefer their eyeglasses or sunglasses. If you insist on wearing these as eye protection while shooting or observing a shooter, then at least pick up some side protector shields that fit over the ear pieces and sit at the end of the lenses near the outside corner of each eye.

Now remember I said that there was something you could do to make up for having shooting glasses that do not have the top ridge of ewhich I wrote. The thing to do is to wear a brimmed cap of some sort while shooting or a spectator at such an event. The brim of a baseball type cap, or oither hats, will effectively keep an awful lot of particles from reaching your eyes from above. I think it best to still wear well designed shooting glasses with that ridge I described, but a hat like a rimmed basebball cap is a good thing to wear while shooting. They also keep the glare from the sun out of your eyes, and can make it easier to see in such instances of glare.

So why wear shooting glasses or goggles while shooting, or while a spectator to shooting? Just to protect those things that allow you to behold you children at play, your lovers smile, and a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Wear hearing protector so when your love whispers sweet nothing into your ears you hear them, when your child cries out for help you will hear that an be there in no time, and to hear the music of the birds as they sing their songs in the srping. You tell me if it is worth it to protect these wonderful senses, I think so.

All the best,
Glenn B


Anonymous said...

Great post Glenn! As a family that is gun familiar, I read this post as a critic...and really found it informative, personal, and right on!


Oh. I am on the kids computer so I am not logged on...Jennifer(penofjen)

Also check the caption winners!

Anonymous said...

Just as an FYI. The NRR value gives a good comparison basis, but it is important to look at the performance tables as well. Different protection devices perform differently at various volumes and frequency levels. Tipically, the highest protection is received from high volume low pitch noises. Meaning that if you have a firearm that produces 180 decibels, the noise reduction is likely to be greatly more than the NRR rating, and it is conceivable that a NRR 22 rated device will outperform a NRR 30 at that range. It is also important to note the standard deviation. If I remember my statistics correctly, 25% of the devices will be off by 1 SD, around 10% will be off by 2 SD's, around 2% by 3 SD's, and so on. So a small SD value in the range your working in is important.

Jim Atkinson said...

Glen, I really hope that anyone who reads this article pay close attention to what your saying. I know for a fact how important it is to wear protective hearing equipment. I have lost over 60% of my hearing simply because, when I was young, no one told me about that. Again Great Writing!

Jim A