If you are a shooter, even one who practices infrequently, you must have ear protection. It’s that simple! You may think you are some kind of hardcore type who can deal with the noise, or that your ears will “harden up” but that just isn’t the case; what is the case is that you are going deaf! That’s what happens when your ears harden up.
Gun blast from centerfire calibers of all kinds and especially rifles is titanically loud, and if your tender ears are unprotected it will definitely be painful and may even cause hearing damage.
If you have the gall or the misfortune to be inside a building when a braked rifle is begin fired, the noise will be cataclysmic; hearing damage, boom, just like that, and the pain is stunning. Once your hearing is gone, it’s gone. It doesn’t grow back.
For practice, hunting and even, yes, tactical situations ear protection is a must-have item for shooters. No ifs, ands, or buts.
This is the only piece of kit that will save your ear drums. In this article, we’ll talk a little about what makes good ear-protection or “ear pro” good, and recommend some of the best sets you can get in 2019, so you can save your ears for really important stuff, like listening to rock and roll!
Table of Contents
The Finer Notes of Hearing and Hearing Loss
Your sense of hearing is a remarkable and fragile thing, a finely tuned apparatus that works effortlessly to pick up sounds all around you with remarkable clarity and direction finding capability.
It is obviously important to your overall quality of life, but also important for your safety. Humans can hear all kinds of oncoming threats faster than you are able to see or otherwise perceive them, and the early warning provided by noise, even soft ones, can mean the difference between life and death. Your hearing is obviously worth valuing and protecting!
But with such a finely tuned and calibrated sensory organ comes certain vulnerabilities. Extremely loud sounds, defined as ones above a certain decibel threshold, will cause pain and damage the components of the ear, reducing its effectiveness.
Things like small two stroke engines running wide open, heavy equipment, explosions, and most germane to our discussion, gunfire, are among the most common culprits.
Even sounds that are below this threshold of instant damage can, with enough time and exposure, cause hearing loss. This is called factory or industrial deafness, and is all too common an occurrence among those who work in constantly loud environments like factories (hence the name), public shooting ranges, race tracks and so on.
Your pal Tom, here, worked on a very busy public line for years and has paid the price, even with good hearing protection.
How Does Hearing Damage Occur?
To begin, it pays to understand just how loud sounds are, and at what level of loudness damage, permanent or temporary, will occur to the ear. The loudness of a sound is measured in a unit called decibels, abbreviated dB.
Take note that decibels increases non-linearly, meaning that a quiet sound of 40 decibels, a whisper or shuffle of paper is more than twice as loud as a very quiet sound of around 20 decibels which is akin to grass rustling or the sussuring of trees.
Keep that in mind as you contemplate “just” an increase of 10 decibels, or the amount of protection reduced by ear protection: just 5 decibels worth of difference is highly noticeable!
Hearing damage occurs when sound, that is vibrations traveling through the air, reach the structures of the inner and middle ear.
Comprised of the hammer, stirrup and anvil bones behind the eardrum and alongside the cochlea and various membranes, this apparatus contains within tiny, sensitive hairs that actually register the sound that makes its way to your ear. This pickup is then transmitted to the brain where it is perceived.
When those tiny hairs are subjected to extremely loud peak sounds or 135 to 140 decibels or more, they will die off as parts of the membrane they are attached to is traumatically separated from the underlying tissue.
Even if they survive this trauma intact, scarring will occur which will deaden their sensitivity. This tiny, small-scale reaction is the onset of hearing loss and eventual deafness.
The same can occur over longer, sustained exposure to lesser noise. Six to eight hours in an environment totaling 80-90 decibels will cause hearing loss to occur without any pain. This is most commonly associated with the inductrial deafness phenomenon. And to crown it all, hearing loss is mostly irreversible. Once it is gone it is gone.
This is why quality hearing protection is so vital and it is equally vital that it is kept in constant and correct use.
Ear Pro to the Rescue!
Hearing protection, be it in the form of over-the-ear muffs and in-the-ear plugs, will help save your hearing by reducing the decibels from a noise that actually makes it into the ear.
This reduction rating varies from unit to unit and is your quick indication of how much “muting” you’ll get from any given set. Take a gander at the package or listing of a set of ear protection and it will tell you. Higher is always better if you can get it.
Some ear protection may only offer enough protection to take the worst of the bark off of a rifle shot, or be okay for a shorter session of handgun practice outside.
Some guns are so monstrously loud that you’ll need two sets of high-reduction ear pro to shoot them comfortably, muffs over plugs. Situations calling for similar fixes are shooting at an indoor range, for instance.
Greater decibel reduction will allow you to shoot longer and enjoy a quieter experience, but ones with lesser reduction will allow you to perceive more sounds around you, which can be important for activities like hunting.
No matter what you are doing with a gun in hand, if the situation allows for ear-pro you should definitely be making use of it!
The Best Ear Protection for Shooting
You can get hearing protection in two broad types, plugs, which as mentioned above fit inside the ear canal, and muffs, which fit over the ear entirely.
Among these two categories there are several subtypes, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, and you may yet find yourself wanting both or several of each for various jobs you need them to do.
Overall, you’ll find that ear plugs will offer a great deal of convenience as far as carrying them goes, and they can also be quick to don or doff. If a close-to-perfect fit is achieved (easier said than performed) you’ll find that plugs also offer on average greater decibel reduction than muffs do.
That being said, it is easier to get the benefits of high decibel reduction with a high-quality set of shooting-specific muffs which you can just pop on your head when it is time to go loud.
Oftentimes shooters will “double-up” or “double-bag” their protection for very long shooting sessions or exposure to seriously loud guns. This means you’ll wear plugs under the muffs for maximum protection. A set of high quality, high attenuation plugs beneath a similarly excellent set of muffs can really deaden the outside world!
Below is a list of the types of hearing protection you’ll see making up our recommendations.
Best Disposable Plugs
The classic foam plugs you see in every single shooting range and sporting goods store by the barrel full. These ubiquitous little dudes offer shockingly good noise reduction, are a cinch to carry and very compact.
These are less likely to break their seal compared to fitted ones. You should always have a few packs of these stashed here and there just in case you need them.
Downsides include being somewhat laborious to get in the ear properly and they only hold up for a few uses before they start to soften up and degrade.
MPOW Super Soft Foam Plugs
Nothing fancy here. These are the traditional, bright, roll-up foam earplugs you have probably been using since you got taken out for your first shots as a wee one.
I have tried all kinds of spins and updates on the classic “bullet” shape, and none even come close. So long as they are made decently well, you cannot go wrong.
34 decibel reduction is just about standard for these wonderful throwaways, and they work. You can count on these to save your eardrums when shooting, working with power tools or just trying to get some shut eye in a noisy environment. They are good for more than just shooting, you know!
Buy a big jug for best savings since you’ll be going through these like potato chips if you are a regular shooter. This set above comes with 120 plugs, 60 pair, and a handy aluminum cylinder that lets you hygienically carry a few pair on your key chain or range bag, instead of letting them roll around in the bottom of a pocket getting nasty. Yuck.
Get the MPOW Super Soft Foam Plugs from Amazon.
Howard Leight Super Leight Disposables
For some folks, not many, but some, they will get the best results using a foam ear plug with an oval cross section, unlike the typical “bullet” shaped ones mentioned above. If you already know you are that person or want to get some to try just in case, you can as always rely on Howard Leight.
Nothing unexected, here: 32db reduction on par with a typical foamie ear plug, cheap and utterly disposeable. These are also available corded if you worry more about loss than having one accidentally ripped out of your ear leaving your tender eardrum to soak up a pounding from gunfire, but hey, to each their own.
You can get these in a patriotic red, white and blue color scheme at the like above from Amazon.
Best Fitted Plugs
Fitted plugs can offer a great value and all around convenience and performance in hearing protection. They are often very low profile, and so will not interfere will getting a cheek weld on a long gun or shooting prone.
Some even have a measure of adjustability, both to tune the fit of the stems into your ear and to adjust the precise amount of sound they allow to enter the ear.
Downsides include having to try several brands to find the ones that fit you best, and struggling to keep them sealed when you get wet or really sweaty. Not for nothing, these things also get pretty gross as they squeegee wax out of your ear, so you’ll need to keep them cleaner than any of the others.
SureFire EP4 Sonic Defenders
These are my hands-down favorite plugs I have ever used and I swear by them. Aside from a very respectable price point, and boasting an impressive 24 decibel reduction rating, the SureFire Sonic Defenders take the cake as the most comfortable plugs you are likely to wear, and surprisingly secure for their type.
The Sonic Defenders are made from a soft, jelly-like material that is comfortable and easy to clean. The prominent flange that fits into the lobe of the ear looks like it would be a nuisance, but actually helps to securely anchor the plug in the ear and is so well designed you are likely to forger you have them in.
To crown it all, these SureFire plugs have a valve with an attached and tethered cap that you can open to allow better detection of quieter sounds without giving up the protection of the plug.
You’ll not get the full 24dB protection without the valves closed, but it is more than enough to save you from a few shots, rifle shots even.
A favorite, and sure to become yours! Make sure you order the right size on Amazon; most people wear a medium.
Decibullz Custom Molded Earplugs
The only custom-fit option on our list deserves acclaim for its approach to getting you the perfect fit in a DIY kit that does not cost an arm and a leg.
Decibullz features a moldable plasticine outer flange that you shape by dropping in boiling water and then, after letting it cool to skin safe levels, fit into your ear for a perfectly ergonomic earplug.
Best of all, the process can be repeated to adjust it or in case you screw up, a perk which no other custom fit kit boasts.
Better yet, these are not the strange one-piece ear plugs you see being cranked out by stranger vendors at gunshows. The Decibulls feature an integrated mounting point for stems that seal the ear canal more like a traditional earplug.
The kit includes several different sizes so you are assured of having one that works for you. A standard set of foam stems is included for those who prefer them.
The only drawbacl to these plugs is that it is not as easy as you might think to get a deep and proper seal . This can lead to tedious trial and error until you achieve perfection.
Also, the lack of opening valve to help increase awareness and allow conversation in the right range setting is a sticking point. All in all though, an excellent unit if you are willing to work with them until they are just right.
Get the Decibullz Custom Molded Earplugs from Amazon.
Best Electronic Plugs
These things can be a hunter’s best friend. Tiny, hearing aid size plugs that will actively amplify quiet sounds while suppressing loud sounds that will hurt your hearing.
Sometimes called “wolf ears” these little wonders are terrific for use outdoors or in tactical situations where any early detection of a possible threat may save your life.
Downsides include great cost and the pain of utilizing tiny, fidgety batteries or a dedicated recharging dock.
Peltor TEP-200 Tactical Earplug Kit
Among the best electronic earplugs on the market, the TEP-200 kit from Peltor is the most expensive set of ear-pro on our list, but inarguably the one that gives you the most performance for the smallest possible footprint.
The TEP-200 plugs have on/off switching linked to external microphones which will instantly and clearly amplify sounds that fall below the detection threshold for dangerous noise levels, allowing you to conduct a conversation or listen for furtive movement inside a building without compromising your hearing protection.
In the event of a gunshot or similarly noisy event, the mics instantly shutdown and you enjoy 24 dB of reduction, more than enough for handguns and most rifles. These even do a good job indoors.
Compared to the pitiful reduction of some other electronic plugs that cost nearly as much, you’ll get far better attenuation from the Peltors. Recharging is accomplished via a dock inside their case which has its own battery-fueled power supply.
Make no mistake, this is a set of hearing protection that costs as much as a handgun or shotgun, but it will genuinely enhance your capabilities, not just conserve your hearing.
Get the Peltor TEP-200 Tactical Earplug Kit on Amazon.
Walker’s Silencer Digital Earbuds
Walkers is one of the oldest names in electronic hearing protection, and though they have lost some steam thanks to the serious market inroads made by companies like Peltor/3M, Howard Leight and the reigning heavyweight champ, MSA, they still offer good electronic ear-pro in the form of muffs an dplugs.
Of special note, their Silencer earbuds offer excellent flexibility, great battery life and competitive sound reduction for fitted plugs. The Silencers claim to fame is dynamic wind reduction, which cuts down on the awful hissing and popping you’ll endure when you wear electronic ear protection (especially plugs) on breezy days.
The 29dB reduction kicks in for any sound over 85dB which is well below the threshold of damage and this drastically cuts down on the noise that you perceive. Each plug is independently adjustable for volume by turning a small knob on the outer facing of the unit.
These plugs include multiple foam tips so you can get them to fit just right in your ear canal. A case in included but features no charging capability; these pups run on tiny #10 batteries. These impressive units are an excellent value and available on Amazon.
Best Conventional Muffs
Your bog standard ear muffs. Easy to don and easy to take off. You can get a set that offers best expected attenuation (around 33 dB) for little money. You can get them in a variety of fits, styles, colors and cup configurations to suit any task.
Downsides include their overall bulk, and their likelihood of being jarred or bumped off the head. It is also easy to break the seal of the cups when cheeking down on a stock or going prone.
Peltor Optime 105 Behind-the-Head
A simple, well made pair of earmuffs is often all you need for a good day practicing on the range, and Peltor once again delivers. The Optime is not tactical, not sleek or sexy or cool, but it is effective and comfortable while it blocks the noise out with a 28dB reduction rating.
The band on this version rides behind the neck to allow you easy wear of a hat or helmet compared with the traditional and standard top-of-head band, and that means they are more likely to stay in place no matter what you are doing.
Ideal for long-duration wear in high-noise environments like indoor ranges, these tried and true Peltors have stood the test of time, and are a bargain. Best Peltor Optime 105 Behind-the-Head from Amazon.
Howard Leight Leightning L0F Ultraslim
The only downside to the Optime’s above is that they are, frankly, enormous. While they are not heavy, their immense bulk makes properly cheeking on a shotgun or rifle stock very difficult to do while keeping the seal of the muffs intact.
Focusing on your shot and then being rudely surprised at the break by an eye-splitting report is never a fun time. Ouch.
If you want the convenience and protection of muffs without the bulk of the Optime, take a look at Howard Leight’s Leightning Ultraslims. These light and comfy muffs feature thick, soft cushions to reduce discomfort, and also fold up into a compact bundle to save room in your range bag or pack.
Best of all, their leaned-out design means you’ll be able to get much closer to a natural cheekweld on your stock without disturbing the seal of the muffs around your head.
23 dB reduction is average, but you can easily double up with plugs to make up the difference and then some. For shooters who do a lot of work with long guns, the tradeoff will probably be worth it. An absolute steal on Amazon.
Best Electronic Muffs
Electronic muffs afford the convenience and overall effectiveness of standard muffs while affording you the amplification and suppression of electronic plugs, e.g. you can hear things that would normally be muffled when wearing muffs, like conversation, and still have the muffs smart circuitry cutoff gun blasts.
Nicer units are a staple of tactical units as they can be integrated into communications gear like radios.
Downsides include greater expense for high end units, the same likelihood of being snagged or popped off the head as standard muffs and they require batteries to function. Beware of cheapie units; there are very few worth the money.
MSA Sordin Digital Supreme X
Among shooters who know what’s what, the MSA Sordins have long reigned supreme as the electronic muffs to beat. Featuring excellent build quality, battery life and durability, there have been almost no challengers to the Sordin’s reign of supremacy.
These awesome earmuffs feature a relief cut to facilitate shooting of long guns and hear-it-to-believe it directional pickup for the microphones, allowing unprecedented levels of awareness while wearing them.
Their hearing enhancement is so finely tuned to even the smallest sound that some users have reported it to be mildly distracting at first!
For defensive and tactical use, this is one set that can compete with the excellent Peltor TEP’s above, and you are much, much less likely to lose or misplace a set of muffs than a tiny earplug.
Worth every penny, and you can enhance them with a set of gel ear cup pads that are truly sublime. A great upgrade if you suffer from headaches while wearing these over shooting glasses.
Get the MSA Sordin Digital Supreme X on Amazon.
Howard Leight Impact Sport
I’d be remiss if I did not mention the set of electronic ear-pro that swept the shooting world by storm a few years back. The HL Impacts did what was frankly thought impossible at the time: offer quality, durable and effective electronic ear muffs at a price that was often less than half of the next closest competitor that was worth owning.
The Howard Leight Impact muffs are comfortable battery powered muffs with stereo microphones that afford a surprisingly good level of pickup and directionality for their cost. An easy to control wheel switch turns them on and off and controls volume played on the internal speakers.
Just about their only downsides are their middling reduction, around 22db, which might not be enough for shooting louder rifles or on an indoor range without double-bagging, and their somewhat hard foam ear pads, which, luckily, can be swapped for a great set of gel ones at a modest upcharge.
If you balk at the cost of more expensive electronic muffs and plugs, these are your default and frankly only choice to be assured of getting quality.
Heck, you can buy a set of these, the nice pads, and a set of SureFire plugs to go under them with the stems open and still be in at less than half the price of a pair of MSAs. An awesome value!
Walker’s Razor Slim
Walker’s second electronic entry on this list, the Razors offer acceptable performance at a nearly unbeatable price. Omni-directional mics transmit safe sounds you need to hear while the dampening system cuts off sounds over 89dB with 23dB of rated protection. Two AAA batteries is all it takes ot keep these gems fueled and working.
The Razors are very thin, super light and are quite comfortable thanks to their excellent pad design. These actually feature my favorite fit for long-term comfort of any only this list minus the MSA’s with the fancy upgrade gel pads. Your mileage may vary of course.
The biggest drawback to these muffs is the sound quality, as might be expected. The speakers are very flat and tinny sounding, and the lack of emphasis can make some things sound farther away than they really are.
They are also not quite as sharp on direction finding as the Impact Sport muffs above and not even in the same galaxy as the MSAs.
Nonetheless, a useful, comfortable and welcome addition to this market, most especially in the budget price point.
Hearing protection has come a long way since the stuffing of wax or cotton into your ears and hoping for the best, and today’s muffs and plugs packed with advanced materials and technology are quite the testament to that.
Take some time and assess your needs and you will be sure to find a pair of ear-pro on the list above that will work perfectly for you at any budget.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.