By Mike Keleher

Next to Eye Protection, I treat Ear Protection (Ear Pro) as a close second when dealing with firearms. When I enter a range area, I put on eye pro and don’t take them off until I am leaving the area or driving away. (I would encourage you to adopt this obsession- you can’t replace eyes.) With ear pro, I have had to up my game as well. I now use soft ears for in ear protection at all times and add hard muffs over the top of the in-ear stuff when shooting almost any gun.

I am a lifelong shooter, and instructor, and was fortunate enough to put in 30 years with the federal government, where they cared about hearing conservation. We got lectured and trained and had to get our hearing tested regularly. They kept records like a bunch of 3rd grade teachers and would show you the differences in between visits. I was often bad.

They really stressed conservation to keep what you have left for the rest of your life as well as protection against hearing loss with all loud noise, even lawn mowers. As a sufferer of tinnitus- my constant companion, I started paying attention after seeing the bar charts and sitting in those hearing booths with a push button you were supposed to press if you heard a low or high beep in your headset. I called that “My alone time” and rarely ever heard series of beeps. It was also a bit embarrassing to have to tell the booth boys “No. I was not asleep in there” and “Yes I was really trying.”

I almost always used hard earmuffs with loud noise, but the GOV really got me going to put in double protection- in ear and over ear at the same time to protect the hearing I have left.

I don’t miss the tiny noise wristwatch timers allegedly make, don’t hear turn signals, and some cell phones tones. I have used the “Honey I did not hear you” excuse probably a few too many times, but when your hearing is gone, it is gone. Don’t count on hearing aids to get you back to a normal level.

Old timer shooters and police poo-pooed hearing protection and said anyone who used it had tender ears. They refer to those guys now as “Deaf as a Post.” All the famous gun writers you ever heard of were probably deaf before they died.

I am old enough to remember seeing back in the 1960’s, police putting cigarette filters and .38 Special brass in their ears to cut down the noise. I was young enough .22 brass would have probably fit in my ears.

My dad was a State Trooper and in the 1960s brought home a pair of grey hard, over the head shooting muffs. They look like the ones the guys on aircraft carrier flight decks used to use. They were large, noisy and uncomfortable. I just threw them out this year.

Over the ear protection got better, and added foam earpieces and liners for better seals, comfort and protection. That was the norm for about 40 years. They still sell and work well for very reasonable prices from about $12-$30. Their Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) ran from about 22 Decibels (db) to really good ones up around 29 db.

Soft ear plugs rolled in next (yes pun intended). They were easy and comfy to use and very cheap. They could be used for shooting and any loud noise area and would fit in your pocket-much easier to haul around than over the head muffs. Their makers claim from 22db to 29db.

The next big iteration was electronic over the head muffs that would let you listen to ordinary conversation level noise, and they would “hear” a loud noise coming in and instantly shut off the microphones to protect your hearing. I was skeptic at first that they could do all they claimed. After all they run on Unicorn farts or algorithms or some such mythical tech, but after 20 or so years of use I can now assert they do in fact work. The early ones provided lower protection, down in the 19db-22db range, but most now claim 28-29db.

Years ago, when the first electronic muffs hit the market a famous gun writer advocated using them for household self-defense. Clamping it on and turning the volume way up. Seemed silly at the time, but I get it now, it may be more than your biologic hearing can pull in as you get older Walkers took that idea and built Walker’s Game Ear successful business based upon a behind and in the ear hearing aid you could slip on sitting in the woods. Fairly brilliant. They are a huge company now with may fine products.

Here’s the hook when it comes to commercial hearing protection. I inquired with the GOV supplied hearing specialist ear-o Doc about “the best” ear protection be it ear plug or muffs etc. They explained there is no such device, and in fact the ear protection industry is not regulated to a level where one company’s decibel reduction claims were the same as any other manufacturer’s claims. (I seem to recall seeing some late night “You might be entitled to money” lawyer commercials this year related to GOV use ear plug protection.)

The earologist/neuro-audio-hearing guy told me to stuff some soft ears plugs into my canals and then put some hard-shell muffs on top of my head (not behind the head-loses pressure necessary for a best seal.) Aha! So I said if I put some 22 db yellow roll up plugs in my head openings and clamp some 22 db hard shell muffs over the top, I must then have a resulting whopping 44 db of protection…right? “Um. No. Doesn’t work like that. Just use something-it’s better than nothing.” Thanks Ear-o-smith, see ya next year.

Well, I got religious about it, and served up enough yellow cylinder-shaped soft ears to fill a landfill over the years, and always had some hard-shell muffs in the trunk of any vehicle I had. Shooting a lot of USPSA and 3 Gun I found electronic muffs to be a great thing, but I was prone to take them off during slack times and loud noises could still be found-and all were too late. So, I always kept some soft plugs in my skull wandering around at range time and doubled up when shooting my long guns or near others.

I started experimenting with inside the ear plugs which have baffles or limited abilities to let normal noise in, but supposedly stopped the big ouchy noises. I had some Safarilands I liked, and some Sure Fire Defenders for several years (both were reusable and cost about $20) However, they both had little tiny drain type plugs you could pull out to let some noise in-good for conversation, bad for the big booms. I researched it and found with the plug in it would offer 22db but with the tiny plug out, the resulting in ear device was only giving me about 9 db of protection.

Being old, I started even wearing hearing pro while shotgun hunting. Save the old guy’s hearing became more important than oh, I might not hear a wing beat. Any protection is better than none. Last year I had some Sure Fire Defenders in- with the plug pulled when I crested a hill and a guy shot at a flying bird that had to have been somewhere in my vicinity. The noise in my right ear was so painful I grabbed the side of my head. He probably thought he shot me, and I don’t know how that much shot missed my fat head. I did a poor job of explaining it to him, just ducking down to avoid the second blast and cursing a lot.

This put me on to a search for a “better” solution. I had been seeing electronic muffs shrunk down into tiny inside the ear devices for a couple of years but was not willing to put in $400 to try them out and no one offered to give me any for free. They sure looked more comfy than electronic muffs all day.

I talked to the Godfather of action shooting, Jerry Micilek about them, and he said he was on a hearing conservation program (and who shoots more than Jerry?) and his ear person said to continue to use double protection and not rely on inside the ear canal devices alone. The reason being, is even with the ear canal sound blocked, the bones surrounding the ear and ear drum pass along the vibration and concussion. Made a lot of sense to me after having some exposure to mil grade bone conduction devices. So, I still use double protection when shooting big stuff and indoors.

Following last year’s shot gun blast, I bought a pair of Walker’s Game Ear inside the ear electronic ear plugs to try out. The two ear plugs are connected by a wire worn behind the neck and work like electronic earmuffs cutting out the loud sounds. I wore them this summer at several ranges shooting 3 gun, and they worked fine under a pair of electronic Peltor earmuffs (I was afraid they would set up a sonic screech and cook my little used brain remnants, but they got along fine.) They were comfy enough to wear all day hanging behind the range line or resetting targets. They claim about 29db.

This fall, I have been wearing the Walkers product in ear replacing the Sure Fire Defenders while out pheasant hunting. They are marvelous for damping down shotgun blasts, and I know I am getting pretty good protection without having to resort to electronic muffs. They may also be my lucky charm, as no one has shot at my head so far this year.

They are moisture resistant (I have had them out in the rain and snow) and claim 8 hrs of rechargeable battery time. Seems about right I have gotten about 6-8 hrs from them. The only downside is wind. It crackles across the microphones and is annoying, but if you have ever worn electronic muffs or blue tooth ear buds outside you know what it is, and you just put up with it. They were something like $49 at Midway USA when I got them.

Speaking of Blue Tooth, the next bump up for these in ear electronics to the $100 level is the inclusion of Blue Tooth connectivity. Tiny blue tech elves live inside, and you can make phone calls or listen to music through your hearing protections ear buds. I see Walkers and Axil marketing that price point right now, and Sig Sauer has a pair of Axil with the Sig logo on them which you can get for near the same price.

There are more advanced in ear protection models with lots more technology built in, for many more dollars, but that $100 or less experiment has suited me just fine. Not my cup of tea to have my Ear Pro play music and take phone calls, as range/hunting time has always been “me time.” I don’t want calls or heaven forbid music in my head competing with all those other raucous voices already living and arguing in there, but who knows, it may make more sense to me later and you could certainly dream up many more uses for them in noisy environments you deal with like mowing the lawn, noise filled work environments etc.

So that comprises my few words on Ear Pro. Use it. Any is better than none, and please double up when shooting rifles or indoors. Like me, you will still want to hear your spouse complaining just on the edge of ear shot for many years to come.