The muzzle blast from a high-powered rifle is considerably louder than a jumbo-jet taking off 20 feet away. And firing the rifle four or five times in succession creates a blast effect that can cause permanent hearing loss.
Dr. Michael Stewart, a hunter and audiology professor at Central Michigan University, said the threat of permanent ear damage from gunshot noise is so common that hunters should wear ear protectors in the field. He prefers the new electronic models that allow the hunter to hear normal sounds but block out loud blasts.
Stewart’s research has found that people who shoot targets - but don’t hunt - suffer far less hearing loss than hunters, because target shooters almost always wear ear protectors.
But the standard, muff-type ear protectors worn on the target range have drawbacks that make them less than ideal for hunting.
They are uncomfortable when worn for hours at a time, don’t fit well under a hat and are impractical for use in dense cover like an aspen thicket. They also cut off hearing, the sense that often alerts hunters to an approaching deer or flushing grouse before the eyes do.
Electronic protectors allow normal sound to enter the ear (some claim the ability to amplify sound and increase the hunter’s hearing), but they are equipped with peak clippers, electronic circuits that block high-frequency, high-impact noises such as gun blasts.
The first electronic protectors for hunters were headset models developed for use in noisy industries. When they showed up in hunting supply catalogs about three years ago, Stewart said he tried a set and immediately encountered the major drawback: “It’s uncomfortable, and you can’t wear a hat with it.
Two other models were developed from standard hearing aids. One fits behind the ear, with a small tube that feeds sound into each ear. This type did not cut out unwanted noise as well as a model designed to fit into the ear (and custom-molded to fit the ear of the wearer).
The in-the-ear model also was better for locating the direction sounds came from.
Stewart compared impulse noises, such as shooting, to “an explosion. One sign of damage is ringing in the ears. If you get ringing after you’ve been exposed to shooting, you can assume you’ve been exposed to levels high enough to cause damage. It can be temporary, or it can be permanent.”