“Can I fire the first shot, Ian?” My buddy asked as he stared at the massive, Barrett single-shot bolt-action rifle chambered in .50 BMG. I’d just placed the 26-pound rifle on my shooting mat with several rounds of ammunition. Two tiny white dots where visible in a hillside washout at a range of 1,065 yards. Each “dot” was actually a 1/2-inch-thick steel plate measuring 2 feet high and 4 feet wide. I spray-painted them white so we could see hits through my Nikon spotting scope.
Ron dropped into shooting position and loaded the rifle. Each 750-grain bullet was longer than the entire .308 Win. cartridges we usually shoot. After applying the necessary elevation and windage, Ron got “on the gun” and positioned it on a far-off target. He yelled out, “Shooter Ready!” I was looking at wind indicators through the spotting scope, not paying any attention to him. “Send it!” I shouted, and a few seconds later the ground shook.
Before I could tell Ron he’d hit the target, I heard him moan, “I really wish I hadn’t done that.” He was cradling his head in his right arm with his face pointing downward. I assumed he’d been hit by the scope, so I asked if he was bleeding. “That’s not the problem—I forgot to put on my ear muffs.” The blast from more than 230 grains of powder is huge, and Ronnie had experienced its full effects.
Three weeks later we were hunting mule deer and Ron said his ears were still ringing from that .50 BMG shot. The embarrassing fact was he had his ear muffs on his head, but not in place over his ears when he squeezed the trigger. The blast very likely did permanent damage to his hearing, bringing him one step closer to a condition called tinnitus.
Guns Can Kill Hearing
My first call upon preparing for this column was to an old friend, Bob Walker, a former audiologist who happens to love hunting. Many years ago he recognized the importance of both hearing protection and sound amplification for hunters. Walker has developed a product line of behind-the-ear, in-the-ear and over-the-ear protection and amplification devices that every hunter should be aware of.
Walker has dealt with many shooters suffering from the “hidden handicap” of hearing loss. In fact, hearing loss is frequently associated with the fore-mentioned condition of tinnitus, which essentially is a continual ringing sound in one or both ears. Tinnitus can vary in intensity depending on the individual and the cause(s) of damage. In almost all cases, it’s self-inflicted because ear protection in the form of plugs or muffs is simple, effective prevention.
Sound waves from a gun shot are collected by the outer ear and then sent down our ear canal to the eardrum. The impact of the sound waves starts the eardrum vibrating, which in turn causes three little bones to also move in unison. The last bone causes a special fluid in the inner ear to vibrate, which causes vibrations in more fluid inside a tiny organ called the cocklea. Inside the cocklea, also called the hearing organ, are a bazillion little receptors that might be compared to nerve-endings. Groups of these nerve-ending “thingies” are sensitive to various ranges of the sound spectrum.
When a severe sound comes blasting down the ear canal, these receptors get damaged. Let’s say the ones that can discern gentle sounds get beat up the worst. Do this enough times and you just don’t have enough receptors working to begin transferring specific sound impulses to your brain. That is not a very scientific description of hearing loss, but I think it’s close to reality.
Walker says many occupations endanger hearing. I was surprised to learn dentists and hair stylists frequently have hearing loss because of continuous exposure to high-pitched drills and dryers they use in their work. Engine noises, ranging from small motors to tractors to aircraft to hot-rods take a huge toll on hearing if protection isn’t employed. Music, as in loud music either at concerts or blasting through a tiny iPod, also takes a toll on the sensitive inner ear mechanism.
Tinnitus is a nasty condition for which there’s no cure. In fact, some individuals report that aspirin makes symptoms worse. Others believe the intensity of ringing varies with food intake, diet, blood pressure, exercise and other factors. Walker says some people happen to have smaller canals and thick inner drums that might withstand abuse better than those who don’t. “The bottom line is we need to educate the public so hearing is protected at all times,” Walker said. “Everyone is susceptible to hearing loss and tinnitus.”
Walker says that any hearing protection is better than none when shooting firearms. According to him, the best protection for shooters comes from custom-fitted silicone ear-molds connected to behind-the-ear models. He says that molds are easily made of the outer portion of the ear canal and a variety of hearing protection can be prepared. Some in-ear molded plugs have electronic amplification while other styles simply block sound. He’s also quick to point out that electronic in-the-ear unit plugs and over-the-ear muffs do an adequate job.
The popular ear muff works well, but shooters should ensure the unit has the highest NRR (noise reduction rating) and rubber pads for a proper acoustic seal. I’ve been using Walker’s electronic Quad muffs since they were introduced and they’re superb. Not only is what’s left of my hearing protected, but because of the amplification feature I can hear a bug sneeze at 50 yards! I’ve trained myself to turn them off after each use to ensure the batteries don’t waste. I always keep a set of spare batteries with me when I use the Quad muffs.
Hearing Is Believing
Even if your hearing is normal, amplification from these devices opens another world of enjoyment during hunts. You can hear “hold your fire” commands at the shooting range, whispered conversation in the turkey blind, as well as endless natural sounds that might well have been missed.
I recently hunted white-tailed deer in Kentucky at Gregg Ritz’s Game Trails Lodge. Ritz’s quality deer management team had determined the need to reduce a number of non-trophy deer, and our group of hunters was asked to assist the population-reduction effort. I hunted from comfortable pop-up ground blinds. For several days I sat over some incredible habitat and managed to turn a few does into meat for the needy. I wore my Walker’s Quad electronic muffs continually during this hunt, and the enhanced hearing contributed greatly to my enjoyment during the hours in the blind. I heard a variety of sounds, ranging from footsteps to birdsongs to insects crawling in the blind.
One evening I heard a buck snort and start scraping a tree some distance back in the forest. He thrashed the sapling for several minutes. Then I heard a variety of grunts as he slowly approached the clearing I was watching. He walked out and I killed him with one 150-grain Hornady Interbond bullet. The Quads definitely contributed to my hunting enjoyment, and they also protected my ears because my muzzle was inside the pop-up blind during the shot.
Tinnitus is no fun. If I knew what it would be like, I would’ve made more effort to protect my hearing when I was younger. I can no longer hear conversations in crowds or when any loud background noises are present. Without electronic amplification, I miss out on most of the noises of nature.
I strongly suggest every shooter protect their hearing. You only get one set of those little receptor thingies in your ears, so take good care of them.