I’ve got a serious bug up my butt about hearing protection. Even now, in the year 2015, I go to my local outdoor shooting range and see people who are not wearing ear protection. Worse yet, I see people bring kids to this range, also without hearing protection. Rather than freak out and gripe at them, I keep a bunch of disposable foam plugs in my shooting bag and politely offer them up. It costs me next to nothing and usually leads to an opportunity to educate these folks. Most have no idea that a single, unprotected exposure to a gunshot leads to permanent hearing loss. Each additional shot increases the amount of loss. You won’t know it for years, but the damage is done, and it’s permanent. Rather than get into the science of this, I’ll point you to articles I’ve written about the topic here and here.
Once you figure out how important it is to protect your hearing, the next step is to figure out how. Fortunately, basic protection is easy and cheap. You can use disposable plugs, and they certainly help. Or you can get a quality set of exterior ear muffs that won’t set you back too much. Both of these options provide safety and are infinitely better than nothing.
But if you are serious about shooting, you need something more. Perhaps you frequent the range on a regular basis. Maybe you like the occasional local competition. Or maybe you take professional instruction in self-defense shooting. Whatever the case, you’ll quickly figure out you need something better than passive hearing protection.
I upgraded to exterior electronic muffs years ago. They work very well. The big benefits are that you can hear everything going on around you, while still protecting your hearing from gunshot noise. The electronics allow (and sometimes amplify) ambient noise like conversation, but block dangerous noise levels.
There are downsides to exterior electronic muffs, however:
- Hot and humid conditions are uncomfortable. You’ll quickly end up with a sweaty mess under the muffs.
- They can interfere with hats. I kind of favor something like a Stetson Elkhorn and those don’t work at all with over-the-head exterior muffs. Lest you think I’m just whining about fashion limitations, I like to wear a hat at the range to prevent flying brass from landing on my face, especially behind my shooting glasses.
- Shooting glasses frames have to go under the hearing muff pads. This can be uncomfortable, but more importantly, decrease the quality of the seal, and, therefore, the degree of actual hearing protection.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been lusting for custom interior ear plugs. They’re made to fit your individual ear, and custom made, so they easily run well over a thousand dollars. One-size-fits-all electronic ear plugs have been on the market for a few years, but I’ve never paid much attention because I’ve never found rubber plugs that don’t start hurting my ears after a while. And wearing all day for a long range outing or match? Forget it.
Until now. At the 2015 SHOT Show, a friend and fellow gun writer, David Bahde, told me about Etymotic GunSport Pros. They are electronic, in-ear plugs, like hearing aids, but they come with infinity plus one different rubber fittings and foam cylinders. The purpose is to offer a magazine load of fit options for every individual. Etymotic calls it “Accu-Fit” but I call it “actually comfortable.”
Here’s the basic description of what you get with the Etymotic GunSport Pro kit. First off, they offer a rated 25dB of protection, but that can actually improve with quality of the seal in your ear. The entire device fits inside of your ear, and they are exceptionally light weight. Once you select the right ear tip, you won’t know that you’re wearing them. Speaking of the ear tips, you get seven different sets in the box. These slip on to the plastic ear plug body and are the part that contacts your ear canal. There are four different sizes and shapes of flange tips, similar to what you’ve probably seen before with silicone passive ear plugs. There are two distinct sizes of foam cylinders and one set of semi-spherical “glider” ear tips. Before you install batteries and get going, just experiment with different options to see what fits best in your ear. The fit is critical as all the electronics in the world can’t protect your hearing if there isn’t a good seal to start with. Basically, the ear plug fit blocks everything, then the electronics “decide” what sounds to let through. Make sense?
Each earplug uses a single #10 hearing aid battery. We should stop here for a second and talk about that as I was previously unaware how those work. The batteries are available at nearly any grocery or drug store, and you can even find them at discount warehouses like Sams and CostCo. Or you can just order them in bulk from Amazon. They are air activated. This means that when you buy them, there is a sticker seal that keeps them in the “off” position until you remove the seal. Once you remove the seal on that battery, it’s live and has a life of about 7 to 10 days if installed and running. This has nothing to do with the Etymotic ear plugs, but is a function of hearing aid battery technology. What all this means is that when you install batteries in the ear plugs, you’ve got about a week of use. There is no off switch, and can’t be, as the batteries discharge whether they are connected to anything or not. If you store the plugs between uses with the battery doors open, you will get longer battery life as there is less drain. The batteries do discharge more slowly when not connected to anything. Everyone who uses hearing aids deals with this, so I figure I can too. Fortunately the #10 hearing aid batteries are cheap. You can easily find them for about $.50 a pair, so think in terms of $.50 per week of shooting.
OK, back to hearing protection. After some experimentation, I found that the small foam cylinder tips worked best for me. To install in your ears, just roll them between your fingers, and they will compress to a smaller diameter. Stuff them in your ears and let them expand to original size. The foam expands to the shape of your ear canal, so the seal is excellent. Your mileage may vary, and one of the other tip styles may work best for you. That’s the whole point of the seven options of ear tips in the box.
Once you have chosen your ear tips, push them onto the plug bodies. A small pivoting trap door accepts a single #10 battery in each plug and the Etymotics are active. Each plug also has a lever that switches modes between LO and Hi. The LO mode delivers natural ambient sound hearing while providing protection against loud blasts. The LO mode also reduces steady loud noises by about 15dB. This is the default setting for time at the shooting range. You’ll be able to hear normal conversation as if you didn’t have the plugs inserted. The HI setting provides ambient sound amplification and magnifies low intensity sound by up to about five times. This mode does protect against the blast of a gun shot, but does not offer the 15dB electronic reduction of continuous loud noise. If you’re out hunting, and want enhanced hearing of your surroundings, this is the correct mode to select.
I actually received my set of Etymotic GunSport Pros during a break at a tactical shooting training event at the Academi facility. During lunch, I tore open the box and quickly found that the small foam ear tips were the right fit for me. As Etymotic thoughtfully includes a container of #10 hearing aid batteries, I was ready to go. I wore these for the remaining days of the training event.
The results? I’m hooked. Once you find the right fit, you won’t know these plugs are in place. Conversation is natural sounding and does not have that tinny tone that you’ll get with lower quality electronic protection. Since the plugs fit entirely inside of your ear, there is no interference with hats or shooting glasses. Yay Stetson! I put these in early in the morning and wore them until late at night. I’ve never found any off the shelf in-ear plugs that I could wear for more than a couple of hours without major irritation. The best part was that my hearing was protected through AR, shotgun and pistol classes while I was easily able to hear teaching moments and range commands from the course instructors. I literally had no need to remove these throughout the day. In the cafeteria for lunch and dinner breaks, I did take them out, but only because I was worried about looking like a dork, not because they were uncomfortable.
The bottom line is this. You can pick up a pair of Etymotic GunSport Pros for about $300. Custom electronic plugs will cost you between $1,000 and $2,500. After wearing these during a long training event and a dozen shooting outings since, I no longer have the itch for the custom set, nor have I pulled my exterior electronic muffs out of my shooting bag. I’ll gladly buy batteries once in a while for the comfort and convenience.