It’s no secret that exposure to loud noises is damaging to human ears and the damage is cumulative. The loss of hearing older folks often display can be attributed to attending rock concerts back when they were in college; or for me, to hunting trips I took decades ago when I never gave much thought to what effect each pull of the trigger would have on my hearing, years later.

I usually wore hearing protection when I was shooting sporting clays or sighting in my deer hunting guns, but I hardly ever wore any when I was actually in my deer stand or duck blind. Outdoors, it never seems the sound of the gun firing is as loud as at a shooting range. Of course it is, it’s just not as repetitive, usually.

So if you are planning to shoot a gun — at a target range, or when hunting, wear some sort of hearing protection or you will find yourself shopping for hearing aids when you are older. All of the available types work, some better than others. That’s why shooters need to understand NRR — Noise Reduction Ratings.

Price, comfort and convenience all impact shooters’ hearing-protection buying decisions. Too often, however, performance -the variable that matters most — is not given adequate consideration. In the North American market, Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is the measure used to rate any hearing protection product’s performance. Look for it on what ever type you are considering. The higher the NRR, the better the product protects.

Shooters have two types of hearing protection available — ear plugs and ear muffs. Within each type are more options but always check the NRR when deciding which to use. This is one time when more is better. There’s a huge difference between an NRR of 23 and an NRR of 29. Acoustic energy doubles every three decibles, so a product with a 29 NRR actually provides 200% more protection than a product with an NRR of 23.

The highest NRR rating for earplugs is 33, and the highest available NRR rating for earmuffs is 31. These values reflect the level of noise protection available for each device when worn alone. Combining earplugs with earmuffs can offer a NRR protection level of 36. Manufacturers produce different types of earplugs and earmuffs to reach these ratings. Generally, higher-quality, higher-priced devices have a higher NRR rating.

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Foam earplugs are the most commonly used form of hearing protection for many good reasons — primarily because they are inexpensive. The simple design of foam earplugs delivers great performance and protection. When inserted properly, they completely seal the ear canal, while the cellular composition of the foam creates tiny airspaces which fracture and re-fracture sound waves.

The good things about foam plugs is price and protection. The bad thing is they don’t have an on and off switch. If you are hunting or shooting by yourself, that’s not an issue. If you are shooting clays or sharing a duck blind with friends either forget the conversation or remove the earplugs. Properly reinserting them isn’t hard, but it’s not as quick as just clamping an earmuff in place.

That’s why many shooters prefer the muffs when hunting or doing target practice with friends. There’s another choice, a bit expensive, but if you are more than just an occasional shooter, it’s well worth the effort.

Several manufacturers make electronic earmuffs and/or earplugs. Battery operated, they have electronic circuitry inside which allows normal sounds to be heard as good or better than going without ear protection. But a loud sound, like when a gun is fired, instantly shuts down the miniature “speaker” inside the device and dampens the loud noise as effectively as a regular muff or plug. The ones I’ve used have a dial which can adjust the loudness I hear from non-damaging sounds from normal to actually amplifying normal sounds a bit. They allow me to hear the sounds around me, perhaps that approaching deer, better than I’d hear them with my own ears.

The important thing is to use some sort of hearing protection every time you plan to shoot a gun and when you are purchasing that protection, check the NRR number to ensure what you are buying measures up.