Let’s see a show of hands: who has ever shot a gun without hearing protection? Now be honest…
I suspect that even the most cautious shooters have done so, and when it comes to hunters, a University of Wisconsin study found a whopping 95 percent never use hearing protection in the field.
I admit, hunting has been a lax area in my otherwise consistent use of hearing protection as a shooter. I have walked the first three miles of a hunt with earplugs properly blocking my ear canals—hearing only my heavy breathing inside my head as I hoof it over the steep terrain.
Finally, after I miss too many words in the whispered conversation with my hunting partner, the earplugs find their way into my hunting vest. Of course, there’s no way to quickly shove them back in when those sharptails flush, so there I am, firing several shots without any ear protection.
The same University of Wisconsin study found the risk of hearing loss increases by 7 percent for every five years of hunting and shooting without protection. This is because every noise above 85 decibels can contribute to hearing loss over time.
Even though they are very brief noises, un-suppressed gunshots typically come in at about 140 to 190 decibels depending on the caliber of the gun. This means that even though a gunshot doesn’t last long, the potential for hearing damage and loss is high. And when you fire more than one round (and who doesn’t?), suddenly you’re looking down the barrel of a future that likely includes impaired hearing.
It doesn’t need to be this way—hearing protection should be something that we grab every time we know we could be firing a gun (unless it’s fitted with a suppressor of course). But for hunters, finding an option that is comfortable enough to wear all day long and allows you to hear your surroundings is important.
A fairly newcomer to the market called Off Shot realized this and now provides three different options of hearing protection that make it easier and more comfortable for hunters, and all shooters, to protect their hearing in almost every situation where they will be firing a gun. Off Shot was recently purchased by gunmaker Beretta, just to show how successful they’ve been. Here’s how they work:
Passive Ear Plugs – Off Shot Mini Headset
Coming in at 7 grams, these are extremely lightweight earplugs that reduce noise by 32 decibels. The Mini Headsets come with three sizes of foam tips, allowing them to fit any size ear canal.
They also come with a detachable plastic cord that allows shooters to hang them around the neck when not in use. The set includes a pocket-sized case for keeping them clean and safe when stashed in a pack, jacket, or range bag. I found these plugs to be very comfortable and definitely a step above your average cheap foam plugs. The Off Shot Mini Headsets come in black, blue or blaze orange and are available for about $60.
These are an example of passive hearing protection, meaning the Mini Headset indiscriminately reduces all noises, gunshots or your buddy’s whispers, by 32 decibels.
Active Ear Plugs – Beretta Off Shot STR and ST-W
Off Shot also offers two models of active hearing protection earplugs that use software to digitally block noises above 85 decibels automatically.
The STR model provides active hearing protection while the ST-W also includes Bluetooth technology, which allows the set to wirelessly connect to external devices like smartphones or mp3 players.
I tested the ST-W model with Bluetooth on the shooting range in the spring with the hope that they might offer a solution to my difficulties wearing hearing protection when I hunt.
Like the Mini Headset, the Off Shot active devices offer three sizes of foam ear plugs to ensure proper fit in any size ear. I found them to be very comfortable and easy to put in. The plugs offer a base protection of 32 decibels (if they are simply inserted in the ears and turned off, they will block all noises by 32 decibels). When the plugs are on, the technology provides sound amplification so you can hear sounds under 85 decibels clearly. If a noise, like a gunshot, is over 85 decibels, the digital plugs reduce it by 32 decibels—all in a package that weighs just 7 grams.
The effect can seem strange at first if you’ve never worn noise-cancelling headphones before—some sounds are muffled as they would typically be with any foam ear plugs, but the amplification allows you to hear tiny sounds around you.
When it comes to blocking the noise of gunshots, they are extremely effective. While I practiced sporting clays, one rooster pheasant sounded off repeatedly in the fields nearby. I could hear him as clear as a bell. I was shooting during the spring along a cottonwood grove so there were house wrens warbling and meadowlarks calling and their calls were as sweet as they would be without hearing protection. I could easily hear the instruction from the coach I was shooting with, and then I’d fire my gun and the sound was instantaneously gone. It was a perfect combination.
Don’t get me wrong, I could still hear my own breathing and there is still the muffling effect, so the combination of that with the amplification takes a little getting used to, but I found I quickly adapted—and they were far more comfortable to wear than over-the-ear noise-cancelling earphones. I think the Off Shots will be very effective in the field.
Bluetooth is a great feature on the ST-W model that allows a shooter to listen to music or answer phone calls without removing their hearing protection. This would obviously be of more use at the range than in the field while hunting, but it could also allow you to hear text alerts from hunting partners without a vibration or external noise.
Most importantly, I found the ST-W to be very comfortable to wear for an extended period of time. I wore them for more than three hours straight as I was shooting and never had the “ear fatigue” I get from traditional ear plugs. At just 7 grams, these are very lightweight and don’t affect the movement of your head at all. They also fit snugly into the ear and did not come loose.
Of course, active hearing devices are more expensive than their passive counterparts, by quite a bit. And the smaller and lighter they are, the higher the price goes, and the two active Off Shot models are no exception.
Both models have an MSRP of $690. But, if you’re able to wear them longer and in circumstances where you might opt to not wear hearing protection, that expense is well worth it—particularly when you realize the cost of a set of hearing aids can be as high as $10,000.
Good hearing protection is an investment well worth making, and Beretta’s Off Shot active ear plugs are an excellent option.