W

e all know the value of hearing protection for target shooting, but most people go without in the field. I learned the hard way that’s a mistake. On my first dove hunt, almost 40 years ago, I shot over four boxes of shells, and my ears rang for three days afterwards. An audiological exam showed a small but permanent loss of hearing, and I suffered from tinnitus for years after—all from that one day. It doesn’t take 100 shots to do permanent damage. Shoot a gun inside a blind, or have someone set off a gun next to your ear, and just one shot can cause lasting hearing loss. While hearing loss can’t be reversed, it can be prevented. I’ve worn hearing protection religiously since that first dove hunt, and while my hearing isn’t getting any better, my friends are getting deafer than I am, so whatever I’m doing is working. Here are five types of hearing protection, and their pros and cons:   1. Foam Plugs

Howard Leight's Laser Lite low-pressure polyurethane foam ear plugs
Howard Leight's Laser Lite Plugs
Howard Leight's Laser Lite low-pressure polyurethane foam ear plugs expand gently inside the ear canal for comfortable long-term wear, while the contoured T-shape delivers easy handling. Its high-visibility magenta and yellow colors make compliance checks quick and easy for range officers.photo from Howard Leight

Cheap and effective, foam earplugs work extremely well if you wear them properly: rolled up and inserted deeply into the ear so they can expand and fill your ear canal. They are inexpensive, available everywhere, and have a very high NRR (noise reduction rating).

Some people dislike the “plugged up” feeling the get from foam plugs, and one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. For some people, they work too well, and make it difficult to hear people talking.

Personally, I wear them in the field any time I will be shooting a lot, such as dove hunting. If you’re hunting by yourself, won’t be shooting much, and you need to hear, you can get by with one plug in your offside ear. That’s the ear that’s closest to the muzzle, while the other is protected to some extent by your head. More hearing loss occurs in that ear. That said, I wear two plugs.

MSRP: $18.97 for 200 pairs

2. Custom Molded Plugs

Radians Custom Molded Earplugs
Radians Custom Molded Earplugs
Radians Custom Molded Earplugs come in an easy, do-it-yourself kit. The plugs can be custom molded to your ears in 10 minutes.photo from Radians

Custom molded ear plugs are molded either at a visit to an audiologist, or via a kit where you make the mold yourself and send it to the manufacturer. There are also some quite inexpensive plugs you mold yourself. Molded earplugs tend not to offer quite as much protection as do properly worn foam plugs, but they cannot be worn "wrong" and they will fit the wearer perfectly. Many people find them to be more comfortable to wear for long periods of time than foam plugs.

MSRP: $10.79

3. Ear Valves

Acu Life Shooter's Ear Plugs from Health Enterprises
Acu Life Shooter's Ear Plugs
Acu Life Shooter's Ear Plugs from Health Enterprises are designed to provide premium hearing protection for a wide range of shooting sports. Acu Life Shooter's Ear Plugs allow low level sounds that are not harmful to hearing to pass through and reach the ear canals, while dangerous gunfire sounds are blocked.photo from Health Enterprises

Ear valves are ear plugs with a mechanical valve inside that is supposed to close when loud sound impulse reaches it. Both standard and molded ear valves are available. Because the valve remains open at other times, you can hear almost normally when you're not actually shooting and your ears don't feel plugged up. There's debate about their effectiveness.

Personally, I have worn the old Sonic II style (now available from Health Enterprises) for years for upland hunting and waterfowling and for me, anyway, they work very well. I can flushing birds and whistling wings, but I also feel well protected. I wouldn’t wear them for target shooting or dove hunting, but for a day in the field when you’ll fire a few shots, they are great, and they protect my ears when someone shoots too close in the duck blind, too.

MSRP: $8.99

4. Electronic Muffs

Caldwell E-Max
Caldwell E-Max
The low-profile Caldwell E-Max hearing protection combines great circuitry with a low profile earcup that's ideal for shotgun shooters and action shooters. The two microphones in the E-Max amplify sounds below 85 decibels, which amplifies normal communication, range commands, and environmental sounds. Above 85 decibels, the microphones shut off for a split second to protect the shooter's hearing.photo from Caldwell

Electronic muffs have gotten very inexpensive and they allow you to hear what's going on around you while protecting your ears from shotgun blasts. Muffs worn over earplugs provide the maximum protection and would be a good choice if you ever go on a South American dove hunt where you'll shoot hundreds of rounds a day or more.

Some people find ear muffs interfere with their gun mount, although I’ve never had a problem and have worn them for target shooting for years. As a bonus, they function as ear muffs on a cold day, although they can get uncomfortable in extreme heat.

MSRP: $18.20

5. Custom Electronic Plugs

The WildEar Master Series
WildEar Master Series Electronic Custom Earplugs
The WildEar Master Series are molded electronic ear plugs that protect your ears on the range and in the field while also providing hearing enhancement for safety and communication.photo from Wild Ear

The highest dollar hearing protection are custom molded ear plugs with hearing aid circuits that both amplify normal sounds and shut down to suppress loud noises. They combine the comfort of custom molded plugs with the amplification and reduction properties of electronic muffs. They run on hearing aid batteries, and for some, they are the best compromise between being able to hear (or even enhance hearing) while still protecting your ears.

The drawback is price. I've worn a pair of WildEar Master Series plugs lately, and they work well, but they sell for over $1,000.

MSRP: Master Series - $1,099