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Playing it by Ear

When gobbles ring out in every direction, Henry Haas never hears them. He can't hear much of anything really, so he sits in his blind with a box call watching for birds rather than listening for them.

Haas, 39, of Racine, Wis., is among the more than 28 million Americans who have some level of hearing loss, although many of them still enjoy hunting and the shooting sports. Doctors describe Haas' heredity ear damage as a missing midsection in both ears that does not allow him to hear speech. His phone conversations are possible only with a special phone dialed to the loudest setting.

"Deer sneak up on me when I'm bowhunting, and I can't hear turkeys gobble. But I have to make it work because I love hunting so much."

Haas has always worked in loud places, mostly in a machine shop. Early in his career he said he did nothing to protect his ears from the typical noises that accompany construction-type work. Why bother? His hearing would slowly get worse, anyway. Then doctors told him that by wearing protection he could at least prolong the inevitable.

"I wear ear protection now to protect what I have left," Haas said.

Even with aids in both ears, the sounds most outdoorsmen hear are never part of his experience.

"I miss a lot. I've taken my wife and nephew hunting with me to hear the turkeys gobble. I can usually hear them about 100 yards away, but by then, it's almost too late. When I'm calling birds, I can't tell if I'm calling too softly or too loudly. It's frustrating."

What is too loud?

Even with proper ear protection, hunters and recreational shooters can develop hearing disorders. One of the most common is tinnitus, or ringing of the ears. Experts believe that continued exposure to noise above 85 decibels eventually affects a person's hearing. Noise levels above 140 decibels can cause hearing loss after just one exposure. The higher the decibel, the more damage is done.

Because a single gunshot is so intense it is always above safe noise levels. One blast can register between 150 and 167 decibels. One explanation offered by experts for the extreme noise is that many guns have ported barrels designed to reduce recoil. When a shot is fired from a ported barrel, sound pressure waves from the muzzle project forward and to the side. When firing a gun with a ported barrel, the shooter becomes more susceptible to hearing damage by absorbing sound waves that can break microscopic hair cells inside the ear.

If, for example, someone shoots a .357 indoors, the sound pressure waves will bounce off the walls much like in a racquetball court. This type of environment requires more ear protection, than say, shooting outdoors, where sound waves move away from the shooter.

Technology for ears

Advances in hearing devices for outdoors enthusiasts have graduated from foam inserts to the now popular electronic hearing protection and amplification systems.

Plugs, molds and muffs

Custom-made earplugs and earmolds do have advantages, but they oftentimes are uncomfortable and can cause irritation in the ear canal. Earmuffs may be more comfortable, but shooters who wear them will learn quickly that they also sacrifice sounds of the environment (gun range commands and surrounding wildlife). Ear muffs also don't offer as much protection as earplugs and molds.

Getting technical

Since 1989, Bob Walker and Walker's Game Ear, Inc., have become well known in the hunting and recreational shooting industry. Walker developed the Game Ear, a hearing enhancement and protection device.

"I tried Walker's Game Ear, and for the first time in 20 years I heard coyotes in the wild," Haas said. "I can actually hear a turkey gobble more than 100 yards away."

New devices use compression-activated circuits that still allow users to hear all level of sounds, such as speech, while protecting hearing when a gun is fired. When the decibels are too high, the earpiece compresses, or shuts off, saving the ear damage.

While these more technical models allow hunters and shooters to experience their sport and all that surrounds it, they also have a higher price tag. So remember: Any form of hearing protection is better than none at all.

Listen to this ...

Hunters and recreational shooters should always take hearing precautions when guns are around, whether in the field or on the range.

Ear, nose and throat specialist Rocco Cassone, 55, of Orangeburg, S.C., is also a shooter and a hunter. Since 1978, he as cared for a number of patients with hearing disabilities that are the result shooting activities. Over the years he also has experienced hearing loss.

Dr. Cassone says hearing loss can result from fewer than five shots from a high-powered gun if hearing protection is not worn, which is exactly what happened to him in 1989. A single shot from a .300 Weatherby magnum damaged his ear.

"If a person suffers from a sudden burst of noise, [he or she] should immediately get checked by a doctor," he said. "A check up twice a year is about average for someone who is constantly around loud noises."

Dr. Cassone also says that children should be protected from sounds that can harm their ears. "Parents can teach their children from the beginning how to protect themselves from damaging sounds. Participating in the hunting and shooting sports is not harmful to the ears with the right protection, and people need to be aware of that."


Sound Decibels

  • Whisper, rustling leaves 20

  • Normal Conversation, (3 to 5 feet) 60 to 70

  • Train Whistle at 500 feet 90

  • Level at which sustained exposure may result in hearing loss 90 to 95

  • Pain begin in ears 125

  • Jet engine at 100 feet 140

  • Shot from a handgun (.38 or .44) 155 to165

  • Death of hearing tissue 180

  • Loudest Sound Possible To Measure 194

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