The impetus of hunter safety is centered on the possibility of accidental shootings; but the greatest risk may come from behind the gun, not in front of it.
The two most vulnerable organs for any hunter and shooter are his (or her) eyes and ears. Any firearm when the trigger’s pulled can eject hot gases and debris back into a shooter’s face and eyes, damaging the eyes and threatening blindness. Less focused on is the effect of the sound of the discharge of a firearm. We don’t consider how we would react to a loss of hearing versus the loss of sight. We tend to rank loss of eyesight as being far worse than hearing loss, not realizing that one sense is as valuable as the other.
Most of us who hunt and shoot joke about how bad our hearing has gotten, most of our conversations beginning with the word, “What?” Too late in life we learned the permanent damage a gunshot can do to our ears if they are unprotected. The discharge of any firearm, even a cap gun, produces a higher level of sound than a thunderclap or the launching of a jet fighter. Without hearing protection, even a cap gun at 155 decibels is capable of causing permanent, and immediate injury to the auditory nerve.
Any sound of 140 decibels or above, about the report of a 22 Long Rifle, can be injurious. The symptoms of such loss are difficulty in hearing high-frequency “s,” “v,” or “th” sounds; and with right-handed long-gun shooters, the loss is most pronounced in the left ear, the one closer to and directly pointed at the muzzle. The right usually receives less harm because it is pointed away and because of the protection afforded by the “head shadow.” Bottom line, shoot long enough without protection, and you will go deaf in at least one ear.
Hearing protectors are a partial solution. Whether ear plugs or ear muffs, they come with a “Noise Reduction Rating,” NRR. These can range up into the 30s, the number representing the degree of sound reduction they can provide. A 32-decibel ear muff can reduce top sounds based on a formula applied to the rating—rating minus 7, divided by 2. For a 32-decibel protector, subtract 7 to give you 25, divide by 2 to reach 12½, which you can subtract from the overall decibels of the gunshot, so 140 would become 127½. If you “double plug,” by combining ear plugs and muffs, you can raise the number of the higher rated of the two protection devices by 5, so if the muffs give higher protection, at 32 decibels, than the ear plugs, the NRR becomes 37, which by following the formula above, provides 15 decibels of sound reduction. In other words, it’s minimal, but significant.
The ultimate answer for making shooting hearing-safe is to double plug and use a silencer. Silencers, in spite of fantasies about hired assassins, are legal for hunting in the state (and check with the Department of Game and Fish for the details), and more than you might imagine around the country. Obtaining a silencer is a perfectly legal, if a not uncomplicated process involving the federal government; and more manufacturers are threading the muzzles of their firearms to accept “cans,” as silencers are called.
We think of eye protection as the more critical concern, over hearing protection; and the thought of an eye injury is extremely traumatic. So we are more likely to use eye protection, which means eyeglasses, and preferably safety shooting glasses.
The certification to look for in shooting glasses is “Z87.1” or “Z87.1+” as determined by the American National Standards Institute (“ANSI”). Glasses with this rating are tested to withstand impact to the lenses equivalent to a load of No. 8 shot fired from a shotgun at 15 yards.
As to picking shooting glasses, quoting from my own book, “The Field & Stream Hunting Optics Handbook,” there “are several choices of lens materials for hunting-shooting glasses. No one really seems to be making them out of glass anymore, so that’s not likely a decision that will need to be made. Today most lenses, especially in sporting eyewear, are made of plastic of one type or another:
• “There is Plastic CR-39 (CR being the abbreviation of “Columbia Resin”), which is “economical” and offers the least impact resistance.
• “The strongest material for lenses is polycarbonate, an extremely impact-resistant thermoplastic that is thinner and lighter than Plastic CR-39.
• “An even thinner and lighter impact-resistant material is polycarbonate 1.0, well suited for shooters who need stronger corrective prescriptions in a manageable weight.
• “Then there is high-index plastic, not as impact resistant as polycarbonate 1.0 but similar in thickness and weight and believed to offer the best optics among plastic lenses.”
Shooting glasses do not have to be expensive, as long as they can provide adequate protection. The same with hearing protectors. Anything is better than nothing.
Consider, though, what the one set of ears and the one set of eyes you will ever have are worth, and decide how much are you willing to invest in protecting them and enjoying your hunting and shooting at the same time. Hearing no evil and seeing no evil can mean hearing and seeing, period, throughout your life.
TOM MCINTYRE is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.