Beyond the Basics: Eye and Ear Protection

Beyond the Basics: Eye and Ear Protection

“Always wear eye and ear protection.”

“Eyes and ears!”

We hear it. We abide by it. But have you ever really thought about it? Will your gear meet the standards that you require when you need them most?

Eye Protection

Eye protection is necessary in order to safeguard the your eyes from the flying debris that shooting produces, including gun powder, oil, spent casings, and ricocheting metal, just to name a few. You can purchase generic eye protection in bulk for less than a dollar a pair, but will it protect you when you need it?

Generally, basic safety glasses will protect your eyes from foreign objects coming straight at you. If you shoot indoors on lanes with walls, there may be times when hot, spent brass will hit the wall and ricochet back at you settling between your face and the ear piece of the safety glasses, leaving a burn near your temple. This can also happen with your neighbor’s brass on an outdoor range. These situations require eye protection that wraps around the side of your face. (SSP Bullchukar Sportsman). If your favorite safety or prescription glasses do not have side protection, but you are not willing to give them up just yet, you can purchase slip on side shields in various shapes to protect your eyes and face from side impacts. Aside from safety glasses, wearing a cap with a brim will also help keep casings away from your face and down the front of your shirt.

In order to be labeled as “safety” glasses the product must meet the standards of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and should be marked on the lens or frame with a “Z87.1-2015” for basic impact resistance (2015 represents the most recent year that ANSI updated their standards) or “Z87.1+” for high velocity impact resistance. The lenses can be made with plastic, polycarbonate, Trivex TM, or other similar material. Polycarbonate lenses provide the highest level of impact protection and are lighter, more durable, and more scratch resistant than plastic lenses. TrivexTM is lighter than polycarbonate and has better optical qualities, but can be expensive and hard to find.

If you want even more protection from impact, look for military-grade ballistic lenses. Although there is not a standard label for these glasses, many of these lenses can be found on the Authorized Protective Eyewear List (APEL), which indicates the product is approved for use in the United States Army. While the ANSI standard involves a .25” steel ball traveling at 150 feet per second (fps), the military standard (MIL-PRF-31013) requires a .15” projectile traveling at 650 fps for approval. This standard incorporates a projectile shape and velocity that are better suited for the shooting sports.

Many safety glasses are fog resistant with an anti-fog coating.
There is nothing worse than beginning a competition stage or your practice in a literal fog. Glasses fog up with condensation due ambient temperature, body temperature or exertion, humidity, and fit. The anti-fog feature is absolutely a plus for any eye wear, but will increase the price of your lenses. Anti-fog spray, wipes, gel, etc. can also be purchased, or even made at home, and used as needed. To allow for ventilation and reduce fog, safety glass may also come with vents or slots on the bottom and/or sides of the lenses and/or frames.

I recommend that every shooter have three sets of shooting glasses. I use Wiley X Saber Advanced. One set should be clear for shooting indoors. The second set should be shaded to shoot in the direct sunlight. The third set should be tinted to shoot in cloudy conditions. The tinted lenses allow you to see targets more clearly based on the current light condition. For example, I use rust tint for shooting on cloudy days to create a contrast between the target and the background when the skies are gray and hazy. If you want to track the orange of a clay bird, try amber lenses. Blue and purple lenses provide target contract against green backgrounds like trees.

Don’t forget about UV protection. Just like the sun can damage our skin, it can also damage our eyes with its ultraviolet rays. If you are wearing plastic lenses outside, you may want to look for additional UV protection treatment. Polycarbonate glasses will already provide this protection.

Fit is also an important aspect for safety glass. Although many glasses come in a one size fits all style, you can purchase safety glasses with an adjustable frame. The length of the temple, or ear piece, can be adjusted and the nose piece can also be adjusted. The more comfortable the frames are, the longer you will be able to wear them.

If you tend to be hard on your glasses, you can purchase frames with replaceable lenses. This is a great idea for the shooting sports as there is no such thing as scratch proof lenses, only more or less scratch resistant. Your shooting lenses will get scratched and disturb your vision. With removable lenses, you replace the damaged lens and keep the frames. You may also be able to purchase tinted lenses, so you will carry one frame and replace the lens as the environment requires.

I often hear the question, “Can I use my prescription glasses?” Are they impact resistant? Do they wrap around your face? A better option may be additional safety glass that are made to fit over prescription glasses (Radian Coveralls). If you just need “readers,” there are many safety glasses produced to meet your needs. You can find bifocals with the magnification at either the top or bottom of the lens. The idea of having a top focal magnification (SSP Top Focal) for shooting allows you to shoot with your head in a comfortable position looking through the magnification on the top of your lens to get a clear picture of your front sight. With the magnification in the bottom, in order to see the front sight in focus, you will have to tilt your head back leading to neck strain.

You can also purchase custom safety glasses made for your prescription. There are many styles and colors to meet your fashion style. Another option is to have a prescription insert made that can be dropped into a variety of accompanying frames. (Wiley X Saber Advanced Prescription) One frame may have a tinted lens for outdoor shooting and another may just have a different frame color. As a note, if your safety glasses are prescription they should be marked with the ANSI rating “Z87-2” or “Z87-2+” if they are also high velocity impact resistant. Check with your optometrist to make sure your prescription is adjusted to focus at the distance of your front sight.

Don’t forget, you will also need safety glasses in other shooting related areas, like cleaning your gun and reloading ammunition, so keep a spare set at your workbench.

Hearing Protection

A decibel (dB) is the unit used to measure the intensity of sound. If near silence is 0 decibels, a sound with 10 decibels is 10 times more powerful, a sound with 20 decibels in 100 times more powerful, and a sound with 30 decibels in 1,000 times more powerful. A whisper is 15 decibels, normal talking is about 60 decibels, and gunshots can range from 140-190 decibels. It is recommended that people in any activity above 85 decibels on a prolonged basis, like daily exposure to industrial equipment, use hearing protection. Hearing loss can also occur with extremely loud burst of sound (rather than sound over time), like a gunshot, which ruptures the eardrum or causes damage to the bones of the middle ear. This can be immediate and permanent damage. OSHA considers the use of firearms dangerous with regard to hearing loss and strongly recommends the use of hearing protection.

Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is a unit of measurement in decibel equivalents to determine the effectiveness of hearing protection devices. The higher the NRR associated with the device, the greater the potential of noise reduction. Typical NRR values for hearing protection range from 22 to approximately 33 decibels. The NRR does not directly affect the level of decibels received by the ear on a one to one basis. For example, shooting 9mm pistol may register at 160 decibels. Your hearing protection has an NRR of 30. This does not bring your sound level down to 130, but only to 148.5 (For you math junkies: subtract 7 from the NRR number then divide by 2. Subtract this from the original noise exposure.) If you double up on your ear protection by wearing both earplugs and earmuffs, you can add about 5 points to your highest NRR, then use it in the formula above.

Just like eye protection, hearing protection must fall under ANSI standards. Its standard is ANSI S3.19.

The key to obtaining maximum benefit with ear protection is proper fit. The more comfortable the hearing protection is the longer you will wear them. Earplugs can provide a higher NRR (up to 33) than earmuffs (31 NRR), but many people cannot stand to wear them. On the other hand, some shooters find that over a period of time, earmuffs can be painful, especially when worn with safety glasses.

Earplugs come in a variety of styles, least expensive being disposable foam inserts. These are great to have in an emergency – “I forgot my earplugs!” – and I keep individually wrapped sets in my car and all my range bags. I do find that I have problems getting the “one size fits all” foam rolled and squished just right in order to insert in my ear. Even though they may offer a 33 NRR, if they are not inserted correctly to seal deep in the ear canal, this rating will be diminished. I imagine with practice, this would be a quicker process. Throw these foam plugs away after use.

Next up with regards to price is reusable inserts. They are typically made of silicone and may come with a cord attaching the two pieces (making them harder to lose) and a carrying case. After use, simply wipe off the earwax and other range dirt, and store for the next use. I use reusable inserts (Howard Leight AirSoft) when shooting shotgun, because they are comfortable, easy to use, inexpensive, and, most importantly, they allow me to get the stock of the shotgun snug against my cheek without having to worry about pushing an earmuff off my ear in the process of mounting the shotgun.

Custom earplugs are becoming very popular in the shooting sports and I love mine for pistol shooting. Custom earplugs are molded specifically to fit your ear by a professional and typically are made from a silicone product that comes in an expansive variety of colors. Even though custom earplugs may have a lower NRR than foam because the silicone does not absorb sound as well, they are easier to insert, more comfortable in my opinion, and may get a more consistent fit; therefore, leading to an overall consistently higher protection level. Custom earplugs can also offer noise reducing filters, which can reduce the level of certain sounds, like a gun shot, while preserving other sounds, like speech.  I have even seen wireless custom earplugs that connect via Bluetooth to a smartphone. The smartphone does all the work to reduce the noise and filters appropriate noise to the earplugs. The down side is that your smartphone has to be near you in order to be effective and they require charging.

Like earplugs, your choice of earmuffs is virtually limitless. Because earmuffs do not plug the ear canal like earplugs, they only surround the outer ear, earmuffs offer a lower NRR than earplugs. They still do the job of protecting your hearing while you shoot if used correctly. Passive earmuffs use a wide variety of materials, like foam, to block sound from entering the ear canal. Electronic earmuffs block sound and also modulate certain sounds, like a gunshot, from entering the ear. I use Howard Leight Impact Sport when I teach on the range. It keeps harsh range noises at a safe level and still allows me to hear questions from my students. Some electronic earmuffs also come with an audio jack to allow you to “plug in” to your favorite device. If you want to tune out the world while you shoot and listen to your favorite head banging music, this is the product for you.

When considering either type of earmuff, make sure you pay attention to headbands, the comfort of the cushion, and profile. Headbands can be made from plastic or metal. Some prefer the sturdiness of the metal and other like that the plastic holds their shape. Headbands should be adjustable to properly fit and comfortable. The cushion on your earmuff should fit snugly, securely, and feel good around your ears while creating a tight seal without slipping. Noisefighters offer a cushion gel replacement insert (SightLines) for some earmuffs to relieve some of the tension caused by glasses around your temples. The profile of your earmuffs means how thick they are. When you are shooting pistol, this typically is not an issue; however, if you are a frequent rifle or shotgun shooter who uses earmuffs, you may want to look at purchasing earmuffs with a lower profile to allow you to place the stock against your face to get your perfect sight picture.

Safety Is Your Responsibility

The bottom line is do not skimp on safety. When it comes to your eyesight and hearing, spend some extra time doing your research and a few extra dollars on comfortable safety glasses and quality hearing protection to keep you in the game for a lifetime.

(This article does not include every type of eye protection or hearing protection available, but does offer a variety of options for most shooters. Any product that is referenced is merely an example and not a recommendation, unless otherwise stated. I did not receive any compensation from any of these manufacturers.)

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