Take the roar of a motorcycle running full-throttle for 40 hours straight, condense it into a split second, and you’ve got a good approximation of the sound energy generated by an average gunshot. Now multiply that millions of times for each of the pistol, rifle, shotgun, AK-47, and innumerable other deafening rounds he’s been exposed to over the past 50 years, and it’s a wonder David Petzal can hear anything at all. Petzal, a longtime Field & Stream editor who prefers to be identified as “a cranky old deaf bastard,” first started shooting when he was 14. By 1956, he was shooting .22s in competition; in 1960, he bought his first .44 magnum revolver.
“That thing would make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” Petzal recalls, somewhat ruefully. “Your ears would ring and you’d go deaf temporarily, but nobody paid much attention. We weren’t aware at the time that with every single shot, we were getting slightly but permanently deafer.”
Now Hear This
Petzal joined the Army in 1963, and the assault on his ears continued thanks to regular blasting sessions with M-1s and M-14s interspersed with occasional grenade detonations. The closest he or any of his fellow soldiers came to wearing ear protection was stuffing “squirrel tampons” (cigarette filters) into their ears. “This was worthless,” says Petzal. “The truth was nobody ever wore hearing protection, ever, under any circumstances, and if you did, you were looked at as exceedingly odd.” Shortly after Petzal left the military in 1969, the Army began issuing ear protection to the ranks, but it was too late for Petzal.
“I went to a doctor in 1970,” he recalls, “and told him a lot of people seemed to be mumbling. He told me I’d already damaged my hearing and what I’d lost wouldn’t be coming back.” The doctor also diagnosed Petzal with early-stage tinnitus, a persistent ringing that’s been known to drive some victims to distraction. Even more bothersome for Petzal was a third symptom known as recruitment, a phenomenon in which the brain attempts to compensate for growing deafness by amplifying external sounds. “If a normal person hears a fire engine go by on the street, it doesn’t bother him much. But it drives me to my knees. When you get something loud, it’s unbearable.”
Though Petzal’s exposure to gunfire over the decades has been extreme, scientists now know it doesn’t take nearly so much sonic trauma to cause permanent damage. In a recent study titled “Recreational Firearms Use and Hearing Loss” published in Archives of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin researchers assessed the hearing capabilities of 1,538 Wisconsin men, ages 48 to 92. Three-quarters of these guys were hunters, and one in seven were also target shooters. After adjusting for other forms of noise exposure, including snowmobile use or the operation of heavy equipment, the researchers determined that for every five years of recreational hunting a subject had completed, the risk of high-frequency hearing loss climbed by 7 percent.
[NEXT “Story Continued…”] “It’s pretty well known,” says David Nondahl, M.S., one of the authors of the study, “that on an individual basis, some hunters and target shooters can have their hearing affected. But I was surprised that we were able to demonstrate a widespread association in such a large population.”
The study also found that men who had engaged in target shooting in the past year were twice as likely to suffer hearing problems as those who hadn’t. Nondahl suspects that the reason the activity is associated with more inner ear damage than hunting is a matter of exposure: Target shooters not only expend vast numbers of rounds but are surrounded by others doing the same thing. Hunters, by comparison, can spend hours in a deer stand before firing off a single shot. More than 95 percent of hunters in the study reported never wearing hearing protection. And in the target shooting group, a whoing 38 percent admitted they never protected their ears.
To University of Wisconsin audiologist Ted Tweed, such disregard for aural hygiene is tragic. “It doesn’t take long to cause permanent hearing loss, especially if you’re a trap shooter or high-powered-rifle competitor,” he says. “If you’re out there without protection, it may only take a couple of days. And at this point in our science, once your hearing is gone, it’s gone.”
Big Bang Theory
To understand what is actually happening inside an ear, consider the cochlea, a fluid-filled, snail shell¿¿¿shaped organ buried deep in the inner ear. Sound travels through the air as pressure waves that are funneled down the ear canal to the eardrum, which vibrates like¿¿¿a tiny drum. Its slight movements are relayed via three miniature bones (the hammer, stirrup, and anvil) to another membrane that covers the opening of the cochlea. When this membrane begins to dance, the vibrations are transmitted inside the cochlea’s fluid center, which is lined with minuscule hairlike projections called cilia. Cilia in one area, the so-called basal turn, are set to jiggling by high-frequency sounds. If the source is low-intensity sound-such as the ticking of a wristwatch-nerves attached to these cilia conduct the stimuli to the auditory lobes of the brain, where they’re deciphered as a tick tick tick. But if the noise is more intense, such as a shotgun blast, researchers speculate that the vibrations are so violent that they can, in effect, fell the affected cilia like an earthquake does trees.
[NEXT “Story Continued…”] The physiological cause for conditions such as tinnitus and recruitment are not as well understood, but both are frequently devastating phenomena. Though most tinnitus sufferers, for example, eventually come to accept their condition, Tweed says he has had patients for whom it is “just so unremittingly bothersome they can’t stand it.” In rare cases, some have even elected to have their inner ears surgically destroyed to stop the buzzing.
**Muffle It **
Although scientists are experimenting with potential treatments, no one realistically expects a cure anytime soon. “For now, the key to stopping hearing loss is prevention,” Tweed says. “Even if you’re just shooting a .22, one thing’s certain: You can’t expose yourself to these high noise levels without incurring some damage.”
The good news is that you don’t have to eliminate the sounds of gunshots-you just need to reduce them to safe levels (approximately 80 decibels). A good way to do that is to use custom-fitted earplugs, which can cut the sound of virtually any gun to manageable levels. (Consult an audiologist, who will take an impression of your ear canals to create plugs tailor-made for your anatomy.) Earmuffs work better than plugs because they provide significantly more physical mass to attenuate the sound. If you’re shooting a particularly high-powered firearm or find yourself on a range surrounded by other target shooters, experts recommend doubling up for the best protection.
Petzal is one of many guys whose extensive hearing loss dates back to an era when few understood how important it was to protect their ears. Today, there’s no such excuse for inaction. If you have kids learning to shoot, he says, do not let them fire so much as a .22 without adequate protection.
“Losing your hearing doesn’t sound as catastrophic as other physical injuries,” he explains. “But it’s like being confined to a wheelchair the rest of your life. You are truly handicapped. It informs everything you do, every day you live. It affects your personality and your relationships with people-invariably for the worse. If you haven’t screwed your hearing up yet, don’t. Believe me, the price is very high.”
A Sound Investment
Field & Stream deputy editor David Petzal recommends using serious ear protection every time you shoot a gun. Peltor’s Bull’s Eye Ultimate 10 earmuffs ($20 from Cabela’s; 800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com) employ a dual-shell construction and compressed foam to dampen sound resonance and boast the highest accredited noise-reduction rating on the market. u shoot a gun. Peltor’s Bull’s Eye Ultimate 10 earmuffs ($20 from Cabela’s; 800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com) employ a dual-shell construction and compressed foam to dampen sound resonance and boast the highest accredited noise-reduction rating on the market.