Tactical Ears, Gunfire, and Situational Awareness
Your wits keep you alive and your wits depend on your sight and hearing to process what is happening around you. Protecting your hearing in a tactical or defensive situation is often over looked and I think it shouldn’t be. Sure there are plenty of people who have been in combat without hearing protection and survived OK, some even without hearing loss. Sometimes a phenomenon known as audio exclusion seems to protect combatants ears, other times not. Other factors such as weapon type, caliber, barrel length and environment play a huge role determining if hearing protection is prudent. Obviously protecting your life is more important than your hearing, but being situationally aware and mentally sharp is our biggest asset to survival. Being able to mentally process the situation and make rapid tactically sound decisions is paramount. Of course training makes a huge contribution in the mental department but situational awareness determines how training is implemented and if it has the desired effect. We depend on our minds to make accurate snap judgements, and our minds use mostly our sight and hearing to formulate situational awareness in a tactical situation. As soon our ears are exposed to a loud violent noise the primary input from our ears is reduced to ringing, which can drastically reduce our mental capacity to formulate what’s happening around us. Go play paintball or start a nerf war with your kids and before you start put some foamies deep into your ears to handicap your hearing and see how much more difficult it is to remain aware of what’s happening while your opponents attempt to outsmart you.
Bad vs Catastrophic for our hearing.
As with most tactical decisions we must weigh the inherent give and take. Getting into an outdoor engagement with a pistol or shotgun is no where near as bad for our hearing or situational awareness as shooting a 5.56 SBR (Short Barreled Rifle) in a small room. The outdoor pistol/shotgun shooting may cause some mild hearing and situational awareness loss vs the small room 5.56 SBR shooting could literally blow your ear drums out with the first round. Generally speaking the greater the level and duration of over pressure (basically the concussion) and intensity of sound generated (dB) increases the likelihood of instant and severe hearing loss. Carbines are easy to use and offer a substantial increase in firepower but they are LOUD, especially firing indoors, a single round could permanently turn off your ears. Using muzzle breaks and or shortening the barrel really turns up the concussion increasing the chance of catastrophic hearing and situational awareness loss if fired without hearing protection.
If practical use Hearing Protection
My rule of thumb on hearing protection is if practical use it, and make it part of your tactical planning and kit. Obviously if ambushed or reacting to an unanticipated immediate threat I won’t worry about protecting my ears since it’s clearly not practical to do so. However anytime I encounter a lull in the engagement or if I have a chance to upgrade to a better weapon system like a carbine I plan on adding some sort of hearing protection to enhance my situational awareness, it’s too easy not to.
Suppressors and Muzzle Devices
On SBRs or AR-pistols I like to run muzzle devices that direct the blast away from the shooter down range, some examples are the Noveske Pig, Damage Industries Muzzle Projector, MAS Flash Can, Weapon Outfiters Brake Shield, and Troy Claymore. Although these devices don’t reduce the sound level they really cut down the concussion and perceived “loudness” at the shooter. Reading up on the science of hearing loss and gunfire gets really complicated, but it is generally accepted that despite not measuring much difference in decibels, the addition of muzzle brakes and shorter barrels increase the concussion and duration of the sound which increases the likelihood of instant catastrophic hearing loss. My personal experiences tend to confirm this, I can comfortably fire my 8″ 300blk SBR with the brake shield and electronic ear muffs, but when I remove the brake shield it becomes uncomfortably loud even through my muffs. Generally the way I setup a weapon system accounts for protecting my ears, I like to use a suppressor or a brake shield on short barrel carbines. Like I stated before I will always consider hearing protection into my tactical planning either on my ears or the end of my weapon as a suppressor. Suppressor use is very much a give and take proposition adding some great advantages and some drawbacks depending on the application. I like to backward plan from my mission or goal so I can decide if using a suppressor is the best choice for a given situation.
Plugs and Muffs
Their are many options available for use as “tactical” hearing protection, most are either ear plugs or ear muffs. My criteria for what constitutes “tactical” hearing protection vs non tactical, is the hearing protection type must offer a specific design feature to balance the level protection from explosive noises like gunfire with the ability to hear other less intense sounds such as human voices. I’ve had over a decade of experience trying different types of hearing protection in tactical settings and I’m only going to cover the items that I have specific first hand experience using. Later on I may do full reviews of some of the specific items listed here so stay tuned if that interests you. I prefer electronic ear muffs, they work great, are faster to put on, and amplify the noises around me while still protecting from gunfire. The biggest drawbacks for ear muffs are the bulkiness when your not wearing them, and the cost. Plugs are great because they are cheap and small, I buy multiple pairs and stash them in my gear either as a primary or backup protection method situation dependent.
I have tried several types and I will list them starting from my favorite to least favorite but still recommended.
These Howard Leight’s are everything you need and want with nothing you don’t unless you need it to interface with a communication system. The work great, are cheap, low profile, easy to operate, weather resistant, and have long battery life. I have used the same pair I own for the last five years, I did have to repair the metal piece of the headband a couple of years ago but rest of the muffs are all original. Furthermore I use these ear muffs more often then the others I have. The only slight limitation of these ear muffs are that although they offer adequate protection from all gunfire but curtain weapon’s with short barrels and or muzzle breaks can be ‘uncomfortably loud’ but not harmful.
The Peltor Tactical Sport’s are pretty good but are a bit too bulky for my taste and the added cost is not worth it in my opinion. The main advantages to these ear muffs are more protection from exceptionally loud gunfire than the slimmer muffs, and gel ear pieces can be added for extra comfort which is useful if the muffs need to be worn for extended time periods.
I’ve used the ComTac’s a bunch because they were issued gear. Pretty good ear muffs but definitely not worth the cost in comparison to other ear muffs. The main advantages of the ComTac’s are ability to interface with communication systems, and they are very waterproof. The cost of $400+ is the disadvantage. These also work with the gel ear pieces.
The Soundtraps suck, I’ve used them some and the protection level is minimal, and the independent volume nobs on each ear are a PITA. The nobs have a tendency to get accidentally turned on in a range bag or changed while wearing them because they turn so easily. I will use these if the it’s the only thing available but not for much else. The Soundtraps are also compatible with the gel ear pieces.
Tactical Ear Plugs
Here’s what my experiences have been with various tactical ear plugs from my favorites to least preferred. And realistically only numbers 1 and 2 are true tactical earplugs since they are designed to allow some sound such as verbal communication through while still protecting from sound impulses like gunfire.
There are a few different generations and versions around but all pretty similar and share the same major design features. The defenders offer the best performance to my ear in being able to still hear things and not having your hearing damaged by gunfire. To still hear others sounds and be protected from sporadic gunfire the plugs should be configured as shown with the ‘swing plug’ out. For constant high noise environments like machinery the ‘swing plug’ is inserted. Another cool feature of the surefire defenders is their ability to accept a communications ear bud insert in the ‘swing plug hole’ allowing the covert use of communication systems. The Defenders also come in different sizes for people with larger or smaller than averaged sized ear canals.
The combat plugs are pretty good as well, I’ve use these a bit and I like them. The yellow side is for gunfire and the green side is constant noise protection like machinery or aircraft. The main advantages of the combat plugs is speed, they are rigid and like long which allows the user to put them in very quickly and easily. The disadvantages are they are only offered in one size which obviously doesn’t work for everyone, they kinda poke out a little from your ear, and are not as comfortable over time as the defenders. I highly recommend the Combat Plugs for active shooter bags/kits and or quick access carbines as a primary or secondary method of hearing protection because they are small and quick. I still prefer a set of ear muffs but sometimes that maybe too bulky to be practical.
Like I stated before, not really tactical (although the camo helps) but they are better than way better than nothing and are super cheap so you can afford to stash them everywhere you might need them. Despite not being designed as such I have found that you can insert foamies to a shallow depth in the ear canal to allow better hearing and some protection from gunfire sound. And if I know I’m going into a very noisy environment sometimes I will double up on hearing protection and ear muffs coupled with foamies placed sideways and not really into my ear canal. This sideways foamie and muff combination works great, I can still hear well through the amplification of normal sounds in the muffs and the foamies take the uncomfortable edge off excessively loud sounds. You may need to experiment to find the right balance for your ears and specific environment.