Hearing Damage

Good morning,

I am a week or so away from buying a new shotgun. After a lot of research, I have my choices narrowed down to the Beretta AL391 12ga. 28″ barrel and the Beretta 686 Onyx 12 ga. 28″ barrels (in the X-Tra Wood). My research has indicated that both are fine guns and it will really come down to what I finally decide I can afford (and the results of this inquiry). I plan to use the gun for a roughly 60/40 split between clays shooting and hunting.

My question to you all revolves around gun noise. I have, unfortunately, very sensitive hearing, and at 25 years old, already have tinnitus (constant ringing) in both ears that is the result of one dove hunt in which I shot 49 light dove loads over the course of 4 hours and walked off the field with permanent hearing damage. I refuse to give up my love for hunting and shooting, but needless to say, I have to protect my ears very carefully from here on out.

Here is my question: Is there any difference in the noise level between different types of guns? In other words, are gas semi-autos quieter than O/U’s or vice versa? The reason I ask this is because after watching a clay shooting match this weekend, it seemed to me that the gas semi-autos seemed to produce less muzzle blast than the O/U’s. Maybe it was my imagination or just different types of shells being shot by different shooters, but it is something that I have noticed before. The semi-autos seem to me to make more of a mechanical/action/gas type noise (for lack of better description) whereas O/U’s and pumps seem to produce more of a pure blast. In your experience, is any of this accurate?

In short, I would be very grateful if you all could provide me with as much information as possible on getting the quietist type of 12 gauge shotgun I can. As indicated above, I have my gun choices narrowed to either a gas semi-auto or an O/U. Also, any advice you might have on ways to make a stock gun shoot more quietly with modifications, aftermarket parts, et cetera would also be appreciated. Finally, because I don’t trust them, I don’t use these electronic hearing protectors that shut off automatically above a certain decibel level. I only use non-electronic plugs and muffs. I am sick of wearing bulky muffs that interfere with my gun stock but obviously muffs provide better protection than plugs.

I have thought recently about paying the money to get a pair of custom-fitted in-the-ear plugs from a company like ESP, Westone, et cetera. Are these expensive custom fitted plugs worth it or is it just as effective to buy the cheaper non-custom plugs? In short, any advice you could give me regarding the least obtrusive, best protecting hearing protection would also be appreciated.

Thank you very much for your time and I look forward to your response.



Dear Gregory,

Shotgun blast is a function of barrel (length and design such as porting) and shell. It is not a function of gun action design. The “clunking and clanging” sound that an auto makes is not loud enough to damage hearing. It’s loud enough to be noticed, but doesn’t have the decibel level to damage. The opening of the bolt and clearance of the shell is delayed until the shot is out of the barrel, so I don’t think that much shell noise or blast comes out of the ejection port. I think it’s the muzzle blast that does it. Generally, the longer the barrel, the quieter, but that also depends on the shell being used. You will notice that some shells, normally those of higher velocity, are louder than slower and lighter loads. This is due, not only to the quantity of powder used, but also due to the burn rate. Slow burners burn further down the barrel and produce more muzzle blast. Obviously, you don’t want any ported barrels either.

I don’t know what your hearing doctor said when you were tested to assess your permanent hearing loss. I don’t know what your loss involves. Generally, ear plugs alone don’t protect against concussive hearing loss from shock transmitted through the thin bones behind the ear. That could be an issue. That’s why muffs are better. The best muffs I’ve used are the big non-electronic “Peltor Ultimate 10”.

The Peltor 10s are very thick muffs, but they use the same cushion size as other muffs. Cushion size is what determines how low the muffs sit and whether they hit the stock for some people. Thickness has nothing to do with it. Thin muffs are just a marketing ploy. If you hit your stock on the lower edge of your muffs. you should tinker with your gun mount and head position a bit. I’ve noticed that experienced shooters seldom have a muff interference problem. It’s usually the newer shooters who haven’t finalized their gun mount and head position yet.

In addition to the muffs, continue to wear ear plugs. I’ve found that the simple foam plugs do just as good a job, or better, than the carefully molded plugs. The foam plug always expands for a perfect fit. The molded plug can lose it’s fit if your ear canal changes size over time. I’ve never used molded electronic plugs, just the non-electric molded ones so I can’t comment on molded electronic versions.

I’ve tried a couple of pairs of electronic muffs, but the particular brands I used didn’t give nearly as good hearing protection as my big non-electric Peltor 10s. I still prefer the non-electrics. The whole point to electronic muffs and plugs is that you can carry on normal conversation while you are waiting for your turn to shoot. This is a nice feature. I can hear conversations fairly well through muffs. I get zapped when I lift the one muff up to hear a little better and then someone decides to test fire his ten gauge at that point. That’s where muffs and plugs make sense.

Perhaps the ideal combination would be to use good electronic molded plugs and electronic muffs. You’d certainly keep the battery makers happy. Perhaps an even better way would be electronic molded plugs and then the non-electronic Peltor 10s. You’d wear the molded plugs when you are near people who are shooting, but add the muffs when you are actually shooting for an extra layer of protection. Certainly for rough hunting, when you are walking about a great deal, electronic molded plugs would be a great benefit. As a New England grouse hunter, I can attest that it certainly is nice to hear that bird when it gets up right behind you. In the uplands I use the Silencio ear plugs with the little valve. They do a fair job of cutting out the worst of the noise while still allowing me some hearing. It does seem that I lose some directional hearing though. Still, they are a compromise and my hearing is not all that sensitive (which ought to tell me something). For other types of hunting, I don’t think that the ability to hear is as important. I use standard hearing protection when I hunt dove and pigeon. I always wear regular muffs in the duck blind and goose pit because I’m relying on visuals not the audio. Besides, the guy next to you is always shooting 3-1/2″ Roman candles.

Again, talk to your audiologist and get his recommendations on how to protect your hearing. On the shotgun side, get which ever gun you prefer. There’s no difference in noise attributable to the gun alone. Just pick your shells carefully. Winchester makes a subsonic “feather” load that is extremely quiet. You might try a case of those.

Best regards,

Bruce Buck
The Technoid writing for Shotgun Report, LLC
(Often in error. Never in doubt.)

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