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Reversing a deafening decision: How converting to ear protection improved shooting and life

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: October 31, 2020
  • Published October 31, 2020

“You hear that?” Christine said from the lounge chair on the deck next to me.

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Two moose coming through the woods, they’ll come out by the apple tree.”

A few moments later, two young bull moose appeared as predicted, by the apple tree planted a couple of steps off the east end of the deck.

It’s a recurring theme with us. Christine hears things and wants to share the story through auditory perception — the beat of grouse wings in the distant forest, the chatter of irritated squirrels, the peculiar drone of a male rock ptarmigan hidden in granite crevices a thousand feet above.

The best I can do is imagine the sounds from a previous life when I could still hear. Hearing aids help, but they feel so weird in the field that I rarely wear them.

It would be easy to say my hearing loss came from operating heavy equipment, being in close proximity to powerful turbine engines, thousands of hours running chain saws, takeoffs in Bush planes and helicopters. Any of those things may promote hearing loss.

But hearing loss surfaced for me at age 17, when I took my final medical exams before joining the military and before I had done much of the aforementioned.

As it turned out, I had lost enough high-frequency hearing that I was ineligible for military service.

Back then, folks didn’t use hearing protection much. The people I grew up around didn’t have a lot of money and spent what little expendable income they had on guns and ammunition, not “trivial” stuff like earmuffs.

The noise of gunfire never bothered me much as a young person. Which is a bit odd considering I am averse to loud noise. I don’t like to be in a place where music or other background noise is loud enough to interfere with casual conversation. It has limited my social engagement over the years.

Colt, the noise maker, comfortable in his made-for-dogs ear protection. Photographed June 2017. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

Colt, our most cuddly, adorable English setter, has a high-pitched bark that gives me a start every time he has something important to say. He can’t be like the rest of the dogs, who will lick your face to get you up at 3 a.m. Instead he wants everyone to know he has a problem.

His barks give me a start, but gunfire never does. Colt is the opposite. He is sensitive to gunfire and nothing else seems to bother him.

Around the time the military rejected my flawed carcass, I had gotten involved with the local gun club and started some competitive shooting. It wasn’t until then that I began to understand that the noise of gunfire, prolonged shooting and proximity to high-powered rifle or pistol fire, had a significant effect on the way folks shot, or even if they would continue to shoot.

When we talk about flinches — that is, jerking the trigger, missing the shot and generally being miserable at the prospect of the next shot — we blame recoil. Short of the most viscous recoiling cartridges in small arms, recoil can be managed successfully by most folks. But if you don’t manage the horrific bellows emitted from high-powered or even prolonged rimfire shooting, fatigue will set in and flinches develop.

Sometimes you must experience something to believe it’s true — you know, like peeing on the electric fence.

Years ago, I had a Colt XM177E2, essentially an experimental M16, with an 11.5-inch barrel. A select fire-rifle, it was about as sexy as guns of that type can be, but when it opened its mouth, it was like that attractive person across the room who you approach, and they start snapping their gum, obnoxious as hell.

One afternoon I had shot some 800-900 rounds practicing with the little she-devil when I caught myself jerking the trigger.

Tempting as it is to shoot the mild mannered .22 rimfire without hearing protection, over time, even it can take a toll on the hearing. Photographed Oct. 2020. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

Now, this rifle had virtually no recoil. The culprit was the horrific muzzle blast. Doubling up with earplugs and muffs solved the problem. It showed me how detrimental the noise could be to shooting, and over the many years of helping other folks learn to shoot I’ve found that keeping the noise in check with excellent ear protection is the starting point for new shooters.

For years I used whatever earplugs were handy and cheap. I didn’t then, and still don’t, like to wear earmuffs when shooting long guns, particularly shotguns. It’s one of those mind-over-matter things that I cannot get past. When I mount a rifle or a shotgun to my cheek, it feels like the muffs are in the way, never mind that they are not. It is what my small cerebral cortex tells me, and real or not, it is a distraction. Particularly when shooting moving targets.

So, in these later years, I’ve tried a variety of earplugs and found a noticeable difference from brand to brand, type to type. It seems like the fit in your ear canal is the main difference, and since we are all a bit different, it’s a trial-and-error process.

The same can be said of earmuffs. Many years ago, I tried electronic muffs that block out gunfire while enhancing the volume of regular conversation. Another trial-and-error process where some worked great, and some didn’t.

When you find a pair that works, they are about worth their weight in gold, particularly if you are running a range and need to hear but also have gunfire going on all the time.

I don’t wear hearing protection while hunting. I need to hear what’s going on around me, at least as well as I can, and hearing protection stifles me. There isn’t a lot of shooting with hunting. Those times when the targets are live and the shooting is constant is more shooting than hunting, and they are two different things. I imagine if I went to Argentina to shoot doves, at more than 1,000 rounds of shotshells a day, I would wear hearing protection.

It’s funny, the twists and turns life takes, and how often something perceived as tragic can be anything but as life goes on. You see, had I used ear protection all those years, I would have gone into the military. Who knows where my life would be. To a near mortal certainty, I would not have met Christine, and Winchester and his pup, Colt, would not have made it into our lives. I don’t imagine I would be writing this column, or maybe much of anything else.

So I can live with loss of hearing, and perhaps some opportunities that took from me, for having the life I have had, which I would not trade for much of anything.

Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter and hunter who lives in Kenai.