Decibel Levels of Gunshot

How the Decibel Levels of Gunfire Threaten Your Hearing

​Since gunpowder first made its entrance into the world, guns have been making a great deal of noise throughout the centuries. While the noise of gunfire has been somewhat timeless, the science behind it has expanded rapidly. We now know exactly why gunfire is so loud and more importantly, we now know the physical effects that noise has on your hearing. Understanding the science behind gunfire and the biological consequence on humans allows gun enthusiasts to take decisive action in order to protect their hearing. So let’s jump right in and discover hidden truths behind gunfire and decibel levels.

Why do Guns Make so Much Noise?


Guns are loud and there is little debate about that fact. However, in order to take action to protect one’s hearing, one must first understand why guns make so much noise. With every firearm, the science remains the same. There are three different ways that guns produce noise.

When a bullet exits the muzzle, it is doing so at a very fast rate and with a great deal of pressure built up behind it. The end result of that speed and pressure is what is known as the muzzle blast. This is a shockwave created by high-pressure gases escaping and expanding when a gun is fired.

However, to say that a bullet travels at a very fast rate is a little vague. Whereas muzzle velocity varies based on the ammunition and firearm, nearly all bullets travel at supersonic speeds. That is to say that they travel faster than the speed of sound. The result is something called a sonic boom. This is the cracking sound you hear as the bullet flies through the air. Think of it as a smaller version of a jet breaking the sound barrier.


​Finally, you’ve got the mechanical sounds of the gun in action. This doesn’t create a great deal of noise, but when you add all three up you’ve got a decibel level that’s not so easy on the ears. So let’s talk decibel levels and gunfire.

How Much Noise Does a Gun Make?


A decibel is the unit used to measure the intensity of any sound. The human ear is a marvelous feature of creation and it can detect the smallest of sounds. The smallest audible sound, which is near total silence, registers at 0 dB on the decibel scale. From there you just do the math. A sound 10 times more powerful registers at a 10 dB and a sound 100 times more than near silence is 20 dB.

A sound 1,000 times more powerful would be 30 dB. To put it into perspective, a jet engine is about 1,000,000,000,000 times more powerful than near silence. Remarkably, gunfire registers at a higher decibel level than a jet engine.

A jet engine registers at 140 dB while a 9mm pistol registers in at 160 dB. The Council of Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation did a little testing and came up with a full scale for various firearms. The full list can be reviewed here, but we’ll examine the range of that scale.

On the low end of the scale with regards to rifles, the Remington 514 registers in at 139.6 decibels. Meanwhile, the Winchester Model 70 reaches 166.5 decibels to top the scale.

With regards to pistols, the Ruger Bearcat .22LR hits 154 dB while the Smith & Wesson 586 hits 169 dB. Shotguns show a similar range with the Mossberg bolt registering at 150 dB and the Remington 11-87 turkey hitting 161.5 dB.

As you can see, it doesn’t matter which gun you choose, you are exposing your ears to some serious decibels. The scary part, however, is what those decibels do to your hearing.

​Harmful Noise Levels and the Effects of Loud Gunshots


The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that consistent exposure to noises louder than 85 decibels makes you likely to experience noise-induced hearing loss. Given that the low end of the gunfire decibel scale clocks in around 140 dB, that’s a major problem for gun enthusiasts.

Veterans of military conflicts have long reported sustained hearing damage due to the excessive amount of gunfire that goes into military training. Not to mention, when a Marine hears the snap and crack of an enemy bullet overhead, he rarely has time to put in some hearing protection. 


The longer one is exposed to higher decibels and the frequency with which this occurs increases the potential for hearing loss. In fact, for every increase in 5 dB, the amount of time required to cause damage decreases by one half.

So, for example, you could be exposed to 90 dB for 8 hours a day or 95 dB for 4 hours a day and have the same effect. That means rocking a couple of hours of range time firing the M14 at 159 dB with unprotected ears is bad news. The good news is that you can do something about it.

​How to Prevent Hearing Damage from Gunfire

Human nature is built with an innate desire to protect oneself from harmful noises. That’s why you see small children put their hands over their ears during a fireworks show and so on. However, there are only two ways to genuinely protect oneself from the harmful damage associated with gunfire.

The first method would be to reduce the amount of decibels being produced when a gun is fired. One would accomplish this in one of two ways. The first way would be to reduce the sound associated with the muzzle blast. In order to do this, you need a silencer, or as it more commonly referred to, a suppressor.

Around 1902, a man named Hiram Percy Maxim was working on creating muffling devices for cars when he considered its impact on the firearm industry. Maxim’s father had created the Maxim machine gun, so Hiram had a little inside knowledge. In 1909 he received his patent and the Mixim Silencer was born. He created the Maxim Silent Firearms Company and marketed them mostly to sportsman.


Human nature is built with an innate desire to protect oneself from harmful noises. That’s why you see small children put their hands over their ears during a fireworks show and so on. However, there are only two ways to genuinely protect oneself from the harmful damage associated with gunfire.

The first method would be to reduce the amount of decibels being produced when a gun is fired. One would accomplish this in one of two ways. The first way would be to reduce the sound associated with the muzzle blast. In order to do this, you need a silencer, or as it more commonly referred to, a suppressor.

Around 1902, a man named Hiram Percy Maxim was working on creating muffling devices for cars when he considered its impact on the firearm industry. Maxim’s father had created the Maxim machine gun, so Hiram had a little inside knowledge. In 1909 he received his patent and the Mixim Silencer was born. He created the Maxim Silent Firearms Company and marketed them mostly to sportsman.

Types of Hearing Protection

Apart from focusing on the sound of gunfire, the only other method to save your hearing is to focus on hearing protection. One could choose abstinence from gunfire, but where’s the fun in that? There are several options when choosing hearing protection and they call come with different abilities.

You can judge the capabilities of hearing protection based on the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). The NRR is a system used to measure the amount a hearing protection device can reduce the sound exposure in decibels.

It is important to note that the NRR is not an equal equivalent to the number of decibels reduced. To find the amount of decibel reduction, you subtract 7 from the NRR and then divide it by 2. So a device with a NRR of 37 would be (37-7)/2 or a total decibel reduction of 15 dB. 

​Primarily, there are three different types of hearing protection options. The first would be good old fashioned earplugs. These are the most commonly used on the range due to their low cost and ready availability. They fit inside the ear and have a NRR typically of 20 dB to 30 dB.

Next, you have passive earmuffs. These fit over the ear and offer a NRR of 17 dB to 33 dB. Finally, you have electronic earmuffs which cost a little more and provides some additional noise management elements. They still typically off an NRR of 17 dB to 33 dB. However, you can double up on the hearing protection. Adding a set of earplugs with earmuffs can drastically increase the level of protection.

As to which hearing protection device is right for which environment, that is really up to your personal preference. While hunting, one typically fires only a handful of shots if they shoot at all. Many hunters prefer earplugs, because of the comfort and it still allows you to hear your surroundings. However, if you are simply firing at the range and there will be an hour’s worth of frequent shooting, you might want to consider doubling up to offer max protection.

How Do You Know if Noise is Damaging Your Hearing?

​If you are a regular user of firearms, the chances are high that you have not been 100% effective in protecting your hearing. With gunfire registering around 155 dB, hearing protection still doesn’t drop you below the 85 dB threshold. Then, if you are a combat veteran, it is possible that you had zero protection with guns firing on all sides. So what happens if your hearing is damaged?

There are several symptoms that can indicate hearing damage. One would be a general muffling of sounds. It can become hard to make out words, particularly in crowded environments. It can also be difficult to determine which direction a sound is coming from.

Finally, you can also find yourself with a constant ringing or buzzing noise in your ear. This is often referred to as tinnitus and beyond the damage to your ears, it’s quite annoying. So when in doubt, please protect your ears when operating firearms. The long-term consequences of failing to do so are quite unwelcome.

​Hearing Protection Act and Silencers

With protecting one’s hearing being an important issue within the gun community, there has been a recent push to make silencers more accessible to the general public. Currently, if you want to purchase a silencer you must fill out a host of government paperwork, pay a $200 stamp tax, and then wait months on end before being able to take possession of your silencer.

The Hearing Protection Act of 2019 has been submitted in Congress for the sole purpose of eliminating the barriers to acquiring a silencer. Those not familiar with firearms have come to believe that silencers are merely the tools of assassins looking to prey on the innocent. Those who have actually fired a gun with a silencer know that this is absurd. 


Nothing completely silences the 150 dB as it can only reduce it. Modern gun circles have moved to calling a silencer a suppressor instead in order to dispel this myth. Though in the eyes of the law they are the same thing. However, the Hearing Protection Act of 2019 appears to be a casualty of the modern gun control debate. It does not look as if passage is likely and barring a shift in power, it is likely dead on arrival.

​Why is Hearing ​​​Protection Important?

At the end of the day, guns will always be loud. There are just too many forces of physics at play for it to be anything else. However, you can still protect your hearing. The frequent use of hearing protection in combination with suppressors and subsonic ammunition would represent the holy grail of hearing protection. If you don’t want to go that far, then it is important you least pick one.

The consequences of hearing loss are often lifelong and irreversible. The consequence of forgoing the use of firearms for recreation, sport, or self-defense, is a life without the joy of the pew, pew, pew. If that sounds like a nightmare to you, then understand the decibels at play and do your best to protect your hearing as you live this 2A life the way it is meant to be lived. 

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