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Year : 2009  |  Volume : 11  |  Issue : 42  |  Page : 8-13
Shooting habits of U.S. waterfowl hunters

Department of Communication Disorders, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, USA

Click here for correspondence address and email

Exposure to high-intensity impulse noise from the recreational use of firearms is a common cause of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Although recreational firearm users who shoot firearms without proper hearing protection are at risk for NIHL, a specific subgroup involved in hunting waterfowl may also be at risk due to their particular shooting habits. The goal of the present study was to investigate the shooting habits of this particular group of U.S. recreational firearm users. A 23-item written survey was sent to waterfowl hunting club members regarding their shooting behaviors, use of hearing protective devices (HPDs), and auditory status. Results indicated that waterfowl hunters in this study typically used large bore semiautomatic shotguns, did not consistently utilize HPDs during target practice or hunting and were exposed to multiple, unprotected shots during the past waterfowl season. Most subjects reported hunting in reverberant acoustic environments (hunting blinds). This group of recreational firearm users also reported high incidences of hearing loss and tinnitus. Information provided by this study may help hearing conservationists and hearing healthcare providers understand and better educate these shooters regarding the risk of acquiring NIHL.

Keywords: Hearing conservation, hearing protection, hearing loss prevention, noise-induced hearing loss, recreational firearm noise exposure

How to cite this article:
Stewart M, Borer SE, Lehman M. Shooting habits of U.S. waterfowl hunters. Noise Health 2009;11:8-13

How to cite this URL:
Stewart M, Borer SE, Lehman M. Shooting habits of U.S. waterfowl hunters. Noise Health [serial online] 2009 [cited 2023 Dec 1];11:8-13. Available from: https://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2009/11/42/8/45307

  Introduction Top

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, [1] approximately 2.3 million Americans, aged 16 years and older, engage in waterfowl hunting. This particular group of individuals hunts migratory birds such as ducks and geese during hunting seasons that are variable in length across different regions, but typically span 60-90 days. Although many recreational firearm users exhibit shooting behaviors that put them at risk for noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). [2],[3],[4] Waterfowl hunters may be at additional risk due to special aspects of their sport. Waterfowl hunters typically shoot using large-bore semiautomatic (12 gauge) shotguns, which generate peak sound pressure levels (SPLs) in excess of 160 dB, [5],[6] often position themselves in reverberant enclosures (blinds) during hunting activities, frequently hunt in groups, and are often exposed to multiple shots in a single outing from both their own firearm and those of companion hunters.

Waterfowl hunters and other recreational firearm users may protect their hearing during shooting activities by consistently wearing appropriate hearing protective devices (HPDs). A recent study by Bockstael et al . [7] who found otoacoustic emissions obtained from Belgian soldiers fit with either active level-dependent earmuffs or passive nonlinear earplugs remained unchanged after multiple exposures to 163 dB SPL firearm noise. The authors concluded that either type of hearing protective device was able to potentially prevent damage to the inner ear. Both of these HPDs were designed to allow the individual wearer to hear low-level sounds, but attenuate high-level impulses. Thus, either device should be well-suited for hunting activities where the individual must monitor his or her auditory environment yet be protected from high-level impulse noise when a gun is fired.

Numerous studies have examined the relationship between firearm use and hearing loss and have consistently found that shooting can cause high-frequency hearing loss. [2],[8],[9],[10],[11],[12],[13],[14],[15],[16],[17] However, little attention has been given to the risk factors and shooting habits that may lead to this hearing loss. Recently, Wagner et al . [3] surveyed 293 male recreational firearm users regarding their shooting habits. The majority of subjects reported using large-bore rifles and shotguns for hunting without consistent use of HPDs. Nakayama, et al . [4] surveyed 153 female firearm users and found that they used smaller caliber firearms and more consistently used HPDs than their male counterparts, even though several subjects reported shooting habits that put them at risk for NIHL.

Because waterfowl hunters appear to be a high-risk subpopulation of recreational firearm users for NIHL secondary to excessive firearm noise exposure, it is important that more information be obtained about this group of hunters. The purpose of this study was to survey waterfowl hunters to investigate their shooting habits, their use and knowledge of HPDs , their typical shooting environments, and a self-assessment of their auditory status. Information obtained from this study can assist audiologists and hearing conservationists in more effectively counsel and educate these shooters about the hazards of firearm noise.

  Materials and Methods Top


Subjects in this study included 96 waterfowl hunters (93 men and 3 women) ages between 25 and 80 years. Mean age of the group was 49 years. All subjects were members of a waterfowl hunting club located in the state of Ohio.


A 23-item survey [Appendix] was developed to collect information regarding shooting behaviors, HPDs, and auditory status. Six questions assessed the shooting habits of participants. Participant use and knowledge regarding hearing protection was assessed with six questions. Five questions focused on self-perception of hearing acuity, incidence of tinnitus, and the use of amplification. Additionally, six questions were used to obtain demographic information including subject age, gender, occupation, state of residence, county of residence, and whether subjects were also exposed to loud occupational noise.


Following approval to conduct this study from the Internal Review Board (IRB) of Central Michigan University, permission was obtained from an officer from an Ohio waterfowl hunting club to mail the surveys to all club members. A mailer was sent to 228 club members that included a letter of explanation, consent form, survey, and self-addressed stamped envelope for return of the completed survey forms. The survey took approximately five to ten minutes to complete and were returned via the stamped envelope provided in the packet. Reponses were anonymous. Data analysis was completed using Microsoft Excel, and descriptive statistics were derived from the raw data.

  Results Top

Demographic results

Ninety six subjects returned surveys (93 men, 3 women) for a return rate of 41%. Participants ranged in age from 25-80 years, with a mean age of 49 years. Respondents were all residents of the state of Ohio. The majority of respondents were blue-collar workers (42%) followed by white-collar (33%), and miscellaneous (25% including unemployed, retired, or self-employed). Almost half of the subjects (44%) reported working in a noisy environment.

Shooting habits

Shooting habits of the subjects were investigated by asking how many years they had been shooting firearms, the gauge and type of action of their most frequently used waterfowl shotgun, and the number of shots fired in the past waterfowl hunting season (10/21 to 12/10 and 12/23 to 12/31) during target practice and hunting activities. As demonstrated in [Figure 1], the majority of subjects (70%) reported that they had been shooting firearms for 20 or more years. It is important to consider that many of these waterfowl hunters also participated in hunting other types of game. Given the average age of the subjects and their history of firearm noise exposure, it would not be surprising to find a high prevalence of hearing loss in this group.

[Figure 2] depicts the most frequently used gauges of firearms reported by these waterfowl hunters. Almost 90% of the subjects preferred using the 12-gauge shotgun for hunting waterfowl. Over 75% stated that the type of action of their firearm was either semiautomatic (40%) or pump (37%). Thus, most subjects in this study reported using one of the loudest shotguns available (12 gauge) coupled with a type of action that permits the rapid firing of three shots during their waterfowl hunting activities.

The number of shots reportedly fired during the past waterfowl hunting season are shown in [Figure 3]. About half (53%) of the subjects reported firing 50 or fewer shots during target practice, while 50% reported 50 or fewer shots during hunting activities, whereas about half of the subjects [Figure 3] reported firing from 51 to over 200 shots during both target practice and while hunting during the last waterfowl season.

Hearing protective devices

A major area of interest in this study was the use and preference of HPDs. Subjects were asked to estimate what percentage of the time HPDs were used during last waterfowl season for both target practice and hunting. They also reported the type of HPD used. In addition, they were also asked if they were aware of active or passive level-dependent HPDs. Active level-dependent HPDs use an electronic circuit that amplifies lower level sounds and employs peak clipping to limit output for loud sounds ( i.e. , above 85 dB SPL). Thus, these devices change from a mild gain amplifier for softer sounds to ear protection when a gun is fired. Passive level-dependent HPDs employ a special acoustic design that allows lower level sounds to pass with little attenuation, but attenuates more as the signal increases in intensity.

Reported use of HPDs during target practice and hunting activities is shown in [Figure 4], while the types of hearing protection for each activity are shown in [Figure 5]. Less than 40% of the subjects reported using HPDs on a consistent (100%) basis when target practicing, while 30% reported never using HPDs during target practice. Almost 80 % of the waterfowl hunters in this study said they never use HPDs while hunting. The most commonly reported type of HPD used for target practice and while hunting was the earplug. Although 52% of the subjects reported being aware of electronic HPDs (active level-dependent), only 4% reported using that type of protection. Only 16% of the subjects were aware of nonelectronic HPDs that allows for audibility of soft and moderate level sounds and attenuates loud sounds (passive level-dependent), but none of the subjects reported using these protectors. Considering the number of shots (for practice and hunting) to which these hunters were exposed and the inconsistent use of HPDs, it would appear that many of these hunters are at high risk for NIHL.

Hunting environment

The acoustic environment in which these subjects hunt was also investigated. [Figure 6] reveals that 50% of the respondents reported hunting in either a pit blind or an above-ground blind, while 40% reported hunting in an open field or marsh.

A pit blind is buried in the ground and is usually constructed of cement, metal, fiberglass, or wood. Many of these types of blinds also have a partial covering, leaving access for the hunter to shoot from a number of different angles. Above-ground blinds are typically constructed using a variety of materials such as wood, tin, fiberglass, or fabric. Shooting in these enclosed environments may pose increased risk for NIHL because the impulse noise can be reflected from the blind surfaces, thus increasing the duration of exposure to the shooter. It is also noted that often waterfowler hunters hunt in groups, potentially exposing them to multiple shots other than their own within a short period of time and in close proximity when waterfowl approach or land in their shooting areas. [Figure 7] is an example of a typical waterfowl hunting environment.

Self-assessed auditory status

Subjects were asked to subjectively rate their hearing using a five-point scale ranging from excellent to poor for each ear. They were also asked about tinnitus and whether they utilized hearing aids. [Figure 8] shows over 30% of the subjects reporting their hearing to be fair or poor in both ears. However, among this number, only three respondents reported utilizing hearing aids. Clinical experience suggests that many patients seen clinically by audiologists underestimate the severity of their hearing loss and do not seek rehabilitative services. Many times audiologic testing will find that a patient has a mild sloping to moderately-severe high frequency sensorineural hearing loss and not be aware of it. [18],[19] Thus, the status of hearing acuity in this group of subjects may be worse than reported.

Twenty two percent of the respondents reported constant tinnitus. This reported incidence rate is significantly higher than the estimated 10-15% rate for the U.S. adult population. [20] Fifty one percent of respondents reported experiencing tinnitus or an increase in tinnitus after firearm use. Twenty five percent reported it occurred 5-10 times throughout the past season. Several hunters reported that tinnitus occurred every time they shot. Tinnitus often occurs after excessive noise exposure and is commonly seen in cases of NIHL. [21],[22],[23],[24],[25] Based on the reported incidence of tinnitus, especially after shooting, there may be a serious risk for NIHL among these hunters. It is also possible that some have already acquired NIHL.

  Discussion Top

Results of this study indicate that shooting habits, use of HPDs, and shooting environments reported by waterfowl hunters may put them at considerable risk for NIHL. Most of these hunters reported using 12 gauge shotguns with either semiautomatic or pump actions capable of producing high-level firearm noise on a rapid three shot basis. Waterfowl hunters also frequently hunt in groups and may be exposed to numerous shots in a short period of time as flocks of waterfowl approach their shooting area. They also frequently shoot from enclosed hunting blinds which may increase the duration of the impulses, thus raising the hazard for hearing loss. [26] The type of shooting that frequently occurs when a flock of waterfowl approaches a group of hunters can be similar to that which occurs at a firing range ( i.e. , multiple shots in a short time period). Kardous et al . [27] measured noise exposure at a firing range and found daily NIOSH noise doses exceeded six seconds after shooting started. It is likely that hunters in this study often achieve similar rates of maximum daily noise doses during their waterfowl hunting activities.

Many subjects reported using HPDs inconsistently during target practice and seldom, if ever, during hunting activities. Few waterfowl hunters report using active or passive level-dependent HPDs specifically designed for shooting firearms. Based on the SPLs large-bore shotguns are able to produce, these hunters should be consistently wearing properly fit HPDs that can reduce 160 dB SPL impulse noise below the maximum exposure limit of 140 dB SPL as recommended by NIOSH. [28] In situations, where several hunters shoot out of an enclosed blind, it might be advisable to use a muff/plug combination to enhance the amount of hearing protection. Using a earmuff over inserted earplugs can increase peak attenuation by an additional 15-20 dB. [6]

Subject self-assessment of hearing status and the reported incidence of tinnitus in this study is of concern. Thirty percent of subjects rated their hearing to be only fair or poor ( i.e. , and maybe possible hearing aid candidates). The reported incidence of tinnitus (22%) is significantly higher than the estimated rate for the general adult population in the U.S. (10-15%). [20] Over 50% of the subjects reported experiencing constant or intermittent tinnitus. Based on these results, it would appear that many of these waterfowl hunters are being exposed to firearm noise high enough to cause NIHL.

Results of this study support the need for hearing conservation education for waterfowl hunters. Educational training should include information on the effects of firearm noise on hearing and the resulting effects of high-frequency hearing loss on speech understanding so shooters realize the consequences of excessive exposure to firearm noise. Additionally, the proper use of HPDs should be a major component of an educational program. Shooters need to select earplugs and earmuffs with high attenuation values, know how to position them to obtain maximum attenuation, and know when to use them in combination. Shooters also need to know about active and passive level-dependent HPD options. Other sections of an educational program could include hearing loss simulation, [29] tinnitus simulation, [30] a discussion of tinnitus as a precursor to hearing loss, how to avoid dangerous (reverberant conditions and multiple exposures) shooting situations, and receiving a basic hearing test from a qualified professional. The educational programs could be offered through hunter safety courses, hunting clubs, or during shooting instructions. A special firearm noise section in industrial hearing conservation program educational programs could be included for workers who use firearms. Finally, clinical audiologists should educate their patients who use firearms with regard to the hazards and types of hearing protection to prevent NIHL.

  References Top

1.U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau. National survey of fishing, hunting, and wildlife-associated recreation. 2006.   Back to cited text no. 1    
2.Stewart M, Pankiw R, Lehman M, Simpson TH. Hearing loss and hearing handicap in users of recreational firearms. J Am Acad Audiol 2002;13:160-8.  Back to cited text no. 2    
3.Wagner A, Stewart M, Lehman M. Risk patterns and shooting habits of recreational firearm users. Poster session presented at: Annual Convention of the National Hearing Conservation Association; 2006 Feb 17-19; Tampa, FL.  Back to cited text no. 3    
4.Nakayama JR, Stewart M, Lehman M. Demographic risk patterns and shooting habits of female recreational firearms users. Poster session presented at: Annual Convention of the National Hearing Conservation Association; 2008 Feb 21-23; Portland, OR.  Back to cited text no. 4    
5.Kramer W. Gunfire noise and hearing protection. Tinnitus Today 2002;27:14-5.  Back to cited text no. 5    
6.Murphy WJ, Tubbs RL. Assessment of noise exposure for indoor and outdoor firing ranges. J Occup Environ Hyg 2007;4:688-97.   Back to cited text no. 6    
7.Bockstael A, Keppler H, Dhooge I, D′haenens W, Maes L, Philips B, et al . Effectiveness of hearing protector devices in impulse noise verified with transiently evoked and distortion product otoacoustic emissions. Int J Audiol 2008;47:119-33.   Back to cited text no. 7    
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11.Johnson D, Riffle C. Effects of gunfire on hearing level for selected individuals of the inter-industry noise study. J Acoust Soc Am 1982; 72:1311-4.  Back to cited text no. 11    
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17.Ylikoski M, Ylikoski J. Hearing loss and handicap of professional soldiers exposed to gunfire noise. Scand J Work Environ Health 1994;20:93-100.   Back to cited text no. 17    
18.Hetu RL, Getty L, Quoc HT. Impact of occupational hearing loss on the lives of workers. In: Morata TC, Dunn DE, editors. Occupational hearing loss. Philadelphia: Hanley and Belfus; 1995. p. 495-512.  Back to cited text no. 18    
19.Stewart M, Scherer J, Lehman ME. Perceived effects of high frequency hearing loss in a farming population. J Am Acad Audiol 2003;14:100-8.   Back to cited text no. 19    
20.Henry JA, Dennis KC, Schechter MA. General review of tinnitus: Prevalence, mechanisms, effects, and management. J Speech Lang Hear Res 2005;48:1204-35.  Back to cited text no. 20    
21.Griest SE, Bishop PM. Tinnitus as an early indicator of permanent hearing loss. A 15 year longitudinal study of noise exposed workers. AAOHN J 1998;46:325-9.   Back to cited text no. 21    
22.Axelsson A, Barrenas ML. Tinnitus in Noise-Induced Hearing Loss. In: Dancer AL, Henderson D, Salvi RJ, Hamernik, RP, editors. Noise-Induced Hearing Loss. St. Louis: Mosby-Year Book; 1992. p. 269-76.  Back to cited text no. 22    
23.Kφnig O, Schaette R, Kempter R, Gross M. Course of hearing loss and occurrence of tinnitus. Hear Res 2006;221:59-64.   Back to cited text no. 23    
24.Nicolas-Puel C, Akbaraly T, Lloyd R, Berr C, Uziel A, Rebillard G, et al . Characteristics of tinnitus in a population of 555 patients: Specificities of tinnitus induced by noise trauma. Int Tinnitus J 2006;12:64-70.   Back to cited text no. 24    
25.Mrena R, Savolainen S, Kuokkanen JT, Ylikoski J. Characteristics of tinnitus induced by acute acoustic trauma: A long-term follow-up. Audiol Neurootol 2002;7:122-30.  Back to cited text no. 25    
26.Committee on Hearing, Bioacoustics and Biomechanics. Proposed Damage-risk Criterion for impulse noise (gunfire): Report of Working Group 57. Washington D.C.; National Academy of Sciences; 1968.  Back to cited text no. 26    
27.Kardous CA, Willson RD, Hayden CS, Szlapa P, Murphy WJ, Reeves ER. Noise exposure assessment and abatement strategies at an indoor firing range. Appl Occup Environ Hyg 2003;18:629-36.  Back to cited text no. 27    
28.National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Criteria for a Recommended Standard of Occupational Noise Exposure. Cincinnati: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; c1998.  Back to cited text no. 28    
29.NIOSH: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health [Internet]. Hearing loss simulator Mining Software. Available from: [last cited on 2008 Apr 11].  Back to cited text no. 29    
30.Martin B. Tinnitus simulation of the Oregon Hearing Research Center at Oregon Health and Science University. Available from: http://www.hearingconservation.org/rs_educResources.html. [last cited on 2008 Apr 11].  Back to cited text no. 30    

Correspondence Address:
Michael Stewart
Department of Communication Disorders, 2172 Health Professions Building, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48859
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/1463-1741.45307

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