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Let us assume, for the moment, that we have an army of (Tolkienesque) elves to equip, and only modern small arms to equip them with. However, elves have hearing that is rather more sensitive than humans (by at least 10-20dB). This is great for avoiding ambushes and tracking prey in the deep woods, but has a distinct downside on a more modern battlefield, as unsuppressed firearms are ear-splittingly loud beasts even to human ears, and to an elf, such a loud noise at such close distance could very well be downright disorienting and/or lead to rapid(!) hearing loss, neither of which are good.

Given this, how could our elven army make effective use of modern firearms technology? Would suppressors be standard issue for them? Could active hearing protection provide enough protection to keep elf ears from being shattered by gunshot noise, while still permitting them to communicate effectively? Assume that they have to fend off a human army of roughly equal numbers for the purpose of this question.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well an important question is who are they fighting? Humans or other Elves? Or something else? $\endgroup$
    – Mattna
    Mar 18, 2022 at 1:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Mattna question edited $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Mar 18, 2022 at 2:18
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    $\begingroup$ Umm, the same thing that modern sharpshooters use? Earplugs? $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2022 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ It doesn't follow to me that more sensitive hearing means lower threshold to sound damage. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Mar 18, 2022 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ Air guns, like the Girandoni Air Rifle, 1780. There is a Forgotten Weapons video: youtube.com/watch?v=2dZLeEUE940. Also, Pritchard's youtu.be/sCoUWJHhDZ0 $\endgroup$
    – Candid Moe
    Mar 18, 2022 at 23:51

6 Answers 6

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Elves don't have the same health concerns as humans.

Elves are elves, so inherently have superior biology to humans. When your lifespan is thousands and thousands of years you're going to need eyesight, hearing, teeth, joints, and mental acuity, among other things that don't degrade so quickly with wear and tear or time. Or else you would not be a very pretty sight after 70 years, let alone 700 or 7000. and we all know that elves are still very pretty when thousands of years old.

So it is not only expected, but necessary that elf hearing not only be much more robust than human hearing, but also capable of regenerating. As a matter of fact, most animals in the real world do regenerate their hearing. The fact that mammals do not is an exception, not the rule.

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    $\begingroup$ I am curious about your last comment: Evolutionarily speaking, why is it that mammals have this exception to that rule? $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2022 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ @The_Sympathizer It seems that we have sacrificed regeneration for better high frequency hearing. Let's you live long enough to breed and then your well-being ceases to matter after that I guess. Like specialization of mammalian teeth which is also an exception. Good performance, no regeneration (except the way rodent canines grow). $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 20, 2022 at 4:08
  • $\begingroup$ @The_Sympathizer See the graphic at: wikiwand.com/en/Hearing_range $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 20, 2022 at 4:13
  • $\begingroup$ @The_Sympathizer remember that not every evolved characteristic needs to have a reason. Stuff happens, and most mutations are neutral or slightly deleterious... just not so bad as to seriously impact the chances of passing genes on. Loss of the capability of regenerating hearing might just be one of those slightly negative things that just isn't bad enough to be selected against. $\endgroup$ Mar 22, 2022 at 19:49
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Noise-cancelling plugs.

Essentially, you'll be wanting to cut out the very loud cracks and bangs whilst still being able to hear some kind of signalling and communication for coordination of movement and action. I'm discounting radio as it's too easy to interfere with.

An ear-plug with a small speaker incorporated, a bit like ear-buds but more focussed on blocking outside noise would be needed. These would be connected to an electronic device with mike, with a digital filter which has several modes at the touch of a button:

  • Battle Mode: In effect to take-out the loudest and most damaging sounds - by means of signal compression. This will mean the highest dB sounds are still there, but at a tolerable volume and make some of the quieter sounds a bit louder. This would suit the heat of battle with live-fire close at hand.

  • Stealth mode: like it says on the box, this reproduces the soundscape faithfully and as much like normal hearing as possible without compression.

Both modes can have the additional feature of enhanced ultra-sonics. Now, I'm assuming that elves have pretty good high-frequency hearing compared to humans anyhow - and the humans will expect them to be using dog-whistles to communicate. Even higher frequencies can be converted to the audible range (frequency divider), enabling the normal high-frequency range of elves to be used for decoy and misinformation whistles, and the even higher range for actual signalling - tactical use of comms..

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  • $\begingroup$ Isn't your "Stealth mode" equivalent to just take the earbuds out? Also, why does Battle Mode have to mess with low volume sounds? We already have headphones that can just cut loud sounds out for range shooting. $\endgroup$
    – Harabeck
    Mar 18, 2022 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Harabeck, yes and no. It saves the faf of having to take them out, pocket them and then put them back in at potentially short notice. Then there's the last paragraph, on stealth-mode they'd still have the far-ultrasonic hearing for signalling purposes. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2022 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, if you're using electronics, you can simply cut the loud spikes to make the earplugs remove the bangs without affecting faint noises at all. I.e. you don't need different modes. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Mar 19, 2022 at 9:56
  • $\begingroup$ Fair to say true, I was trying (and not particularly succeeding) to find some "extra value".@toolforger $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2022 at 10:25
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    $\begingroup$ This is basically what some modern militaries already do. British troops on operations are issued with hearing protectors that integrate with comms systems and also allow them to hear their surroundings without being deafened. invisio.com/user-stories/british-army/# $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2022 at 23:32
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Range and resolution are separate things

How accurately you can measure, and how far you can measure, are not the same.

Make everything a lot bigger, say with an eardrum the size of a stadium, and now think about measuring it. Human hearing would equate to measuring the drum movement with a ruler marked only in whole centimetres. Elf hearing instead would be like measuring the drum movement with a ruler marked in millimetres. Elves can simply resolve that eardrum movement better.

How far can you measure though? In other words, how loud can things be? There's no reason the rulers can't be the same length, so the maximum amplitudes for elf and human hearing would remain the same.

This would have an evolutionary basis, of course. Elves and humans are living in the same world, with the same "normal" amplitude of loud sounds like falling trees, strong winds, lightning, and so on. If ancestral elves were paralysed every time there was a storm, they would have been been eaten by wolves pretty quickly! Owls and other birds that hunt by hearing don't have any problems with loud noises like passing cars or gunshots, beyond seeing them as human-related threats, of course.

In other words, evolution will already have ensured elf ears are just as tolerant to the noise of gunshots as human ears are. I'd note there that human ears aren't very tolerant to that noise anyway, and hearing loss is incredibly common for soldiers in active service.

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    $\begingroup$ This was my first thought as well. As a parallel, cats can see in much lower light conditions than humans, but that doesn't mean they are blinded by daylight. Being able to hear very quiet sounds does not imply that loud sounds are deafening. Grey wolves, for example, have hearing more sensitive than humans and can hear sounds around -15dB, but they seem to tolerate their own howls just fine, despite being loud enough to potentially cause hearing damage in humans at 115dB. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2022 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ "hearing injuries were more prevalent among combat-specific occupations" (i.e., the deck of a carrier, its engine room, or inside a jet). - Suppressors would be standard issue in RL if it actually was a problem. Don't use large caliber rounds inside or between buildings ("FIBUA"). - 'Communicating effectively' during a firefight is all done with hand signals. - And, singular ear : "Hearing loss among rifle shooters also tend to be asymmetrical". - 'It doesn't follow that more sensitive hearing means lower threshold to sound damage' and small arms fire isn't the problem anyway. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Mar 19, 2022 at 1:56
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Wouldn't ancient and medieval battlefields also be quite noisy, with men and animals yelling with excitement and fear and screaming in pain?. I wonder how the noise in medieval battles or in modern reenactments of them compares to the noise of battles in the gunpowder era.

Suggestion One: Use noise reduction equipment.

Once I was getting rather deaf so I went to the doctor.

The doctor said I had a build up of ear wax in my ears. So he got a syringe and started squirting water into my ears to dislodge the ear wax.

I could feel the water squirting in and after a while I suddenly heard a loud noise like a toilet flushing - the water sloshing around in my ears. And I also heard loud noises I hadn't heard earlier in the office. It sounded like the docotor's office was being demolished around me. My brother-in-law and his crew were doing some construction and remodelling work on the office building.

And for the next few days, until my ears and brain adjusted to the unexpected clear path to my inner ear, everything sounded louder.

So it is possible to completely block the air passages in the outer ear and reduce the sound level heard by many decibels, so that loud noises sound faint.

So ear plugs and other noise reduction gear should be adequate in protecting elvish ears.

And possibly the Elves might wear environmental suits in battle with helmets that give them their own air supply. They could have microphones on the ouside of the helmets with speakers inside the helmets, and the circuitry could be designed to automatically adjust the volume inside to keep it at comfortable levels. Considering how fast modern electronics work, that should cause a sound delay of only a few thousandths of a second, too short to notice.

Maybe the Elves don't have access to early 21st century technology like we do. What could they replace electronics with in that case? I don't know, maybe magic?

Suggestion Two: Make guns quieter.

What about airguns? The first airguns using compressed air were invented centuries ago. I think that about 1780 an entire regiment of the Austrian army was equipped with air rifles. If someone invented portable steam engines to power the pumps that filled the compressed air containers with compressed air, an entire army could be equiped with compressed air rifles.

The USS Vesuvius of 1888 was a dynamite gun cruiser.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Vesuvius_(1888)

A dynamite gun is any of a class of artillery pieces that use compressed air to propel an explosive projectile (such as one containing dynamite). Dynamite guns were in use for a brief period from the 1880s to the beginning of the twentieth century.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamite_gun

During the late 19th century dynamite was one of the best explosives to use in artillery shells. Except it tended to explode in the gun.

Because of the instability of early high explosives, it was impractical to fire an explosive-filled shell from a conventional gun. The violent deflagration of the propellant charge and the sudden acceleration of the shell would set off the explosive in the barrel of the weapon. By using compressed air, the dynamite gun was able to accelerate the projectile more gradually through the length of the barrel

Guns for naval use were supplied with air from shipboard compressors. A small model for field use by land forces employed a powder charge to drive a piston down a cylinder, compressing air that was then fed into the gun barrel. This field model was famously used by Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish–American War, but had actually been used previously by Cuban insurgents against Spanish forces.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamite_gun

So long as the enemies of the Elves don't invent conventioanal rifles and artillery that is significantly superior to the compressed air rifles and artillery of the Elves, Elven weapons should be adequate on the battlefield. I note that the superior hearing of the Elves would enable them to locate the quiet sounds of enemy compressed air artillery firing much better than humans could.

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    $\begingroup$ Gunshots are MUCH louder than anything you hear on an explosion-free battlefield. Because it's louder at the source (more initial energy from a smaller volume), and because the source is much nearer to ear of the bearer. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Mar 19, 2022 at 9:59
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Human eye and photo camera adapts to excess of light by having contracting diaphragm. A super-sensitive ear is also likely to have some anatomic features to limit sensitivity in very loud environment. The internal hearing channel can be closable.

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Only use noise-canceling headphones.

If less technology is available just use standard range hearing protection, you'd be surprised how much you can muffle the noise with just the basic earplugs and headphones are even better (I have experience shooting firearms).

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem is, noise cancelling is rather ineffective for short duration, high-frequency sounds like gunshots. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2022 at 15:32
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    $\begingroup$ There are specialized noise-canceling headphones that are programmed with the noise patterns of various caliber gunshots, which is why I mentioned that if there is no smart headphone technology, standard protection works fine. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2022 at 16:08

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