An ear piercing instrument (commonly referred to as a piercing gun or an ear piercing gun) is a device designed to pierce earlobes by driving a pointed starter earring through the lobe. Piercing guns may be reusable or disposable. Piercing guns are typically used in mall jewelry shops, but may also be used by doctors and professional body piercers, and are by far the most popular method used for earlobe piercing.
The first types of ear piercing gun were developed in the early 1970s, at the time when earlobe piercing was once more becoming fashionable for women. They replaced a number of earlier manual earlobe piercing devices which had been developed in the 1950s, all of which replicated the actions involved in manually piercing the earlobe using a needle. These early devices were developed as a result of increased interest in ear piercing after HRH Princess Elizabeth (the future HM Queen Elizabeth II) had her ears pierced in 1951. One of the first of these devices was the "Simplicity" (GB Patent 765220), which was patented in 1953 and used a hollow needle into which a sleeper hoop was inserted.
After the increased interest in the early 1950s, earlobe piercing then fell from favor again in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before beginning to come back into fashion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, partly through the "Hippie" movement. In response to this increased interest in earlobe piercing, various manufacturers began to develop and market different types of ear piercing device, most of which utilised a pistol grip design, leading to them being commonly referred to as "piercing guns".
Design and use
The most common design uses a spring that stores potential energy when part of the ear piercing instrument is pulled back. Pre-sterilized starter studs and matching friction backs are typically provided in pairs by the piercing gun manufacturer in sealed containers. A starter stud has a point that is designed to penetrate the earlobe when the mechanism is released. Ear piercing instruments are designed to pierce using 20- or 18-gauge earrings, normally made out of surgical steel, 24 kt. gold plated steel, 14 kt. gold, or titanium.
On the oldest types of piercing gun, one starter stud is manually loaded into a receiving tube, and its matching friction back is loaded into a holder closer to the main part of the instrument. The earlobe is inserted between these two parts of the instrument. When the trigger is squeezed gently, the earlobe is gripped between the body of the gun and the holder containing the friction back, holding it in place ready to be pierced. With increased pressure on the trigger, the spring is released, driving the stud forward with considerable pressure. The shaft of the stud passes through the earlobe, piercing it, and engages into the friction back. This original style of gun cannot be sterilized in an autoclave, and must be sterilized using sterile wipes. Some less-reputable piercing establishments have, in the past, failed to do this, and so this style of gun can carry a risk of possible disease transmission. For this reason, guns into which separate studs are manually loaded have fallen from favor, and have now been largely superseded by designs that either use disposable cartridges to hold the stud and friction back, or are completely disposable.
Disposable cartridge model
Most newer models of piercing guns use a disposable cartridge, sometimes called a cassette. With these models, the stud holder and clasp holder are entirely disposable. In some parts of the world, e.g. most of Europe and Australia, this modification is either specifically required (eg in Scotland) or implied by Health And Safety legislation.
In these new designs, all parts of the gun that could come into contact with the customer's body are made of medical-grade plastic. This is sterilised at the time of manufacture and stored in sealed packaging that is only opened immediately before use in exactly the same way as the needles used by body piercing establishments. The cartridge or cassette is also designed to prevent inadvertent contact being made with the stud during insertion of the cartridge into the gun, and until the actual moment when it is driven through the earlobe to make the piercing. This automatically removes the problem of possible disease transmission found in the earlier types of device.
Hand clasp model
Some newer designs do not use a spring to drive the starter earring through the earlobe. Instead, the operator must manually squeeze a hand grip in order to drive the stud through the ear, with a mechanism preventing the earring being driven forward until sufficient pressure has been applied to drive the earring all the way through the earlobe. This removes the loud "snap" sound common to spring-powered guns that can come as a surprise and cause the person being pierced to jump, which can sometimes create problems with the piercing. Manufacturers claim that this makes for a less stressful piercing experience, making them more suited to piercing young children than the older spring-powered devices.
Some designs of hand-powered gun even allow the capsule to be used separately as a fully-disposable piercing device. In these, the gun effectively serves just as a handle to make it easier to use the capsules, which can also be sold separately to the handle for use at home for self-piercing.
Advantages of piercing guns vs needle piercing
Piercing guns offer many advantages over the older piercing methods such as needle piercing.
One big advantage offered by piercing guns is improved alignment of the piercing. With needle piercing, correct alignment of the piercing depends upon the subjective judgement of the piercer, who must try to judge a correct 90-degree angle between the needle and the surface of the earlobe. If this angle is misjudged, then the piercing will not pass correctly through the earlobe perpendicular to the surface, and will actually be inclined at an angle. This can then cause problems with the wearing of many earrings, which will not sit correctly in the earlobe, making them uncomfortable to wear. Piercing guns are designed to tightly grip the earlobe and retain it in the correct position for piercing, with the entire body of the earlobe held perpendicular to the shaft of the starter earring. This ensures that the piercing passes through the earlobe perpendicular to the surface, meaning that all common types of earrings such as studs will sit correctly in the earlobe.
The other main advantage offered by piercing guns is the greatly reduced level of discomfort involved in making the piercings. In a needle piercing, the piercer manually pushes the needle though the earlobe, and so must overcome the considerable resistance presented by the skin and underlying tissue. As a result, it takes several seconds for the needle to pass completely through the earlobe and form the piercing, during which time the person being pierced will feel considerable pain. Further pain will then be felt during the insertion of the actual earring, as the needle must first be removed before the piercer attempts to pass the earring through the newly-formed piercing. In a gun piercing, the mechanism of the gun is designed so that the starter earring is driven swiftly forward through the earlobe, instead of being slowly forced through. Rather than taking several seconds as in a needle piercing, the starter earring takes less than 1/10th of a second to pass completely through the earlobe. As a result, the person being pierced usually feels no pain from the actual piercing. Most people who've undergone a gun piercing state that all they felt was the slight pinch of the gun gripping their earlobe, and it was only the "snap" sound of the gun being released which told them that their earlobe had been pierced, no pain having been felt as the earring passed through their earlobe. Because it is the starter stud that forms the piercing, there is also no additional pain connected with removal of the piercing needle and insertion of the earring. As a result, gun piercing is generally considered to be a "pain-free" method of piercing for most people.
Criticism and anti-gun propaganda
Piercing guns have been criticized as dangerous by some of the more vocal and extreme members of the professional body piercing community. However, others within the body piercing community prefer to use piercing guns for simple earlobe piercings, and reserve methods using needles for other types of piercing that cannot be done using a gun. Many of these criticisms are based either on older designs of guns that are no longer in general use, gross distortions of the facts about piercing guns, or deliberate falsehoods that have no basis in truth. One such falsehood is that ear piercing guns are just simple modifications of a device used to insert tags into the ears of cattle, when in actual fact piercing guns have a completely separate development history. Another false criticism made by body piercers is that piercing guns cannot be sterilized due to the fact that they are made out of plastic, preventing them being autoclaved, and so are guaranteed to transmit pathogens between customers. While this may be partially true, as the older designs of spring-powered gun cannot be placed in an autoclave and have parts that directly touch the earlobe, they can be sterilized by other methods such as sterile wipes. As more recent guns are specifically designed so that all parts that touch the ear are one-time-use disposable components and manufactured in sterile conditions, it is not necessary to autoclave the whole gun, and the "common use" sections can be safely sterilized using wet wipes. Conversely, needle piercers tend to recycle equipment such as forceps between customers and these can, if improperly sterilized, transmit pathogens between customers. As a result of this, needle piercing now carries the greater risk of disease cross-transmission between customers.
As some supporters of the use of piercing guns have pointed out, professional body piercers have a vested interest in attempts to discredit piercing guns, as they are in direct competition with establishments using guns, but charge prices per piercing that are considerably higher in cost. It is therefore in their interest to do everything they can to try and discredit alternative piercing methods. Supporters of the use of piercing guns also point out that the vast majority of ear piercings are done using various designs of guns, mostly with no problems at all, and that if there was any significant danger posed by piercing guns, they would have been banned long ago by various public health bodies. Additionally, most doctors offering ear piercing use some type of piercing gun, rather than a needle, as they consider needle piercing to be a flawed method.
Another false criticism made by body piercers concerns the training of staff using piercing guns, and the conditions in which they work. According to the critics of piercing guns, the staff using piercing guns receive no training at all in correct piercing and hygiene procedures, operate in unsanitary conditions, and are totally unregulated, while body piercers offering needle piercings are all fully trained and practice scrupulous hygiene. While this may have been true several decades ago, it does not reflect the current situation. Establishments offering gun piercing are tightly regulated by their local health authorities, and have to operate under the same strict hygiene conditions as body piercers and tattooists. Additionally, all staff concerned with gun piercings have to be properly trained and certified in correct piercing procedures. This clearly shows how the body piercing community deliberately distort the facts in an attempt to discredit piercing guns.
Use on areas other than the ear lobe
Some believe that piercing guns are not designed to pierce through the cartilage of the upper ear, or to pierce any part of the body other than the ear lobe. Some U.S. states and a few countries in Europe have banned piercing guns for use on cartilage, including ear cartilage and nostrils. Improper usage of piercing instruments upon areas of the body not intended for their use can lead to problems. However, modern piercing instruments operated with hand pressure are well suited to pierce the cartilage area of the upper ear or for nose piercing. The piercing process with these hand-pressure instruments is tissue friendly, since the ear is pierced gently compared to older spring-loaded systems where a hole is “punched”. Jewelry that is too short for the tissue, or inappropriately shaped, especially jewelry used in the mouth, can embed itself into the body, with the wound effectively healing over it. This can require the surgical removal of the jewelry in some cases and can lead to abscesses, infection and severe scarring. This is one area where both the body piercing community and supporters of piercing guns do agree, and most responsible manufacturers of piercing guns strongly recommend the use of hand-pressure instruments operated by well trained professionals and appropriate jewelry in sterile cartridges, such as barbells for upper ear piercing. In addition, regular aftercare is essential for any piercing. Independently of the piercing method, cartilage piercings require an extremely careful aftercare regimen.Due to the nature of the ear cartilage, extra care should be taken during the healing period. Piercings in the cartilage area of the ear take longer to heal (about 12 weeks) than earlobe piercings.
Piercing guns in popular culture
- In a deleted scene in the movie My Girl 2, the character of Vada, played by Anna Chlumsky, has her ears pierced for the first time using a piercing gun. The scene had to be captured in a single take as Chlumsky, who did not have pierced ears, actually was being pierced for real.
- In January 2009, actress Jennifer Affleck and her older sister Melissa Wylie were photographed by paparazzi coming out of a Santa Monica medical center where both had just their ears gun-pierced by a doctor.
"My sister Melissa had been thinking about getting her ears pierced for a while, but was a bit nervous about having them done - She'd never had them done even though she's thirty-nine, and was worried about it hurting. My other sister, Susannah, has had her ears pierced since she was fourteen, and I'd had mine done a couple of times in the past, but let them grow over again both times. We both told her she'd nothing to worry about and it didn't hurt at all, so she said she'd trust us and get them done - but only if I went with her and got mine done too. So she watched me get my ears pierced, and then she finally got hers done too."
- On the 1987 BBC Children in Need charity telethon, actress Bonnie Langford had her ears pierced by a gun live on air after some of her friends promised to make a large donation if she agreed to have her ears pierced for the first time.
- For her 51st birthday, talk show host Oprah Winfrey had her ears pierced for the first time live on her show. The piercing was done by a plastic surgeon using a piercing gun.
- In the 2003 movie Freaky Friday, actress Jamie Lee Curtis is seen getting a new ear piercing using a spring-powered piercing gun.
- As part of the channel's cancer charity special "Be Aware Show You Care" in October 2009, QVC presenter Jilly Halliday had her ears pierced for the first time live on air by a beautician using a cartridge-loaded spring-powered piercing gun.