It’s probably one of the most contentious and misunderstood decisions in all of shooting: What’s the best type of gun, caliber and gauge to start a young shooter out so they learn good marksmanship skills, maintain the highest level of safety and develop a lifetime love for the shooting sports?
For hunting, many children begin with a .22 Long Rifle or .410 shotgun — the latter a disservice to the child unless all he will be hunting is squirrels or rabbits, said Kurt Derwort, a Virginia gunsmith, retired Navy armorer and Double Distinguished shooter.
The .410 load is so limited and its constriction is tight, so it’s a poor choice for ducks, deer or turkeys unless you expect the animal to always come within point-blank range. A 20-gauge shotgun offers the best blend of low recoil and lighter weight without severely handicapping downrange energy and knockdown.
For rifles, Derwort said a .22 is ideal for teaching the basics of trigger control and proper aiming technique. But when hunting anything beyond the smallest game, switching to a .243, 7mm-08 and even 7.62×39 or .308 is wise.
For shotgun actions, Derwort likes a pump because subsequent shots don’t automatically go to battery as they do in a semi-auto, yet the child can produce quick follow-up shots when required. For rifles, Derwort prefers a bolt action.
“A good bolt gun lets you cycle the rifle while it’s still on the bench … meaning the shooter doesn’t have to lift his head completely off the stock and lose sight of the target,” he said. Most important, be sure the gun fits. A good fit ensures a better stance and shooting form, which will reduce felt recoil and poor shooting results. Fortunately, today’s manufacturers boast a plethora of youth and compact models.
The quickest way to ruin a young shooter is to make their first forays into firing a gun scary, uncomfortable and pressure-filled. To ensure your son or daughter develops a love for your favorite activity, follow these tips from Derwort.
Keep it Fun
Don’t expect a child to shoot at paper for three hours as if they are preparing for combat. “You’ve got to keep it fun and interesting or you’re going to lose their interest,” he said.
Change up the types of targets you’re using to keep young shooters interested and having fun. Balloons are a great choice, as everyone loves to see stuff pop and explode. Derwort also likes charcoal briquettes.
Don’t Overgun a Young Shooter
If they have never fired a gun, every child should be started with a .22. The low-recoil and limited “bang” won’t frighten them as they are figuring out what shooting is about. Rimfires are usually smaller and lighter, so they are easier for small shooters to handle. The shooting skills they learn with the .22 are easily transferable to heavier-calibered centerfires or even shotguns.
A poor fitting shotgun will erode proper shooting stance and can actually increase the discomfort of felt recoil. Make sure a young shooter can reach the trigger without having to stretch his arm or alter the way his face and buttstock should align.
Don’t have a youth model and don’t want to cut a perfectly good stock to fit? Buy an inexpensive synthetic replacement stock, and put it on the gun.
It’s a blast to crank off rounds at targets, but although a little free rein is good, maintain some level of structure that allows children to see how well they are improving and becoming better shots. Always shoot from a rested position from a firm, safe rest to ensure good technique and proper aim.
Always be safe. Safety is paramount every time you’re near guns and particularly when handling them. Begin every session with children going over the tenets of safe gun handling: Keep the muzzle down range or safely pointed, keep the safety on until ready to shoot, keep fingers off the trigger until ready to shoot, and treat every firearm as if it were loaded at all times. Point out when they do something wrong, and make them take a time out from shooting when they slip up.
Remember, keep shooting sessions fun and safe. Offer encouragement and constructive advice instead of just repeatedly saying, “Don’t do this.” Have a good time, and lay the foundations for a lifetime of enjoyment.
This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine.